Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SHELLY HOBBES AND THE UNWRAPPED PRESENTS

For those of you who haven't yet made her acquaintance, Shelly Hobbes is a Master Detective. She began solving mysteries for her friends and neighbors at nine years old and has been applying Sherlock Holmes' unique brand of deductive reasoning ever since. Her best friend/sidekick, Warren J. Morton, chronicles her adventures, including this one which took place on December 23rd, 1997.

It was during Christmas break before what was to be our last semester at Valley Junior High and I was going over to Shelly’s house on Christmas Eve Eve (December 23rd, in case that wasn’t clear) to deliver her Christmas present. Shelly has always been notoriously difficult to shop for, partly because it was hard to think of something she’d actually like, but mostly because she had the annoying habit of trying to guess what was in the gift before she opened it. The reason the habit was so annoying is that she always guessed correctly, ruining my surprise. But this year, I had…

No, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was walking down to Shelly’s house with the large box in my arms when I saw a police car parked out front. I walked a little faster for the next few steps until I was close enough to see the broken glass in the front window. Then I started running. I ran through the open front door to see Shelly’s parents answering the officer’s questions. Shelly and Myron were sitting on the couch next to them. Baskerville the Hound was sitting on the floor at their feet, and I swear he looked sort of…sheepish.

“Shelly!” I yelled, without thinking. In an instant, Shelly ran over to me and I barely had time to set down her gift before she hugged me so tight it knocked some of the wind out of me.

As it turned out, everyone was fine. The family had been out at the movies and had come home from the matinee to find the house broken into. Shelly and Myron investigated and concluded that nothing had been stolen. Not their mother’s jewelry, the TV or anything. Whoever had broken in had, however, unwrapped and gone through nearly all the gifts that were under the tree.

“It’s just as well,” said Mrs. Hobbes, trying to make a joke, “since Shelly and Myron already knew what was in most of them.”

But the really strange thing was that none of the gifts had actually been stolen. All the books, clothes, science equipment, the video games, the Sony Discman, the Thin Man videos were laid bare all over the floor. But nothing had been stolen.

“Baskerville was napping in the yard,” said Shelly, answering the question I was about to ask. “He’s a good boy, but he’s a lousy watchdog. And a lousy bloodhound, for that matter. He’s useless on investigations.”

The officer took their information and left. Mr. and Mrs. Hobbes went up to their room, saying they needed to talk. I think Mrs. Hobbes was more upset than she was letting on and didn’t want us to see her cry. Myron also went upstairs because, shaken though he was, he still had schoolwork to do over his Christmas break. This left me and Shelly alone in the front room, looking at the ruined Christmas presents.

“I’m so sorry, Shelly.” As I said it, part of me wanted to reach out and hold her hand. I didn’t, but Baskerville put his head in her lap and whimpered in what I couldn’t help but think was an apologetic tone.

“Don’t be sorry, Warren. You’re no good to me sorry.”

“Huh?”

“How are we going to solve this mystery if all you’re going to do is say sorry?”

“Wait, we’re going to solve this mystery? Are you sure we shouldn’t let the police—?”

“No, they’ll be as useless as Baskerville. No offense, boy,” she added, kindly. “They’ll file a report, they’ll run some names, they’ll get nowhere. As far as they’re concerned no one was hurt and nothing was stolen, so why should they care? But solving mysteries isn’t just about bringing bad guys to justice. It’s a puzzle. It’s something to figure out. A challenge. And you know me, Warren; I’m always up for a challenge.”

I still wasn’t too enthusiastic about this case. I mean, we’d never tried to solve an actual crime before. Not a real one. Pranks, playground bullies, petty theft among housemates, sure. But breaking and entering? And on Christmas Eve Eve? I was kind of hoping we could watch It’s a Wonderful Life or something, but once Shelly has decided to take a case, there’s nothing anyone can do.

The game was afoot, whether I wanted it to be or not.

“So, first let’s address the obvious question: Why?”

“You mean ‘Why would someone break into your house, unwrap all your presents and leave empty-handed?’”

“Exactly.”

“Maybe it’s personal. Like they just want to ruin your Christmas or something.”

“Possible, but not likely. Why would someone risk going to jail just to be a Grinch? No, they had a reason for wanting these presents opened.”

As it just so happened, the only gifts that had been unwrapped had been the ones purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Hobbes for their children. These, Shelly informed me, had all been bought the day before at the Vermissa Valley Mall…where they had also been gift-wrapped. This struck us both as a good place to start.

So, on the day before the day before Christmas, we went to the mall and, fighting the crowds, made our way to the free gift-wrapping kiosk which had been set up by the local Baptist Church. At the moment, there were only two people behind the counter: An older woman wearing the second ugliest holiday sweater I’d ever seen, and a slightly younger woman wearing the undisputed champ of ugly holiday sweaters.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Shelly. “My name is Shelly Hobbes. This is my associate, Warren. Do either of you have a few minutes to answer a few questions about your gift-wrapping operation?”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Second Ugliest Sweater, “but it’s two days until Christmas and we’re very busy, so maybe you should just—”

“My house was broken into this morning and the evidence leads us back here.”

Objectively, it was still a pretty weird thing for a thirteen-year-old girl to say to a relative stranger and I don’t know whether it was her kind nature or the spirit of the season, but the lady (Alice) agreed to answer a few questions. Leaving her associate in charge of the kiosk, she took a seat with us at a nearby bench.

“We do this every year,” Alice began. “We rent the kiosk and wrap people’s gifts for free. Part of our community outreach, you know. And if it gets a few people to come see us on Sunday, well that doesn’t hurt either, does it?”

“How exactly does it work?” asked Shelly.

“Nothing fancy. We take the person’s name, make a list of all the gifts they want wrapped and the names that should go on the tags. To Mommy from David, To John from Karen, like that. Then we tell them to come back later—five minutes, half an hour, an hour, depending on how busy we are and how hard the gifts will be to wrap—and we try to have them all ready when they do.”

