Gerald was late.
One of my biggest pet peeves.
I drummed my fingers on the coffee shop table and hummed along to the music. I knew the tune, but did not immediately recognize that it was an oddly-produced cover of a Christmas song.
I took a sip of my cocoa.
Tick-tock, girl. Time is slipping.
We shall be pleased to see you.
Haunting thoughts of Mrs. Batchalder’s clock resumed as soon as I returned from Eventide. I hoped her funeral would provide closure, and that I would be able to put the creepy memories behind me.
Distracting myself, I looked at the table next to me. A good-looking man and little girl with her hair in braids were also enjoying cups of cocoa. The girl occasionally would take a bite of a gaily-decorated reindeer cookie, setting it back on the napkin just so. A large pad of mixed-media paper laid open in front of the girl, along with a package of markers and a handful of crayons. From my vantage point, it seemed she was drawing a gingerbread house full of bright-colored candies.Very cute.
The door opened and several people entered. Gerald trailed three others in. I spotted his red hair right away and gave him a little wave. He rushed to the table.
“I apologize for my tardiness. My new employer is definitely not flexible,” he stated, rolling his eyes and unwinding a blue scarf from his neck. “This guy’s a stickler. He wants to get every minute he’s paying for, as if he’s being shortchanged.” Another eye roll.
Gerald took a seat and exhaled loudly.
“God, I miss Caroline,” he said, his voice nearly a whine.
He looked at me for commiseration? Sympathy? I actually wasn’t sure what he wanted. My face felt blank. I tried to give him a smile of reassurance, but my heart was not in it.
He shook his head as if to rid himself of the mood.
“How are you holding up?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked.
“A little tired, I guess. I just returned home last night, so…”
“How is Dugo?” he interrupted.
“Fine,” I replied.
Part of me felt like telling Gerald about Dugo’s participation in the Eventide Stakes, but that was one of those things a mortal would not understand. I took another sip of my drink to hide my smile.
Gerald pulled the messenger bag from his lap and set it on the table in front of him. He unlatched it and removed a manilla envelope. My name was written on the front in black Sharpie.
“I found this at Caroline’s when I was packing her belongings,” he said as he slid the envelope over to me. “It was strange because it wasn’t with the rest of her paperwork.” He looked around to see if anyone was listening. “I discovered it on a shelf in the closet,” he whispered.
I stifled a laugh at his sense of secrecy.
“I thought you should have it directly, so I hid it from the lawyer.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
“Well, you know how lawyers are,” he said, nodding in agreement with himself. “I don’t trust him one bit.”
“I’m sure her family…” I started.
Gerald interrupted again.
“Oh, she didn’t have family,” he confided. “Only Dugo as far as I know, and I was with her for over five years.”
He frowned and gave a dramatic sigh.
“And now I can’t even attend her funeral because I’m stuck with uncaring Mr. Fussbudget until I can find other work. And it’s horrible to have all of this happen right before the holidays…” he drifted off, lost in his own thoughts for several seconds. He finally broke his reverie and his face reddened. “Apologies. I know you didn’t come to hear my story of woe.”
I smiled, feeling strangely sympathetic for this odd little man.
He closed up the messenger bag and returned it to his lap, watching to see if I would open the envelope. When I did not make a move to do so, a look of disappointment crossed his pale features.
“Thank you,” I said, motioning to the envelope.
“Oh. Yeah. No problem.” He looked at his watch. “Thank you for coming all the way over to the neighborhood to meet me. I need to get back to the taskmaster. My time is not my own these days,” he said.
The envelope smelled like Mrs. Batchalder’s apartment.
“It’s fine. I appreciate you thinking of me,” I said. I almost felt guilty for disappointing him by not opening it.
He stood, wrapping the scarf back around his neck and slinging the bag over his shoulder. He gave me a long look and then rushed to the side of the table to give me an awkward half hug.
“Do you think I could come by and visit Dugo one of these days? I bought him a little bottle of catnip wine for Christmas.” A slight flush returned to his cheeks.
“Sure,” I smiled. “I’ll bet he’d love that.”
Gerald turned to leave.
“I really wish I could be there tomorrow.” Emotion filled his voice. “You think she’ll understand?”
Surprised by his vulnerability, I answered the best I could.
“For all of those years you worked with her and provided her with companionship, you were there for her when she needed it. That’s what matters.”
“Please keep in touch?” he asked.
I nodded, and he headed toward the door.
I slipped my finger under the flap of the envelope and felt the sharp sting of a paper cut. Damn.
A drop of blood welled and plopped onto the envelope.
We enjoy tasting you.
The cat clock whispered in my mind.
