I hate paperwork!

Being the only Mountie within one hundred miles, I have lots of it and can find no qualified volunteers, so I have to do it, even though the holidays were approaching.

Because I have no family, I enjoy spending Christmas buying and giving out toys at the local orphanage, but this year, it wasn't happening!

Oh, I had thought about the orphanage in late November, but that was when the case of the pyromaniac started. Pyromania that even included dynamite.

It started the morning Jere Memmieux came to my office. I was seated at my battered desk and, as my desk blotter was blotted out, was resorting to writing in pencil. I had just slapped my pencil down, having finished several hundred forms (well, it seemed like that many) and was about to take a break when the door opened and Jere walked in. He is middle-aged and rugged and has given me tips before. He's a volunteer firefighter, and quite skilled at it. He came straight to the point. "Sir, there was a suspicious fire last night."

"Suspicious?"

Seating himself, he said, "Yes, sir. I was with the truck that responded. One side of the barn was already engulfed in flames. I grabbed a hose from the tank and ran to the fire. Before I turned the hose on, I smelled coal oil -- kerosene, they call it now. When it was over, the barn was a total loss, and I could find no evidence other than a broken lantern, which might just have been an old one."

"A barn?" I asked. "How much of a loss was it?"

He shrugged his bony shoulders. "Not much. It belonged to Mark Dequesne, who had abandoned it before he died. Well before he died, really."

"So there was nothing to be gained by burning it down?" I asked, cocking my head.

"No -- but I'm certain it was arson, anyway. Just a hunch, but it doesn't seem right. Don't ask me why."

I returned his shrug. Over the years I'd learned to respect Jere's hunches as much as I trusted my own. "Then I guess we'll file it under Unknown," I said.

Which is where it stayed, until there was a fire in a nearby town. Henri Dupree, who rented the house, was burned badly enough that he had to be hospitalized. The only reason I paid any attention to it was that it was also in the Dequesne estate! It was now in the hands of the Countess Dequesne.

I checked with the first fireman to respond, a middle-aged man of compact build. "Was there a smell of kerosene?" I asked.

"Oh, yes! That's what started the fire -- the kitchen lantern tipped over and started the whole thing."

Having already done some investigating, I said, "How was that? Dupree was in bed and lived alone."

"Probably his cat," the fireman said, apparently unconcerned.

"Cats are usually more careful," I pointed out.

"The house caught fire," was his casual response. He wasn't at all like Jere. "How else?"

I had no answer, but there was too much coincidence for me to stomach.

The Countess Dequesne agreed to pay for the damage and to give Dupree a year rent-free in lieu of cash, and Dupree had no objections -- but he certainly didn't benefit enough to be suspected of the arson.

Shaking my head, I returned to my office. There was no more arson -- until the night when they tried to burn down my own house!

I was quite late getting home, just letting my horse, King, find his way while I was deep in thought. King reached our gate in the dark, because he knew the way so well.

Then he whinnied.

It was the smell of kerosene that alerted him, and I caught it at the same time. Even in the dark, I could see movement at the base of my house. Putting weight on my right leg, I swung my left up, pressed it against the saddle, and leaped over the gate.

"What?" someone exclaimed as I ran forward.

"Halt in the name of the law!" I said, pulling out my pistol. Of course, whoever it was ran for the woods beside my house, the fir trees and the bushes -- which swallowed him up. I fired a shot in that direction, with no result.

There was no point in my following him, not in the dark. Especially since, in a few more seconds, I heard hoofbeats as my arsonist galloped away.

I put King in the stable on the other side of the house, then went inside. In the kitchen, I found a nearly-full box of baking soda (I rarely bake) and brought it outside to pour over the kerosene, hoping it would be neutralized. Then I picked up the lantern, which was unharmed, and lit it. Saw a small bucket knocked over, which must have been the bucket the arsonist used to bring more kerosene, for the amount in the lantern wouldn't have been enough.

Away from the house, I struck a match and lit the lantern. I pushed my way into the woods and tried to pick up a trail, but the lantern wasn't strong enough. I'd have to wait for daylight.

Back in my house, I ate quickly and went to bed.

In the morning, I bathed, shaved, and went back to the forest. The remains of the hardy bushes were but brown, leafless skeletons which I pushed my way through. Eventually I found a clue and bent over a hoofprint that was clear enough to see. It was obviously worn more on one side than the other, and would be easy to identify.

It told me something else as well -- the horse was favoring his left front leg.

Okay, I was making headway. I'd be able to identify my culprit, if I found him. I say 'him' because I'm male-oriented. I couldn't see a woman doing what had been done. Oh, they can be clever and even cruel, but this seemed more like a job for a man.

Unfortunately, it took days for my clues to do me any good.

I visited Henri Dupree, hoping for further information, but it did me no good. On my return, however, King took a turn in the road --

--And there, ahead of me, was a rider on a black horse that favored its left leg.

"Halt!" I shouted, pulling out my pistol. "Royal Mounted Police!"

The rider, a large man I didn't recognize, dug his heels into his horse's sides and tried to run away. I halted King for better aim and fired once, twice, and the third one hit the man in the arm. He fell from his horse, and I rode quickly up to him as he lay on his back, holding his wound and glaring up at me out of hard, brown eyes.

