Whacking Scrooge
A Picasso Smith, Jr. Mystery

by Hugh Lessig


......Scrooge Macready called on Christmas Eve. Perfect. It was just after dark and I was half in the bag.

....."Smith," he said. "I hear you breathing."

.....He had me there.

....."Come to the usual place. Bring that photographer of yours. The one with the shaved head and the rivets in her face. You'll get your byline on the front page tomorrow with a headline big enough to declare World War III."

.....I was on the couch, alone. A 12-inch Wal-Mart Christmas tree winked at me from the coffee table. Next to it was my only present: half a carton of Marlboro Lights from Irma, who lived in the group home next door. She did'nt include a card because she had the shakes, which made writing problematic. The fact that I had never smoked hadn't occurred to her.

....."Smith?"

....."I'm here. Do you think 900 numbers work on Christmas Eve?"

....."You need to process what Im saying."

....."I'm processing. Downloading sobriety program."

....."This isn't funny. It's about the 'transformation', is that what you call it? What you always wanted to know, what you need to know. The usual place in half an hour."

....."And if I don't come?"

....."I'll be as dead as a doornail."

....."That was Marley. Even I know that."

.....He hung up with a hard click.

.....I rolled off the couch and called Barb Moore. Thirty minutes later, we stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of Canal Street, which had undergone its own sort of transformation. It used to have brick buildings filled with men who punched clocks and sweated salt stains into their collars. Now it was industrial condos where young people with hard waists checked Palm Pilots to look busy. Scrooge had one of the few remaining warehouses down here -- a cinder block building with a flat roof surrounded by a prison fence. It was true to the neighborhood's roots, right down to the holiday decorations. There was something about twinkling lights intertwined with razor wire that brought home the true meaning of Christmas.

.....Barb took in the scene with her photographer's eye. She wore a beret atop her bald head and a one-piece snowsuit, her cameras strapped like bandoleers. Multiple earrings winked under the streetlight. She smelled like good dope. It was not an unpleasant smell, and for a moment I thought about hitting her up for some. Except I really didn't know her that well.

....."Barb, you nervous?" The kid was all energy, flexing and unflexing her hands.

....."I'm cold. Let's get this over with."

....."Any idea why he asked for you?"

....."No. Should I?"

....."Just asking. Sheesh."

.....Barb shifted her straps and followed me. We pushed through the gate and found the side door. It opened into an office, which had a simple oak desk and a hard chair and very little light. It was, as he said, "the usual place." Where we always talked.

.....After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted to the gloom.

.....Scrooge was flat on his back near the only window.

.....His body caught the glow from an outside security light. He had worn his usual denim shirt, his Cubs jacket signed by Ernie Banks, a pair of blue jeans and dirty yellow sneakers. His shirt had a dark stain the size and color of a fruitcake. The window had a small bullet hole, a webbed crack. He had been standing near it, maybe watching for me.

.....I went to the body but his dead eyes stopped me. Even in the gathering dark, they stopped me. I waited for his mouth to move. Maybe he could tell me how to fix this. (NOTE: "Certainly" is a bit strong, since Scrooge seems dead).

.....Pop-pop-pop-pop.

.....Barb strobed off four shots with one of her Nikons. The body winked in and out of focus, and the hard light made it real. Scrooge was dead. He was right there, frozen in time, and he would never get up.

....."Easy on the flash," I said under my breath. "The killer might still be around. Plus, I almost made number two in my nappy."

....."I don't answer to reporters. Plus, you're in my shot."

.....Pop-pop-pop. Something in Scrooge's hand caught my eye: a CD in a plain plastic case. I bent down and slid it from his fingers, cold plastic across cold flesh. The CD was black with the name of his main enterprise: The Scrooge Foundation.

....."Is that the story?" Barb asked.

.....I counted to three, remained calm. "Stories don't come on CDs and they don't just fall into your lap. Jesus, Barb, the man is dead."

....."And dead men deserve my best shot."

