Floodlights illuminated the scene: brilliant white snow that turned bright red in a perfect circle around a woman's corpse laying on a low snow bank in an alley. The police officers, medical examiner, and crime scene technicians went about their work quietly in the cold night, little wisps of mist rising from their breathing. Lieutenant Connie Murphy sipped a cup of hot coffee and stamped her feet to keep warm.
To her colleague, Detective Sid Kirmani, she said, "Butters says this amount of blood loss... it's got to be almost all the blood in her body."
Kirmani shook his head. "Problem is, there don't appear to be any wounds."
"Yeah, that would be a problem."
"You call Dresden?"
"Am I getting that predictable?"
She spied the self proclaimed wizard across the scene speaking to a tech, who raised an arm and pointed in Murphy's direction. Kirmani followed her line of sight.
"Yep," he said. "You are."
Harry approached them. "Hey Murphy," he said and then nodded to Kirmani. "Detective."
Kirmani nodded back. "Mr. Wizard." He turned to Murphy. "I'll see you back at the station, Lieutenant." The detective left, leaving Harry and Murphy alone.
"Come look at this," Murphy said and lead Harry to the edge of the snow where the white snow and the iced over blood met. "It's all contained in this circle, which is weird enough," Murphy said, "but the ME also hasn't found a source of blood loss though he'll know more once he gets her to the morgue."
Harry stared at the body. "You're assuming it's her blood?"
"At the moment, but even if it's not, she's just as dead. Have you ever seen or heard of anything like this?"
Harry shook his head and walked slowly around the circle. The woman was laying flat on her back in the snow, her long cream colored coat pristine except for where the bloody snow touched it. Her hands were folded on her chest, palms pressed together like she had been praying. There was not a mark on her face, though her long curly brown hair was disheveled.
"It looks like her hands might have been posed that way," Harry said, "but I don't know why. I'll have to do some research into it. Do you know who she was?"
"No. She had no ID on her that we've found yet. We might when the body's moved."
Harry pulled his bare hands out of his pockets along with a small cloth bag and a spyglass.
"Harry, where are your gloves?" Murphy asked, her tone reprimanding. "And your scarf for that matter?"
"Oh," he said and grinned at her. "A stray hellhound chewed them up."
She shook her head at him. "Yeah, gotta keep an eye on those hellhounds."
"Both eyes, preferably."
Harry opened the bag and threw dust from inside it into the air, the fine, shiny particles disappearing from sight almost immediately.
"What is that?" Murphy asked
"Yeah, what's it do, Tinkerbell?"
"It doesn't make you fly with just a happy thought." He lifted the glass and looked through it at the scene. The dust shimmered silver through the view of the lens and settled in the snow. A silvery bright circle glowed around the edges of the bloody ice, and wards also glowed faintly in the snow. They were hastily drawn, but they were definitely protective wards.
"What are you looking at?"
"I'm just thinking. Give me a sec."
He read each ward carefully. Protection from bodily harm. Protection from demons. Protection from black magic. Protection from sea serpents? He blinked. Yes, sea serpents. The wards got increasingly difficult to read, some having been damaged by the police walking through the scene. One remained that was clear enough: protection from death.
He lowered the glass. "She knew someone was coming for her. She tried to protect herself from the attack."
"How do you figure that?" Murphy asked.
"The fairy dust told me," Harry said.
"Uh huh, well why don't you do some of that research you suggested before. 'Fairy dust' isn't going to cut it in the paperwork."
"No problem, Murph. I'll be in touch."
"Bob!" Harry called as he entered into his place. "Bob, come here!"
The ghostly sorcerer stepped through a wall to enter the front room. "Harry, please refrain from summoning me like a dog. We've had this conversation before."
"Can you just look at these?" Harry held up his shoes, which were in his hands, in Bob's direction.
Bob looked at the shoes then down at Harry's feet. Harry's mismatched socks, one black and one gray, were soaking wet and the big toe on his left foot was poking through a hole.
"Have you been walking out in that," Bob gestured out the window where snow was falling gently in the night, "in only your stocking feet?"
"There's evidence on my shoes that I didn't want to come off. Just stick your hand in there and show me what you find."
"I will, but for goodness sake, will you please go put some dry socks on first. And take off your coat; you're dropping snow onto the floor and it's making a mess."
"God, Bob, could you just..."
"You'll be lucky if your toes don't fall off from frostbite."
Harry made a little noise of exasperation and dropped the shoes on his desk, shrugged off his coat onto a chair, then went upstairs.
"What sort of evidence?" Bob called up to him.
"Blood!" Harry called down as he peeled off his damp socks.
"And the best way to collect this was via your shoes?"
Harry doubled up on dry socks and pulled second sweater on. He rubbed his night chilled hands together to increase his circulation then headed back downstairs.
"I didn't think Murphy would be too keen with me asking to borrow an evidence bag so I could take home some bloody snow. Can we do this now?"
"Yes, very well." Bob put a hand over the shoes and closed his eyes. His hand glowed faintly for a moment then his appearance transitioned to that of a woman with curly brown hair wearing a creamy wool coat. Bob opened his eyes. "Who is she?"
Harry shook his head. "I don't know, but it looks like all that blood at the crime scene was her blood after all."
"All that blood? How much?"
"Everything that was inside of her is now on the outside."
"Yeah, and another thing, she was a wizard. She tried to protect herself. She cast wards in the snow, she drew a circle around herself." Harry sighed and glanced at the clock, which read a quarter past eight. "Anyway, I'm going down to the morgue to see if her body can tell me anything."
"Use caution, Harry. If she was a wizard and killed by magic... keep your eyes open for the High Council."
There was something strange about the morgue, not that it was ever a normal place to begin with, but there was a hint of magic in the air that made Harry wish he had brought his staff with him, or at least a wand. He opened the door to the room where the woman's body should have been taken and found there were several people inside in addition to the body. Harry recognized Butters, but not the three techs also in the room. The odd thing was, none of them were moving.
He also recognized Morgan, who was standing next to a metal table with a zipped body bag on top. The warden looked up from the bag to Harry.
"What are you doing here, Dresden?"
"Murphy called me in on this case," Harry answered. "What did you do to them?" He gestured to the morgue employees.
"I haven't done anything to them. Time has simply slowed down in this room."
"Time?" Harry said, surprised. "But..."
"Dresden, no one is moving forwards or backwards in time. Everyone is in the present... they're just a little less in the present."
"What happens if I walk inside?"
"I would rather you didn't."
"I'm coming in."
"You won't make it over the threshold before time slows you down like them."
"The Council is handling this, Dresden. You needn't concern yourself anyway."
"Needn't concern myself? Okay." Harry crossed his arms and stayed standing outside the doorway.
"Leave," the warden insisted.
"No, I think I'll just hang out here."
The two wizards stared at each other unflinchingly for several moments.
"Fine," Morgan said. "Come in."
"Yes, I did. Now I'm saying the spell won't effect you."
Eyeing Morgan warily, Harry inched one of his feet over the threshold. When nothing happened, he took a breath and stepped fully into the room. Careful not to bump into the employees, he joined Morgan at the metal table where the body bag rested.
"Were you at the crime scene?" Morgan asked as he reached down and unzipped the bag.
"Yeah," Harry said, but didn't elaborate further when he heard Morgan's breath catch in his throat. He glanced at Morgan's face. The warden's expression was as unreadable as ever, but then he reached into the bag and lightly touched the woman's face.
