Episode Three: Secrets
This page was last updated: September 20, 2007
Episode Two of 'Steven's Story' an original story
Melissa J. Vivigatz

~ * ~

  Forgot my briefcase in the car. Couldn’t believe it... Of all the days to do something like that of course it would be this one. Shook my head in self disgust, then stopped the motion, feeling the headache threatening to come back. Well, there was a fresh-bought bottle of aspirin in the car as well—in the briefcase, of course. Two more reasons then I needed to go fetch the damn thing.
  Whew, what a night. That in-back-of-head pounding remembrance having me wondering if I was going to hook up with Parker for lunch today or not. Wanted to, more for environment then the lush’s company, yet if today was going to be one of those days, which it looked to be shaping up as, it would be better to hold off till later when I was really going to need a long unwinding, not a token one.
  Aspirin. Wonderful stuff, should buy stock in it. Get something back, seeing as how I am supporting the industry.
  Stock. Stocks and stockbrokers. Smiled as I passed Betty with her doll and family photo overflowing desk on way to the elevator, hoping the old gal didn’t see through her coke-bottles how tightly my teeth were clenched. I was not used to the hard stuff, had had no intentions of picking up a bottle for myself along with the gift for one of the clients, but I had. And why not? I deserved it.
  Stocks and stockbrokers. Yesterday, the one year anniversary to the day I had caught one with my wife in our bed. Mealy mouthed son of a bitch had grabbed his pants and slid out, (or vice versa) letting Sheila handle the matter. What a wimp. Or maybe I was the wimp, too stunned by it all at the time to stop him, to grab him by the collar and beat the living shit out of him like he deserved.
  Sheila’s fault again. Most of me waiting for the guilt, begs of forgiveness, the tears...none of which happened. Just her standing there in open robe, arms crossed before her ample breasts in defiance, sneer on her face and in her eyes.
  “What did you expect, Steven? I never see you.”
  Never sees me? A lawyer who gave up promotion because of the extra hours such would entail, was home every night I could by eight, or at worst, nine? Took half days on Saturdays and Sundays completely off? Did not take full vacations, no, wasn’t that much a career destroying fool, but at least I took them!
  How long had it been going on? God, please, let it be the first time...
  The answer was worse then the sight of them. A long time, nearly two years. Details given. Scheduled days of the week. Not day, buts days...
  And I never even suspected. Never noticed a change or anything different. (So it was my fault, it had to be...) Laughing at me, because my salary had been paying for it. Lunches out, ties...even a parking space number in our building. His own god damn key-card to come and go as he pleased.
  Her private account, percentage of my earnings automatically deposited, designated to keep her happy. Hell of a lot easier at end of the month to go through the credit card statements that way. Sheila loved to shop, was always some new outfit in the room-length walk in closet. (The uncomprehending place of woman’s mystery I stayed out of; long rows of things she never wore, that no one could wear all of in a lifetime; shoes enough for an army if they were Italian chic.) Manicures, pedicures, facials and spa visits. Hair stylist—not that her flowing, amber locks were requiring of anything. Long, trailing, curls which naturally wrapped like silk about the fingers...the way it cascaded down her long neck and soft rounded shoulders...
  Bitch, bitch, bitch. Sheila, you god damn whore!
  So fine, I went home and had mixers and then cut the bull and went for the straight till bottle was killed. No, I did not watch her parting gift again, the DVD made during one of their sessions left in the player, (Gods, the thought of it. Those long, smooth legs which never seemed to end being wrapped around another man’s back; another’s face pressed into those silky curls which always smelled like sunshine and spring flowers; someone else set deep in her wet warmth instead of me.) reliving the moment of discovery over and over, adding new dialog and violent endings being enough. Oh, hindsight was thing from the devil, all the false senses of superiority it gave you, feelings of grandeur which were so much shit because thing’s hadn’t gone down that way. No witty comebacks or telling blows, neither verbal or physical given. Nothing, except what had really happened...and how you had been left feeling afterwards: pathetic, useless, a wimp who’d been used for years. A meal ticket bemoaning the loss of his parasite because he did not understand, still wanted the woman he had fallen in love and shared most of his life with even knowing now that woman had never truly existed. Yes, he’d take even that back—just anything other than this gutted shell keeping up the routine of a pointless, going nowhere alone, life. Go to a meaningless job at dawn, return to a huge, silent apartment at night with takeout that tasted like the cardboard it came packed in; go back to work next morning ad infinitum till you died. Rest in piece. The end. Next case.
  So yeah, I spent the night drowning in self pity. Sue me. But I did not watch the god damn film, just walked from couch to window, looking out at the lights in the darkness with clinking glass in hand, tie yanked down if not off. Not in silence though, no. Not a complete fest of morasity. There had been a shop in the row of storefronts next to the liquor store and I’d had that list of recommendeds David had given me tucked in my wallet still. Music, CD titles, groups never heard of. Got all the ones the place had available. (Why not? I could afford it. No more leech on my throat.) Guess it was too commercial to carry all of them, yet others could be ordered and were on the way.
  So no, time spent between pacing from couch to window, drink at handy reach as crinkling plastic was sworn over. (Torqumada of the inebriated, those damn CD wraps. Sticky security seals which never came off in single piece and gummed up fingernails.) All good intensions to David aside, not all of it fit the chosen mood of the evening, yet even the stuff I couldn’t get into then had been decent. Enya (and did the woman’s voice really sound like that? Naturally? Probably not since she hardly sounded the same as on those Clannad pieces I already knew from the home-burned disc received on my birthday,) was too bright. I wanted somber. The jazz had been rather fine though, and despite it all had found myself tapping my foot now and then no matter it wasn’t exactly the thing I had thought I wanted either. Probably what saved me from turning on the DVD player.
  The literal, fucking DVD player because it was the only thing getting any action around here. Beat out by a machine. Well, knowing woman, I’m probably not the first man to have that onus placed on him.
  Did have an angry, unsatisfying masturbation on the couch, though. Over a year now without sex and it was really starting to be a problem, something even that much alcohol couldn’t dampen. My face though; a terrible stranger’s looking back at me from reflection of the darkened television screen, black hair messed from sitting there holding my head and rubbing it askew as I reflected bleak things, green eyes cold no matter my mouth was twisted up when I cried out, pain more than pleasure felt when the release finally happened.
  But I didn’t watch you, Sheila. Why couldn’t I just throw the thing out? Break it, hell, mail it to her, to them after I’d crapped on it, same as David’s ex had done with his computer?
  Because I am not that type of man. Weak, pathetic, tired of it all. So tired, yet still caring, obviously. I thought I had gotten past it by now, too worn from the divorce and the year of demanding emails, the knowledge that that someone else was going to have the child that I had always wanted...with Sheila.
  Sheila, who swore she would never want a child. Sheila, who gave that as her main reason for choosing him; fact that her new man wanted to have them.
  And she wanted to have them with him.
  Not me though. Never told me she’d changed her mind. Never...and then came across like I had been the one always denying her. That it was all my fault...
  Oh, Shell, was it? Something I did? No, it was the things I did not do. Somehow, something... A failure in everything.
  Stop it, Steven. He ground it down as best he could. Just quit it right now. This is not helping. Certainly not my head, the pounding more in the front now, an throbbing behind the eyes as I walked down the hall, anger adding to the lingering effects of the hangover.
  Poor me. Poor David. (Yes, think about someone other then your useless self for once, damn you! Don’t be the one who never does anything for anyone...) Terrible what had happened to the young man, worse then what had happened to Steven from the little that had been said. Knowledge that the woman he loved had kicked him out for another man, an abusive, most likely psychotic one. Someone who sent emails bragging about the girl being sent to the hospital. Someone who truly had gotten everything, David just getting out with half a bag of clothes and a back-up USB drive quickly yanked off his computer before being shoved out the door, token fraction of his music collection. Then later had gotten the machine itself in the mail, smashed and covered with filth.
  Did he tell the police about that? The ones who told him to stop bothering them because everything at his ex’s place was fine? His living together with him girlfriend of three years screaming over the telephone to do the same? Man, this is one fucked up world...
  Further proof of that when he entered the lobby, saw Baxter and his barely legal ‘secretary’ getting into the elevator together.
  No way in hell. No, he did not need that right now, that was for damn sure. Not an attack from the evil old bastard, or worse, having the little gold-digger make eyes at him behind the Beast’s back in so close a trapping space.
  Stairs. Not that many of them, he was not an ‘upper floor’ jockey and the brief leg stretch would be preferable to whatever possible scene might arise. Or arise, no matter he could not stand the little, gold-digging, bitch.
  Like David keeps telling me, forty-one isn’t that old. Way his body had been acting the past couple of months should have been proof of that, enough to convince his head. Midlife crisis and raging hormones. Maybe I should see a doctor? No, what he needed was a good lay, was what. Over a year, things backing up. Not surprising his body was giving him ‘stiff reminders’ at random moments. Damn, forty-one, yet that part of him was acing like he was sixteen.
  Sheila, Sheila, Sheila, why?
  “You suck in bed! You don’t do anything for anyone Not in any way!!”
  “Fuck you,” he muttered as he opened the door to the stairwell. No alarm on it and well cared for hinges. Others who had to sit behind a desk all day used them now and then as well. Token health consciousness attempts as well as gaining extra time from being trapped behind the pen and computer supporting coffins they all called desks.
  There he went again, seeing the normalest of things in terms of death. Like he saw the window of his apartment as an inviting token of permanent solace.
  Doctors. Head-shrinks. No faith in any of them. Not only embarrassing, but sad thinking you had to pay someone a couple hundred an hour just to listen to you talk about yourself. Pa-the-tic.
  That’s me, Steve the Pathetic. And on that note decided he would hit the pub at lunch after all. Or at least after the meeting, which was certain to run through that hour. Nothing more than a beer or two to help relax, but it would be something till tonight at least and a proper job could be done of it.
  He had one of those coffee subscription things, fresh beans delivered ready for the grinder. He wondered if liquor stores had like conveniences?
  Just a couple flights of stairs and he was in the parking area. Took longer to reach his car from here than it did his office, the close reserves for seniors and high-end clients, (those latter empty because this was Saturday) yet he smiled anyway because his car held a candle to the best. BMW all the way, baby, shiny black and tricked with the goodies like heated seats on up. It was a great car, engine like a kitten’s purr. No, not a senior partner, yet his salary was fine. That along with a small inheritance well managed, high yield CDs of another nature, allowing him the occasional extras like this.