.....Barb swung her long-lensed camera into place like a sniper. She went pop-pop-pop-pop again, then blocked my path as I tried to walk out the door.

....."Smith."

....."What is it, Barbarella?"

....."You can do this story, right? You're not going to fall apart, are you?"

....."You want to try that again?"

....."I'm just thinking. You and Scrooge were close. You covered his original arrest. You're the only reporter he talks to. Talked to."

.....I stared at the snowsuit where her cleavage would be. "Number one, photogs don't take me off assignments. Number two, there never was a Scrooge arrest. It's revisionist myth, like Captain Kirk never said 'Beam me up, Scotty' or Tarzan never said, 'Me Tarzan. You Jane.' Get your facts straight."

....."Whatever." Barb's eyes turned hard. "I've read about Scrooge's transformation. Two years ago"

....."Three years ago. Christmas morning. These are the facts. Gus Macready, owner of Macready's Heating Oil and the tightest wallet in River City, walks through the low rises in bathrobe and slippers, handing fifties to whomever he meets. Someone said it was hundreds. It was fifties.

....."He ends up at a church and dumps three large at the foot of the altar. Some said it was six. It was three. The preacher starts speaking in tongues and someone thinks he's having a seizure, which brings the cops, which brings me. Naturally I was working the Christmas shift.

....."Macready was never arrested. He was detained and let go. No one at The Blade has an ounce of institutional knowledge and that includes you, kid."

.....Barb stared me down. "You nicknamed him Scrooge. Or is that a myth, too?"

.....The kid had stones, I gave her that much.

....."My lead was something like a modern day Scrooge came to his senses yesterday at Our Lady of the Federal Reserve. I meant it as an insult, but his change of heart (NOTE: too many transformations) seemed genuine. Macready never told me what caused it. Never. Not in all the conversations we had. But he loved being called Scrooge. And tonight he was going to tell me everything."

.....Barb sighted the body through her long lens. Then she shoved past me and got up close.

....."Smith. Come here."

....."What? Are there entrails?"

....."Just come here."

.....I walked up behind her. Scrooge had written something on the floor in the dust and the blood.

"BC + Bulbs"

.....Barb was frozen in place. I could almost hear the wheels turning inside that shaved skull.

....."Bulbs. Um, that's me. "

....."Bulbs? Are you sure?" The name hit me between the eyes, and not from anything I knew about Scrooge. From years and years before.

....."Some of the pressroom guys gave me the nickname a few years ago. I used to take the rear entrance and walk past them every morning. You think his death has something to do with me?"

....."My guess is it has to do with both of us."

....."You're B.C.?"

....."No," I admitted. "But I have half a theory. Let's cruise. My laptop is in the car, and we can try to read this CD "

..... I drove toward the empty downtown while Barb fired up my laptop. The CD loaded in a minute. Green computer glow bathed her face.

....."It contains one file," she said after a moment, "labeled 'Restraining Orders'."

....."That makes sense."

....."How?"

....."The Scrooge Foundation operated a halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics. If they broke the rules, they got kicked out. Any number of them resented this, and would show up at the Foundation office to bitch. Scrooge slapped them with restraining orders so he could call the cops. It was one of his favorite tools, but he sure pissed off a lot of crackheads and drunks. Good chance his killer is on there."

.....Barb squinted and wrinkled her nose. "I see a list of names followed by a date, followed by a set of initials. Thirty or forty names. Most have the initials MSC."

....."The name of the halfway house, Marley's Second Chance."

....."You're kidding."

....."We're talking about the man who established the Tiny Tim Pediatric Wing at River City Osteopathic. He wanted to put God Bless Us, Everyone, on the cornerstone until the ACLU got apoplectic."

.....Barb looked at her watch. "It's six-thirty and we've got early deadlines tonight. We can't run down every disgruntled drug addict in the city and see where they've been in the past hour."

....."What's the most recent one? And are there any sets of initials besides MSC. Don't look at me. Look at the screen."

....."Don't give me orders, Smith. I'm not some j-school intern you can boss around."