"Who are you?" I asked, holding my gun aimed at him.

"Go to. . .hell," he said, through gritted teeth.

I swung off King and walked up to the injured man. "Who are you working for?"

He pulled out a hidden knife and swung it at my leg. He missed. I didn't. My pistol snapped up as I killed my only connection to the case.

Looking over the dead body, I found little to help, aside from a large amount of cash. Payment, I guessed, for the work he had been doing.

Much as I hate paperwork, I saw no alternative but to dig out local property records and look them over. It was profitable. I found that the Dequesne family owned much local property -- including the orphanage! Further, I found they had signed a contract with a realtor, just two days before the original barn fire. I also found that, in the contract, the orphanage was excluded -- as long as it was in use.

At the Duquesne mansion, I was invited in and introduced to a grande dame, the Countess Duquesne, who stood dignified and erect, white hair piled on her head in an impressive arrangement that reflected her position. Bon jour, Mountie, she greeted me. In what way might I be of assistance to your Royal duties?

I'm not at ease around royalty. My only defence was to stick to business. There have been a rash of arsons, madame. All on Duquesne property. I found evidence that you are selling a large chunk of your local holdings. May I ask about it?

Oui.

The realtor wants to buy it all this year, am I correct? Damn, I was sounding like a pompous ass.

Monsieur VanDyke made a very magnificent offer, she said. He said he could sell that large chunk for a very large sum, if he could obtain titles within the year. He was very rash, however, asking for thirty percent commission; he said the return would be so fantastic that the family will still receive an enormous return.

But he wanted the orphanage, as well. Is that correct, madame?

She surprised me by laughing. Call me Bess, please. Countesses are, as they say, a dime a dozen. Bess, she repeated.

It was her laughter, not her invitation, that relaxed me. Ma'am -- Bess. I corrected myself, I feel better fighting with my gun or my fists. This is not my usual way, but I think that man is a scoundrel, a real rotten egg. I dont know how, but he seems to have uncovered someone who will pay good money for this property -- including the orphanage if he can obtain it by the end of the year.

We have already told him the orphanage is not included, she told me.

That's what worries me. I suspect hes -- Well, let me hack up. Remember than barn fire, and the house Dupree rents from you being on fire? I think those were just practice runs. I got the arsonist, but I'm scared the realtor VanDyke is desperate enough to try to burn down the orphanage by himself! I swallowed, then got to my point, Bess, since you dont want to sell the orphanage, could I suggest you put the title in their name? If he doesn't try destruction, Ill return the title, but if he does

Bess smiled. "I'll do better than that," she told me. "I've always had a weakness for the orphanage. You'll have the title, with no strings attached."

I could deliver it to the orphanage tomorrow -- Christmas morning! It wasn't toys, but even more important.

If the orphanage was still there in the morning.

There were only a few days left. Even though I had killed the arsonist, I felt an attack would be made on the orphanage, and soon.

I decided to spend the night watching the orphanage, and it was a good thing I did.

As usual, it was dark and overcast. If there was a moon above, it didn't show. I waited patiently as the last lantern in the orphanage was extinguished. A wall surrounded the orphanage property but, near some trees in the back, there was a place where the wall had crumbled a bit. It would be the easiest way in, as the gate was always locked. I thought that it would be obvious to an amateur and, as I had killed the professional, I knew the attempt would be made by an amateur.

About half an hour after the last lantern was darkened, a shadowy figure came over the wall carrying a bucket. I was close enough to smell the kerosene -- which he put on the ground. He stood, his bulky figure trembling as he gasped for breath. It was from tension, I knew; despite his weight, the wall wasn't that hard to climb. Then he clambered over the wall again, and came back with a bundle of dynamite.

"Hold it right there," I ordered, stepping away from my cover.

The realtor gasped and turned my way. "The Mountie!" he said. "How did, I mean, you must think. . . ."

"I think I know enough," I said.

"They wanted to build a factory here," he muttered, head down. "The other land was to provide housing for employees. They offered me so much money. . . ."

". . .That made it okay to kill children?" I said in disgust. I wanted to hit him, but, well, he might have been an amateur, but he was smart enough not to fight.

+ + +

Christmas morning, feeling both happy and sad, I went to the orphanage. I had a great gift for them, which made me happy, but sad because I had no toys. I opened the door, walked in, and --

"Merry Christmas!" a chorus of voices cried happily, most of them children.

The mistress of the orphanage was a well-borne, dignified lady -- with a mischievous grin on her face. "Mountie," she began, "the children have worked all year on this as a Christmas gift for you." She pointed at a large roll hanging on the wall, then pulled a cord and it unrolled, revealing --

A life-sized portrait of me, on King!

It was no masterpiece. I felt that King was more recognizable than I was. But it glowed with the love of the children.

Two pieces of paper -- one, a picture by the children; one, a contract I brought returning the orphanage to the children.

Somehow, at the moment, the paper I had in my hand was the less important of the two. That exchange of gifts gave true meaning to the words, "Merry Christmas!"
CONTENTS

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