Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Christmas Crime

The sign that said Merry Christmas was covered with black paint. The author of the sign lay near it, slouched on the table, his head dented in, There was an advent wreath lying smashed against the hall and a small artificial tree knocked  over, with many of the ornaments broken. Even a metal cross, which was the murder weapon, lay broken on the floor. The one-room cabin was otherwise fairly bare. It was housing for the economically disadvantaged, made with prefab plastic walls and little space for living in. There was a vid screen on a small cabinet, but I did not dare touch it till the fingerprint finders and DNA testers were done.

Very seldom was I able to get to the actual scene of the crime in a timely fashion. Usually it took place light years away, and by the time someone said, "Call in John Talltree," and I got there, it was all cleaned up. But this time it had happened on Earth and was so potentially explosive that I was called in immediately.

"I told him not to do it," said a female voice from the door. "It was just asking for it, to post things open like that. Best keep it to yourself, I always say."

"Who (click) are you?" said police officer Uriut of Korup by my side. He was was an insectioid with a large head and even larger carapace.  The Durporanians, or Clicks as they were popularly called, had been on earth a long time and tended to take the tough jobs few Terrans seemed to want. Their nickname came from the fact their own language was a series of clicks which they tended to intersperse in their Terran.

"I am Sophia Goldschmidt," she replied, "I live across the way."

"Did you (Click) see anyone come in here (click)?" asked Uriut.

"No, but it was probably Mr. Carver. He is the local strict atheist and is always railing against such things. I told Mr. Wilson here he was tempting fate, putting on a show like he did."

"Can you show (CLICK) us the way to Mr. Carver's (click) home?"

She took us out in the street and pointed out to us a house three doors down. We then saw her vanish into a house across the way and caught a glimpse of a Hanukah menorah well inside the house as she entered.

Although the empire had made the Pageant of the Glory of the Empire the official winter celebration, all other types of celebrations were permitted and, in theory, encouraged. It did not always work out that way in practice. And an incident like this could stir feelings on all sides and end up in violence. No wonder Central had sent for me. 

George Carver was everything that Goldschmidt said and more. "That Zechariah Wilson is a fanatic," he said, "nothing but anti-science and blind faith. And he always makes such a big deal of it too. Always talking about it and all this fuss over that holiday he celebrates. Someone needs to beat some sense into him."

"Would you be willing to do it?" I asked.

"What do you mean?'

"He was found beaten to death in his cabin today."

The blood drained out of his face and his mouth moved like he was trying to talk, but nothing came out.

"Did you see anyone going into that cabin today?" I continued.

"No one, I saw no one," he continued weakly.

"Pagan, it is all pagan," remarked Brittany Philips, another of Mr. Wilson's neighbors with a frown that would curdle new milk. "All this Christmas stuff is just derived from paganism."

"What (CLICK) is paganism (click)?" asked Uriut.

"I don't know what it would mean to off-worlders like you. But on earth people worshiped many gods who were immoral and capricious. And they killed their own children and engaged in orgies to make the crops grow. Most of them have died out, but there are some still around. Take Cornelia Cooper, a few streets down. But their customs are preserved in the old holidays like Christmas."

"Terrans kill (Click) their children and engage (CLICK) in orgies for Christmas?"

"No, but all that is associated with paganism is corrupting. Take this Zechariah Wilson. He had the reputation of being a righteous man, but I am sure he was a hypocrite underneath. I once saw him talking with a prostitute. That's what celebrating pagan holidays will do to you."

"Did you see anyone (clicK) go to Mr. Wilson's cabin (click), tonight?"

"No," she said, stalking around her more barren than normal cabin. "I would not be interested in anything like that."

The next neighbor, James Benson was, surprisingly, engaging in the ancient art of doing watercolor on canvas. He was working on a picture of an old sailing ship. "Yes, I have met this Mr. Wilson," he said. "A bit overboard on this Christian stuff, but to each his own, I say. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Must be the saying of some great philosopher or other."

"I believe it is from one of the ancient vid-shows," I remarked. "Something called 'Star Trek.' Did you see anyone going to Mr. Wilson's cabin tonight."

"Mind my own business, that's my motto. I did not see anything of the sort."

