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A Kismet Carol

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The annual ISC non-denominational holiday party always went late into the night and generally offered alcohol as its sole form of entertainment, in the sense of both getting drunk and watching other people get drunk. Some years this was more exciting than others. Jude Hawkins was always quick to point out that in the party's thirty-year history, only twelve people had been shot and six stabbed, a rather unimpressive track record by Kismet standards. It didn't look like this would be the year to add anyone else to the body count, so Leslie was getting bored. And drunk.

She had gravitated toward Frank Bernetti early in the night, sensing in him a kindred spirit. At the very least, the two of them were among the only people in the room not officially affiliated with the ISC or dating someone who was. Leslie's "date"--her son--had vanished early on, and eventually she found herself at the bar with Frank. His bodyguards loomed behind him, a silent and comforting presence.

Frank was wearing a tight little off-the-shoulder cocktail number and black gloves up to his armpits. He bought her a few drinks, and then she felt compelled to buy him a few, for the sake of tradition, since he was wearing a skirt and she wasn't.

"So you make your own hours," Frank was saying, over his third martini, "stay up late, wake up late, isn't that right, boys? Great health plan. First seats on the lifeboats if our containment dome ever springs a leak. Lots of sex. Holiday bonuses. Not much of a retirement package, but hell, you can't get everything. Plus there's something to be said for not getting your kneecaps broken."

"I appreciate the offer, but I like being a free agent," Leslie said.

"Think about it, though--steady paycheck, we line up jobs for you, all you have to worry about is pulling the trigger. No more problems with clients getting cold feet and backing out before they pay you--we've got the best collection agents in the business."

Leslie shook her head. "I like being self-employed. Sure, it's uncertain sometimes, but there's that feeling you get from standing on your own two feet, answering to nobody, killing people like a free individual ... I mean, I can wake up in the morning and say, hey, I don't feel like shooting this guy today, and I don't have to. It's different if there's somebody else saying, here, take this job, take that job. Takes something out of it for me. I've done that gig. Didn't like it." She finished her drink, and asked, "So how's business lately, anyway?"

Frank made a so-so gesture with one gloved hand. "It's the holidays, you know how that is. All of my boys are putting in plenty of overtime. Problem is, the whole city's strapped for cash. People spending it on new toys for the kiddies and getting behind on their dues. I really hated having to burn down the Humanist mission, really hated it, but you let one orphanage slide and then it's someone else thinking you'll let them go one more time just because they've got six kids or a crippled wife ... Word gets around, and it's bad for the organization, believe me."

"Oh, the orphanage, that was your boys? Hadn't realized." Frank pointed to her empty glass; Leslie shook her head. "No, this party's dead. I'm heading out. Maybe drop by the space truckers' bash on Level One--those are always lively, at any rate."

"Or we could go back to my place," Frank said.

"Don't worry about me; I'm armed."

"I wasn't worried," Frank said.

So they left the party together, a broad-shouldered guy in a cocktail dress and a slim woman twice his age in form-fitting fake leather. The sight of them may have raised an eyebrow or two, but with Guido and Seymour hovering close behind, no eyebrow dared to raise too far.

The streets of Kismet were thoroughly decked, and glittering. Holographic reindeer skittered about like giant hyperactive rats with antlers. Despite the fake snow everywhere, the temperature was cranked up so high that even the ever-present chill of the moon could barely be felt, and some of the revelers they passed wore nothing more than gaily painted skin. The noise and energy of the drunken throng left Leslie weary, and she was glad when they turned down the quieter--and cooler--streets where Frank kept his apartment. Here the only Christmas decorations were the odd string of coldlights, and the only people abroad at this time of night hurried past with their heads down and hands stuck in suggestively lumpy pockets. This was more like the Kismet that Leslie knew and loved: paranoid, badly lit and rather tense. The holidays disturbed her, turning her city into some kind of glitzy tourist haven.

As they approached Frank's door, a dirty child scuttled toward them out of the shadows, tiny crutch in one hand and tin cup in the other. "Tokens for food, lady?" he begged Frank.