"Who was she?" Harry asked softly.
"Beverly Fielding," Morgan said. "She worked for the Council, maintained records of certain magical happenings in the city."
"Fielding? Why do I know that name?"
"Your uncle may have mentioned it. The Fieldings are another family with a long magical bloodline. Perhaps not of the same wealth and power as the Morningways, but at least a respectable family, an honorable one."
Harry sighed at the verbal dig though he was used to it. He knew perfectly well how the Council viewed his family, not that certain relations of his had not earned whatever troublemaking labels the Council chose to associate with the Morningway name.
"I don't know about wealth and power, but maybe the name Dresden might be a respectable one."
"That has yet to be proven."
Harry sighed again and changed the subject back to the dead woman. "So who'd want to kill a Council record keeper?"
"I don't know. I didn't find out about her death in time to view the scene. Tell me what you saw."
Harry described the circle, the blood, and the way her hands had been positioned.
"Exsanguination without a scratch," Morgan commented, lost in thought. "That kind of magic... I don't know."
"Vampires?" Harry suggested. "A bite to the tongue?"
Morgan murmured some words and Beverly Fielding's mouth opened. He peered inside and then straightened up, shaking his head.
"It doesn't make sense anyway," Morgan said. "Even if a vampire had done it, they would never have spit up the blood, and if they had, why? And how in a perfect circle?"
"There were wards cast in the snow," Harry said. "She was trying to protect against injury, black magic, demons... death."
Morgan slammed his hands down against the metallic table, and Harry took a step back, surprised by the outburst.
"Beverly was harmless. She didn't have enemies," the warden said, anger in his voice. "Black magic? Demons? These things weren't in her realm."
"Maybe we should talk to her family."
"We aren't talking to anyone. You're done here."
"Morgan, I can help."
"In case I haven't made it clear, Dresden, your help is not wanted or needed."
"Just the same, I'm offering. And Murphy hired me so I'll be investigating anyway. We can do this together or just keep tripping over one another."
Exasperated, Morgan asked, "Why must you always interfere?"
Harry shrugged. "Like you always remind me, it's in my blood."
Acquiescing, Morgan said, "Then you can start by helping me sit her up."
"Her death needs to be a little less mysterious to them." He gestured to the other people in the room, who were frozen in the middle of their activity.
"What are you going to do?"
"You ask too many questions," Morgan grumbled as he reached a gloved hand inside of his heavy black coat and pulled out something wrapped in a white handkerchief from his interior pocket. He unwrapped the handkerchief to show a small knife.
"Help me sit her up," Morgan said firmly. He whispered a spell above her and her stiff joints loosened. Grimacing, Harry pulled on a pair of latex gloves that he got from a box on the metal table. He reached into the bag and pulled the woman into a sitting position, her head lolling forward.
"Hold her steady," Morgan said as he raised the knife.
Harry tightened his grip and closed his eyes, but he could feel the body shake, could hear the sound of it as Morgan stabbed her several times in the back.
"You can lay her back down now."
Harry opened his eyes. The back of her coat, already stained with blood, had 5 narrow holes in it now. He lowered her back down into the bag and Morgan wrapped the knife back inside the handkerchief. Morgan stuck the wrapped knife back in his inside coat pocket and Harry shed the latex gloves and put them into a biohazard waste bin.
Morgan moved to zip the body bag, but then hesitated and reached to brush aside a few curly stands of hair that had fallen across her face.
"She was a friend," Harry observed.
"Yes, she was," Morgan confirmed, and then sealed the bag once more. "Let's go."
The two wizards left together, the room buzzing back to life several moments after they passed over the threshold and out the door.
"Christmas? Already?" Harry queried as he put his jeep into park and looked up at the twinkling white lights that decorated the border of the two story suburban home. The neighboring homes were similarly outfitted though some were more garish than others.
"Yes, Dresden, in less than a week," Morgan said as he exited the vehicle.
Morgan had protested the idea of driving anywhere, insisting it was better to simply arrive via magic. Harry had been forced to point out his own deficiency in performing transportation spells, which, to his irritation, seemed a source of amusement to the warden.
"Less than a week?" Harry said. "What day is this?"
"It's the twentieth, Dresden. Don't look surprised, Christmas happens at the same time every year."
"I guess... I guess I hadn't noticed," Harry said as he got out of the jeep, voice vaguely distant as he thought back to another time.
///Reno, Nevada December 24, 1981\\\
"Dad, do you have to? Couldn't you just stay tonight? Say you're sick or something," Harry protested as he helped his dad into the large red coat.
"You know I can't do that, Harry," Malcolm Dresden said as he buttoned the coat over the pillow he was using underneath for extra padding. Malcolm ruffled up the soft white trim then put on the fake white beard.
"How do I look?" He asked as he spread his arms out and turned around.
Sullenly, Harry sat and slumped into a chair, crossing his arms. "Not like my dad, and not that convincing as a Santa Claus either."
Malcolm sighed and pulled the beard off. He knelt down next to the chair Harry sat in.
"Kiddo, I want nothing more than to spend Christmas with you."
"But you never do," Harry said, a bitter sort of whine to his tone. "You work every Christmas. We don't even have a tree."
Malcolm rubbed his face and seemed to be thinking for a moment, but then reached out and pulled his son into a tight hug. Harry remained limp in the embrace.
"I'm sorry you're disappointed, Harry. I'm sorry I can't give you a more stable life." He released his son from the hug and wiped at his eyes before tears could fully form. "I know it's been hard for you, us moving all the time, me having all these different jobs. It's just... it's how it has to be, Harry."
"Why?" Harry said petulantly. "Why does it have to be this way?"
Harry rolled his eyes.
"Not much of an answer, I know. I'll explain it more when you're older. Just... I love you, Harry, and I'll never stop protecting you."
He ran a hand through his son's hair and then said. "I'll tell you what: I am going to make you a promise right now. Have you ever known me to lie to you?"
Harry shook his head.
"I promise you that we will spend next Christmas together. I wouldn't make such a promise lightly. Next year, no matter where we are, we'll have it together. We'll have a big dinner and a tree... you know, when your mom was alive, we used to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree, and we'd get one another a new ornament every year."
Harry looked down at and rubbed the bracelet on his wrist that had belonged to his mother, and that his father had given him only a few months earlier.
"So we'll get a tree," Malcolm continued, "and we'll decorate it on Christmas Eve. What do you think?"
Harry didn't look up right away, but then he leaned forward and this time he was the one to pull his father into a hug.
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you too."
Harry released his father, who stood and retrieved the false beard and his car keys.
"You'll be a really good Santa tonight," Harry said, following his father to the front door of the small apartment.
"Yeah, fore sure," Harry answered and gave a mock punch to the stuffed, oversized belly.
"There's some leftover Chinese in the fridge. Sorry I didn't get a chance to make you something special." Malcolm patted his son on the back.
"Don't stay up too late, Harry. Don't wait up for me. I'll make you some pancakes in the morning before I have to go to work again."
Harry nodded and Malcolm gave him a quick squeeze across his shoulders before heading out the door. Harry watched as his father tromped out to the small beaten up hatchback he drove, got into the little car, and drove into the snowy night toward the blinking city lights.