The next cabin we came to was obviously a special build. It went well back from the front door and looked like a multi-family dwelling. It had a series of doors on each side, with windows high up and well covered. Allure Wilder threw open the door furiously after we had identified ourselves. "Police, is this more persecution? It's the Society for the Elimination of Prostitution again. I have told them and I will tell you, prostitution is a legal business; deal with it. All these accusations about our under-feeding our employees and kidnapping them from foreign parts. All lies, I tell you. They have been thoroughly investigated and nothing has been found."

"We are not here about that," I remarked. "Mr. Wilson down the street was murdered, and we need to know if you or your employees or customers saw anything."

"Murdered? I can't say I'm surprised. Always going around spouting that Christian stuff. It's true he did organize those drives to give food to poor people. But he was always sharing that Jesus thing, even with my girls. Telling them he would help them out of the business. I tell you what better business is there to be in for girls like these? Drudge work, everything else is nothing but drudge work. Here they get good pay, three square meals a day and a roof over their head, and they only have to work five nights a week."

"Well, you realize that Mr. Wilson or I talking about Jesus is perfectly legal," I remarked. "You know, like prostitution. But we need to talk to your employees and clients about what they may have seen."

"My clients will never stand for that."

"Why? What they are doing is perfectly legal."

It took us some time to talk to the prostitutes and their clients. (I suspected some of the clients had managed to sneak out the back.) From them we learned nothing of any use. When we made it out, there was one cabin whose light was still on.

Allen Deering leaned back in his chair and said, "Yeah, I knew Zeke. A bit of a fanatic about that Jesus stuff, but not a bad guy when you got to know him."

"In what way (click)?" asked Uriut.

"He used to be a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical firm. He traveled the stars, selling their stuff. But they did not have a good pension plan and he had no close family and friends - time lapse, you know. So he ended up here. But the tales he could tell if he wanted to. He told me about the dance of the colored clouds on Artuwon. Said it was incredibly beautiful."

"It is," I remarked. "I have seen it."

"So you are one of them, too. Sorry I cannot do anything to help you with your case, but I did not see a thing. But I want to ask a favor. I know you need it for evidence, but on his vid screen with his Bible and other religious stuff there is a series of vids of places he had gone. His vids of the mineral falls of Hliwiyth are incredible. I do not know if their are any clear heirs, and I would hate to see them just deleted. If no one else wants them, can I have them?"

"I will see what I can do." I replied.

Uriut and I said good night and agreed to meet at the lab tomorrow to see what they could come up with .

The following afternoon, James Benson seemed surprised to see us appear at his door again.

"You are sloppy," I remarked, "incredibly sloppy. Do you not even watch old detective vids. Your DNA and fingerprints were all over that place. You even scratched your finger on the edge of the advent wreath when you broke it and left us a blood sample. Did you not know that these would be on record after your military service, no matter how brief?"

"The man was a fanatic," shouted Benson. "Why was he not willing to be normal like the rest of us? He had to believe something different. It would have been all right if he kept it to himself. But he was always telling people. So narrow and intolerant. That last time he was telling me, I broke. I am sorry I killed him, but he brought it on himself."

As the prisoner was carried off in custody, Uriut turned to me. "You knew (CLick) even before the tests (click). You specifically (CLICK) asked about him at the lab. How (click) did you know?"

"You would have found out, anyway. But everybody else had strong opinions about Mr. Wilson, one way or the other," I returned. "Only he seemed indifferent. I had to wonder whether he had reason to want to appear indifferent. Also, in these sparse cabins, who else had or had a reason to have paint?"

After I had parted with Uriut, I heard a voice from the darkness that said, "Can I speak to you?" The woman who appeared in front of me was barely twenty. She was wearing a coat to keep out the cold, but from the parts that showed and the way she was shivering, I suspected she was wearing very little under it. "Ms. Wilder said you have the same beliefs as Mr. Wilson," she continued. "He was telling me about Jesus, but I still had some questions. Could you help me?"

At the risk of incurring the disapproval of Brittany Philips, I responded, "Sure, but let's go find a place that is warm where we can talk about."

And we walked off into the night.

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