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Monday, December 29, 2008

Year in Review

     This is a little bit early, but I tend to get flaky towards the end of the month (yes, November's word count was up clear throughout December), so I thought I would do this now while the thoughts are there. Over a year ago this blog and keeping track of my word count was an experiment, and I have to say it was an unmitigated success. By and large I have stuck by and become disciplined enough to write at least 1,000 words every day, which produces a staggering amount of text throughout the year (the yearly count is below). I have written a fantasy novel, which I may or may not pursue follow-ups, a PI detective novel dealing with the supernatural, of which there should be many follow-ups, and most of a second PI novel (see, told ya).
     I'm not sure if it was so much the genre change that really got me excited, but looking at a fresh idea. I had been working my fantasy series to death in my head, and it just seemed stale. I couldn't add anything new to the genre that hadn't been done to death. It's not that the story was bad, but it didn't have anything new or original to hold a reader's attention, which I know editors are looking for. With my PI, I'm putting a new twist on an old idea, and hopefully doing so in an interesting way with an interesting cast of characters. Time will tell, I suppose.
     Now, I have said it before, and I will say it again. My weakness is in revision. I need to start looking at what I write and fixing what's wrong with it quickly. While I don't think I can emulate Burgess, from whom I took inspiration for this method (see Clockwork for more on this), I believe I can take some time to examine what I wrote the day before, both to revise it and to refresh myself on what I have written.
     I think another of my weaknesses is that I do forget what came before. I will frequently have to look back at what I wrote to remember the sequences of events I've covered, and remember the placement of clues for my PI to pick up on.
     I have learned that I can't plan these out, either. Overplanning keeps me from being able to move through the story. With Blood and Stones I didn't even know "whodunit" until near the end of the story. I knew basically for awhile who my top three suspects were, and even after I decided the culprit, I had to come up with a way for my PI to figure it out. Certainly there were many clues out there, but, from reading Chandler and Hammett, there always seems to be one or two key clues that will convince the PI on which person to settle on. With Vampire Shadows I am currently tackling the latter as I figured out the "whodunit" quite some time ago. I feel good about the direction its going, and hope to finish it soon.
     The setting for my PI has been difficult. I could have written about a real location, but there were two difficulties with that. The first is that doing so requires an intense amount of research to adequately know and write about a location. The second is that I could write about my own location, but I don't really enjoy this location as a setting, nor does it feel like the sort of place my PI would reside in. I certainly know some places of local color that could breathe life into this setting, but I would prefer breathing that same life into a place of my own choosing. I decided to create my own city---which is still unnamed---and want to breathe life into it. I've had a good primer on such with the wonderful comic Astro City, which I recommend anyone pick up who has an interest in what I deem the best writing in a superhero comic; not only that, but Brent Anderson's artwork and Alex Ross's covers are amazing, making these comics shine both as art and literature. Astro City is their own creation, with elements of several major cities built into it, but it still manages to be unique with its Astro City Bank, Mt. Kirby, and Shadow Hill. I hope that my own city will have this kind of life as well, and have already created neighborhoods such as the Grind, Fairhaven, and Badon Heights, and locations such as Tony's Bar, the Blackthorn, and Kairos's Gyros. I hope to have some kind of map to the city soon, complete with neighborhoods and places of interest (the Blackthorn and Kairos's at the top of the list, obviously), and will post it up when I get something definitive. If anyone knows of a decent software that will make creating a city easier, I'm all ears.
     Aside from editing work of the previous day, I need to really dive into Blood and Stones to make it presentable to an agent. I've already purchased a guide to literary agents, but I want to make sure that my manuscript is as polished as I can make it before taking that step. To all my friends, I offer thanks and apologies for imposing on your time and talents in revising my opus.
     Well now, I've ranted for as long as I think I should, and it's time to present my year in review. Oh, and to say that I've revamped my spreadsheets and charts for the coming year to provide better and more specific information about what I'm writing. So, everyone can look forward to seeing that beginning in January.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Cold Night in the Grind

A Cold Night in the Grind

     "Jen, are you sure you don't want to punch out early? I don't think anything is going to come our way." I said to my office girl. She was the image of a Midwestern girl still trying to fit into the city. She had traded in her ponytail for a professional-looking do that held her blonde hair up, emphasizing the candy cane earrings she wore. She wore a big smile, which maybe betrayed that Midwest heritage, but then I had on a goofy smile because it was Christmas eve, too. She wore a red sweater that covered her slim form, and a pencil skirt that went to her knees with dark hose underneath.
     "No, that's okay, Matt. I've pretty much had Christmas this year since my parents stopped by on their way to Hawaii."
     "Hawaii for Christmas, if that don't beat all."
     "It's really weird. Usually Christmas is back home with my brothers and sisters and a big Christmas goose. Oh, and enough snow to get lost in. I don't miss that part."
     "You like the trade of wet and sometimes snowy to buried, huh?"
     "Uh huh. I guess my parents wanted to experience a sunny and warm Christmas for once."
     "Well, it should be good for them. Sorry you couldn't join them."
     "Oh, I'm not. I love my parents, but I don't think I could stand being with them on a Hawaii beach. My mom would throw a fit at seeing me in a bikini. I'll get to Hawaii some day, but I plan to enjoy it my way."
     "Some good looking surfer boy to rub oil on your back?"
     It didn't take detective training to see her cheeks redden underneath her freckles. "Maybe," she said sheepishly.
     "Well, you want to do the Santa thing right now, or wait until we do close up shop?" I jerked a thumb to the corner of the room where a smallish Christmas tree sat with two big presents underneath. I was sitting at my desk, feet propped up, while she sat on the couch next to the door to the reception area, her office.
     "Oh, I can't open them now. I have to wait. I just love the surprise of opening them on Christmas. Matt?" she said softly, "would you mind if I came over to your place tomorrow morning? I mean, I don't know what plans you have, and I wouldn't want to impose, but I still don't know anyone here, and I'd like to spend Christmas with a friend."
     "Sure thing, Jen. I can't guarantee a great meal, though. I got instant potatoes and turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving."
