SS#6 – Parker #2 – A specialized practice

Sun streamed down through the trees, reflecting off the water in the fountain in the middle of the square. The street was full of people. Impatient people going from one place to the next. Casual people peering in shop windows, their interest caught by the colorful items on display. At the end of the street was the park, and the sandbox was full of laughing children. There were shouts of pleasure as kids coasted down the slide, others laughed and chased each other around the picnic tables. Even the basketball courts were in use, with teenagers shooting free throws from the line.

Parker gazed out his large plate glass window, an indulgent smile on his face as he took in his city. There was a discreet knock at his door. “Mr. Parker. Your eleven o’clock appointment is here.” Ms. Block paused. “And he’s very…agitated.”

Parker turned, straightened his immaculate tie and flicked an imaginary piece of lint off his shoulder. “Send him in, if you please.”

Ms. Block stood off to the side as a thick-set man hurried through the door. “I had to see you, Mr. Parker, sir. I’m…you’ll probably kick me out once you get a look at me, but I hadda try!” His breath was coming fast and his thick black hair was in disarray. Work-roughened hands clenched into fists as he tried to control himself.

“Mr. Apogian.” Parker extended his much smaller hand in greeting. “Calm yourself and have a seat, if you please.” He settled in behind his massive walnut desk and let the leather chair enfold his small, almost petite, body. “What can I do for you? I assume it’s a criminal matter.”

Apogian sank into the plush burgundy visitor’s chair, then leaned forward. “It’s murder, sir. I heard you could help. I need help!”

Parker smiled again, reassuringly. “Perhaps if we go through the facts things will become clear. Murder, you say? Would I know of the deceased?”

Apogian looked down at his scarred knuckles and blunt fingernails. “He’s not dead, not yet, but I’m gonna have to kill him if you don’t help me!”

Parker’s eyebrow raised sharply. “I am an officer of the court, Mr. Apogian. I’m afraid if you’re planning a murder, I can’t assist you, warranted as you seem to think it may be.”

Apogian shook his head slowly. “No, no. I’m not asking -you- to kill him. I’m asking you to help me so I -don’t- kill him.”

Parker tilted his head, curiously, then he laced his fingers across his flat stomach and he spoke thoughtfully. “I am a lawyer, and counsel, or counselor-at-law if you prefer, yes, though not precisely in the fashion you mean.” His eyes fixed onto his visitor. “Again, perhaps if you give me the facts all will become clear.” He paused and cleared his throat delicately. “But if you could refrain from admitting you intend to kill a human being, it would be best if you continued, if you please.”

Apogian fisted his hands again, and the veins in his wrists stood out. “I’m not the usual client you see, Mr. Parker, sir. I’m not rich like those people I read about in the papers. I’ve got a little put by but there’s no way I can afford a high fee.” He raised his eyes to meet Parker’s and they were filled with determination. “But I have to try. You’re the only one who can help me. I know it.”

“The facts, if you please.” Parker’s voice was patient and his body still as he listened.

Apogian took a deep breath. “It’s Heathcliff Rogers. An old man who lives down the block from me. He’s retired and is so bored he’s made it his sole purpose in life to make mine miserable! He’s ruining my life!” He took another deep shuddering breath. “He orders a hundred pizzas to be delivered to my door at 11 at night. He puts sugar in my gas tank. He uses ketchup and mustard on my front door, calling it modern art. All sorts of things like that. For the past nine months, me and my family have been living in hell.”

Parker blinked once then his brow furrowed. “Though extremely irritating, yes, those pranks hardly seem a reason to kill someone, Mr. Apogian.”

“You don’t understand. It’s all escalating. I have two young boys, Mr. Parker, sir. They’re so young and now he’s dragged them into it. To make -me- miserable. Randy, my youngest, he’s the most trusting boy you’ve ever met, and Rogers stepped over the line. Told the boy I wasn’t coming to pick him up, that he had to meet me at the big house on the corner of Bush and Market. That’s a busy intersection and he’s just five years old, Mr. Parker. He could have near to killed my boy, or got him kidnapped. Wandering off on his own. Good thing my next-door neighbour happened to see him there and bring him home… two hours after we called the police and were tearing our hair out. Mr. Parker, this has just got to stop or I’ll kill him. Kill him dead.”

Parker blinked again. “Hmm. This is most unusual. Has there been a problem with Mr. Rogers? Does he perceive some slight? Have you offended him or injured him somehow?”

“I wish I knew! When I ask him why he’s doing this, he just says he doesn’t like me, cackles like a maniac and hobbles away. He doesn’t leave his house hardly at all, Mr. Parker. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to make him hate me like this!”

Parker exhaled slowly and nodded. “I see. This is puzzling, Mr. Apogian. So what would you like me to do for you?”

Here Apogian looked awkward. “I read in the newspaper that you’re a famous lawyer, and you always win your cases, Mr. Parker. I read that you’re…unusual…but you always win. I just…I just know that if you talked to him, let him know the law was on my side, you could get him to stop this harassment.” He looked up hopefully. “Would you do that? I can’t…I can’t pay much. I’m just a bricklayer. My wife’s a teacher. But if you let me pay you in installments, I promise to pay you everything. I always pay what I owe.”

Parker smiled gently and sat up in his chair. “Mr. Apogian. I specialize in the unusual. I will take your case.” He held up a hand as Apogian leaned forward eagerly, to thank him. “The fee will be one hundred dollars.”

Apogian’s eyes widened and his mouth hung open. “O-one hundred d-dollars?” His back stiffened and his shoulders hunched, as if ready for a fight. “I can pay you more than that, Mr. Parker, I want you to take my case, but I don’t need char–…”

Parker shook his head, cutting him off with a casual wave of his hand. “This is my usual fee for consulting on a case. There should be little to no work involved in just talking to another party, Mr. Apogian. Especially if you can tell me everything you know about Heathcliff Rogers.”

Apogian’s shoulders relaxed. “I can do that… He’s an old man with a bad hip and lives on his social security. He doesn’t have a lot, I don’t think. He lives in a house, rent-controlled. Here’s the address.” He hands over a slip of paper. “He’s got a housekeeper in once a week. She does the shopping and the cooking. No wife or kids as far as I know. Like I said, he doesn’t go out much. Seems like only time he does is to make trouble for me.”

Parker nodded, accepting the proffered piece of paper and folding it sharply in two. “And when did the incidents start, Mr. Apogian? You said nine months ago? How was your relationship with Mr. Rogers before that?”

Apogian nods. “Nine months ago. I didn’t even know the man beyond a polite nod when I passed his house on the street, Mr. Parker. I wish I knew if I did something so I could undo it! I’m a plain man. I work hard, I go to church regular and I provide for my family. My wife’s a dream.” His face softens as he thinks about her. “My boys are honest, young and full of energy like all boys are but they don’t cause any trouble. I wish I could help you more, Mr. Parker, but I just don’t know what to say.”

Parker smiled. “You’ve given me enough to get started on your behalf, Mr. Apogian. Go home to your family and I’ll be in touch.” He held up a finger. “It may take some time to arrange a meeting so I advise you only to take no action if there are further pranks. Perhaps you could go out of town for a little while…? A few days?”

Apogian shrugged. “I’ll check with my wife and get back to you.” He stood and extended a ham-like hand. “I want to thank you for your help, Mr. Parker.” He pulled out his wallet.

Parker shook his hand enthusiastically then stayed him with the outstretched hand. “If you could handle payment with Ms. Block outside?”

Apogian flushed. “Yes, okay. Thank you again.”

Parker ushered him out and looked out his window once more. “An interesting day.” He fingered the piece of paper with Mr. Rogers’ address on it.
—————–

A little brass lion. Parker smiled. He lifted the door knocker politely and rapped on the discoloured wooden front door.

“Go away! I’m not buying anything!” The thin voice came from the other side of the door.

“I’m not selling anything, Mr. Rogers. Opening the door to discuss our business would be advantageous, if you please.”

The door jerks open and a wizened old man glares out, eye to eye with Parker as he leans heavily on a black tipped cane. “You always talk with ten dollar words when two dollar ones will do?”

Parker smiled and held out his hand. “I would like to introduce…”

The old man cut him off. “I ain’t interested. I don’t know you, don’t got no business with you.” He looked Parker up and down. “Pipsqueak.”

Parker’s eyes narrowed and he inhaled through his nose. “I am a lawyer, Mr. Rogers. And I am here to discuss your issues with Mr. Apogian.”

The old man looked blank. “Who’s that?”

Parker blinked. Once. “Surely you recall Mr. Apogian, the man you’ve been harassing for the past nine months. You’ve put sugar in his gas tank. Sprayed his front door with condiments? Ketchup. Mustard. Does this sound familiar?”

The old man smirked. “Well, is that his name?”

“Are you telling me that you have been harassing a man for nine months and you did not even know his name?” Parker looked surprised. “Perhaps we should discuss this inside.”

The old man shrugged, then his eyes darted left and right. “Come in if you want, but don’t touch anything!” He hobbled back towards a well-worn powder blue chair. “Close and lock the door behind you!” He shouted over his shoulder.

Parker moved inside, his briefcase in hand, and softly closed the door behind him, locating the lock with no difficulty. He turned and surveyed the area. Newspapers were stacked all around the room, save the blue chair. There was a hint of a desk in the far left corner, by the window, with a stack of mail, and the ever-present newspapers. An old green couch was barely visible beside the blue chair. The mantelpiece held two candles and a battered old wallet. There were no photos to be seen anywhere. A small table was stationed in front of the blue chair, and it held a plate with half a peanut butter sandwich and an open checkbook beside an ancient computer.

“So, you admit you’ve been harassing Mr. Apogian, then?” Parker asked, settling down on a corner of the sagging green couch.

Rogers shrugged again. “Why not?”

“Has my client offended you in some way? Caused an injury to you in order to receive this kind of treatment from you?”

Rogers sank back in his chair and lifted his cane, pointing it straight at Parker. “I told you, I don’t know him.”

“Then, I must ask, why would you do this?”

The old man cackled and let his cane fall to the floor with a thump. “I wanted to.”

Parker looked confused, for just an instant before his customary urbane expression reasserted itself. “I am afraid I don’t understand. Could you explain, if you please?”

Rogers rolled his eyes. “‘If you please?’ What are you, some kinda fairy?” He shrugged. “I told you, I wanted to. I enjoyed myself. It’s more fun than I’ve had in a dozen years.” He cackled again.

“You’ve harassed a man who has done nothing to you because you wanted to do so? Why would you pick him?” Parker asked.

“I don’t like him.”

“Again, I don’t understand.”

Rogers shrugged for a third time. “I can’t explain it. I didn’t like him. I was bored and it was fun. I bet he can’t wait to see what I do next.” He grinned at Parker, showing crooked, yellowed teeth and a pronounced overbite.

“Let me reiterate. You’re paying havoc with Mr. Apogian’s life because you’re bored and don’t like my client.” Parker slowly blinked, as if he was clearing his vision.

Rogers smiled widely, showing all of those crooked teeth. “You betcha. What are you going to do to me? Put me in jail? I’m an old man. I hardly leave the house.” He pats his computer. “I do everything by phone and email. It’s just like jail.” He laughed again. “I’ll die soon. But I’ll die happy.” He laughed again and spread his thin arms. “You think you can stop me? Do your worst!”

Parker leaned forward and placed his hands carefully atop his briefcase, letting his eyes play over the small table. “I don’t think you want me to do that, Mr. Rogers. But if you insist…” He stood, smoothing down his topcoat. “You are certain you won’t change your mind and stop your vendetta against Mr. Apogian?”

“No! And you can’t make me!” He cackled again, little fans sprouting from the corner of his eyes as he laughed.

“We will see about that, Mr. Rogers. Thank you for your time.”
—————–

Three weeks later, Parker was gazing out his large plate glass window, watching some teenagers play pick-up basketball in the park down the street.

There was a discreet tap at his door and as it opened, he could hear loud shouting and cursing, and the sound of something crashing into the wall. “Mr. Parker. A Mr. Rogers is here to see you, as you anticipated. May I send him in?

“Of course, Ms. Block. Right on time.” He smiled.

“What the hell is the meaning of this!? You did this to me, Parker! I’ll kill you!” The old man hobbled into the office and waved his cane threateningly.

“Oh, have a seat, if you please, Mr. Rogers.” Parker gestured grandeloquently at the plush burgundy chair, talking loudly over the other man’s curses as he settled into his own. “Is there something I can do for you? It is unusual for you to leave your home, correct?”