"Bugger off, brat," Frank snapped. "Lady, indeed; I'm no lady, child, nor ever have been." He nodded slightly to Seymour. Leslie followed him into the foyer of his apartment, as a crunching sound came from behind them.

"Damn beggars," Frank said, giving his sequined dinner jacket to Guido. The bodyguard offered to take Leslie's bomber jacket; she shook her head. "They're getting bolder by the day, especially now that the orphanage is ... closed for the season. The kids, in particular, come out of the woodwork this time of year. Playing on the quote-unquote holiday spirit, meaning the tendency of total strangers to empty their pockets on cue. I've seen that brat before; he moves damn fast in spite of that crutch."

"I would've thought you'd be in the Towers," Leslie said, "not down amongst the riff-raff."

"I like it here. I have a place up there, too, but I feel more comfortable down here."

They retired to Frank's living room, and a few drinks later, to his bedroom, where Leslie discovered that there was actually a skilled lover under those skirts. I'll hate myself in the morning, she thought, dissolving her clothes under the shower and watching them spiral down the drain, but at least I won't wake up horny.

Instead she woke up hung over, after what felt like only a few minutes. The clock in her brain indicated that it had been closer to an hour and a half. Frank was awake, and the difference in his body, from relaxed to wire-tense, had wakened her. She could feel him rolling over very slowly. A flick of her right eyelid toggled from normal vision to infrared, and now she could see what had awakened Frank. Someone was standing by the door of the bedroom.

"Fffrank Berne-e-e-e-etti," came a voice like a slow, rusty, drawn-out creak.

"Lights!" Frank cried, and in the same moment rolled off the bed, putting it between himself and the intruder as the lights came up. Leslie followed him instinctively, though she was temporarily blind. She groped on the floor for her jacket, where most of her weapons were. Stupid, incredibly stupid of her not to have kept something close at hand, a mistake a child would make. But damn it, where in Kismet should be safer than the bedroom of a well-known mobster?

She found the jacket and drew a gun with one hand and a knife with the other. Frank, equally naked, was crouched behind the bed with a small pearl-handled pistol in each hand. Must be why the pillows were so damn lumpy...

"I don't know how you got past my bodyguards, but if you take one step you're dead."

The man by the door shrugged, which set off a series of clanking and rattling noises. My God, Leslie realized, this nut is wearing chains. He was covered in them from head to foot, chains of all shapes and sizes, from tiny delicate silver ones to a giant chain with links as broad as Leslie's handspan, draped across his left shoulder. It wasn't just surprising that Frank's bodyguards had failed to notice him, it was downright impossible. This guy must make enough noise when he moved to raise the dead.

The intruder raised a clanking arm, festooned with chains. "Frank Bernetti," he intoned.

"I said shut up!"

The intruder paused, lowered his arm slightly. "You said no such thing."

"Well, I'm saying it now! Shut up or I'll ventilate you, bastard."

Shaking himself with a faint clanking of chains, the intruder resumed as if nothing had happened. "Frank Bernetti. You will be visited by three--"

Frank opened fire. Some of the bullets caromed off the chains with showers of sparks; others struck home, and Leslie saw, with extraordinary clarity, how each bullet left a small puff of dust as it buried itself in the intruder's chest, groin, face. Then the figure vanished. It did not fade, it was just gone, from one moment to the next.

"What the fuck," said Frank.

The door burst open and Seymour stumbled in, his shirt half tucked into his pants, carrying a gun that looked as if it could drop a Hadean rock rhino. In his hand, it seemed small. "Boss! What's going on in here?"

"I'll tell you what's going on in here!" Frank screamed. "You let some psycho into my bedroom, that's what! Where were you, huh? Fucking some whore down the street? Jacking up on a brainbox somewhere?"

"I was right outside the door," Seymour protested.

"Yeah! Sure! So you wanna tell me how Happy Boy got in here?"


"The idiot with the chains! Who else?"

Seymour studied his boss with the baffled expression of a dog trying to understand its owner's behaviour. "Where is he now, boss?"

"He disappeared, dammit!"

"Oh," said Seymour. "You want I should look for him, boss?"