....."You actually went to journalism school?"

....."University of San Francisco."

....."Really?

....."Yeah. Want to make something of it?"

....."No Just asking."

.....I was now officially weirded out. There'd been a Barbara Ann "Bulbs" Moore who was a photog during the 1950s back at our sister paper, The Frisco Foil. She'd worked with my dad. A chain-smoker. A hard driver. Her name was sprinkled through newspaper lore. This Barb had arrived at our newspaper last year. She didn't go out for beers and she never, ever attended staff meetings.

.....Maybe some of the old guys in the pressroom gave Barb that nickname or maybe it was all just a coincidence. Or not. Scrooge was dead, and the last thing I needed was another Christmas ghost.

..... "Smith, are you listening? The final name is John Lipovek. His restraining order is dated last week. It's the most recent one. Different initials after his name, too. MHO."

....."Macready's Heating Oil. Scrooge's real business, where he made his fortune. Its coming together now."

....."Lipovek works for Macready's Heating Oil?"

....."Yes. I can even guess what he does. He's an overworked clerk, a drone. Someone who has taken enough and just went postal on his boss."

....."Why a clerk?"

....."B.C. Bob Cratchit."

..... "Please."

....."No, really, hear me out. Scrooge and I used to have long talks. He did the Marley thing. He did the Tiny Tim thing. I would always joke with him about Bob Cratchit, as in 'When does something get named after Bob Cratchit?' His face would darken and he'd say nothing. It was a bad association."

.....Barb rolled her eyes as she searched her memory. "I don't know any John Lipovek. Not even vaguely. I'm supposed to be connected to him?"

....."Let's connect you and see what happens."

....."Now?"

....."Why not? You up for it?"

.....Barbs answer was to call the newsroom and ask the librarian for John Lipovek's address. He lived in the West End, a fashionable address for corporate VPs, top-drawer lobbyists and flacks. An overworked clerk? Maybe I'd been wrong about that.

.....During the twenty-minute drive, I laid down ground rules.

....."First, let me do the talking. You see things, but I hear things. Second, leave your damn cameras in the car. If we find Lipovek at home, and if he is the killer, he'll be hinky about a cold call from the Blade. No drive-by strobing. He's liable to pull a gun."

....."Anything else?"

....."All I've got."

.....Barb studied me for a moment. "That's the first nice thing you've ever said to me."

....."Whatever it was, I missed it."

....."You said I see things."

....."Thats your job. You're a photog. If you hadn't seen Scrooge's message, we wouldn't have a clue. So you did good. Or more precisely, you earned your fat paycheck. The thing is . . . "

....."What?"

....."Nothing. Let's leave it at that."

.....Lipovek's neighborhood was Hallmark Card pretty. Snow dusted the big Tudors and Williamsburg colonials. Most of the homes had icicle lights. A few had mechanical reindeer in the front yard.

.....Lipovek lived in a brick Cape Cod, smaller than the other homes. It had no decorations, not even a candle in the window. It was like he wanted to belong to this neighborhood, but he wasn't up to it.

.....As we approached the house, a man opened the front door. He might have been fifty, dressed in charcoal gray and black. He wore a gold chain around his neck. Back-lit against the house, it was hard to tell much else.

....."Looking for John Lipovek," I called as we walked up.

....."You've found him. How can I help you?" He had a smoker's voice, dry and deep.

.....We shook hands. He held my gaze and tried very hard not to look at Barb, who stood behind me.

....."I'm Picasso Smith Jr. of The River City Blade. Sorry to bother you on Christmas Eve, but we have a problem you might solve."

....."Oh?"

....."I'm doing a feature story on Gus Macready -- you know, Scrooge. The story is in the can and it's scheduled to run tomorrow. But my editor wants to jazz it up with a few comments from his employees. You work for him, don't you?"

.....He glanced at Barb, then back at me. "No. Not anymore. I recently ended my employment with Mr. Macready. I have little to say."

....."Anything would be helpful. He's such a great man."

