So there I was, drinking myself into an early grave, when she walked in my door. Tall, blonde, and plenty of attitude. Called herself Goldie Locks. Told me she was on the run from some two-bit thugs known as the Ursa Triad. It sounded pretty small time to me, but I hadn’t had a case in over a month and cash was tight.
“I need to find out what they’re after, Mr. Grimm,” she said. “You’re the only one who can help me.” As she spoke, she fluttered those Cinderella eyes of hers at me. I imagine Cinderella, wherever she was, was pretty pissed about that.
Now I’m no dime-store schlump. I can smell a set-up a mile away, and Ms. Locks had deception written all over her. But I was always a sucker for a pretty face, and still young enough to believe I was halfway invincible. It’s the other half, I guess, I should have been worried about.
Locks thanked me for taking the case and slipped a packet of fizzy-pops into my coat pocket on her way out. I wasn’t sure whether it was a down payment, or if she was just flirting with me. Part of me hoped it was both.
I checked that both my .38 Special and my flask of Jack Daniels were fully loaded, then headed out the door.
My first order of business was to get the scoop on these bears. Where were they located? What kind of operation did they run? Was there any chance at all they were strict vegetarians? My usual sources didn’t offer much help. Little Red was doing hard time for putting the knife to some poor lycanthrope. Georgie Porgie had kissed the wrong guy’s girl and landed himself in rehab taking his meals through a straw. I even tried Ginger Breadman, usually my best informant, but apparently she’d played her “can’t catch me” card one too many times with the Russian mafia.
Finally, I cornered a street pusher I knew named Dumpty. A real rotten egg, that one, but a guy in my line of work can’t always be choosy about where he gets his information. Dumpty came on with a real smart mouth at first – that is, until I backed him out onto a ledge and told him I’d mail a piece of him to each of the king’s horses and each of the king’s men if he didn’t spill his guts. That cracked him wide open but good.
So Dumpty told me about some new kid in town who was supposed to know the real score, some hotshot marionette who’d been flashing his money all over and bragging about his connection with the Ursas. Called himself “The Nose.” He frequented the local peep shows, and when I tracked him down he was waist deep in expensive booze and cheap hookers. I could tell this one was going to burn out real quick. Dumpty assured me I could trust the Nose for information, though, because there was a telltale giveaway if the little punk lied.
“I’m looking for three bears,” I told him.
“Aren’t we all,” said the Nose.
“Actually, no,” I said.
“That’s true,” he said.
Okay, so it wasn’t my best interrogation ever.
I introduced him instead to my friends, Mr. Washington and the Lincoln twins – which isn’t a lot of money, but hey, puppets are stupid – and he spilled the beans.
Turned out I was right, and Ms. Locks hadn’t given me the whole story. Oh, she was on the run from the Triad all right, but there was the little matter of their missing three hundred thousand smackers she forgot to mention. Apparently, she’d partnered with them in some counterfeit porridge operation over on the east side. Word had it Locks was real particular, though, and everything had to be “just right.” So when the deal went south, she vamoosed with the bears’ share of the take.
The Nose gave me an address where I could check out the rest for myself. 123 Drury Lane, right next door to the Muffin Man. As it happened, I knew the place all too well.
123 Drury Lane.
The Gingerbread House.
That should have been warning enough.
Candy Land. It sounds real sweet, I know. Dark chocolate sidewalks and mint leaf trees. Who could resist, right? But it’s all a big front, trust me. Underneath the frosted icing and gumdrop façade lies a cesspool of greed, corruption, and a bunch of those really sour candies that make your mouth pucker. I’d had more than my fair share of close calls down there, and a person can only be lucky so many times. But as I said, I was a sucker.
The Gingerbread House was the worst of the lot, the kind of place everybody knew of but nobody talked about. The bawdiest of the bawdyhouses, the brothiest of the brothels, the illest of the houses of ill repute, run by some little old witch who’d decided an honest day’s work baking stray children was no longer enough. By all accounts, the place was a full service outfit, and not just for the Johns either. They covered the ladies and the kinky stuff too. Bo Peep might not have known where her sheep were, but I had my suspicions.
I staked out the house from the alley across the street. The window on the third floor, north side, was my target. That’s where the witch kept her office. My gut told me she was the real mastermind behind the whole operation. There was some activity up there when I first arrived, so I settled in for the long wait. The front entrance to the place worked like a revolving door all evening, with appearances by all the usual clientele: the police chief, the mayor, Little Jack Horner. A real who’s who of the city’s elite.
Shortly after midnight the office went dark, and I climbed the water spout – a little trick I picked up from a diminutive arachnid I’d once collared.
