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Be careful what you wish for.
Christmas wreaths, tinsel, and stars lined the smoky walls of the White Hart Pub. Memories of holidays, softened by distance, battled the harder edges of my current situation. The lack of possibilities in my dark flat once again sent me here, where I’d at least find a cast of characters. I pulled apart a wishbone from the remains of my chicken and chips dinner, the larger piece remaining in my left hand. 1902 had been disappointing. I wished to be a part of something positive in 1903. In hindsight, I advise not to bet the house on wishbones.
“Did you make a wish?”
I looked up and saw standing before me a young, dark-haired woman with a pleasing face and an expensive fur coat draped over her shoulders.
“Yes, I wished there was more meat on this chicken.”
“Are you hungry? I could buy you something.”
“No, I’m fine. To what do I owe this interest in my eating habits?
“Your name is Rodney Balsam?” I saw no reason to deny it.
She slid into a chair at my table. “The man behind the bar says you are a detective who might help me.” Her voice had a low purr that made me want to bark. I glanced up at Frank, who smiled as he wiped down the bar counter.
“That depends on the kind of help you want.”
“Do you believe in magic?”
I winced. “I believe in people who, by the quickness of their hands, are able to deceive others.”
“That’s not the kind of magic I mean. Perhaps you’re not the right person for this job.”
“Maybe not, but I doubt you’ll find him this late, so why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”
She loosened her otter coat. “It’s not an easy story to tell. I insist you listen to its entirety before judgment. If you can’t do that, I will go elsewhere.” I agreed to the terms. “My name is Rebecca Stewart. My father, William Stewart, was killed under suspicious circumstances. He was a librarian and died on the job.” I tried to think of life-threatening aspects of a librarian’s job but came up blank. A disagreement over an overdue book? Speaking too loud? Rebecca read my puzzlement. “A bookcase fell on top of him,” she said. “He was 50 years old. It was rumoured that, despite being a librarian, he had a lot of money, but it was never found. His death was ruled accidental, but I know it wasn’t.”
“And you know this how?”
“A month ago a retired soldier named Morris came to me with a wild story. He said he had known my father and had received a strange gift from him: a mummified monkey’s paw.”
“I would have asked to be taken off his Christmas list.”
She ignored my comment. “Actually, Morris had originally given the paw to my father and after a short time, my father returned it. This paw was fashioned by an Indian fakir who wanted to prove fate ruled our lives and those who tried to change their destiny did so at their peril. He put a curse on the paw, enabling it to grant three wishes to its owner. Inevitably, the wishes were granted, though they never pleased the wisher and appeared as deadly coincidences. According to Sgt. Major Morris, my father had his three wishes.”
“What did he wish for?”
“I know only that the third one was for death. He specified that in his suicide note.”
“He left a suicide note? Then why do the police think his death was accidental?”
She frowned. “Because they never saw it, and they don’t know about the paw. I want to know why my father wished for death, and what his other two wishes were for. I am also very interested in finding out if the rumors about his money are true. If it exists, I would be most generous in sharing it with whoever helped me locate it.”
I glanced at her outerwear and the otters that would never again body slide into a pool of water. “By the looks of your coat, you’re not doing so bad right now.”
She patted her fur-covered shoulder. “This is a gift from an admirer. That’s not the same as having your own money. You have to do something to get gifts.”
I imagined what someone like her might do to earn something like that coat. She gave me a pouty, imploring look that would have made a beggar out of any man. “Will you help me?” she asked.
I could have said my rates were not cheap. I could have said the logistics of this case might very well stretch to the edges of the British Empire. I could have said I was busy. Instead, I said, “Yes.”
She smiled like a Cheshire cat and pulled her father’s suicide note out of her pocketbook. At twenty pages, suicide saga was more like it. I riffled through the folded sheets of paper and looked helplessly at Rebecca. “I take it you’ve read the whole thing.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Of course.”
“Maybe you could give me a quick summary of its most salient points.”
“I’d prefer you read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.”
I nodded. “That would be my preference too…” I made sure to finish the rest of the sentence only in my head…”if I had some kind of guarantee I’d live to be 130.”