Harry shook the memory from his present thoughts and rubbed his chilled hands together then shoved them in his pockets. He followed Morgan to the front door and the warden pressed the bell.
An adolescent girl with short curly hair answered the door.
"Oh, hey Donald," she said to Morgan, the name spoken with familiarity. Harry wasn't sure he'd ever heard anyone call Morgan by his first name before. It seemed weird that Morgan even had a first name.
"Hello, Melanie, is your grandmother home?"
The girl nodded and called over her shoulder, "Gram! Donald and some other guy are here!"
A few moments later, a tall casually dressed woman with long gray hair and dark eyes appeared at the door. "For God's sake, Melanie," she said to the girl, "don't yell across the house."
"Come inside," the woman said to Morgan and Harry. To Morgan, she smiled and said, "Good to see you, Donald. It's been a while. Who's your friend?"
"Angela, this is Harry Dresden. Dresden, this is Angela Fielding," Morgan said matter-of-factly, "and I'm afraid this isn't a social call."
"The Morningway boy?" She said, surprise in her voice, and glanced at Harry up an down. He shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dresden, I don't mean to stare. I..." she shook her head. "I knew your mother. You resemble her."
She turned her attention back to Morgan. "But you said this isn't a social call. Is something wrong?"
"Is there somewhere we can talk?" he asked her, his gaze flicking over to the girl and then back to the woman.
Angela turned to the girl and said, "Melanie, please go to your room while I talk to Donald and Mr. Dresden."
The girl looked sulky for a moment in the way that only adolescent girls can, but then departed from the front room, going up the stairs.
Angela took the two wizards to the kitchen to talk.
"What's this about, Donald?"
"Angela... I'm sorry to have to tell you this. Beverly was killed tonight."
Angela raised a hand to her mouth and she shook her head no.
Morgan repeated, "I'm sorry."
Angela's eyes welled with tears and she leaned her head against Morgan's chest. To Harry's surprise, Morgan allowed this and he closed his eyes and gave the woman a hug. "Morgan" and "hug" were just two words that did not belong together.
They remained that was for several minutes to Harry's discomfort. He felt like he should be doing something other than standing there. Angela's shoulders were trembling, but she eventually took a deep breath and pulled back, her eyes puffy and red.
"What happened?" She asked.
"Black magic," Morgan said evenly.
Angela glanced at Harry for a brief moment then back at Morgan. Harry was starting to wish he hadn't come.
"No, not him," Morgan said.
She took a deep breath. "Of course not," she said and looked to Harry. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dresden..."
"Call me Harry, please."
She nodded. "Harry. Your reputation precedes you. It is prejudiced and ugly, and I am sorry I let myself think it. In truth, I don't believe many of the things I've heard."
Harry nodded though he felt confused and vaguely offended. He was strongly aware in that moment of his significant disconnect from the magical community beyond the small niches he encountered in his work. He had really wanted nothing to do with other wizards, a feeling that he believed was mutual. It rarely bothered him with Mai and the wardens that they would talk down about him. For some reason, that regular people of his world would as well felt unsettling.
"Dresden was able to view the scene of the crime at the invitation of the police, but I did not see the scene. Harry has volunteered to aid my investigation."
"You were saying black magic."
"Exsanguinated, but not a vampire," Morgan said. "The police will tell you she was stabbed to death, but that is not true."
"But what then?"
"That's what we're trying to find out," Morgan said, his tone gentle, but still matter-of-fact. "Have you noticed anything strange? About Beverly? Has anyone strange been around?"
"Beverly recently connected with a sister she didn't know, Dana Jensen."
"That she didn't know? Why..." Harry started to ask.
"My husband," Angela interjected, a hint of anger in her voice, and Harry understood.
"I forgave him, eventually, but I didn't want anything to do with Dana. I wouldn't let my husband have anything to do with her either. I think all she ever got from him was one birthday card and an outdated book of spells and magical creatures."
She suddenly looked very tired, the thin, faint lines on her face seeming more pronounced. Harry wondered how old she was. It was always difficult to tell with wizards.
"It was cruel and selfish of me," Angela said. "I'm not proud of it. After my husband died a year ago, I told Beverly, who got in touch with Dana. She finally got in touch as well and decided to visit. She just got in a few days ago."
"I'll need to talk to her," Morgan said.
"She's staying in a hotel nearby," Angela said. "She's had her problems, but she's family, I acknowledge that now. She's a nice girl, and she isn't part of our world."
"She didn't inherit magic?" Harry asked.
Angela shook her head. "No. She said she tried her hand at some of the simple spells in the spell book my husband gave her, but nothing ever came of them."
"It's been a long road for this family," Angela said, and then elaborated to Harry. "As I mentioned, my husband died last year. In addition, I was very ill earlier this year, in and out of the hospital... cancer. It's funny, you know, we're strong in so many ways, but still human, right?"
"So I moved in with my daughter, things had been getting better, but now..." She blinked tears. "I have to tell Melanie that her mother is dead, and Dana that the sister I kept her from for so long is gone."
"Angela," Morgan said. "I will do everything I can to get to the bottom of Beverly's death."
"I know you will, Donald, I know."
In her line of work, Connie Murphy didn't like surprises. She liked cases where the usual suspects turned out to be the correct suspects. She liked it when procedure was followed. She liked it when consultants did what they were hired to do, but without overstepping their bounds. Therefore, she did not like pulling up to Beverly Fielding's residence and seeing Harry Dresden's jeep parked in the driveway.
She sat for a few moments in the car tapping her fingers irritably on the steering wheel while the engine idled.
"You want me to handle this, Lieutenant?" Kirmani offered, looking at her with concern from the passenger seat.
"Nope," she said turning the engine off. She set the parking break, jerking it up a little harder than she intended.
Murphy and Kirmani got out of the car, went to the front door, and rang the bell. After a couple of minutes, a woman with long gray hair opened the door. Her eyes were swollen and red as if crying. Standing behind her was a tall, vaguely familiar man, and Harry Dresden.
"Is this Beverly Fielding's residence?" Murphy asked.
"It is, I am her mother, Angela."
I'm Lieutenant Murphy from the Chicago PD, this is Detective Kirmani. I am sorry to bother you, but we must speak with you about your daughter. "
Angela nodded though she looked as if the last thing she wanted to do was talk to them. She turned to Harry and the other man. "Let me know what you find out," she said to them. They both nodded though Harry was looking at Murphy and not Angela.
They exited, but as Harry passed, Murphy grabbed his sleeve, halting him. To Kirmani, she said, "Why don't you get started here." She nodded in Angela's direction. "I'll be with you in a minute."
"No problem," Kirmani said, eyeing Harry. He turned to Angela and entered the residence, closing the door against the cold, but not locking it.
Murphy dragged Harry back toward the driveway. The other man was nowhere to be seen.
"Harry, what the hell are you doing? And who was that other guy? I've seen him before. Where did he go?" She looked around.
"Oh, he, uh... he must have gone home... he lives nearby," Harry said lamely.
"Well, what was he doing here?"
"Murphy, he's a friend of the family. I... I thought I might have recognized the woman." He said not convincingly. Murphy suspected he was lying. Why did he have to lie to her?
"You do not talk to victims' families before the police," she said. "If you knew who she was, you should have called me. This is too far, Harry. I hired you to facilitate my investigation, not the other way around."