  And no more leeching Sheila. Thinking of the extra parking space associated with his apartment (another high-end establishment, thank you very much) he wondered about getting another one. Not a beamer, but smaller. Something slick.
  Midlife crisis, fine, so what? A little Jag would still be sweet no matter what the reason is behind it. Oh, yeah, that was the ticket! Cruise around in one of those babies and the women would come out like flies to honey. Better than the beamer, he wouldn’t look like someone slumming for a prostitute. No, because with a car like that he wouldn’t need to.
  “Yup,” he smirked as he retrieved the briefcase, “No more access to the direct-line emails, yet Sheila will be the one grinding her teeth when she gets a photo of me in that—without her!” Man, he couldn’t believe he’d almost fallen for her trick that last time. Bitch acting all sorrowful, pumping the offer of how ‘maybe’ she had made a ‘mistake’.
  When all she meant is she wanted to come back to my money. Sorry, ‘Shell’, you should have thought about that before. Understood the one you tossed me over for. Not that she had admitted it, did her best to sidetrack him, (Hoohh, that hair when she turned her head like that.) yet he still believed he’d called it right about her broker being broke. It took a lot to maintain Sheila, and it wouldn’t surprise him at all to discover the reason the guy had been embezzling was because of that. Of course he had most likely been up to such before, but fact (as Steven suspected) that the bastard had been caught was probably because of her. Took too much, blipped the radar and got noticed. Case closed.
  She wanted money? Their vacation funds? Other trusts? (“We’ll set it up just in case, honey.” “Fine, it might be useful one day. Just call it something else, Steve,” she said as she brushed her hair in the mirror. “A kid would just ruin my figure. And you do prefer my like this, don’t you, baby?” Coy turn of batting eyelashes and hand sliding down her stomach...and points lower. Oomph.) Be interesting to find out how badly she wanted it.
  I know you’re a whore, Sheila, so maybe next time you write I’ll answer you. Won’t be my neck you’ll be sucking from though. How about it, Shell? You never did it before, and more likely than not a fifty spot would be a waste considering your lack of talent, still?
  He closed the door and abruptly leaned against the side of his car, slid down till he was almost ass to the pavement, hand to his face and shaking in disgust. He wasn’t really this type of person, was he? To have such malicious thoughts, was he?
  Was he?
  No, I am not. Right to be vindictive, most would have to grant me, yet I am no match for her. God, just the thought of it. Of having her, not Sheila, but his wife back again... Talk about having him by the balls!
  Great, even that idea was a bust. Just one time and she would have him. He knew that, because he was weak. Had nothing in his life, no family, no one to live for, no god damn purpose or reason anymore...
  He took a deep breath and straightened if not stood, hearing the distorted echo of voices coming.
  Then smiled, recognizing them as they got closer, holding back at last moment from rising completely and joining because from words now clearer the two young people were discussing something important, though he did not know what.
  “...serious, Davey,” Kimberly was saying, and from expression seen through the view of car windows, one not the young woman’s normal chipperness, she meant it.
  “Look, Kimber,” David started to say, shifting what looked a large bag of groceries about in his arms as he stopped and turned back.
  “No, don’t even try that one on me, David Markus Tyler!”
  Uh-oh, kid. Woman starts using your full name you had better listen. She means business!
  “I know,” she was saying. “So stop trying to cute your way out of this. I want you to promise me.”
  “It’s my life, Kim. Stay out of it.”
  David, are you fucking nuts? Forget that other one and keep what you’ve got now. Come on, kid, don’t be a fool. This girl’s a winner and you deserve it.
  “So that’s how it is, is it?”
  “I am not going to talk about it anymore. Kimberly,” he was saying softly, “I don’t have a choice.”
  “Yes you do! Everyone has a choice!”
  “All right then, you tell me what to do?”
  “Anything! Anything, but...but...”
  “Go one, say it.”
  Seeing something in his face that I could not, the girl lost her angry expression and sighed.
  “Oh, Davey. I swear I just don’t know what to do with you sometimes.”
  “Look who’s talking. You didn’t mention your mom once all morning. She’s still pissed I take it? Ha, look who’s not talking now.”
  “I am going to kick you if you don’t shut up.”
  “Funny, I was thinking the same about you for the last half hour.”
  “Yup,” he said and I chuckled inside as he used the expression. Picked up since he’d overheard my last ‘conversation’ with Sheila.
  “You are just so cute!” Not Sheila’s reaction, the lucky scamp.
  “Friends again?”
  “Of course, you idiot. Think I would do that to you even over this? Leave you without anyone else? Just Little Davey against the world alone? And if you say you are used to it I will kick you!”
  “Thanks, Kimberly,” he said, voice thick with emotion. “You don’t know what that means to me. No one else would have... You are the best.”
  “Oh shut up before I start crying. Last night sucked enough as is.”
  “So I shouldn’t come over tonight, right?”
  “I’m sorry, Davey. Mom is just so...argh, she can be so stubborn!” The girl crossed her arms and actually stomped a foot. Take about cute! (And no reaction from his body, no matter she was a button. This was David’s gal and Steven couldn’t be happier for either of them.)
  “Hey, no problem. I’ll just have to eat all this stuff by myself. Besides, just yesterday you were the one pinching your stomach.”
  “One more comment like that and you’ll be limping, buster.”
  Smart kid. (Albeit belatedly.) He shut the hell up.
  “Oh, this sucks. Another one I owe her. That last meal you cooked was the best. Gosh, I am just so mad!”
  “Relax, Kim, it’s not her fault. —It’s not your fault either. Just give her a little time, and you hold back what you think during it. It won’t change anything and is certainly won’t help and you know it sure as anyone. You just wait, a couple of days and this will all blow over.”
  “I know. Not like it’s the first time after all.”
  She giggled, “So cute! Thanks Davey, I don’t know what I would do without you.”
  “Oh, you’d do just fine. I’m the one that...well, whatever,” he shrugged, grocery bag crinkling.
  “I hate it when you do that.”
  “I hate that too. Oh, Davey...” she sighed and wrapped her arms around to give him a hug.
  Both of us startled when he winced and hissed in pain.
  “I’m sorry! I forgot!” she released him immediately.
  “It’s okay,” he managed through his teeth.
  “Let me see.”
  He pulled away angrily when she tried to lift his shirt, “I said I’m fine.”
  “No you’re not! I don’t know how you’re even carrying that. I did see your arm.”
  “Kim, I’m fine, I promise. It wasn’t that bad a fall.”
  “Was it?”
  “I told you so, didn’t I?”
  “Yes, you told me so.”
  “Look, I just tripped, okay? I was reading and I missed the step! For gods’ sake, Kimberly, what more do you want me to say? I’m clumsy, alright? Feel better? I wasn’t paying attention when I should and I got a little bumped on the railing.”
  “A little!”
  “Okay, maybe a bit more, but I’m fine, really. Learned my lesson, now let go my tail. Ha, talk about stubborn, you know you look just like your mother right now?”
  “You looking for a black eye to match the rest of you, buster?”
  “Not for another month at least. Man, you don’t know the ribbing I get around here because of the last one.”
  That was a first to me. Who would put the kid down for getting mugged for Christ’s sake?
  He was still speaking, “All this ‘you should have fought back like a man’ and ‘how bad did the other guys look after?’ and rest of that macho crap. And even if it is Saturday, if I don’t get up there soon it’s going to be worse.”
  “All right, go on. The other stuff you’ve been telling me is worse. I don’t know why you don’t quit, Davey. I would have after the first week.”
  “That’s scarier than anything, thinking of you up there even for a day.”
  “And I’m sorry I won’t see you the full way anymore. That guy gives me the creeps! I still can’t believe he said that to me.” She crossed and rubbed her arms nervously, looking away.
  Baxter, you asshole. Only one it could have been to cause reaction like that. Explained why the girl didn’t come up anymore. Betty had wondered if the two kids had had a fight.
  “They’re not all like that, Kimberly. Some really nice people up there, I told you that too.”
  “Yeah, some friend, all right,” she snorted and I felt my face color.
  “Hey, stop that. I handle my own problems.”
  “Because you won’t let anyone help you!”
  “No, because I do not need any help,” he said firmly. Startling again to hear that touch of steel in his voice. The young man had many layers.
  “Too young, Davey.”
  “That’s why I tell you to make it up to your mom, Kim. Do whatever you have to do. Promise me that.”
  “I’m not fourteen and I’m not going to get kicked out on the street! There should be, like, laws or something against that.”
  “It’s not the laws, it’s the people, Kimberly. There’s a lot of them out there with no defense against the other. No one who understands or cares. I do both because I do know what it’s like. I’ve told you it had to be more than luck that I made it, like there was a reason or something. The Lady’s help, right?” She sighed and nodded. “So yes, no matter what, I am going to stay right here and learn to be the best lawyer I can and do it for them. And there are some really good people in this place, Kimberly. Some of the finest I’ve ever met in my life.”
  “Not that fine.”
  “Yes, that fine. It’s just that I don’t need any help.” Small laugh, “Stuff I’ve been through, even the Beast is a cake walk!”
  She just looked at him, “Little Davey against the world.”
  A shrug, and probably his customary grin, “Hey, I’m used to it.”
  “Idiot. Stupid, stubborn idiot.”
  “And going to be called a lot more less complimentary stuff than that soon enough. Kim, I really have to go.”
  “All right.” She went up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, raised hand to flick that unruly lock of his back into place before stepping back. “Call me. In a couple of days, alright?”
  “You bet. See you in a week or so.”
  “It better not be that long, only...”
  “Yup. Go on, get out of here already!”
  “Cute!” she yelled and gave a wave before disappearing towards the exit.
  “Ouch,” I heard him breath soon as she was out of sight, as well as sag to the side. He didn’t see me, burdened as he was, yet I heard him mutter more ‘ouches’ and what was probably a couple swears at the bag before he snorted, “What a waste of a crappy pay check. Ah well.”
  I waited unmoving till he was in the elevator and gone, trying to get a handle on my upset and anger. Things overheard; things learned.
  So Baxter was riding him hard, was he? Of course he was, it was what the bastard did.