I retreated to the privacy of my office to study the longest suicide note in the history of the written word. The first thing I discovered, after only a few paragraphs, was William Stewart had not used one of his wishes to become a good writer. He favoured an unwieldy, passionate prose style that made this reader feel like an emotionally stunted attendee at a stranger’s funeral. A typical sentence: “How could I have known, how could anyone have known, that in suddenly being presented the opportunity to sate three of my deepest heartfelt desires, to appease the hitherto unappeasable, that in doing so it would bring the crushing weight of the world down on my overburdened skull?” Clearly, I was dealing with what had been an overwrought man. But while navigating the non-essential phrases and adjective-infested waters of run-on sentences, my thoughts turned to self-preservation. The note being literally the biggest clue, however, I had no choice but to read and deconstruct.
I gleaned the following: Sergeant Major Howard Morris and William Stewart were mere acquaintances, brought together by a love of books. Perhaps to escape the realities of his work in the armed forces, Morris liked to read the novels and stories of Rudyard Kipling. Whenever he could spare the time, he did this in the reading room of the London Library where Stewart worked. The librarian eventually recognized Morris from his habitual appearances and the two talked about their favourite works. Stewart encouraged the Sergeant Major to expand his reading, recommending other works set in India. During one of their conversations, Morris mentioned dismissively that while stationed in Bombay he’d acquired a monkey’s paw. Stewart showed such interest that the Sergeant Major gave it to him as a gift.
A lieutenant friend of mine gave me Morris’s home address, a slightly rundown building of flats in Hendon. The night I went there, he wasn’t home, but a neighbour informed me he was likely in the nearby Three Arrows Pub. I had only a vague description of what the man looked like, “a tall burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage.” When pointed out to me, he was leading a discussion at a table with five sycophants hanging on his boisterous words. What his eyes lacked in beady-ness was compensated by his rubicund face. Before introducing myself, I listened to his story, a dramatic account of death-defying heroism he and his men had performed in the first Boer War. I allowed him to receive a few more oohs, ahhs, and jolly goods before I interjected myself into the conversation, introducing myself as a private investigator.
The beady-ness appeared in his bloodshot eyes. I asked if his friends could excuse him for a moment while we went to another table to discuss a private matter.
His fleshy hand swept through the air. “I have no secrets from my brother soldiers.”
“Maybe not, but I do.”
Sensing the Jovian gravity of my tone, he nodded, looked suspiciously around the table, then downed the remains of his pint of ale. “I’m always happy to do my part in upholding law and order,” he muttered, raising his not inconsiderable bulk and accompanying me to an empty table at the far corner of the pub.
“What’s this all about?” he asked, brushing some crumbs from the tablecloth to the floor.
“You have no idea?”
He scowled. “I have many ideas, all of them presently muddled. You, on the other hand, have one. Let’s save time, shall we?”
“Fair enough. I have been hired by Rebecca Stewart.” That got his attention. “She’s interested in how a certain monkey’s paw contributed to the recent death of her father. She told me he got that paw from you.”
“Someone should have cut my hand off before I picked up that damned thing.”
I told him what I knew about the paw, including its ability to grant its possessor three disastrous wishes. Hearing myself say this, I felt as if I’d attributed the British national mint’s wealth to the benevolence of the Easter Bunny. “How much of this is true?” I asked finally.
“All of it,” Morris said, soberly as possible.
“You’ll pardon me if I say that’s hard to believe.”
“I’d question your sanity if you didn’t. At first, I thought it was a joke. It cost next to nothing.”
“You talked to the fakir that put the curse on it.”
“I did. Scrawny, dirty Indian chap wrapped in a loincloth and turban, with a silver beard no self-respecting bird would nest in. He practically forced the paw on me.”
“Yet he said disaster would befall anyone who made wishes with it? Not a great selling point.”
“I didn’t believe it, so it didn’t matter.”
“But you say it does work.”
“Stewart found that out the hard way, didn’t he?”
“So it would appear,” I said. “He left a suicide note saying his third wish was for death.” I waited for a reaction but got none. “Do you know what his first two wishes were for?”
“He never told me.”
“Might one of them have been for money? His daughter is under the impression he had some hidden.”
He eyed me sadly. “We didn’t talk about money.”
I looked to see if anyone was following our conversation, but the pub’s customers ranted, stared, and drank in their own incurious worlds. “For the sake of argument, let’s say the paw does work, and the fakir cursed it for the reasons he said. What good would it do him to give it to you? He must have known he’d never see you again. How’s he going to know if the paw proves people can’t intervene with fate?”
The burly shoulders shrugged. “I can’t answer that.”
“Where is the paw now?”
Morris looked disgusted. “A week ago I was visiting friends and, after many drinks, I did what I should have done in the first place. I tossed it into the fire, but Joseph White, that fool, yanked it out.”