"Yes, dimwit! I want this house searched! Go find Guido, wherever the hell he is..."

"He's off duty, boss."

"Find him anyway! I want doubled security and I want you to find this guy!"

"The one who disappeared, boss?"

"Yes!" Frank shouted.

"Right, boss." Seymour left with a purposeful, though still confused, look on his face.

Leslie had seated herself on the edge of the bed with the jacket around her shoulders and waited the exchange out. Now she got up and wandered about the room. Neither her normal senses nor the enhanced ones could detect any sign that anyone had ever been there.

"You saw him, didn't you?" Frank appealed.

"Yes," she said absently.

Frank relaxed. "Good. It's not the alcohol. I'd hate to have to stop drinking." He reloaded the pistols and tucked one back under the pillows, while watching her circle the room. "It was a hologram, then. Some kind of hologram."

"So why didn't the bullets go through it, then?" Leslie returned.

"There's a reasonable explanation. I just haven't thought of it yet."

"There should be a spray pattern on the door behind where he--behind where it was standing," she said. "There's not. But here's this ..." She was behind the bed now, and bent to dig at a bit of metal embedded in the wall. "This bullet bounced off something, and went right over our heads."

"The door. Door's metal. Bounced off the door."

"But there's not a mark on it. And the bullets appear to have bounced all over this room; they didn't hit a flat object."

The door hissed open and Guido came in, quickly averting his eyes from Leslie, who was still wearing nothing but the jacket. "Boss, there's no sign of anybody in the house, and the front door don't show anybody came through except for us."

"Great," Frank said wearily. He went to the closet and donned a solido negligée. "Trade off with Seymour. You two are swapping shifts."

"Right, boss. Are you going back to bed, boss?"

"Hell, no." He glanced at Leslie. "Feel like a cup of coffee, sugar?"

"Why not. I don't think I'm going back to sleep. I'll be down as soon as I can get some clothes on."

Easier said than done, Leslie soon found. If she'd anticipated waking up in someone else's bed, she wouldn't have worn spray-ons, because being in someone else's bed means being at the mercy of someone else's shower. Frank's was programmed with four hundred and twelve outfits, all of them far more feminine than anything Leslie was in the habit of wearing. Eventually she gave up and hit a random button; it turned out to be a mock-leather shirt, fishnet stockings and a miniskirt. She pulled the bomber jacket over it and went downstairs, feeling like a hooker in a trucker bar.

Frank whistled when he saw her. "You clean up nice."

"Fuck off, Bernetti. I can't believe you don't own any comfortable clothes."

"There's some pants in the solido closet, if you really want them. I don't find them comfortable at all." He plucked at the silken pink sleeve of the negligee. "Much too confining. Tough to move around in. I don't know how you women stand it."

"Tough to move around in?" Leslie repeated. She'd almost fallen twice, trying to walk downstairs in the miniskirt, and that was with bare feet. Frank customarily tottered around in heels that made her calves seize up in sympathy cramps.

Guido served their drink. Frank took a shot of brandy in his coffee, and offered her the same. She made it a double and skipped the coffee. Her head was just starting to pound from last night's drinking; the brandy soothed the ache nicely.

"You know what's freakiest about all this, Les?"

Leslie wondered what might be stranger than an intruder appearing and disappearing with equal aplomb from one's bedroom. "No, what?"

"I swear I know that guy. He looked exactly like a kid I went to school with. Jake was his name, I think. Only problem is, Jake's dead. Died years ago in a slingpod accident."

"That tends to rule him out for this, then."

"I suppose," Frank agreed morosely.

"Did he have any relatives? Brother or something?"

"Dunno. I always figured he was a ward of the state. Parents dead. Didn't seem to have any fam--"

He paused, with the coffee cup halfway to his lips, staring over Leslie's shoulder. Quietly he raised the pearl-handled pistol that had lain in his lap while they talked. Leslie felt the hairs stand up on her arms and cursed herself silently for a superstitious fool. She twisted her head around, trying to stay out of Frank's line of fire.

