A dense fog choked the streets of London. Men and women clutched themselves desperately against the cold, bleak, biting weather as they bustled to and fro past shops and dwellings reduced to muddy smears by the gray cloud hovering over the old City.

One particular individual on one particular street in Camden Town was in particular haste. His greatcoat was bundled tight at his throat, the collar turned up but not against the bone-numbing cold. The way he carried himself and the furtive glances he shot in every direction from beneath a wide-brim hat and the manner with which he wore his collar betrayed the motivation for his haste. As he pushed through the crowd, he cast fitful glances at the addresses of the buildings. His eyes kept turning towards them as if they were on strings some unseen hand kept tugging.

He stopped dead at one nondescript house. A woman close on his heels collided with him in a flurry of skirts like blown snow. The vile oath she swore at having her progress interfered with fell on deaf ears. The shrouded figure was already flying up the steps.

The door opened immediately in response to his frantic knock. Rough hands pulled him inside.

"Were you followed? Did anyone see you?" Bob Cratchit asked anxiously.

The figure ignored the question, removing his coat and draping it on the back of a padded chair. The mysterious figure was none other than the presumed dead Jacob Marley who was both very much alive and bitterly cold.

"Let me take my warmth by the fire, damn you," he spat, rushing to the single chair by the flaming arch.

Marley stumbled on the tattered rug and almost went headlong into the roaring blaze. He lunged for the arm of the chair but instead found a wiry, rough, human arm with peculiar shaving stubble in place of hairs.

"Hallo, old chap," the owner of the arm spoke from the chair. "Bit of a nip in the air, eh?"

"By God, Tim, must you skulk around all the time?" Marley asked, grouchily, his heart pounding from his brush with calamity. "Is it too much trouble for you to announce yourself?"

'Baby Face' Tim McPherson looked like a china doll from the wrong side of the tracks. His round, coarse face was powdered but still displayed a hint of its permanent five o'clock shadow. The large cigar screwed into his child-like lips dripped ash on the ribboned sailor suit he wore. His tiny feet, clad in a child's blocky hard shoes, barely dangled off the edge of the chair. His rough red hands perched like small crabs on the armrests. He turned his large, brilliantly blue eyes on Marley and said, "I'se not skulking, I'se sitting. I'se prefers to warm meself by the fire, not bathe in it, as you seemed intent to do."

"You impudent -- "

"Gentlemen, please," Cratchit stepped forward, dragging a kitchen chair from the small dining table and placing it before the fire. Marley fell into it, shivering beneath the fine, just slightly threadbare suit he wore on his short, gaunt, sinewy frame. Cratchit leaned against the table, his back to the small window set high in the wall. The shadow of the crossbeams rested on the back of his tattered coat like crosshairs. "We haven't time for this."

"You are right, Cratchit. Quite right," Marley nodded. "Shall we get down to business?"

"Yer always was a good man of business, eh, old man?" Tim said dryly. He turned suddenly grave. "Speaking of which, I wants to go over the percentages again. What I lacks in schoolin' I makes up for in smarts and yer won't swindle Tim McPherson. No, sir!"

"Swindle you!" Marley shouted. "If not for me, Scrooge and Cratchit would not be as prosperous as it is today. Did I not urge you and Bob to put every penny into the business through my various holdings?"

"Yeahr, like to broke me doing it," Tim complained.

"And now, the business is healthy and flourishing. Is that not so, Bob?"

"That it is. Better than ever before." Cratchit nodded. Scrooge had made him a full partner just that past summer and he had poured his heart and soul into plumping up the company so that he could reap the reward when Scrooge was out of the way. The chicken was ripe for plucking. "We can't distract ourselves with thoughts of gain, now, Tim. You mustn't put the cart before the horse. Patience will win the day."

"That's easy for yer to say," Tim countered. "Yer don't have to limp around all day on this bloody crutch!"

He pulled the thin stake of wood with its padded top from its place by the hearth and brandished it at Cratchit. "Ooo, but don't it chafe me armpit. To say nothing of going without a stogey the whole livelong day." He slammed the offending item back down on its hook.

Marley waved a hand dismissively. "You knew the circumstances when you entered into this venture."

"Yeahr, for three weeks last year. Not a twelvemonth."