"Look, Murph, I'm sorry. I just... when he heard, the other guy, the friend of the family... he wanted to come straight over. And I'm sorry, it won't happen again."
"I don't believe that Harry," she said, feeling tired, defeated. "I know you mean well, but I'm feeling like I can't trust you on this."
"I said I'm sorry, what more can I say?"
She shook her head. She hated doing this, but there was no choice. She couldn't have him sneaking around circumventing the police. "You're off this case."
"Are you firing me? Already"
"I'll be lucky if I'm not fired," she said. "Get out of here, Dresden."
"I'm sorry," he repeated.
She just shook her head and turned from him. Without looking back, she went into the house to join Kirmani.
"Go 'way," Harry muttered thickly in his sleep at the loud rat-a-tat-tats on the glass at the front of the shop. He shoved his head under a pillow, but it wouldn't drown out the noise. Grumbling, he threw the pillow off and slid out of bed, rubbing his eyes. He padded downstairs in his socks and went to the front door, where he saw Murphy hovering around outside in the bright morning light. He cracked the door open, shivering against the icy air that hit him from outside.
"Murphy, have you noticed the convenient 'Closed' sign?" He said with irritation. "On the door and everything?"
"Can I come in?"
"Closed," Harry repeated.
He hesitated for a moment then opened the door wide enough for her to enter. Murphy stepped inside and he closed the door behind her to keep out the chill air.
"Murphy, if this is about last night..."
She held up a hand. "Harry, I wanted to say I appreciate you working the leads, really. Closed cases, I like closed cases, but I also have to be able to explain myself to my superiors."
"Explain to them about the closed cases, what more do they need?"
"Procedure, Harry, accountability. I'm going to catch hell for you talking to the family first."
"Do you want me back on this case?"
"I can't," she said. "I'm sorry, but I can't. Of course, I will get you paid for the time you put in already."
"So I guess that's it then," Harry said wondering if he'd get the full per diem or if it would be prorated for the few hours worked. In his head, he was calculating bills that were coming due.
"I hope this won't change our friendship," Murphy said, a hint of unexpected vulnerability in her voice.
"What?" Harry said, breaking from his mental arithmetic.
"What happened last night, that was about the job. I hope you know that."
It still felt like it had been a little personal, but he allowed himself to relax a little and he gave her a gentle smile. "Yeah, I know that."
A small smile illuminated her face. It was nice, when she smiled. "Good because I wanted to find out what you're doing Christmas Eve."
"What? Why? Nothing, I guess."
"I'm having dinner at my place. You're invited. My dad's going to be there, my daughter, Sid's coming and bringing his kid..."
"Kirmani's got a kid?"
"Yeah, a son, couple years younger than Anna."
"Yeah, you know... food."
"Kirmani doesn't like me."
"He doesn't really know you," Murphy said. "Anyway, it's Christmas, it's my apartment, I'm cooking, I get to invite who I want. What do you say?"
He hesitated a moment before answering. "It's not that I don't appreciate the invitation, Murphy, but I don't celebrate Christmas."
"Okay, okay," she said. "Then it's a holiday gathering, not Christmas dinner. It's just people sharing a meal and company. A little celebration of the season."
"I don't celebrate this time of year. The season, Christmas, whatever. It's just a month like any other." He shrugged. "Only colder."
"Are you serious?"
"All right, Scrooge, but I might get you a gift anyway."
"Nah, really, Murphy. You don't have to do that."
"I know I don't have to. That's why it's called a gift."
She opened the door, a cold gust of air blowing into the shop. "Think about it, will you Harry? Dinner, I mean."
"I will," he said and she left closing the door behind herself.
Harry went to the kitchen to make some tea and scrounge up some breakfast. He found Bob standing near the refrigerator.
"Are you a fool, Harry?" The ghost asked.
"Probably," Harry answered as he filled his tea kettle with water.
"Murphy invited you for dinner. There will be actual people in attendance, and an actual meal. How long since you've had one of those? You can't always keep everyone at arm's length."
"Bob, you know how I feel about it," Harry said as he plopped the kettle on the stove and turned on the burner. "The holidays... Christmas... you know how I feel."
///Chicago, Illinois December 24, 1982\\\
Harry stepped back as he placed the last ornament on the tree that loomed large above him. He sighed as he took it in. Elegant glass ornaments, large red ribbons, charmed snow sparkling and not melting on the limbs.
"What's wrong, Harry?" He heard a voice behind him and turned to glance at his ghostly teacher, who stood near the small table in the study where his skull rested.
Harry didn't answer and Bob walked up behind him and looked up at the tree.
"The snow," Bob commented. "is a challenging spell to execute, to force the ice to maintain its temperature and cohesion."
"Uncle Justin helped. It kept falling off the branches when I did it."
"Nonetheless, you have done well."
"Yeah, I guess," Harry said indifferently.
"Harry, tell me what's troubling you," the ghost urged.
The boy shrugged. "It's all really nice. It's just not what I expected to be doing."
"What do you mean?"
"My dad, he..." Harry's voice caught in his throat. "We were supposed to spend Christmas together. It was going to be like this." He waved at the tall pine tree. "We were going to have a tree, decorate it. He wasn't going to work that night."
A tear slipped down his cheek before he sniffed and wiped a sleeve across his face.
"He promised," Harry said.
Bob knelt down to Harry's height. "Your father, if he could have kept that promise, I do not doubt that he would have. What you've told me since you came here... he's a different man coming from you than from your uncle."
"What do you mean? What did he say?"
"Nothing bad," Bob said quickly. "Just different."
"Uncle Justin didn't like my dad."
"Harry, sometimes adults don't get along. Sometimes what they think is best for someone differs. Do you understand?"
Harry shook his head.
"Your father did what he thought was best for you. Your uncle is doing what he thinks is best for you."
Harry only felt confused.
"Never mind," Bob said. "I have something for you."
Bob held out his palm and spectral golden particles started spinning and forming into something above it. The particles turned the shape of an upside down top hat with a rabbit's ears poking out of the top.
"That was my dad's best trick," Harry said.
"So you've mentioned," Bob said, a small, warm smile on his face.
Harry reached out his fingers toward the glowing shape.
"Don't try to touch it, Harry. Remember, my magic has no substance."
Harry withdrew his hand.
"Harry!" Justin's voice called from another room. "Harry, dinner is ready!"
"Go on," Bob said gently. "Go have your dinner."
The ghost blew a breath against his palm and the spectral hat drifted toward the tree and settled just above a small sprig of pine that was at Harry's eye level.
"Harry!" Justin called again.
"Thanks, Bob," Harry said before he turned to leave the room, a little smile on his face.
"Merry Christmas, Harry."
"I do know how you feel," Bob said as Harry poured a bowl of cold cereal. "But how long will you live in the past with this?"
"As long as it takes," Harry answered. He motioned for Bob to step away from the fridge and the ghost obliged him. Harry opened it and pulled out a half-empty carton of milk. He looked at it questioningly, opened it, and took a sniff of the contents. It seemed okay so he poured it over the cereal.
"I suppose if you want to do nothing but wallow in the past, I can't stop you, but I hope you won't take it out on me."
Harry set the milk carton down heavily on the counter. "Get in your skull."
"Get in it now," the wizard said firmly.
"Very well," Bob said. "But I do hope you will reconsider Murphy's offer."
Bob disappeared into a ball of smoke leaving Harry alone.