“You’re a terrible -terrible- man, Parker. Did you know that?” The old man’s face was drawn, his hands trembled on the handle of the cane.

Parker smiled, and it looked a little predatory. “I can be quite imposing when I set my mind to it, yes, Mr. Rogers. Now, what is it I can do for you?”

“You’ve ruined my life!” It came out as a hoarse quavering shout.

Parker cocked his head. “I can’t imagine why you’d think so, Mr. Rogers. Elaborate, if you please.”

“It all started after you came to see me. And you know it! Some idiots said I called to have two tons of fertilizer dumped on my lawn. My car was towed into a second-hand car lot and sold! They said I signed it over to them! My housekeeper said I emailed to cancel her employment. They said I called to cancel my phone service since I was moving. My social security checks stopped coming. They said someone called them and said I was dead! They won’t believe that I’m alive! My bank said I called to cancel my accounts and dropped off a check with “CANCEL” and my signature to prove it! My landlord said I dropped off a letter saying I was moving out and they nearly danced a jig! Do you know how hard it is to get rent-controlled places? Especially on a fixed income? I know it was you, Parker. I didn’t do those things! Why would I do those things? You’re taking away my whole life!” Rogers sounded anguished and he twisted his hands together.

“Hmm, well, if your memory is fading it’s quite possible you did indeed do those things and have forgotten.” Parker’s voice was neutral, but his expression was quite complacent.

“Nothing wrong with my memory at all! I didn’t do those things! You did! I’ll sue! I’ll kill you!” Rogers shouted.

Parker cocked his head again. “I imagine you’d find that difficult to prove, if it were true. I’m sure it’s just the karmic balance of the universe, Mr. Rogers. You tried to take control of Mr. Apogian’s life and now the universe is taking control of yours.” He shook his head sadly. “A terrible thing, the universe.”

There was a long pause.

“If, and I’m not saying it’ll happen, but if I stopped playing tricks on Apogian, you think the…universe…would stop playing tricks…on me?” Rogers asked hesitantly.

Parker beamed at him, like a teacher with a particularly adept student. “Why, that sounds positively logical, Mr. Rogers. I would try that, and see what happens.”

“But it was fun…” Rogers muttered into his chest, head downcast.

“Well, if it truly was just for fun, Mr. Rogers, then you won’t miss it that much. There are other, more productive ways, to amuse yourself.” Parker’s voice was mild, but for a hint of steel.

Rogers levered himself painfully to his feet. “Tell Apogian I’ll leave him alone.” He paused. “And you gonna help me undo this mess the… universe… started?”

Parker smiled again, and it was thin. “I don’t believe you could afford… a pipsqueak, I believe you termed it… like me, Mr. Rogers. Close the door on the way out, if you please.”

Half an hour after Rogers left, Parker hmmed softly and opened his left-hand drawer. A massive pile of prepaid cell phones filled it to the brim. He took one out and dialed a number. “Yes, hello. This is Mr. Heathcliff Rogers. I had placed an order to have all of the windows of a two story house painted black tomorrow evening? Yes. I need to cancel that order. Thank you very much.” He closed the phone slowly, hmmed again and dropped it in the wastebasket with a smile.

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SS #5 – A man and his dog

The sun beat down, shining mercilessly on the asphalt as it slowly began to set. Coal black road was blanketed in white and it glistened as it stretched out for miles in both directions, the normally midnight strip bisecting tall pine trees covered in snow in the west and blanketing the flatlands to the east.

The long low tone of a horn sang out into the clean air and the chrome finish of the eighteen wheeler flashed as it chugged its way along the lonely road.

“Aw, come on, Champ. It’s darn cold out there!” The man behind the wheel shifted a toothpick from one corner of his mouth to another. He was dressed plainly. A heavy plaid flannel shirt, tattered blue jeans and scuffed old cowboy boots on his feet as he manipulated the gas pedal, coaxing a little more speed out of his truck. The dog whined, pawing at the passenger side door. He shook his whole body and turned in a full circle, ears flopping dejectedly as he looked reproachfully at his master.

“Well, hell, Champ, it ain’t hard. Just takes a little push, a little pressure.” He reached over to take the dog’s tan coloured paw and pressed it to the button to power down the window. Immediately, Champ’s head was out the window, tongue and ears flapping in tandem with the cold air blowing outside – and now through – the truck.

“Darn cold. You do love your face out that window though, don’tcha?” He cocked his head as the CB radio crackled to life.

“Breaker, breaker. On 114 West watch your backs for a smokey in a plain white wrapper just past Buick town. Look like boy scouts to me. Over and out.”

A small smile curved the driver’s lips. “Did you hear that, Champ? Got some State Police coming up in an unmarked car. They think they’re so darned smart.” He reached for the microphone. “Breaker, breaker. ‘Preciate the warning about the plain white wrapper. Don’t wanna get bit by no bear. Over and out.”

He laughed a little at the chatter on the channel, then took a little firmer grip on the wheel as the roar of a vehicle pulled up close behind him, and the horn sounded wildly as it accelerated to come up beside him. “Look, Champ. It’s one o’ them funny lookin’ sports cars. He glanced at the dog, then tilted the microphone in the car’s direction, but Champ ignored him, paws up on the door to stick his head out a little more. “With all that noise I s’pose they could be in trouble…” He powered down his window to get a closer look, looking down at the other vehicle and saw a few young men waving phones at him, then pointing and laughing. His brows furrowed and he shrugged. “Just some youngsters having the time of their lives, I guess.”

The car roared past them, accelerating hard, and almost clipping his left fender as it cut sharply in front of him. He shook his head. “Dumb kids. Well, Champ, don’t need to worry about them or anyone else. Just us out here, doing the long haul. Like we always done.” His stomach rumbled and Champ looked over at the noise, interested enough to pull his head inside a moment. The trucker laughed, a huge belly laugh.

“Darn, Champ. You look like you got a white beard like Santa Claus. Bucking for his job or sumthin’?” Champ shook his head and showered the interior with cold, wet snow. The man yelped, brushing some of the snow off his stubbled chin. His stomach rumbled again. “All right, all right. We’ll get you dried off and get us some grub.”

The truck stop was brightly lit and the parking lot was lined with vehicles of all types and sizes. “Busy night, Champ. You stay in the truck and I’ll bring you back whatever Sadie’s been cookin’.” Champ barked sharply once, as if he understood. The man smiled. “You’re the smartest
darn dog I ever met, Champ, but you can’t open a window worth a darn.”

He stepped inside and dropped his hunched shoulders as the warmth welcomed him into the room. He slid onto his usual stool and a cup of black coffee was slid back in turn. “Sadie, my love. You gonna marry me today?” He grinned at her. Sadie rolled her eyes and called back into the kitchen. “Jim, Hal’s back and askin’ me to marry him.” Jim’s bald head popped up in the order window and he mock-glared at the two of them.

“Are you kidding, Sadie? We’re totally slammed here and you wanna go off and get married? Come back in June when the weather’s warmer.” Sadie shrugged. “You heard the man, Hal. Can’t marry you ’til June.” Hal grinned again at the familiar banter. “Then I’ll be back in June to ask again. And I’ll remember Jim, you said so!” He lifted the coffee to his lips and drank the hot brew down. “Nobody makes better coffee than you, Sadie. Can’t let you slip away.” He winked. “Refill?” Sadie grabbed the pot and filled his cup, turning away with a little flirt of her hip as she moved to take another order.

He plowed through his country fried steak and potatoes as if it was his last meal. “Damn, Sadie, that’s the best yet. Got a doggie bag for Champ?”

“Well, if it ain’t the old guy.” The voice was right behind him, right in his ear. Hal started, and swung around on his bar stool. “You’re the ones in the fancy car.”

The boy was flanked by two others, all three of them in heavy school jackets, yellow letters on their chest. “Hell yeah. We saw you with your old-timer gadget, your ray-dee-o.” He drew out the word and laughed. “Haven’t you ever heard of technology, old man? Like, a cell phone?” He pulled his out, waving it in front of Hal’s face.

“What do I need one of those for?” He turned back to the counter. “Sadie wants me for something she knows she can reach me.” He winked at her again.

“Hey, old man, don’t turn your back on me, you hear me? I’m sayin’ you need to get with the program. That old timer crap is bullshit.”

“Look, son, you want to be careful in here. Lots of people bigger than you. Lots of people meaner than you. Just take your seat and order some of Sadie’s fine food.” He gestured to the booths then accepted the take-out Sadie slid in front of him.

The boy’s chest puffed out, visible even through the bulky coat. “Yeah? As if. I can buy and sell all of you anyway. Losers. Let’s get out of here. Food sucked anyway.” He turned away, then paused. “Maybe I’ll come back later and buy Sadie, pimp her out, you know?” He leered at her, then laughed as he pushed his way out the door.

“Fool kids. Too spoiled if you ask me.” Hal shook his head and crammed his hat on his head. “Nice seeing you, Sadie. I’ll have the ring for you in June.” He winked at her and moved quickly over to the door. He swung his way into the cab of the truck and started the motor, letting it warm up as he kept one eye on the parking lot and another prepping Champ’s meal. “There you go, boy. Jim made them vittles special for you.” The dog jumped to the floor and began noisily chowing down.

The sports car roared out of the parking lot and Hal pulled out behind it. He followed it awhile, an hour. An hour and a half passed. Darkness filled all the empty spaces out there. He spoke conversationally to Champ as he drove. “You remember this route up here, boy? Up on the seat now. Deadman’s curve. The guardrail’s there, but it wouldn’t take much to go into the river.” He pressed his foot down on the gas pedal, gaining on the sports car. He picked up the microphone.

“Breaker, breaker. Anyone got their ears on? Got a Harvey Wallbanger up here east on 118 an hour outside Sadie’s. Steer clear if you don’t get eaten by a bear. Over and out.”

He carefully replaced the microphone, absently listening to the chorus of acknowledgements and thanks. “Them boys were right rude to Sadie, boy. They said some things a man just doesn’t say, you know?” As he got closer, he flipped on the high beams. He grinned a little as they finally noticed he was there. He pulled up a little closer, almost nose to tail with the little car. The driver, the loudmouth, was busy giving him the finger out the window, and fumbling with that darn phone when it happened.

The car accelerated and shot through the guard rail, spinning end over end as it tumbled over the edge. The crack of the ice as it hit the surface echoed loudly through the night.

The eighteen wheeler continued chugging along the road, taking the curve with ease. A blast of cold air entered the cab and Hal looked over at Champ, who was leaning proudly on the button for the power windows. “Dammit, you went and did it! Good dog. Like I said. Just takes a little push, a little pressure.”

SS #4 – Parker #1 – Guiltocence

The elevator opened with a soft ping, and a heavyset man, dressed in sartorial elegance, practically ran to the end of the hallway, where the modest printing on the window proclaimed: Parker Parker, Attorney-at-law. He burst through the door and it slammed back in his haste.

“I need to see him right now!” He leaned over the desk, the sour smell of his body, fear sweat, permeating the air.

The woman seated at the desk, her dress conservative, her well-toned body shifted to face towards her computer terminal, and she looked unruffled, as if this sort of thing happened all of the time. The name plate on the desk read Ms. D. Block.

“Do you have an appointment?” Her voice was professional, almost bored.

The man looked panicked a moment and he patted his pockets. “Give him this! That should surely merit an appointment!” He thrust a card at her, and braced his hands on the desk, panting in his agitation.

“Of course, sir. Please excuse me one moment.” She unfolded her long legs and rose from her chair. She sauntered towards a doorway, her hips swaying as she moved and as she tapped lightly on the door, she looked back over her shoulder, a steely gleam in her eyes. “You will wait here.” This was clearly a command, not a suggestion. She vanished behind the door for a split second, then beckoned him forward. “He will see you now, Mr. Hendricks. Please, come in.”

The office was opulent. Thick burgundy carpet blanketed the floor and the desk was walnut, stately in its immensity, and the contents on the top neatly organized. A small pile of mail lay on the exact centre of the desk blotter and a shiny black rotary dial telephone angled sharply to the right. Golden framed degrees lined the walls in between tall bookcases filled to the brim and the grandfather clock ticked steadily away in the corner.