  Further anger, because there wasn’t a thing that he, Steven Hanscom, low man on the pole, could do about it. Not in any way.
  The girl was right. Some friend I was.
  On the street at fourteen, David? Really? That sure as hell wasn’t in his dossier, (would never get in anywhere if it had been,) but if the girl was convinced it was the truth, so was I. In-fucking-credible. I’d thought before there was something special about him, something inside a little extra to be who he was, but this!
  No one else in the world, David? Of course he knew the young man had few, possibly even no friends amongst the other interns; the problem of being the star, (not a kiss ass, either, not in any way, just good!) still, there had to be others for him outside the workplace. Not just Kimberly. Not with a person like David for Christ’s sake.
  Memory of a couple weeks back, after that video call from Sheila when Steven had lost it bad; open talk of suicide and wills while he was hanging crying and cursing over a waste bin full of vomit. The one and only time David had said anything about his failed relationship. Words returning to him.
  “It is clear I do not know you at all, David.”
  Just a simple shrug, “Not much to tell beyond what you see, Mr. Hanscom.”
  I really doubt that, David. Nor had Steven ever bothered to ask anything more. Yeah, so much for being a friend to you, David. Respect of privacy or just too wrapped up in himself? Easy answer, further reason for guts to clench. No, far as it went it had all been one way, Steven’s office the occasional sanctuary from what he had presumed the normal stresses for the young man. Place to sit for fifteen minutes now and then with a cup of tea talking about music just didn’t cut it far as friendship was concerned.
  You little bastard, David. Never a slip of the crap you’ve been dealing with. Knowing you, it was because you know I can’t do anything about it. Talk about feeling lower than dog shit...
  No, stop it. This above all things is no excuse to resume a self-pity fest.
  Beep! Beep! Beep! Be—!
  “Oh, fuck!” he swore and yanked open his case, cutting off the reminding beeper. The time! “Damn it, damn it, damn!” and he was dashing for the elevator, stabbing buttons, no time for the stairs. Fifteen minute warning and he was nowhere near ready for the meeting. Not that it was a major one, group meet to discuss where overlapping focus was required as the year drew to a close, but still!
  “Just serve my ass up to them on a platter, why don’t I?” he cursed as the thing finally started to rise. Too slow!
  Laptop is in the office... Oh hell, I haven’t even synced it with the files in my briefcase yet! That was it, he was toast. Advancement, no, that was done with long before this, but possibility he would be downshifted now as well!
  Must have looked a hell of a sight as he stiff-legged it passed a wide-eyed Betty’s desk. No one else there to see so it was an all out run the final way soon as he was around the corner to his open office door.
  “Where were you?” David asked soon as he was in.
  “No time!”
  “Yes there is. Brush your hair.”
  “Like that’s going to help!” I scoffed.
  “Looks count. Take a deep breath. Are you ready?”
  “Do I look fucking ready?” I snarled as I started shoving things into my case at random. Fuck!
  “Brush your hair and you will. Mr. Hanscom, relax. All you have to do is give them this.” Held up a laptop of his own...no, it wasn’t David’s, it had the coded tape-line over the cover denoting a client’s file.
  Not just anyone, the Parkinson’s. The Monster, thing whispered about with warding signs like saying Macbeth to an actor.
  “What am I supposed to do? Bash their heads in with it and escape?”
  He smiled, the idiot! “No. Open it and show them sections 2980-BL, 6412-BL and the secondary back-up to the current Ford’s case.”
  “You have got to be kidding me. David, come on, as is I’m going to be the last one in the door.” Check of watch, “Which has already closed. Shit!”
  “Trust me, Mr. Hanscom. I’ve been taking it home at night.”
  “You what? David,” I lowered my voice tensely, glancing towards the open door, “Not just fired, you could go to jail for that. That does not leave the firm, ever.”
  “Those sections I mentioned are done, Mr. Hanscom. They can be uploaded to the Main.”
  “That’s not possible. Come on, David, I just looked at it a couple of weeks ago.”
  “Steven, please. Trust me.”
  I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Straw grasping, yet at this point, even if only the first quarter of what he mentioned had been reformatted it just might do it. How that worm had gotten into the mainframe no one knew, but even without it, that dynasty family’s file was a huge webwork of overlaps. Patents protected, suings, libels, inheritances and holdings of different members with side companies around the world...
  Seeing my look, “Now, brush your hair. I’ll carry your stuff to the outer desk and you go in with that. Come on, Mr. Hanscom, have a little faith.”
  “That went out along with hope a long time ago, David. But what the hell, it’s worth a shot.” And even if he was wrong and had fucked up the whole thing I’d take the blame. After all, there was always the window...
  In the elevator, standing straight and looking calm as I could, “If you don’t stop humming I am going to use this thing on my own head.”
  “Sorry, sir. I just can’t stand this canned stuff.”
  “You and me both.” Ding! “Well, here we go. Show time.” Yeah, a sword swallowing act starting from the wrong end.
  “Good luck, Mr. Hanscom,” he said as he remained behind with the other interns, secretaries and staffers outside by the reception desk in case of need.
  “Thank you, Mr. Tyler,” I said with as much calmness as I could muster. Verbal attitude counted as much as looks. “I expect we should go out for a drink after this.”
  “Yes, sir. A celebration would be nice.”
  A celebration? Guess I’m not the only one loosing his mind around here. Then again, he has been weeks eye-to-eye with The Monster. That made him smile in recollection, a real one. Thanks, kid. Be seeing you, Davey. Just pray god it’s not a spot on the sidewalk below. This chamber has been used before for that.
  Talk about getting hit, door open, me not halfway through and a loud voice, clear to all outside, snarled, “Well, look what finally decided to scurry in. Without his briefcase!”
  Yup, time for crazy! I just smiled confidently, shoulders and chin high, “Good afternoon, Mr. Baxter. Senior Partners and gentlemen,” I nodded my head to the wall of stone faces as someone closed the door behind me. “Yes, I am sorry I was a bit tardy, however, it was that or risk loosing several week’s worth of work.”
  “That’s not all at risk,” Baxter, no need to parse words now that we were locked in.
  I held up the closed laptop, all getting a view of the coded tape.
  “Ha!” Baxter leaned his bulk back, scoffing, “Don’t try to bullshit us, boy. Nor is anyone here interested in looking at that crap. We’re here for other business.”
  “Oh, I think you will, Baxter old boy,” I said. Screw politeness and screw him! Spoke over his red turning face and came to the conference table and set The Monster down, “Because what I have here is several partitions ready to go into the Main banks. The permanent ones I might add. In fact, I do add it!”
  “You drunk or what?”
  “No, Mr. Felman, I am not.”
  “Come on,” Parker spoke up. Broken vessel nosed Parker, chief company lush yet still an admirable biller. Handled the divorces of the rich and well known. Asset divisions. “Give Hanscom his chance. All this other stuff is routine boring and we all know it. Personally, I for one could use a good laugh.”
  “Thank you, Mr. Parker. However, I assure you gentleman, and Mr. Baxter as well, that there will be nothing to laugh at here.”
  See you below, David, I silently said as I opened the thing up. Carefully called up the sections, saying them aloud before turning it around before the heads of the board.
  And then stood there, hands behind my back in wait. No, I did not smoke, had given up the pipe several years back, yet there was a drum roll playing in back of my mind, one which had me smiling, thinking the only thing lacking was a cigarette dangling from my lips before the firing squad let loose their volley.
  And continued to wait, as, after a few long minutes soft comments were being made, the thing slid down the length to far end, along with more and more glances at me over the top of the screen as several followed it down. Ones which I could not read.
  “How long did this take you, Mr. Hanscom?”
  I gave them the date of Sheila’s call.
  “Fuck me,” Parker breathed. He would never touch the keyboard himself, yet hurriedly urged someone to call up the next. A section he was familiar with, two Venezuelan families parting ways, if not corporation.
  The wall clock was behind me, yet it felt like hours were dragging by as I still stood there, the whispers not crossing the length of the conference table.
  “Ahem,” Old Mr. Levin, head of the board, grandson of the firm’s founder, cleared his throat as chairs were returned to and he placed laced hands upon the table before him.
  Holy crap! He never did that unless something really big was about to happen. Only, which way was it going to go?
  “Ahem, yes, well then. I do believe my colleges and I have seen enough here. Mr. Hanscom, how long have you been with the firm?” I told him the time, which, granted, he probably did not know. I was not of level to be thought of much. “That long? Well, well.”
  “His record is spot on.” Parker again.
  “I can believe that.”
  “Don’t do it, Lenny,” from Baxter.”
  “Excuse me, Alex, yet this is not your department.”
  Oh, ho-ho!
  “How are you doing, Mr. Hanscom?”
  “Excuse me, sir?”
  “What I mean is, do you like it here? Yes, a lot of years with us, still?”
  “I do not have many complaints, Mr. Levin.”
  “Not many complaints. I see.”
  “Alex, please. Ahem. Mr. Hanscom... Forgive me, what was your first name again?”
  “Steven, sir.”
  “Yes, well, Steven—” Steven? Holy shit! “—about your career. What are your thoughts in regards to such? Any plans?”
  “Stop jerking him around, Len,” from Parker. “Offer him the damn promotion before some other firm grabs him. That’s what you were thinking, right, Steven? Something like this under your belt?”
  “Well, actually...”
  “See? I told you.” My buddy and pal leaned back in his chair, arms crossed and looking knowing.
  “No, Mr. Parker,” I said. “Well, true that there may have been an offer,” I bullshitted. “Yet as a matter of integrity, at this time I am going to have to admit there was some help.”
  “Ha! How many and who?”
  “Just one, Mr. Baxter. An intern named David Tyler.”
  “An intern, saw this?”
  “And he’s still with us,” Parker chuckled and shook his head wryly.
  “Yes, sir. After all, it did take us three weeks.”
  “Only three weeks you mean,” someone else said not under his breath.
  “How much help?” Baxter grunted.
“I can not say as that matters, Alex,” Levin said. “Two alone doing—accomplishing—something like this. Well, well, it has been a long time since I have been impressed, Steven. A long time for something of this stature. Note, we did not even look at the Ford section, yet I am going to rely upon your word it is done as the rest.”
  “It is, Mr. Levin.”
  “Of course it is, I just said so. So then, Mr. Hanscom, would you like to do the honors of letting this Mr. Tyler know he has been hired? Permanently hired?”