I dabbed my finger with a napkin and tore the envelope open. The contents, a bundle bound by a striped ribbon, slid onto the table. A red file folder labeled DUGO was the largest part of the package. The file appeared to contain vaccination and health info, a microchip registration card, and several photos of him as a kitten and young cat. Beneath the folder was a well-aged pamphlet for a retirement community, a business card for a lawyer, an index card with a jumble of numbers and letters (a code??), a federal prison commissary list dated 2010, and a lone silver key on a pink leather keychain. I turned the index card over and it was blank. Likewise, the commissary list was unmarked in any way.
What in the gods??
The only thing that made sense was the file containing the records for Dugo. The rest must have been a mistake.
And no note?
I shook the file folder to see if a note had slipped inside, but no stray papers fell out.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Looking up, I noticed the little girl from the next table watching me. She gave me a shy smile before the man urged her along.
“Delilah, our time is up,” he said.
Was he her father? A visitation?
The girl’s smile turned into a frown.
The man began gathering up the art items, packing them into a briefcase.
“Could I please take my picture?” she asked, her voice barely audible over the noise in the coffee shop.
“Not today,” he responded. “I’m sorry. I need to take it for my file. Maybe I can bring it back next week. Or maybe you can just draw another one at home.”
So probably not her father.
“I don’t have any paper or pens at my house,” she said. She looked down at the remnants of her cookie.
“Oh.” He took a long look at the girl. “Here,” he said. “You can have these.”
He smiled at her and tore out several blank pages from the pad. He also handed her the box of markers. Her smile returned and she hugged the supplies to her chest.
The whole scene broke my heart.
I watched them leave, then tucked everything back into the envelope and headed home. Exhausted, I slipped into a pair of cozy pajamas and turned on Olympus 10. The color commentator was still missing. It made my stomach ache to see her family’s grief splashed across the news. The station seemed to be playing up the tragic holiday angle. I snapped the TV off, trying to imagine what had happened to her. I’d mentioned it to Nyx, but her island search party found no evidence of the nymph. It was like she disappeared into thin air.
I decided to go to bed early, setting my alarm before I drifted off.
Mrs. Batchalder awaits.
. . .
I woke a few minutes before my alarm, a surprising amount of sunshine flooding the room. For some reason, I thought about Apollo. I hadn’t thought about him in some time, but his obvious absence at the OA swept into my mind.
Also on my mind was the contents of the envelope. I pondered each item as I showered and dressed for the service. I hoped someone in attendance could provide me with a little clarity surrounding what I’d received.
I arrived at the graveside a little early. My desire to learn more about Mrs. Batchalder kept me motivated since I abhorred funerals. Hanging back, I waited for people to appear, and then started to wonder if I had the wrong time when no one else showed. Finally, the hearse and a black sedan pulled up. Taking a seat, I watched as the employees carried the coffin and placed it at the grave.
An enormous wreath of pine, berries, pine cones and faux snow adorned the mahogany casket. The minister coughed. “We’ll be starting shortly. Let’s give folks a few minutes to get situated.”
My eyes scanned the area, but I could not see anyone milling around.
A plane passed overhead, breaking the silence of the morning. The early-December breeze brought a slight chill to the air and set a pinwheel in motion at a neighboring grave. The sun reflected off of the silver foil blades.
Tugging at his collar, the minister seemed uncomfortable. He continued to look back and forth, as if he expected a crowd to appear at any moment. He finally checked his watch
and cleared his throat to begin the service.
My mind flitted, and I could not force myself to listen to his generic platitudes.
No one came??
It seemed improbable even as it occurred.
Before I knew it, the machine cranked and the coffin was lowered into the hole.
She belongs to us now.
I shook my head and stood. The minister stepped over to shake my hand. As I turned to leave, a large figure caught my eye as it loomed in the distance.
I shielded my eyes from the low-hanging sun.
I started off toward him. He turned and walked in the opposite direction, his long legs outpacing me. At a half-run, I finally caught up to him.
He stopped and turned to face me, his cloak shrouding his face.
“You haven’t taken her across yet?” I asked.
In typical Charon fashion, he gave a horrible moan that served as his response.
“Can I see her?”
Charon shook his head.
“But I have so many questions. She left me a packet…” I started.
“Why is she still here? Does she have unfinished business?” I hoped.
He shook his head again and held out a giant hand.
I looked at him, not understanding.
He gave another loud groan that filled my head and made me want to scream.
“Stop,” I begged.
He wiggled his upturned palm at me.
I finally understood.
I slid my purse off of my shoulder and rummaged through it.
I reached for his hand, placing a wide gold coin in his palm and folding his fingers around it.
With his other hand, he grabbed mine and held it. A pulse of energy rocked through me and my eyes fluttered shut. Answers.