Excerpt

The year couldn’t end fast enough.

Jesper MacMillian scowled down at his desk… more specifically, at the pile of paperwork on it. Paperwork that never seemed to end. Much like the entire month of December. He exhaled heavily. Was it possible to drown in paper? With Darius spending the holidays in Tahoe, no one would even find him until New Year’s.

Still, he could think of worse ways to spend Christmas Eve. At least he’d had the sense to avoid his apartment today. Maybe he’d sleep here – lord knew he’d passed more than his share of nights on the ratty sofa in the reception room. It would save him waking up to the smell of cabbage and wood ear mushrooms, courtesy of his downstairs neighbors.

It would save him spending Christmas morning alone.

MacMillian scowled harder. After last year, he’d held out a glimmer of hope that this Christmas might be different. He should have known better. Darius had taken off days ago on the back of Georgia’s motorcycle, the two of them comically over-bundled for the ride up to the snow. Seneca Lynch was MIA – probably balls-deep in seasonal debauchery somewhere. As for Lena…

The pit of his stomach hollowed. Of course he hadn’t heard from Lena. It was the holidays. He knew enough about retail to know it would be chaos at Cross Your Teas. Probably. She’d get in touch when things calmed down. Probably.

MacMillian forced his focus back to the expense report he was filling out. The words blurred together on the page.

“So, are you Bob Cratchit or Ebenezer Scrooge?”

His head snapped up. He hadn’t even heard the office door open. Leaning against the doorway was the owner of The Procyon Building, Aloysius Paul. As usual, he looked more put together than any normal person should.

MacMillian mentally backtracked. He had serious doubts that Aloysius Paul was anything close to “normal”.

Dark brown hair was smoothed back from his forehead. His impeccable black suit was shot through with tasteful red pinstripes. On anyone else, his pale green dress shirt and darker green pocket square would have looked ridiculous. On him, it gave the look of a festive stockbroker… or devil.

MacMillian snorted. “I’m my own boss, so I guess that makes me Mr. Scrooge.” He leaned back in his rickety chair, groaning a little as the lip of his prosthetic leg ground against his skin. “What are you doing here? Did the check for the heating bill go through?”

His landlord waved a dismissive hand. “That’s all in order. Awfully high bill for this month, though. How much time have you been spending here?”

MacMillian avoided his eyes. “Some.”

“You know what they say about people who work too much during the holidays.”

“I give up. What do they say?”

Aloysius tossed a shoulder. “I don’t know, but it can’t be good. When was the last time you had a day off?”

MacMillian rolled his eyes. “Jesus, who are you, my-” He broke off. My mother. Of course, she wouldn’t care how much he worked. He doubted she even knew where he worked.

He tried to think about something else, but it was too late. She would be cooking Christmas Eve dinner by now. The memory of homemade pishot and beans with plums made his mouth water. He and his brother had always decorated the tree. Who would do that this year? With both his brother and grandfather gone, who would give the after-dinner toast and bless the dead?

Would she light a candle for them? Would she think of the one son she had left?

MacMillian shook himself. “Did you just come up to bust my balls? Not all of us can hire a bookkeeper, you know.”

Aloysius snorted. “Talk to that witch deCompostela is banging – I hear she’s good with numbers.” He paused, regrouped. “Actually, I’m here to invite you to Babylon’s Christmas Eve party. Turns out you’re not the only one in the city at loose odds this time of year. Long as you don’t mind the odd therian humping your leg…”

MacMillian choked. “That doesn’t happen. Does it?”

“I don’t judge.” The other man shrugged. “You’d be surprised how many subversives in this city either don’t celebrate Christmas, or don’t have anywhere to go.”

“So you give them a place?” If the holidays didn’t put him in such a foul mood, he might have found that touching.

“I’m a fucking philanthropist. So? What do you say?”

MacMillian thought for a moment. It’s that or the couch. “Will there be alcohol?”

“Oceans of it.”

He blew out a breath. “Fine. Count me in.”

“Excellent!” Aloysius reached for the door. “I’ll tell Daniel to expect you.”

Before he could open it, it burst inward. He swore as the doorknob caught him in the gut. MacMillian stared. Of all the people he’d least expected to see the day before Christmas… he stood carefully. “Mámo? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Language, Jesper.” His mother’s eyes took a slow tour of his office, her mouth turned down. If she noticed his back stiffen, she ignored it. “We need your help.”