     "That sounds great, Matt. Thank you."
     "Hey, it's Christmas. I gotta warn you, though. I'm a sucker for old Christmas movies, so you're going to have to watch all the black and white classics."
     "Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun. I'll bring some popcorn. I—" she cut off as she heard something, and swung her head around the frame. "Sounds like we've got someone after all."
     She got up, and went into the other room, and I pulled my feet off the desk. I didn't expect much of a case, not on Christmas, but sometimes something happened. Some guy had hired me one year to find out what his wife was getting him for Christmas; for some reason he suspected she was using magic to do it. It was no skin off my nose, but after following the wife to Macy's, where she bought a bottle of aftershave and a gold, men's ring, she stopped off at a hotel where she was about to rendezvous with "Mr. Smith" according to the reservation she had. I didn't know why, but I did what private investigators aren't supposed to do. I got involved. I talked to her. From how nervous she was, I guessed that this was her first time going this far, and just asked her to consider her kids, her husband, and the consequences of what she was doing, and that it was Christmas Eve. I told her that Christmas was a time for family, and that hers were sitting around the Christmas tree watching the Charlie Brown special. It seemed hokey, and far too simple, but it did the trick. She broke down in tears and went back home. I called the husband and told him that the only magic involved was the everyday kind. A few days later, the husband showed me both the ring and the aftershave he got.
     "Matt, I think you want to come out here," Jen said uncertainly.
     I pulled my feet of the desk, and went into her office, where I saw a young kid, maybe twelve. "Hey, kid, you lost?"
     The boy shook his head no.
     "He gave me this letter," Jen said, handing it over to me.
     It was a smallish envelope with a reindeer stamp and the city's postmark over it. It was addressed to "Santa Clause, North Pole." In a different hand, was the return address, Kristy Carson, 218 Applewood Dr. I turned it over, and the thing is still sealed.
     "What do you want me to do with this, kid? Deliver it to the big guy at the North Pole?"
     "It's for you," the kid says.
     I pull out Jen's letter opener from her desk, and make short work of the envelope with a neat slice. I figure I can tape it up later if I want to send it on to Santa. I pulled out a couple of awkwardly folded pages of flower-print paper, and begin to read what's written in the shaky, child's hand.

     Dear Santa,

     I know I've been a real good girl this year. I've tried really hard even though Billy Thompson took my dolly cuz Daddy got her back for me. I know I usuly ask for lots of toys and stuff at Crissmas but this year I just want my big sister back. See, Jessie and Daddy got mad at each other they yelled a lot and then Jessie went away. Later Daddy was sorry, and went to get her, but couldnt find her, and she never came home. Daddy is really sorry and Mommy cries a lot. I cry a lot too and just want Jessie back home. Please Santa I'll give up all my toys if you can just bring Jessie home for Chrissmas.



     I looked up, about to ask the kid what was going on, but he's not there. Jen's surprised by the kid's absence, she was reading the letter over my shoulder, and checked the hall for him. I had the idea that he wouldn't be there, though. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I had some ideas.
     "Matt, where did he go?"
     "Doesn't matter, Jen. Looks like I've got a case. Why don't you knock off and have a great Christmas, Jen." It wasn't a question.
     "No, Matt. I haven't got any family or friends to be with. I was going to just be with you, anyway, so I'll stay and help you."
     I smiled. "Thanks, Jen. You're a doll. Why don't you see if there's a missing persons on Jessica Carson." She happily sat down at her computer and started clicking and typing away. "We'll need a picture to work from, and anything else you can dig up."
     "I'm on it, Matt."
     I let Jen do her work, and went back to my office, and began prepping. I knew I'd be walking the mean streets tonight, and even on Christmas Eve there were nasties that came out, so I dressed to the nines with my gat, stakes, crucifix, holy water—in both glass vials and hip flask, and a silver knife. I even went so far as to put on my coat and hat. I wanted to be ready to move when Jen got the information. I had the feeling I would be out canvassing the city for a long time tonight, so I wanted to get started as quickly as possible.
     I went back and watched over Jen's shoulder as she navigated the database, and pulled up a high school photograph of Jessica Carson. She was seventeen, black hair—natural—and brown eyes, about five nine, and a buck forty-five. She looked like she was finally losing the baby fat from her cheeks, and she had a big, cheerful smile. Of course, that was months ago. Still, the picture would do a lot of good in tracking this girl down. I had Jen print out a small stack in case I needed them.
     Missing persons didn't have anything useful beyond her basic stats and the picture. Statements from the parents, Peter and Catherine, didn't turn up anything. Jessica had taken her backpack, and the money she had with her, but that was it. Most of her things she had just left. She hadn't contacted any friends or classmates for help, just disappeared. In a way, it made my job easier. I had an idea of where to search first.
     "Okay, Jen, thanks for staying, but it's time to hit the street," I said, heading out. I was going to make the briefest of stops before searching, and then—
     "Where are we going?" Jen said, right behind me, and I saw she had her overcoat and hat on; she was in the process of wrapping a scarf around her neck, too.
     "Jen, this isn't going to be easy or fun. I'm going to a really bad part of town. Most of the Grind is always one step removed from the Bronx or Frisco's Tenderloin, but I've got a feeling that we'll be leaving the 'nice' parts behind."
     "That's right, Matt, 'we' are going," Jen said with a smug smile, which was odd on the face of a South Dakota farm girl.
     I had to review what I said, and just shook my head. "Come on, then. Day's not getting any warmer."
     That had been an understatement. It was bitterly cold out, and another dusting of snow expected. I actually thought it would warm things up as right now the afternoon sun had gotten just warm enough to melt the snow, but leave everything wet and cold. At least it was cold enough to snow now, and not rain. Rain just above freezing, especially in a steady drizzle, was hard to endure. The streets still bustled with last minute shoppers; club, restaurant, and bar goers; and those who never left the streets, homeless, prostitutes, and drug-addicts. Unfortunately, many of those last would also cross-over one another. This was a good place to get mugged or worse, and I didn't like the idea of taking Jen into this area. Maybe I could work something else out.
