MY MORNINGS at the Emporium were dictated by a comfortable and quiet routine:
Nat King Cole on the speakers.
Tolerable coffee from the cheap maker in my office.
Coaxing the thermostat until the ancient radiators pinged and hissed with steam.
And when someone disrupted that sense of order, it had a tendency to irritate me.
A sudden bang on the front door caused me to lose track of the till I was counting. I leaned over the counter and squinted at the blurry shape on the other side of the glass.
Whoever it was knocked again and called in a muffled voice, “Courier!”
I grunted and handed my assistant, Max Ridley, the wad of small change. “Count that for me.” I walked down the steps, made my way through the twists and turns of my cavernous store, then unlocked and opened the front door. A whoosh of bitterly cold, snowy wind entered. “We’re not open yet.”
The bike courier shrugged in her bulky winter attire. “Hey, man, not my problem,” she countered, speaking through a face mask. She thrust a clipboard at me. “Sign the last line.”
I brought the paperwork closer, but the details of the package’s origin were beyond impossible to read in the chicken-scratch handwriting of the courier’s office employee. “Hope you’re getting paid extra to deliver before business hours,” I said, signing my name on the form and handing it back.
The courier shoved the clipboard into her oversized bag, removed a square box, and all but threw it into my arms. “And many happy returns.” She turned, stepped back into the cold morning, and unlocked her bike from the lamppost across from the shop.
“Yeah. Happy holidays,” I muttered, closing the door. “What time is it?”
“Um… five ’til,” Max said from the counter.
I left the door unlocked.
Max shut the brass register’s drawer as I joined him once more. He picked up his mug and took a sip of coffee. “That’s not the Depression glassware, is it?”
“I hope not,” I replied, setting the box down. “Unless they sent the decanter in pieces.”
Max visibly cringed at the notion.
Depression glass was too new to have any sort of permanent residency in my shop, but I’d agreed to taking on a rare seven-piece drinking set in what was promised to be a ruby red color, as a project for Max. He’d been more adamant of late about helping with research and amassing contacts of his own. And since the market was always alive and well for Depression glassware, I decided what the hell.
I used a pair of scissors to slice the tape down the middle of the box. I pulled the cardboard flaps back and removed a single sheet of folded paper from atop thick, opaque plastic. Scrawled in what appeared to be a modern rendition of Spencerian script was: Mr. Sebastian Snow, Proprietor.
“What’s it say?” Max asked before I’d gotten any further than unfolding the note.
“It’s not a winning lotto ticket,” I remarked, glancing sideways at him. “So I’m already losing interest.”
“Life isn’t all about money, Seb.”
“You can say that. You don’t have a hospital bill the length of a CVS receipt.”
I’d been shot in May. That batshit crazy Pete White had nearly taken me out with an antique revolver, and all I had to show for surviving was a nasty scar and enough debt to choke a horse. Unsurprisingly, upon learning the value of the Dickson drafts I’d saved, the surviving Robert family members wanted them back and had zero interest in letting me handle their affairs at auction.
As if my percentage would even make a dent in what I predicted their payment would be. Which—fine. Good luck to them trying to maneuver the world of high-end auctions without contacts. Meanwhile, I’d be over here dodging phone calls from the hospital’s collection department. No big deal.
I pulled my magnifying glass from my back pocket and held it over the cursive that mimicked the aesthetic of business communications circa mid-nineteenth century.
An Intriguing Proposition for a Most Curious Man.
Who I am is of no great importance. What I am proposing is.
I, hereby known afterward as Party A, am looking to hire Sebastian Andrew Snow, hereby known as Party B, to recover a most unusual article lost to time and neglect.
I paused, touched the flap on the cardboard box, and tilted it to read, but the only address details were my own. Who the hell was this, and how’d they learn my middle name? I played Andrew pretty close to the chest. No offense to Pop, but I wasn’t a fan.
“What’s that smell?” Max asked suddenly.
I made a vague sound of acknowledgment before continuing to read.
Upon said article’s salvage, Party A is prepared to reward Party B with a most substantial sum.
“What?” I lowered the magnifying glass to the bottom of the page in order to inspect a disturbingly realistic hand-drawn eye. But that was it. No other details, no contact information, no nada.
“Did you shower this morning?”
At the second disruption to my thoughts, I set the paper down and turned to Max. “Yes.”
“Then what smells like sour milk?” He raised his own arm before shaking his head and saying, “It’s not me.”
“What’s it say about you that you needed to double-check first?” But then I got a whiff of the—death.
And as if Max and I came to the same conclusion at once, we both turned to stare at the steps on my left. Almost one year ago exactly, we’d found a rotting heart under the floorboards and my life forever changed when a redheaded detective came to the Emporium to investigate the mystery.
“‘Villains!’ I shrieked. ‘Dissemble no more!’” I quoted under my breath.
