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Mark M Lichterman

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The Climbing Boy16
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Last edited: Thursday, August 16, 2012
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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Picking up when we left off.
If you remember, Zachariah was in "Hobbins funeral parlor" going about his task of cleaning the fireplace when...

The Climbing Boy can now be purchased as a Kindle eBook @ $3.00


Having a somewhat disquieted sensation in the pit of his

stomach, Maybe I ought not be leavin’ the boy a second time

this day. Feeling vaguely guilty over leaving Zachariah once

again, Eh, tis nothin’! Rationalizing, ‘e’ll do what ‘e must

an’ find ‘is way ‘ome without me ‘elp. Mentally brushing the

sensation away, turning away, Johnson took a step toward

the doorway, stopped, considering a moment, then turned

back and, lifting it off the drop cloth, placed the bandoleer

of brushes around his shoulder. “That’ll leave ya just the

cloths, the scrapper an’ brush an’ the rope to be carryin’,”

he said magnanimously. “An’ if the ol’ bastard asks where

I’m at, tell ‘im I ‘ad a ‘nother ‘pointment.”



Climbing Boy 16: The Stiff

London, England

December 24, 1843

                             Christmas Eve

  Going to the parlor doorway, leaning his head through,

he looked across the hall to the door leading to the

downstairs workroom, which was still closed. Walking on

tiptoes, Johnson went to the front door, opened it, stepped

through, and closed it quietly behind himself.


Zachariah watched as Johnson left the room, then,

backing out of the firebox on his knees, standing, stretching

it outward, he looked into the breast pocket of his coat.

“‘ey, Mousy!”


Looking back, the mouse twitched its nose.


“We’ll be through soon an’ goin’ ‘ome an’ then I’ll find ya

somethin’ to eat.” Reaching his finger inside, he scratched

Mousy’s head, patted the pocket, then crawled back into

the firebox.


Finished with the rear wall, still on his knees, leaning his

upper body backward, Zachariah looked to see if he’d missed

anything. “Almost done now,” he said to the creature in his

coat pocket as much as to himself. Seeing a small, tar-like

patch of creosote, he scraped at it until only the soot-stained

firewall was visible.




Brushing the remaining ash into a mound to be swept

up and carried away, the boy was startled by the loud, hollow

sound as a sudden pounding on the front door reverberated

through the cold funeral parlor.




“I’m coming.” The pounding continued. “I’m coming!”

Zachariah heard Hobbins shout from the basement

workroom, then the thumping sound of footsteps on

the stairs.


Hurrying up the stairs, the undertaker glanced at

Zachariah as, the pounding continuing, he rushed to the

front door.


Curious, Zachariah looked out of the fireplace, and by

craning his neck was able to see the foyer.


Annoyed, “I’m coming!” Hobbins shouted as, pulling the

door open, a gust of wind blew sleet, snow and dirt through

the doorway into the foyer. “Yes?” he said in an annoyed,

unpleasant tone.


“Mr. ‘obbins, Sir.” One of the two magistrates leaned his

head into the foyer. “Sorry to be bother’n ya tonight but…”


Peering beyond the policeman, standing aside, “You may

as well come inside so’s we can keep whatever warmth

we have.”


Each carrying opposite ends of a heavy pallet, coming

inside, the magistrates lowered it to the floor.


Realizing what was on the pallet, Zachariah swallowed.


Slamming the door shut, standing with his back to the

parlor, blocking the boy’s view, “But,” the undertaker said,

speaking to the magistrates in harsh tones, “it’s Christmas

Eve and if it weren’t for these two…” motioning over his

shoulder, glancing into the parlor, noticing that the boy was

alone, “cleaning the chimney late me and the missis would

be long gone!”


Expecting a bit of a commission, especially on Christmas

Eve, “We be knowin’, Sir,” speaking with an Irish brogue,

the second officer said, “an’ it’s sorry we are to be botherin’

ya on such a night, but you bein’ the closest, we thought a

fee—a big fee!” winking his eye, “such as from a gentleman

as fine as this…” pointing to the body, “might be’a interest

to ya, an’…”


Looking at the body for the first time, Hobbins noticed

the expensive clothing.


“… might well be a fee ya’d be wantin’! But if not, we’ll

be findin’ another place to be leavin’ the stiff.”