     I took us straight to the Blackthorn Bar, Nikki's place. It was in the popular part of the Grind, which meant less dangerous. I figured we'd start our search hear, and maybe Jen would get her fill of walking around in the cold for hours on Christmas Eve.
     And that's the way it went, too. The two of us went around the blocks doing cloverleafs that brought us back to Nikki's each time. The result didn't change no matter how many people we asked. No one recognized the girl in the picture. Some were downright hostile about being asked, too, especially one Salvation Army Santa who cursed at me for only putting a dollar in his pot.
     I could have dropped my gift off for Nikki at any time during those loops, but I felt like time was important. Daylight, thanks mostly to the cloud cover, was already waning fast, and the Grind would just get progressively worse. An idea occurred to me, too, and if it went through, then I could swing back here and drop the gift off quickly. I met back up with Jen, and we got in my old Taurus, and drove deeper into the Grind. As we drove, Jen rubbed at her ankle.
     "You twist it?"
     "I think so. I hit a spot of ice or something, and it turned under me. I'll be all right."
     "Sure thing, Jen, but you're staying with the car the rest of the night. There's a good chance you'll make it worse if you keep putting weight on it, so take it easy."
     "I'll be okay, Matt, don't worry."
     "In the Grind with a turned ankle? No, you're staying put. I'll walk around, and you can follow in the car so long as you keep the doors locked. This way we'll have a car close at hand for when we find the girl."
     "Are we going to find her, Matt? The Grind is big, if she's even in it. Couldn't she be somewhere else in the city, or maybe even hopped a bus and left?"
     "Maybe. I got a feeling, though."
     "A feeling what?"
     "I don't know." I did have a feeling, though. My gut, and all great detectives listened to their guts, told me tat I needed to find her. Something bad would happen if I didn't. I wasn't about to go the Jimmy Stewart route and see what would happen if I didn't. I'd just do my best to find her, and my best involved going to a man I had betrayed.
     Tony's bar was a hole in the wall. Only the neon light in the small window, a short welcome area with just the window and coat racks before the place expanded into the bar itself, proclaimed it as a bar, though the R flickered as if it didn't have much life left. I went in, trying not to look as nervous as I felt. Tony was a mystic, and mystics were, well, they were more powerful than they had a right to be, really. I didn't know the whole of it, but Tony had some sort of in-born magic that he could tap into. While most guys who dabble in magic had to learn spells, draw, and play with dolls, Tony could just make things happen whenever he wanted. I didn't know if there were limits to his powers, but I knew he could play with reality pretty fast and loose. I believed that imagination had something to do with those limits, but I wasn't going to try and test my theory.
     I went up to Regular Joe, the bartender, and the line of people who sipped at their various drinks watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on the old tube that hung from one corner. Streamers of smoke came from most of the guys, including Bill Krieger. I should have realized Bill would be here. His wife had left him awhile back, and while he didn't blame me anymore for the witch who had glamoured him, I knew he had to be going through a tough time at the holidays.
     "Didn't expect to see you in here, Matt. I know things between you and Tony still aren't kosher."
     "Yeah, well, I came to drop off a gift for him, and to ask a favor." I pulled out the small wrapped box from my pocket. It was a small meteorite fragment I had gotten from looking through different stones for some astrologist client. Tony liked weird things, and it may even have some kind of weird property by itself. Either way Tony should like it since he was big into science fiction. I wondered if it had ever occurred to him to try and go into space.
     "Well, you can leave the gift here, but you can't ask the favor. Tony's not here. He said he was going to the tropics where Christmas was celebrated with bikinis and lots of leis."
     "I bet he wasn't talking about the flowers. All right, thanks Joe. You guys have a merry Christmas," I said loud enough for everyone. Everyone able, Bill wasn't one of those, able to raise his glass, did and echoed the sentiment.
     I went back inside, and gave Jen the news that my horse didn't cross the line. "Guess we'll just go back to walking the beat. Just follow me in the car. Park at the beginning and end of the street. When I disappear from sight, go park at the end and wait for me. If you see me give a sign, come on and get me."
     "Okay, Matt."
     I hunched into my coat, and began walking the streets again. Trying to cover every street in the Grind was lunacy; Jen had been right about that, but there wasn't anything else I could do. My gut said I needed to help this girl, and the window to do that was decidedly small.
     I walked on in the cold, showing the picture to people who disregarded me. Maybe one in ten actually responded and looked at the picture without wanting something for it. A few of the homeless guys I gave a few bucks too, and others I told about Rich Perkins' soup kitchen a few miles away. Some years I volunteered to help, but I had held off this year. I wondered if this was punishment for holding back or the reason I had held back.
     More hours went by as I walked the streets. My feet ached, and one spot had been rubbing against the shoe for awhile, and I was sure it would turn into a blister before too much longer. I was down to just a few pictures of Jessica Carson as people took them to study and walked on. I hoped they would pay attention to them for longer than the time it took to get to the first trash can. I was quickly running out of energy and hope, though, especially when the light snow started falling.
     I sighed and looked up at the source of the snow, which I knew would only grow worse as night had completely fallen. Through the snow, though, I saw a twinkling. At first I thought it was just a load of students and insane travelers on the latest airbus for the holiday, but it was stationary, and just barely visible. I rubbed at my eyes to make sure they weren't playing some trick on me, but it was still there. A star. Somehow one lone star showed through a gap in the cloud cover.
     "And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them," I muttered, and my feet started moving. It was a long shot, but it was better than systematically searching the Grind.
     I kept that star in view, and criss-crossed the Grind to keep it in front of me. If a building got in the way, I would cross the street to keep sight of it. After a few streets, I began to notice that crossing street helped keep me away from trouble spots like the five guys hanging out on the stoop of one building. I needed little perks like that, too since I made another realization. This star was taking me to the southeast part of the Grind, so it was only going to get worse. The Grind was heavily industrialized, and had three separate areas to it: the waterfront, the trendy part, and the factories. The neighborhoods around the factories reminded me of civilization in post-apocalyptic movies, but I wasn't sitting safe and sound in my house tonight. Still, if I had kept canvassing, I would have had to come here, anyway, so I just pressed on with Jen still following in the car.
