by Dan Swanson
Lightfinger Looie felt really good. He’d been reading the paper this morning, and by chance he’d glanced at the obituaries, and one of the obits had given him a great idea. Yep, looked like he was about to change his luck.
Excerpted from the Chicago’s American, May 20, 1959, obituary section:
Harold “Colorado” Smith, Jr. 1869-1959: Archaeologist, Adventurer, College Professor.
Dr. Harold Smith, born in Gary, Indiana, on July 1, 1869, passed away quietly at home on May 18th after a long illness. Dr. Jones spent a good part of his formative years traveling in Europe with his parents, and learned to speak 127 languages fluently. While still a child, he received his nickname of “Colorado,” which he strongly preferred to his real name.
Dr. Smith received a bachelor of science in archaeology degree from the University of Chicago in 1894. He served in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American war, where he rode in the famed Rough Riders and earned the Purple Heart in the famed charge on San Juan Hill.
Following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Dr. Smith returned to the University of Chicago, which was to become his home for the rest of his life. In 1904, he completed his doctorate, then spent much of the next 30 years traveling in Africa and Arabia on U.C.-sponsored archaeological investigations.
In 1935, he mostly retired from the field, and accepted a position on the U.C. teaching staff. His field experience and his student-oriented teaching style quickly made him a student favorite, and his professional fame grew as a result of his frequent publications in archaeological journals.
In 1940, the university recognized his stature in his field and named him as the first holder of the prestigious Fay-Copper Cole chair in the U.C. Archaeology Department, a position he retained until he retired last year.
Dr. Smith’s wife, Marion, passed away in 1950, and the couple was childless.
So this Dr. Smith had no close family, no wife or kids, huh? It tore at Looie’s heart that someone as classy as this old guy would die, lonely, without an heir. Out of the good of his heart, Looie had volunteered to be that heir — silently, of course; he didn’t want no one embarrassing him with praise or fanfare or nothing like that. He’d just real quiet-like make sure that all the valuables Smith had left behind were passed on to his heir; it would save the executor all that trouble, you know? Nothing any other good-hearted citizen might not do, but Looie just felt like doing a good deed today.
But Looie was dismayed to find that the place was empty, and that someone had stolen his inheritance. He couldn’t have known that Smith was a compulsive planner, and he had long planned to have his estate sold at auction and the proceeds used to endow a scholarship at the University of Chicago. Southside Estate Liquidators had been there the day after Smith had died, and everything that could be moved out of the place was already gone.
Looie thought about going to the cops about his stolen inheritance, but he realized that, without a will, the cops probably wouldn’t believe him. Once again, his desire to do a good deed had been foiled, and even worse, the very same public service organization that was supposed to protect good citizens such as Looie, the police, were helping those who stole Looie’s property rather than the true owner of the stolen goods.
His luck hadn’t changed, or maybe it had — for the worse.
Still, he was here, and the professor had lived here for years and was known to be a little eccentric. So Looie looked the place over good, and he found a secret hiding place that the liquidators had missed — a loose floorboard in the spare bedroom at the back of the house. Behind it was a small leather bag, tightly closed with a drawstring. The bag was so light that there couldn’t be much in it, but it had been carefully hidden, so there must have been something valuable inside.
At that instant, Looie heard the front door open. He slipped open the window and was out the back in a flash. He didn’t think about the bag again until he got home. It had almost got him caught, so he might as well see the sad remnants of his inheritance. He opened the bag and shook out a small package, like a big taw wrapped in tissue paper. He quickly unwrapped the paper.
Inside was a ring. It looked very old, and it was battered and banged up. It might have been a dragon once, with the stone in its mouth, but all the details were worn or battered away. At least the stone was nice — a cat’s-eye chrysoberyl cabochon about the size of a stretched-out dime. He might get a couple of bucks for it from Hector the hock, or maybe he’d pry out the gem and sell it to Jerry the jeweler.
