First an update. “Leaders Taste Better” has undergone 3 revisions, but the editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show has agreed to publish it, and it is now on a proofreader’s desk for the final scrub. Orson Scott Card wrote “Enders Game.” Thanks to Steve DuBois and Edith Maor for their advice. Thank you also to those that voted on the title (“The Apex Predator” was the alternative–one voter said it sounded too much like a Steven Seagal movie). When IGMS publishes it, I will post a link on the P3 page.
Next, some flash fiction. My inspiration for the concept was a film in which the villain tells his victim “there is no sanity clause.” I thought there should be one. He would give out nicer, and more needed gifts than Saint Nick. I will caution you that this story is about time travel, and not about hallucinogens. One forum reader did not grasp that. Anyway– here he is,
The Sanity Claus
The man calling himself Sanity Claus had escaped again. This makes the fourth time in the three years I’ve been assigned to the case.
The scene commander sent in SWAT the instant Mr. and Mrs. Lippincott came out the front door with tears streaming down their faces.
Now I’m watching the tactical operation play out.
SWAT clears the house, but comes up empty. We have a tight perimeter set up, too. This guy puts Houdini to shame.
“I love you so much,” Mrs. Lippincott says to her husband. A paramedic looks them both over before escorting them to our staff psychiatrist.
“I love you too,” Mr. Lippincott says. He puts his blanket-wrapped arm around her, and they walk in awkward bliss through the snow. “I never knew how much before.”
I stand close enough to the scene commander to hear his radio chatter.
“TACOM, this is Finger One,” the SWAT team leader says from inside. “We checked all the cupboards, the attic, everything. No sign of the kids the neighbors reported.”
“Good copy, Finger One,” the scene commander says. “Come on out. CSU’s waiting their turn.”
I brought the letter with me. The post office flags anything addressed to Sanity Claus, and the Postal Inspector gives them to me after his examination.
When the shrink is done debriefing the Lippincotts, I get a crack at them. I separate the interviews, of course. The Lippincotts aren’t suspects, but they can still muddle each other’s memories. I take the husband first.
“The neighbors said they saw two children walk into the house with a man in a red suit,” I tell him. “Did you see any kids inside?”
“I saw myself,” he says.
“I was there,” he says. “Me. Five-year-old Stanley Theodore Lippincott. I had a nightmare like this once, when I was a boy. I dreamed a man brought me to a house and I met an older version of myself. The old man explained why he’d never become an astronaut, like I promised myself I would.”
I have a digital voice recorder running. I don’t tell Lippincott this, because we’re a one-party consent state and I don’t need his permission. They usually edit themselves if they know you’re taping it.
“Go on,” I say. His voice caught at the end, but I want to keep him talking. Feelings are the shrink’s department. I’m here for information.
“It was easier the second time around,” he says. “I saw the disappointment in his eyes, but at least I had a speech ready.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
When he’s done I pull out the letter. I show him enough to judge the handwriting. I don’t let him read the whole thing, though.
“Yes,” he says, “that’s my son’s handwriting. Could I read the rest of it?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lippincott,” I say. “That’s part of the investigation I can’t disclose just yet.”
Then it’s the wife’s turn.
“Yes,” she says, “he did offer us tea.”
“Did you see any mushrooms near the tea kettle?” I ask. “Did the tea taste funny in any way?”
“No,” she says, “it just tasted like normal tea.”
“I see. Still, based on what your husband told me, I’d like to get a blood sample from both of you.”
“Of course,” she says. “Of course. I met myself in there–five-year-old Wendy Veronica Taylor. Did my husband tell you about the children?”
“I’m interested in what you saw, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say.
“I had a dream when I was a little girl,” she says. “I’d forgotten about it, but I remembered when I saw myself. I even remembered the man in the red suit. I had to explain to myself why I’d quit trying to be a fashion model so I could homeschool Ethan.”
“And this is what made you feel so much affection for your husband just now–seeing yourself when you were a child?”
“No,” she says, “not that. Not me. I watched him explain to a five-year-old version of himself why life hadn’t turned out the way he thought it would. I just…it broke something in him, you know?”
I wait for her to continue, but she’s staring at a spot in the snow. I go for the two-word-repetition technique to get her going again.
“Broke something?” I ask.
“I’d let my younger self down as much as he’d ever let me down,” she says. “Both of us are pretty screwed up, I guess. I just didn’t realize it until tonight–how much I’d changed. I guess the same thing happened to him.”
“There’s a five-year-old Stanley Lippincott in him that still wants to explore the universe, just like there’s a little fashion model that still needs to be adored in me.”
There had to be mushrooms in the tea. He masked the taste somehow, but I feel sure the blood work will confirm it.
“One last thing, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say. I show her the same portion of the letter so they can’t combine information later.
“Yes,” she says, “that’s Ethan’s handwriting. Could I see the rest of that?”
“Not just yet, Mrs. Lippincott,” I say. “I think it’s the reason you were here tonight, though. We need to figure out how this Claus guy read it when the Postal Inspector took it prior to delivery.”
I don’t show her the part that says, “Dear Sanity Claus, my parents are getting a divorce…”
“Can I ask what you’ll do now, Mrs. Lippincott?”
“I think we’re going on a road trip,” she says, “to somewhere we’ve never been. I’d been fighting Stan about it. I think we need to explore.”
I seal the letter in an evidence bag as a squad car takes the Lippincotts home. That’s the fourth married couple I’ve interviewed in three years. For a serial kidnapper, he’s got a decent track record.
When I get home, I tell my wife how much I love her, and that I’ll never leave her.
I make sure my son sees it, too.