Happy Holidays, readers! This story comes from an idea I had some time ago based on the premise that the George-less reality of Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life continued to exist; a lawless community where a mad man claiming to know people in the town and the funny little man who claimed to be an angel. What would Bert the cop think when the man he’d pursued to the bridge on the edge of town seemed to have vanished, and he had to go back to his life as a beat cop in Pottersville, which I assume became a den of iniquity during and post Prohibition. I may have to go back and clear up some details later, as even though I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, I still probably missed some details. But as always, this exercise is not about getting it right, but getting it write… er, written. Whatever.
A word of warning; this is my usual somewhat dark take on something, and some people consider It’s a Wonderful Life a beloved story brimming with hope, optimism, and sappiness. I may or may not horribly kill off characters from the movie, because of course I will.
Bert looked off the end of the bridge down at the water below. The river was rushing, swollen with the recent rains and wet snow. The kook he’d chased from Main Street was nowhere to be seen, all signs of him stopped where he now stood. Given the obvious, Bert figured that the body would wash up somewhere down river, hopefully far enough out of the township to be some other chump’s problem. It had been a strange night, to say the least, with the unknown jumper (who claimed—insisted—that he knew Bert) and the odd little man who had seemingly vanished out from underneath as he’d tried to apprehend him at the old house on Sycamore Street. Bert was ready to go home, crawl in bed, and not see daylight for at least two days.
It was a luxury he wouldn’t get, however, as the week of Christmas to New Years in Pottersville was “all hands” for the authorities. Not that it helped, since most of the force was in the pockets of Potter, and the old man had a vested interest in the town’s lawlessness. Still, there were petty drunks and hooligans to bust, and they’d be out in force all week. There wouldn’t be a smidge of rest for Bert until sometime in mid-January.
Worse still, his sleep was troubled. He dreamed of life in Pottersville, only it was clearly a different town. Pleasant, even, more like Seneca Falls than a town that never drug itself out of the bootlegging operations of Prohibition (funded, again, by Potter himself with the police and town leaders in cahoots). Ernie was there, which was at least something normal, though he had flashes of dinners with Ernie’s family; something that had never happened even before the shrew had taken the kids and split. The scene that struck him the most when he woke up was of himself and Ernie outside that run-down house where he’d tried to arrest the lunatic and his vanishing friend singing in the rain. He knew that they were singing to the crazy man he’d pursued (and shot at) last night and the spinstery librarian… Sarah or Mary or something he couldn’t recall. As nightmares had gone, given all he’d seen on the beat in Pottersville, it was rather tame, though it left him with a sense of unease.
When he arrived at work next morning, the station house was buzzing. Someone had found Gower, the town drunk, dead in an alley behind what was once his pharmacy. It had been his family business until the incident, and after that, he’d spent time in prison and later on the streets. Bert assumed that he’d finally decided to kick off and do so at the one place that reminded him of a normal life, but based on the talk from the other officers, it seemed unlikely.
Unless he’d burned his own eyeballs out, turned his tongue to mush, and shoved some sort of spice in his ears. Thyme or basil or something. It was being treated as a murder, but there wouldn’t be any real effort to solve it. Someone else could now take to occupying Gower’s regular bench in the drunk tank.
Violet Bick was the next one they found, with similarly burned out eyes. Her lips had been sewn shut, and they found flecks of gold under he fingernails. It was determined that she had pissed off one of her “clients” the previous evening, and when the police had let her walk after a night in holding, he must have found her and exacted revenge. To Bert, it was clear that the two deaths were connected, but a homeless drunk and a dead prostitute didn’t exactly cause an uproar.
When they found Nick, eyes jelly and his body shoved into the hollowed out remains of the jukebox that had also doubled as the entryway to his rum running operations, that’s when the force was tasked to investigate. Potter himself set the dogs loose. While Nick wasn’t an upstanding member of the town, he had been Potters top muscle. The orders were clear; whoever was killing citizens of the town now had to be stopped. Bert, having the most experience on the force, was put in charge of the operation.
There were no leads, at first. Not until a coincidental report filed by a fellow a few blocks from the bridge. He’d been out that night and come home to one fewer trees in his yard. Bert just happened to overhear one of the younger officers who had drawn the short straw to deal with the insistent man talk about how a crazy drunk had claimed to have hit the tree with his car, even though the tree was fine. The drunk was insistent that not only had he hit the tree, but that he’d interacted with the homeowner earlier that evening. That triggered Bert’s instinct, and he took time out of his investigation to talk to the man.
* * * *
“That tree,” the homeowner said, “was the oldest tree in Pottersville.”
“Yeah,” Bret replied, “you’ve mentioned that.” Several times already.
“I think that drunk came back and pulled it out. Left nothing but that hole in the ground; not even roots or a pile of dirt.”
“Now why would a crazy drunk dig up your tree?”
“Because that’s exactly what a crazy drunk would do.”
Bert sighed. “Could you describe the fellah, buddy?”
“He was really tall. Eyes were crazy. He had a kind of, I don’t know, deep voice? It was dark out, honestly, and I had groceries to get in the house, and didn’t want to deal with him.”
