Christmas was still a few days off, but Jesper MacMillian’s annual holiday ennui was already setting in.
The last thing he wanted was to be alone. Again. Eating a festive meal of chow mein and fortune cookies, toasting the end of another year. Christmas in his cramped, dingy Chinatown apartment was no Christmas at all. At least, not like the ones he remembered.
Loneliness followed a peculiar pattern. It started in the pit of his stomach, a hollow, acid feeling. It was always present this time of year, flaring up like an irritable bowel at the most inconvenient moments. He felt its bitter jab whenever he saw a family together at the park, the market, strolling down the sidewalk. It would churn his guts for a few minutes. His chest would tighten. His cheeks would burn.
Then it would settle into something that felt uncomfortably like acceptance.
Ever since his brother’s death, there had been no more family dinners, no holidays spent drinking plum brandy and telling amusing lies. No more home-cooked mamaliga. No more cousins. No more making fun of the neighbors’ fake LED Christmas tree.
Over the years, he’d found ways to make his peace with that. This year, however, his usual mental tricks weren’t working. So at nine o’clock in the evening, four days before Christmas, MacMillian pulled on his overcoat and snatched his cane from its place of honor by the door.
He couldn’t do anything about being alone, but he could get out of his apartment.
Chinatown was decked out in festive finery, everyone preparing for the upcoming Chinese New Year. On the corner nearest his building, a street erhu player sat on an overturned paint bucket, instrument balanced on his knee. The tinny, haunting notes floated above the steady drone of traffic.
MacMillian paused. He knew that song. He had to listen for a moment before he could place it: “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)”. He fished a few crumpled dollars from his pocket and tossed them into the box at the musician’s feet.
The man barely acknowledged him.
MacMillian walked until he was out of Chinatown and into North Beach. The neighborhood twinkled brighter and more determinedly than usual, each bar and restaurant window display competing with the next for sheer cheer capacity. The streets were quiet, given over to dog walkers and the odd person who hadn’t already fled town for the holidays.
MacMillian took his time. The night air was heavy with fog, making him glad he’d worn his heavy coat. He jammed his free hand in his pocket, mentally tried to convince the other one not to freeze.
A familiar voice stopped him in his tracks. “And what to my wondering eye should appear? I’d recognize that walk anywhere. Mr. MacMillian.”
MacMillian turned slowly. “Seneca Lynch.” Out of all the not-people he least wanted to see tonight, topping the list was the Son of Lazarus before him. He looked the other man up and down, then furrowed his brow. “Is that holly in your lapel?
Lynch’s smile was quick and sharp. “Tis the season.”
“I wouldn’t have thought vampires had much use for Christmas.”
Lynch clucked his tongue reproachfully. “Now, now, are we back to using the v-word again? How terribly crass of you, Mr. MacMillian. And during this most charitable season, at that.”
Lynch kept pace with an ease that set MacMillian’s teeth on edge. “So tell me, what brings San Francisco’s finest detective out at this tender hour?”
MacMillian didn’t slow. “I could ask you the same thing. Isn’t North Beach a little off your usual beaten track?”
“I had a craving for Italian.” Lynch gave no quarter. “It must be something special if it’s such a secret. What is it? Office party? Dinner with family? Drinks with a certain accident-prone psychic?”
MacMillian tightened his grip on his cane. “‘It’ is none of your business.”
Lynch sighed loudly. “For heaven’s sake, can we call a temporary cease-fire? It’s Christmas, after all. The time for giving? Get it? Forgiving?”
MacMillian snorted in spite of himself. He shrugged. “Fine. I’m not off anywhere. No office party. No dinner with family. No drinks with Lena.”
Lynch’s eyebrows went up. “So you’re just… alone?”
MacMillian shrugged again. “Everyone has their traditions.”
“Well I’m sorry, detective, but this just won’t do.” Lynch looked genuinely appalled. “Have you had supper?”
MacMillian shook his head.
“That settles it, then. You’re coming with me.”
MacMillian blinked. “Ah, thanks, but I’m not really in the mood for a holiday-themed blood drive.”
Lynch’s eyebrows lifted a notch higher. “Holiday-themed. Why didn’t I think of that?” He waved a hand. “Unimportant. I’m already well-fed. No, a blood drive is not on my dance card tonight. I have a mundane commitment of much greater importance.”
It was MacMillian’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Oh. And don’t even think about asking me what it is. You’ll have to come along and see for yourself.”