Shelly explained about what happened and how only the gifts that had been wrapped at the kiosk had been opened. She had even brought a photo of her parents, in case that would jog Alice’s memory. “I think I remember them,” she said as she looked at the picture Shelly had brought. “But it’s hard to say for sure. There were so many people yesterday. We ran out of paper twice and I had to run out for some more.”

“Is it just the two of you working the kiosk?” I asked.

“Yes, just me and Margaret.”

“So when you were out getting paper, she was alone.”

“Good catch, Warren!” said Shelly, softly.

“Well, yes, but only for a few minutes. I just went across to the Hallmark store and bought a few more rolls of paper.”

“Did anything happen here at the mall yesterday?” asked Shelly. “Anything exciting? Unusual?”

“Now that you mention it, I do remember hearing something about a robbery.”

“A robbery? Where?”

“Not far from our kiosk, actually. There,” she pointed across the mall. “That Software, Etc. Apparently someone did…I don’t know, something to do with those gift card things.”

Remember, this was 1997 and gift cards were only just starting to replace gift certificates as the standard gift-giving alternative. Being from another generation, it’s not surprising that our informant didn’t understand how they worked. Of course, the thief would have had to activate the blank gift cards so that they could be used at the store to make purchases in the future. We spoke to the manager of the Software, Etc. and he confirmed that someone, posing as an employee, had activated ten gift cards, effectively stealing a thousand dollars. As he was leaving the store, however, the manager noticed him. He hadn’t seen him before, because of the crowds, but when he realized that the guy didn’t work there he gave chase and his assistant manager called in Mall Security.

By the time they caught up with the guy, he had ditched the Software, Etc. tee shirt he had been wearing and when Security searched him they couldn’t find the gift cards on his person. So, even though the manager was sure he was the guy, they had to let him go.

“How far did you have to chase him before you caught up to him?” Shelly asked.

“Almost to the other end of the mall,” said the Manager. “Why?”

“No, it’s just a little surprising that it took so long for someone young and healthy like you to catch such a big, old, fat guy.”

“He wasn’t big, fat and old! He was younger than me, and in great shape. Probably an athlete!”

“Oh, yeah, I know the guy. Long blond hair, lots of piercings…”

“What? No, he had dark hair, buzzed. No piercings…what are you talking about?”

“Thank you,” said Shelly and we headed back to the gift-wrapping kiosk.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Something I’ve been wanting to try for a while. Instead of asking people for information, make them think you have the wrong information. People prefer correcting you to helping you.”

“And tidings of comfort and joy to you, too.”

Shelly elbowed me in the stomach as we returned to the kiosk. We gave Margaret the description of the culprit Shelly had tricked the store manager into giving us and Margaret confirmed that, yes, he had asked her to wrap a gift for him.

“It was a Sony Discman,” she said, consulting the list from the day before. “The tag was supposed to read ‘From Stanley Sirk, To Kristen Lays.’ He picked it up about an hour later.”

“One last question,” said Shelly. “And please be absolutely certain before you answer as it could be the answer which cracks this case wide open.”

“Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?” I murmured in her ear, and she elbowed me again.

“How many of those Discmen did you wrap yesterday?”

Margaret checked the records. “Three,” she said. “Oh, it looks like your parents bought one.”

“Exactly!” said Shelly. “And, if I were you, I’d call the person who bought the third Discman. His house has probably been broken into by now. Thanks for your help and happy holidays!”


“I know you’re getting tired of hearing me say this,” I said, “but what exactly happened?”

It was that evening and me and Shelly were about to exchange gifts. We were both sitting on her couch, with our gifts to the other in our hands. But I wanted the whole thing cleared up before we proceeded.

“Okay,” she said with the patient sigh she reserves for these explanations, “here’s what happened: Stanley Sirk went to the mall wearing a regular tee shirt. He bought the same kind of Discman that Mom and Dad bought me and asked to have it wrapped. He then put the stolen Software, Etc. shirt on over his regular shirt and entered the store where he used login codes and information (probably stolen from the same person from whom he stole the shirt) to load ten gift cards with a hundred dollars worth of credit each. These he slipped surreptitiously into his pocket and walked out of the store. That, you may remember, is when the store manager noticed him and went after him. He had enough of a lead, however, that he was able to go back to the gift-wrapping kiosk and, while Margaret was still alone and helping another customer, he hid the gift cards inside the box that the Discman was to be wrapped in. Then all he had to do was evade the authorities long enough to ditch the shirt so that, when they caught him, there’d be no evidence tying him to the crime. And then he could just pick up his beautifully-wrapped present, take it home, open it and he’d have his gift cards.”

“But,” I said, piecing it together, “the gift cards weren’t in the present he took home…and two other people had bought Discmen that day!”

“Exactly! He went back to the mall and, during that second period when Margaret was alone at the kiosk, got a look at her list of presents. He saw my parents’ names and looked us up in the phone book. He probably thought it was his lucky day when he realized we were out. He broke in and tore through the gifts looking for the Discman.”

“But he didn’t find it there either. And if he was just looking for the Discman, why did he open all the presents?”

“Either the Discman just happened to be the last gift he opened or, after he opened it and found the gift cards weren’t there, he got so frustrated that he went through the rest just to make sure.”

“Incredible.”

“No, not really. Stanley Sirk is one of these guys who just thinks he’s clever. You could tell that from the gift tag he wanted on the present Margaret wrapped for him.”

“The tag?”

“From Stanley Sirk to Kristen Lays? The two names are anagrams for each other, Warren. He might as well have written ‘From Me to Me’ on there.”

“Shelly, this is a big deal. You actually solved a real crime.”