"And how do you suppose Scrooge would react if he were to smell cigar smoke on the fair Tiny Tim. There'd be the very devil to pay."

"Besides," Cratchit jumped in, "we wouldn't be in this predicament if your Ghost of Christmas Future had delivered its coup-de-grace as expected."

Tim waddled out of the chair and came at Cratchit menacingly. "It wasn't my bloody fault! Yer try to be ominous when yer tottering on cheap wooden stilts. Gor, but did those things creak to wake the dead. It was yer Christmas Past, I tell you! Too sentimental. Too sentimental by far!"

"I was not!"

"Yer were. Yer got Scrooge all sad and remorseful instead of melancholy and suicidal like we planned."

Cratchit's spindly body quivered with indignation. He jabbed a bony finger at Tim. "You were the one who overreacted during Marley's Christmas Present. You were too cute, too pathetic."

Tim's face went livid. "I was not too bloody cute!" He hopped back into his chair and attempted a pout that made him look like a pensive ape.

Marley had had enough of this.

"We have been over this time and time again," he said. "If there is any fault to be found, it must be placed on the form of the charade as a whole. Except for my parts, which were played to perfection."

"Hah!" barked Tim.

"Now, just a minute, Marley," Cratchit began.

"I said that will be the end of it," Marley cut them both off. "You forget who first proposed this alliance. You would not be so close to instant wealth if not for me and my head for business."

"Yer head for business got yer chased out of the country, didn't it?" Tim chided. "What was it they said? ‘Jacob Marley, like the rest of us, couldn't avoid death and taxes so he chose one over t'other.' And they say yer can't take it with yer. Sheesh!"

"My legal concerns are none of you affair, you cheeky imp. I'll remind you that the capital I set out with bought my way into the Opium trade on the continent and financed this scheme. Also, my knowledge of Ebenezer and his underhanded swindling of my share of the business were the very backbone of the operation."

"And which part of yer mighty organ of reasoning made yer think yer could short-change yer suppliers?"

Marley snatched up Tim's crutch and menaced him with it. Cratchit restrained the older man while Tim endeavored to look innocent under the barrage of foul oaths Marley heaped upon him. Cratchit took the crutch from Marley's trembling hands and eased him gently back down on his chair.

"The misconstrued dealings of my trade are but a product of Ebenezer's corruptive influence on me," Marley said, a hand straying to his palpitating heart. He squared his shoulders and attempted through the pale force of his will to recapture the vigor of his earlier self. The end result was that he barely managed to keep the quaver out of his dry voice. "I may have underestimated the depth of his feelings last year but this time there will be retribution. This time we will succeed. I trust everything is in order for tonight?"

"As well as can be expected, I suppose," Cratchit replied.

"Would you care to elaborate?" Marley asked.

"I put Scrooge to work pretty hard the last few weeks and he's suffered for it. That, plus the charity work the old fool keeps wasting our money on has him wrung out."

"Then, what is the problem?"

"It's like this, Mister Fred has not at this time given us his answer."

Cratchit was referring to Scrooge's nephew. Fred had been a somewhat peripheral accomplice in the failed attempt to eliminate Scrooge the year before. In the months that followed, Marley had decided that his services might be required to ensure those past mistakes were not repeated and had urged Cratchit to cultivate the man's acquaintance.

"What is this!" Marley bellowed, summoning some of his old bluster though it betrayed a faint but distinct whine. "When I took my leave of Messrs Cratchit and McPherson a fortnight ago, I was assured by them that they would handle the arrangements. And now, upon my return, I find that a key element of our plan has not been rectified."

"Now, don't go getting excited," advised Tim.

"I am already excited," Marley replied, then, to Cratchit, "What is the situation regarding Fred?"

"I spoke to him the very night you left us but he asked for some time to consider."

"No doubt considering the size of his share. Cratchit, you will proceed at once to Fred's abode and you will remain there until he has given you his answer. Now, off with ye."

Cratchit pushed his lanky body erect and headed for the door.

"A moment, if you please," Marley said as Cratchit was bundling his long comforter around his neck. He took two steps back towards the fire and arched his eyebrows expectantly.

"I trust that the costumes, at least, are ready?"

"Oh, yes," Cratchit's voice was slightly muffled by his scarf. "I picked up the gown and robe not three days ago."