“Mr. Elliot Hendricks, is it? Of Hendricks Broadcasting Consortium? What can I do for you, sir? Be seated, if you please. I am Parker Parker, Attorney-at-law.” The small man stood up from the massive leather chair. He smiled, showing even white teeth, and extended his hand as he introduced himself.

“I’m in trouble, Parker! Terrible trouble!” He collapsed in the plush chair across from the desk then mopped his face with a handkerchief, his short cropped hair damp from sweat.

“Mr. Parker, if you please, sir. Now, would you be able to elaborate?”

“You’re the best criminal lawyer in the U.S., is that right, Parker?” The tone was harsh, almost panicked.

Parker sighed. “Yes, quite so. My record speaks for itself, sir.” He preened a little bit, adjusting the knot in his tie as he seated himself in a large leather chair, which exaggerated his slight frame. His eyes drifted past his client for a moment,

“And you’ve never had a guilty client, is that right?”

“That is correct, sir. All of my clients are innocent.” Parker’s tone was complacent, almost calm.

Hendricks laughed, the sound grating, almost a cackle. “Then I want to retain you to be my lawyer. I need a lawyer!”

Parker hmmmed softly and tapped a well manicured fingernail against his chin. “Well, perhaps before I ask why, which would likely present an obligation, I should tell you my fee structure is rather… unusual, Mr. Hendricks. If you please, keep in mind that while many of my clients have been taken aback at this development, they have not questioned the success of my record. None of my clients are found guilty. Ever.”

Hendricks paused a moment, distracted a moment from his inner turmoil by this curious statement. “Yes! Yes, that is the exact reason I came to you… had to come to you, Parker! You will take me as your client. You must!”

Parker smiled briefly. “I will elaborate on the fee structure. Once you have agreed to it, then I will be happy to listen to your problem, and will solve it for you.” He paused. “Upon becoming my client, you agree that you will pay no fee whatsoever should you be found guilty. I will accept no payment for a failure to aid my client.”

Hendricks’ eyes bulged. “You want me not to pay you…?”

Parker’s voice sharpened. “If you are found guilty, you owe no money, pay no fee. However, upon any other outcome of the case, you owe the payment of four million dollars, in full.”

Hendricks’ mouth gaped like a fish. “Four million dollars!”

Parker brushed a hand over his already immaculate tie. “A fee you are more than capable of paying, Mr. Hendricks.” He cleared his throat significantly. “I must tell you, sir, that very few of my cases ever come to trial. Most of my work is done behind the scenes, in order to fully aid my clients. So if the prosecution bungles their case, as they often do, or a police investigator tramples over your rights, as they often do, or even if the case is dismissed tomorrow, should you become my client, you will still pay me four million dollars.”

“But you might do nothing if the case is dismissed tomorrow!” Hendricks shouted.

Parker smiled again, somewhat briefly. “I assure you, sir, I will indeed have done something should your case be dismissed tomorrow. I will go to all lengths to aid my clients.” He straightened in the deep leather seat, his eyes fixed on his visitor. “So, you must decide, sir. Do you still wish to be my client, knowing the fee agreement? Or would you prefer to leave this office and retain another attorney?”

“Dammit, Parker, that’s unreasonable! You must see that!”

“Mr. Parker, if you please, sir. And it is quite reasonable. Exactly zero risk to you. If I lose, you pay me nothing. If I succeed in winning the case, through any means, then I deserve the fee I demand. Surely your freedom is worth that.”

Hendricks looked at his other man, who now seemed ten feet tall. “You have me over a barrel, Parker. You win.”

“I haven’t won yet, sir, but I intend to. So if you’ll just sign here….” Parker slid the legal sized document across the desk and proffered a ball-point pen. Hendricks scribbled his name on the blank line and scowled.

“Now, Mr. Hendricks. Your problem, please? The one that brought you here?” Parker prompted him gently as he leaned back in his seat, fingers interlaced over his flat stomach.

“You said you’ve never had a guilty client. Well, now you have, Parker. I did it. I killed him!”

“Of course you didn’t kill anyone, Mr. Hendricks. Just who is the unfortunate deceased?” Parker stroked his whiskerless chin as he listened.

Hendricks shook his head. “Roger Moorhouse. Moorlouse, more like. Moorhouse Antiquities, you know them?”

Parker raised an eyebrow. “Yes, of course. They provided some of the furnishings for my office. I believe I did hear about Mr. Moorhouse’s unfortunate accident. Please, tell me more.”

Hendricks scowled again and dug in his jacket pocket. He pulled out a sterling silver cigarette case and flipped it open. He lifted a cigarette to his lips. “Do you smoke?” He leaned forward, offering the case across the desk.

Parker accepted the case and raised an eyebrow as he looked it over. “Ah no, no, I don’t and I’m afraid I don’t permit smoking in my office. My secretary is quite allergic.” He sniffed at the case carefully. “These do not seem like standard cigarettes, sir…” Hendricks grunted. “Special blend. Made only for me, damned things.” Parker’s eyebrow inched higher. “They found my cigarettes near the…body.”

“Ah, I see. I have interrupted your story, pray continue, if you please.” Parker handed back the cigarette case and he fumbled slightly, causing them to spill over the carpet. “Oh, I am so sorry, sir. Let me get those for you…” Parker immediately moved to the floor, picking up the stray cigarettes. He handed them back with an apologetic smile. “So clumsy of me, please forgive me. And if you wouldn’t mind, your problem…?”

Hendricks grumbled a moment, then stuffed the cigarettes back in the case, shoving it deep inside his pocket. “Yeah, well, he was… my wife… Moorlouse seduced her! I found out at that party, the one that military attache was giving, you know, Cameron Hamilton. Everyone knew. Goddamn him to hell!”

Parker nodded as he listened. “Goddamn Cameron Hamilton?”

Hendricks looked at Parker as if he’d sprouted another ear. “No, Moorlouse!”

“Yes, of course. Continue, if you please?”

Hendricks cleared his throat. “I confronted him in the study. He was in there, with some bimbo and I took my opportunity. I was just going to knock some sense in that head of his, you know, show him what happens when you poach another man’s property… but there was a struggle…and the gun was right there! I pulled it off the wall, and I shot him! I must’ve!”

Parker pounced on the words. “You must’ve? How do you mean, sir?”

Hendricks shook his head and his hands visibly trembled. “It’s what the police say happened, I guess. They found my cigarettes in there, one of my specially made monogrammed handkerchiefs. And they said my fingerprints were on the gun! I must’ve shot him!”

“I assume you have one of your handkerchiefs on your person? May I see it, sir, if you please?” Parker requested.

Hendricks dug into another pocket and pulled out an ivory square with golden loops embroidered around the edges and a discreet EH printed in the corner. He handed it to Parker, who fingered it as he spoke. “Now, first of all, we must remember: the police don’t know what happened in that room. They only surmise. They build their case using circumstantial evidence. What I would like to know, sir, is what you remember.”

Hendricks looked down at his black wingtipped shoes and his brow furrowed. “I…I don’t remember much except going in there to punch his lights out…I’d been…I’d had a few drinks, you know, to take the edge off.”

“Yes, of course. A busy man like yourself is entitled to a few drinks.” Parker drew in an audible breath through his nose. “Could it have been possible that you loaned your handkerchief to someone else?” He handed back the handkerchief to his client.

Hendricks looked up, frowning anew as he absently returned the handkerchief to his pocket. “Well, I suppose it’s possible…”

Parker nodded and came around the desk, then clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “You leave all of this to me, sir. I guarantee we’ll be able to get it all fixed up shortly.” He moved towards the door. “Was there anything else to tell me? I assure you, details can be important.”

“I…don’t think so…”

“Very well then. I will be in touch with you as soon as I can. Do not fret if I am temporarily unavailable; I will be working on your case.” Parker assured him, opening the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

————————

“I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand it! Three days!” Hendricks shook his head in disbelief, once again in Parker’s office, striding back and forth in front of the desk.

“You were innocent, sir. The police and district attorney obviously agreed once they found the real criminal.” Parker smiled, looking entirely too smug. “It was obvious the investigation was slipshod. Once they had you, they ceased their search. I just…redirected them.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Parker. Truly, without you, I’d have been found guilty, I know it!” Hendricks reached forward and shook the other man’s hand warmly.

“Oh, certainly not, Mr. Hendricks. You were innocent. You let the police brainwash you into believing you were the murderer! As we found out, John Bone was also at that party and he had an even bigger grievance against Mr. Moorhouse than you did. The man was indirectly responsible for his father’s death. Once I alerted the police to Mr. Bone’s motive, they searched his apartment and found that Bone had some of your cigarettes hidden in the pocket of the jacket he wore to the party, and one of your handkerchiefs shoved deep in the back of one of his dresser drawers. He must’ve retrieved them from you when you were insensible with drink. He shot Mr. Moorhouse, wiped the gun clean then closed your fingers around the handle, to transfer prints on the murder weapon.” Parker spread his hands in a fait accompli.

“It all seems so strange!” Hendricks marveled. “I just can’t imagine how he would have gotten an extra one of my handkerchiefs when I normally only carry one with me.” He shook his head back and forth.

“Obviously you must’ve had an extra available, as he had one to leave at the scene of the crime and one to take with him.” Parker shrugged.

“So, Mr. Hendricks. I do believe we have one additional piece of business to conclude, if you please?”

Hendricks looked at him blankly a moment then blinked and nodded. “Oh! Oh, yes of course… The cheque.” He pulled an folded piece of paper from his inner jacket pocket then passed it over. Parker slid it in his desk drawer.

“You’re not planning to check the amount?” Hendricks looked surprised.

“Not at all. I’m sure everything is as it should be.”

After Hendricks left, Parker reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he lightly patted over his face. It was an ivory square with golden loops embroidered around the edges and a discreet PP in the corner. Then he lifted a cigarette to his nose, taking in the distinctive scent, then he broke it into small pieces, discarding it in the wastebasket.

There was a discreet knock at the door. Ms. Block opened it and stepped inside. “Mr. John Bone to see you, sir. He says it’s quite urgent.”

Parker smiled. “Send him in, right away, if you please.”

SS #3 – Shades

I stepped inside and pulled the curtain closed behind me.

I nodded to the nurse briefly, my eyes already on the bed, looking over its occupant. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her breath came in short gasps, as if there was not enough oxygen in the room. She trembled, spasms visible beneath the dingy grey blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She looked hunted. Frightened beyond measure.

The lines between my brows became pronounced as I noted she was still fully dressed. I glanced at the nurse who shook her head almost imperceptibly. Damn. Not another one.

I reached for her chart at the foot of the bed and I spoke for the first time as I flipped through the pages. “Ma’am, I’m Chad Mitchell and I’ll be your doctor today. The nurse is here to…” I broke off as the patient’s eyes snapped open and her mouth opened in a scream of mute terror as she pushed her body back, propelling herself off the gurney in her agitation, her body hitting hard against what I knew to be cold ceramic tile. Inwardly I cursed but, maintaining my professional demeanor, I smiled reassuringly and backed out of the room. The nurse followed quickly on my heels. “Damn it, go and help her up! I’ll find the damn charge nurse and tell her to stop sending male doctors to female rape patients. Sixth one in as many weeks. I hope they catch that damn son of a bitch soon!”

——

I stepped inside and pulled the curtain closed behind me.

Before I even sat down came the words. “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”

I took a moment to straighten my cassock, recognizing the voice, hoping my words came out steadily even as my soul despaired. He was back again.

“when were you at confession last?”

“It has been one week since my last confession.”

The priest steeled himself, a faint metallic taste in his mouth as he bit down hard on his inner cheek. “And what sins have you committed since that time?”

“I have guilty of malice, Father. I have, without question, yearned for revenge, for impure pleasures. I have committed rape.”

“You have raped again, since we last spoke?” The words burst from the priest’s lips, as if forced by compulsion.

There was a moment of silence. “So, you remember me, do you, Father?”

“I’m sorry, my son. Please go on.”

“To answer your question, yes, Father, I have again forced myself on another woman. I cannot help myself! She was so beautiful on the outside and so ugly on the inside. I couldn’t stop the urge. The urge to make her pay!”

“And do you repent, my son? Repent and feel sorrow, feel compassion?” The priest fought to keep the emotions out of his voice, twisting his fingers together as he listened.

“I am not finished, Father.”

There was a moment of silence. “I’m sorry, my son. Please go on.”

“I have committed murder.”