     Of course I didn't escape all trouble. The street girls constantly heckled me, and more than one tried to cozy up to me, but I managed to stop them from making off with my wallet. Two guys jumped out of an alley with a knife pointed at me, but at over six feet away, I had ample room to show the gun inside my jacket and tell them to go enjoy Christmas. This happened about three times as I went, and Jen asked me a couple of times to just give it up, but I didn't listen. I just asked her if she wanted me to get her a coffee at the diner she was parked in front of. The diner was almost empty, and I had a feeling that the guy in the greasy apron was hard up for money otherwise he wouldn't have been spending Christmas Eve open, so I gave him a generous tip, especially since he made a decent cup.
     Going back into the cold was tough, though, and I was wishing I had brought along some gloves, earmuffs, or maybe even a parka. My short, though stylish, leather jacket wasn't wholly effective. Sure, it kept the snow and water off, but it ended at my waist, and everything below was starting to feel the effects of the cold. My fedora likewise didn't do much to keep my head warm. Dry, sure, but not very warm. Still, that star was in front of me, and I kept going. I didn't know why exactly. Maybe because I was starting to believe the kid saying I could help this girl. Maybe I was just a little crazier than normal.
     The snow started forming drifts, now. Small ones, sure, but a kid could make a dozen snowballs in short order from the little piles around lamp posts and fire hydrants. The roads were still mostly clear as a few cars kept crushing and melting the stuff. I was more grateful for my hat, now, since it kept the snow from going down my back, though I had to dust it off every now and again when a small shelf of snow fell of as I examined the rock that had wedged itself in my shoe.
     When I looked back up, I saw that the snow hd increased, but the star was still in sight, so I trudged on. For all of half a block, when it disappeared from sight. I crossed the street just to make sure it wasn't hiding behind a building, but it seemed that the clouds had finally cut it off. I looked around to see more street girls, homeless, and a few guys that looked like they were enjoying the pipe they passed back and forth to each other.
     "You looking for a good time on Christmas, honey?" One girl asked me, who had on so much facial makeup that I could barely make out her skin underneath in the yellow lamplight. That thick, blue eyeshadow made her look otherworldly, and she wore a minidress and thigh boots while she shivered.
     "Get yourself some coffee if you can't get in from the cold, little sister," I said, handing her a ten spot.
     "You could get me in from the cold. I got a room right in there," she pointed behind, and I looked to see a neon sign that read Star Hotel. In my job, I knew better than to believe in coincidence. Most detectives didn't believe in it, but what set me apart from them was I believed that stuff could have weirder causes.
     "I might go inside, but I'm looking for a particular girl tonight."
     "Information isn't free, and I'm no snitch, so you're better off just moving on or taking me."
     "How about I pay your rate for the information. Then you'll have an excuse to go inside for a bit." I passed over couple of Benjamins. I hoped I didn't have to do this too much more. I didn't have deep pockets
     "Who are you looking for?"
     "I gave a description, and said I didn't remember her name. I was willing to bet that Jessica Carson was not known by her given name in a neighborhood like this. If she was, fine and good, but I didn't want to rely on the name to find her.
     "Oh, you want Gloria. Yeah, she's in here."
     "Thanks, now get yourself some coffee or inside before you freeze."
     "I wish. I only get to leave this spot if I get a date or DJ will get on me. Sure you don't want to have fun with me? I'll cut you a deal and you can have me and Gloria if you pay her and give me another hundred."
     "Sorry, not my thing."
     "Sure it is. You're a guy. All guys want that."
     "Not tonight, little sister. Thanks for the info, and try and stay warm."
     I walked up a flight of stairs before getting to the tiny hotel, where a weasly little guy with pinched face and thin moustaches sat behind glass reinforced with chicken wire. Somehow this guy didn't strike me as being DJ, but just a middleman.
     "Whose room ya want?" he asked.
     "Looking for Gloria."
     "Heh. Yeah, she's a popular one. The young ones always are, though. You're in luck, she's free right now; just got done with a guy, so I'll buzz her and she'll show you up. That'll be five hundred." I could have been indignant and threatened the guy for what was going on around me, but I knew there wouldn't be any point.
     "Sure thing, after I see her."
     "Whatever. But before you take one step towards her crib, you gotta pay or I have to call DJ, and you won't like that."
     "Like I said, sure thing."
     The guy went back to watching his TV, which I couldn't see from behind the glass. I cooled my heels until a slim woman came up to me. At first glance it would have been easy to miss her as Jessica Carson. She had on thick makeup that made her seem older. There were faint lines under her eyes that the makeup couldn't completely hide. She didn't have the look of someone who had been doing drugs, fortunately, but I imagined that in only a few weeks, months at most, she would be hooked on cocaine, crack, meth, or whatever the new designer drug was. Her brown hair had been teased into being big, reminding me of rock bands from the eighties. Her outfit also made her seem older, probably because I could only imagine an older woman wearing it, and only in a bedroom. She wore a shirt made only of fishnet, with stockings that matched them, underneath that was a blue satin push-up bra that not only lifted, but squeezed them together, enhancing her cleavage. All of this was above a black leather miniskirt, that barely deserved the name skirt coming not quite to the middle of her thighs, that matched the ultra high heels she wore, which had tiny locks on the ankles. That little touch angered me, made me want to do something to this guy DJ, but that couldn't be my focus. If I took away all the changes, and just focused on the facial features, I could see Jessica Carson.
     "You wanted me?"
     "Yeah. You'll do fine."
     "Five hundred before you even take a step back there," the Weasel said.
     I paid him, and then gestured for Jessica to lead the way.
     We went up another flight of stairs before taking the third door on the left. The room was tiny, maybe twice as wide as the bed was long and half again that deep, allowing for a small dresser, a vanity with chair, and some hooks on the wall that held various pieces of lingerie. Having a nearly six foot frame, I opted away from the rickety looking chair, and sat on the bed.
     "So, what are you into? There's some things I won't do, and if you got a problem with that, you have to deal with DJ."
     I didn't know quite how to ease into this. There really was no easy way to do it, so I just did it.