Bert jotted down the notes, but already made up his mind that the homeowner’s drunk and the man he’d chased to the bridge were one in the same.
“Did you see him again that night?”
“’course not. You think I’d go out there on Christmas Eve? I could, if you lousy bums did your job, but it’s a lawless slum out there. Dunno why I still live here, if we’re being frank with each other. I just want to know why a man would dig up another man’s tree. Did you know that tree was….”
“…the oldest tree in Pottersville. Yeah, I get that.” Bert closed his notepad. “Thank you for your time, and if we hear anything, we’ll let you know.” As Bert walked away, the man stopped him.
“You don’t think he’s the guy that’s killing all those other folks, do you?”
“I can’t talk about that.”
“Well, he may have taken my tree, but it he’s killing bums and whores, then I can’t imagine he’s all bad. Doing your job, at least.”
* * * *
The police found that man the next morning, along with his tree, deep in the forest. In addition to the eyes, the tree had been hollowed out just enough to force the overweight man into the tree. The prevailing theory was that the killer had missed him when he went to deal with him, removed the tree, and came back later to finish him off.
* * * *
It got personal to Bert when they fished Ernie’s cab out of the river. Bert had to ID the body; what was left of it, at least, after the fish had taken their pound of flesh. At least there hadn’t been any eyes for them to gorge on.
* * * *
Bert was sitting in his patrol car, trying to come up with any leads, when the angel visited him. It had been abrupt; one minute, Bert was looking down at his notes, and in an instant, the little old man who had somehow wiggled out from under him and disappeared was in the passenger seat next to him.
“Hello, Bert,” the little man said. Bert instinctively drew his sidearm. He fired a shot into the little man, who not only didn’t react, but didn’t seem to even be hit. Had the gun misfired, Bert had a second to think before the gun was just… gone.
“Oh now, Bert, that wasn’t necessary. I am sorry I startled you.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“No, no, no… not Hell, my friend. Heaven. I’m an angel.”
“You’re under arrest is what you are.” Bert reached for his cuffs.
“They’re not there,” the little man claiming to be an angel said. Feeling nothing, Bert went for the radio. “No radio, either.” To Bert’s dismay, that was true. He pushed back to try and open the door, but it was jammed shut. “You can’t get out, and no… you can’t attack me, either.” Bert had been about to pounce on the man but found that he lacked the will to do so. “My name is Clarence,” he man said with a childlike smile, “and I have been sent down from Heaven to straighten all this mess up.”
“If you’re an angel,” Bert stammered, “where are your wings?”
“You’ll see them soon enough. They’re brand new. Thanks to my dear friend, George Bailey.”
“The man who hit you on Christmas Eve. The man you thought jumped from the bridge, and the man you were starting to suspect of all those murders in town.” The man’s smile was suddenly sorrowful. “That man wasn’t supposed to exist here, but I had to show him something. Something wonderful. To save him.”
“Look, buddy, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble when I get out of here. You can’t hold a cop prisoner in his own car, you know?”
“Have you had dreams, Bert? Dreams of a different place? A better place?” Clarence studied Bert’s reaction. “Ah, I can see you have. If it makes you feel any better about what’s going to happen, you have a very happy life, there. Here?” he looked outside the car at the “Pottersville” sign. “You’re a prisoner to this place, not to me.”
“You’re nuttier than a fruit bat.”
“You could have left any time you wanted, but you didn’t. You out of all your colleagues resisted Potter as much as you could. You tried to make the town better; to make it more like it was supposed to be. Like Bedford Falls.”
“Do you know,” Clarence continued, “that once I had my wings, I was able to see so much more? There are infinite versions of this town; some that are better and some that are far, far worse. There’s a version of this reality that is nothing but a plane of endless, out of control cancer.”
Clarence nodded in agreement. “Going a bit mad a little inevitable, really, when you can observe all those realities at once. But the one that mattered, at least this time, was the one George Bailey came from. I can assure you, he is not responsible for the unfortunateness here in town. George is a kind and loving man and has long since gone home. Back to his reality. To his wonderful life.” Clarence sighed, sad. “But, his presence here left ripples that I couldn’t foresee before I had my wings, and Joseph has tasked me with righting.”
“You killed them.”
“I did. It is, unfortunately, the only way to keep this reality safe from instability. Everyone with whom George interacted must be put out of their misery. Well,” he said with a chuckle, “the misery to come, at least, if the reality bleeds really kick in.”
“What are you?”
Clarence was suddenly out of the car, standing in front of it. Bert couldn’t move. “I told you, I’m an angel.” His body had begun to glow, and the light grew in intensity until it was blinding. Bert saw, before his eyes began to bubble in his skull, a fiery wheel sporting six wings. He did get his wings, Bert thought just moments before the blinding vision was replaced by the blackness of oblivion.
Clarence stood before the police car, the job done. He had one more to take care of, and he did not look forward to this one. He’d tried to warn George not to seek this person out; that he “wasn’t supposed to tell him” where she was. Joseph had warned him there would be consequences, and he’d wanted to spare her from this. But, alas, there was a job to do, and it would be better than what would happen to her as her if he let her be.
With a deep sadness, Clarence turned to the library, and began to walk, the sound of ringing bells carrying faintly on the wind.