..... Behind me, Barb made a noise in her throat. I couldn't tell if she wanted to be introduced or if she wanted to leave. I decided to let the moment hang. One thing you learn in this business -- cops and private investigators learn this, too -- is that people hate dead silence. They'll say almost anything to fill it, even things they don't want to say.

....."You've talked to Mr. Macready recently?" Lipovek asked me.

....."Yes. Just few minutes ago."

....."A few minutes ago. Really?"

.....Lipovek smiled. People love to catch you in a lie, so I allowed myself to be caught. Except he had no way of knowing I was lying without knowing Scrooge was dead.

....."Tell me, Mr. Smith. How did you get my name?"

....."Mr. Macready gave it to me." Technically, that wasn't a lie.

....."He gave it to you? In this conversation you just had?"

.....I let the silence be my answer and waited for him to fidget. He needed to know what I was up to.

....."How do I fit into this story again?" he asked.

....."Employee perspective, like I said. Or ex-employee. Maybe not everyone liked Scrooge. You could give us that side of the story. Maybe you and I can talk inside."

.....I motioned toward the house. Lipovek started to turn, then stopped. "You're forgetting your manners, Mr. Smith. This beautiful woman behind you is begging to be introduced."

.....Beautiful? I took my time turning around. "Oh yeah. Meet Barbara Moore. She's our chief photographer."

.....He shoved me aside to shake hands with her. Barb and I exchanged looks. Her expression had changed. She knew Lipovek. She knew him and he was bad news.

....."Pico," she said sweetly. "Why don't you get my cameras from the car?"

....."Excuse me?"

....."Just do it, please."

.....She wanted to be alone with him. Fine.

.....I walked back down the sidewalk, retrieved both cameras from the car and slung them over my neck. As I fiddled with the straps, I called back over my shoulder.

....."Is this the right way to carry these things? I'm getting whiplash here."

.....No answer. I looked back and saw no one. Tracks led up to the front door. Lipovek had taken Barb inside and quietly closed the door behind him.

....."Hey! What about me?"

.....The door was locked. I pounded on it, disdaining the brass knocker. No one answered. There was no doorbell and the front window was dark. I circled to the right and saw a screened-in porch, also dark. The cameras clanked around my neck, just in case the rest of the block hadn't known I was here.

.....I found my way to the backyard, where light spilled from a large window. The two of them stood in the kitchen.

.....Lipovek gestured right and left -- the stove, the table, the ceiling fan. He seemed to be playing tour guide. Barb stood with her arms crossed. She had unzipped the top half of her snowsuit to reveal a white blouse. She had taken off her beret. Her expression told me that Lipovek was telling some kind of story and she wanted him to get to the point.

.....As Lipovek bent slightly at the waist, something glinted in the small of his back.

.....The bastard had a gun. You could almost overlook it -- a black handle against a black shirt.

.....I counted to thirty while Lipovek talked. Then he spread his hands as if to say, "What do you think?" Barb began looking right and left. She just wanted to get out of there.

.....I pounded on the back door, kept pounding until I heard footsteps. By the time Lipovek came out, I had retreated into the darkness of the yard, beyond the glow from the kitchen.

....."Mr. Smith? Are you out there?"

.....He squinted into the darkness, looking past me.

....."Mr. Smith? This is no time to play hide and seek. I've got a beautiful woman visiting and we're having a conversation." His voice shook with excitement. He had it bad for Barb.

.....I stayed quiet, let him fill the silence.

....."I know you were a friend of Gus. He talked about you all the time. He said you were the bad son he never had. He meant that in a good way, if that makes any sense. Gus loved turning people onto the straight and narrow. There. That's my quote. Now, why don't you leave and come back later?"

.....Scrooge talked about me at work. I would have never guessed that.

....."Or maybe I need to be more firm with you. This is my property. I can order you to leave."

.....Lipovek stepped to the edge of the light, still angling away from me. His hand snaked behind his back.

....."If you don't want to leave, we can talk. I'm curious what Gus said to you -- this recent conversation you had."