     "Don't worry. I don't go into the weird stuff, and since you're on my dime, well, I just want to talk."
     "Yeah, I've heard that before. Guy starts talking for awhile, thinks he's getting all romantic, and then wants to do business. Better talk quick, because you've only got me for two hours."
     "You're not Gloria. Your real name is Jessica Carson." The widening of her eyes and gasp was enough to give her away. She tried to back away, but there was no room. She fumbled at the knob to get out. "Your pimp isn't going to like you ducking out on a paying guy. From the sounds of it, he's not very nice, so I'm sure he wouldn't be nice to you. Have a seat. I don't bite."
     "Who are you?" she said, voice quavering like Frisco during a quake.
     "My name's Matt Allen, and I'm here to deliver this," I said, extending the letter to her.
     She stretched out a hand to take the letter, and when she saw who it was addressed to, her face screwed up in curiosity, which turned into a gasp when she saw the return address.
     "Oh no," she said, but removed the letter from the envelope, anyway, and read.
     It didn't take long before she started to fall, and I had to step up to keep her from crashing to the floor. I put her on the bed where she drew up against the wall, knees up to her chest, and cried her eyes out. These weren't dainty tears like what sometimes hit me at the end of Casablanca, but tears that had been bottled up for awhile, and threatened to overwhelm her completely. She cried until she had trouble breathing, taking long gasps for breath that turned into more sobbing. I knew there was nothing I could do but let her cry it out, and I had to wonder if she would reach an end before the two hour mark. I didn't want to chance the Weasel banging on the door because the time was up. Worse, I was willing to bet DJ might come up and be rather blunt at enforcing the rental times.
     Her tears did fade, and she settled into a half-aware state. Her makeup was a complete and utter mess, resembling a KISS fan or a Halloween mask. I pulled my handkerchief, and offered it to her. She wiped at her face and blew her nose into it.
     "Jessie, it's time you went home. Your family misses you, and you'd be better off away from here."
     "I know," she sobbed, heading into a resurgence, "I wanted to go home earlier, but I'm afraid of DJ. He hit me when I told him I wanted to go. I hate it here, but I can't get away."
     "I know. Pimps don't like to let go of girls, but that's why I'm here."
     "What can you do?" the sobs and tears paused because of curiosity.
     "I'm a private eye. I'm no stranger to the mean streets. You leave DJ to me, and I'll get you home, all right."
     "I don't know. I'm scared," and she rubbed the left side of her face, reliving the memory of getting hit. I knew that feeling well. I rubbed at my shoulder where I had once been bitten. There were no scars or even any pain, just the memory of the pain and how scared I had been.
     "You can't stay here, Jessie. You're going downhill, fast. Your family misses you, and I think it's time all of you get back together again."
     "He'll follow me, and hurt them. That's what he said when I told him I was thinking of leaving."
     "Don't worry, I'll take care of it." I had been hoping to get out of here without confronting DJ, but that wasn't going to be possible. It wouldn't take much to track down Jessie's family, and that would be bad no matter how it played out. The way I saw it, Jessie didn't need her past to haunt her. This was going to be a fresh start for her. Damn. It's never easy. Well, at least it wasn't a vampire, demon, or a witch I was confronting. I could at least hold my own against an ordinary guy.
     "Come on. Grab whatever's important to you and let's go," I told her as I pulled out my phone. "Jen, yeah, I found her. Pull up front of the Star Hotel and pick her up. I need to have a little chat with someone, and if you see it go south, you tear out of here quick, no, I don't want to argue about this. You can come back with the cops, but getting Jessie out of here is most important. That's a good girl." Jessie had grabbed a small purse, and still clutched at the letter, but that was it. "Right, let's go."
     I walked with purpose, marching with her on my arm. She held on to me like a lifeline, which I might actually be. We went down the stairs to where I saw the Weasel. I kept Jessie away from us, and told him, "I'd like to see DJ in his office outside next to the dumpster." Yeah, I could have been civil about it, but the guy hit teenage girls and threatened families. That was decidedly low in my book. The Weasel gasped as we continued walking down the stairs and out the door.
     The other girl was still out there, shivering in the cold and still falling snow without the coffee I had given her money for, but Jen in my old Taurus was there, so I put Jessie in the passenger's side.
     "Jessie, this is Jen, Jen, Jessie. No time for pleasantries now, girls. Jen, I want you to circle around the block, but park a little ways back, just far enough so you can see what's going on. When you see me give the high sign, come pick me up. If I don't show up in fifteen minutes, you drive on without me."
     "Matt, I—"
     "No time, Jen. Go."
     "I was just going to say you can call on your cell phone, too."
     "Right, well, yeah, maybe I'll do that."
     "Be careful, Matt. I want you to have a Merry Christmas, too."
     "Don't worry, Jen. I got a good feeling. Tonight's special." I shut the door and smacked a hand on the roof, and Jen drove off.
     "DJ doesn't like people messing with his girls."
     "Little sister, you might want to find a different place to be in a little bit, since DJ and I are going to have words."
     "DJ doesn't talk to people, he beats on them, and I'm going to be over there," she said, walking to the edge of the street lamp's light away from me.
     I waited patiently for the guy, knowing I had a few weapons on me, but I wasn't going to resort to that unless absolutely necessary. Of course that meant he could easily come out with gun in hand and shoot me, but I'd have to risk it. The only preparation I made was to unzip my jacket, allowing me access to my shoulder holster.
     The guy who came out did not look like Huggy Bear, and I didn't know whether to be pleased or disappointed. He was well-tanned, tall, and had broad shoulders—I kept an eye out for those things when I might be getting in a fight—and sported pencil-thin moustaches, but they were done neatly. He also had a tiny spot of black hair underneath his bottom lip, a groomed triangle. He had a steely look to those dark eyes. He was dressed up in a very expensive suit with equally expensive shoes. The guy even had a vest and a tie pick, and a fedora. I could see a gold chain coming off the vest, which matched the tie pick. I certainly couldn't fault his taste in clothing, especially the hat. Evidently being a pimp paid very well. This guy was, as I understood it, living large.