The office was a mess. Sweet bread recipes and old betting stubs littered the floor. Apparently the witch had a real weak spot for the horses. But it was the long streak of old dried blood on the floor that drew my attention. It led from the door to the large, cast-iron oven in the corner. I slid open the grate and soon wished I hadn’t. Someone must have forgotten to set the egg timer, because whoever was in there had been charcoaled beyond recognition.
I surveyed the office again. Clearly someone had been looking for a certain something, probably the same something I was looking for, a something I didn’t think they’d found. That was something to consider. I doubted the witch had trashed her own office, which meant a third party. It occurred to me that perhaps Ms. Locks had taken matters into her own hands.
I hoped that wasn’t her in the oven, though. I hadn’t been paid yet.
I went to the desk and located the false panel in the bottom of the third drawer on the left – any detective worth his nickel knows that’s where the secret files are kept. The drawer was stuffed with papers full of chemical formulas, shipping itineraries, and addresses for every bakery inside the city limits. Whatever I’d stumbled onto, it was a lot bigger than porridge.
Two packages lay under the files, white bricks wrapped in clear plastic. Drugs? Smack? Blow? That didn’t strike me as the witch’s style. She dealt in flesh, not pharmaceuticals. I sliced one package open with my utility knife and stuck my finger in. It was thick and powdery. I touched it to my tongue, then immediately spit it out.
It all came together then – the formulas, the plans, the shipments. I could see now that the porridge operation was just a front. What the witch was really planning was something so diabolical even I had trouble believing it: the substitution of all the sugar in Candy Land.
Everybody has their limits, and I’d just hit mine. No one messed with the sugar supply on my watch. The witch had gone too far. I could overlook the bestiality, but I drew the line at maltodextrin and aspartame. I knew right then and there what I would do, how to expose the whole operation. It was a sound plan, perhaps one of the best I’d ever devised, and it probably would have worked, too, if someone hadn’t blackjacked me from behind right at that moment.
When I opened my eyes, my head was throbbing, and it wasn’t an ice cream headache. The room was dark except for some flickering light visible through the oven grate. A fire now crackled inside, and a faint sulphuric-like odor I couldn’t quite place scented the air. I was seated in a chair, and my hands were secured fast behind me.
A shuffling sound came from the other side of the room.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“Me,” squeaked a heavily accented voice.
A pudgy boy with thick, yellow curls and wearing green and brown striped knickers stepped into the light.
“Hansel, mein Herr,” he said.
I knew the kid, had rescued him and his sister from the witch over a year ago and gotten them into witness protection. Unfortunately, the case mistrialed after the jury ate most of the evidence.
The kid looked a mess. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes moved constantly, darting from one shadowy corner to another. Clear signs of a sugar addict.
“I need to get you out,” I said. “Is Gretel here too?”
Hansel wrung his hands. “She killed her, Herr Grimm.”
My throat caught. “The witch killed Gretel?”
Hansel shook his head. “No, mein Herr. Gretel killed the witch. Burnt her to a crisp, in her very own oven. Oh, the screams, mein Herr, the screams. Mein Gott, the screams.”
He burst into tears, a real spectacle of heaving sobs and flabby shudders. I would have slapped the little doughboy a couple of times to calm him down if I could have gotten my hands free.
So Gretel had killed the witch. I can’t say it surprised me. Not everyone bought into the Stockholm syndrome. But if Gretel had truly gone over the edge, there was no telling what she might do next.
“Do you know what’s pinning my arms?” I asked.
Hansel nodded. “It’s fruitcake, mein Herr, and I can’t break it.” That set him off blubbering again.
Damn. Fruitcake. The hardest substance known to man. They were really playing for keeps.
The door to the room slammed open, and Gretel’s outline filled the frame. She was plumper than I remembered. Her hair was one long tangle, and powdery smudges covered her face and dress like little frosted footprints. She waddled into the room followed by three bears.
“What’s the matter, mein Bruder?” Gretel said to Hansel. “Contemplating a little heroism to compensate for that low self-esteem and high-calorie fixation of yours?”
Hansel shoved past her and ran down the hallway sobbing.
“You’re a real Glockenspiel,” I said. It was the only German I knew.
Gretel chuckled, a low throaty laugh that made my ears twitch. She trailed her finger along my cheek. “You should have minded your own business, Herr Grimm,” she said.
I shrugged. “I was hired to do a job.”
“Ah, yes, the Locks girl.” Gretel stepped back and snapped her fingers. The smallest of the bears opened the wood box near the oven, and a body flopped out. It was my employer all right. Even sprawled on the floor with her neck at that impossible angle she looked beautiful – in an “I was bludgeoned to death with a pastry roller” sort of way.