I asked for the address, which was in Basildon. “I have just one more question. Did you make any wishes with the paw?”
Morris met my gaze. “I’ve done stupid things in my life, but not that stupid.”
The next day I hired a coach that took me to the hills of Basildon. Lakeshore Villa reminded me of a dinner jacket belonging to someone who’d given up eating. The Whites, an elderly couple, showed neither surprise nor interest when I introduced myself and told them I got their name from Sgt. Major Morris. Mr. White, instead of inviting me in, merely moved away from the front door so I could enter. The tasteful paintings adorning the walls and the abundance of furniture told me this had once been a comfortable home, but there were telltale signs of neglect. The sofa had a rip on one of the cushions, and the eighth step of their staircase jutted out of sync.
We sat down in the living room.
“Do you play chess?” I asked, noticing a table set up in the middle of the room.
Mr. White’s eyes flickered. “I used to play with my son, before he died. He always beat me though.” At the mention of the son, Mrs. White wept softly.
“Let me get to the reason I’m here. Sgt. Major Morris told me you had in your possession a monkey’s paw.”
That set off Mrs. White like a hole in a dam. “That paw was a cheat! It was supposed to grant three wishes, but all we got was one. We wished for Herbert to return and he didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t!” Her husband excused himself and led her out of the room. A full two minutes passed before he returned alone. He sat back down on the sofa and struggled to speak.
“She won’t admit the paw did grant three wishes,” he said finally. “The first was bad enough. I honestly didn’t know what to wish for because I had all I wanted, but Herbert and my wife talked me into wishing for two hundred pounds.”
“And the wish came true?”
“Yes! Herbert was killed in an accident at the factory. Our compensation was two hundred pounds. A week after his death my wife, desperate with grief, made me wish for Herbert to come alive again.”
“You’re not telling me that came true.”
His eyes blazed. “I’m telling you it did. A week after our poor son was laid to rest, that devil paw raised him up and he was knocking on our very door.”
“You saw him?”
“No. My first wish killed my son. My second wish turned him into a fiend.” He took a wheezing breath. “My third wish freed his soul.” He explained that before his wife could open the door, he commanded whatever was at the door to return from whence it came.
“So you still have it?”
His face grew ashen. “I do, and it’s staying with me. Morris said it can grant only three sets of three wishes each. I have no desire to allow anyone else to go through what I have.”
I wanted to see paw, but White was adamant. “The father of my client had three wishes, and you had three. Who had the other three?”
He looked at me as if I was stillborn yesterday. “Sgt. Major Morris, of course. I thought you said you talked to him.”
“I did. He told me he didn’t make any wishes.”
White sniffed. “You must have misunderstood him. He told us that the paw was of no use to him because he’d had his three wishes. He wouldn’t say what they were, but having had three of my own, I understand his reticence.”
So the good Sgt. Major lied, either to me or the Whites. I’d have to find out which, and more importantly, why. So far I’d spoken to three people: Rebecca, Morris, and White, and all three of them were, to various degrees, convinced the paw possessed wish-granting powers. None of them had definitive proof of this, however. To my limited knowledge, the only people with that were William Stewart, Herbert White, and perhaps the fakir. The first two were dead. My chances of finding the fakir in Bombay were equivalent to finding a particular blade of grass in one of the stomachs of a sacred cow. But that mattered only if I believed the paw was magical, which I didn’t. If I could confirm neither Morris nor Stewart had his wishes granted, that would help prove to Rebecca the paw had done nothing for her father either.
“I need to ask a few more questions, Mr. White. Did Herbert have any enemies at work?”
“What difference does that make?”
“It’s just a routine question.”
He thought for a moment. “As a matter of fact, there was a gentleman Herbert had a disagreement with. Herbert liked to hunt, and someone named–Walker, I think it was—used to give him a hard time about it. Imagine a British citizen against hunting.”
“Do you know if Herbert mentioned the monkey’s paw to anyone?”
He shrugged. “He died the day after we got it. He thought it was all rubbish and was making jokes the whole time. But I suppose he could have told someone at work.”
I made a mental note to check up on the animal lover. Perhaps the simian dismembering had driven him to extreme action. Maybe he killed the librarian in anger of all the trees chopped up to make books. First, however, I wanted to get to the bottom of Morris’s three wishes.