It wasn't the same person. This time, a woman stood in the corner of the kitchen. Her age was difficult to guess, but she appeared to be somewhere between fifty and eighty. Her flowing gown bore no resemblance to anything that had been in style since well before the fall of Old Earth. Her hair was loose, like a girl's, with flowers and leaves in it.

Leslie heard a choked sound from Guido as he became aware of the extra person in the room. She didn't take her eyes off the woman. As with the man in chains, Leslie could not fathom how the woman had gotten into the building without being seen. In order to get to that end of the kitchen, she would have had to walk by all of them.

When the woman spoke, Leslie jumped. "It's midnight, Frank Bernetti," the quiet voice said, and the woman lifted one hand as the man in chains had done. "I am the Ghost of Kismet Past, and I have come to show you--"

"Guido, goddammit, waste that bitch!" Frank yelled.

The woman's eyes widened and then her body jerked from the impact of multiple bullets. Guido, Frank and Leslie all shot her at the same time. She fell back against the wall and slid, gasping, to the floor, leaving streaks of blood on the wallpaper.

"Ghost of Kismet Fucking Past, my ass," Frank said.

The three of them cautiously approached the woman's body. She still breathed shallowly, but death glazed her eyes. She managed to focus on Frank as he bent over her. The bloody lips twisted in a ghastly smile. "You cannot kill the past so easily, Frank Bernetti," she breathed.

Frank stuck the pearl-handled pistol under her nose. "No games, bitch. You got the count of three to tell me how you and your creepy buddy got in my house, or I blow off the top of your fruit basket."

She made a wheezing sound that might have been laughter. "Another ghost will visit when the clock strikes two, Frank Bernetti, and ... are you in big trouble then, you little ... bastard ..." Her eyes fixed on his. After she didn't blink for a minute or two, Frank seemed to realize that she was dead.

"Bitch!" He kicked the body, then glanced nervously about the room. So did Leslie and Guido. Nothing moved.

"All right, Guido, we're now in a state of concern. Wake Seymour, if he's asleep. I want you both around until we figure out what's going on here."

"The Ghost of Kismet Past?" Leslie murmured.

"Yeah, exactly, just like in that story by what's his face or other. Big honkin' deal. You can't kill a ghost, honey; they're already dead. This chick is flesh and blood. Although ..." He reloaded the pistol; his face assumed a vaguely ferretlike cast. "If they're playing Christmas ghosts, that means there's two other motherfuckers around here someplace. Come on, Leslie, let's go waste some ghost butt."

A quick search of the apartment and its immediate environs, then a more detailed search, turned up nothing. Leslie found herself experiencing a certain irrational doubt that the body would still be in the kitchen when they returned, but it was, with Guido standing guard. He looked vastly relieved to see his boss walk in.

"Hi, boss. What do you want us to--"

"Dump it. One of the usual places; no need to take special precautions on this one. Now listen up. There may be two more of these idiots running around here someplace. Next one's supposed to show up at two a.m.--uh, what time is it now?"

"Twelve thirty, boss."

"Right. Drop the body and come back. Stay alert. Just because these fools haven't drawn a piece yet doesn't mean they don't have them. And just because they said they'll come at two doesn't mean they can tell time."

He headed upstairs; Leslie heard him mutter, "I don't know what I'm paying you people for, if you can't at least keep psychos out of the kitchen..."

Guido and Seymour cleaned up after the body with speed and skill obviously borne of frequent practice. Leslie found herself wanting to offer professional criticism, back-seat driving as it were, like a skilled surgeon watching another perform an operation. Eventually she went upstairs to look for Frank.

He was in the bedroom, kneeling on the floor and examining the carpet with quick, sensitive fingers. Long dark hair framed his face. "What time is it?" he said without looking up.

"About a quarter past one." Actually one-twelve and thirteen seconds, according to the clock in her head, but she doubted he wanted that much detail.

"How's the goon squad doing on the cleanup?"

"About done, I suppose." She tried to squat, found it impossible in the goddamn miniskirt, so she straightened quickly and tried to make it look like she'd meant to do that all along. "Find anything?"

