The Soloist: Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight, or you can start from the beginning.

My mom doesn’t like Christmas, the boy had said. Or staying put.

No one who sang Christmas songs like Talia Benson didn’t like Christmas, but Reilly filed that bit of teenage insight away to worry over later. The hungry look on Eli Slattery’s face when they’d trimmed the Church giving tree for Sunday’s service spoke volumes.

Reilly stopped at Snowflake Greens and Trees, the annual December pop-up tree lot in the market parking lot, and picked up a four-foot Fraser fir with a simple stand and a couple of strings of lights. There were boxes of red glass globes for sale, too, so he picked one of those up too. Eli was staying late at school to work on a project with Haley Jay and some of her friends, so Reilly didn’t expect him for a volunteer shift. He figured he’d drop the festive supplies off at Talia’s house with a note, before heading home to finish the Christmas Eve service in the comfort of his couch.

The slick Mercedes SUV in her driveway surprised him. Reilly pulled his beat up Ford in behind it and cut the engine. He was hoisting the tree out of the bed when the driver of the Mercedes pushed his way out of his ride. The dark, elegant suit could have paid Talia’s rent for a couple of months; Reilly noted tasteful cufflinks and an expensive timepiece before the stranger smashed a fist into his jaw.

His head snapped back and stars bloomed behind his eyes, but he held it together. There was blood in his mouth, he spat it out. “What the hell?”

The stranger’s eyes were flat and cold. “Stay the fuck away from my wife.”

“Talia Benson?”

Reilly knew he was provoking the flashy psychopath, but he figured they were already past pleasantries. When the suit pinned him the cab of his truck by the windpipe, black fog narrowed his vision.

“Natalia Slattery, asshole.”

In what remained of Reilly’s consciousness, he recalled splashy headlines. An heir to a global shipping and real estate empire, a concert soprano, allegations of abuse… Reilly tried to suck in a breath, but the starry blackness was creeping inward. A car door slammed somewhere far away.

“Jesus, Blaine! Let him go!”

Oxygen flooded his lungs, and Reilly slumped back against the truck. Feeling returned to his face in form of a throbbing jaw. Talia was running across the frozen grass. She hit the stranger at a full run, pushing the man backwards towards the Mercedes. “He’s a pastor, you crazy bastard. What is wrong with you?”

The man—Blaine—put his suit and tie to rights and cleared his throat. He sneered at Reilly. “Does he know you’re hardly an angel, babe?”

Talia’s cheeks flushed scarlet, but she said nothing. Reilly pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped the emergency numbers.

Blaine looked at his watch. “Where’s Elijah? I’m taking him home for Christmas.”

“No, Blaine. You’re not. He was quite clear the last time you tried that. You terrify him.”

“Only because you poisoned his mind against me.”

“You did that on your own.” Talia squared her shoulders. “Leave us alone, Blaine. We don’t want you.”

Blaine’s arm whipped up. Reilly heaved himself up to defend Talia, but Blaine only grabbed her arm and hauled her close. “I don’t think you get it. I don’t care. I want my family where they belong.”

The officer that rolled up pulled his Interceptor onto the shoulder in front of Talia’s house and stepped out of the SUV. Reilly recognized him from Hank’s. “Is there a problem, ma’am? Are you okay? Reverend Hunt?”

Reilly watched Talia, who stared hard at Blaine.

Blaine released Talia and stepped back.

Her voice wavered slightly. “I think Mr. Slattery is leaving.”

Blaine climbed into and backed the SUV slowly out of Talia’s driveway. Reilly’s head swam; he’d never been a brawler. Talia, it seemed, was made of sterner stuff. She came to him, touched his tender jaw and bruised neck with steady fingers.

“He hurt you.”

Reilly felt that touch to his toes. “Has he hurt you?”

“Not my body, if that’s what you mean.” Her smile twisted at the corner. “It’s a long, terrible story, but Reilly?”

Reilly held her gaze. “Yeah?”

“I’m not his wife.”

His jaw ached like fury, but he was smiling some when he walked with her to speak with the officer who was watching Slattery’s tail lights in the distance.

To be continued in Part Ten

Star of Wonder, Star of Night: Part Eight

cameron-garriepy-star-of-wonderContinued from Part Seven, or you can start from the beginning.

Sterling fought the urge to put her kettle on for her. The disconnect between her presence and his own history in the cabin pressed on him. “I’m not good at keeping things to myself, so I’ll just tell you: I knew Jack a long time ago. I spent a lot of time here just after college.”

Ivy opened the broom closet she’d made over into a small pantry and pulled out the cocoa powder. When she turned to him, he tried not to notice the sheen of unshed tears in her eyes. “You knew Uncle Jack?”

Sterling leaned back against the kitchen sink. “It’s all a circle, I guess, or a helix. Tony hired Jack at the warehouse when Jack was in high school. When I was unemployed, angry, and on the brink of getting unruly, Tony sent me to Jack to help him keep up with the place. He didn’t tell me how sick Jack was, just that I needed to get my shit together and do something useful with my time.”