"And my chain?"

"Ready and waiting at the dock," Tim replied. "Checked it meself."

"Why are you still lagging about, Cratchit?" spat Marley, "Off with ye!"

Cratchit did not take kindly to Marley adopting the same harsh tone Scrooge used to employ and slammed the door to show his displeasure.

"I trust the chain has not been oiled this time," Marley continued. "Last year I ruined a perfectly good suit with that infernal oil."

"No, Marley, no oil."

"Thank Heaven for small mercies."

"Alls that's left is the travel arrangements. Also we'se gots to know if Scrooge will be true to his word about spending tonight alone."

"Very well. I'm sure that, while I confirm our booking to the colonies, you can determine Ebenezer's plans for the evening."

"Consider it done."

"Excellent."

Tim hopped off the chair and regarded Marley quizzically. "Marley, old sod," he said. "Why'n't we jest kill the old beggar and have it over? I'se knows a handful of fellers who'd do it for tuppence."

"No, Tim!" Marley raged. "He must be struck down by his past transgressions. He must know that the past year's grace cannot atone for a lifetime of mean-hearted, selfish, cold and disdainful living. He must..."

"All right, all right," Tim scurried to the door. "Yer asks a simple

question..."

The home of Scrooge's nephew, with its ornate cornices and gilded windows frames, looked out of place on the industrial block upon which it was situated. Inside, Fred gazed at the hearth without seeing the fire. His wife was out shopping and he had sent the servants out on various errands. He started at the sudden knock on the door. "Now, who can that be?" Fred asked aloud, contemplation furrowing his brow. He took his look of concern with him as far as the door but it miraculously vanished seconds before his hand turned the knob. "Why, bless me, it's Bob Cratchit! Would you care for a cup of something to warm you?"

"Thank ye, no, Mister Fred," Cratchit replied. "I am here on a most urgent matter."

"Well, then, let's see to it at once. What can I do for you?"

"I was sent on behalf of a mutual friend who wishes to know if you have reached a decision concerning the proposition we discussed when last we spoke."

"Oh, yes." Fred's face resumed its contemplative disposition.

"May I have your answer?"

"Is it to be the same play as last year?"

Cratchit described the plan in hushed tones, including the modifications made to it in the hope of a more agreeable outcome for all involved – except Scrooge of course.

"It seems destined for success." Fred nodded at the end of Cratchit's recitation. "However, are you sure you want to go through with it? After all, Uncle Ebenezer has made you a full partner."

"That he did." It was Cratchit's turn to nod and he did so, wiping his nose. He had a cold in his head. "But who knows when he'll pop off. I want my share while I'm young enough to have the full use of it. If I wait for him to meet a natural end, I'll be old and gray before I see half a crown. Besides, I remember the way he used to treat me and I'm not letting this past year make up for that. Can we count on your help?"

"He was an awful man, he was," Fred observed, his forehead corrugated with thought. "And awfully rich. I suppose the world would not mourn this action so much as I would be the richer for it. I do agree to help you. Shall we say the same place as last time?"

"Yes, see you then."

Meanwhile, Tim McPherson was attempting to employ every vile oath he'd learned during his time with the circus to beat back the numbing cold that pinched and dug at him from the alley where he had concealed himself to wait for Scrooge. But the former miser was late. A full fourteen and half minutes past the hour. Tim lamented the half-smoked cigar butt he'd buried in the snow shortly before the hour struck. Marley be damned! And Ebenezer Scrooge, as well! He might have finished the stogey, savored it while waiting for Scrooge to show himself. This missed opportunity and the ache in his armpit from the bloody crutch and the itch of his shaved arms and the biting cold and his lot in life all soured his mood immeasurably.

A cloud of blown snow obscured his vision like a blindfold. He swiped at it with a spidery hand. There was Scrooge! Come at last. The pain in his shoulder and the effects of the cold made his staggering out of the alley look all the more believable.

"Good morning, Mister Scrooge," Tim said in his best falsetto, which bore the fresh scars of the cigar.

"Why, it's Tiny Tim!" Scrooge said, delighted, peering at the lame figure before him. "How are you, dear boy?"

"Very well, sir."