When she saw Kirmani approaching her desk, Murphy slammed the file shut that was sitting in front of her and leaned back in her chair to watch him. He stopped at her desk, his notebook in hand, and his gaze unreadable.
They were both silent for a moment then Murphy said, "Five bucks."
He regarded her for a moment then said, "I'll see you five and raise you another five."
"Feeling lucky, Sid?"
He raised an eyebrow at her and said, "You in or not, Lieutenant."
"Yeah, all right," she said, straightening up. "Show me your cards."
He looked down at the notes in his notepad. "Mom had a life insurance policy to the tune of a quarter million dollars payable to a trust for the daughter."
"You think a thirteen year-old kid stabbed her mother to death? Over life insurance money? That she probably didn't even know about?"
Kirmani shook his head no. "Grandma is the trustee. She controls the fund until the kid turns twenty-one."
Murphy thought for a moment and shook her head. "I don't like it. I just didn't get that vibe from her."
"There might be financial trouble, right? Family hit with some tough times after grandma got sick this year? Some medical debt?"
"Yeah, but still..."
"What have you got?"
Murphy cleared her throat and opened the file in front of her. "The long lost sister's got a rap sheet. She's done a couple jail stints. Some minor drug charges, larceny, bad checks, fraud. Nothing recent, but certainly a history."
"Think she and grandma might be in cahoots?"
Murphy shrugged and then shook her head. "Again, I just didn't get that vibe." She sighed. "But evidence is a bit more persuasive than my gut feelings, at least in the record."
"I say we call grandma in for questioning," Kirmani said. "And I'm not just saying that 'cause I've got ten bucks riding on it."
"No, you're right," Murphy said pulling out her wallet and taking out ten dollars. "Evidence of a motive trumps the criminal history," she said and handed the money over to him.
"C'mon, I'll get you some lunch, then we can call her in. A hotdog," he said and waved the ten dollar bill, "my treat."
"All right, but no relish this time."
He feigned being struck in the chest, but grinned as he said, "No relish? And you're from Chicago? You're breaking my heart, Lieutenant."
"A demon," Harry said and Morgan looked up at him skeptically from the diagram Harry had drawn on the floor of the wards that had been in the snow.
"There have been no hints of unusual demonic activity in the city," Morgan said.
"What? Like there is usual demonic activity?"
Morgan said nothing, but gathered his coat. "We're wasting time. Your diagram is crude." He looked over to where Bob stood nearby studying the drawings. "And your ghost is not helping."
Bob gave an annoyed sigh.
"Look at these symbols," Morgan said critically and pointed out two in particular. "Sea serpents?"
"I told you, some of the wards had been stepped on, messed up, drawn in a hurry," Harry said a little exasperated.
"When you are running for your life," Bob said. "I would think even in haste, you would strive for accuracy."
Morgan nodded. "I agree."
"Morgan, you think an ocean dwelling snake killed a woman in the middle of Chicago?"
"No, I think you remember it wrong, and..."
"Harry is right," Bob interrupted. "That is exactly what happened."
"Sea serpents?" Morgan said incredulously.
"Yes," Bob said with finality. "A hydra demon to be more precise."
"A what?" Harry said.
"Impossible, they're extinct," Morgan said.
"Clue me in here, Bob," Harry insisted.
"It's an ancient breed of demon," Bob explained. "It's appearance is like that of several sea serpents. It controls water, has powers of suggestion. It could quite literally have hypnotized the blood out of her body. The Council might not have noticed since they would not be looking for this demonic activity considering they think hydra demons no longer exist." He looked pointedly at Morgan.
"Even if it weren't extinct, she cast a circle and wards that she drew should have been strong enough to hold such a demon at bay."
"I will admit that is a little problematic," said Bob.
"The ground wasn't beneath her feet," Harry said suddenly like he was just understanding something.
"What do you mean?" Morgan asked.
"The circle was incomplete. She wasn't on the ground, she was on the snow."
Morgan realized as well. "Snow is made of water. She knew the circle was incomplete." Morgan pressed his hands together at chest level in the same manner Beverly's hands had been positioned, but he continued the motion downward so his palms separated once at waist level, like he was casting a spell toward the ground.
Harry nodded at Morgan. "It got her before she could seal the area under her."
"How do we find it?" Morgan demanded of Bob.
"It would need to be somewhere hidden. Even a creature such as that would have the presence of mind to know it could not travel around the world and be seen. It would prefer some place with water."
Harry groaned and then said, "Sewers. Dark, damp, run throughout the entire city."
"You might be able to scry for it," Bob said. "If you both focus your energy at the same time, you might get a general vicinity though pinpointing will be impossible."
"Couldn't hurt," Harry said and he glanced at Morgan, who just nodded.
Harry got a city map and a large crystal from out of his desk. He dropped the map on the floor over the symbols representing the sea serpents, and held the crystal out over the map. Morgan reached and touched his fingertips to the crystal. Both wizards rook deep breaths and focused their energy. The crystal started to glow a pale blue and then flashed in a blaze of hot magical energy. Morgan jerked his hand back and Harry dropped the crystal. It landed on the map and burned a large hole before turning dark.
"Not bad," Bob said, looking down at the map. "The radius is under a quarter of a mile, much smaller than I would have expected."
"Teamwork," Harry said with a grin. "You and me, Morgan, working together to do some good. Seems like a trend."
Morgan simply raised a speculative eyebrow at him, and then asked Bob, "How do we kill it?"
"It's an elemental being of water. Overcome it with any of the other elements and it should die. Bury it in the earth, burn it, make it disappear into a gale of wind... any one of those should work."
"Burning should be the most effective and least conspicuous," Morgan said.
"Kill it with fire?" Harry said. "Sounds good. Fire, I can do."
"Be careful," Bob said. "A demon like that has to be summoned. If someone is controlling it... just be careful."
"Mrs. Fielding," Murphy said as she took a seat across from Angela at the table in the interrogation room. "You've said you were home by yourself yesterday afternoon, alone at your daughter's time of death."
"Yes," Angela said. "That's true. Melanie hadn't gotten home from school yet."
"Did you make any phone calls during that time? Or did anyone call you?"
Angela shook her head. "I have no alibi, Lieutenant, if that's what you're getting at."
Murphy scrutinized Angela, and then said, "That is what I'm getting at."
"I didn't kill my own daughter," Angela said firmly. "The idea is ludicrous though I understand you are required to ask."
Murphy glanced up at the camera in the room and a moment later Kirmani walked in holding some papers in his hand. He set them down on the table, but did not leave the room. He leaned against the wall, almost casually, and fixed his gaze on Angela.
"See, our problem is that you had opportunity to kill her and you had a reason to."
Angela shook he head. "What are you talking about?"
"Quarter of a million dollar insurance policy on Beverly," Murphy said and pushed Kirmani's documentation toward her. "I've heard of people killing for a lot less than that."
"This is crazy," Angela said, her voice getting heated. "I'm not the beneficiary of that policy."
"No, but as good as," Murphy said. "You would have controlled the assets."
Angela was quiet for a moment. "Do you have children, either of you?"
"We're not talking about us," Murphy said.
"Could you kill your kids? Ever? Let alone for something as small as money?"
"Like I said, I've seen people kill for a lot less."
"If I killed her, where's the weapon? Search my house if you want."
"You're giving us permission to enter your residence?"