He watched as Ivy measured milk, sugar, and cocoa into a saucepan, pinching salt from a little copper dish and sprinkling it over the lightly steaming milk. He got the feeling she was busying her hands while she figured out what to say. Her face was so like her uncle’s.

Ivy stirred while she spoke. “We just missed one another, then. I used to come up here for summers when I was a kid, but I was away at boarding school at the end, and my mom didn’t want me to know how bad things were.” She swiped at her eyes and gave him a wobbly smile. “He sent me postcards. One a week. There was one that last spring before he died, where he mentioned Tony’s nephew Junior. He told me he was teaching Junior to use the telescope, that I’d like him. That’s you, isn’t it?”

Sterling shook his head. Junior. For the first time in a lot of years, the nickname didn’t rankle. Tony had been calling him that since birth, or so family lore went. Tony’s family influence was so pervasive that only his mother held out and used his given name, and he wasn’t even named after his father.

Once he’d found and taken that first job in D.C., he’d half-jokingly told people he’d run away from home to dodge a bad nickname. Julia had never known it existed. She hadn’t cared about Sterling’s Vermont tree-farmer family.

Ivy was pouring the hot chocolate into the two lopsided pottery mugs Jack had prized over any others. Sterling knew the story there; Ivy had made them for him half a lifetime ago. He took Jack’s from her outstretched hand. “He told me I was a lot like his niece. I was not in my most insightful and sensitive years, then. I think I forgot that almost as soon as he said it.”

Her replying smile touched her eyes, but there was sadness in them even so. He heard the attempt at playful humor fall flat in her delivery. “I am infinitely forgettable.”

Sterling’s chest tightened while Ivy’s words hung between them. She was the farthest thing from forgettable: a cloud of honey-colored curls, a sweet smile, and just a hint, under all her layers of warm work clothes, of curves in all the best places. Even better, from where he stood, she knew something of the night sky, and cared about the people around her.

“Jack didn’t think so. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to him.”

To be continued

Star of Wonder, Star of Night: Part Seven

cameron-garriepy-star-of-wonderContinued from Part Six, or you can start from the beginning.

A gentle tapping on the barn door’s frame pulled Ivy’s attention away from Iphi’s hooves. She was least docile of the quartet when it came to pedicures.

“Last stall on the right,” she called. Phlox, she imagined, back from her spa trip to Stowe with her college roommate, or Tony dropping by to look at one of the endless projects the homestead required.

“I don’t think I ever considered you’d have to trim their hooves.” Sterling’s hot-cocoa voice announced him before he did by name.

Ivy finished rasping the rough bits from her trimming job without looking at her visitor. She’d gotten better since summer. So had her bruised shins. Iphi was a kicker. “I didn’t either, before I bought them. I went to a seminar, and the speaker said something like, ‘The seat of your pants was made to fly.’* I have taken that advice around the block and back this year.” She blushed quietly into Iphi’s coat. Why had she said that? He didn’t care about seminars or goat hooves. She stowed her tools on a shelf outside the stall as she latched it behind her. “Can I help you with something?”

Sterling was carrying a wreath of cedar and bittersweet berries, wrapped in cream and gold ribbon and tied with a floppy, extravagant bow. “Help? No. I brought you a wreath.”

It was the perfect wreath. Soft and wintry, far from the ostentatious ones her former neighbors had favored. It would look beautiful on the cabin’s front door. He stood there holding it carefully like an offering, something beseeching in his expression.

Men with offerings apparently made her stammer. “You shouldn’t have.”

The corners of his mouth turned down to frame his smile with self-deprecating humor. “I absolutely should. My mother would take a switch to my rear end for the way I behaved to you. Twice. My only excuse is a rough year.”

“I think I like your mother.” Ivy bit back a laugh. Who says that? “Sorry.”

His smile was a delight. It changed his entire face. “She’s a hot ticket, my mom. She’d like that you said that out loud.” Sterling let the wreath loop over one arm and pocketed the other hand. “Where would you like this?”

Ivy blinked, then recalled her own manners and reached for the gift. “I’ll hang it up on the front door later. In the meantime, can I make you a cup of cocoa?” Like your voice?

He looked as though he would refuse once again; his yes surprised her.

To be continued...

*actual advice from Michael Neill, who was the keynote speaker at a board meeting I attended in October. I’m not usually one for those kinds of speakers, but he was pretty great.

Santa’s Photographer: Finale

Santa's PhotographerContinued from Part Eleven. To read from the beginning, start here.

Shell clocked out of the Outpost for the last time at 4:37 PM on December 23rd. Inhaling deeply, she shook her hair out in an effort to get rid of the wig-head. if there was ever a last chance to make a first impression, this was it.

Riddle & Blade was, just as Tish directed, at the Macy’s end of the mall, tucked into the corner near the elevators. She paused outside the storefront. The window displayed a stack of familiar, popular detective novels — signed copies available! — and some beautiful, elaborate costumes that Shell didn’t recognize at all except as things of beauty. Inside was a mish-mash: books and movies, video games and board games, costumes, accessories, ephemera all out of worlds she didn’t know, but felt drawn to simply because they were cleverly arranged.

Gib had a great eye.