Reaching behind his back, the magistrate opened the

door, bent down and lifted one end of the pallet.


“No!” Hobbins said quickly, thinking the magician may

well be a rich barrister. “Long as you’re here, you might as

well leave it. Come ahead, carry it down to the workshop.”

The officers lifted the pallet.

Turning, Hobbins saw the boy watching. “You! Boy! Get

back to work! Mind your own business and get finished!

Where’s Johnson?”


Saying nothing, holding both hands forward, palms up,

Zachariah shrugged his shoulders.


“I’ll be back to you in a minute!” Turning to the two

magistrates, “All right! All right,” he said impatiently, “carry

him downstairs!”


Catching the threat in Hobbins words, Zachariah

returned to his work.


Making the turn from the foyer to the stairway, looking

for a larger tip, “Eh!” grunting loudly, “‘e’s a ‘eavy stiff, ‘e

is!” one of the magistrates complained as they started to

carry the body of the magician down the steps.


The boy could hear the muted sounds of a discussion

through the open door, and after a few minutes the clumping

footsteps of the magistrates as they came up the stairs,

slammed the basement door shut and, closing the door

behind them, left the funeral parlor.


The fireplace finished, sweeping the remaining ash into

the scuttle, carrying the pail outside, no compost heap here,

he poured the ash into the trash.


Back inside, taking his scarf off, the boy shook it lightly

over the drop cloths and, Mousy, what do I do with ya,

Mousy? Not knowing where to put Mousy, afraid that the

creature might run away, holding the pocket closed, he

removed his coat, shook it also, then folded the cloths and,

anxious to be away from here, not taking the time to put his

coat on, laying it on top, the boy stacked the drop cloths

alongside the fireplace.


Going to the basement door, opening it a crack, “Mister

‘obbins,” speaking softly, “Mister ‘obbins, Sir. I be finished.”

Closing the door, waiting for the sound of footsteps, he stood

back… Cracking the door again, calling a bit louder, “Mister

‘obbins! I’ve…” Suddenly pushed open, the door smashed

into the boy’s head knocking him backward where, tripping

on the rug, he fell flat on his back.


“I’m here! No need to shout.” Stepping over the boy, “Get

off my rug!” Going into the parlor, “Where’s Johnson?”

Hobbins asked. “Why’s he not here?”


Standing, rubbing the growing bump on his forehead,

“Uh, Mister ‘obbins, Sir, Master Johnson, ‘e, uh, ‘e ‘ad’a

‘pointment, an’ ‘ad’a go.”


““e ‘ad’a ‘pointment an’ ‘ad’a go’!” Mimicking the boy

sarcastically. “He had an appointment, did he? I know where

your worthless master’s appointment is!” Leaning into him,

breathing his fetid breath onto his face. “With a bottle of

gin!” Grabbing Zachariah by the shoulders, shaking him, as

if to place Johnson’s weakness for gin onto the hapless boy.

“Isn’t that where he’s at? Not a doubt! With a bottle of gin!”

Pushing him aside, wiping his hands on the bloody apron,

waiting for him to answer, daring him to tell the truth,

Hobbins glared at the boy.


Rubbing his right shoulder with his left hand, and the

painful, rapidly growing bump on his forehead with his right,

backing away, “Mister ‘obbins, that’s all ‘e said to me, Sir. ‘e

said ‘e’s got’a ‘pointment.”


“Don’t you lie to me, boy. I know his tricks; he left you

here to do my work while he went off to meet his worthless,

drunken friends.” Taking angry strides, Hobbins went to the

fireplace, stooped, looked in, then, getting onto his knees

he leaned inside and peered upward, into the flue. Actually

seeing very little in the darkened flue, “Not perfect,” he said,

turning back to the apprehensive boy, “but,” adding

grudgingly, “it’ll do.”


Standing behind the undertaker, Zachariah had been

holding his breath and now let it out.


Going from chair to chair, from settee to settee, the

undertaker inspected, looking for a smear, a smudge, a

reason—any reason—to take his anger out on Johnson for

not remaining on the job; a reason not to pay.


Quiet. Not daring to make a sound, not daring to make a

movement, unaware that he was holding his breath,

following Hobbins with his eyes only, Zachariah wanted only

to be paid and to be out of this place.


One item left: A gold settee.