“I didn’t really,” said Shelly, but her nose was turning ever-so-slightly pink. “I mean the last guy who bought that Discman yesterday actually caught the guy. Too bad for Stanley that he was home when he broke into his apartment. I bet he wasn’t expecting a green beret to be waiting for him.”

“Yeah, sure, he caught the guy and the police actually arrested the guy. But you still solved the mystery. I don’t care what you say; I’m calling this a win for the Master Detective.”

“I wish you’d quit calling me that…but thanks, Warren. Now, shall we do this?”

We looked at the gifts we were holding. The one she was giving to me was about the size of a shoebox. Mine was in a much bigger box, a cube which might comfortably fit a microwave oven. Showing a great exertion of strength, I set my gift to Shelly on the table in front of her and she slid hers over to mine. I was doing my best not to grin. But when Shelly picked up the box and realized it was much lighter than I had led her to believe, I admit I barely stifled my laugh. In fact, the box was so light it might’ve been empty. She shook it, moved it around, turned it in her hands. At that moment I felt like no gift could be better than the one she had just given me: the look of utter confusion on her face.

Frustrated, she actually tore away the paper and opened the box…only to find that I had taped her gift to the inside of the box so that it wouldn’t make a sound when the box was moved. It was also much, much smaller than the box itself, and could’ve been put in a manila envelope more comfortably. She carefully detached the gift itself from the box and I could tell that I had done well.

“Is this…is this…?”

It was. It was a Mylar bag containing a very old, very rare magazine: Beeton’s Christmas Annual. A British periodical originally published in 1887…the first ever appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

“Oh…my…”

“Do you like it?”

“Do I like it? Warren, this is the most wonderful present anyone’s ever given me!” She gave me a great big hug. At the time, it was the happiest moment of my life. “Now I feel kind of silly.”

“Why?”

“Well, my gift to you isn’t—”

“Don’t worry about that. I’m sure I’ll love it.” I opened it. Under the tissue paper was a very nice picture frame. Silver, very fancy, very elegant. But the best part was the picture inside. A picture I had forgotten even existed. A picture of two little kids posing in front of a Christmas tree; a little girl in a deerstalker hat and a little boy having the first merry Christmas of his life.

“I called Mrs. Holloway,” said Shelly. “She’s still there. She still remembers us. She sent me the picture, I picked out the frame. Remember? That was our first Christmas together.” I remembered only too well. The first of what would be many, many merry Christmases with the wonderful girl sitting next to me, whose keen powers of observation I very much hoped wouldn’t pick up on the tear rolling down my cheek. If they did, she didn’t mention it. She just said, “Merry Christmas, Warren.”

Shelly Hobbes Returns“Merry Christmas, Shelly Hobbes.”



This story is reprinted from Shelly Hobbes Returns, the second of two books about Shelly Hobbes available from the Galleons Lap Store at Lulu.com (also available through Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and other fine online retailers)


Thursday, December 17, 2015

FOR GOODNESS SAKE

If you’ve got a few minutes, I’d like to tell you about my friend, Frankie. Frankie’s a good kid. He does as he’s told, he’s nice to his sister, he respects authority and he’s kind to other people. But he wasn’t always like that. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Frankie was a real troublemaker. He goofed off at school, pulled pranks, talked back to teachers and parents, picked on his little sister and pretty much did whatever he felt like doing.
            
But all that changed last Christmas. The rest of the year he had been worse than ever, and his father told him that if he didn’t straighten up, Santa wouldn’t bring him any presents at all this year. Frankie pretended not to care, but secretly he was very worried. He’d gotten presents before, but what if this year was the year Santa finally gave up on him? He had been pretty naughty all year round, even by his standards. And there was one present he wanted more than anything: The new GameStation 4000. It was the coolest video game system ever and he knew all his friends at school were getting one, so he had to have one too so they could all play together. But would he get one after all the bad things he’d done?
            
Yes, Frankie was pretty sure he would be getting nothing for Christmas until he saw the flier hanging up on the school bulletin board:

ARE YOU ON THE NAUGHTY LIST?

I CAN HELP.

CALL 555-4646
(that’s 555-HO-HO)

Having nothing to lose, Frankie called the number.

"Hello?" said a weird, deep voice.

"Um, I saw your flier? The one about getting people of the Naughty List?"

"320 Sycamore. After school tomorrow. Ask for Dixon." Then they hung up.

The next day after school, Frankie went to 320 Sycamore and was greeted at the door by a woman who was, apparently, Dixon's mother. She showed Frankie to the basement, where Dixon was working on his very fancy and complex array of computers. Dixon was much younger than Frankie was expecting; about two years younger than Frankie himself, which put him in second grade.

"You're Dixon?" Frankie asked. "The one I spoke to on the phone?"

"Sorry about the voice modulator," said Dixon, without taking his eyes off the screen. "Can't be too careful."

"So you can get me off the Naughty List?"

"I can. For a price."

"What price?"

"Every single check and/or giftcard you receive this Christmas."

"That seems pretty steep."

"Not if you want something other than coal this year."

"How are you going to do it?"

"Easy. Over the past several years, Santa has been upgrading his Naughty/Nice list to a computer database of every kid in the world. It makes his job easier but, more importantly, it means that, for the first time in centuries, the List is accessible by outsiders."

"Wait, wait...you're going to hack into Santa's computer?"

"Of course. I got into the Pentagon's internal servers last week. The North Pole is nothing."

"And all I have to do is give you all the money I get as Christmas presents?"

"Don't worry. You don't have to pay until after the holiday."

"That's pretty trusting of you."

"Not really. If you don't pay me, I hack into the school's system and change all your grades for the semester to F's. Deal?"

Frankie only had to think about it for a moment. If it meant getting off the Naughty List, and getting his GameStation 4000, it was worth it. "Deal," Frankie said, and Dixon went to work. It took longer than Frankie had expected and he didn’t really understand what the kid was doing in the first place, but finally, two hours later, the deed was done.

"You're all set," said Dixon.