  “No fuckin’ way!” Baxter shot up, face purpling. Fist crashing down on the table, “That little shit hasn’t even passed the bar yet!”
  “Which is not that unusual as we all of us know here, Alex. Part of internship is gaining of working knowledge before the exam. Of course, it will still remain a matter of seeing if the young man continues to hold up, however, under Mr. Hanscom’s guidance I would only be surprised if this were not the case. Congratulations, Mr. Hanscom, and please pass on such to Mr. Tyler as well.” A slight curling up of lip-smile, “Details of your promotion will be discussed later. Now, however, I would say you are excused from the rest of this afternoon’s more boring events.”
  “I am perfectly willing to remain, sir.”
  “Don’t be an idiot,” Parker grinned. “Escape while you can, man!”
  “Well, who am I to go against two esteemed members of the board? Thank you, gentlemen. I will see you all tomorrow.”

  Dead silence when I opened the boardroom door, stepped out and closed it behind me, face set as impassive as I could for long as possible. Leaving the meeting at this point, everyone but one with thought on their minds that this was the last time Mr. Hanscom would be seen on the premises.
  I walked over to David, who stood.
  Held out my hand, “Congratulations, Mr. Tyler, extended from Mr. Levin as well as myself. You have just been hired.”
  “Me? What?”
  I broke out in a grin. He was truly surprised! What a kid! “Yup. Hired. Full salary. Permanent placement.”
  “I don’t believe it.”
  “Well, minor surprise for me as well. Details of the promotion have not yet been set, however, word is you will be on my direct staff.”
  “That’s great!”
  “Mm-hmm. Of course you know that along with the job there comes assistance with the student loans. Depending on your position, yet knowing you, that should rise rather quickly. Oh yes, we have the remainder of the day off as well. Come on, David,” I said as I put my arm about his shoulders, starting us both towards the elevator, “Time for that drink!”
  “I don’t believe it,” he said again soon as the elevator doors had whispered shut.
  “No,” I said deeply, “What I don’t believe is what you did. David, I am sorry.”
  “What for?” he glanced at me.
  With a snort I reached over and flicked his lock back, having him blush, “For everything. For having them believe I had anything to do with the miracle you pulled off.”
  “I just picked up where you left off, Mr. Hanscom.”
  “Steven,” he said in correction, blushing again. Kimberly was right, he was a cute kid.
  “That’s right. Steven Hanscom, a man who owes you more than I can ever repay. When the time comes, I am going to enjoy working for you.”
  “That’s not going to happen.”
  “Are you kidding me? Of course it will. I did a hack job on that thing. If they’d asked a single question I’d have been caught with my pants down in there. How long you think it is going to take for it to come out?”
  “Or about me taking it home?”
  “Hell, at this point I doubt they’d care. Hey, are you all right?” I asked in concern as he went pale.
  “Yeah. Yes, I mean. Just the surprise I guess.”
  “Are you sure? You looked like you were in pain more than surprise.”
  He ducked his head, “You are just going to laugh.”
  “Never, David.”
  “I was reading a textbook while coming down the stairs of my building. I tripped.”
  “Well, I would say it was accident more then bad luck. Clearly that has changed.” He shrugged, wince not fully contained. “You want a ride home?”
  Quick shake of head, “No, sir, just a place to sit.”
  “You got it.” Pub time!
  Saturday crown, packed and noisy. Along with the liquid offerings, they had a decent enough little kitchen, enough for wings and such, which we set to, talking best could be over the noise...at least until my mood dropped like a rock from a cliff.
  What was I celebrating for? Nothing had changed except it would be less time spent at home. Same pointlessness. More problems then ever to be had with Baxter now. For us both. That one never forgot a thing.
  He had to repeat himself before I realized he had been speaking.
  “I asked if you were all right?”
  I had stopped eating, the spices which had tasted good now acid churning in the stomach as I’d sat staring at the table.
  Smiled ruefully, “Just thinking we could have found a better place. How about Hanover’s on thirty-forth?”
  “I am not dressed for that.” True, just relaxed Saturday intern wear. “No problem,” I said, trying to signal the harried waitress’ attention and pulling out my wallet, telling him to put his own away. “Quick stop at your place to change then the day is ours. Or are you up to it?” Combination of noise and probably the fall having him a little pale again as he ducked his head. “Would tomorrow be better?” Maybe I would be so as well, belatedly recalling that the name of the best restaurant I knew had been a standard for Sheila and me. Too late now though.
  Shrug, “Maybe. Sorry.”
  Yes, that habit of self-depreciation was annoying, agreement with his girl, “No problem. Tomorrow it is.”
  Back out on the street. Not exactly a breath of fresh air, yet the smell of the city wasn’t too overpowering today. Early November, the afternoon warmer than normal.
  “I have some stuff back at the firm. Mr., uh, Steven, I really can take the bus.”
  “Davis, what’s wrong?”
  “Your car,” he admitted with a flush. “After...well, I sort of had to start over again. After El, I mean. My place is really, well, it’s not in an area where you want to drive into.” I started to wave that off. “No, I really mean it. I, well, I change for work at the subway station,” he said, face completely red now.
  “That bad?” He nodded. Son of a bitch, kid. “Well, that won’t last much longer.” Lie unless he lucked into a rent control, thing people would kill for in this city, though he agreed with a smile easily.
  “A set of new headphones first, though. I’m tired of having a stiff neck. They have a short, and if I move, well, it’s annoying.” I nodded like I understood. Me, apartment which could hold a couple of families, filled with antiques in a swank building, BMW and less than two short hours ago planning on buying a Jag on a whim.
  Not fair, David. Not fair making me feel like shit. Had been dead serious about that will, too. No one else better he could think of leaving everything too once he was gone. Sheila could go screw herself. His last laugh at her.
  Both of them picked up stuff from the office, beaming smiles and congratulations from Betty, word out.
  In the car park, “Do you want this stuff?”
  His groceries? “What do you mean?” I asked in surprise as he shrugged.
  “Kimberly has a full kitchen,” was all he said in way of explanation.
  A hot plate? David, you have got to be fucking kidding me. Instead, “She cooks as well?”
  Blush, “No. I’ve been trying to teach her, but she would rather just eat.”
  “A girl who likes spaghetti. When are you going to stop fooling around and nab her?”
  “Spaghetti? Come on,” he snorted offended.
  Right back at him, “Well what else does a kid your age know how to make?”
  Raised his chin, “Try lamb roast with scratch made mint jelly. Lived and worked over a restaurant for a few years. The owners were really cool. I learned a lot from them.”
  “Then why is Kimberly wasting time?”
  “We’re just friends,” he said absent shake of head to get the stray lock out of his eyes. He should really cut the thing off, but it was a cute detail. Probably drove the girls wild. Reason enough to put up with it. My black stuff just curled back a bit in wave, thanks to some Irish back down the mix. Like Sheila had her amber hair with green eyes... Shit. “So here.”
  “Unlike you, young Mr. oh-so Talented Taylor, unless it can be poured into boiling water it is mystery to me.”
  “No way.”
  “Yes,” I said, “way. So thank you all the same, yet you should let Betty have it.” Sighs.
  “Well, I do owe you for lunch,” he sort of hedged.
  “Revenge, David?” He blushed and ducked his head. Waste of a crappy paycheck. Possibly a couple of them knowing what work student interns made. Lamb was not cheap. I clicked the keychain to unlock the doors and went around to open the trunk, “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, why not? Only, before I get your ‘just friend’ on my case, how come the missed date? I figure that is what happened, right?”
  “Some trouble at home. She is going to be twenty in January, but she still lives with her folks. Under their rules. Her mom is a little, well, strict sometimes.”
  Oh, got caught fooling around on the couch or something better. Just friends, my ass. Nor did David have a place he would feel comfortable about bringing such a nice girl.
  Ah, why not? “Well, if there is anything I can ever do to help, just let me know. No real details yet, but I’ve the feeling I am going to be living more at the office from now on. My place is empty, if you know what I mean.”
  I snorted and closed the trunk, nodding for him to go around side. My turn to drive, and I slid behind the wheel.
  “Seriously, David, it will be fine. Just remind me to give you the extra key-card and garage gate gizmo.”
  “Why would you do that?”
  “Trust you, you mean?” I didn’t look over as the engine purred to life. “Why not? You’re a good kid, David. Besides, what are friends for if they don’t help the other, right?”
  “I guess.”
  “He guesses. Well, if you need another reason say it is that I just don’t give a damn.” I chuckled bitterly, not knowing why I let the words flow from my mouth as we pulled into traffic, “Fact of life, David, it’s all a matter of trade. Imagine you’ve had some good laughs behind my back, right?”
  “Never! Why would you say that?”
  I glanced over at him cynically, “Come on, no need for bullshitting me. Like I said, I don’t care. Given you some shows this last month and I know it. Simple truth is I have no idea why you did that with the Parkinson files, did not walk into that meeting yourself. Saved my ass and again, and I am pathetic enough to admit it. So I owe you, David. Not much I can do except show you things so you can avoid ending up like me. Sorry, kid, bad deal for you, yet it is all I’ve got to trade.”
  “I hate it when you talk like this, Steven. In fact, I hope I end up just like you.”
  “You are crazy. End up like me? Kid, are you blind?”
  “I am not a kid and I am not blind. You could have had a corner office anytime you wanted. You did good work on those case files, yourself. I just spent more than a couple hours on them is all. I don’t sleep much.”
  “I’m not talking about a fancy office or car or anything.”
  “I know. Stuff is just stuff.”
  “Wow,” I mimicked his reaction to just the hallways of my building and he blushed. “Ha.”
  Came back soon enough though, “Name one person who would have told them I helped?”
  “That doesn’t mean anything,” I scoffed, though I did feel better because he was right. Anyone else would have claimed it, hell, grabbed it from his hands, then seen the kid fired immediately so he couldn’t talk.
  “Yes it does. It says a lot about you, Steven. As a person. You are smart and you are good at your job, and you care about people, too. Don’t let one bad person in your life make you forget that.”
  “How old are you again?”
  “Old enough to drink the shiraz in the grocery bag.”
  “Works for me.”
  “I am your friend, Steven.”
  “One who can cook. Hell, maybe luck does change?”