Walking slowly, inspecting, looking closely, “Mmmm,”

stroking his chin, “Mmmm,” Hobbins repeated as, holding

his breath once again, standing stock still, still, the boy

followed the man with his eyes only.


Begrudgingly satisfied, the sharp clink of jiggled coins

could be heard throughout the silent room as the undertaker

reached beneath the apron, into his pocket and, extracting

his hand, holding it forward…


Taking a breath now, breathing now, Zachariah reached

for the money.


“Hmmm?” Thinking he’d seen something, turning,

stooping, Hobbins once again looked at the gold settee.

Closer this time—much closer.


And sure enough… “Ah-ha!”


“Ah-ha”? Feeling his heart thump, his hand held forward,

the boy stood still, completely still.


“What’s this?”


Craning his neck, Zachariah attempted to peer around

the tall man’s legs.


“What is this?” Grabbing Zachariah by the scruff of the

neck, dragging him forward, forcing his head down. “Boy,”

the undertaker demanded, “what is this?”


The boy turned pale beneath the layers of dirt.


Holding him, “It’s soot!” Hobbins screamed. “That’s what

it is! Soot! You’ve filthied my settee! You’ve ruined it!”

Forcing the boy’s head down, the man rubbed Zachariah’s

nose—as one would a puppy’s into a puddle of urine—onto

the barely seen smudge, the soot on his nose causing the

slight smear on the silky, gold material to become larger

and blacker.


“No, Sir!” Terrified, bounding back, Zachariah twisted

out of the undertaker’s grasp. “No, Sir,” he said, rubbing

his neck with one hand and his nose the other, “It ain’t

possible! I never ‘ad been near it!”


Seizing Zachariah by the arm, squeezing, twisting,

Hobbins pulled him forward. “Are you calling me a liar, boy?

Here! Open your eyes! Look again! No, sir! I told him—that

worthless master of yours—I told him I pay only for well turned



“No, Sir.” Twisting, the boy attempted to pull from his

grasp, but the undertaker held on tightly. “No, Sir! I ain’t

callin’ ya a liar, Sir!” He pleaded, “Ya sofa’s not been ruined!

It’s only a little smudge.” Though by now, with the rubbing

of his nose onto the light colored material, the light smudge

had become a rather vivid smear. “It’ll come clean. Please,

Sir, let me try an’ clean it!”


Hobbins had found his excuse for not paying, even though

he knew that with the help of a few drops of embalming

fluid the smudge could easily be cleaned.


Now, though, “No, by God!” he’d truly worked himself

into near hysteria. “Nothing for you and nothing for your

worthless master!” His face red, the veins in his thin neck

bulging, “Not a farthing!” he screamed. “Out! I want you

out of here! Now!”


Hearing her husband, Mrs. Hobbins came from a place

in the rear of the funeral establishment and now stood just

inside the parlor doorway.


Noticing her, calming slightly, “The gold settee,” he said.

“They got soot onto it and still the drunkard’s whelp expects

to be paid!”


“Don’t pay him! Where’s the filth’s besotted master?”


“Oh,” Hobbins said sarcastically, “no doubt the good man

went off to church for an early Christmas mass.”


“Sir,” turning from one to the other, “Mum,” looking from

face to face. “Mister ‘obbins, Sir, your sofa ‘ere ain’t been

ruined! Mizz’s ‘obbins, it’ll come clean!” The boy pleaded,

“Please let me clean it for ya!” But…


“No!” said Mrs. Hobbins, whom, if anything, was even

cheaper than her husband. “Throw the filthy scum out!”


“Please, Mizz’s! Master Johnson’ll beat me! I worked so

‘ard for ya an’ I’ll be beaten’n’punished for nothin’… Please!”

Protected only by his threadbare shirt, his fingers digging

painfully into the flesh of the boy’s arm, Hobbins dragged

him to the front door.


Mrs. Hobbins yanked it open and together the two

forcefully thrust Zachariah through.


The force of the shove sent the boy sliding across the

slippery porch and, his arms flailing the air, he tried to regain

his balance but couldn’t, and falling down the four wooden

steps, landed in a muddy puddle.


Sitting in the mud, looking up, “Mister ‘obbins, Mizz’s

‘obbins…” the boy tried one last appeal, “It’s near Christmas!

Please! Please!”


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