.....Another step. His hand stayed in the small of his back.

....."Perhaps Ms. Moore will talk to me. Did you know we met once? She came to the office to photograph Gus. He was giving money to some such charity. I said hello and shook her hand. A striking woman. She wouldn't take my calls after that, but photographers are always busy, I suppose."

.....Something shuddered inside the house -- the front door slamming shut. Barb had gotten out of there. Lipovek ran inside, disappeared for a moment, then returned to the yard with a crazed and crooked smile.

....."Now Mr. Smith. See what you've done."

.....The gun came out. The tendons were tight on the back of his hand. He was looking right at me now.

.....Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

.....I straightened the camera. The strobe went off in Lipovek's face. He threw up his hand and fired.

.....Something hard and hot slapped against my shoulder and threw me in a circle. My left arm went numb. The camera with the long lens clattered to the ground. I took the second camera and swung it like a bolo as Lipovek came toward me, still seeing spots.

.....The lens cracked against bone. Lipovek fell in a heap.

.....Barb came running from the side of the house. She surveyed the scene as she would a car wreck, quickly and efficiently. Silhouetted against the light of the house, she looked like some kind of Amazon angel, all fuzzy and bright.

....."Smith! If you broke my equipment it's coming out of your paycheck! Smith? Pico? Oh no . . ."

.....I woke up in a hospital bed with a fifty-pound weight strapped to my left shoulder. Barb had parked herself on the bed. She wore another white blouse that left a few buttons undone. Perched atop her bald head was a red Santa cap with a fuzzy white ball. She held a copy of The Blade.

....."Merry Christmas."

....."How . . ."

....."You're fine. It was a twenty-five caliber slug and they got it out. Possible nerve damage in the shoulder. Therapy is a must, and typing might be out of the question for a while. Did you see the paper?"

..... She held up the front page. The headline ran six columns across the top.

"Scrooge" Murdered on Christmas Eve, Former Employee Confesses.

.....The story was bylined by Barbara Ann Moore.

....."So this is hell," I croaked.

.....She flipped the paper so I could see below the fold. It carried a photo of Lipovek firing his gun. One of my shots had caught the desperate squint of his eyes, lips pulled back, the gray clothes in a black night. An evil shadow frozen in time. Hell, it was pretty good.

....."What happened after I passed out? Lipovek said he knew you. Some previous assignment. Said he called you, but you never returned his messages."

....."He called me all right, going back nearly a year. He probably saw me when I went to shoot Macready, and I must have really turned his crank or something. I started to get some calls just after that, and at first I thought it was just some pervert. I figured he'd leave me alone after a while, but he kept calling. He never told me his name, but I recognized the voice while we stood on the sidewalk. I thought if I could get him alone, he might talk to me."

....."Scrooge must have thought so, too. If I couldn't get to the bottom of his death, you might. That's why he wanted you to come with me."

.....But why did Scrooge call you Bulbs? What did he know? The unspoken question bounced around inside my head. But right now, I needed to know what was in our paper.

....."Tell me about your big story," I said.

.....Barb resettled herself on the bed. "Before his big 'transformation', Scrooge had two lists of customers. His A-list were mostly white, well-off homeowners. His Z list were the trailer trash, low-rent blacks and working poor. He had two systems of credit -- low interest for the customers he coddled, high interest for the poor people he didn't mind gouging."

....."And Lipovek knew about the lists."

....."Yeah, Lipovek was the dispatcher. He took all the complaints. Three years ago, he threatened to go to the State Consumer Advocate Office. But Lipovek had his own mean streak. Instead of ratting out his boss, he forced Macready to hand out money on Christmas morning in the poorest section of town -- just for kicks, just to see him do it."

....."So the motive for the transformation was blackmail."

....."Yes. Except Macready really did see the light. He really embraced the whole Scrooge thing. He also paid Lipovek to keep quiet -- an extra stipend in his paycheck every month. That worked until recently, when Lipovek wanted more money to build an addition to the back of his house. He had it bad for that West End neighborhood. Scrooge wouldn't do it and they argued. Scrooge fired him and got the restraining order. Lipovek threatened to go to the newspaper about the A list and Z list, probably twisting the facts to hide his own blackmail."