  Kitchen? Wizard’s laboratory to me, not to mention the embarrassment of trying to find anything. Not that Sheila had cooked either, only people in our position just ‘had’ to have a custom built and gear-stocked one. Still, it turned into a bit of a game as cabinets were peeked into and the right pans were taken off their hanging hooks. No need to dust at least; cleaning staff hired once a week seeing to that.
  The shiraz was for the meal, yet a merlot did nicely during the cooking. My job? Keep the hell out of the way.
  Leaning crossed-armed upon the counter, “How long is this going to take again?” I asked while the smell of things simmering rose. An ‘reduction’ of some sort.
  “Longer by the moment.”
  “Bitchy,” I snorted and stood up so he could get to the sink and colander of draining mint leaves.
  “Well if you want to help start tearing these up.”
  “Can do,” I said and picked up a knife.
  “Tear them up. Knife bruises the end and keep all the oils from coming out.”
  “Jesus, are you serious?” He just nodded so I started picking up little leaves, “See? I’m working for you already.”
  “Nope, just your dinner.”
  “Are you trying to make me laugh?”
  “Talk about corrupting today’s youth,” I chuckled.
  “How many ‘youths’ do you know have ever heard of Pat Martino?”
  “Got me there.” One of mine, thank you very much. Found on a back shelf when I had put the new ones away, the guitarist extraordinaire riffing away in the background, off in some finer world than this.
  Not that I was complaining, if fact, I was having a good time. Activity and conversation in my home. Damn, it had been a while. Better, the only talk of ‘shopping’ had to do with things related to the meal, music or future things, not gloats about satin skirts and lacy, puffed-sleeved jackets.
  Ouch. Not now, you, I cursed things lower. This was not the time for that. Have the kid think I was queer or something.
  “This is cheating, of course.”
  “What?” I whipped my head around sharply, but he was focused on a pan on the stovetop.
  Stirring with a new wooden spoon, “Mm-hmm. Not mint jelly for real, but I can’t stand that store stuff. So I start with clear jell blocks and water it down. Hard part is getting the temperature right. Too hot and the mint leaves cook, but wait too long and straining them out is impossible. I will cut some up later, tiny pieces stirred in, but only after it has chilled a bit.”
  “I once had this crazy idea for a dessert. I like mint, so started with this and tossed in some tapioca pearls. The tiny ones, you know? Only it turned out that El was allergic...” He trailed off, focusing too hard on the stirring, eyes blinking rapidly.
  “Hey, I’ll be right back. Forgot to put a fifth CD in the player.” He just nodded as I escaped.
  Coward, I cursed myself. Then again what else was I supposed to do?
  Oh, I don’t know, Steven, a voice sounding like Sheila’s whispered inside my head. After all, he only came over and held your shoulders while you were bawling like a baby over a waste basket of vomit, right? Sure, but that was different. How? Because he handles it better than you do? Found someone else and has moved on with his life? At least in some degree? No, it is just, well...just that he was not in a state to do such a thing. Those thoughts of Sheila maybe, remembering her shopping, the random times she would model a few things for him, that was all.
  I should go see a doctor. Yes, that would be a good idea. Hadn’t he read somewhere once that brain tumors could screw your body chemistry up or something like that? Had things go funny at odd times? Well, whatever, it was bad timing and that was all.
  Just a couple of minutes and I was looking into the kitchen from the doorway “There I go again,” I said wryly, David looking up, completely composed once more. “Forgot to ask which one I should put in?”
  “How about some Dylan?”
  “You got it.”
  “The old stuff.”
  “Oh, fun-ny. Well for your information I have the three disk compilation. No electronics at all.”
  “Cool beans.”
  “What?” I laughed.
  He shrugged, “Cool beans.”
  “A salad?”
  “Man, you are like hopeless.”
  “Don’t remind me.”
  “It’s just an expression. Though, truth be told I don’t know what it means either.”
  “Groovy,” I said with a wink and he all but busted a gut. Not a term I’d ever used, before even my time, but from now on I might just start. At least it beat ‘cool beans’. Sheesh.
  The fifth disc taken out and replaced and all was safe to return.
  “Do you have anything to make salad dressing with? I usually just raid Kimberly’s place.”
  “I have no idea. The spices came with the kitchen six years ago. Except for the oregano. That is in the fridge.” He just shook his head and made his way to the humming steel goliath. Shook it again, not much in there but takeout boxes, small islands huddling together under harsh spotlight. “Hey, give me a break, wonder boy.”
  “Well, maybe a little vinaigrette. You do have vinegar around here someplace, right?”
  “Uh... Hum.”
  “I remember there was a market or something around here, right? Walking down one way streets is fine. Just give me directions and I’ll be right back.”
  “No, just tell me what you want and I’ll go get it.” Before he could protest, “Better me than you. Something might catch fire or boil over or something.” Couldn’t argue with that logic, so a small list was written up. “Hey, I even know these words!”
  “Just go already.”
  “Aye-aye, Captain Cook!” I saluted and he shook his head, leaving with a grin.
  Walking down the street without wearing a suit. When was the last time that had happened? Well, Saturday afternoon and less than three blocks to the gourmet shop. Talk about feeling like an alien from another planet. Worse than a shampoo isle at one of Sheila’s boutiques, and no telling the difference, bottle of things with twigs in them sporting ribbons and bows and gaudy crap, all in attempts to make them look ‘home made’. Actually, it was sort of fun prowling the fresh herb section, little puffs of mist quickly learned to be avoided after one got me in the face. Totally different, yet sight and smells bringing back childhood memories of time spent with my aunt in her herb garden and I filled a basket with things beyond what the list called for just for the hell of it. Aunt Lillian had be great, taking me in after the car accident which took out my parents when I was twelve. Only good thing about the cancer which had gotten her is fact it had been quick. A fine lady, sharp and dignified right up to the end. Hated hospitals, wanted to die at home, and after several rows with the doctors I managed to do it. (Legalized torture, all knowing nothing could be done, she had been riddled clean through with it. Kept trying to push her into this and that though, all for sake of gaining another month, another week in sterilized hell of needles, drugs, beeping machines and clipboards which never once had her name spelled correctly; both doctors and nurses patting ‘Eileen’ with a patronizing ‘there-there’ for the sick whenever she corrected them. Bastards.) Friends around her in her own bed, just as it should be. Classy lady, Aunt Lillian, old world style and traditions kept. Fifteen years ago now, it was the last time I had seen the old house where she raised me, though there was an agency that kept up the grounds and sent the yearly report on things. Repainting shutters and a new roof put on five years ago, stuff like that.
  Sheila had hated that, had always bitched that I should sell, was a waist of money when things were tight, just an annoyance in later years, but I couldn’t and was never more glad for it. Only real thing left of my family that I had, the rest long gone.
  No, if there was a problem then they could take their promotion and shove it. I was going to take my vacation as well as the extra days backed up and spend Christmas there. Winter in New England, damn, I missed that badly.
  Thanksgiving though, ugh. Just something to duck your head and wait till it was over. A solo table at a restaurant filled with surrounding, boisterous families was thing I’d never do again.
  Lets see now. Dessert had not been mentioned, and the pastry counter was a marvel. Nice looking girl behind the counter, though with the papery sanitary gloves I couldn’t tell if she was wearing a ring or not. Smiled at me though, and she took several minutes of her time offering suggestions. Two orders of the tiramisus had her pull back a touch, so I mentioned a buddy and me were batching it, celebrating a good day at the office and there was that smile again. Ooo-la-la, talk about some sweet offering!
  Take it slow though, thanked her and said I would be back to try some of the other things mentioned. Kept from being crass and did not say I lived in the area, though it was not like I had to.
  Well, you do still have it, Steven old boy. What was she, twenty-five or six? Brunet, a little short and easy on the make-up. Nice change from all the classy to-the-nines fakes I usually saw. Then again, it was clear I had been going to the wrong places. You wanted real people then you had to go where they were.
  This had me think of David, (who was probably wondering if I had been run over by a taxi by now,) and as luck would have it there was a tea isle between me and the main counter. I hated tea, but that was his drink and there was nothing in the apartment. Half a dozen boxes at random, it was all strange to me, pictures of leaves and flowers and berries. More sticks and crap of various shades, green, black and even white; named after exotic cities and possibly ones made up. (Sorry, buddy, never mind the elephant head, but no one that fat floats his cross-legged ass around on a cloud. Not unless he had one epic case of gas. And if that was the case, the little marketing ploy failed to work its magic on me.) Last minute I grabbed an odd looking contraption, a tong-thing ending in a screened ball just in case some of it was loose. Not like what Aunt Lillian had used, a cup strainer when she did not use the chain-hanging teapot ball, but it would do the trick if needed.
  Final things next to the cash register, a row of CDs that looked like the tea boxes. What did Japanese music sound like I wondered? (Wow, the elephant dude even had his own music!) No matter, four, (even Mr. Tusker just for laughs,) and I took the clerk’s suggestion and picked up something call Shamballa by a long haired character named Shastro as well. Talk about a stage name!
  Whew, forget cash, this was a credit card affair, and I handed over the plastic gladly. Had to do my part to maintain those herb misters after all.
  Come back again? Yep, that I would indeed.

  Walking into my apartment was the best part though. When besides some catered thing Sheila was hosting had I come having the place smell so good? Even better, the food wasn’t being overpowered by various perfumes and colognes of the swank, chatter of the inane, just the smell of an early dinner and Ray Charles filling the air. I wondered if that little lady behind the dessert counter could cook?
  David was in the dinning room, finishing up the setting, “Sorry it took me more time than expected. Nothing burned, did it?”
  “No, there’s another forty-five minutes or so left before the lamb is done,” he said, fiddling with the silverware. He wasn’t looking at me. Odd.
  “That’s a relief.  I got lost in the tea section. Felt like a deer in the headlights looking at all those things. With luck there might actually be something drinkable in here,” I indicated one of the bags and started towards the kitchen.
  “I’m sure there is. Thank you, Steven, I appreciate it.”
  “Are you kidding me?” I said over my shoulder as I started bringing stuff out and placing it on the kitchen isle next to the sink. Yes, the misters probably washed them, but other people were sure to have handled the stuff as well. “I’m the one who is thanking you. The next forty-five minutes are going to be torture.” He smiled quickly and shrugged.