"Not a damn thing." He marched to the nearest computer console, the robe swishing silkily about his bare ankles. "So look at this now. This is bad, very bad."

Leslie looked over his shoulder. He was replaying a surveillance recording. The camera pickup seemed to be in the corner above the bed, facing the door. She saw a twilit room, figures on the bed in indistinct motion. Frank's tinny voice cried, "Lights!" and the recording lit up in time to reveal two naked figures leaping behind the cover of the bed. Leslie saw herself fumbling with her jacket, saw Frank crouched behind the bed. "I don't know how you got past my bodyguards, but if you take one step you're dead!" the recorded Frank cried in the general direction of the door.

The door. Just the door. Nothing was standing in front of the door, certainly not an intruder wearing chains.

The recording played itself out. Leslie witnessed one side of a brief, abortive conversation, then both of them opened fire at the empty space in front of the door.

Frank paused it.

"Dammit, Leslie, there was something there."

"I know that. You don't have to convince me." She replayed the events quickly in her mind, each frame embedded as it happened on the computer chip in her brain. Memory might fail other people, but it never failed her. "I record things too, Frank. There was a ... person ... standing at that door. If only I had seen him, it might be a problem with the equipment." She touched her forehead. "But you saw him too. That means it wasn't a hallucination and it wasn't drugs, and I know I saw something there."

"Besides, get an eyeful of this, sugar," Frank said. "Computer, back up. Stop. Play without sound, five frames per second."

They watched the two tiny naked figures on the screen firing their guns in silent slow motion.

"Pause!" Frank said. "Look. See those flashes? The bullets are bouncing off something, all right."

"Something the computer does not record."

Frank snapped his fingers. "Erased! Erased from the recording. It's some kind of conspiracy. Enemies, Leslie, they'll try the damnedest things. I have plenty of them."

I'd noticed, Leslie thought. "By hacking into the city computer? That's really not possible, is it?"

"I don't care if it's possible or not, since they obviously did it."

Leslie half-closed her eyes, playing back the shooting and the disappearing body, as she had witnessed it. "What did they do, then, erase him from our eyesight as well?"

"Hologram. Obviously."

"Bullets don't bounce off a hologram. And it needs a projector somewhere."

"Dammit, woman--"

A quick triple tap at the door, and it bounced open. "Boss!" Seymour gasped. "You've got to see this!"

"Shit, they're early!" Frank cried, seizing his second pistol and bounding out the door behind his bodyguard.

Leslie followed. As soon as she stepped out onto the landing, she could hear music, a jangling tune that she recognized as a recent popular carol. The cool light from the kitchen was drowned out by golden lamplight pouring from the open living room door. The music grew louder as they crept nearer. Leslie discovered that the air in the kitchen was laden with warm homey smells: baking bread, spicy candle scents, cooked meat, pine, all coming from the living room.

They joined Guido, who was crouched at the living room door with a blast rifle gripped in both hands. "Boss, thank goodness," he whispered. "This is weird, this is really weird."

Leslie took the opportunity to peer around the door. The first time that she'd seen Frank's living room, about three hours ago, she had been struck by the general pimpish tackiness of it. Frank liked velvet paintings, gold stuff, big pieces of free-standing art, and so forth. Now all that was gone ... or rather, buried.

Frank berated the bodyguards in a flat hissing undertone. Leslie caught some of it: "... bastard got all this crap in here, huh? What'd he do, walk through the front door about forty times? Drive a hovertruck in here? Did you sign the delivery receipts or just invite--"

"Frank Bernetti!" boomed a voice from the living room.

"Crap! Hide me!" Frank ducked behind Guido. "And kill him, dammit!"

This time their visitor was a giant of a man, three meters tall if he was a cent. Had to be from a low-g world, Leslie thought, but he was more massive than any low-g native she'd seen before. His hair was red; his beard, red; and he clutched something huge and flaring in one hand. He reclined on a heap of every sort of foodstuff imaginable, mixed with a whole lot of evergreen branches.

"Boss," Guido whispered, "I think he's got a--"

"I said shoot him!"