"Yes, absolutely." Angela reached into her jeans pocket and plopped a set of keys onto the table. "You're welcome to it."
"We will then, and I appreciate your cooperation." Murphy picked up the keys.
Kirmani stepped forward suddenly and asked, "What if something happened to you?"
"What do you mean?" Angela said.
"Like if you were incarcerated, or incapacitated, like if you got sick again or if you died. Who would take care of your responsibilities?"
"I don't know. Beverly had power of attorney and was to be my executrix."
"But she's gone, so now what? Who's the next of kin?"
Murphy and Kirmani exchanged glances.
"I guess... I guess it would be her sister," Angela said, her tone one of hushed disbelief. "But, I can't believe..."
"What was the room number of that hotel where she's staying?" Murphy asked.
"Four eleven, but..." Angela shook her head. "It can't be."
As Harry lay on his back staring dizzily up at the dingy, flickering yellow light high above him, he considered a tropical vacation. He pictured himself snoozing on a warm, sandy beach, a drink with a ridiculously long name within reach. Maybe there was a pretty girl laying next to him as well, her hair long and tousled, some sand clinging to her skin. He pictured this instead of the more real image of himself on his back in a cold, dank storm sewer having slipped on a patch of icy god-knows-what.
The pretty girl leaned over him, smiled, and said, "Dresden! Get up!" The pretty girl's voice was a lot deeper than he would have thought. He blinked several times and shook his head. Morgan came into focus above him, his hand outstretched. So much for the vacation.
Harry took Morgan's hand and the warden hoisted him to his feet.
"I think we're getting close," Morgan said.
"What makes you..." the question trailed off as Harry noticed the presence of several half eaten rats on the walkway. "Oh."
He picked up his hockey stick, which he had dropped when he slipped. He held it tightly with both hands. He glanced at Morgan, who was inscrutable as ever. Harry found this comforting. Even in the face of a once thought extinct demon, the warden was unflappable. Harry just hoped he himself could maintain some semblance of cool.
A wet splashing noise echoed from somewhere in the cavernous sewer.
"Did you hear that, Morgan?" Harry asked. In his mind, he cursed himself for the note of panic in his voice.
The water in the channel next to them rippled and suddenly splashed upwards, the water forming into a monstrous shape that then solidified into a man-sized creature with slick gray skin and half a dozen snake like heads with cold black eyes. One of the heads struck out at the wizards, but Morgan cast a shield the snake head bounced off of.
The creature hissed and started to repeatedly strike at the shield.
"It will breach it, Dresden, are you ready?"
Harry forced himself to focus, channeling his energy into the hockey stick, but before he could complete the fire spell, Morgan stumbled backwards, knocking into him.
"Morgan!" Harry exclaimed, angry, but then noticed the warden's nose was bleeding and his gaze was distant. Two of the snake heads were focused intently on Morgan while the other four continued to strike at the weakening shield. A trickle of blood slipped out of Morgan's mouth and his sword slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.
Harry grabbed Morgan's sword off the floor and dropped the shield himself. He struck at the hydra demon with the sword, severing the two heads that had Morgan locked in their gaze. The creature squealed and slithered backwards. Harry fell back as well, dropping the sword again.. He cast another shield, and Morgan dropped to his knees, panting and wiping the blood off of his face.
Harry watched the demon. Where the two heads had been severed, four more were growing into place.
"Oh, you gotta be kidding me," Harry said as he started charging power into his hockey stick again.
"Morgan!" Harry called to the still dazed warden. "Morgan, come on!" He did something he wasn't sure he should do: he kicked Morgan. The warden seemed to come out the spell as he groped around on the ground for his sword.
"Little help here!" Harry said as the eight headed demon struck at the shield Harry had cast.
Morgan found his sword and it started to glow a hot orange as he got to his feet. The demon breached the shield and Morgan struck at one of the heads and sliced it off, the wound sizzling. The air was filled with the nauseating scent of burning flesh, but no new heads grew from where the wound cauterized.
Enraged, the demon's remaining heads all turned on Morgan. Hissing and spitting, they moved to strike, but Harry thrust the hockey stick in the creature's direction. Flames shot from the stick and enveloped the demon. Shrieking in pain or anger, the creature burned, its heads flailing uselessly, and then the whole thing turned to ash and crumbled before them.
The ashes fell into the flowing water and the remnants of the demon were washed away.
"Not bad, Dresden," Morgan said slightly out of breath as he turned to Harry.
"Yeah? Not too bad yourself there Morgan," Harry said, then added, "Bob said this thing was summoned. Now we just have to find out who..."
"I know who."
"Who? How? That thing give you some kind of secret psychic message?"
"Hydra demons are supposed to be extinct."
"Well, yeah, now."
"Who would try to summon a supposedly extinct breed of demon?"
Harry shrugged. "An optimist."
"Someone who didn't know they were extinct. Someone who had an outdated book of spells and magical creatures."
Harry thought for a moment then said, "Dana Jensen."
Murphy pounded again on the door of room four eleven. "Ms. Jensen, if you don't open the door, we will enter by force."
There was still no answer. She nodded to the hotel manager, who was holding a key card in his hand. He slipped it in the door and it unlocked. Murphy opened the door slowly, but no one appeared to be present.
She entered the room cautiously, her weapon drawn. There were candles flickering in small holders throughout the room, and on the floor, glasses of water were set in a circle and strange markings were burned into the carpet. Kirmani followed behind her, his weapon drawn as well.
"Ms. Jensen!" Murphy called, but there was still no answer. Some papers on a small desk in the room caught her eye. Medical records, bank account information, life insurance information, a thick book with strange writing on the cover. She picked up one of papers, it was a schedule of times and locations, like tracking someone's whereabouts. The initials B.F. were written across the top.
"Lieutenant!" Kirmani called, his voice urgent. She turned and saw him standing at the door of the bathroom, his hands held up, his gun gripped only loosely.
"Kirmani...?" She moved to stand near him, but not within sight of what was happening in the bathroom.
Kirmani mouthed the word "gun" at her.
"If you go," a woman's voice said from the bathroom, "then no one has to get hurt. If you just go, that's all."
"Dana? My name's Connie," Murphy said. "The man you're pointing a gun at, his name is Sid. We can't leave and I think you know that."
"No one has to die," Dana said. "No one else." Her voice sounded a little choked.
"That's good," Murphy said carefully. "That's what we all want."
"I was supposed to hate her," Dana said. "I was supposed to hate her for having everything I never had."
"Are we talking about Beverly?" Murphy asked.
"Then I met her, and I couldn't. I couldn't," Dana babbled. "But it was too late."
"What do you mean it was too late?"
"I couldn't stop it, couldn't control what I put into motion."
"Did you hire someone to do it? Is that what happened?"
A broken laugh. "I guess you could say that. I couldn't stop it though. I tried... I tried."
"Look, Dana," Murphy said. "There aren't many ways this can end, and it sounds to me like you don't want to hurt anyone."
"It doesn't matter."
Murphy saw Kirmani tense.
"No, no, Dana, it matters," Murphy said quickly. "To everyone in this room right now, it matters. You couldn't change what happened, but you can control what happens now."
A sob from the bathroom and Kirmani gave Murphy a slight encouraging nod.
"It's not too late," Murphy said, "to stop what you're doing right now."