The priest’s heart jumped in his chest. Murder? This was… how could he remain silent? He closed his eyes. How could he not? His voice is still steady. Thank God. As much as he hated to ask, he must ask. “My son, you know your confession is incomplete unless you detail your sins. How many times have you committed these sins since last we spoke?”

“I always feel sorry afterwards, Father, but then I do it again and again. Can you help me? Can you make the bad thoughts…vanish?”

The priest despaired. He ignored the question again. How many times would he do this? How many times would this man come to him and tell him of the unconscionable things he had done? “You must be truly sorry for your sins, my son. That is the first step. You must decisively reject the sin you’ve committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again, out of the love one has for God. Are you ready for that step, my son?”

There is silence.

“My son?”

More silence.

The confessional was empty.

——

I stepped inside and pulled the curtain closed behind me.

The hot water washed over my body and steam filled the air, in concert with the glee filling my mind. Again. Once again I’m smarter than they are. Smarter than that army of cops. Smarter than that old priest, what does he know? Smarter than all those weak women. They asked for it.

They all asked for it. I grabbed the bar of soap and absently lathered it in my powerful hands as I replayed the images of my triumphs in my head. I slid my hands over my muscled body, washing away the sweat and grime of the day. Why would God have given me such a strong body if I wasn’t intended to use that strength? I was doing exactly what God wanted. I thought of the priest’s words and shook my head. It wasn’t about being sorry; it was about sharing my glory! The exaltation! I was as close to God as I could be! I was elevated! Every time I took a life, took someone against their will, I was showing them how close to God I truly was. Why couldn’t they see that?

I pushed my face under the water, letting it wash over me, like a rebirth. I was God’s child. I recited my daily prayers. I practiced charity. I have not taken the Lord’s name in vain. I have never broken a promise I have made. I keep all of my promises, no matter the cost. Isn’t that what a good Christian does? I am virtuous. I had hoped God’s instrument would see that I am His servant, doing His bidding. I shrugged and turned off the taps, pushing the shower curtain aside and grabbed a rough towel from the rack, then rubbed myself down vigorously. Until I receive God’s acknowledgement, I will continue my journey. One day I will join God’s heavenly choir.
——

Stream of consciousness *part 2*

I became aware of the smell of blood and I looked down at myself, alarmed. Thank God there wasn’t any on me.

My eyes flicked over to the body, stiff and still, waiting… I shuddered and looked away, swallowing hard.

I could hear sirens now. They were distant and far away… and it was at that point I noticed the window was open.  I moved over there and peered out.

My breath steamed in the cold air and I shivered again and raised my hands, blowing into them for warmth as I looked outside at the flashing coloured lights and the sparkle of newly fallen snow on the pavement.

Flashing lights… the siren shrilled louder.  I closed my eyes, but the flashing after images remained, beating against my eyelids.

I was suddenly very aware of the sound of… it must be a radio… Jingle Bell Rock is playing somewhere in the building. The sirens outside keep the rhythm and I wonder what the other people will think… when they realize their Christmas season has been … marred by something like this.

I wonder, briefly, if they’ll blame me. Or if they’ll blame him.  I look at the body and cock my head. What is it doctors say? Take two aspirin and call me in the morning. Aspirin won’t help here.

What about his family?  My eyes dart to a photo on the wall, a family portrait. He was very pleased last year when that was done. He had bragged about how cheaply he’d managed to get it. Accountant indeed.

Twin sons, a daughter and a wife. That’s how he’ll be remembered.  They’ll say “Survived by his wife Janice, twin sons Dan and Terry and a daughter…” I can’t remember her name. Why can’t I remember her name?  God the man is lying dead in front of me and I can’t even remember his daughter’s name and oh my god what is she going to think about Christmas now and it’s a dead body and I can’t breathe and there’s footsteps and my heart is racing and I whirl around as the door is slammed open.

“Someone call about a stiff?”

I stared at him. A stiff. That’s all he is. Not a person. Not a happily married man. Not a person. Not a regular church goer. Not a person. Not a loving father of three. Nothing but a stiff. I covered my mouth and saw the man’s eyes fill with pity before alighting on the body.

“Geez, lady, you okay?”

Okay?  Okay?  How was I ever going to be okay again? A dead body where I work? A working stiff. I stifled the hysterical laughter that bubbled up inside me.

People started filing in and the room filled with chatter. I watched blankly as snow covered boots trampled an expensive oriental rug.

“Ma’am? I need to ask you some questions.”

I blinked and my brow furrowed as my eyes focused on an earnest face, reddened by the cold, looking at me sympathetically.

“Ma’am? Can I ask you some questions about…?”

His voice trailed off and I stumbled forward as the stretcher pushed past me.

I pitched forward and I watched his arm outstretch to catch me.

“Ma’am… are you all right?”

Soft brown eyes. Kind eyes. Definitely chocolate coloured eyes.  The same colour as… I averted my eyes as they counted to three and lifted the body onto the stretcher.

“Come on. Let’s get you out of here. I think there’s a cafe on the corner. Come on now.”

I felt his hand push gently at the small of my back and I realized I was sweating. I was still wearing my coat and boots.

He smiled at me and we stepped outside, a fierce blast of wind knocking me back into him.

“C’mon.  We’ll get some coffee into you and…”

“Hot chocolate.”

“What?”

“I… don’t drink… coffee.”

He smiled. “Hot chocolate it is.”

We pushed forward against the wind and through the crowd and into the cafe. We sat and he ordered.

“Now, can you tell me what happened, Miss?”

So I told him. Not that there was much, but I guess it made me feel better to say it.  He nodded and scribbled into a small black notebook.

The steaming drinks were placed in front of us and he smiled at the waitress.

I looked down at my hot chocolate and was surprised to see a drop splash into the dark liquid… then another… and another.

I was crying.

Suddenly I could feel my body shudder and I gulped for air, tears still trickling down my cheeks.

CoH/Guardians – Xmas 2010

This is a series of vignettes including some of my City of Heroes/Guardians characters tied together by an overarching story. Superhero/Magical powers theme. Please enjoy.

—————————————-
The world focuses for one brief moment, and it is as if two pairs of eyes stare into its depths, contained within a glistening globe of light.

—————

“What do you mean, mom?”

“I tried my best, Frederick. I just… we can’t afford much this Christmas. With the layoffs at work…” She sighs and blows out a soft breath, moving to hug her son.

His lip quivers slowly. “I… I understand, mom. I still got you something, though.”

She smiles and hugs him tighter. “You’re a good boy, Frederick. I love you very much, you know that, right?”

He nods. “Can I go play now, mom? You’re kinda… squishing me.” He struggles a bit in the tight embrace.

She releases him and laughs. “Go on, then. I won’t embarrass you anymore.” She grins and winks at him.

Frederick’s eyes are thoughtful as he pads into his bedroom. He was nine years old now, and he strongly felt the burden of being the man of the house. His mom and baby sister were his responsibility and he wasn’t going to let them down. No way. He grabbed a pen and paper and began to write, somewhat laboriously.

“Dear Santa…”

—————-

Stephnie pouts. “Out in that? It’s a blizzard!”

Eve laughs. “It is -not-. A few flakes is all. I really wanna celebrate the holiday with you, love. Please?”

Stephnie grumbles and hugs her mate. “All right, my Eve. Anything for you.”
Eve grins and pulls on a bulky parka, mittens and a furry hat.

Stephnie presses her lips together, trying not to laugh at the picture Eve presents. She grins though, and her expression turns to one of surprise as Eve throws a coat, hat and mittens at her as well.

“You too. Get dressed up.”

Stephnie shakes her head. “I don’t need that, love.”

“Please, love? I don’t really need it either…” She tugs off one of the furry mittens and a tongue of flame sits on her palm. She immediately snuffs it out, and pulls the gloves on once again. “It’s part of the fun!”

Stephnie grumbles again, but it’s good-natured. Soon she too is all bundled up in the outerwear. Eve leans over and wraps a thick scarf around her neck. She winks and kisses her. “Perfect.”

Stephnie growls and leans forward to lick at Eve’s ear, but is stymied by the layers of clothing covering it.

Eve laughs once again. “Outside!” She runs out and immediately flops on her back into the snow, making an angel, crystal flakes of snow falling onto her face.

Stephnie raises an eyebrow and pulls down the scarf with a mittened hand. “What are you doing?”
“Making snow angels! C’mon! You gotta too! Just fall back and wiggle your arms and legs!” She waves her arms and legs vigorously in the snow.

Stephnie looks a little askance at this, but sees how much fun Eve seems to be having, her cheeks already red from the chilled air. She shrugs and copies her mate’s example.

“See? Isn’t that fun?” Eve rolls out of her angel, on top of Stephnie, kisses her boisterously and rolls off the other side.

Stephnie purrs and also tries to get up.

“Careful! The outline! You have to get up carefully, or it won’t really be an angel!”
Stephnie freezes, then bounds up to her tiptoes and agilely moves away from the imprint in the snow.

Eve laughs. “Look at it! So cool!” She leans forward and kisses Steph hard. “Yours is more muscular.”

Stephnie kisses back and she laughs too, looking at her coat in disbelief. “How can you -tell-?”

“Oh, I can tell.” She winks and her hands squeeze Stephnie’s arms through the voluminous coat.
The other girl leans forward and tries to kiss her mate, but Eve lets go and whirls away.
Stephnie pouts a little bit. “Eve, love…?”

But Eve has her back turned to the girl, bent over slightly. She slowly turns, her eyes sparkling, and her furry mittens are filled with a rounded ball of snow. She fires it at Stephnie with startling accuracy. “Snowball fight!”

She blinks and it thuds harmlessly into her well padded chest. Her lips curve in a wide grin, and she immediately moves to make her own snowball. “You are in sooo much trouble now!”

Eve laughs and her boots tromp through the snow as she tries to create distance between them. She squeals and dodges, the first snowball missing her by a fraction of an inch, but the second smacking right in the back of her head with a spectacular explosion of snow.

“Hey!” She bends once again and quickly makes a small army of snowballs, then fires them at the other girl, her face red, smiling wide, eyes twinkling.

Stephnie allows some of the snowballs to hit her as she bulls forward, intent on getting in her own shots. “I’m going to bury you in snow, love!” She grins as another snowball smacks into her shoulder. She bounds forward, covering an immense amount of ground with her leap, and pulls Eve down into the sea of white, both of them giggling madly.

Eve jerks her head back and forth, laughter spilling from her lips as she tries to avoid the faceful of snow she knows she’s going to get. “Nooooo!” She tries to put her hands in front of her face, to block it, but Stephnie works to wrestle down her arms and pins them with her knees. “Ah ha! Got you now!” She rubs her wet, snow covered mittens all over Eve’s face in triumph.

Eve laughs and splutters, shivering beneath the thick coat. “Okay, okay! You win! But you cheated! I didn’t use -my- powers!”

“If you had, you’d have melted all the snow, love.” Stephnie grins and kisses her hard.

Eve grins back and returns the kiss, her cold wet nose pressing into the other girl. “I -could- have flown away, but why would I want to leave you, love?”

Stephnie grins once again and slides off her mate, but wraps her cumbersome figure in her arms.

“So, you don’t regret coming outside with me after all?”

Stephnie shakes her head. “Not if it’s going to end like this…” She laughs softly and kisses her mate once again, passion seeming to melt some of the snow around them.

“Mmmm…” Eve relaxes into her mate’s arms, and they lay there, content, in the sparkling field of snow.

————————-

The clock chimes the hour. Eight o’clock. Gotham City is covered in a blanket of crisp, newly fallen snow, and it sparkles under the faintly glowing street lamps.

Across the street from the Gotham Museum of Antiquities, Caumbine and Vicky watch the people stream through the door for the annual Christmas benefit, dressed very finely, beautiful jewels on their fingers and handsome furs draped from their shoulders.

“Viiiiiiicky! What are we gonna doooooo?” Caumbine pouts, clinging to the other woman.

“Doesn’t Caumby remember? We were going to get the pretty statue at the party.”

“Oh!” Her eyes widen and she nods vigorously, then pouts. “I like slime monkeys better.”

Vicky smiles, hugging the girl close as they approach the museum. “If you see a slime monkey statue, tell Vicky and she’ll steal it for you, okay?”

Caumby smiles brightly. “‘kay!”

“So we’re going to go inside, and no one is going to notice us, okay, Caumby? So we’re not going to talk to anyone. Just going to get the statue and go.” She winks. “Then we can have some fun later.”