Guido and Seymour looked at each other. Seymour shifted his pistol to his left hand. Both men froze, squared off, staring across their boss's head. Their hands shot out simultaneously. Seymour's was flat, palm down. Guido's was clenched in a massive fist.

"Paper wraps rock. Rats," Guido muttered, and looked down at the top of his boss's head. "Boss. That guy in there, he's got a blast cannon."

"So? Isn't that what you've got?"

Guido hefted the rifle. "No, boss. This is a Rhys-Madsen 302. Nice little weapon. Makes holes in people's heads real good. What he's got would make a real big hole in this wall, and in the wall behind it, and probably in the next guy's wall too. In us, as well."

"So? Go get one and shoot him with it!"

"Boss," Guido said patiently. "We don't got one."

"What my colleague has failed to mention," Seymour added. "Should we shoot him and hit instead that little weapon he is holding in his hand, there would be a big hole in the ground where we are now standing."

Frank stared up at the two bodyguards.

"So you're telling me you won't shoot him, basically."

"Basically," they agreed.

"Frank Bernetti!" the voice boomed again.

"I will remember this when I hand out the Christmas bonuses," Frank growled, and planted himself in the doorway, pearl-handled pistol in either fist. "You! Ghost! Kismet Present, right?"

"That's right," the apparition agreed in a good-natured rumble.

"Eat lead," said Frank, and opened fire.

Guido and Seymour both hit the floor. Leslie flung herself for the nearest piece of furniture. Frank emptied both pistols and grabbed Seymour's giant pistol from his bodyguard's hand. "No, boss, not the--" Seymour's terrified protest was drowned out in a series of violent explosions. Exploding bullets, Leslie thought; lovely.

The dust and smoke died away, revealing the apartment to be still intact. Frank dropped the guns and strode into the living room. "Blast cannon my ass!" drifted back to them. "Haven't you morons ever seen a goblet before?"

"A what?" Seymour said, picking himself up off the floor.

"It's got a flared muzzle," Guido defended himself.

"That's the part you drink from, idiot," Frank said.

He squelched back out to them. His bare feet and the hem of his robe were covered in bits of severely damaged fruit. He had a bottle of wine in either hand. "Well, at least something came of it," he remarked and set the bottles gently in the sink.

"So a goblet, that's a kind of rifle or something, right boss?"

Leslie didn't hear Frank's reply. She stepped carefully into the living room, threading her way through the mess of food remains and shattered bottles of alcohol. The giant's body sprawled across his makeshift throne, blood soaking through his robe in a dozen places. A massive golden drinking cup lay by his limp hand. Leslie bent and extinguished a fallen candle that was guttering in the purple liquid spilling from the cup--no, goblet, she recalled, and filed the shape of the thing away for future reference. It did look a lot like a blast cannon, with the slender stem and flaring cup, just like the bell-shaped muzzle of certain energy weapons.

"Hey, Leslie!" Frank bellowed.

Leslie ignored him. "Lights," she said, and the regular lights came up. She circled the room, dousing all the candles and restoring some sort of normalcy...if the word had any meaning around here any more.

"So," Frank said, strolling up beside her. "You don't happen to remember certain details of a certain Old Earth kids' story, do you?"

She picked up a grape, toyed idly with it."Does that mean you're buying into this ghost thing now, Frank?"

"Of course not. Hell, no. The only spirits in Kismet come from a bottle, trust me. So what's the third ghost supposed t--ow!" Frank, barefoot, jumped about in an attempt to find someplace to stand on that wasn't prickly or littered with broken glass. "The third ghost, that's the nasty one, right?"

"The nasty one, Frank?"

"Right, the one with the skull and the black robes and everything."

"Are you worried?"

"Worried, me? Hell, no. These ghosts aren't so tough. A few bullets and they drop just like anybody."

They wandered back into the kitchen, past Seymour, who was heading the other way with a sheet and a coil of rope. "So far, they haven't even tried to attack us," she pointed out.

"The third one would've attacked. He was some kind of mean bastard. Death in a sackcloth robe."

"Frank. Listen to yourself. You're talking about a ghost in a story that was written by a guy six hundred years ago. A story, Frank."

