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Paul Prater
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North Little Rock, AR
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The first tale from Saligia. A Christmas gift for you:

There was a warm fire crackling in the fireplace. The sound of popping wood and the light smell of smoke were comforting on the cold night. It was snowing outside and the light of a bright full moon reflected off the snow. The sole occupant of the small flat poured a small glass of cognac from a crystal decanter. He carried the fine crystal glass and set it down on a shabby side table next to a leather chair, which sat right in front of the fireplace. The fire had warmed the leather, making it feel like the embrace of an old friend. The man picked up a small leather journal, a newspaper and a pen.

It was nearly Christmas and Inspector Andrew Wickensham was very happy that he had wrapped up some of the worst cases he had seen in his career as an Inspector with the local police force. These cases were like the serial stories in the pulp novels of the day. Each discovery led to more murder and sickness. Each murder, like each story, got worse, only these weren’t works of fiction. Like those pulp stories, it was like it would never end.

The paperboys had carried on for days about the grisly murders and the strange goings on. The entire town was in an uproar. While the papers had reveled in revealing every lurid detail, they also said that Wickensham was a hero. He took some small comfort in that.

He looked out the window absentmindedly, as he cut out a newspaper article to paste into his journal. The flicker of the gas street lights made little golden halos in the frosty windows. This cheered him somewhat. He was actually looking forward to Christmas now. He hadn’t bothered to put up any little bit of decoration, but then he had not bothered to do much of that since his wife had passed. A bachelor had no real need for decoration. That was a peculiarly feminine affectation.

Wickensham finished cutting out the article and looked at the face staring back at him. It was his own face, but he was somewhat shocked at the lines he saw around his eyes and his mouth. He looked disheveled and the drawing made him look much older than he fancied he looked. Was the artist just bad or is that really how others saw him? In truth, he had not really looked in the mirror in some time. Fashion and beauty were no more than physical decoration, again, something he had no use for in his life.

Wickensham absent mindedly packed his old meerschaum pipe. He enjoyed the bracing warmth of a full flavored tobacco, particularly on a cold night. Wickensham struck a match and lit his pipe. He pulled in sharply as the warm, vanilla, woody taste filled his mouth. He exhaled a thick ring of smoke that circled his bushy head like a wreath. Wickensham had wiry red hair and a large moustache. His equally bushy eyebrows were unruly and he had long ago given up on containing them. He had a slight frame and was strong but thin. As he caught his reflection in the window, he realized that the artist wasn’t far from the mark. He supposed that one day he might actually look like St. Nicholas, once his hair turned white and assuming he developed a paunch in his old age, like most men did. He smiled at the man looking back at him in the window. Then, he saw something move behind that face. He jumped from his chair, spilling his tobacco on the ground.

He moved towards the window warily and looked out. He saw nothing but fresh snow. No person, no footprints, nothing that would establish that anyone was there. His imagination was just fooling him. He returned to the chair, sweeping the tobacco back into the little leather pouch he stored it in. He sat down heavily, feeling exhausted. He took a sip of cognac and set it back on the table.

Wickensham was not a man who spooked easily. He had seen it all. Eviscerated bodies, decapitations, unmentionable cruelty were all a part of the job. As an inspector, he had worked many homicides. However, he had been obsessing over the whole sordid affair for several weeks. Livingston’s murder wasn’t particularly gruesome. It was just that the entire incident was just so bizarre. Perhaps if it had been more gruesome he would be less troubled by the whole ordeal.
Lilly Williams’ murder was easy enough to understand, but something had still bothered him about the whole ordeal. He took a few more deep draws on his pipe and then emptied the ash and set it on the table beside him. He pushed the thoughts out of his mind. These cases were over.

He started writing in his journal. He wanted to document the very strange ordeal he had been through.

He sat and sipped on the cognac while he wrote. An hour went past while he transcribed his thoughts onto paper. He noticed that he had drained the cognac. He got up to pour another drink.

Wickensham didn’t have much in the way of nice possessions in his flat, but he was proud of the crystal decanters, which was all he had left from his father. He noticed the weight and quality and smiled to himself. The only nice thing his father owned was a bar set. That was fitting from a man who drank himself to death.

His smile froze and turned into a frown. He smelled something. He smelled fresh tobacco smoke. Not the kind he smoked, but a sweet, light scent. He turned and looked to his side table by his chair. Though he had just emptied his pipe, it clearly was smoking.
He looked at his notebook. He had just turned to a blank page to paste in the article. Though he was sure had written nothing on it, there was now spidery handwriting across it. It said, “Help me…LW.”
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