  Packages crinkling, “I did not know about dessert, so I picked up some stuff just in case. Nice girl behind the counter. With luck there may be a double date to that little hole in the wall you are always talking about.”
  “Oh, that’s good.”
  “Good? Let’s just say I’m glad it wasn’t you who did the shopping. In fact, promise me you won’t go there for a bit. Give this old dog a chance at least.”
  “All right.”
  I frowned a bit, “Is something the matter?”
  Attempt at humor?
  “Hey, like I said, I didn’t mean to leave you wandering around the mausoleum for that long. And if the tea doesn’t make up for it, check these things out. Took a chance, yet if this isn’t tea-drinking music I can’t imagine what is.”
  He brightened, “Those do look cool. Shastro?” He picked up the disc and flipped it over.
  “Heard of him?”
  A nod, “Only a couple tracks from another album. Things one of Kimberly’s friends is into.”
  “Well if you want it go ahead. All these, they have a bunch. That place is groovy.” He just nodded.
  “I better get going on this. Everything else is set and ready to go.”
  “Sounds like a plan. Be right back, I need to hit the can.” He nodded and I left, got my wallet out, intending to toss it onto the dresser in my room and passed the living room; paused, something noticed in back of my mind. Something out of place somewhere...
  The remote to the flatscreen. No, the DVD player not in the center of the table and...
  Oh, my god.
  I stood there shaking. Disgusted at myself, embarrassed, feeling filthy. Not because it felt like I had been caught with porn or anything, name a man alive who hadn’t seen a couple of flicks, only even a quick glance would reveal where it had been made. Fact that it wasn’t me.
  Oh, my god. No wonder he is on eggshells.
  I turned around, returned to stand in the doorway, “David.”
  He looked up, smiled easily enough, yet...
  “You...” I cleared my throat, tight from tension and he looked away.
  Understanding; misunderstanding, “I didn’t mean to pry. I just picked up the wrong one.”
  “That’s not it. You...” God, this was hard. “You heard in the office. About it, I mean. That is...that’s the one...” Sheila. That’s my wife. My wife the whore, screwing another man in our home.
  “Why do you keep it?”
  “I don’t know.”
  “You have to throw it out, Steven.”
  “I know. I can’t.”
  “Why not?” he asked, touch of anger in his voice. “Why do you do that to yourself?”
  “I guess...”
  “Why?” he pressed.
  Deep breath let out slowly. Because I am weak. Pathetic. Because I feel deep down that I deserve it, “Maybe it is because it’s all that’s left. David, I just don’t know.”
  “Do you want me to do it?”
  Yes! Yes, I do! Except I shook my head instead, “No. Thank you though. I’ll do it myself. Only I... I just need a little more time.” As well as something stronger than wine, but it was all there was. Went and poured a refill; offered, and his was topped off as well.
  “David, can I ask you something?” Nod, blue eyes clear. “How long... Since you and El broke up?” Broke up? Christ, Steven!
  “About six months ago.”
  “You and Kimberly are just friends.”
  “Six months...”
  “It’s not what you think. And even...” His turn for a deep breath, “And even if it were it wouldn’t matter. I am never going to be in a relationship again. Not like that. There just...there just isn’t anything left. I thought... Well, I thought El was the one, you know? Forever?”
  “All too well. Trust me.”
  “Yeah.” Except you are still young, David. Too young, just as Kimberly said. Too young for a lot of things, kid. But maybe he was lucky as well. Got free in time. Just three years of living with someone, not seventeen of marriage. Learned his lesson and got free before the damage was too deep—the gaping hole—was too deep to ever heal.
  I took a swallow of the wine, him following.
  Felt my mouth curl up sardonically, “Well, just look at us.”
  “No, just look at this pile you bought.”
  Fine. “Something for the fridge,” I said and went to gather the damn weeds up.
  “Those don’t go in the fridge,” he snorted and separated some things out. Rosemary, sage and thyme, just like the song. “Have any string?” A shrug and he responded in kind, “No problem, there’s some left from doing the roast.” I watched as he brought the small spool of white cord out and started weaving a few things together, strung some bay leaves on the top and tied it all up.
  Looking around, “Except it isn’t really going to match this place. I guess by the pans will do.” He reached up and hung it. “There.”
  “Place looks homier already, thanks. My aunt used to do that. Forgot all about it.”
  He nodded, “They smell great and bring you luck.”
  “How’s that?” I snorted.
  A shrug, “They just do. Like you said, feels homier, right?”
  “Yup.” And he was right, completely out of place in the sterile monument to steel and marble, yet it was the finest thing there in my book. I repeated myself, “Thanks. I should have you redo the whole place.”
  He ducked and blushed, “No way. The rest of your place is so cool. Not that I spied around or anything, but some of the furniture is great!”
  Instinctively I knew which pieces he meant. Things from Aunt Lillian, from the antique china cup and saucer set I used at work to end tables and some carpets. Things shipped to the city. Classy, yes, yet not haute chic. Not all of it went with Sheila’s idea of design and had their own areas, like the small library I used as home office. Maybe that should have been a sign right there, fact that she and I had differing ideas of taste; fact that she had her rooms and I had mine. Isles of separation.
  “Ready for the salad? Good thing about dessert, too. Kimberly’s idea is vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup from a bottle and heaps of both. She better watch it or this time next week she’s going to have to use two hands to test.”
  “Good god, you’re not going to tell her that, are you?”
  “No way. I limped for a week last time. Only, she did ask.”
  “Kid, you have a lot to learn about women. What are you, suicidal?” I asked as I picked up the bowl of stuff he mixed and he managed the salad one.
  “No, I grew up.”
  “What does that mean?” Sitting down at the table.
  “That I read and believed some stuff, about how that doesn’t solve anything, just puts it off. And when you come back, things will be even tougher.”
  “Come back? David, come on, you’re not one of the crystal wearing, New Age yahoos, are you?”
  “I did have a nice collection though,” he looked up and winked. “Rocks and plants. You have a nice deck, how come there’s nothing on it? Grow your own oregano and stuff?”
  “Just never took the time, I guess.”
  “No time for thyme. Man, that’s bad.”
  “Talk about bad. One more crack like that and I’m going to choke on a radish. Or throw one at you. Besides, it get kind of windy up here.”
  “Put some grow-lights in the kitchen. I would say in front of the big picture window, but taller plants are better there.”
  “I like the window as it is. Only time I can look at the city is at night.” He just nodded. I had another helping, the fresh stuff was good, “So what do you mean by coming back?”
  “It’s the only thing that makes sense when you think about it.”
  “No it doesn’t. You live and you die. That makes sense.”
  “Yes, we live and we die. Only we do it a lot over and over till we learn everything. Like how to cook.”
  “For your information, cavemen did not boil water for spaghetti. I do just fine.”
  “Tell me that in,” he went to check his wrist. No watch. “Be right back.” He got up, checked things in the kitchen and returned, “About ten minutes and then a few more for the roast to settle. Finish your salad, Mr. No Vinegar in the House.”
  How come I was laughing instead of getting pissed? “Alright, you’ve made your case.”
  “I hear women are impressed with a man who knows how to cook,” he said and wrinkled his nose over a smirk.
  “I’ll have you know that I can put dishes in the washer with the best of them.” He just rolled his eyes.
  Thinking of that girl in the gourmet shop, “So, beyond living above a restaurant, how does one learn to cook?”
  “Have food in your refrigerator that you can chop up and heat in a pan. It gets easier from there.”
  “Yeah, if only.” Damn, I was tired of greasy cardboard, even if it was preferable to lone tables...
  “It is. Just go to the library and get a cookbook, though times and stuff can be found on most packages. Wright down the basic combinations and you’re all set. Like rosemary and sage for anything chicken, stuff like that. Eggs are great, you can make an omelet with anything, even leftovers no matter what time of day it is. Just whip up the eggs and start tossing stuff in. Cheese, peppers, potatoes or even bites of the leftover lamb. Fresh herbs of all sorts, it’s all good, and you’ll never have to make the same things twice unless you want to.”
  “Sounds easy enough.”
  He nodded and had to brush back his lock, “It is. Just remember if you use uncooked stuff like potatoes to slice them thin and drop in the oil before pouring on the eggs, because eggs cook up fast. Garlic can go either way, depending how you like it. If you use chicken or any other meat, make sure it is precooked and cut small because all you’re doing is heating it. I have to go check the thing. I don’t believe in timers. Good thing you had a meat thermometer. Its a real hassle when you have to keep cutting into stuff. Dries it up.”
  It was taking a few minutes, so I yelled, “Need any help in there?”
  “No,” the answer was called back. “Just close your eyes and I’ll show you what this kid can do!”
  What the hell? And grinning, I even used my hands to cover them.
  “You’re peeking!”
  “No I’m not,” I said as I moved my hand back in place, caught.
  Some sounds as he took his chair, “All set. Ta-da!”
  I looked, “Wow.” Early Thanksgiving, lamb style.
  Smug smile, “Wait till you taste it. You serve though, I did my part. That thing is heavier now than before, I swear.”
  Oh, that was right. The girl said something about his arm. Well, no problem for me at all as I stood and picked up the carving set, all ready to go. Mouth watering as the juices flowed.
  “Holy shit,” I swore after I had my first bite. Tender as the rascal it came from. “Come on, this was delivered while I was out.”
  “Bite your tongue.”
  “No way, I need it to taste. Man, David, this is really something. No wonder Kimberly gets mad at you.”
  “She’s the one sits around eating a tub of ice-cream every time she gets in a fight with her mom. Can’t blame me for that.”
  Then it was silence as we really set to eating; shiraz now, perfect accompaniment to the lamb. Potatoes in wine sauce with mushrooms. Roasted whole garlic to be squeezed out on slices of French bread brushed with oil. Jesus Christ, if I was a woman I’d marry him just for his cooking!
  Then he was snorting, well in his rights to be smug, “If you don’t stop Kimberly won’t be the only one mad at me for no reason.”
  I sat back nodding, knowing I was past my limit, but damn. “You’re right. So much for dessert.”
  “If you can get up, change the discs. I’ll go make some coffee and hot water.”
  Oof. If was right, I felt like a beached whale. Some major gym time put in after this...in a day or two.
  Time for tea music despite the sound of the grinder chopping beans and I stood there going over the cover as it started playing, David poking his head out, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.”