“That’s it?”

“Yes. School starts again on January 3rd. You can put my fee in an envelope and stick it in my locker then. In the meantime…Merry Christmas.”

Frankie went home confused and nervous. Had this really just happened? Had this little kid actually gotten him off the Naughty list and on to the Nice list? What would happen on Christmas morning? Well, that was still a whole week off, so Frankie had nothing to do but think and worry until then.

When Christmas morning finally did come, Frankie crept downstairs and…there were presents for him under the tree! It had worked! Frankie had been bad all year, but still got presents from Santa! He started to think of hiring Dixon to work his magic every year from now on, so he could misbehave and still get toys. But for now he was happy to just play with his GameStation 4000. Sure enough, it looked like all his friends were online playing with their new GameStations.

Well, almost all of them.

Frankie had one friend, Steven, who had been expecting a GS4K for Christmas but he wasn’t on the server. Frankie didn’t worry about it, because he figured Steven was probably spending time with his family or going to a Christmas party or something else lame like that. Steven was kind of a goody-two-shoes, but he never squealed on Frankie and let him copy off his test a few times, so he was all right as far as Frankie was concerned.

In the days following Christmas, Frankie still never saw Steven online. Finally he called him and asked why he wasn’t playing.

“Because I don’t have a GameStation,” said a very upset sounding Steven.

“What? You didn’t get one for Christmas?”

“I didn’t get anything for Christmas, Frankie! Santa didn’t come!”

This didn’t make any sense. Steven was a good kid. Why would he…just then a terrible thought came into Frankie’s mind. He said goodbye to Steven, hung up, then called Dixon and told him what he thought might have happened.

“Yes, I know,” said Dixon, carelessly. “You see, if there were suddenly dozens of names in the ‘Nice’ column, Santa would notice. That’s why my algorithm is so clever. It doesn’t just move you from ‘Naughty’ to ‘Nice,’ it changes someone else from ‘Nice’ to ‘Naughty.’ That way the number add up the same and Santa never gets wise.”

Frankie was horrified. It was his fault that Steven didn’t get any Christmas presents. Steven, who was always cool and deserved presents had nothing under his tree, just so that Frankie could have what he wanted. He felt awful. But he knew how to make it right.

That night, Frankie snuck out of bed, loaded up all his Christmas presents in his sister’s red wagon and carted them down the street to Steven’s house. Then, very quietly, so as not to wake anyone, he unloaded them all (including his GameStation 4000) on Steven’s front porch. He wrote a quick note and stuck it to the top of the pile then rang the doorbell and ran. The note he had written read:

Dear Steven,

Sorry these are late, some of my elves goofed up. Merry Christmas!

Love,
Santa

Frankie went back home, put his sister’s wagon away, then got into bed. He had done it. He had given away every single one of his Christmas presents. He had, really, gotten nothing for Christmas…but he was happy. Because he had done something nice for someone else. And he was smiling as he fell asleep.

When he woke up the next morning, there was a present on the foot of his bed. There was a note on it which read:

            Dear Frankie,

I guess you learned your lesson about what Christmas is really all about. Keep up the good work, and Merry Christmas!

Love,  
(The Real) Santa.

Frankie tore open the present and saw a brand new GameStation 4000. It was the only Christmas present he had that year, but it was more than enough.


Well, it  took a long time, but Santa's IT guys eventually traced the hack back to Dixon's IP address. First, they sent an email to Dixon's mother telling her what her son had done, and she was so angry she took all of Dixon's Christmas presents and gave them away. In addition, Santa's team sent him a computer worm which fried his system beyond all recognition. This meant, among other things, that he couldn't make good on his threat to give Frankie straight F's, which meant Frankie didn't have to give him all his Christmas money and giftcards.

Frankie put that money to good use, however, buying belated Christmas presents for his family and friends. And ever since then, he's been one of the best kids in town. So, this year, when Santa makes his list and checks it twice, Frankie will have earned his place on the Nice List...

How about you?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

THE STORYTELLER'S STORY: A Biography of Freddy Flunkerer


FREDDY FLUNKERER (????-????)
Very little is known of Freddy Flunkerer’s life, but Freddy himself was a prolific letter writer and I was able to track some of these down. From them, and a few other firsthand sources of the time, I have been able to piece together a rudimentary biography of the great man:


FREDDY FLUNKERER was born in the (thankfully) now defunct nation of Jolsonburg (pronounced 'YOLE-sun-berg') some time before they started using calendars, making it impossible to pinpoint the exact date of his birth. His father, Frederick, was a well known huntsman, as was his father and his father’s father. So, of course, the expectation was that Freddy would follow in their footsteps and become a huntsman as well.

But Freddy was different from the other men on his family tree. He was a dreamer. He preferred to draw silly pictures and make up games and stories to share with the other children of the village to shooting arrows at harmless animals. Not that he had any sort of moral quibble about his family’s trade, he just wasn’t that big on hunting as a way of life. When you are the kind of person who cannot look at a rabbit without imagining that he’s on his way home to tell his wife what had happened at work that day, it’s hard to shoot rabbits for a living.

His father was, not surprisingly, ashamed by his son’s total lack of aptitude in the field of hunting. Freddy’s mother, on the other hand, felt differently and she encouraged the gentle, imaginative boy to follow his heart’s desire.

From an early age, Freddy had learned to love quiet and solitude. He had a large extended family living in a very small house and, while he naturally loved them all, sometimes it got too noisy and overwhelming for him. So he took to slipping out to be alone in the woods whenever he could get away. On these occasions he would take his trusty book, in which he wrote early versions of some of the stories which he would be telling for the rest of his life.

It was on one of these quests for peace and quiet that he met Helena, a woman who lived alone in the woods and liked it that way. But she appreciated Freddy’s imagination and love of stories, so she would invite him in for a cup of tea, a sandwich, and a story, which Freddy would write down in his little book, which he often called his “collection.”