I found Morris at his home. His hands shook as he opened the door. His eyes were fiery as if he’d just sat on a tenterhook. He was not surprised at my reappearance, however, and bid me follow him to his dark living room. I could barely make out the mementos of his army days adorning the wall space. On a tea table sat a glass and some bottles that definitely weren’t tea.
“Drinking alone tonight, Sgt. Major?” I asked, sitting to the right of the incriminating table.
He refilled his glass with some scotch. “I wasn’t in a storytelling mood,” he said plaintively.
“That’s good because neither am I.” I mentioned the discrepancy between Mr. White’s and his own version of who made wishes on the monkey’s paw.
He sighed. “On that night I was in a storytelling mood.”
“Morris, two people have died under very strange circumstances.” My voice rose in frustration. “You’re involved. Either you start telling me the truth or I can get the police involved.”
“I just want this episode to be over with. The paw is cursed, just not the way some people believe.” He told me another story, this one less imaginative but more veracious. William Stewart had come into some money, but not from the monkey’s paw or his meagre librarian’s salary. He was blackmailing a married baron who made his liaisons at the library. Stewart got greedy and raised his demands. The nobleman, a loose cannon, threatened him and Stewart feared for his life. During a conversation with Morris, the subject of the paw came up. Stewart got the idea to use it to fake his own death, hence the suicide note. The plan was foiled when the bookcase fell and killed him.
“I believe the baron sabotaged that bookcase,” Morris said.
I remained skeptical. In my business I’d spent many years dealing with blackmailers. I’d seen them killed by unbalanced associates, unbalanced lovers, and unbalanced victims. This was the first time one had been killed by an unbalanced bookcase. At any rate, Morris retrieved the paw, allowing the family to believe it caused Stewart’s death. He hoped the mystery of the paw would act as a smokescreen over Stewart’s blackmail activity and Morris’s knowledge of it. The Whites’ involvement with the paw was an accident. During a visit Morris couldn’t resist pulling out the paw, which he had kept on his person since the death of Stewart.
“So when you told White you’d made three wishes…”
“You are aware he made three wishes and, according to him, they came true.”
Morris scowled contemptuously. “I guarantee it wasn’t due to any magical properties of the paw.”
I next went to the library. Though I like to read a good yarn as much as the next fellow, I hadn’t been in this library in some time. They’d taken my card away, saying I’d never returned a copy of Fanny Hill. I told them I never returned it because I’d never taken it out, but they insisted I reimburse them. Out of principle, I refused, so we were at a standoff. Unfortunately, the person I ended up talking to about Stewart was the same evil old lady that had voided my card, and she remembered me. Between condescending sneers, she told me Mr. Stewart had worked for the library upwards of twenty years and was very meticulous. The decrease in funding for the library in recent years, resulting in fewer new books and a general run-down condition of the premises, was a source of disgruntlement for him. She believed the drop in funding was responsible for the drop of the rickety bookshelf that killed him. She scoffed when I asked if Stewart had any enemies, saying only someone who would steal a copy of Fanny Hill would ask such a question. With palpable insincerity, I thanked her for her time.
That night in my apartment I thought of what I would wish for, were the paw magical and mine. That I could bring back my wife, dead of consumption three years ago. That life was free and I could search for what interested me. That someone rich and beautiful as Rebecca Stewart wanted me for reasons other than unexplained death and hidden money.
The textile factory was a gray, frightening looking monstrosity, with tiny windows, roaring machines, and belching smokestacks. A crusty, cigar-smoking foreman led me past poorly lit rows of sad-eyed men and women anchored to their repetitive tasks, until we came to Amos Walker.
Walker looked to be in his early twenties. If he was a vegetarian, he’d managed to eat enough plants to amass an incipient potbelly. His curly hair reached shoulder level and he had a full beard. He was too busy to stop working, but as that meant he couldn’t leave, it worked in my favour.
“Is your name Amos Walker?” I asked rhetorically.
“And if it is?” he asked, not looking up from the moving belt.
I introduced myself. “I’m investigating the death of Herbert White. What was your relationship with him like?”
“Similar to my relationship to you. My oppressive bosses have this belt moving so fast we barely have time to develop relationships.”
“I heard you made the time to criticize his hunting.”
“So? Can I help it if I don’t think shooting down a fox in cold blood is sporting?”
“Maybe you did something about it that you could have helped. Like stop him from ever hunting again?”
Amos laughed. “Everyone knows White died by getting caught in a machine. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody except the people that own the machine. That definitely wasn’t Herbert White.”