  “Different at least. I didn’t know they played pianos in Japan.”
  “Why not? That’s where the best jazz players are these days, though I think this is a mix or something. Sounds New Agey.”
  Swell. “Like Enya without the voice, or Celtic sounding. Hmm?” I glanced down the short hall, “Just leave the dishes. Told you I know how to stick them in the machine.”
  “At this point I’m amazed you have plastic wrap!”
  “Will you give me a break already?”
  “I was joking, David,” I said, teeth slightly gritted over his instant contriteness. It was annoying. Everything relaxed again (and I meant everything. Yes, a doctor’s appointment made soon as possible. After Aunt Lillian, her mother and young brother I’d never met, Cancer was a real possibility,) as I brought the remains of the feast, and even now there was a ton, into the kitchen. “At least there’s plenty for you to bring home.”
  “Just enough for a couple of sandwiches and I’ll be fine. Honey ginseng mint, this smells great.”
  “If you say so, I’ll stick to coffee.”
  “This is better for you.”
  “I’ll take your word for it, but no thanks.” I had also put the remotes away, closed the cabinet doors across screen, so there was nothing alluding to the DVD as we went into the living room and tried to digest, me all but collapsing on my chair and him taking the couch.
  I saw him looking over the side, “Drop something?”
  “Not on this carpet! No, I was looking for a pocket.”
  “Ah. Just the one in the firm’s office. Told you I gave up smoking.”
  He nodded and sipped his leaf-water, “That’s too bad. Mr. Barran, the folks who owned the restaurant used to smoke one, only his stuff didn’t smell anything like the one in your office.”
  “What was his blend?”
  “I don’t know, but it was kind of sharp sometimes.”
  “Could have been Latakie, or maybe a Perique blend. I was a Burley and Virginia man, myself. Damn near cried when I got rid of my cellar. Some of those tins were over ten years old.”
  “They stay good that long?”
  “Hmm? No, you age them like wine. Virginia leaf is the best for that, just gets better and better. You can stove it as well.” He asked and I explained about ‘toasting’ tobacco, how sometimes you left your tins in a hot car or sunny window. I didn’t exactly remember fully the scientific reason for it, something to do with microbes and sugars or something.
  Then I suddenly laughed and he asked me why. “My Aunt Lillian smoked a pipe.”
  “A woman smoking a pipe?” he looked at me, eyes wide and head sideways, clearly thinking I was pulling his leg.
  “Yes, I know, still, she did. Nor was she alone. She was a lot older than my mother and had this circle of friends her age who used to come over and play cribbage once a week. I don’t know who started it, I think one of them spoke about her husband who had passed away and how she got missing the smell—and him—so much that one day she just lit up. According to Aunt Lillian, once she heard that she started thinking about my grandfather, who I never had a chance to meet, and went up into the attic for his trunk. She tried it and liked it, so there you have it. A couple of my pipes are from him, refurbished with new bits. Mouthpieces, I mean. Used pipes are sometimes better than new ones, if they’ve been taken proper care of.”
  “I thought you just stuck stuff in and lit it up?”
  This had me grin, “Oh no, there’s an art to it. Some get rather fanatical about their cake thickness. That’s the bit of char you leave on the inside of the bowl. It can take a long time to build and get it just right. It protects the wood as well as smoothes out some of the flavor of your tobacco. You have to keep it thin, but not too thin. As well as it has to be perfectly even throughout or else the heat gets dispersed differently and you risk either cracking your bowl or causing a burn spot clean through.” I chuckled suddenly, “Listen to me. Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you.”
  “No, I like listening. Mr. Barran had this droopy thing, it looked like the one Sherlock Holmes used, only a lot smaller.”
  “A bent. Was it a mini calabash or one of Sherlock’s others?”
  “I though he only smoked the one in the movies?”
  “No way, that was a prop.”
  “Do you have a bent pipe?” He suddenly blushed and ducked his head. “That came out funny, sorry.”
  “Thanks a lot, kid. Yet your answer is yes, I have some bents as well as straight pipes, thank you very much. A few Petersons, though I stay away from system ones; some Comoy’s, a pair of Dunhills to name a few. My favorites are the free-hands though. That’s where the carver takes a piece of briar and makes a non-traditional shape, letting the flow of the grain and wood itself telling him what to do. Basically mini, useable sculptures. Kick myself a bit because I gave up the chance to get this beautiful piece that had a wide ring of mammoth ivory incorporated into the stem. Turned out for the best though, because at least someone is using it.” Sip of coffee, black and straight. “Actually, I should sell my collection off, except for my grandfathers. Or maybe even those as well. Sort of a dishonor to have them just sitting there in the cabinet. Ah well.”
  “So why don’t you smoke them?”
  “Because Shell...” He arched a brow at me. “Huh.”
  “Yup.” Son of a bitch. “You want to see them?”
  “Sure!” he jumped up, raring to go.
  “Come on, Steven, work it off. There’s still dessert you know.”
  “Rub it in, why don’t you.”
  “What do you need, someone to carry you?”
  “Not tonight.” I rose, coffee in hand. “Did I ever thank you for that, David?”
  “Yes. That thermos could stand a nuclear strike.”
  “I think it said so on the label,” I snorted as he followed me to the library. He didn’t drink coffee like a sane person, yet had filled his dime-store plastic thing with enough go-juice so I was able to give directions home after my little bender.
  I went into my den (utterance of ‘cool beans’ behind when he got look at it) and approached the glassed pipe cabinet.
  “You keep it locked?”
  “Matter of a Ferndown that went into the garbage disposal.” Oh, my poor Ferny...
  “Wow, is that bird’s eye maple?”
  “Just the pattern of end-cut briar. Nice, isn’t it?” He nodded as I let him study the piece. “These days a lot of guys like straight grain, and I guess it is fairly difficult to fine a piece of root just right, grain matching up with shape, but I was never really impressed overmuch by them. You’d be amazed what some of these guys would pay for a straight grain.” Or for a Dunhill or Ferndown. Nor was I about to say he was holding a cool grand’s worth of Tokutomi in his hands.
  “Nothing from the Lord of the Rings?”
  “Hmm? No, I never had a feeling for Churchwardens. That’s what the long stemmed pipes are called.”
  “So why don’t they just call them long stems?”
  “I don’t know. Marketing maybe.”
  “Wow. That one is so cool.”
  “Go ahead, none of them bite.” If they did, then dear Ferny would have given Sheila a good one, the murderous bitch.
  Like the kid he was he reached eagerly into the case and picked it up. A nice little curled garlic. Not one of my favorite smokers, thought it did the job just fine. No dogs that didn’t pass the pipe cleaner test here, no way, no how, only I liked the heavier ones better. Virginia had a lot of natural sugars in it, a larger bowl helping them caramelize better. At least that was my opinion, though each to their own. Anything goes when it came to the pipe smoking world.
  “Try it out.”
  “Oh, I couldn’t.”
  “Come on, you won’t catch anything. Not a tooth mark to be had.” He stuck it in his mouth, grinning. “Hey, that’s sharp.”
  “Really?” he mouthed around it.
  “Yep. Check the mirror,” I pointed to the area above the wine cabinet and he went and did so. Me chuckling as he lifted his chin and checked his profile a few times.
  “Fits you. Take it, it’s yours.”
  He popped it into his hands quickly, blushing, “Oh, I couldn’t.”
  “Of course you can. I just picked it up for the shape, but it didn’t suit my tastes. I mean it, David, was planning on letting it go anyway. Like I said, it suits you. But if you’re one of those who have a thing against smoking then put it on online auction or something. Worth twenty bucks at least.” More like three hundred, though knowing the avarice out there amongst collectors, the way guys likes to one-up the other in gaming fun or outright greed, he could come away with a lot more than that easy. Especially at this time of year.
  “Are you really sure, Mr. Hanscom?”
  “David, come on. I’m not lying, do what you want with it. As you can see, I’ve plenty and only one mouth to use them.”
  “Then I’m going to keep it. Only, I’ve never smoked and I wouldn’t want to burn it up like you said could happen.”
  “You won’t. I’ll show you what to do. Damn, too bad I don’t have anything to put in it.”
  Or did I? Some thought in the back of my mind... Ah ha!
  Grinning, I went to my desk and sat down to check deep back into a drawer. I was sure I had...yes!
  I pulled the red-orange tin out. A hundred grams of leafy joy, “David, my boy, your lucky weeds have worked. I do have something. Gift from a client a couple years back. My case was full at the time so I stuck it in here.” Talk about a sign! McClelland’s Christmas Cheer, vintage nineteen-ninety-six. Groovy.
  I told him the date, as well as fact that these blends (limited editions which came out annually, never repeated and each year unique,) were actually a few years older then the one printed on the bottom. A special thing which the makers did, offering something already pre-aged and ready to go. Admittedly it was, but why should that stop anyone from prolonging the gratification? Just reason to buy more, some for now and the rest in years to come.
  Popped off the plastic lid, Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, the real one puffing away as he sat about a chimney making the rounds, fluttering to the desk as I pulled the tab, aroma of heaven rising.
  “It smells, well, like ketchup,” he said warily.
  “I know, the company is know for that, yet I assure you it does not taste it. Now, this is what we call a flake, means the tobacco leaves were pressed together in layers under pressure and then sliced. Different ways to smoke it, but you won’t be ready for folding yet, that can be tricky, so we’ll rub it out.” I used the lid, crumbling the chips till the multi colored, dark orange and brown ribbons separated, forming a nice pile. “Now then, further luck because your chamber is just right for the air pocket method. That means you are going to have space left beneath the tobacco plug. There’s a lot who roll over at idea of this, yet it actually works really well, allows more nuance of taste as well as protection from tongue bite. Cooler smoke, and helps the cake build from bottom up. Like I said, I only used that one a couple of times, so that will be your job—if you like it at all.”
  “I’m sure I will. Only, I don’t want to ruin it.”
  “Relax, it’s not hard at all.” I needed a smaller chambered pipe as well, so got up and selected a bulldog which would do the trick, grabbing a couple of tampers as I did so. Then it was practice, pinching up the right amounts and shoving them in with a little twist; press down, yet not too deeply and then topping it off, light, manipulating touch of tamper to get the free bits down.
  I had him test it unlit, “How’s the draw? You shouldn’t have to struggle at all, it should flow like air through a straw.”