A couple walks up the stairs and are stopped by a single guard. They hand over their invitation and chat while he checks the list.

“It -is- too bad Bruce was not able to attend. Something about other pressing business, you said? That boy. What could be more important than this?” She tosses the stole around her neck and smiles graciously at the guard as he gestures her inside, a tall white-haired man with black-rimmed glasses entering slightly behind her.

Veronica moves to the door, Caumby by her side, and smiles at the guard.

“Invitation please?” He consults his clipboard.

She smiles softly. “I’m afraid I forgot it… am I on the list?” She leans over as if to peer at the clipboard and taps him gently, leaving him standing, but his brain on temporary pause.

Caumbine giggles and makes a face at him.

“In we go. But quietly, okay?” Vicky smiles.

Caumbine nodnods. “‘Kay…” She whispers it, and she has to restrain herself from bouncing.

“We’ll avoid the large banquet hall, and head to the room with the treasures, okay, Caumby?”

She nods, eager, but tries to be cool and collected.

They slip through the crowds of people, and approach the room in question.

Caumbine nibbles her lower lip, brow furrowed. “So…how do we get in? Can I do it? Can I? Can I? Can I, huh?”

Vicky laughs softly and hugs her once again. “Yes, of course, but Caumby can be quiet, right? We don’t want to invite everyone to our own personal party.”

Caumby instantly freezes in her tracks a moment, then she tiptoes forward exaggeratedly, her finger pressed to her lips as she nods.  “I can do it…” She whispers, and she bites her lip, looking over her shoulder anxiously as she slowly carves a small hole in the glass. She catches it carefully, making small shushing noises at it, and she slips her hand in to turn the knob. The door swings open quietly. She looks at Vicky, bouncing, eyes wide, looking for approval.

Vicky kisses her firmly. “Caumby is totally awesome.” She pauses. “Now, we want to avoid what guards we can, but if they get in our way…”

Caumby brightens and her dagger falls into her hand. Her voice is still somewhat quiet, though. “Then the plan says I can stab ’em!” She makes little stabbing motions with the sharp weapon, and giggles. She suddenly freezes. “There’s someone in here.”

Vicky frowns, and she glances around. A flicker of a shadow catches her eye, in the adjacent room.  She nods to Caumbine, who crouches slightly, and they advance from opposite sides, silently.

A large fat man in a red suit, with bushy white hair and a long flowing beard is bent over slightly, and there is a pedestal with a small statue, encrusted with precious gems, sitting on a bed of diamonds.

He takes it in his hands and turns slightly, seeming to admire it. Covet it, even.

Caumby leaps forward and the dagger disappears. “Vicky! It’s Santa!” She cuddles up to the man, with shining eyes.

He yelps in surprise, and his eyes widen as he puts down the statue hastily. “Uh, how did you…?”

Caumby bounces against him, and she kisses his rosy red cheek. “Where’s my present? Present!” She smiles wide, excited.

He looks around, a bit wildly, and scoops up some of the diamonds in his hand. “For you?” He holds them out to her.

She pouts. “Just like that?” Her lip pokes out.

His eyes dart around the room. “There. That pouch.” He points at a large velvet textured bag. “Hold it open for me. It’s a special pouch, just for you.” He smiles.

Caumby bounces once again, and she eagerly opens the bag, watching him pour in the glittering jewels.

“Wow, Vicky, did you see?” She smiles widely at the other girl, who is leaning back, watching with suspicious eyes.

“Oh, I see, yes.” She pauses. “I thought Santa was supposed to wait until all the children were in bed. It’s only eight-thirty.”

He smiles at her, his rosy red cheeks gleaming and laughs softly, holding his belly. “Ho ho ho! Well, my work is never done, you see. I do toil all year long, you know.”

Vicky glances at Caumby, who’s still watching the man with shining eyes. “And it looked like you were -taking-, not giving, Santa. That statue, for instance.” She nods at it.

He chuckles once again, but small beads of sweat form on his forehead. “Ah, well, I was just… admiring it! Yes, admiring it! Such good workmanship!”

Caumby begins to look puzzled and her head moves from side to side, trying to understand.
“-We- were gonna steal the statue! And Santa’s not supposed to take, Vicky…” She pouts.

Vicky smiles at her and blows her a kiss. “No, Caumby, of course not.” Her eyes harden. “But what if this isn’t Santa?”

He looks startled a moment, then laughs, and his belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly. “Of course I’m Santa! Big red suit! White beard. Ho ho ho! See?”

Caumby nibbles her lower lip, and looks at Vicky, for her reaction.

“Oh, anyone can dress up in a suit and say ho ho ho.” She smiles, somewhat dangerously.

Caumby looks back at Santa, her head swivelling back and forth between them, like she’s at a tennis match.

“My dear, please.” He laughs once again. “Of -course- I’m the real Santa…”

Vicky immediately cuts him off. “Prove it then. Let Caumby pull on your beard.” She smiles at Caumby and winks. “Caumby would do that little thing for her Vick-Vick?”

Caumby nods quickly and smiles, then claps her hands delightedly.

He puts hands to his beard, rather protectively. “Ah, well, my beard is very sensitive…”

Vicky raises an eyebrow and her eyes narrow. “Oh? Then maybe he -isn’t- Santa Claus, Caumby…”

Caumbine growls very slightly and her forearm twitches, the dagger spilling into her hand once again.

His eyes widen at the appearance of the knife, and his hands almost reflexively go up in a surrender position, before he masters himself, and smiles once again. “Ho ho ho! Surely you wouldn’t threaten -Santa Claus-!” He laughs once again, but it sounds nervous as he holds his belly, jiggling it.

Vicky’s voice is flat. “Let her pull on your beard. Now.”

He inconspicuously bites his lip underneath the bushy beard. “Ah, well… of course! Of course she can!” He smiles once again. “But she’ll be gentle, right? Don’t wanna hurt Santa!” He chuckles, but his eyes are wide, slightly nervous.

“Vicky?” Caumbine says her name, in a somewhat dreamy voice.

“Yes, Caumby?” She winks and blows her another kiss.

“If he’s not Santa, what’s the plan?”

Vicky smiles, very cruelly. “Then you can stab him, Caumby, of course.”

Caumby squeals softly and bounces into Vicky’s arms, smothering her with kisses.

The colour drains from the man’s face, and he swallows hard. His hands move to his beard, and he presses into it, as though hoping it will attach itself more firmly.

Caumbine moves forward, and her hand reaches out to jerk gently on the white beard. It does not move.

There is a sigh of relief from the man, and he straightens, leaning back. “See? I am not…” His eyes widen as Caumbine continues to hold on, and as he pulls back, the beard peels off his face, and hangs from her hand.

Vicky laughs, very softly, and it is as though flames appear in her eyes. “Gotcha.”

He snatches at the beard and quickly presses it back into the place, smiling nervously at them.

Caumby’s eyes narrow and she brandishes her weapon threateningly. “You -aren’t- Santa! Vicky! He tricked me!”

Vicky smiles once again, and her eyes cut to the frightened man, who backs away a little more. “Yes. He did, didn’t he? Go ahead, Caumby. Give him a new mouth….” She points, about where his belly would be. “…right there.”

He sighs dramatically. “Clearly I must reveal my true identity to you.” He whirls and throws out his arms. “Wait, evildoers!” The voice now booms from the man, who throws off his Santa suit, wig and beard then spins, posing dramatically in black tights, emblazoned with the insignia “POWAM” across his chest. His arm is outstretched, pointing at the ceiling, chest thrust out proudly. “My superpowers will vanquish you!”

Vicky and Caumby exchange glances, somewhat nonplussed.

“…you’re…a superhero?” They look dubious, but tense, on guard.

He nods once regally, still posing.

“…you -do- know superheroes don’t steal, right?” Vicky looks slightly askance at him, brows furrowed.

His face rearranges itself into sadness. “Ah, but you do not understand my plight!” He clears his throat, and begins to speak. “As a boy, I wished only to become the world’s best actor! I would wow the crowds, and they would heap accolades on me. My name would be known throughout the world! People would clamour for my talents, my work! Everything I would do would be acclaimed, and I would want for nothing!” He pauses dramatically and puts his hands on his hips, posing.

“Imagine my desolation when my teachers, my friends, my colleagues did not recognize my talent.” He sniffs, clearly overcome by this. “I vowed then that I would try forever to show them the error of their ways!” He smiles winningly at them. “Surely my rendition of Santa Claus was perfection itself!”

Vicky frowns and looks at Caumby with disbelief, who blinks, nibbling on a fingernail. “Um, I knew right away you weren’t Santa.”

He waves a hand dismissively. “Unusually perceptive.” He smiles. “I fooled your friend, there.”

Caumby’s eyes blaze and she brandishes the dagger once again. “Hey! That’s right! You did trick me!”

He shrinks back a little, and Vicky smirks. “I wouldn’t mention that, if I were you…”

Caumby pouts. “Can I kill him now, Vicky? Pleeeeeeeease?”

He looks taken aback. “But I have not even finished my introduction! You do not even know my name!”

Vicky shrugs. “What’s another few minutes?” She looks at Caumby. “When he stops talking, kill him.”

Caumby beams at her, wrinkling her nose in pleasure, and her hand tightens on the dagger in anticipation.

The words tumble out of his mouth end over end. “I am Poor-Out-Of-Work-Actor-Man!”

Vicky blinks. Then blinks again. “You are -not- serious.”

Caumbine’s mouth moves, and she stares at his chest, mouthing the phrase slowly. “…it’s missing an O…”

He nods apologetically. “Yes, my tailor cannot seem to spell…but upon second thought, POWAM is much more impressive than POOWAM…” He ponders this a moment, then shakes his head, as if to clear it, and points dramatically once again, hurrying back into his speech. “I can weave illusions that make the masses weep! I can fool the most perceptive people…” He pauses a moment. “Present company excepted, perhaps.” He glances at Vicky a moment, then rushes on. “My own mother did not recognize me as I played out the role of dogwalker, bus boy, grocery clerk and valet all in one day!” He grins proudly.

“I must steal to earn my living while I wait for the big break that is my due, but truly, no one would blame me for it, and I will make reparations as soon as I am famous!” He gestures grandiosely.

“…he’s a crook who thinks he’s a hero.” Vicky shakes her head in disbelief.

“Now? Can I do it now?” Caumbine’s eyes shine, and she leans forward, eager.

Vicky nods. “By all means, Caumby. The world can only be improved by his death.”

Caumby’s eyes flash and she leaps forward. The man stumbles back, and knocks over the pedestal with the statue, and it goes crashing to the ground with a loud bang, diamonds spilling all over the floor.

“What was that?” Footsteps pound in the hallway.

Vicky growls and looks over her shoulder. “Okay, time to go. That was way too much noise. Caumby?”

She pouts, holding the dagger a fraction of an inch above the man’s belly. “But Vicky…”

“No, no. We don’t want to be caught in here.” She moves quickly to the door on the other side of the room where they came in. “We can kill someone else later, Caumby.” She smiles.

The girl beams and the dagger vanishes. “‘Kay!” She vaults the debris easily, and they disappear just as a dozen security guards storm the room.

“Hold it right there!”

The man raises his hands slowly, and swallows hard, sprawled on the floor amid a pile of precious gems, and a broken statue. “Ah…um…I didn’t do it?”

Outside, Vicky flies high, Caumby held in her arms. “…that did not go well.”

Caumby snuggles into the girl. “I got to be with you, though! And I got these!” She holds up the bag of diamonds, and spills them into her hand.

“Ah, yes, from your fake Santa.”

Caumby pouts. “Yeah! He was fake! I bet these are fake too!” She flings the glittering gems high in the air, and they rain down on the street below, falling deeply in the wet snow, buried treasure waiting to be found.

————————–

The pleasing aroma of freshly baked cookies wafts throughout the apartment, but it is a harried Coquina who stands in the kitchen shaking her head.

“No -way- am I going to be able to bake like that, Ange. -You- have the gift. -I- have the lump of coal.”

“Quina, please. You must at least -try-.” She smiles softly and holds up a perfectly baked cookie, shaped like a Christmas tree, and frosted delicately. “Wouldn’t you like to be able to do this?”

She rolls her eyes. “Of course I’d love to be able to, but that doesn’t seem to be what I am able to produce.” She gestures at the smoking pan on the stove, and the blackened crumbled bits of cookie stuck to it. “And you’ve made enough cookies already to feed the neighbourhood.” She pouts a little.