Suddenly Kirmani dropped his gun and lunged forward into the bathroom and Murphy followed behind him. He had grabbed a woman with dark curly hair, a gun clattered from her hands onto the white tile floor and Murphy kicked it away and pulled out her handcuffs.
"Easy, easy," Murphy said and cuffed the woman as Kirmani held her arms back.
"Dana Jensen," Kirmani said, "You're under arrest for the murder of Beverly Fielding. You have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney..." Kirmani continued to recite Dana's rights as he and Murphy escorted her from the room.
"Guess the police got this one figured out," Harry said as he pulled into the hotel parking lot. Several police cruisers were parked in front, their red and blue lights flashing.
"This could present a problem," Morgan said as he and Harry got out of the jeep.
"Why not let them handle it?"
"This is the Council's jurisdiction."
"Yeah?" Harry said and nodded in the direction of Murphy as he caught sight of her exiting the hotel with Kirmani. "Try telling that to them."
"Dana Jensen must be brought to justice for using black magic, for summoning that demon."
"No, she needs to be brought to justice for killing Beverly Fielding. Looks like maybe they have it covered. Why not let their world handle it? If she gets off or escapes, then our world can intervene. If justice is served, why does it matter who does it?"
Morgan was silent for a moment appearing lost in thought. "Fair enough," he said and then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the wrapped knife from the morgue. "Give them this."
"It's not the murder weapon."
"What do you suggest instead? Should we dredge up the demon's ashes from the sewer?"
"This'll do," Harry said and gingerly took the knife from Morgan and put it in his own pocket.
Morgan turned as if to leave, but Harry said, "Wait a sec, Morgan, before you disappear, I have a request."
Morgan raised an eyebrow at him.
"You think you could express my sympathy to Angela? To her granddaughter?"
"And I'm sorry," Harry said. "For your loss as well."
Morgan scrutinized him for a moment, and then said, "Thank you. I appreciate that."
"These things, they shouldn't happen," Harry said. "I don't know why the world has to be this way. I'm glad... I'm glad the Fieldings have you there for them though. Friendship, you know? It means a lot."
"Yes, it does," Morgan agreed. He turned away again, but then paused. He didn't face Harry, but he said, "That name... 'Dresden'. There might be some honor in it after all."
Harry cracked a small smile. "Hey, thanks Mor... dammit!" In a blink the warden had disappeared. "How do you do that?" He muttered.
"Dresden!" He heard a familiar voice call and looked to see Murphy approaching him.
"What are you doing here?" She asked when she reached him.
"Oh, hey Murph. I, uh... it was Dana Jensen who did it."
"Yeah, we figured that. Still doesn't answer my question."
"I thought, you know, that I could help. I should have called you."
"But you're off this case. I fired you, remember?"
"I know. The case was kind of bothering me so I poked around a little more." He said and then added, "As a concerned private citizen, of course, in no way in the employ of the police department or one Lieutenant Connie Murphy."
"Uh huh," she said skeptically.
"I've got something for you," he said and reached into his pocket to pull out the wrapped knife. He held it out for her.
"Murder weapon? Of this murder?"
"Where'd you find it?"
"Near the alley where the body was found," Harry said confidently though he was making it up.
"Funny," she said, "A dozen cops swept the area and didn't find anything."
"Guess you're lucky I'm such a concerned citizen then."
She looked at him for a minute then relaxed and said as she took the wrapped knife from him, "Guess so."
"You know," she said, "my department's fiscal year runs with the calendar year."
"Uh... okay," Harry said, unsure how to respond to this non sequitur.
"So any money left over in the budget, we lose on the first of January. It's a use it or lose it thing with the bean counters."
She looked down at the knife then back to Harry. "I can probably get you paid for this, for working two full days on this case and not just a few hours."
"What about your superiors?"
"Murder weapon should cinch the case. Cases that get convictions, they really like. If I put in the paperwork to get you paid on this, it should go through."
"Really? You think?"
"Yeah," she said and gave him a small smile, "I do think."
Harry and Bob stared at one another from across the kitchen. When the ghost blinked, Harry willed himself to disappear from view.
"Harry, it's not working," Bob said. "I can still see you perfectly well."
"Well, how does Morgan do it?" Harry said irritably.
Bob shrugged. "That spell was not around in my time, perhaps it is a little invention of his own."
"It would be handy," Harry said. "Easier to flee from monsters, sneak up on suspects, escape from awkward social situations."
"I don't disagree," Bob said.
The bell in the front tinkled as the front door open.
"Harry?" Murphy's voice queried. "You here?"
"Yeah!" Harry called. "I'll be right there."
To Bob, he said, "Speaking of disappearing."
"Of course." The ghost nodded and then disappeared in a flash of smoke.
Harry went to the front and saw Murphy standing there wearing a red knitted hat with matching scarf and gloves. She had a shiny green bag in her hands.
"Heya Murph," Harry said and smiled at her.
"Hey Harry," she said and returned his smile.
"You want some coffee or tea or something?"
"No thanks," she said. "I'm just stopping by. I wanted to give you this," she said and extended the bag toward him.
"A gift," she said. "Even in your weird little world, I'm sure you've heard of gifts."
"Really?" He said and took the bag from her. "You want me to open it now?"
"Might as well," she answered.
He opened the bag and reached inside. He pulled out a pair of thick black mittens and heavy, dark green scarf.
"Murphy, I don't..." He smiled. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Harry."
He put the mittens on and wrapped the scarf around his neck.
"What do you think?"
She laughed. "I think the mittens make you look like a giant third grader."
"At least a warm giant third grader," he said.
"Any winter without frostbite is a success," she said. "I guess I should be going. Have to start cooking that dinner. Offer's still open if you're interested."
"Aw, thanks... I can't though. I just..."
"Yeah," he said. "Exactly." He thought for a moment and then said, "Murph, could you sit down for a minute. Maybe I can sort of explain." He felt not that he owed it to her, but that he could trust her with it.
She sat down on the sofa.
"Christmas," Harry said. "With my family... it's just kind of, like you said, complicated."
///Chicago, Illinois December 24, 1998\\\
Harry smiled at the spectral ornament that hovered above one of the pine bows. Every year since he had come to live with his uncle, Bob had conjured for him at Christmas time.
"It won't be the same around here without you," Bob commented from behind and Harry turned around to face him.
"Is that sentimentality, Bob?"
"No, of course not. I am relieved to be honest. I might have some peace and quiet now."
Harry laughed. "I'll miss you too."
Bob took a deep breath. "You got a late start with your education, years behind, but you have proved most talented and able. This past few years in particular, you have shown focus and promise. I am very proud of you, Harry."
"Thanks, Bob. Couldn't have done it without you."
"I'm proud as well," another voice said and Harry turned to face his uncle as he entered the room and came to stand next to Harry.
Justin looked down at a spot of snow on the polished wood floor. With small, fluid motion of his fingers, he coaxed the snow up and back onto the tree.
"Damn," Harry said. "Still working on that one."
Justin reached inside his jacket pocket and handed Harry a thick envelope. "A train ticket to New York," he explained. "Some cash, passport, travelers checks, a credit card to pay for anything else on your travels. Merry Christmas, Harry."
"Thank you, uncle Justin," Harry said and took the envelope. "This... it means a lot to me."
"You've worked very hard, Harry. I would rather you stayed, but I know you need a break. You've certainly earned it." Justin smiled. "I know we have had our differences over the years. It hasn't always been easy, but... well, I'm very proud of how much you have learned."