     "You the asshole who wanted to see me? You messing with my property, you have to pay."
     "Yeah, I'm the guy. Listen, it's Christmas, and the girl wants to go home and start a new life. I'm just taking her home. There's no need for this to get violent, Slim." I don't know why I picked Slim, but it seemed to fit the guy.
     "Oh, it will get violent. It's about respect. You have disrespected me, and if I let you go, then others will think they can do the same to me. I'll be making an example out of you and the girl. I know how to hurt them so it doesn't leave marks. An ugly whore doesn't bring in any money, so it's a fine art on how to hurt them that leaves an impression in their minds. Of course, I'm going to keep you around for a bit, too. I'll show her what I do to those who interfere, what I'll be doing to her family, and that will keep her with me forever."
     He didn't pull a gun, but advanced on me, so I set myself, ready for him. Unfortunately, this guy didn't rush at me wildly. He knew how to fight, which meant I was in trouble. I knew how to swing a few punches and take care of myself, but I had no formal training, just a misspent youth. My brother and I did more wrestling than actual fighting. I knew how to grapple with someone, not duke it out. I raised up my guard like I saw in every boxing movie ever made, and started moving. Moving was always better than standing still. The guy had a couple of inches on me, so he'd also have reach, and it'd make getting in close for a grab tough, but it was my best shot at ending this before I got plastered to the concrete.
     He let out a jab, which caught me on the cheek as I tried to dodge, but that was only the beginning. He let out a couple of punches to my body, and I couldn't do anything to stop them. They impacted painfully on my ribs. Slim was strong. I threw a couple of punches of my own, but I evidently telegraphed them, and he dodged them easily. That was fine, I wasn't going to play his game. I needed to play my own. I wanted to be able to grab him, and I had to get him off-balance, so I did what came naturally. I talked.
     "Nice suit. Armani?"
     "You know it," a jab flew at me, but I took it on my forearm.
     "A nice, gentleman's suit. Too bad you'll never bee one."
     "What the hell you know about me? I have a place in the hills. I'm living it up. I got places all over town like this. Places a lot better than this, too.
     "Yeah, that may be, but you're never going to be one of those guys. You have money, sure, but you're still a lowlife pimp."
     "Shut up! What are you, some kind of Indiana Jones wannabe with a good Samaritan complex?" It was nearly impossible to provoke guy into a blind rage, but I wasn't going for that. I just wanted the guy's attention split between the fight and the conversation; it looked like it was working.
     "Nah, just one of Santa's elves. You're not getting anything but coal, by the way, and maybe a dose of humility."
     "Listen, smartass, I'm not about to be taken down by the likes of you," he threw a hook, but I knew it was coming. He had cocked his shoulder back putting a lot of power to the punch, so I was ready when it came. I dodged back, but instead of throwing a punch of my own I grabbed his arm as it went by and spun my body around, twisting his arm behind his back painfully. I levered the arm up, bending him over and threatening to dislocate the shoulder. Then I kicked him in the back of each knee, making him fall down to the sidewalk painfully.
     "Listen, this is over. In one move I can dislocate your shoulder, which is quite painful from what I understand. I'm taking the girl home, and you're going to leave their family alone, or—" I cut off sharply as I heard the distinctive sound of a gun being cocked. I released the arm and went for my own gun.
     "Don't. I can drill you right now," DJ said, smiling. "Hands up."
     I put my hands up. "Back up a couple of steps." I did. This was not the way I was supposed to be spending my Christmas Eve. The good guy was supposed to win on Christmas. Every Christmas special in existence said so.
     DJ stood up and turned around, a silvered thirty-eight in his hand. Even his gun got the treatment.
     "Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you right off. Like I said, I'm going to make an example of you, so people know not to mess with DJ. I think I'll blow out your shoulder, though, right now." He took aim, and I knew this was it. I wasn't faster than a speeding bullet, so I knew I wouldn't be pulling any miracle moves that would keep the bullet from destroying my shoulder.
     "That would make me rather upset," a familiar woman's voice said.
     I turned my head, and DJ shifted his gaze, to see Nikki strolling up in a long, black coat with a fur collar. Her auburn hair was loose and covered with snow, but the look she gave DJ made the snow seem warm. In this cold, a normal woman's cheeks would be rosy, but vampires didn't have any body heat or feel cold. She probably wore the coat for two reasons. The first was to blend in. The second was because it looked good on her, and that was more important to Nikki.
     "Bitch! Do you not see the gun I have? I'll shoot you, too."
     "If you ruin my clothing, I will be most cross with you, young man," Nikki said and smiled.
     "Trust me, DJ, you don't want her mad at you."
     "Shut up! You don't want holes in your clothes? Fine, I'll just beat you, and then make you one of my girls. You're a lot prettier than any of them. I think I might be taking you for a few turns."
     "No, I don't think so," Nikki said calmly, and then opened her mouth slightly, keeping that smile. I could see her fangs grow into position, that second set of needle like teeth that slotted behind her incisors perfectly. My stomach always churned at seeing those fangs.
     "What the hell are you, bitch?" DJ said, swinging the gun over to Nikki, but it was already too late for him. The ten feet between he and Nikki was nothing. She covered it in a blur and wrenched the gun from his hand. I heard bone snap in the process. Many people think that breaking bones sounds like wood, but it doesn't. Sure, there's a loud crack, but there's also a liquidy sound to it, which makes it sound much worse. Nikki's other hand went to the back of DJ's head, where she yanked back on his hair.
     "Nikki, wait. It's Christmas, and I think the Weasel inside would just take over if his boss got scragged."
     "I can be charitable, Matthew, as a favor to you, so what would you have me do?"
     "Convince him to leave the girl and her family alone."
     "I swear it! I'll leave them alone. You got my word on it."
     "Silly man, Matthew was not talking about a simple promise which you can conveniently break later. There are other methods. Now then, DJ—what an abominable name, what is your real name?"