Angela smiles gently once again. “I thought we could bring the extras over to your old house… the orphanage is up and running. The Wayne was very quick about it.”

Coquina’s eyes immediately fill with tears. “Ange… really?”  Her breath catches in her throat.

She nods and enfolds Coquina in a tight hug. “Yes, Quina. I noticed it on our patrol the other evening.” She pauses. “I did not mean to upset you…”

Coquina brushes at the tears threatening to stream down her face. “N-no…I just… it just surprised me.” She smiles tremulously. “You… you’re so kind. I-It was… a really nice thought.” She nods, more firmly. “Okay. I’ll try again.”

Angela squeezes her harder in the hug, then releases her. “Good. You still have some dough left?”

She nods. “Are you sure you didn’t give me a defective batch?” She grins a little, trying to make her friend smile.

She cocks her head, but shakes it. “No. I would not do that. Then you would just be upset once again, and I would have to comfort you.”

Coquina sighs deeply. “A joke, Ange. It was a joke.” She shakes her head and plops out a rounded ball of dough on the table.

Angela immediately picks up the dough and puts a light dusting of flour on the table beneath it. She sets it down once again. “Flour, Quina, so it doesn’t stick and tear. You want cookies like this, right?” She bites into one delicately, her white teeth gleaming.

Coquina grumbles softly. “This is far too much work. I told you I wasn’t going to be good at it…” But she remembers to dust the rolling pin with flour before flattening the mixture against the table, her strong arms easily pressing down on the dough.

“You are very beautiful, Quina. Your body moves well.” She smiles and takes another bite out of the cookie.

Coquina blushes very slightly and she presses too hard, and the dough flattens too much, paper-thin against the table. “You are… flattering me. Thank you. But you shouldn’t.”

“And why not?” She sounds curious, and her head cocks.

“Because I don’t deserve it.” Her tongue pokes out between her teeth in concentration as she peels the dough from the table, ripping off that piece and tossing it back into the bowl. She takes the cookie cutters in hand and slowly presses into the dough, moving them gently from side to side to make the impressions.

“Ah, but you do. And that is a very cute expression, as well.”

“Ange…” She glances at your innocently perfect face, and her eyes twinkle. “It is -you- who is so gorgeous and wonderful and sweet and kind.” She nods at the brightly blinking tree, covered in beautiful decorations and shining tinsel. “It should be you atop the Christmas tree, Angel.”

Her mouth opens and she blinks, touched. She speaks softly. “I do enjoy it when you call me that, though I should not…”

“Ah, but I should. You are.” She winks at her friend, and peels the remaining pieces of dough off the table, leaving only the cookies behind.

Angela blinks once again, and her manner is brisk as she takes out another pan. “Now you grease it, so the cookies do not stick.” She glances only once at the still smoking cookie sheet. “As I am certain you will now remember.”

Coquina laughs a little and she mimes staggering back, holding her hand over her heart. “A mortal wound. You got me good. Yes, yes, now I’ll remember.” She rubs the shortening into the pan and sets it down. “So, now the cookies go on?”

Angela nods. “Space them apart. They will expand as they cook in the oven.”

Coquina does so, and Angela sets the temperature on the oven as they are slid inside.

“So now what?”

Angela smiles. “Now we wait.”

Coquina grumbles again. “This is the part I really don’t like.”

Angela arches a delicate eyebrow. “But all the work is done. You have only to pull them out after a certain amount of time.”

“…but I always forget about them…until I smell the smoke.” She looks a little embarrassed.

Angela smiles. “Then we will stand here, and wait together.” She proffers a cookie at you. “Would you like one?”

Coquina smiles, and accepts it. “Only if you share it with me? Half and half?”

Angela considers this a moment, then nods.

Coquina snaps the cookie in equal portions and hands the top half of the Christmas tree over. They munch as they wait for time to pass.

“Ange…Do you think…” She pauses, and her eyes glisten.

“Yes, Quina?” She smiles at you, licking crumbs from her lips.

“Do you really think it’s okay that I enjoy the holiday with you? I…Penny…” She swallows hard.

She immediately wraps her arms around Quina, very tightly. “Your daughter would want you to be happy. I know this deep inside.”

She sighs and looks at the Christmas tree, her face reflected in a crimson bulb hanging from a branch. She thinks of her daughter and what they have missed, together.

“And the cookies should now be ready, Quina.” Angela speaks gently. “If you do not take them out now, they will burn.”

She nods slowly, and smiles. “Thanks, Ange. You’re a great friend.” She bends to open the oven door.

Angela holds out the oven mitts. “Perhaps using these would prevent further accidents?”

Quina blushes and nods, taking them, and when she pulls out the pan, her eyes are caught by the cookie in the center of the pan. A perfect angel. She glances at Angela, and a slight blush suffuses her cheeks.

——————

“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Fawne appears immediately in front of Saria, her fingers waving cutely.

Saria clutches at her chest and stumbles back. ” Ahhh! We agreed you weren’t going to do that anymore!”

She pouts. “I know, but it’s fun!”

Saria shakes her head, and breathes slowly. “I can’t believe we’re out here, in the snow, on hospital duty. My superiors totally hate me.”

“But I don’t! And it’ll be fun! We’ll get to visit the sick people! Make them happy!” Fawne bounces.

Saria grumbles. “How are we going to do that?”

“Wellllllllllllll…..you could make cool stuff for them, with your alchemy!”

She pauses. “Not supposed to use it frivolously, Fawne…”

Fawne pouts. “But… it’s not… friv…friv…friv-whatever!”

Saria shakes her head. “We’re here now, Fawne, so we have to kinda be quiet, okay? And don’t scare anyone.”

Fawne nods quickly and fades from view.

“Oh! You’ve arrived already! How wonderful! We need all the help we can get!” A nurse bustles by, shoves an armful of towels at the startled girl, and pushes her forward down the hall. “Make sure you don’t forget to check the sheets in all the rooms, dear!”

Saria moves helplessly forward, eyes wide in astonishment, then her expression sours, and she grumbles. “Figures. One day an alchemist, the next an orderly.” She is urged along by the nurse, leaving Fawne behind.

The girl looks around curiously, and flits into one of the rooms, giggling slightly.

“Who’s there? Is that you, Colleen?” A voice speaks querulously from one of the beds.

Fawne looks over, her gaze drawn to the elderly woman lying still in a bed, bandages around her head and arm.

“Um…no. I’m Fawne!”

The woman pats the side of her bed with a weak hand. “Colleen, come and sit beside your mother. You know my eyes aren’t as good as they once were…”

Fawne cocks her head, but floats towards her obediently.

The woman roots around in the sheets, groping at the bedstand. “I might have a sweet for you…”

Fawne shakes her head and smiles brilliantly. “No, that’s okay! I don’t need any sweets!”

The woman’s face softens into a smile and she looks vaguely at Fawne. “Such a good girl, my Colleen. Always such a good girl.”

Saria, having escaped the head nurse, heads back towards the entrance.

“Oh dear. She’s having one of her spells again.” Two nurses hover outside the door to a hospital room.

Saria pauses and leans forward, listening.

“Listen to her, talking to herself, poor thing.” One shakes her head sadly.

“Ever since she heard about her daughter’s passing, she’s been… completely out of it. I don’t think she’s ever going to improve at this rate. No one has even come to visit her.”

“You may be right. But tis the season, right? A miracle could happen.”

“Oh yeah. And a State Alchemist could walk through those doors and turn all these towels into gold. C’mon, before the head nurse comes back. I want to be able to go -home- tonight…”

The one nurse lingers though, and she shakes her head once again. “Thinking she’s talking to her Colleen. Poor thing.” She slowly walks away.

Saria frowns, and her eyes widen. “Talking to herself…? Or….Fawne!” She walks forward quickly, and she strides into the room.

“Fawne!” She hisses, seeing the girl hovering by the bed. “What are you doing in here?”

Fawne looks back over her shoulder and smiles. “I’m talking to the lady!” Her brow furrows. “She keeps calling me Colleen, though, and I’m Fawne!”

The woman mutters to herself, one hand outstretched towards Fawne, as if she wants to touch her very badly.

Saria moves closer, but stays out of line of sight of the bed. She whispers to Fawne. “She thinks you’re her daughter. She died recently according to some of the nurses.”

Fawne’s face falls and she looks very sad. “Can I help her?”

Saria looks startled. “Help her?”

Fawne nods vigorously. “I just have to ask permission! I’ll be right back!” She fades out, and disappears.

“Fawne! Fawne!” She hisses the name, a little panicked. “What -is- she up to?”

A single tear trickles down the woman’s face, and she turns her face into the pillow. She mumbles quietly to herself.

Saria backs away, embarrassed at seeing this, but whirls as the woman’s door is opened and one of the nurses from before bustles in.

“Oh! Hello!” She smiles, and sets down the small vase of flowers she holds in her hand. She checks the woman’s bed expertly as she speaks. “Are you family? That’s so wonderful that you’ve come to see her, after so long!”

“Ah, no… no I’m not… family…” Saria mumbles the words.

“Oh no? I thought you were here to visit Rhianna. Poor thing.” She strokes the woman’s hair softly. “Then why are you in here?”

“Ah… uh… got lost. Yeah.”

The nurse sounds regretful. “Oh, well. Can I help you find something?”

Saria shakes her head, looking thoughtfully at the frail woman on the bed. “No… wait. Yes. Do you have a telephone? I need to make a call.”

“I’ll be back later, Rhianna. Try to be happy, okay?” She leads Saria out and nods. “I can show you where it is…” She heads over to a narrow corridor, and a large fat man speaks importantly into the phone.

“Oh dear. Mr. Ferriman. He spends all of his time on the telephone. You may have to wait some time.” The nurse nibbles her lower lip, and her voice is apologetic.

Saria shakes her head. “No. No, I won’t.” She taps the man on the shoulder. “I need this phone. Official business.”

He grunts at her. “Wait your turn.”

She raises an eyebrow and elbows him aside, surprisingly quickly, and ends his call.

He squawks at her. “What are you -doing-?”

“Making a miracle.” She dials the phone, and waits impatiently.

Back in the hospital room, Fawne reappears, and she pouts. “Where’d she go? I wanna show her my surprise!”

The woman’s face softens. “My Colleen… you’re back.” Her hand stretches out once again, and Saria re-enters the room.

“I’m still Fawne, but I brought Colleen to see you!” She says brightly, and smiles at Saria, waving sunnily.

Another indistinct form slowly materializes beside the bed, and the figure floats very close. “Mother.”

The woman’s breath catches in her throat, and her eyes open wide. “Colleen!”

“I miss you, mother. I did not mean to die.” The ghost’s hand reaches out, featherlight, to lay over the other woman’s.

Tears fill her eyes and stream down her face. “I know, Colleen…it just… it hurts so much, and I miss you!”

A faint smile appears on the ghost’s incorporeal face. “I miss you too, mother. But you can’t live like this. You must move on.” Her hand looks as if it squeezes the other. “My daughter needs you too.”

She clutches at her daughter’s hand. “Maera. Yes.” She licks her lips anxiously, face still turned to face the ghost.

“I will be watching over you all, mother. Please.” The ghost bends and brushes cool lips over the woman’s cheek. “Be happy.”

Fawne smiles as the ghost retreats. “I must go, mother. But please remember. I will always be with you.” She fades and Fawne waves cheerily at her. “Thank you for coming!”

Saria’s eyes mist and she blinks as Fawne floats over, the woman still crying softly.

“Did I do good?” She smiles and bounces.

Saria embraces her in a hug, and Fawne grins, happy at the attention. “That was beautiful, Fawne.”

The girl giggles and bounces once again. “Hee!”

Just then the door bursts open and a small girl runs in. “Gramma! Look, daddy, it’s Gramma!” She throws herself at the bed, hugging the woman tightly.

“Maera! How… how did you find me?” The woman clutches at the girl, bandaged arm and all.

A tall man rushes in behind her. “Rhianna! My god, are you all right? When you wandered off, we were terribly worried! We searched everywhere!” He bends down to hug the older woman.

She smiles a little at him, and her eyes are full of tears, but they are happy tears.

The nurse enters the room once again, and her eyes widen and she claps a hand to her mouth. “You must be her family! Oh, how wonderful!”

Saria backs off slightly, tugging at Fawne’s arm. The girl beams at her, but follows.

Once they’re outside, Saria smirks. “That worked out well, if I do say so myself.”