At the age of sixteen his father, finally fed up with his son’s refusal to take an interest in hunting, kicked him out of the house. Understand, he was not trying to be cruel, but he knew that his son needed to learn a trade to survive and, being unable to teach him the only thing he knew, which was hunting, he was certain the boy would do better on his own. He gave Freddy six gold coins and his old, wide-brimmed hat (which Freddy had always admired) and sent him on his way.

He eventually made it to the Royal City, where the king lived, but by then he had spent all six of his gold coins and had nothing with which to sustain himself. He offered his services at many local businesses, but, as he had no experience, no one wanted to hire him.

A girl, slightly less than one year younger than Freddy, saw him and thought she could be of help. It later transpired that she was Princess Rose, only daughter of the King of Jolsonburg. When asked what he could do, and not wanting to be kicked out again like he had been at every inn, tavern, blacksmithery, flower shoppe and cupcake stand in town, Freddy realized, like a bolt from the blue, that he did have exactly one talent:

“I am a storyteller,” he said out loud for the first time in his life.

Of course, he was then called upon to tell a story. So nervous was he at being put on the spot like this that he quite simply forgot every tale he had ever heard, read or invented. Thinking fast, he made up a story off the top of his head:

A fisherman rowed his boat out to the middle of the sea and cast his nets. The first time he cast his nets, he pulled them back in empty. The second time, they again came back empty. The third time, there was a single, silvery fish caught within.
“Please,” begged the fish, “have mercy on me. I won’t ask you to let me go free. You caught me fair and square. Just give me three days to set my affairs in order, then I will come back to this spot and you can catch me and take me home and sell me or eat me or whatever it is you need to do.” 
The fisherman thought about this briefly and decided that, rare as a talking fish was, a lying fish was probably even rarer. So he agreed and, with the fish’s word that he would return, the fisherman released him. When he told his wife what had happened, she said he was an idiot for falling for such a stupid trick. But he had faith in the fish’s honesty and, after three solid days of mockery and insults from his nearest and dearest, he returned to the spot where he had met the fish…and sure enough, he appeared, just as he said he would.
“Thank you for letting me have time to say goodbye to my family and friends,” said the fish. “I am ready to meet my fate.’”
But the fisherman said, “No, thanks. You didn’t have to come back, but you did. That shows integrity. I wouldn’t dream of punishing you for that. You can go free.”
The fish smiled. “Thank you, friend. Your kindness shall not go unrewarded. Why don’t you cast your nets one last time before you go home?” And with that, and a cheeky flip of his tail, the fish disappeared.
The fisherman cast his nets as the fish had suggested and when he hauled them back in they were so full of fish you’d think the nets would burst from the weight! Dozens, maybe hundreds of fish! And, most incredibly of all, fish which would never spoil!
So that’s how the fisherman’s wife and friends learned why it’s good to have faith in people…even if they are just fish.

It wasn't a masterpiece, but it did the job and Freddy was hired. He lived in the castle from then on, entertaining the king and his court with many wonderful stories, but mostly entertaining the princess. She loved Freddy’s stories and, in time, she fell in love with Freddy as well. Which was handy because Freddy had been in love with her pretty much from day one.

When the King refused to consent to their union, the two young people (Now aged nineteen and eighteen) simply ran away. Between the gold Freddy had been paid to tell stories and the various gold and jewels the princess had in her possession, they were able to live quite comfortably. And, of course, Freddy’s storytelling usually brought in a few coins from the more generous members of his community. They settled in a village as far away as possible from the King (which still wasn’t all that far because of how small the country was, but mass transit was a joke so it felt further away) and changed their names. It was at this point that Freddy took on the surname “Flunkerer” (there is no record of what his birth name was, which might be why it’s been so hard to piece all this together) and Rose became known as Daisy. In fact, they lived in relative peace for many years, marrying and having five children: Charlie, Ragean, Lauren, Dashiell and Frederick Flunkerer II (who hated to be called ‘Freddy Jr.’).

At some point during their exile, they went back to Freddy’s old home to see his parents. They were both overjoyed to see him again, not to mention to meet their daughter-in-law. From then on, Freddy wrote several letters home to tell his mother about how his life was going and what adorable thing one of his children had said that day and how the stories were coming along.

Yes, through it all, there were always the stories. For the kids, for his wife, for a few coins from the generous people in the village, Freddy could not stop himself from making up stories. But his stories were very different from the others being written in Europe around this time. For instance, in 'The Dragon Nursemaid,' the dragon is a good guy, not a mindless, fire-breathing killing machine. In 'Sir Jimmy and the Helpful Rat,' the beautiful princess is the bad guy and the ugly witches are the good guys. In 'The Golden Apple,' the hero flat out refuses to marry the princess because, even though she's beautiful and rich, she's not a very nice person. He loved to challenge preconceived notions and shake up societal norms whilst (and at the same time) making people smile.

One day, some years after their flight from the castle, Freddy came downstairs early in the morning to find the King sitting in his kitchen. He appeared much older, though not just because of the years that had passed. For a moment, Freddy was worried. But, after a long silence, the King simply said, “Is she happy? With you? With this?” Freddy said she was, because he knew in his heart that it was true. The King simply nodded and left. Neither Freddy nor his wife ever saw him again and from that day on, they never looked over their shoulders in fear again.