....."So Scrooge figured he'd do a preemptive strike and confess, throw himself on the mercy of the public?"

....."Bingo. But Lipovek was stalking him. He killed Scrooge before he could talk to us. When Lipovek saw us, he figured either Scrooge had survived or he had left behind some clue."

....."Why did Lipovek confess so easily?"

....."He regained consciousness shortly after you clobbered him. By then, I had his gun. I told him we found Scrooge's body. Then I told him I loved him, that I'd help him escape if he told me the truth. Except the cops were already on the way. I heard the shot as I came around the side of the house and called 911 on my cell."

....."Not very ethical, Barb. Even by my standards."

....."It's a good story."

....."I wish I could have written it."

.....Barb looked at the folded newspaper. "Good shot, Pico. I wish I could have taken it."

.....We sat there, letting the silence grow between us. A nurse came in and checked my IV bag. We both watched her go. Barb sighed and pushed up from the bed.

....."See you around, OK?"

....."Sure."

.....She was about to disappear around the corner when I got up the nerve.

....."Hey, Barb."

....."Hey, what?"

....."We need to talk."

....."About?"

....." Your name. Your nickname. It's familiar."

....."Really? Is it?"

....."Barb, I'm not stupid."

....."No. Just not very observant."

.....She left it at that.

.....Two days later, they let me go home with a bottle of Motrin that looked like horse pills. It was the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, the slowest news cycle of the year. I took a cab back to my apartment, retrieved a fistful of mail, picked up my newspapers, trashed my tree and poured myself a beer.

.....I put the mail and the newspapers on the coffee table. Sorting through it, I found a red envelope from a Barbara Moore, Foushee Street, Richmond.

.....I opened it carefully. She had sent me a Christmas card that had two teddy bears on the front. Inside was an old black and white photo, bent at the edges, as if someone had handled it over and over again.

.....My dad stood on the left.

.....He was in his glory, long before life had started to kick him around, long before he had started to kick me around. He wore a slouch hat and one of his oversized sweaters. It must have been taken back in those magical years of the late Forties when his life stretched before him as straight as a Ted Williams' line drive.

.....The original Bulbs Moore stood on the right. She wore a fedora, a white blouse, a dark jacket cut short at the waist and she clenched a thin, black cigar in her perfect teeth.

.....They didn't smile and they didn't touch. They stood as partners.

.....I studied her face for a long time. I pictured it without hair, added seven or eight earrings. It could be.

.....Hell, it was.

.....A piece of paper was taped to the inside of the card, folded up many times. I didn't open it right away.

.....My dad and I had parted with hard words that neither of us ever took back. Old Bulbs, she was still living at the time. She'd known my father better than I did. What scared me was the prospect that some young, bald chick knew more, too.

.....I unfolded the paper. It was an invoice from Toms Camera and Supply for $437.23, replacement parts for the lens and strobe I had broken.

.....Across the bottom was a note:

"The day I took Scrooge's picture, he pegged me for my mother's daughter. He gave me this picture. The guy spent a lot of time researching your past, more than you knew. Why am I at this newspaper? I owe you an explanation. You owe me money. Let's talk over a nice bowl of Smoking Bishop. And bring the chips. I always get the munchies. Merry Christmas."


Copyright (c) 2003 by Hugh Lessig.



Author Hugh Lessig, besides being a contributor to this site, is a newspaper reporter in the Richmond, Virginia area. Many of his stories honor the spirit of the hardboiled newspaperman, including his hero Kennedy, the hard-drinking reporter created by Frederick Nebel. He also writes about ace reporter, Alamo Barnes and Picasso Smith, Sr., and is currently at work on a Picasso Smith Jr. novel. He's also written several short stories that have nothing to do with newspapers or reporters or even drinking. They're just stories.

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....... ."And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

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