Scrooge went on to admonish the ‘lad' for risking life and limb in such intolerable conditions. This done, he led Tim to the locked door of the counting house where, after an icy jingle of keys, he ushered Tim inside.

"Tim, my lad," Scrooge began, shrugging off his thick greatcoat. Scrooge wore his clothes and disposition well. A ruddy glow ripened his once sunken cheeks and returned the spring to his step. He dropped into his padded chair and regarded his visitor intently. "What can I do for you this fine Christmas Eve?"

"Well, sir, me Mam sent me to inquire if my father will be home late tonight."

Scrooge spread his arms expansively. "Why on earth would he be?"

"Mam thought perhaps you might be making merry with him this evening."

"Oh, Heavens, no," Scrooge replied. "I am somewhat drained by the exertions of the past few days and I must conserve my energies for the morrow's charity work. Too much excitement is hazardous for a man my age. I shall retire early tonight, as is my custom, though I didn't get much rest last year." He chuckled knowingly. "This night will be different."

Satisfied, Tim hopped off the chair, momentarily forgetting his ‘lame' leg. He recovered quickly, allowing one knee to collapse most splendidly. Cap in hand, he took up his crutch and with a grimace, wedged it under his arm. "I shall tell Mam at once, sir. Thankee, sir."

Scrooge sniffed the air. "Tim, do you smell cigar smoke?"

Tim dropped his cap and looked flustered. "I-I can't say that I do, sir. Maybe some follied us in from outside."

Scrooge stared at Tim for a moment, then smiled. "I'm sure you are right, my fine fellow. Good day to you and a Merry Christmas."

Tim made his voice as syrupy as he could. "And God Bless us, everyone."

****

Scrooge's bedchamber was a hive of activity later that evening while its owner attended to last minute business at his counting house. Marley dangled a foot or so off the ground in a leather harness. He was in costume save for the chain, which was coiled like a serpent in the corner next to his make-up case. Cratchit was half in the small, seldom-used parlor facing the open bedroom door and half across the threshold. The rope and pulley arrangement Marley was hooked up to was all but swallowed by the high, dark ceiling. The rope ran from the bedroom ceiling to the parlor through a small hole Cratchit had drilled upon their arrival. Cratchit spit on his hands in preparation for working the ropes.

Tim, who was supposed to be lending a tiny hand, perched on the windowsill working an unlit cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and idly tossing a now empty vial that had previously contained an Opium hallucinant. Much more potent than the one they had used the previous year, this potion was guaranteed, so Marley claimed, to give Scrooge an attack of the Goblins.

Thanks to Fred, they were behind schedule. They had huddled in the frigid court behind Scrooge's tenement for what seemed like hours, waiting for Fred to come and unlock the back door. Scrooge's nephew was a regular visitor and his coming and going while Scrooge was out would not arouse suspicion. Marley had made his displeasure known to Fred when they were safely inside. Fred had begged their forgiveness, stating that a pressing matter with his uncle had delayed his arrival and he could not exactly explain to their quarry why he had to cut their meeting short. After he had assured them that the servants had been dismissed for the day and that Scrooge's porridge awaited his return on the hob, he had gone out as they had gone in and had been instantly swallowed by the fog.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Marley wailed theatrically, shooting Cratchit a beckoning glance. Cratchit pulled on the rope and Marley rose up several inches, feet dangling.

"Hardly terrifying," Marley observed. "Pull, damn you. Pull!"

Cratchit gave a tremendous yank on the ropes and Marley soared upwards, smacking his head soundly on the ceiling. Cratchit lowered the limp ‘ghost' to the floor quickly but gently, then rushed to his side.

Tim laughed hysterically. His cigar bobbed like a conductor's baton.

"Oh, my!" Cratchit exclaimed.

He unhooked Marley from the harness. Marley staggered drunkenly to his feet and careened around the room much to Tim's delight.

"Are you sure this little innovation is absolutely necessary?" Cratchit asked.

"Of course, you ninny," Marley fumed. "The more terrifying the performance, the better the chance of pushing Scrooge's wizened heart to its doom."

Tim paused in his merriment to glance out the window. A lone figure approached through the mist.

"Oh, heck, it's 'im!"