It was shortly after the birth of child number four that Daisy Flunkerer gave her husband the idea to write a book of his stories. He agreed that this would be a groovy idea, but made a few fundamental mistakes. Firstly, he insisted on writing the book in Jolsonburgese, the native language of Jolsonburg. This might not seem like a mistake on the face of it, but it was. You see, one of the many ways in which Freddy Flunkerer was out of step with the world in which he lived was that he liked Jolsonburg. Most of the other people who lived there thought it was a dump and particularly hated the language, which was difficult to read, nearly impossible to speak and horrific to translate into English (I can personally attest to that last one). So, even though their eventual annexation by Germany was years in the future, most people still spoke German in Jolsonburg at that time. In fact, most Jolsonburgers didn't even know how to read Jolsonburgese. Which, as it turned out, didn't matter so much because, due to a clerical error on his publisher's behalf, the book was only ever released in Barcelona, and therefore failed to sell a single copy. He wrote another book, an adaptation of an ancient legend of Jolsonburg, but after the failure of his first book, he didn't even try to get it published.

For this reason, many people might consider Flunkerer a failure, but he never saw himself that way. He had a wife and children who loved him and whom he loved very much. His stories made people happy and he never had to struggle to make ends meet or kill himself working to feed his family. Freddy Flunkerer died at a ripe old age a very, very happy and successful man. According to his wife, his last words on this world were “Stories never end.”

As for Jolsonburg, it died shortly after Freddy. The territory had been fought over bitterly for years by both France and Germany. In the end, France won, which is why Germany was forced to take it. The citizens of Jolsonburg were delighted to become German and allow all memory of their former kingdom to be erased from history...and, indeed, that might have been the case but for a remarkable stroke of luck. 

You see, when I'm not writing stories, I work in a bookshop, and I do occasionally find various old books which my colleagues are perfectly happy to throw away for being “damaged,” “unsellable” or “harboring an entire ecosystem of microscopic organisms between the covers.” For some reason, however, my eye was caught by this very, very old tome in terrible condition and written in a language I could not identify. I took the book at once to a friend of mine who is an expert linguist to see if he couldn’t identify it. Looking back, I have no idea why I was so interested in the book, but I certainly am glad that I saw it through to the end.

My friend told me what little he knew of Jolsonburg and Jolsonburgese and concluded that this book, which my coworkers deemed entirely worthless, was one of the only copies in existence of Flunkerer’s Fables. Being an avid devotee of fairy tales, I simply had to know more. So, with the help of my linguist friend, we set about the Herculean task of translating the stories into English. This in itself took over five years (like I said, it’s a terrible language) during which I lost my job, my girlfriend, my apartment, my favorite pair of pants, $8000, sixty pounds and, eventually, my mind.

(My associate never did fully recover from the horrific ordeal and has since resigned his job and is living with a kind aunt in Indianapolis where he now spends all day listening to Barry Manilow records and eating uncooked pasta.)

But when the smoke cleared and I had a sense of reality once again, I had completed my task: The first ever English translation of Flunkerer's Fables. I was finally able to introduce a whole new generation of readers to the wonderful stories of Freddy Flunkerer. Then, to my surprise, shortly after the release of this book, I was contacted by a group called the JHS or Jolsonburg Historical Society; a (very) small group of people dedicated to preserving the history and culture of Jolsonburg...and since Jolsonburg didn't really have much history or culture, that basically just meant Freddy. So impressed were they by my adaptations of his fairy tales, that they gave me a wonderful gift: The only known copy of Freddy's unpublished manuscript for The Epic of Gabria


Both of these books are now available from lulu.com, Amazon, B&N.com and other fine online retailers. Order your copies today. If not for me, then for Freddy. If not for Freddy, then for yourself. If not for yourself, for the JHS, who stupidly entrusted the priceless manuscript to my care and who I now owe a tremendous amount of money. Honestly, I thought the bag was waterproof or I never would have gotten on that flume ride in the first place.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Freddy Flunkerer's THE EPIC OF GABRIA--Now Available

The latest addition to the Galleons Lap Collection is now available from most online booksellers:


From the tragically ignored Freddy Flunkerer comes this ancient legend of his now defunct homeland, Jolsonburg (that's pronounced "YOLE-sun-burg," by the way), retold as only Freddy could.

Gabria has been ignored all her life by a father who never wanted her. But when a savage warlord comes to destroy her village, she's the only one who can save her people. With the help of Asa, the world's worst hunter, and Autsch, the surprisingly loyal porcupine, Gabria discovers her true power and learns what real strength is. There's also a crazy old man, a talking bush and a dragon.

Get your copy today!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

THE MAGIC PURSE

Suggested by the Jewish Fairy Tale, 'The Black Dwarf'

Once upon what we in the industry often refer to as “a time,” there lived a tailor named Jacob. Now, Jacob was a very good tailor and, what’s more, he was a very good man. Kind, compassionate, honest, cheerful and charitable. Unfortunately he was also poor. Quite poor. He worked very hard but, for whatever reason, he hardly ever seemed to have enough money. It was an effort just to keep a roof over his family’s head, not to mention food in their bellies.

One day after making all the clothes he was going to try and sell, he found he had some material left over. Not enough to make another suit, but too much to throw away, so he made a tee shirt out of it. It was a pretty small tee shirt and he doubted anyone would buy it since it probably wouldn’t fit anybody, but he put it in his pack and took it with him.

Before he got to town to try and sell the clothes he had made, Jacob was set upon by a band of robbers. “Give us your money!” they demanded.

“I don’t have any money!” insisted Jacob.

They snatched away his purse which, indeed, was empty. So they took the only thing he did have: clothes. They tore through his pack and took every shirt, jacket, pair of pants, skirt, sock and every last set of underwear. In the end they left him only the tiny tee shirt, which they knew was too small to be of any use to him anyway.

Poor Jacob was distraught. Now he and his family were sure to starve. The only thing he had left in the world was that tiny little tee shirt.

“Who in the world would ever want a shirt this small?”

“I do!” said a voice from behind. Jacob spun around and was rather surprised to see a dwarf…with no shirt on. “It just so happens I need a shirt, as you can see. And that one you’ve made looks like it’s just my size. Here,” he said, putting a hand in his pocket and bringing up a gold coin. “Do you have change?”

“Well, no, I’m afraid not.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Keep it.”