Guido and Seymour passed them, carrying a very large sheet-wrapped bundle between them, and vanished into the foyer.

"I am perfectly aware of that," Frank snapped, drawing his negligée about himself haughtily. He picked up the pistols and reloaded them again, then strode after his bodyguards. Leslie was starting to wonder how much ammunition he had in the pockets of that robe. She half-expected him to rattle when he walked. "I still intend to be prepared."

"Prepared, eh?"

"Prepared." Frank tapped a code on the touchpad by the closet in the foyer. Leslie was just wondering what sort of person locked their closets when she saw, over his shoulder, what he had in it.

"Want anything?" Frank asked, seeing her expression--half admiration, half lust.

"Oh, yes," Leslie breathed.

Frank passed her a double-barrelled blast rifle and an antique-looking automatic shotgun, then started picking out weapons for himself. Leslie's eyes tracked down the racks, cataloging hungrily. He couldn't possibly have every kind of small arms in existence, but every time she thought of something he didn't have, she'd look over to another shelf or rack and see one.

There was a triple tap at the door, and it opened to admit Guido and Seymour. Leslie had realized by now the reason why they might need such a code, having seen Frank's tendency to shoot first, second and third, asking questions only after the smoke had cleared.

"Boys! Arm up! I'm expecting another visitor, and we're going to have a little surprise for him."

"You want we should clean up the living room, boss?"

"Nope. It'll work to our advantage now. All those grapes and crap make good cover. Might take him a while to realize that something's wrong if he sees everything how his buddy set it up. Let's move, people!"

With a certain wry amusement, Leslie helped Frank and the bodyguards set up cover for their ambush from the ample raw (and cooked) materials in the living room. At a signal from Frank, Guido set the tilted candles upright and re-lit them, then turned out the lights.

"Now," said Frank, resting one of his pistols in the crook of a turkey leg and sighting down it, "we wait."

They waited. Then waited some more.

"What time is it, honey?"

"Quarter to four," Leslie said. "And by the way, the next time you call me a cutesy pet name, I'll shoot you."

She shifted her weight to relieve the pressure on one arm, which had fallen asleep. The candles had burned low and their flickering, uncertain light sent weird shadows ranging about the room. After straining so long to distinguish one shadow from another, all of them were running together in her vision. She didn't sleep, but she passed into a half-wakeful state--a vigilant, waiting trance.

The candles had burned down to stubs. One guttered, and died.

"Merry Christmas, by the way," Leslie murmured to Frank.

He grunted.

Another candle flickered, then the one next to it, and Leslie squinted at them. Something wasn't right. The flames bent and died one by one, as though a wind was blowing across them.

She felt the breeze on her cheek, and her finger tightened on the shotgun trigger.


She caught only quick impressions of the figure in the doorway, of darkness blocking out the light from the kitchen, of white bones flashing in the black robes, before everyone opened fire. Leslie emptied her shotgun, flung it aside and lifted the blast rifle, when Frank halted the barrage with an upraised hand. They all hesitated, guns at the ready, watching the doorway for any sign of movement. Nothing blocked the light now.

Frank straightened slowly. "So that was Christmas Yet To--fuck!"

He whirled and hit the floor. The thing was behind them now, its black robes tattered from the bullets, but otherwise apparently unharmed. It lifted a white, skeletal hand, pointed it at Frank, who was shooting frantically. Leslie fired the blast rifle a few times. This did nothing but make more holes.

Frank was yelling, "Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!"

A dull red beam lanced past Leslie's right cheek, singing her hair. It touched the edge of the apparition's robe and fire flashed up it. Leslie cursed herself for not thinking of that sooner. Lasers didn't hurt the thing, but the lowest power setting on a blast rifle was a heat wash. She added hers to the conflagration, realizing only seconds later the problem with that strategy: now they had a flaming ghost stumbling about the room, setting fire to everything it touched.

"Out! Out!" Frank shouted. They piled out into the kitchen just as the fire suppression system kicked on. The door sealed behind them and all the air was sucked out of the room in a matter of seconds.