"Kind of surprised myself," Harry said.
Justin smiled. "Go out there, see the world. See it for as long as you need to, but come home eventually."
"I will, of course," Harry said. Looking away from his uncle and back at the tree, "I suppose I will miss Christmas here."
"You're always welcome."
"I know that."
"But send a postcard now and then, maybe a phone call."
"I'll write," Harry agreed. He glanced from his uncle to Bob, "To both of you."
A bell went off from the kitchen.
"That will be dinner," Justin said. "Shall we?"
He gestured to the doorway and Harry nodded.
"I remember every Christmas I spent at my uncle's," Harry said to Murphy. "I remember we always had a big dinner, a tree, we had gifts, traditions... we shared the time together."
Murphy shook head. "I don't understand."
"My father? I don't remember a single Christmas that we spent together, only a promise to do so that never came true."
He sat down on the couch near her.
"My uncle murdered my father. When I found out about that, my world ended. Everything I had ever felt about my uncle was a lie, but still, I remember those feelings. I remember enjoying Christmas, not with my father, but with the man who murdered him." Harry's voice had become heated. "Complicated doesn't quite cover it."
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
He took a deep breath. "It's not that I don't want to accept your invitation, it's just that I haven't celebrated Christmas in a very long time. It's kind of screwed up in my head right now."
Harry stood and went to his desk. He picked up a small, plain box that sat on top.
"Please tell Anna that I would like to meet her someday." He held the box out to Murphy, who stood and took it from him. "And open this, just the two of you. My gift to you. Maybe keep that offer open, you know, for next year..."
She smiled at him as she went with him to the door. "Consider it open," she said. "Merry Christmas, Harry."
"See ya, Murph."
Bob watched out the window as snow fell heavily outside that night while Harry sat on the couch reading a book.
"It was nice," the ghost commented, "of Murphy to get you a gift."
"Yeah," Harry said. "It was."
"What did you give her?"
"Just a little something, not a big deal. Aren't you more interested in what I got you anyway, Bob?"
The ghost turned, a surprised look on his face. "Got me?"
Harry grinned. "Of course you, do you know any other Bob that lives here?"
Harry leaned over the back of the sofa, picked up a shopping bag, and set it on the coffee table.
"Didn't have time to wrap it," he said.
Bob leaned over the bag attempting to ascertain the contents. "Considering I cannot open anything, that is not a problem."
Harry reached into the bag and pulled out a box with a picture of a portable DVD player printed on it.
"Harry, for me? But... but these sort of electronic things, they're quite expensive. It's bound to short out and you will have wasted your money. It's a silly thing, really. It's just too much," Bob insisted.
"Don't worry, Bob, I found out what the cheapest, most unreliable piece of crap model there was. When this one meets its doom, it probably wasn't far from it anyway."
Bob smiled. "Well, that's all right then."
Harry pulled one more item out of the bag, a DVD.
"It's a Wonderful Life," Bob said as he read the cover. "I think I have heard of that."
"Apparently it's a tearjerker," Harry said. "I know you like that kind. The guy at the store said this story's a classic."
"I hardly know what to say... thank you."
"You're welcome," Harry said and opened the DVD player box. He set up the player on the coffee table next to where Bob's skull sat, put the DVD in, and plugged the player into an outlet. He switched it on, the screen glowing for a few minutes, and then it went dark along with the lights in the room.
"What? No! Already?" Harry said with frustration and gave the device a light smack.
"It wasn't you, Harry," Bob said. "Looks like the power has gone out all down the street. The street lamps are gone, and the lights in the other buildings."
"So much for that," Harry said as he went about igniting some candles. He sighed and sat down on the couch when he was done. "Sorry about that, Bob."
"It's quite all right. The sentiment, the thought," Bob said, his voice sounding a little thick with emotion. "They mean a great deal, Harry."
"Besides," Bob continued. "I know a good story too. A ghost story, as a matter of fact."
"How appropriate," Harry said and smiled. "I wouldn't mind hearing it."
Bob cleared his throat and spoke. "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that..."
Murphy closed the door to her apartment, having wished her guests a Merry Christmas and good evening. The meal had been warm and pleasant even if the turkey had turned out just a little dry.
"Can we open presents now, Mom?" her daughter asked.
"Presents are for the morning, but we can open one tonight," Murphy said and touched her daughter's long, dark hair. "After those dishes get clean and leftovers put away."
"All of them?" Anna said, voice a little defeated as she surveyed the chaotic remains of the holiday meal.
"All of them," Murphy asserted. "Come on, it won't take that long. We'll do it together."
Murphy wasn't sure she had seen her daughter work so quickly before to get a dinner table cleared. In less than half an hour, the dishwasher was loaded, leftovers sealed in containers and refrigerated, and a couple baking dishes were soaking in the sink.
"Now we can open a gift," Murphy said as she turned off the kitchen faucet.
"All right!" Anna exclaimed and raced to the apartment's small, but comfortable living room that was dominated by a tree that was slightly too large for the room.
"Which do you want to open?" Murphy asked as she entered the room behind her daughter.
"Ummmm..." Anna said. Having so anticipated moment where she could open a gift, she seemed uncertain what to do now that the moment had actually arrived. "You choose, Mom."
"Oh," Murphy said, surprised, "You want me to pick?"
"Yeah, I can't decide."
"All right. Hmmmmm." Murphy looked over packages wrapped under the tree. Her eyes fell on the small, plain box she had set down there earlier. She retrieved it from under the tree and sat on the sofa. "How about this one?"
"Okay," Anna said and sat on the couch next to her mother and put her hands out.
Murphy handed Anna the box and the girl opened it quickly to pull out a round glass ornament that glowed a sparkling white from the inside.
"Wow," Anna said and looked closely at the ornament. "How does it do that?"
"Batteries, I guess," Murphy said. "Why don't you go put it on the tree?''
Anna slid off the couch, found a spot for the ornament, and hung it on the tree. She rejoined Murphy on the couch, placing her head on her mother's shoulder. The light in the ornament seemed to intensify and suddenly the light flashed blindingly bright. Murphy started and Anna gave a little shout of surprise. They both blinked hard as their vision returned to normal.
The branches of the tree were now covered in a gentle sprinkling of snow that glittered in the remaining light cast by the ornament.
Mother and daughter both stood up and went to the tree. They both touched some of the white substance. Cold, icy, wet.
"It's real snow," Anna said in amazement. "It's real and it's not even melting. I don't think batteries can do that."
"No, you're right," Murphy said and put an arm across her daughter's shoulders and pulled her close.
"Then what?" Anna touched some of the snow again.
Murphy shrugged. "Maybe it's magic, just a little."
Though Harry had drifted into slumber some time earlier, Bob had continued to recite the story.
"...and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one."
As he concluded the story, Bob glanced out the window. The snow that had been falling all night was starting to lessen, and a faint gray of morning light was starting to appear in the sky.
He looked down at DVD player and then to the dozing wizard. Softly, he said, "Merry Christmas, Harry."
Harry stirred in his sleep, eyes opening slightly, and in a half dreamy voice he murmured, "Merry Christmas, Bob."
The old ghost smiled. He held out his palm and conjured a golden top hat with a rabbit's ears poking above the rim. He left it hanging in the air then disappeared into his skull.