“A gold coin for one shirt? No, that’s too much.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re really saving my neck selling me this shirt. If I show up at home half-dressed again, my wife is really gonna lay into me. Besides, you seem like a nice guy. I’m sure you’ll put the money to good use. Oh, I see you don’t have a purse to put it in. Here, take this one. No, I insist. I have tons of them at home. My  brother is an arts and crafts nut. I keep telling him ‘We have enough purses!’ but he doesn’t seem to hear. Anyway, have a nice day!”

So Jacob accepted the gold coin and the dwarf ran home at once with his new tee shirt. Jacob just stood and gazed at the coin. He had never held this much money in his hands before. On one side, he read these words:

Money used wisely will surely grow.

On t'other side, it read:

Money used poorly will quickly go.

He didn’t really know what that meant, but he put the coin in his purse and went home to tell his wife and son all about his adventure. But when he took the coin back out of the purse, to show it to them, a most peculiar thing happened. Jacob put his hand in the purse and felt not one but two gold coins! Barely daring to believe it, he put the two coins back in the purse, tied up the top, waited a few seconds, then opened it again. Sure enough, now there were four gold coins.

“This is a magic purse!” Jacob declared. “However much money we put inside will double!”

“We’re rich!” cried Jacob’s son, Benjamin. His mind filled with images of dozens, hundreds of gold coins pouring out of the little purse.

“No, son. We are not going to squander this gift. We shall use the purse to make only as much gold as we need. And we must all swear right now that however much we spend each week, an equal portion goes to the poor.”

Jacob and his wife swore to the oath (as did Benjamin, though less enthusiastically) and from then on life for the tailor and his family was good. They never lived in the lap of luxury, but they never again had to worry if they would starve to death. And, true to their word, however much money they needed, they always took twice that amount from the magic purse, so they could give half to charity. And because they used their money wisely and shared their wealth, Jacob and his wife lived happily ever after…

No, come back! This isn’t the end! Yeah, I know it sounds like the end, but trust me, it’s not.

See Jacob and his wife were able to live happily ever after. What they weren’t able to do was live forever. After reaching a ripe old age, they both died and the magic purse became the property of Benjamin, their son. And if you’ve been picking up on the subtle foreshadowing I’ve been laying down these past few paragraphs, you’ll know that he did not use the purse as wisely as his father.

Benjamin used the purse to produce massive amounts of gold all at once. He used them to buy a big mansion, expensive clothes, rich foods, the finest imported servants and a stable full of Arabian cows (which are not as famous as Arabian stallions, but still nice in their own way). And he never, ever, not even once, gave so much as a penny to those less fortunate.

After six months of this kind of thing, a very strange thing happened: the magic of the purse started to work in reverse. One night before bed, Benjamin put twelve gold coins in the purse. When he awoke the next morning there were only six. As a test, he put two gold coins in and took out only one. He threw the purse away, lest it wipe out his fortune completely, and started keeping his gold in his pockets. But they too started to work in the same way as the purse, and every time he took out his money, he had half as much as he expected.

It didn’t take long for Benjamin to be down to his very last gold coin. As a matter of fact, though he had no way of knowing this, it was the exact same coin that had started all this so many years ago. He lost the mansion, the clothes, the food, the servants and the finance company repossessed his Arabian cows. He was kicked out into the streets, all alone.

Shortly after being kicked out, as though the forces of nature (or a vindictive writer) were conspiring against him, it started to rain. Benjamin decided to use his last gold coin to buy food and lodging for the night and then find work in the morning. But on his way to the inn, a little old woman walked up to him and asked if he could spare a little money.

Benjamin was about to say that, no, he had no spare money, when he looked down at the inscription on the coin:

Money used wisely will surely grow
Money used poorly will quickly go

Benjamin felt that he understood that message for the first time in his life. With a weary sigh, and the unpleasant thought that he’d have to spend the night in the rain, he handed his very last coin to the old woman and said, with a sad but sincere smile, “Here you are, madam. I only hope it brings you more happiness than it brought me.”

“Silly, Benjamin,” said the old lady. “Haven’t you learned by now? Money cannot buy happiness. Don’t you remember your father? Jacob was happy all his life before he even got this coin.”

“Wait, how do you know me? And my father?”

By way of an answer, the little old lady started to glow. So brightly, Benjamin had to shield his eyes. When the light dimmed, however, the little old lady had changed into a dwarf with a tee shirt that looked really cool. “I’m sorry I had to take away my gift,” said the dwarf, not unkindly, “but you were not honoring the promise you made. You used the money foolishly and selfishly, so I had to take it back. But now, since you were willing to give your last possession in the world to a stranger, I see that you have learned your lesson. So, here, take the coin back. Oh, and I think you mislaid this.”

Benjamin’s eyes widened when he saw that the dwarf was holding up the magic purse. “I give you my solemn word, o dwarf,” said Benjamin, “to use the purse’s magic as my father did from this day on.”

“Glad to hear it! But now, if I were you, I’d see about getting a room for the night. This rain’s not gonna let up any time soon.” And the little man disappeared as mysteriously as he had come.

With a new feeling of purpose and a much lighter heart, Benjamin went to the inn, bought dinner for all the poor children in the village then went to sleep. But when he woke up the next morning, he was not in the inn, but back in his mansion! He had all this clothes, food, servants and even his Arabian cows back! But he kept true to his promise and didn’t squander the money he got from the purse. And even if he did splurge every now and then (after all, he’s only human), he made sure to give an equal amount to the poor and needy.