I asked if White had ever mentioned a monkey’s paw. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I then interviewed the foreman, who I found in his office drinking coffee and smoking another cigar. His name was Greavey and he seemed to have a low opinion of everything. That included the factory, me, himself, and especially Amos Walker.
“I don’t know why that guy is working here.”
“For a paycheque?” I asked.
Greavey shook his big head. “Everyone else counts the days until we get paid. Half the time Walker forgets to pick his up until after the weekend. He’s got money, that one.”
So Walker wasn’t what he seemed. Welcome to the club. “I understand a collection was taken up for the family of Herbert White.”
“That’s right. Couldn’t have been much of a collection though. Most of these blokes don’t have a shilling to spare.”
“It came to exactly two hundred pounds.”
“Two hundred pounds, my eye. Two pounds is more likely.”
I could think of no reason why Mr. White would lie about that. “Whose idea was it to make the collection?”
“Now that you mention it, I believe it was Walker’s.”
Another visit to the Whites confirmed that the nervous young man who brought them the money was indeed someone who looked exactly like Amos Walker. I confronted him as he ate lunch with the rest of the workers at a long, dingy table. He quickly ushered me back to his position at the temporarily stopped conveyer belt.
“What do you want to know?”
“How much of the collection for Herbert Walker came out of your pocket?”
He glanced nervously at the eating men and women. “Don’t tell them, but almost all of it.”
“So Herbert did tell you about the wish for two hundred pounds.”
Walker nodded. “The idea of someone carrying around a monkey’s paw was repulsive to me, so I decided to play a joke on the family.”
“Rather a sick joke.”
“I’m an environmentalist. I’m not supposed to have a sense of humour. I’d decided to give them the money on some pretext before Herbert had his accident. After he was killed, I wasn’t sure, but I figured I might as well go through with it. The money would help his family and if I could scare a few more people from buying animal parts, then all the better.”
“Why do you work here if you have money?” I asked.
“This is an experiment. I’m trying to get a better understanding of the working class.” He frowned. “I’m not sure how much more I want to learn.”
“OK, so your donation to the Whites explains the first wish, but not the last two.”
“What were the last two?”
“His father wished he’d be alive again, then when he heard the knocks on the door, he wished him dead again.”
Walker’s eyes widened. “When did he hear the knocks?”
“A week after Herbert died. Late, maybe 10 o’clock.”
Walker stared at the floor and sighed. “That was me.”
“What do you mean?”
He explained that after leading the family to believe that the paw had magical powers, he was racked with guilt. Preserving nature was important, but so was educating the public. Playing with the minds of people such as the Whites went against his philosophy. So that night, not sure what he was going to say, he knocked on the Whites’ door, but when they didn’t answer, he gave up.
Surrounded by the familiar ambience of the White Hart, I had a drink with Rebecca Stewart, two weeks after we’d first met.
“This is what we know,” I said. “Your father was blackmailing a baron for a monthly sum. He made quite a bit of money, but eventually the baron balked, and Stewart feared for his life. After planning to fake his death, he actually did die, in what was probably an accident. The monkey’s paw was a diversion. Though it didn’t have any special powers, in a way the fakir was right. A number of people tried to use the paw to change things, but all with unhappy results.”
“But where is the money?” she asked.
I sized her up one last time. “You don’t care about how your father died, or the monkey’s paw, do you?”
“I was curious. I had to know if he was involved in something dangerous, that I needed to worry about. But those answers take me only so far.”
“Well, his money could be in a bank under a false name. He could have buried it. If he didn’t want people to find it…”
“Who is this baron?”
“I never found out that either, but if he hasn’t contacted you by now, he’s probably content to leave things as they are.”
She opened her purse and handed me my fee. “I’ll pay double for his name.”
Again, I saw that pouty look that implied, only you can help me. Her beauty, cold as the London winter, was like the monkey’s paw. One could easily think Rebecca Stewart granted wondrous wishes that turned out to be undesirable. Had she always been this way, or had she been hardened by men acting like fools in her presence? Like the paw, which had no power of its own, our irrational beliefs supplied something that could only result in disappointment.
“I’m not interested, but…” I reached into my pocket and placed the monkey’s paw onto the table. After some doing, I convinced White to surrender it. “You could try this. It supposedly has three more chances.” Rebecca looked at it, and then me, with revulsion.
I walked away.
We are what we wish.
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living with his wife in Vermont, USA. His short stories have recently appeared in Penumbra, Fantasy Scroll Mag, Perihelion Science Fiction, and other semi-pro markets.