Funny, though — when he’d first looked at it, the ring had appeared to be much too large for him, but now that he examined it more closely, it looked like it might be a good fit. He slipped it on his ring finger, and he was right — it fit him perfectly. He held his hand up and examined it more closely. It was in better shape than he had originally thought; all it needed was a little spiffing up, and it would look pretty nice. Maybe he wouldn’t pawn it after all. He rubbed the gem against his other sleeve, and then jerked his arms apart, as a burst of light and heat flashed from the gem.
When his eyes cleared, he was facing a genie. It was a human-like male figure, bearded with blue skin, wearing a turban and Aladdin-like clothes, floating in the air, with the lower half of the body trailing off into a triangle of smoke. But instead of being a giant with bulging muscles, this was a frail, wrinkled old man with a sunken chest and pipestem arms. He looked more like a long-dead mummy than a powerful genie.
“I am the genie of the ring!” he roared — well, actually, wheezed and then coughed, a spasm so violent he had to bend over. The coughing fit finally finished, and he continued. “I grant you three wishes. If they are in my power, I will fulfill them!”
Looie was very clever, and he responded almost immediately. “I want three more wishes for every wish I make!”
“You don’t know much about genies, do you, new master? I said three wishes, and three wishes I meant! Next wish?” Looie realized the genie didn’t look nearly as ancient and decrepit as he had thought originally.
“Hey! What about my first wish?! You didn’t tell me the rules! You’re a cheater!” Looie yelled. The genie ignored him, except for a frown gathering on his brow. “No fair!” Looie realized he wasn’t going to be able to complain to the boss genie, and that he’d lost his first wish forever. He would have to be more careful about the second wish.
He looked around the room, and as his eye settled on the throw rug, an idea popped into his mind, perhaps prompted by recalled legends of Aladdin and the pattern of the Oriental throw rug.
“Make that rug into a flying carpet!” he commanded, pointing at it. The genie was bored by now; he casually waved his hand, and the throw rug floated up off the floor.
“Boy, oh, boy!” Looie shouted gleefully. This is gonna be great!”
He grabbed a corner of the rug and tried to pull it to him, but the rug flew away from him, smashed into a window, and shattered it, then floated out of the house. Once outside, it floated higher and higher. Looie rushed to the window and screamed at it, but it ignored him, and he watched it silently float out of sight.
It was the biggest wedding in the neighborhood in years. The bride was radiant and beautiful, the groom handsome and smug. Everyone was invited, and over three-hundred people filled St. Nicholas Cathedral for the wedding ceremony, with over a thousand attending the reception. The gift table in the reception hall was groaning under the weight of all the gifts; it was going to take a truck to haul them all away. Dinner was sumptuous, and the swing-era big band superb.
Ernie Earnest didn’t dance much; his hip injury caused him too much pain. Several of his close friends had joined him at his table during the dancing, and they were discussing the decline in the neighborhood. Ernie was just finishing the story about his encounters with ex-Officer Magoon.
“I told Spinelli that it looked like a kid tackling Magoon, but now that my head is cleared up, well…” He was embarrassed, but he was too far into the story to stop now. “I think it must have been some munchkins. Well, something like munchkins, anyway. One hit him low, two hit him high, and then they ran off before I could really see them.” He finished, clearly waiting for his friends to laugh at him.
“Munchkins, eh? That’s wild. Listen to this!” This was Sean O’Leary, the owner and barkeep of The Sword and Flagon Pub, a neighborhood favorite.
“I’d just finished throwin’ out Old Snoddy, forty-five minutes after last call…” This was a typical night for Sean. “…and was starting to clean the place, when someone wearing a mask jumped out from under a table and started waving a gun at me. He took the register key and headed for the bar. And there’s old Sean O’Leary, standing around like a dummy, my own piece in a secret drawer behind the bar for all the good it does me there. I might’a took a chance and jumped him, anyway, but he was nervous as hell and wavin’ that pistol all over the place. Hard to know when he was going to point it back at me, you know?”