Okay, now it’s the end. No wait! Sorry, not quite. I forgot the bit about how he lived happily ever after and nobody ever saw the dwarf ever again. Okay, we’re done. Bye!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

JACK THE DULLARD



Inspired by a story by Hans Christian Andersen


Princess Lauren was pretty awesome. Besides being beautiful and rich and powerful like most princesses, she was very clever and interesting and nice and just about everything you could want in a ladyfan. That’s why everybody wanted to marry her. And when everybody in the whole wiggidy wide world wants to marry you, it means you can afford to be pretty picky when choosing a husband. Which is why Princess Lauren of Someplace Very Far Away decided to set a challenge for her prospective suitors. Most fellows, as you are probably aware, will give a lady a diamond ring when they ask her to marry them. But Lauren had forty-seven diamond rings, so she wanted something else. She wanted a treasure she had never seen before. So she decreed that any man who could bring her such a treasure would win her hand…the rest of her, too, but “win her hand” is an old expression meaning…well, never mind, you get the idea.

Of the many, many, many, many people who thought they had a shot at marrying the princess were three brothers. Their father was just a humble woodchopper, but he did own two prized possessions of great value and he gave these to his two eldest sons in the hopes that it would win them the hand (remember from before?) of the fair princess. To his eldest son, Manfred, he gave a solid silver shoehorn, which is not something you see every day. To his middle son, Maurice, he gave a set of silk shoelaces with solid gold aglets (an “aglet” is the hard tip on the end of a shoelace), which is something else you don’t see every day. He also lent them his two horses and wished them good luck on their quest.

Of course, this would all be very well and good, but sharp-eyed readers may notice that I said there were three brothers. The youngest, Jack was…what’s a nice way of putting this…a dullard. The light of his mind was sort of dim, if you see what I mean. Not stupid, necessarily. Not the kind of stupid where you eat soap and mix up your pants and your shirt and walk into a door over and over again cuz you can’t figure out how to turn the knob or even the kind of stupid where you vote for a third party candidate. No, he was just a little bit…off.

For these reasons, his father thought Jack had no chance of impressing the princess, so he didn’t give him a darn thing. But Jack was determined that he would marry the princess, so he saddled up his pig (he didn’t have a horse) and set off on the road to the palace. Unfortunately, dullard that he was, he forgot about the princess’s challenge to bring her a treasure she had never seen before. Still, ever the optimist, he and his pig, Trevor, went off on their quest.

Being a pig and not a horse, Trevor moved rather slower than Manfred’s or Maurice’s steeds. But Jack didn’t mind, as he enjoyed slow, leisurely trips through the woods. In fact, if he really wanted to get there quickly, he would have gotten off the pig and simply walked to the castle, but he was, as you may have heard somewhere before, a dullard, so this never occurred to him. And it’s just as well, because if he had been going any faster, he might have missed the wonderful things he saw.

First he saw a nest full of eggs hatching. He saw the little nestlings breaking out of their shells and chirping for food. Jack felt blessed to have witnessed this miracle of nature. Just then, a piece of eggshell fell from the tree and Jack caught it and put it in his pocket then he and Trevor went on their way.

Next he saw a snake rubbing its head against a tree root. Then he slid out of his old skin as smooth as water, leaving the discarded skin behind. Jack thought it was pretty neat so he picked it up and put it in his pocket with the eggshell.

Finally, when he was really quite near the castle, he saw a piece of string someone had dropped. For reasons best known to himself, he thought this too was worthy of preservation, so he added it to the contents of his pocket and made his way to the castle.

Several hours earlier, his brothers had come to the castle and presented their treasures to the princess. The silver shoehorn sparkled in the light, but the princess had seven of them. The silk shoelaces with golden aglets were very fine, but the princess was actually wearing a pair at that very moment. They were just leaving in defeat when they saw their brother, Jack, and his pig, Trevor, riding up to the castle.

“How’d it go?” asked Jack, stupidly.

“She didn’t accept either of our gifts,” said Manfred.

“Sorry about that. Well, maybe she’ll like what I have for her.” So saying, he handed Trevor’s reins to Maurice and went in to see the princess.

“So, what do you have for me?” asked the princess, who after days and days of this was getting pretty bored.

“I have, not one, but three gifts for your most beautiful of majesties.”

“Three? Let’s see them.” And Jack took from his pocket the fragment of eggshell. Princess Lauren looked at it as if expecting it to explode or something. “Is this it? An eggshell?”

“Yes!” said Jack enthusiastically.

“How is an eggshell a treasure?”

“It may not be worth much gold, but not long ago this tiny fragment of shell was the most important thing in the world to a mother bird. And as I passed beneath her nest, it hatched, and the miracle of new life was born out of this insignificant little fragment. Some day that baby bird will grow so big that his beak won’t even fit in this fragment of shell, but he used to be so small that he could live inside it. If you don’t find that remarkable, then it’s no wonder you’re so hard to impress.”

Princess Lauren was intrigued by what Jack was saying and asked to see the next treasure. She recoiled slightly at the sight of the snake skin, but then Jack pointed out the intricate patterns of the indentations of the snake’s scales. The marvel of design that had created the snake and the beauty of its movements as it slid like a liquid from this discarded skin. Princess Lauren was beginning to see things in a new light.

Finally Jack showed her the string. He had no speech about the marvel of nature or the miracle of life, of course. “But imagine,” he said, “that before it was garbage, this was a useful piece of string. Maybe someone had tied up a birthday gift with it, or a bundle of sticks to sell for kindling, or maybe a young man tied it around his finger to remind him that he had a date with his sweetie. This string may have had a long and exciting life before it was discarded or lost or whatever happened to it when I rescued it from the country road.”

Princess Lauren just stared at Jack. For days and days, men from all over her kingdom had shown her gold, diamonds, silver, emeralds, platinum, rubies, and other precious stones and metals. But here was a man who saw the world as something beautiful, with magic all around and wonderful stories hidden behind every commonplace thing. She had asked someone to show her a treasure she had never seen before, and it was clear to her that Jack had done just that.

Which is howcome Jack the Dullard became Jack the Prince when he married the princess and together lived happily ever after, because they never forgot that there is treasure all around and beauty everywhere we look…if we know how to find it.