Fawne giggles. “You did that? Awwwww!” She throws her thin arms around the other girl, who blushes slightly.

Saria clears her throat. “All right, we should do… what we came here to do.”

Fawne grins at her. “Did you want me to get another ghost? I can if you want! Anyone you wanna meet?”

Saria groans. “One of you is quite enough, thank you very much.” But she grins.

——————

They walk along the snow covered sidewalks, people bustling past them, colourful packages piled high in their arms.

A hoarse voice speaks, and Elizabeth turns, startled, as fingers tug at her coat. She whirls anxiously, and her body tenses. An old man looks up at her, a brightly coloured scarf clutched in his hand. “Miss? Miss, did you drop this?”

Elizabeth looks puzzled, but shakes her head. “No, I didn’t…”

He clutches it to him more tightly. “Really? Then…I can keep it?”

Elizabeth shrugs. “I guess so. It’s just a scarf.”

He makes a soft exclamation of pleasure, rubbing the very soft material around his neck and smiles at her, what few teeth in his mouth gleaming yellow in the blinking lights all around them. “Thank you, Miss.” His breath is extremely bad, and Elizabeth draws back a very little bit, but the man has forgotten her already, murmuring softly to his new scarf.

She watches him a minute, and he heads back to a group of people, huddled around a small fire in a dead-end alley. They are dressed in ragged clothing, some with boots, some without, and they tramp in the slush to keep warm. He shows off his new scarf with pleasure, but there is still fear and furtiveness in his movements, as if he is afraid someone will take it from him.

Elizabeth growls a little bit, as she is bumped from behind. “Careful!”

The person looks startled and hurries away, mumbling an apology, the encounter forgotten by the time they reach the crossroads.

Valya, having been quiet up to now, chuckles softly. “Ah, this holiday. Yes, humans get very agitated this time of year. They put much stock in Christmas.”

Elizabeth looks at her curiously. “You seem to know a lot about it.”

Valya shrugs. “I am a very old vampyre.” She pauses to collect her thoughts. “The holiday is the celebration of a particular birth, but I will not go into that. It is steeped in custom and tradition, including gift-giving and the display of decorations.” She gestures to large store windows, where lights are blinking colourfully and sprigs of holly hang from the corners. “You can see the giant Christmas tree in the center of the town, there. They spend much time and effort on the ornaments for it.”

Elizabeth nods. “So… how come they look so sad, if this is supposed to be joyful and fun?”

Valya turns, glancing at the motley assortment of homeless people, trying to keep warm. A well-dressed man skirts by them, almost contemptuously, ignoring the small hat laid out for donations of coins or bills.

Valya shrugs. “Perhaps they have no one to celebrate the holiday with… no family. It is not uncommon in this place for people to be very alone.” She pauses. “It can be very depressing for some.”

Elizabeth catches her lower lip between her teeth. “Oh… well… if it’s supposed to be a happy time… it’s not right for people to be sad.”

Valya shrugs her elegant shoulders once again. “What would you have us do, Liz?” She pauses and draws the credit card from her leather clad bodice. “I suppose we could buy them gifts if you would like…?”

Elizabeth shakes her head. “No. I don’t think that would really make them happy.” She looks at Val and her eyes are soft, almost wistful. “I never really had a day like this… where everyone was supposed to be happy. Where… it was okay… and people were encouraged… to do nice things. Can… can we help them, Val? Please?”

Her eyebrow arches, and she looks a little puzzled. “Help them how, Liz? What would you have us do besides what I suggested?”

Elizabeth smiles and she squeezes her friend’s arm lightly. “You could give them a good Christmas. In their minds. You could do it, Val, I know you could! Please? I don’t want them to be unhappy…”

Valya looks startled, and she taps a long fingernail against her pale skinned cheek. “I suppose I could do that, yes. Will you join minds with me, so that you can see what I do? To advise if it… is not to your liking?”

Elizabeth smiles and nods, taking Val’s other hand in hers, squeezing it lightly. “I know you’ll do perfectly… but… thank you. Thank you for letting me see.” She turns her head to look at the group of people and waits.

Valya’s body shimmers slightly as she concentrates, and soon both women are enveloped in a fine grey mist… though no one seems to notice them, and their position is avoided, as if there is a barrier there, preventing anyone from getting too close.

The snow and ice, the dilapidated old barrel filled with flame, and the puddles of slush and discarded wrappers slowly fade, to be replaced by warm carpets, solid walls and festive decorations. There is no alarm or surprise on the part of the people, now warmly dressed, as they melt into their new environment. Val flicks a finger and a large table, filled with food, appears in the centre of the richly furnished room. Many opulent chairs surround it, and the people exchange looks of hunger and desperation before they fall on the feast, eating as if this was their first meal in months.

Val arches an eyebrow softly, and a large Christmas tree appears in the corner, brightly wrapped gifts piled high under the branches. The lights wink on and off softly, adding to the warmth in the room. A fire crackles in the corner, the reddish orange light flickering softly behind the grate. She smiles at Elizabeth and keeps one eye on the table, replenishing the food as needed.

Elizabeth squeezes her hand once again, but still looks sad. “I thought this would help, Val. But they’re just going to go back to what they were…” She swallows hard, and her eyes fill.

Valya shakes her head a little. “The alley exists in this reality no longer, Liz. It is their home. A real home, now. The clothes and food will remain with them, though… ” She points at the old man, still with one hand clutched on his scarf, as he shovels food into his mouth with his other hand. “I would not take away the things they know as theirs. It will be a slight merging of their reality and this one. They will believe they are warm and well fed as long as they are not able to break through the power of my mind.” She smiles very softly. She brushes Elizabeth’s cheek with a gloved hand. “Is that… pleasing to you?”

She looks shocked for a moment, in disbelief. Then she throws her arms around Valya and kisses her cheeks. “Just perfect.”

——————-

Melinda kisses her beloved, very softly. “My Xan.”

“Yes, my Kiosai?”

“I would very much like to thank you for the excellent training you have provided me. You are truly a wonderful teacher. I would not have such control over what is now mine without you.”

He smiles and wraps an arm around her shoulders, which still lingers even as Paul walks over to hand them a small slip of paper.

“Class 10.”

Xan looks very startled. “Class 10…?”

Paul nods, his perennially sour expression ever-present. “King has… insisted, and -I’m- not going to argue with him.”

Melinda leans over and kisses his cheek. “For you, and for King, once I see him. You both have my thanks.”

He scowls deeply, and waves his hand irritably. “Out! Out of my office. There’s work to be done.” His voice is somewhat gruff.

Melinda grins and nods, placing her hand gently in Xan’s, who still looks surprised. His eyes flash red for one moment, then are as they are normally… with only a slight sheen of excitement.

Melinda looks closely at him, puzzled. “Where do we go, my Xan?”

He blinks and shakes his head a little, and when he speaks boyish excitement wars with anticipation. “To see Santa.”

They materialize outside a small warmly decorated house, the trees outside winking cheerfully with bright lights and candy canes hung from the snow laden branches.

Melinda thinks a moment, her mind clearly flipping through the repository in her brain. “Does this have special significance for you, my Xan?”

He smiles at her, and kisses her lips gently. “It…” He shakes his head softly. “I believe, Melinda. I simply believe. And now… I will know.”

“Know what?” She looks quizzically at him.

He smiles and shakes his head once again, wrapping his arm around her waist. He steps forward, and taps gently on the door.

The door opens, almost as of its own accord. “Come in! Come in! You are both welcome here.” A jolly old man, with red cheeks and bushy white hair waves at them from his position behind a workbench, glasses perched on his nose and several small people in funny looking hats and shoes bustling about around him.

Xan takes a deep breath and smiles, bowing deeply. “It is my honour to meet you.”

The man shakes his head and a loud laugh comes from him as he holds his belly, jiggling slightly. “No, no. There will be none of that. We are going to be good friends, I can tell.” His eyes twinkle as he glances at both of them. “I am, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, good old Saint Nick. Santa Claus.” He bows floridly.

Xan’s smile widens. “You are not surprised by our presence here?”

Santa straightens and lays a gentle finger alongside his nose then winks. “I have a little bit of magic myself.”

Melinda looks around, surprised. “Your dwelling is very large. Deceptive, from its appearance outside.”

He laughs once again, still holding his belly. “Ah, yes. Well, I do important work here. And I have many things to keep track of.” He gestures around, and the little people pick up speed, piles of toys appearing almost instantly in the corners, filling up the room.

She blinks, once again surprised. She pauses a moment. “Ah. You are responsible for bringing presents to all children. Correct?”

He grins and winks at her, and a plate of cookies materializes out of nowhere, and he takes one as it floats past. It hovers in front of Melinda, who shakes her head, but Xan reaches out, crunching into one with a grin. “I do that, yes, and so much more.”

“Then why are we here?  If you can do all, surely you do not need our power.” Melinda smiles at him brilliantly.

His grin does not falter. “One must use the perfect tool for the perfect problem. And there is a problem that perhaps you two may be better suited to handle. In my name, of course.” A small frown mars his face. “But you need to hurry. There is not much time left.” He hands them a letter. “Read this, and you will know what to do.” He pauses and moves to wrap both of them in a hug. As he does, Xan whispers something quietly in his ear, and the man grins wide and winks.

—————–

Frederick anxiously clutches the little bit of money he’d gotten from his piggybank this morning. The dollar bills were sticky in his palm, but he just -had- to get his little sister something else to put under the tree, so she wouldn’t be sad. He hadn’t heard from Santa at all, and he worried that his letter might not have arrived. He chews his lower lip and grips his lunch box even more tightly.

“Hey, runt. Gimme your lunch money.” A group of three much larger boys fan out and surround Frederick, almost pinning him to the bank of lockers.

“I… I don’t have any lunch money!” Frederick holds up the lunch box defensively in front of him, stumbling back.

“What’s that you got in your hand, then?” The tallest and broadest of them nods at the tightly clenched fist, sneering slightly.

Frederick looks outraged, tempered by fear. “That’s for my little sister’s present!”

“Now it’s going to be for our present, runt. Give it here.”

“No!” Frederick draws back, squeezing his fist more tightly closed.

The leader’s eyes flash and his expression turns ugly. “You’ll give it to us, or I’ll knock you through those lockers, runt. Stuff you inside and you’ll die there.”

One of the others laughs. “He’ll just be a bad smell, and no one will ever find him. He’ll just have…disappeared.”

They all laugh, finding this incredibly funny, and Frederick’s eyes dart from side to side, looking for any avenue of escape.

—————–

They appear in a darkened classroom, flasks and petrie dishes stacked high on counters, glossy microscopes glinting in the light peeking through drawn shades.

“We appear to be… in school?” Melinda sounds puzzled, as she matches the image in her mind to the room surrounding them.

Xan takes the letter in hand and scans it.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Dear Santa,

My name is Frederick and Im nine
years old. I know yu probly know
this, but my mom is all sad
because she dont have a job ne more.
Janey is too litle to unerstand,
but I do. I dont want ne thing for
Christmas for me this year, Santa.
But if yu could PLESE make sure
my mom and sister have a good
Christmas… that’s whut I want.

So, iggnor the last leter I wrote,
with all the stuff I ast for. I
just want my mom and sister to be
happy.

Signed,

Frederick

P.S. Mom always says I haveta be
polite. I forgot. Sorry!
Plese dont forget! Thank yu!

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

His face softens, and he passes it to Melinda.

She pauses. “…what a sweet boy.”

Xan grins at her, brushing her lips with his own. “He is our mission, my Kiosai. We are going to give him his ultimate Christmas wish.”

“A question before we go, my Xan?”

“Of course, my Kiosai.” The world blinks, and he leans forward and kisses her lips.

She smiles. “You whispered something to Santa before we left. I would know what you said, if it is not an intrusion.”

He grins broadly. “I thanked him for my gift. You.” He squeezes her tightly, arm around her waist and kisses her deeply. She blushes, kisses back, and time resumes.

A bell rings, and they step out into the hallway, rapidly filling with children, some who race from class to class, knapsacks swinging on their backs, others who quickly head to lockers, to change books for next period.

Two boys walk quickly past, looking over their shoulder anxiously. “Man, Frederick’s gonna get pounded if he doesn’t give up that cash. Taylor is mean when he gets mad.”

“Yeah.” The other boy pulls his lower lip out. “He knoffed out my ‘ottom toof last year. Hit me reary hard.”

