A Highlander Carol

Snow crunched underfoot as Cory Raines held one gloved hand over the Salvation Army red kettle and deposited ten one hundred dollar bills as easily as if they were ten ones. Giving money to the poor, especially during the holidays, had never been his problem.

He'd pulled off another successful heist in the past few weeks, stealing a stolen Van Gogh from an unscrupulous owner and selling it for a tenth of its value to a dealer who would make a fortune off of it from some other collector. Cory had likely stolen that same painting a dozen times over the century since it had first been sold on the black market. Stealing from thieves was always the way to go as far as he was concerned. If they caught him, they just killed him, unlike the police who would incarcerate him for a very long time.

Cory had spent the past week going from kettle to kettle whenever he heard the bell ringing… and dropping in various amounts of the cash, in a hurry to give it away before the collector's goons found him and tried to beat it out of him. Cory was not a lover of pain, and he found that if he truthfully didn't have the money or any way to get it back, the thugs usually just killed him rather than continue to beat him. Death was an easy out for an immortal in a tight situation.

Whistling, he moved further down the street; the ringing of the bell a comforting accompaniment to his feelings of warmth and good cheer. He tipped his hat to the passersby, the mothers struggling with children, the businessmen in a hurry to get somewhere, and the cop on the beat. It never hurt to be polite to civil servants.

On the corner of Market and Church he saw a bitter-faced man shoving his way through the crowd as if he owned the street, and cursing at the street kids who were congregating there. Clearly this man had no Christmas spirit.

He shoved past Cory, who turned and watched him thoughtfully. Man needs an attitude adjustment, he thought. Then he grinned. Maybe it was time to relive an event from his past, one he'd once told a certain hack writer. Snickering gleefully, Cory Raines followed his target to his place of business and then to his home. After that, he did some research on his target. This was going to be fun.

Evan Carter finished his late-night snack and crawled into bed. Using the remote, he turned on his television and scanned through the channels. Every damn one of them was showing Christmas specials, and it was still a week before that blasted nightmare of a holiday would be over. Angrily he shut the set off, considered tossing the remote at the dark uninviting screen, and finally decided not to have to buy a new set. He carefully placed the remote on the nightstand and turned off the light. Peace at last!

Hearing a match strike in the distance, he opened an eye even as his hand gripped the handle of his Colt .45 that lay hidden under his pillow. He focused on the man in the long white coat who had lit a candle he was carrying… and a cigar. The man smiled at him.

"Greetings Mr. Carter, I am the spirit of Christmas Past."

"You're past all right; long past and dead as doornail!" Ethan shouted as he pulled the gun and shot three rounds into the burglar.

With an inhalation and a great deal of chest pain, Cory drew in a painful gasp of breath, reliving for several moments the pain of being shot three times with a .45. He shifted in the darkness to get his bearings. He was naked, covered by a sheet, and lying on icy cold metal.

"Morgue," he grumbled as he worked to get his way out of the freezer unit before pneumonia set in. It wouldn't kill him, but it would certainly put a damper on the holidays. Not finding an easy escape latch, he kicked at the closed door, which remained shut and locked. He drew back both legs as well as he could in the cramped space and prepared to lash out again.

Just as he was letting them fly, the door opened and he connected instead with the head of the morgue attendant. Plop! The man gasped and gurgled as he fell face forward onto the drawer. Cory managed to kick him off, ease out of the freezer, and shut the drawer. Leaning over the man, he made certain he was still breathing, and then began to strip him of his clothes so that he could make his getaway.

Clearly he had misjudged the sense of wonder and terror that step one would have on his target. "Burglar indeed," Cory huffed incensed as he eased into the corridor and set off. Clearly step one hadn't worked. Maybe he needed to go for step two. Step two had always been his favorite.

Another blissful night alone! Evan Carter, product of a large family who had lived in too small an apartment and had shared everything including a bed, still reveled in having his own place and not having to share anything. His king-sized bed alone was a treat. It sat within a large bedroom that was a part of a penthouse apartment and he had it all to himself. Memories, especially this time of year, of the privations of his childhood always made him glory in his current success and his privacy.

He stretched in the cool silk sheets and smiled as he drifted off to sleep.

"I'll be home for Christmas…" began to sound softly in his room. He opened one eye. Someone had lit the gas logs in the main room and was fiddling with his stereo.

"Idiots!" Evan said, this time grabbing his shotgun, duly loaded with buckshot. The dead burglar two nights ago had created some problems for him with the police. Evidently they thought he'd over-reacted. Hell! What would they do if they woke up and some guy was standing at the foot of their bed? They wouldn't have wished him a Merry Christmas!

Evan eased out of bed and crossed quietly to the partially opened door between his bedroom and the main room. He gulped at what he saw.