I looked the bear in the eye. “I bet you think that makes you a real Ursa Major, huh?”
He snarled and pounded his forepaw into my solar-plexus. I decided I really needed to learn to keep my mouth shut – either that, or start ducking.
“So what now, Gretel?” I managed between gasps for breath. “Wasn’t killing the witch enough? Surely you don’t blame all of Candy Land for her actions?”
“No,” she said, “I simply have an incurable sweet tooth, and posing as the witch these past several months has given me the means of feeding it. I’m diverting all incoming sugar shipments here and swapping it out for that low-cal Scheiße.”
“You’ll never get away with it,” I said.
“Oh, on the contrary, Herr Grimm, I think I will. At least, I will if there are no witnesses left behind to point the sugar-coated finger.”
She snapped her fingers again, and the largest bear stepped over to a pot on the oven that I hadn’t seen when the room was still dark. I watched in horror as he lifted the lid and the scent I’d had trouble placing hit me full in the face. Dumpty’s withered face bobbed amidst the frothing bubbles, a cruel end for yet another of the city’s hard-boiled criminals.
“And the Nose?” I asked.
Gretel chuckled. “Who do you think is fuelling the fire?”
“You twisted little bitch,” I said. That only made her laugh harder.
She snapped her fingers for a third time, and the bears started towards me then. I saw my life flash before my eyes – mainly hours spent on my mother’s knee as she read me fairy tales and nursery rhymes, no doubt thinking what a wonderful education she was providing. Talk about naive.
Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all, and as the smallest bear reached for me I jumped up and swung around with all my might. I must have wished upon the right star that night, because I connected with one lucky solid thud that shattered both the fruitcake and his jaw. He was dead before he hit the floor.
I turned and threw a wild swing at the second bear, but I guess it was one of those “fool us twice, shame on us” things. She dodged easily and clubbed me to the floor, and soon the two remaining bears held me fast between them.
Gretel stood against the back wall caressing my own .38 in her hands. I couldn’t believe I was going to die by my own gun – not that I preferred dying by anyone else’s.
“Any last requests?” asked Gretel.
“John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?” I said.
She laughed and fired. Twice. Two bodies dropped to the floor beside me.
“I did learn one thing from Ms. Locks,” said Gretel. “My share of the take was too small. But now it’s just right.”
She grinned and pointed the gun at my chest. I played my one last, desperate hand. I reached slowly into my jacket pocket and brought out the package of fizzy-pops Locks had dropped there back in my office.
“Would you like some candy?”
Her eye twitched, and she licked her lips.
I checked the label. “Uh, butterscotch.”
The gun crackled, and the impact spun me to the floor. My shoulder burned. Gretel walked over to me and I looked up into her face. This close I could see that the little girl I had rescued all those months ago was truly gone, never to return. The sugar owned her now.
“I hate butterscotch,” she said.
She pressed the gun to my forehead.
“Gretel!” came a shout from the doorway.
Gretel spun and fired, but too late. Hansel tackled her and his momentum carried them both through the candy glass window and down to the sidewalk below. At thirty feet up, the fact the sidewalk was essentially a giant Hershey bar didn’t help much.
I popped a couple of the candies in my mouth, then took a good long drink from my flask. I knew the booze was slowly killing me, but I figured that at least that night it would have to wait in line. I pushed myself to my feet and staggered back down to the street. Gretel was dead, but Hansel still had a few shallow breaths left in him. I knelt to hear his last words on this earth.
“All I wanted was to be loved,” he whispered through bloodied lips.
“That’s a real shame, kid,” I said.
What can I say? I’m not the sentimental type.
I checked out of the hospital twenty-four hours later. My shoulder still hurt like hell, but I can’t abide sitting around doing nothing – unless I’m on the job. Besides, fairy tale characters make lousy doctors.
So there I was, back in my office, bruised and broken, with little to show for my troubles. It wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I did have three new fur rugs and a month’s supply of egg sandwiches. And, more importantly, I’d learned a valuable lesson that night that has served me well ever since: even little girls who are made of sugar and spice and everything nice can have psychotic breaks that lead to episodes of megalomania and rampant serial killing.
Oh yeah, and take it from me: fizzy-pops and whiskey don’t mix.
Wade Albert White lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and their two energetic sons. He is a student in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto where he has recently been given the green light to begin work on his dissertation, a commentary on a selection of Old Greek Psalms. His fiction has appeared previously in such places as Strange Horizons, Lenox Avenue, Fortean Bureau, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
“Murder in Candy Land” began originally as an homage to the Sherlock Holmes tradition, but strayed far afield and degenerated into its current form after too many late nights up typing while ingesting sugary treats.