     "Daniel. Daniel Jefferson Webster." Daniel Jefferson Webster? Wow, the guy sure didn't live up to any of his namesakes. Of course, I knew the question was the beginning of Nikki's influence on the guy. I'm sure she was well-fed and at the top of her game, so DJ would be clay to her. The one time she had used her will on me, she had been weak, hurt, and in the middle of bloodlust, so I had a chance to escape it. DJ wouldn't be so lucky to escape the velvet will of the four hundred year old vampiress.
     "Much better. Daniel, you will let the girl go, and not traumatize her family, or I will become very displeased with you. Not only that, but I will return—which will also perturb me—to make sure you trouble no one ever again. Have I made myself clear?" I didn't know exactly how the process worked, since I had never been fully under the influence, but I knew that things a person would readily agree to anyway were more effective. DJ just had his hand broken, and knew he didn't want to mess with Nikki. Usually Nikki was more subtle; I knew she didn't want to come back to this neighborhood, though.
     "Yes, ma'am."
     "Good, now crawl away and leave me."
     He didn't crawl. The influence was never literal despite what the movies said, nor did they repeat things back. DJ would likely end up thinking that the whole thing had been his idea, or just that he was doing Nikki a favor. He did walk away, though.
     "Playing the guardian angel tonight, Nikki?"
     "No, dear boy, I am curious. Steve said he saw you and your delightful assistant Jen, whom I believe is parked down the block from us, walking along the streets. You have always been an interesting specimen, Matthew, so I found it odd that you wouldn't even come to call on me this evening."
     "I meant to, but something came up."
     "Oh?" she said, casting a significant glance in the direction that DJ had gone.
     "He's related to it, but it was important, otherwise I would have come inside to deliver this," I pulled out a small, wrapped package from my pocket. She smiled and took the package from me, delicate fingers, even wrapped in leather gloves expertly tore through the paper until she came to the small bundle of mistletoe at its core. She looked at me with a quirk to her eyebrow, and I quickly lifted the mistletoe above us, and planted a kiss on her lips. They were cold, very cold, lacking any warmth whatsoever, and there was an initial repulsion, but I kissed her as thoroughly as I knew how, even wrapping my free hand around the back of her head. It was another minute before I came up for air, and I saw her eyes flutter open.
     "Why, Matthew, it seems as if you do know how to kiss a woman." There was something suggestive about her tone when she said that last, but I let it go. "Now, tell me why."
     "Even a vampire deserves a merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, Nikki."
     "To you as well, Matthew." She looked at the mistletoe, and plucked a small white berry from it, and deposited it in my hand. I accepted it, and looked at her curiously.
     "Why, Matthew, do you not know the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe? A young man must pluck a berry from it with each kiss, and when all the berries are gone, no more kisses can be had, which means you are going to owe me quite a few kisses before the berries are exhausted."
     "Yeah, but the bundle comes down after Christmas."
     "Wrong, my dear boy, the bundle goes up on Christmas Eve, which is tonight, and remains for the entire year, only to be replaced on the following Christmas Eve. I hope you are prepared for a year's worth of kisses, Matthew," she smiled and stroked my cheek with a gloved hand. "Now, I shall let you get back to your business, assuming you will not need rescuing from any more traffickers in sex and flesh."
     "I think I'm good, but thanks for the help."
     "You are welcome, Matthew, enjoy your Yule."
     "You too, Nikki."
     And with that she began walking away, and it was then I noticed that she had on high heeled leather boots, a match for her gloves, but she made no sound on the concrete. I hated how she did that. I pulled out my phone, and hit the button for Jen.
     "Oh Matthew," Nikki said from behind me, so I turned to look at her, "you might like to know mistletoe's other name: the vampire plant," and she laughed while she continued to walk away, disappearing into the shadows between street lamps. I hadn't known that bit, and wondered if the plant had any special properties for vampires. That was for another time, though. Now I had to deliver a Christmas present to a little girl, and it was already getting close to her bed time.
     "Yeah, Jen, we're good. Swing by and we can get Jessie home for Christmas."
     Jen picked me up, I went for the back seat even though it was a bit cramped for me, and we made our way out of the Grind. Each block we went by was like a weight off my shoulders. By the time we crossed over Meridian Street, I felt we were free and clear.
     "So, Jen, what about the two of us get Jessie here a Christmas present?"
     "Way ahead of you, Matt. I'm already on our way to a nice department store. I just hope it's still open on Christmas Eve."
     "A Christmas present for me?" Jessie said, huddled in the front seat, which was much improved from how she had clenched while in the Grind.
     "Of course, Jessie, we can't let you go home looking like that. We'll get you looking nice again." Jen told the girl.
     "There's always at least one open late for those guys who can never remember to buy early. And Jessie, you don't need to tell your family what all you've been doing while you've been gone if you don't want to. Take your time to figure it out, but right now you enjoy Christmas."
     "I—thank you. Thank you both so much."
     "No need for thanks, just spreading the Christmas spirit."
     "He's not kidding, Jessie. This guy is a nut when it comes to Christmas. My first one in the big city and I thought it would be all sophisticated, but he's got carols playing in the office. He may act the tough guy, but I think he's a softie."
     "Just because I know how to stay on Santa's Nice list is no reason to poke at my good-naturedness. I am a hard-boiled PI. I dealt with DJ." Well, I had help, but I had a handle on it until he pulled a gun.
     "So, Jessie, what would like for your Christmas outfit?" Jen asked cheerily as we pulled into a parking lot.
     "Um, I don't' know. I guess . . . I just want something normal, you know? I've been wearing, well," and she dropped off. It was pretty apparent what her job had put her into.
     "Oh, I think we can do that. Just some nice comfy jeans, how about that?"
     "I think that would be great. I haven't worn jeans in a long time. And they're warm, too."
     Jen pulled into a spot, and we all went inside, with all of five minutes before they were closing, which was early for the holiday. It was a few minutes to nine, so I was grateful they were open this long. As far as I could tell, we were the only ones in there.
     "First thing is first, Jessie, let's get you cleaned up," and Jen took the girl by the hand to the bathroom, while I settled into a seat that I thought had been purposefully placed for boyfriends and husbands to rest while their women tried on outfit after outfit, and seeking approval.
