She roped me into it. I could ask how, but that didn’t matter. Never mind that Nikki could bench press a small car, I was trapped in one of the last permissible gender stereotypes: the man carries the packages.
On Christmas Eve, no less.
“Matthew, you’re beginning to lag behind. Come, we have one more important store to stop at. I think you’ll appreciate this one: intimate apparel.”
“I’m not a pack mule, Nikki. Why couldn’t you bring Jerry or Ty, or a bunch of Sherpas? Can’t we at least drop these at the car before going to the next one?” The city sidewalk was slick with rain that couldn’t decide if it wanted to freeze into ice and end my existence.
“I gave them the night off,” she said, her breath only mildly fogging the air.
She doesn’t even feel the cold. She doesn’t need those furs she’s wearing at all, but others would notice, and she needs to retain the heat from the store in order to pass for human.
I stumbled, nearly dropping the stack of boxes. Nikki caught me and the stack before we spread out across Fairhaven.
“Seriously, how many pairs of boots do you need?”
“A question you should never ask a woman, Matthew.” She looked past me, a small frown to those red lips. “Matthew, I do believe that boy is following us. I have seen him at two other stores.”
I turned awkwardly, trying to see who she meant. I caught sight of the boy, somewhere between eight and ten, as he had been for the last three years. Sandy, slightly-unkempt hair looked unremarkable, as did his ordinary blue eyes. He was one in a crowd, as always. He wore a wool coat and pants, perfect for winter. But he had no hat, no ear muffs, and no gloves, and no parent stood near him.
“I know him,” I said quickly, “I usually see him at the holidays.”
The boy got closer to me, taking steps to give Nikki a wide berth, and offering envelopes.
That is his MO.
“Nikki, can you take some of these for me?”
“Don’t be silly, Matthew, I can get the letter.” She took two steps toward the kid.
“Nikki, no!” I freaked out. Fortunately, the kid retreated from her outstretched hand.
“Don’t be absurd, Matthew, I’m not going to hurt the boy.” She advanced another step, and the kid retreated again.
I dropped the packages, rushing to get between them. “I’m not worried about him,” I said.
She quirked an eyebrow at me.
“I know this kid, sort of. I can’t explain right now, but trust me, you can’t touch him. Bad things will happen.”
“I do trust you, Matthew, you know that.”
I felt a tug on my coat. The kid held a pair of envelopes toward me.
I took them. “Thank you. And Merry Christmas.”
The kid smiled, still standing there.
I looked at the letters. One was addressed to me, and the other to Nikki, but by her real name, Sabrina Frei.
I guess he can’t even hand her a letter without it doing something to her.
I passed Nikki her letter.
“What is this? How does this child know my name?”
“Best to just read, Nikki.”
I tore open mine, reading the small note.
It took a long time to find this letter, mostly because she’s been on the naughty list for a long, long time. And she can’t sit on my lap, any more. Anyway, you’ve been good again, like always, though there was that . . . one thing with the woman. But overall you’re still a very good boy. I may have to make you one of my official helpers.
Me as one of Santa’s helpers? I don’t know whether to jump for joy or be scared out of my mind. I hope he makes an offer instead of just recruits me outright.
Nikki had been reading my letter, upside down, and frowned at me when she finished.
“What is this, Matthew?”
I shrugged. “A long story, Nikki. What’s yours?”
She frowned at her letter, then opened it. Instead of a nice, crisp page like mine had been, hers was faded and very fragile looking. She withdrew it, then carefully unfolded it. Like the paper, which was thick and rustic looking, the ink looked faded. The writing was divided into four columns of names across the page. I looked to the top, but couldn’t make out what it said. It was in German. I thought.
“What is it?”
“Names. Names of people belonging to a guild in . . . Groningen.”
“Currently, in the Netherlands. But not always. At the time of this list, it was probably a province of its own, or maybe part of a kingdom.”
“So what’s it mean?”
“I do not know. Your messenger has an odd—” her breath caught suddenly.
“What is it?”
She pointed at the list to two names next to each other: Austyn Frey and Nickol Frey.
That can’t be a coincidence.
“You know them?”
“My brothers. Those were the names of my brothers. I thought . . . I thought they died in the plague. My entire village is gone, I thought that they. . . .Matthew, you owe me a long discussion about this Nick and his messenger.”
“Sure thing, but in the meantime, Merry Christmas, Nikki.” I gave her a big hug.
“Merry Christmas, Matthew.”
Wow. She’s always said Yule before.