They rushed around the room, gathering up their equipment. A faded, unraveling tapestry rug hanging in the darkened corner behind the door provided a perfect hiding place for the ropes, which Cratchit inserted through one of the ragged holes. Then he helped Tim hoist the chain while Marley snatched up his case and the carpetbag that held Cratchit's Ghost of Christmas Past outfit. Staggering under their loads, they retreated to parlor just as Scrooge's key rattled in the lock downstairs.

Wearily, Scrooge made his way up the broad staircase.

From behind the parlor door, Marley rasped, "Ebenezer Scrooge!"

Scrooge froze on the landing.

"What! Who's there?"

"Ebenezer Scrooge!"

"Why it sounds like Jacob Marley. Dear me!"

Scrooge rushed up the stairs as fast as his feet could carry him. The rattle of the door handle to his bedchamber echoed throughout the empty building. The door finally opened and Scrooge scurried inside, bolting the door and leaning against it heavily.

The building was quiet now. Scrooge paused a moment or two to get his breath, listening carefully. The only sound was the faint creak as Tim stealthily approached from across the hall in order to watch at the keyhole. If Scrooge heard the noise it did not alarm him. He returned his key to its pocket and prepared to turn in.

Thirty minutes later, he was in his nightgown, lingering over his porridge by the fire.

Marley, in full costume now, joined Tim outside the door. His clothes were dusty gray, his face a death mask. The chain girded around him concealed the harness beneath his clothes. He rattled the chain loudly to cover Tim's use of the skeleton key. Scrooge stiffened in his seat. The clanking grew louder. Without warning, the door flew inwards. Marley lurched into the room.

"Ebenezer Scrooge! I have come for thee," he croaked.

Scrooge leapt out of his chair and cowered behind it. Marley took the opportunity to attach the ropes to his harness.

"What, again, Jacob?" Scrooge asked, from behind the chair. "Is this to be an annual event?"

"It is for your benefit that I come tonight."

"And I thank thee, Jacob. But I assure you your last visit was a great comfort to me. And a revelation."

"Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!" Marley shrieked.

That was Cratchit's cue. He hauled on the ropes, tugging Marley upwards. The ceiling rushed towards him at an alarming rate.

"Enough!" he shouted, desperately.

He jerked to a halt bare inches from the ceiling.

"Enough what?" Scrooge asked.

"I mean," Marley stammered, then recovered. "I mean my time is short. Expect three spirits and heed the lessons that they teach. Farewell Ebenezer Scrooge."

Marley remained suspended in mid-air. Scrooge ducked down behind his chair, expecting another anguished wail. Marley kicked his feet futilely.

"I said," Marley voice rose angrily. "Farewell Ebenezer Scrooge!"

"I heard thee, Jacob," Scrooge replied, eyes downcast.

In the parlor, Cratchit was struggling into his costume while he clutched the ropes with one hand. Tim, in response to Marley's cue, jabbed him in the ribs and he worked the ropes. Marley began to descend. He hit the floor running and disappeared through the door. Tim slammed it behind him, then joined the others in the parlor, easing that door shut.

"Explain yourself, Cratchit!" Marley hissed.

"I'm trying to get dressed!" he said, his face a shadowed portrait of annoyance in the flickering light of the candles on the mantelpiece. He scowled at Marley for good measure, then carefully reeled in the ropes so they would not hang loose in the bedroom. "What are you worried about? Did you see him shiver?"

One of the innovations over last year's plan was to keep at Scrooge relentlessly. The idea of the ‘spirits' coming every hour to interrupt his sleep had failed. Thinking along these lines Marley urged, "Hurry up, you clod. We must not lose the moment. " He turned his attention to Tim who was struggling to wrap the chain in a heavy blanket to prevent it from rattling. "To your station, Tim. Damn you!"

Tim gently laid the chain down on the cushions piled next to the sofa for that purpose and, shutting the door behind him, went back across the hall to the bedchamber door. He pressed an eye to the keyhole. Moving gingerly back to the parlor door he whispered, "I thinks he's in bed."

"You think?" Marley poked his head out. "Don't think. Be sure."

"He's snuffed his candle, he has," Tim retorted. "I can't see a bloody thing. Wait!" He dashed to the keyhole and returned a moment later. "I hears the sheets rustlin'. He's in bed all right. And still breathing hard to boot."