     The two of them emerged, Jessie with a fresh, and pretty face unhindered by makeup, really resembling the picture I had looked at. Jen hustled her into a changing room, and fed a few different sizes of jeans and simple, pullover blouses to the girl, then disappeared into the shoe section, where I thought she might become so engrossed that the store would close. It was at times like this I was reminded that Jen wasn't that old, at least not compared to me. Her early twenties were a lot closer to Jessie's seventeen than to my thirty-two.
     Fortunately Jen returned just as Jessie came out of the stall, looking like a normal teenage girl with jeans, a blouse, and a jacket made of denim, as well. Jen came up with a pair of socks and sneakers, which Jessie put on as well.
     "There, all set," Jen said officially.
     I put the tab on my card; plastic was a good thing at times, and we left, Jessie looking much more at ease than she was. I drove this time, which felt good to me, and took us into the burbs on the East side.
     It wasn't long before I pulled up in front of Jessie's house, typically adorned with lights and a wreath. It looked like most other houses in this neighborhood, though a little understated in its decorations.
     "This is it. I'll go see how things are. You two just sit tight. I'll motion to you when it's time, okay?"
     "Wait. I don't know about this. I mean, this is it. What if they're mad at me. I mean, I just,"
     "Jessie, it's okay. Everything's going to turn out right," I said.
     "How do you know? After everything I've done, I—"
     "Jessie, Matt's right. He's pretty good at knowing these things. I still haven't figured out how, but he is."
     "What was the argument about, Jessie?"
     "Dad wanted me to go to finish high school and go to college, but I got tired of school, so I wanted to drop out and work."
     "And you ran away to prove to him that you could make it on your own, huh?"
     "Yeah," she said in a small voice.
     "You want to give school another shot, now?"
     "Yeah. Every job I tried to get they said I needed a diploma, then when my money ran out . . ."
     "I think we know the rest. Now, you go back to school and get that diploma. Maybe when you get that, if you still want to do some work, maybe I can make you an intern and you can help Jen around the office."
     "Really?" she didn't brighten at the suggestion, just regarded it with confusion.
     "Yeah, but diploma first."
     "You really are a big softie, Matt. I came to him with the same kind of hard luck story and he hired me," Jen had to embarrass me.
     "Yeah, yeah. It's Christmas. Sit tight, Jessie. You're going to get to see you family for Christmas, and it's going to be all right."
     I got out and rang the bell of the house.
     "Yes? Who are you?" A man in his forties with a receding hairline and worry lines under his eyes said behind a security door.
     "Mr. Carson? Peter Carson?"
     "Who are you," the man said with a bewildered look.
     "My name's Matt Allen. Your daughter Kristy's letter to Santa got delivered to me," I showed him the envelope, "and being the holidays, my assistant and I—that's Jen in my car back there—decided to go ahead and get the stuff she talks about in her letter. Could you go get Kristy?"
     "Umm, why don't you just give me the gifts, and she'll open them on Christmas morning. Now's not really a good time for the family."
     "I understand, I really do, but the gifts are for you and your wife as well, since Kristy mentioned you in the letter. Listen, I know you have no reason to trust me, and the I could be some kook on Christmas. I'm not asking to come in; I'll just stay right out here while you go get your wife and Kristy. I'll be out of your hair in a few minutes. I'm just wanting to do the Christmas thing."
     "I, well, all right, wait here." He closed the door, the lit wreath jostled against the door once, and I stood out here in the cold. Just as in the Grind, I realized that the stylish brown leather jacket I had didn't provide adequate protection against the cold when it came to lower extremities. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long, as a few minutes later the door opened up again. There was Peter with his wife Carol, while Kristy, a girl maybe eight years old, stood between them, a tiny fist clutching her mom's skirt.
     I squatted down, not caring about the snow and muck I got on my pants. "Hi Kristy, my name is Matt, and Santa sent your letter to me," I extended the letter out to her, which she took with a reluctant hand pried from her mom's skirt.
     "Santa sent it to you?"
     "That's right. See, I help him out from time to time, and he knew I could find your present for you." I waved to the car, and Jen and Jessica got out of the car.
     Kristy went from shy girl to bounding bundle of joy in one second flat. The only warning was a gasp that quickly became, "JESSIE!" as she did her best to try and tackle her sister. Jessie managed to stay on her feet. From the door I hard both Peter and Carol repeat what Kristy said, but at a much lower volume before moving out into the lawn, too. Peter went last of all, his voice a bare whisper and eyes shining with tears as he moved out and hugged his entire family there on the snowy lawn.
     Jen moved up beside me, "Merry Christmas, Matt, you old softie." I smiled at her. It was pretty much true. At least during this time of year.
     "Merry Christmas, Jen."
     The family continued to hug, collapsing on the lawn with apologies from both sides, expressions of relief at being back, and lots of tears.
     "Come on, Jen, let's let them have their Christmas. We did what we needed to do," and I started walking us back to the car.
     As we passed by the group hug, Peter Carson stood up, and grabbed my arm. "Thank you," he said, tears streaming down his cheeks. "I don't know what else to say, just thank you."
     "There was more at work than just me. Be sure to thank the guy upstairs, too. Oh, and tell Kristy that Santa says she can still have toys for Christmas. Merry Christmas, Mr. Carson."
     "Merry Christmas to you too, Mr. Allen," he choked out the words, but with a big, goofy smile on his face.
     I walked back to the car, and opened the door for Jen.
     "Matt, over there, do you see him?"
     I looked across the street at the corner, where the street light made a cone of light in the darkness, and saw the kid. He stood there, this time with a coat, scarf, and stocking cap, looking at me with a smile on his face.
     "Matt, is that the kid?"
     "Sure is, Jen. Sure is." I reached up and tipped my hat to him.
     "Aren't you going to go talk to him, ask him what all of this was about?"
     "No? Why not?"
     "Because, Precious, Christmas miracles don't need explanation. They're a bit of magic all their own. And that's exactly what it was. With nothing but a letter, we trcked down a girl who had been missing for months, and reunited her with her family. They don't come much more miraculous than that. Come on, it's time we have our own Christmas; how about a hot chocolate, on me?"
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