Not only were the fire lit and the stereo caterwauling holiday sentiments, but someone had also put up a decorated tree and laid a spread of holiday food on his coffee table. The intruder, dressed in green slacks, a white shirt adorned with a red bowtie and red and green suspenders, turned and grinned. "Merry Christmas Evan! Now don't get the wrong idea. I'm not here to rob you… in fact I've brought you a feast for Christmas dinner, including some of the finest spirits…"

Evan pulled the triggers and let both barrels discharge their load of buckshot right in the intruder's face. Odd, the guy had looked familiar for that half second that Evan had seen his now-ruined face. He picked up the phone and dialed 911.

Cory wheezed back to life, drawing in air through his ruined mouth. Gingerly, he reset his jaw and worked it up and down even while his labored breathing continued to whistle through his still-ruined nose. Damn but that had hurt!

Once more he found himself under a sheet on a cold metal slab. But this time there was a bright light overhead shining through the sheet. He also heard voices and the unmistakable sound of a bone saw revving up. He was back in the morgue… but this time he was likely on the autopsy table.

With a sigh… he stuck his hands straight out in front of him and sat up, adding a wail to his performance. If he were lucky… they'd run for help.

"Shit!" screamed a man. "It's another one!"

"What is this? Night of the Living Dead?" screamed the other.

"Quick hit it in the head!"

"Why? It's dead."

"Scramble its brains and then we can dismember it."

The sheet slowly eased off of Cory's face. He grinned at the two attendants.

The two men took off running. The swinging doors of the morgue swung back and forth with a whoosh as they vanished down the hallway.

Snickering, Cory got to his feet and then stomped a foot. Damn! He'd run them off before he got their clothes. He found a white coat on a hook, buttoned it up all the way, and slipped some disposable footies over his bare feet. A surgical mask completed the ensemble.

As he headed for the nearest entrance and the icy winter night, Cory hoped he wouldn't get frostbite. Frostbite was always so damned inconvenient. Clearly his target needed something to really shake loose the spirit of Christmas. Well step three would get him. Step three always got them.

Evan Carter had spent another day being interviewed by the police. Clearly they didn't understand that when someone invaded your home… even if he brought you a meal and a decorated tree… he was up to no good. They'd confiscated his firearms. Evan felt he had every right to kill intruders. After all, in this modern PC kind of world, what sort of sick individual tried to force Christmas cheer on someone who clearly didn't want it? Nope… they were up to no good. Had to be.

He'd chucked the tree into the dumpster downstairs once the police had dusted it for fingerprints. He'd kept the food and the wine; he hadn't become rich by wasting things that he could actually use.

He wandered through his empty apartment… checking the new locks and trying out the new burglar alarm system he'd had put in. Two break-ins in one week had sent his insurance premiums sky-rocketing and the state-of-the-art system was the only way to eventually recoup his losses.

Satisfied that he'd done all he could, he headed for bed.

As a gong struck three times, Evan sat bolt upright in the bed. A flashlight flickered on and off as a figure in Scream mask and black, hooded coat set down the small gong and pointed one long white-gloved finger at him.

Evan cocked an eyebrow as he reached for the baseball bat on the floor next to his bed. Maybe he couldn't kill this one, but he planned to give him a beating that he'd remember. The masked and hooded figure took one look at the bat and squealed even as Evan began pounding him to a pulp.

The rasp of Cory's labored intake of breath sounded like water burbling. It hurt to breathe, to come back to the living hell of pain he found himself in. Cory stretched slightly, moaning as sinews stretched and broken bones slowly righted themselves. He could see nothing but unrelenting black.

"Did you hear something?" a woman's voice asked.

"Like what?" replied the voice of a man.

"Like someone breathing."

"You been listening to those tales Seymour's been telling? 'Bout the dead coming back to life," the man laughed.

"No," the woman said hesitantly. "Maybe we pronounced the guy too soon."

"He was dead on the scene. That's three burglars old man Carter's killed in six days. That man is a menace."

Tentatively Cory reached out. Body bag! I'm in a body bag in an ambulance on its way to the morgue. Common sense dictated that he do nothing and just heal, but it was Christmas Eve and the time for patience was over.

Picking at the zipper of the bag, Cory maneuvered it down and, sat up. Ignoring the stunned attendants, Cory managed to fling open the door of the ambulance, and flee into the night. Pedestrians who saw him screamed as he lurched awkwardly through the snow, his bones still healing.

Hell's bells! snarled Evan Carter to himself once he finally was released from police custody. You'd think I was the criminal! He unlocked the front door and then stood aghast. His apartment had been emptied of everything. Everything that is, but a red and green knitted stocking hanging from his fireplace mantel. Gingerly he lifted it to find a lump of coal and a note. He hefted the coal in one hand while he considered throwing it through the windows and then dumped it back into the stocking while he read the note.

Dear Evan,

I tried to warm your heart by reminding you of the Christmases of your youth. When that failed I tried to fill you with holiday cheer by throwing you a party. Then I tried to give you a warning of where you were headed. In closing, I leave you a lump of coal to burn in your fireplace and keep you warm since I took the gas logs and everything else.

By the time you read this, all of your possessions will have been given to the truly deserving and I will have left town for another year.

Sincerely,

The Christmas Spirit

#30#