The crook sidled back to the bar, keeping his gun pointed in Sean’s general direction. He had to turn to flip up the gate in the bar, and Sean saw motion, close to the ground, in the shadows near the dartboard. Suddenly, the gunman screamed as three darts lodged in the rear of his pants. Sean dived toward the back door as several gunshots rang out, bullets smashing randomly into the walls and ceiling.
The screaming gunman leaped high in the air and came down on a patch of floor that was suddenly covered with soapy water. His feet flew out from under him, and he fell heavily, hitting his head on the bar on his way to the floor, landing face down. The gun went flying. Sean waited cautiously, and when he didn’t see any movement, he retrieved the gun and called the police.
“I normally put out a plate for the leprechauns every night,” he told his listeners. “I left a couple pints that night, too, and every night since!”
“You guys, too?” Jerry Karle. “Never seen no leprechauns, and I don’t believe in munchkins. But what do you fellas think about dwarves?”
For a small fee, Southside Estate Liquidation Service would help the executor of a will convert the material assets of an estate into cash. Depending on the estate, it was usually easy to sell the major, valuable pieces, but there were almost always small items, or things not interesting to collectors, left over. Twice a year, Southside would hold an inventory reduction auction of the leftovers. This biannual auction was always a major occasion in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Nicholas, and some really good things could always be had at bargain prices. There wasn’t a household around that didn’t have something that had been bought at a Southside auction. Furniture, clothes, appliances, toys, cars, tools, art, you name it. And, since the auctioneers all lived in the neighborhood, they always sponsored a potluck breakfast before the auction.
The late spring event was going well. About three hours into the auction, two glass bottles crashed through the windows in the front of the room and smashed, and the auctioneer’s stage was engulfed in flames.
People throughout the large room rushed for doors and windows. Several grabbed fire extinguishers and made sure the auctioneers on the stage were clear of the flames. Within a minute, someone had pulled the alarm, and the crowd could hear fire sirens from the neighborhood fire station.
In a small office off the main room, Jerry was tending the cashbox. Another lucky bidder had just paid up and was off to claim his purchases when a man ran in from the main room, slammed the door, and shot at Jerry. He missed, but Jerry fell over backward in his chair trying to dodge. The thief scooped up the cashbox and dashed out the outside door of the office into the alley behind the auditorium leased for the event.
But there was a rope stretched across the door six inches from the ground, and the gunman never saw it — he tripped and sprawled forward, and both gun and cashbox went flying. He hit, and then there came some very distinct knocking noises. Peeking out the door, Jerry saw that the gunman was lying unconscious on the ground, and near his head were two rubber mallets. He would have sworn he saw two small shapes disappear into the shadows of the alley.
“The rope and the mallets were both from one of the auction lots. Good thing they were rubber! Still, they must’a been dwarves, using hammers like that!”
“Wow!” Pete exclaimed, excited. “A regular plague of wee folk!”
“I wouldn’t call it a plague, exactly,” Ernie responded thoughtfully. “A plague is bad for you, but these guys have been nothing but helpful.”
“You’re not taking this seriously?!” Dave Lee asked in astonishment. “Leprechauns, munchkins, dwarves, running around the neighborhood helping people? You must be kidding!”
“In a world where men fly, where we’ve seen talking tigers and giant robots, why not? What about Shiva and Kali — giant beings with blue skin and four arms each? Now that’s hard to take seriously!” Jerry joked. (*) “Say, the bride’s about to toss her garter!”
Everyone in the ballroom turned to watch — except one lady. She got up from her chair and casually walked across the room. When she reached the gift table, she swept all of the envelopes onto a big bag and darted toward the door.
As she passed between two tables, something wrapped around her ankle, and she crashed to the floor. She must have gotten tangled in the tablecloth of one of those tables, as everything on the table slid off the edge and crashed down on her. The bride and groom were aghast and fearing a lawsuit — until they saw the envelopes that had spilled out of her purse. The thief cursed under her breath; the only word anyone could make out was folleto.
Ernie recognized that word as an Italian name for the wee folk, yet another piece of this growing mystery.