The Soloist: Part Three

Continued from Part Two, or you can start from the beginning

Hank’s was never empty unless it was closed, but Reilly rarely saw the afternoon crowd. His arrival was met with pleasant, but frank curiosity. For every nod, every hey Doc, every smile, there was a silent question. What’s he doing here at this time of day? They were—as was he—creatures of habit.

Creatures who sat quietly over coffee, pie, or sandwiches; quietly because they were listening to that voice. He paused to drink in the way she navigated We Three Kings of Orient Are, the kitchen noise her percussion. Surely whoever she was, she couldn’t be unaware of the effect her voice had on the patrons?

“Afternoon, Reilly.” Hank motioned to an empty corner table by the front windows. “I’ve got that table, but your spot’s taken.”

“I’m not here for biscuits. I’m here—“ The singer swooped into the chorus and Reilly’s skin tingled. “Has she been singing all day?

Hank’s smile was wistful, bordering on foolish. “She hummed for a while, but mostly, yeah.”

“Can I go back?”

Hank set down a plated meatloaf sandwich. “I’ll introduce you.”

Reilly followed Hank through the swinging door. She was washing dishes, humming over the steaming water in the vast sink. She was… a knockout.

Hank rapped lightly on the counter. “Talia?”

“Yeah, Hank?” She stopped humming, looked up, and blinked at Reilly. “Oh, hi.”

Her eyes were fiery blue. Reilly rocked back on his heels to take in all six magnificent feet of her. “Hi.”

Hank took over the introductions. “Talia Benson, the Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt, pastor at the Grove Street Church. Reilly, Talia’s my new cook. Fresh off the bus from… Where’d you say you were from?”

“I didn’t.” Talia’a mouth tipped at the corners—Reilly wouldn’t have called it a smile—and she dried her hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Reverend.”

“I’ve gotta head back out front,” Hank said, returning to the register, where a short queue was forming. “Holler if you need me.”

An awkward silence threatened, so Reilly filled it. “Call me Reilly.”

“Reilly.” Talia took off a worn Boston Red Sox cap. She had carrot-red hair worn in a short, choppy cut that emphasized a long neck and strong cheekbones. . “Is this an official visit to save my soul?”

Reilly heard a wariness in her question, though her tone was light. “Official visit, yes. Your soul is your own. You have a beautiful voice, Ms. Benson.”

“Talia.” She corrected him with a blush. “Thank you. Sometimes I forget people can hear me.”

“Lucky us.”

She laughed at that. Her laugh was like a timpani roll. “You say that now.”

“I can’t imagine saying differently.” Reilly leaned against the door to the walk-in refrigerator.  “You’ve got a gift.”

Those blue eyes narrowed fast. “What can I do for you, Reilly?”

Reilly felt that gaze pierce his chest. Here was a woman who didn’t trust flattery. Best to come out with it then. “Sing with our choir. On Christmas Eve. We need a soloist.”

“No.” Her answer was so swift and decisive Reilly wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. She seemed to catch herself as well. “I’m sorry. But no. I’m sure you mean it as a compliment, but I can’t.”

“Ms. Benson. Talia.” He’d seen a flash of hurt in her eyes. He’d hurt her somehow. Or bought up an old hurt. The desire to make it right sucker-punched him. He reached out, as if to comfort her, but stopped just in time to save himself more embarrassment.

She snugged the cap back down over her hair and turned back to the sink. “I appreciate you coming by, Reverend, but I should get back to work.”

To be continued in Part Four

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The Soloist: Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Reilly parked his truck in the old barn behind the church. At seventeen, the old Ford didn’t owe him anything, and Reilly knew it. He skipped his jacket; the heat in truck only had two settings: Off and Death Valley. Sure, the sweat might freeze in his hair, but the cold air was welcome after the ride in from his house outside town.

“Jojo?” He called out into the still, cool air of the empty hall.

He was answered by a deafening G-major chord from the organ. “Back here!”

The church’s administrative assistant, who also played the organ, taught Sunday School, led the choir and the weekly Bible study, popped out from behind the organ. Reilly knew she was somewhere in her forties—she’d only been a few years ahead of him in school, but you’d never know it. Jojo’s face was young, as was her heart. She dressed in long skirts and combat boots or short skirts and jeans together, her inky black hair was pixie short , her skin was a vibrant living canvas, and no amount of tsk-ing from his older congregants could convince her that a nose ring was unseemly.

“I was looking to see if I’d left Jesus in the cubby last year.”

Reilly couldn’t help laughing. “You don’t carry Him always in your heart?”

Jojo set her hands on her hips and gave him the stink eye. “The baby. For the Nativity. I can’t find him with the others.”

“Did you look in the office supply closet? Millie helped us clean up last January…” Jojo’s nod was understanding. “How was practice?”

He’d deliberately waited until after choir practice to come by and set up the Fraser fir he’d bought for the annual gifting tree. No fewer than four members of the soprano section were actively pursuing him – for themselves or for their daughters.

“Bad news,” she said, nudging a box of lights and garland toward the tree stand. “Nancy Elder’s daughter in Seattle went into labor early. She and Sid leave in the morning and Nance says they’ll stay through the New Year. We just lost our soloist.”

Reilly considered. For twenty-five years, Nancy Elder had guided the good Congregationalists of town through two Christmas Eve services with a clear, light soprano and a natural instinct for performing. This was a set-back, but nothing beyond their mortal scope. Jojo was watching him, waiting for a call to action. He grinned at her.

“He will deliver.”

Jojo hoisted a coil of lights and began to untangle them. “I sincerely hope He delivers an opera singer pronto, Doc.”

Reilly considered again. This time, it was the excellent breakfast sandwich and coffee at Hank’s. And the hidden voice he’d delighted in while he ate. He had a homily to write, the baby Jesus to find, and a shift at the food pantry, but he could drop in at Hank’s before the diner closed and introduce himself to the mysterious singer.

He just might have delivered already.

Continued in Part Three