MacMillian gripped the edge of his desk, as though somehow it could anchor his roiling emotions. So she did know where he worked. Had she always known? How could she have found out? God, what if she decided to show up one day when Lena was there? He imagined her cold, unforgiving gaze pinning Lena to the floor. A flash of panic turned the corners of his vision white.

Something inside him hardened. No. This was his space. Rose MacMillian had no right to it, or to him. She’d given both those things up a long time ago.

Ignoring the curious look on Aloysius’ face, he sat down again. “We’re closed for Christmas.”

Rose’s expression tightened. “Not for this.” She glanced at his gawking landlord. “It’s family business.”

Aloysius looked to MacMillian. “I’ll just-”

“You stay.” MacMillian kept his eyes locked on his mother’s. “Anything she has to say, she can say in front of you.”

Rose’s lips thinned. For a moment, he wondered if she was going to argue. Finally, she hissed a breath. “Have it your way.” She motioned to someone still in the reception room. “Come inside, Sani.”

A young man with dark hair and worried eyes edged through the door. At the same time, Aloysius moved to a new position next to MacMillian’s chair. MacMillian spared him an appreciative glance. Aloysius crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the new arrival.

Rose took the young man’s arm and propelled him closer to the desk. MacMillian felt a pang of pity for him. His mother spoke first. “Sani, this is Jesper. Jesper, this is Sani Evans.”

Sani bobbed his head. “I knew your brother. Thank you for seeing me.”

“Didn’t have much choice,” Aloysius muttered under his breath.

Rose’s eyes narrowed. Sani blinked, as if seeing the other man for the first time.

MacMillian cleared his throat. “What do you need, Mr. Evans?”

“It’s my sister, Klaudia.” Sani swallowed visibly. “She’s missing. Since last night.”

MacMillian traded glances with Aloysius. “Runaway?”

His mother snorted. “Really, Jesper. Why would the girl leave the kumpania two days before Christmas?”

MacMillian resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I can’t imagine.”

Sani shifted. “Our mámo passed a few months ago.”

MacMillian inclined his chin. “Condolences.”

“Thank you. She was sick. It was very sudden.” He took a deep breath. “Klaudia turned fifteen this year. Since our mámo died, she has become more and more withdrawn. Angry. I don’t know how to handle her much of the time.”

“These things are difficult.” Rose’s voice was surprisingly gentle.

MacMillian kept his face carefully blank.

Sani gave her a grateful look. His shoulders sagged. “I’m afraid I may have pushed her away.”

MacMillian leaned back in his chair. “You say she’s been gone since yesterday?”

Sani jerked his head in a nod. “Yes.”

“That’s not long enough for her to be considered a missing person.” MacMillian frowned. “Teenagers typically come back on their own once they’ve blown off some steam. Give her another day. If she’s still not back, I can walk you through filing a police report.”

“Honestly, Jesper, do you think we would be here if it was that simple?”

MacMillian turned to his mother and arched an eyebrow. “I have no idea why you would be here.”

Aloysius coughed.

Rose ignored him. “Klaudia disappeared last night, but she was only the first.” She waited until MacMillian met her eyes. “Jesper, half the children in the kumpania are missing.”

MacMillian pressed his lips together.

Rose’s eyes glinted. Her mouth curved in triumph. “I’ve told the other families the Rom Baro will meet them at the house. We will see you there.”

She shepherded Sani out the door without a backward glance.

MacMillian waited until the door to reception closed behind her, then sagged forward with a groan.

Aloysius rocked back on his heels. “Well that was-”

“-Interesting?” MacMillian said dryly.

“-Illuminating,” he finished. “No wonder you live at the office.” He paused. “What’s a Rom Baro?”

“A pain in my ass.” MacMillian heaved himself to his feet.

“What are you going to do?”

MacMillian sighed heavily. Had he really wished this Christmas would be different? Suddenly, he would give anything to be back in his apartment, comfortably alone… or better yet, at Cross Your Teas, letting Lena pour him a large mug of whatever seasonal blend she’d crafted. He dragged his coat off the back of his chair and picked up his cane from where it rested against the desk.

“Looks like I’m going home for Christmas.”

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