Marley danced frantically around Cratchit who was at the dingy mirror over the mantelpiece, liberally applying white grease paint with one hand and trying to secure a wig with the other. "Blast it, hurry!"

Cratchit, the fingertips of his left hand covered like miniature snowy peaks, inspected his reflection for missed spots. "I'm not dressed yet."

"Get in there!" Marley opened the parlor door and hurtled Cratchit out into the hall.

Cratchit paused to adjust his wig, then stepped forward and entered Scrooge's bedchamber. He peered into the feeble light cast by the short candle burning at Scrooge's bedside.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past," Cratchit announced in his best falsetto, almost having to shout over Scrooge's labored breathing. "Hear me, Ebenezer Scrooge."

A weak, muffled moan came from behind the closed bed curtains.

"We have much to see and do," Cratchit adlibbed. "Your redemption is at hand, Scrooge. The past holds much you must answer for. Rise up and join me."

The rasping breaths became one steady moan. The bed springs groaned and squeaked. The bed curtains billowed as though Scrooge was clawing at them. Then, with a great rending cry, all sound and motion ceased.

Cratchit was rooted to the spot. He cocked an ear, listening intently. There was no sound. Cautiously, he tiptoed to the bed and peaked through the curtains. Gasping, he threw them open, staring in disbelief.

He dashed out the door, calling, "Jacob! Tim! Come quick!"

The three conspirators crept to the bed.

"Cratchit, what the devil -- " Marley began.

"He's dead! I'm sure of it!"

They bent over the still body lying on the bed. The body was pale, shriveled, sunken and uncovered. The blankets lay in an oblong roll at its side. Marley picked up the candle and brought it closer. He pulled a small mirror from the pocket of his waistcoat and held it to the bloodless, waxy lips, watching closely for any signs of respiration. After a few seconds of intent vigil in the dim light, he straightened and turned to the others.

"Yes, he's dead."

"Woo hoo!" Tim exclaimed. "We done it!"

Marley recovered his wits enough to say, "Must all of London know about it?"

"Sorry."

"Let's get out of here," Cratchit said, throwing an arm around each of his companions and turning them towards the door. "I've got a bottle that's been aging for a year longer than it should have. What say you we -- "

Suddenly the sheets rustled behind them. "Wooooooooouuuuuuu!"

All three turned as one and stared in horror at the ghostly figure rising from the bed. Its face was bleached white, the lips ghastly blood red. It reached bony, pale arms at them and cried again, "Wooooooooouuuuuuu!"

The room erupted in motion. Cratchit snatched up the hem of his dress and bolted for the door. Marley staggered back, a hand clutched to his chest. Tim back-pedaled quickly, his face a mask of sheer fright.

Cratchit managed to yank the door open and dashed out. His feet became entangled in the dress and he tumbled down the broad staircase, landing with his head at an odd angle to the rest of his body.

With a groan, Marley collapsed onto the cold floor behind the chair. His breath rattled wetly, then left him.

Scrooge leapt off the bed and pursued Tim. Shrieking, Tim darted this way and that until finally throwing himself out the window in panic. A cry died in his throat as the cobblestones rushed forward to meet him.

The ghostly specter looked around threateningly, then laughed hysterically, dancing about, clutching his sides. Fred stuck his head out from the false panel above the bed's headboard for a look around. Satisfied, he jumped down onto the mattress and picked up the wax replica of Scrooge from beneath the blankets.

"Well, uncle," he said, "there's a job well done."

"To be sure, to be sure." Scrooge nodded vigorously.

"The carriage is downstairs."

"Will you require assistance with the bodies?"

"Oh, I'll manage."

"Are you sure no questions will be asked?" Scrooge's smile waned.

"Utterly," Fred replied. "By the time the good doctor has completed his experiments, there won't be much left of this lot. He has given me his word on it and Dr. Frankenstein is an honorable man."

"Excellent."

"As to the estates of our benefactors here, when shall we see the profits from out night's labor?"

"Merely say the word, nephew. The fools had every cent invested in the firm."

"Very good, then, uncle."

Fred adjusted the dummy under his arm and headed for the door. The clock tower outside began sounding the dawn of Christmas day. Fred stopped at the sound and turned back to Scrooge. "A Merry Christmas to you, uncle."

"And God Bless them, everyone."

THE END