  “Even when it’s corked up this tight?”
  “If it was done correctly, yes. Worse case scenario you use a nail to poke a hole in the center, but you’re better off just dumping it and refilling.” He seemed ready to go. “Now’s the fun part: the light. Watch the flame, you want to touch the tobacco only, not the rim of the pipe or else you’ll burn the wood. It will take a bit to do that, but you don’t want to get into the habit of it. Another thing, you are going to move the flame around the plug in a small circle, the goal is to have the entire top lit so it burns down evenly. Don’t worry because you won’t manage it the first time, might take a couple extra passes with the lighter. Soon as you are finished with the lighter you need to use the tamper a little, because the tobacco expands once it’s lit. Again, don’t squish it, just sort of tap it back into place, keeping the surface area as evenly flat as possible.”
  “This sounds hard.”
  “Nah, it’s easy, trust me. Couple more things, when you are lighting you have to give it a couple of puffs to get things going. Do not breath it into your lungs, just your mouth and then release the smoke. Some guys inhale, but this isn’t a cigarette, the idea is taste and the experience. Just let the smoke sort of roll over your tongue. Oh yeah, when it comes time to tamp, keep puffing lightly or else you’ll snuff it out. Ready for take of, Captain Cook?”
  “Okay,” he said as he picked up his lighter. “And here I though you just dropped some in and lit it!”
  “It is an art, David my boy, just like I said. A relaxing one, which helps digestion as well. Talk about perfect timing. Ready?” He nodded and thumbs up, before using said to the switch.
  “Not so hard!” I laughed when he went at it like trying to get one of those frozen drinks through a straw. Luckily it wasn’t really lit or else he’d be rolling on the floor coughing.
  “Like this, watch.” I stuck mine back in my mouth and passed the flame lightly because it was already started, little puffs of heaven released in small signals out side of my mouth. Then I showed him how I used the tamper, still puffing.
  Sat back, “Now, with luck I won’t have to relight it at all, but that’s rare. A true achievement even when you set it down for a bit.”
  It took him a couple tries, which I knew it would, told him to slow down on the puffing or else the thing would start to burn too hot. “Well, what do you think?”
  “I like it. It doesn’t taste like ketchup at all. I don’t know what it does, but it’s cool.”
  “Mm-hmm,” I agreed and then sat back, eyes closing. Man, it had been too long. He tried to emulate me, and soon the hard little ‘pops’ of puffing grew softer as he evened them out and went slowly.
  “It went out,” he frowned at it.
  “No problem, just relight, same as before. It would have been better to start you on something else, this is a little moist and goes hard a bit on the top. Flip the tamper over and use the flat end to score it a little, give it some air and then tamp down again lightly and try again.” After a minute I had to do the same. This really was not the right stuff for this method, but it was a good technique for a starter to learn. “See? Happens to the best of us, don’t let it get you.”
  He made a face and I knew why, hearing the gurgle. “Here, use a pipe cleaner. Stick it down the stem till it won’t go in anymore.”
  “Won’t it light on fire?”
  “Never. The embers are on the top. You are holding the stem too deeply in your mouth. Some spit got in. That’s what is making the thing bitter.”
  “Cool,” he said and was soon puffing away with a smile again. “I like this a lot.”
  “Art of the gentleman, David,” I murmured, sitting back again, swinging in my leather chair a bit, hands laced behind my head. I hadn’t been this relaxed in ages.
  “It’s getting really hot.” I had told him to test the bowl now and then.
  “Then put it down a while, relight it later.”
  “Geesh, I just got it going, too.”
  “Let me see.” He handed it over. It wasn’t too bad. “See here? Only one side is lit. Let it go out then tap out the ash. Never hit your pipe on hard surface, light taps or use the flat end of the tamper to dig it out. Then use it to loosen up some of the plug till it’s filled in and even again. Takes practice, that’s all. Stick with me and soon enough you’ll be doing this.” I took a couple puffs, getting a good mouthful of smoke and felt rather proud that it only took two tries to manage the smoke rings.
  “Wow,” he said softly and I glanced at him, noting an odd look on his face. “What?”
  “Nothing. Just...that’s a cool trick is all.”
  “Easy enough with a little practice. Just have to get a good mouth of smoke and then get the lips shaped right. You aren’t really blowing them, it is the movement of the lower jaw closing that little bit which does it. Basically you are just making the mouth smaller and the extra smoke gets shoved out, no place left to go.” He nodded, and pipe cooled, relit it, mine going out as he did so. Talk about rusty.
  David said he was going to try it so I sat back and watched. Of course he didn’t get it, not enough smoke to begin with but...
  God damn it, not now, I swore.
  “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
  Tell me about it. Ouch. “You need to get thicker smoke in your mouth as well as the lips rounder. You looked like you were kissing Kimberly or something.” I shifted in my chair and sat up straight. I was done for now and set my pipe on my desk, balancing it against the tin so it didn’t spill over, sure as hell not about to rise and find my old desk rack, “What’s her reaction going to be? To you smoking I mean? If you keep it up you’ll need breath mints. The one downfall to the pastime, but easy enough to take care of.” He just shrugged.
  I picked up my coffee. Cold, yuck. “How about that dessert?” He smiled and nodded, still toking away, “Going good there. Take it with you, I intend to fill the whole apartment with the smell.”
  “Cool beans,” he said and gave me thumbs up.
  “Groovy, man. First though, let me find a pouch and divide this stuff up. I’ll tell you the sad truth, you aren’t going to get a blend like this again. Not of this age unless you are really lucky. I suggest finding a mason jar to put it in soon as you get home so it doesn’t dry out.” Safe to stand up again, thank god. (Yes, a doctor soon as possible,) and I went to my cabinet and opened a drawer. Oh, why not? I smiled inside and grabbed my best, a roll-up of calfskin soft as a baby’s bottom, if that expression meant a damn. Extra pipe cleaners, (all I had gotten rid of was my tobacco, not the fixing and had a good jar full) and he could have the lighter and tamper as well. Why not? I was planning on going on a binge.
  I split the tobacco and poured it in, showing him that it rolled up, place for his pipe in it as well once it had cooled.
  “I can’t take these,” he said of the extras.
  “It’s just a lighter, David.”
  “No it’s not, it’s silver!”
  “Just plated.” Bullshit, but again, who cared? “Come on, you got to flaunt the goods, David. Pipe like that need the right fixings.”
  “Okay, but not this. It’s like a work of art or something.”
  “Just a hunk of briar. Lots of carvers toss them in when you buy direct. Just scraps leftover. A lot better then some of the metal ones, if only because it is softer, less chance of gouging a groove into your pipe bowl when cleaning. Not that you have to worry about managing the cake for a while. Just get out the loose ash when done. Do that after every smoke so it doesn’t get bitter. Good to let it rest between smokes as well. If you really get into it you’ll want a small collection of your own for rotation. As well as you might like trying other blends. Some guys dedicate pipes to certain ones so the flavors don’t get lost in the other. Hey, maybe when I go shopping I’ll pick us up an assortment, different things for you to try. I started on aromatics, a lot do, but eventually grew out of them.
  “Again, if you really get into it you’ll find you like different cuts of tobacco in different chambered bowls. Some burn better in small ones while others need a bigger one. Ropes have a higher nicotine content and small pipes are best for those. Trust me, lying on the carpet holding on for dear life as your head spins it no fun at all. Warn you though, it can get out of hand fast. The collecting I mean.”
  “I don’t think I’ll ever find one better than this.”
  “Sure you will, though there will always be a special place kept for the first one.”
  “Whatever you say, Steven, though this will always be my favorite. Thank you.”
  “You’re welcome, David. Enjoy it in good health.” He grinned and nodded, and I gestured us out, smiling inside and out no matter my thoughts were dark. Calm, yet dark.
  Christmas Cheer; my plans to visit the old house during that time. Jut me alone, winter in New England in a big house. Not just the house though, a place settled back far from the main road, lots of untouched woodlands surrounding. Better, a state forest much larger nearby. A nice walk out into the snow, a long one, find someplace to go to sleep. Stars above, not city lights below.
  Hope he wouldn’t begrudge me the one though. A really nice collection the kid was going to inherit, but I was going to take one of grandfather’s pipes with me. No, no windows for this lawyer. Too pat. Old world style and traditions, that was the way to do it. Something classy, only alone.
  Die as you’ve lived, Steven old boy. Die as you’ve lived.
  Yeah, that was going to be groovy. Hell, a brain tumor would be perfect as well.
  Indeed, talk about your luck changing!
  Thanks, David, I sent as we grinned over dessert. Owe you a lot, my young friend. Christmas Cheer, my half was coming with me on that trip.
  Christmas Cheer, walking through the winter snow of New England, puffing on that at that time. Nothing finer, nothing more perfect. Indeed, it truly felt like fate finding that tin in my desk.
  Just a couple of weeks, almost Thanksgiving now. Lot to do between now and my ‘vacation’ at Aunt Lillian’s place. Papers to manage and manage right. No loopholes or any cracks for Sheila to sink her claws into. No, not a thing from me ever again for that bitch.
  And nothing taken away from David again either. I’ll see to that. Set him up right, and he’s smart enough to manage it. Get his ass out of the firm. Pull it all together and there might be enough to set up his own someplace, no worries for a while if he was careful.
  Yeah, set him up right, give him opportunity to do the things he wants to do, to help people. Not anyone like me, only ones who deserved it. No, I never did a damn thing for anyone, and this won’t balance anything, not on my end, still, it’ll be fine knowing what I left behind will be used by someone who will.
  So yes, thank you, young Mr. David Taylor. Thank you for everything, my friend. Only one I’ve got in the world.
  Merry Christmas, kid. Going to be a hell of a gift for you soon. Too bad we won’t meet again afterwards. No, not possible. Even if suicide wasn’t a sin, no way I am going to end up in the same place as you are destined to.
  Hell? No problem, man, just leaving one version for the other. Afraid? Not a bit of it. Just getting what he deserved after all, only no more wishy-washiness about it. No more beating around the burning bush, as it were. He’d start the paperwork tonight, soon as David was seen to a paid cab. Trust funds, investments, physical holdings, the lot.
  Merry Christmas, David. Merry Christmas.
  Groovy, man. Groovy.

Continues with Episode Three: Secrets
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