“You’re welcome to come in. I think we might have that Madame Vastra gown and veil in your size.”

Shell squeaked in surprise; Gib himself was behind her, hands in the pockets of his khakis, collar of his quarter-zip sweater grazing his angular jaw. His eyes were soft with warmth and humor.

“I’m sorry I was cross the other day –”

“I’m sorry about what I said –”

They laughed as they tripped over one another’s apologies, and Gib was the first to speak. “Can I buy you a drink?

“Yes.” Shell’s answer was past her lips before her brain caught up. “But I have to be home early-ish. I have a flight to catch in the morning.”

“One drink.”

***

Gib nursed his Scotch while she lingered over another Lemon Flower. He touched her hand when he spoke to her. His eyes lit up like Christmas when he told her stories about Cade. He blushed when he told her how delighted he was by her work. He listened — really listened — when she talked about her plans for the photography business. In the gentle light of their corner booth, Shell felt the world tilting on its axis.

“I can’t keep you up late,” Gib said, checking his watch over a last sip of his drink. “Even if it would be nice to have you in town this weekend because of a missed flight.”

 

He called her a cab and waited in the lamplight with her for it to arrive. The night was dry, a bitter wind blew down the city blocks, but Shell burned bright in the amber and ink night. She reached up to tuck a loose wave of his hair behind his ear, but when their lips met she sighed into the happy inevitability of the kiss.

When the Yellow Taxi pulled up in front of Twist, Shell opened the car door, but couldn’t bring herself to break the spell.

Gib stroked her lower lip with his thumb and smiled. “I know you’ll be with your family for Christmas, but what are you doing New Year’s Eve?”

Shell laughed and bit her lip. “Something quiet, with you?”

Gib laced his fingers together, his smile gone slightly guarded. “A movie, after I tuck Cade in?”

“Cade!” Shell reached into her purse for her phone and pulled Gib down so their faces were close again. “Smile.” She kissed Gib’s cheek and snapped a quick photo of the two of them together in the gold light. “Show him this on Christmas morning. Tell him I talked to Santa, and I’ll see him next week.”

Santa’s Photographer: Part Eleven

Santa's PhotographerContinued from Part Ten. To read from the beginning, start here.

When you’d been divorced for a little less than half as long as your son had been alive, at least there was time to build your own traditions as he grew. Or so Gib told himself. Liz’s abrupt departure from their life and home, when Cade was only two, had left holes in the fabric of his and Cade’s Decembers. Gib did his best to fill his time with his son with their own special brand of holiday cheer.

He and Cade hung their stockings — his a red and gold satin Ironman look-alike, Cade’s a Navy blue satin, 60s Batman throwback — from the mantle of his apartment’s defunct fireplace. They trimmed the tree with Gib’s collection of  light-up Star Trek ships, a glass T.A.R.D.I.S., his TMNT and X-Files action figures suspended with slim red ribbons, and the polymer clay Lego minifig ornament collection he’d picked up for Cade on Etsy. When they added Cade’s homemade pipe-cleaner, cotton ball, and popsicle stick creations, the four-foot fake Fraser Fir looked pretty festive sitting in the bay window that faced the street.

So what if it was still three days until Christmas? The gift-giving would still be special on the 26th. Cade had a little brother now; Gib knew there would be compromises made.

Gib finished reading The Polar Express and tucked Cade’s blanket in under his chin. “Any special wishes for the Big Elf this year, Shortstack?”

Cade’s face was rosy and slack with impending sleep. “I can’t tell. It’s a magic secret.”

Gib smoothed back Cade’s hair and kissed his cheek. “You’ve got a good heart, little man. I hope Mr. C. is listening.”

He left his son in the care of the vintage bubble-light night-light, and went to the kitchen for a second slice of chocolate pound cake and a finger of The Macallen Cask Strength, neat. He stretched out with his snack on the sofa and opened his copy of Copper Mockingbird. He understood Piper’s fangirlishness for Ewan Lovatt’s steampunk detective series. Alasdair Sledge was a brilliant, flawed hero, and Sledge’s accomplice and unrequited love, the beautiful and independent naturalist, Cordelia Dirham-Sears, was a treat to read. The rumors that Cordelia was modeled on Lovatt’s wife Kate appealed to Gib’s romantic streak.

Piper had a romantic streak a mile wide. One of the many reasons he hadn’t taken what she’d offered in the worst months following the divorce.

Thoughts of Piper scattered when Shell Burnick’s card fell out of the place it had been holding.

She’d poked the soft spot in his armor when she’d innocently assumed Cade was C.J. Harkness’s son. It was the obvious assumption, especially given that Shell knew Liz and her new family in one very specific context. He’d left to avoid the self-indulgent funk such assumptions always induced. He was self-aware enough to realize how unattractive his jealousy was.

That their lives kept suddenly converging upon one another, that he felt a distinct attraction to Shell despite their only meeting three times, that Cade liked the photographer — that she’d made the obvious assumption, it all tangled up together into an emotional snarl Gib would have preferred to pick apart at some other time of the year.

Gib stared at the card for a moment before slipping it back into the pages of Copper Mockingbird.

To be continued…