Xan and Melinda exchange glances and quickly move to the end of the hall, looking for the boy named Frederick.

—————-

“You can do whatever you want to me, but I’m not giving this money to you!” Frederick’s face twists mutinously, and he glares at them.

The three boys exchange glances and shrug. “Then we beat you up, stuff you into the locker and take the money anyway, runt. That’s how this works.” Taylor glances around. “There’s no one here to stop us.” The halls are now deserted, and they reach out. Frederick cringes back as they tug at him.

“Let. Him. Go.” The male voice is strong, commanding.

The three boys whirl, and they look startled, frightened even. Their expressions turn to sneers as they see the man and woman standing calmly in front of them.

“You ain’t teachers here. We don’t have to do what you say.” The biggest of them, Taylor, shrugs and turns back to Frederick, fist drawn back, ready to punch.

Light reflects suddenly in the space between Frederick and the other boys, as if a shield has been placed there. A strong hand covers the fist, and pulls the husky boy around. “One warning. Leave him, or you will face the consequences.”

Taylor tries to tug his fist out of the other man’s grasp. “Hey! Lemme go! You can’t touch me! I’m gonna call a cop and charge you with assault!”

Melinda speaks. “You cannot reason with him, my Xan.”

He nods. “Agreed.” He abruptly releases the boy, and his body suddenly changes, morphing and growing into a fifteen foot monster, and his elongated head turns to hiss and growl at the boys, clawed hands extended.

Melinda’s voice is very dry. “I highly recommend flight.”

Taylor snorts, and he steps forward. “Oh please! I’m too old for tricks.” He swings at Xan, who growls once again, and his tail slams heavily into the bank of lockers, smashing clean through part of the wall as well.

The boys scream and shout, scrambling back, away from the monster. Xan takes a few steps forward, still hissing, and his fury is evident. They bolt, shouting frantically for a teacher, for anyone.

Frederick cowers against the lockers, his lunch box knocking against his shaking knees. Melinda steps forward and gestures, and the wall is instantly repaired. The boy cringes back, even as Xan resumes his normal form. The shield vanishes, and she crouches down in front of him, glowing very slightly.

“Frederick. We have come in response to your letter. Santa has sent us here to assist you.” She smiles softly.

He rubs at his tearstained eyes, and darts another glance at Xan, still scared.

“You asked for your mother and sister to have a happy Christmas, yes?” She strokes a finger along his cheek, still crouched down in front of him, and she allows her radiance to increase, glowing more obviously.

His expression changes, and he looks suddenly full of hope. “Santa… Santa sent an angel to help me?” He swallows hard, and he blinks back tears.

She smiles and pulls him close, stroking his hair. “Shhhh. I am not quite an angel, but I will assist you, as will my Xan. We are a team, and we think you are very special, and very brave.”

His little chest puffs out a tiny bit at her praise. “How… how are you going to help me?”

She smiles and holds out her hand, rising gracefully to her feet. “Will you come with us, and see?”

He doesn’t hesitate a moment and slips his tiny hand into hers. He looks at Xan quickly and smiles, just a little. “That was really cool…what you did. The monster, I mean.”

Xan’s face widens into a big smile and he ruffles the boy’s hair.

———————-

“Wow….” Frederick’s eyes are wide, taking in all of the ambiance of the department store, and he looks longingly at some of the toys piled on the shelves.

Xan chuckles. “What we need to see is outside, Frederick…can I call you that?”

He grins. “My friends call me Freddie. My mom calls me Frederick..” He makes a little face, then hurries to explain. “It’s okay that she does, cause she’s my mom and all, but I’d like it if you called me Freddie…”

Melinda smiles softly. “Then, Freddie, we should go outside, or we will miss what will happen.”

He blinks at her. “What -will- happen?”

She laughs quietly, and hugs his small body. “You will see, in due time.” She pushes him gently ahead of her, and presses close to Xan for a short moment, closing her eyes in pleasure.

He smiles and licks her ear, then they both stand behind Freddie, watching.

“Oh! That’s my mom!” He blinks and his eyes fill as he sees how she struggles with the awkward packages she’s carrying. “And she got me the fire truck I wanted… oh, mom…” He blinks rapidly, trying not to cry in front of Melinda and Xan.

Melinda puts her hand on his shoulder and squeezes reassuringly. “Watch, young Freddie.”

As she walks out onto the sidewalk, she is jostled hard by some passersbys, and the packages fall out of her hands, and the hands of the man beside her.

“Oh!” She blows some hair out of her eyes. “I’m so sorry! Did I hit you?” She bends to pick up the packages, just as he does, and their foreheads smack together with a muted thump. She stumbles back and he reaches out for her, to steady her, while shaking his head.

“Are you all right, miss? I’m sorry; I was in a terrible hurry.” He’s well dressed; very handsome, broad shouldered with thick blond hair. He starts to pick up her packages.

“Oh, yes….yes, I’m fine. I’m so sorry. Here, let me help…” She immediately tries to gather as many packages as she can, and he chuckles.

“You are very helpful, miss. But I think I can manage.” He grins at her, and stacks her packages up, steadying them for her.

“I’m still very sorry. I wanted to get these wrapped before my son is home from school.” She smiles brilliantly. “He’s such a good boy, and he deserves this and so much more…”

The man smiles, and puts out a hand to help her up. “No, no. It was all my fault. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

She takes his hand and smooths down her skirt as she rises. She jokes. “Well, if you have an extra job lying around, I could use one.”

He looks penetratingly at her a moment, then smiles. “Done. Can you start tomorrow?”

She laughs. “Oh, you’re joking.”

He shakes his head. “No, no, I’m not. If you really need a job, I’m offering you one. My name is Warren Worthington. Of Worthington Industries.” He smiles at her.

She gasps. “You’re…serious? But you don’t even know me!”

He shrugs and smiles once again. “You seem nice, and you were very apologetic. And you have a son you care deeply for. I could perhaps do worse.” His eyes twinkle.

“R-really?” She clutches her purse to her body, the presents still stacked at her feet. “You really mean it, Mr. Worthington, sir? I mean, you don’t even know what skills I have!”

He laughs. “Call me Warren. And the place is big enough that I suspect we’ll have no trouble fitting you in.” He scribbles something on the back of a business card and hands it to her. “See you after you bring your son to school, then, tomorrow?” He brushes back his hair, and smiles once again.

Her eyes fill with tears, then determination. “I’ll do the very best I can for you, Mr… Warren. I promise! Thank you so much!”

He grins and picks up his packages in one strong arm, and waves at her with the other, threading through the crowds. She looks at the card one more moment, then tucks it deep inside her handbag, wanting to keep it safe.  She holds her packages more closely, and heads towards her car, still stunned, in disbelief.

Xan smiles. “So, Freddie. One part of your wish handled, I think.”

The boy brushes tears from his eyes and hurls himself into Xan’s arms, sobbing quietly. “Thank you! Thank you so much for helping my mom!”

Xan strokes his head and hugs him gently. “But we are not done, Freddie. Your wish is not yet fulfilled.” He holds the boy closely as he cries, though, and he smiles softly at Melinda.

Melinda smiles back and blows him a soft kiss. “When you are ready, Frederick, we will attend to Janey’s gift…is that not her name?”

He sniffles and nods. “I want to get her a really nice gift. These little slippers, glittery pink with bows on them. She wants them so badly…”

Melinda lays a gentle hand on his head and projects an image in front of him, as she searches for the item in question in his mind. “These?”

His eyes widen and he nods, speechless.

She smiles. “Then all you have to do is reach in, and take them. They are yours.”

His hand reaches out tentatively, as if he doesn’t believe it’s real, but his fingers skim the soft pink fabric and he gasps…. then pulls his hand away and shakes his head. “No… If it’s okay with you, I’d like to buy it for her myself. I have the money. I broke my piggybank this morning to get it.” He looks up at her, lips quivering. “Is it okay if we do it that way?”

Melinda smiles broadly, and the image vanishes. “Freddie, you impress me more and more the longer I know you. Yes, of -course-, it is acceptable to do it that way. Please, tell us where to go to find the gift.” She takes one of his hands, and he slips the other one into Xan’s and walks between them, holding tight.

It is a short walk to the store, and inside, Freddie looks around, searching for the slippers. He finds them and quickly walks over, checking out each pair, to ensure there are no rips or tears, or flaws.

He waves a hand at them as he inspects the slippers, smiling happily. A woman walks by and pauses in front of them. “Your son… he’s wonderful.  You love him very much, I can tell.” She smiles and continues on her way.

A small speculative grin crosses Melinda’s lips, and she watches Freddie pay for the slippers, then skip over to them.

“Ready!” He holds up the small pink bag with the slippers inside.

Xan nods, smiling, and they are suddenly in the boy’s home, in the living room area.

“Wow…that is -so- cool! And there’s my mom!” He waves.

Xan speaks quietly. “She cannot hear you, not yet, Freddie. We are here, but she cannot see or hear us. The wish is not yet complete.”

Freddie looks at them, puzzled. “But…I asked for you to help my mom and Janey! And you did! So now they’re going to have a happy Christmas!” He hugs the slippers to his chest, smiling.

Xan kneels in front of him and Melinda steps back a little, to give them this moment. “But you have not received -your- Christmas wish, Freddie.”

The boy shakes his head. “No, I told Santa that I didn’t need anything this year, because I wanted him to help my mom and sister, and he did!  He sent the both of you!”

Xan smiles. “And that was a very selfless act, Freddie.” He caresses the boy’s hair, just a moment, then continues. “But our mission is not complete until we give you your Christmas wish as well.”

Just then, the front door opens, and a tall, slightly stooped man enters, wearing an expedition hat, and a khaki jacket and pants. He carries a few small boxes that he sets on the nearby bench, and pulls off the hat, revealing a thick mane of red hair.

The boy stills, speechless and watches his mother come out of the kitchen, wiping her hands with a towel.  She also freezes, and then rushes forward. “Brian! It’s you! Oh! Frederick! Frederick! Your father is home!”

He takes his wife in his arms and hugs her to his body, kissing her deeply. “Ah, Beth, I’ve missed you so much.”

Tears run down her cheeks and she clings to him, sobbing. “I t-thought you were d-dead when you didn’t come b-back!”

He smiles and hugs her tightly once again. “It is a long story. I’ll tell you later.” He looks around. “Where’s my little angel, and my favourite firefighter?”

“Janey’s in the kitchen, in the high chair, and Frederick…” She looks puzzled. “I thought he was home from school, but perhaps not…”

They walk into the kitchen, arms wrapped around each other’s waist, and there’s a squeal of delight from inside, as Brian swings Janey up in his arms, hugging her tightly.

Freddie is openly crying, and his lower lip quivers. He shakes, unable to move, and swallows hard.

Melinda moves to Xan’s side, and he rises, smiling at Freddie once more, and puts a gentle hand on his shoulder. As soon as he does, the stasis is broken, and Freddie flings himself into the both of them, hugging their thighs tightly. “Thank you! Thank you so much!” He sobs some more, rubbing his tearstained face into their legs.

“Freddie. It’s time to go in and join your family now.” Melinda speaks quietly, stroking his damp hair.

The boy’s body shakes some more as he cries, and clings to them.

“I hope the gift pleases you.” Xan says, very softly, and smiles.

Freddie lets go and jerks his arm over his wet face, nodding quickly. “Thank you… thank you. Santa. Myzan.” He looks at Melinda. “I don’t know your name.” He confesses.

She chuckles. “He is Xan, I am Melinda.”

He repeats the names, fixing them firmly in his mind. “I won’t ever forget you.” He looks at them one last time, and runs, legs pumping as he skids around the corner and races into the kitchen.

————————-
Epilogue

********************
“To Xan” “To Melinda”

You have my deepest thanks. Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!

Santa.
********************

Two brightly wrapped boxes sit there, of about equal size, and equal weight, as they are picked up and shaken.

Xan exchanges a grin with his Kiosai and they fall upon the gifts, laughing as they race to be the first to open them.

————————-

Epilogue II

Space. Dark and featureless, with only two men standing there, gazing into the small snowglobe. Looking closely, you can see many worlds, many possibilities, many different people, though seemingly all the same.

“Who gets to choose the next?”

Goldeneyes grins and holds out his fist.

Blackeyes raises an eyebrow and does the same.

The voices merge and meld, one ethereal and warm, the other deep and cold. “Rock, Paper, Scissors…”

—————————