Frank cautiously opened the door as soon as the warning light went out.

Smoke curled up lazily into the repressurized room from a dozen smoldering spots. The smell in the room was a disturbing mixture of burning pine and burning hair. They had to hunt about for a bit to find the ghost. All that remained was a pile of charred rags along with some blackened pieces of bone.

"Well, I'll be damned," Frank said. "They burn. We should've tried it on the other ones."

Leslie couldn't think of a good answer to that.

"Boss," said Guido rather plaintively. "I think I have some vacation time coming, boss."

Frank combed his hair with his fingers. "Sure. Right. Clean this up first, would you?"

The two bodyguards stood in the middle of the room, looking around them at the scorched, bullet-riddled, utterly destroyed yet undeniably festive room. It looked like a street gang turf war had shot itself out in the middle of a Christmas buffet.

"Aw, hell," Frank said. "It's Christmas, isn't it? Let's all go get something to eat somewhere. You can clean this up when we get back."

Guido looked uncertain. "Thanks, boss."

"Want to come grab a bite with us?" Frank asked Leslie.

"You have a living room full of food," she pointed out.

"Well, you can stay here and eat it then, sweetheart." Frank started for the door, all pink and silky. "I'm going to take a shower and slip into something more ... comfortable."

"Hang on there." Leslie glanced down at the miniskirt. "I'm not setting foot outside this door until you find me some decent clothes."

"Come on. You look good, dressed like a girl." Frank twisted his head back, and grinned. The bodyguards attempted to look elsewhere.

Leslie glanced at the miniskirt again, and then she decided that it just wasn't worth fighting about. She was too damn tired. Besides, at her age it was nice to be called a girl. "Find me a pair of boots, and shut up."

Frank's grin widened.

They stepped out into the light of an artificial dawn. Frank stretched his arms aloft, shimmering like a Christmas tree in a thoroughly inappropriate sequined evening dress. "Ah, Leslie! Christmas morning! Makes you feel like a kid again, doesn't it?"

"I didn't enjoy my childhood, and I have no desire to go back to it," Leslie said.

Frank bounded down the steps. He's going to break a leg in those heels, Leslie thought, and then I will have to drag him. Still, she found herself getting caught up in the mobster's uncharacteristic high spirits. Her step was lighter as she and the bodyguards followed more discretely.

"Seymour!" Frank called back. "Where's that little crippled orphan kid?"

"I killed him yesterday, boss," Seymour said. "I thought you wanted me to."

"Oh, that's right." Momentarily pensive, Frank brightened. "Well, I guess the world is full of orphans. One more or less doesn't matter." He offered an arm to Leslie. "Shall we?"

Leslie accepted reluctantly, rationalizing that her tough-girl reputation was already so badly damaged by the outfit she was wearing that being seen on a mobster's arm couldn't make much difference at this point. "Sure," she said. "Merry Christmas, Frank."

As they strolled out into the artificial light of a brand new day, Frank smiled seductively at her. "You know, we're good together. You sure I can't interest you in a job?"

"Fraid not. But it's flattering to be asked."

The smile got a little wider, and more lascivious. "You know, I never did catch your last name."

Leslie snuggled her arm into his. "Fleetwood," she said.

The resulting shriek of horror could be heard three streets away.

Author's Notes: After college, when I started working on Kismet again, this story was the first one that I wrote, in 1999. One of the biggest changes that I had to make when I rewrote it in 2007 was the removal of a character who isn't part of the Kismet stories anymore. The female role in this story was originally played by Shar Mustafa, part of the original (ca. 1994) Kismet cast who was eliminated as a character because a) I never found her that interesting and b) I created her when I was a young teenager and realized years later that she's sort of a stereotype ... hence, she's gone now.

This left me in need of a similar character to fill that role. Now, Leslie Fleetwood was originally supposed to be dead. I had always imagined that she'd died when Fleetwood was in his teens.

But why would she *have* to? It could actually be just as interesting to have Fleetwood's adoptive mom -- a career hitwoman -- still around and causing trouble in contemporary Kismet. And, apparently, sleeping with Frank.

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