“Don’t.” Max moved around me and tiptoed down the stairs.
He crouched and began to inspect the steps for loose boards that would allow one to successfully conceal a human body part. “Don’t pull out your quotes. It makes everything go topsy-turvy real fast.”
“It does not.”
“It makes you obsessive.”
“Curious,” I corrected. “And it’s human nature to be curious.”
“Not you. And when you get obsessive, people try to kill you.” He looked at me briefly with an expression that read sort of like fight me.
“You act like you’re going to find me dead in a gutter on Staten Island by tomorrow. It stinks in here—I have a right to be curious.”
Max shook his head and continued checking for a floorboard that’d give way to a macabre surprise. “Hello, 911? My boss thinks he’s Columbo….”
“Keep it up and I’m going to trash your holiday bonus.”
Max glanced up a second time, considered, but ultimately dropped the conversation. “The floor’s fine.” He stood, took a step, then frowned as his gaze lowered to the package on the counter.
I looked at it too. It was a very unassuming box. I leaned in and took a sniff. The rancid stench coming from within the plastic made me gag.
“Who’d you piss off now?” Max whispered, a wobble in his voice.
We both studied the box again.
From the corner of my eye, I saw him raise his fist in the classic gesture of rock-paper-scissors. I followed, and on the silent count of three, threw scissors. Max knocked my hand with rock. I let out a breath, squared my shoulders, then grabbed the heavy plastic bag stuffed into the package.
I hoisted out a decapitated human head.
LUCKY CHARMS and coffee leave a decidedly offensive aftertaste upon coming back up. I didn’t have any mints or a toothbrush handy at the shop either, so I tried to mask the vomit-breath with saltwater taffy.
It didn’t work.
In retrospect, of course, it was the least of my problems. But since I had no control over the uniformed officers standing around my counter and inspecting a scene straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, I had to hyperfocus on something. I unwrapped another piece of candy.
“Did you call Calvin?” Max asked from where he sat on the floor, his back against the bookshelves situated in the farthest corner of the shop. Dillon was parked between his legs, enjoying the nervous scratches Max was giving him and not really all that concerned about the morning’s proceedings.
I turned from where I stood at the midpoint between the officers and Max and said, “No.” I tugged the taffy from the wax paper. It stretched into long tendrils and stuck to my hand. I raised my thumb and index finger to suck them clean.
“Why?” Max protested.
“I think it might constitute as crossing a professional line.”
“Yeah, because you’ve zero experience doing that,” Max said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Things are different now.”
To say the least.
I rubbed the last of the sticky candy residue against my trouser leg.
“I don’t like this,” Max continued. “When Sebastian has a reverse Ichabod Crane situation, Calvin and Quinn show up. That’s how it works. The universe has established this.”
“I’m one money-order-made-payable-to-the-City-Clerk away from really pissing his sergeant off,” I explained. “I have to follow proper channels these days. That means starting with 911, and letting the NYPD decide which lucky detective team is investigating this mess.”
I turned my head just then to watch a third uniformed officer enter the shop. He muttered some nicety to the man standing guard at the door before immediately making his way toward the counter where a female officer stood.
I turned to Max and held both hands out, indicating for him not to move. “Stay here.” I started after the newcomer.
The cop was tall. Broad shoulders, dark hair, and thick eyebrows. He was watching me approach while quieting the radio emitting gibberish from his belt.
“Hi,” I said. I held out a hand. “I’m the owner. I called—”
“Sebastian Snow,” he answered for me.
I slowly lowered my hand. “Er—yeah.”
“You’ve got a reputation.”
“I’ve been told that before.”
“I’m sure you have.”
I got the distinct impression this officer did not find me to be a charming sonofabitch.
“Now, I know you like to play amateur sleuth, Mr. Snow,” he continued, hands on his utility belt. His accent was so Brooklyn, it was practically a stereotype.
“I’ve recently retired.”
“I don’t think you’re funny.”
“And I don’t think you’re cute.”
“Being a cop is a serious job,” he said in a chastising tone. “And when civilians stick their noses into our business—”
“I’m pretty certain I called you folks for help,” I interrupted.
The female officer leaned over the counter and whispered something to my new biggest fan.
“I know who he’s dating,” Dickhead retorted. He pointed a finger at me. “And this ain’t got nothing to do with you being gay.”
“Thank God,” I said humorlessly. Because I hadn’t heard that before.
“I wouldn’t care if you were engaged to my sergeant. You shouldn’t be allowed within a hundred feet of a crime scene.”
I tugged my sweater closed and crossed my arms over my chest. “So did you want to question me, or should I skedaddle and leave you to all this, Mr. Holmes?”
Dickhead’s nostrils flared like an enraged bull. He closed the space between us and stared me down—which didn’t work because I’ve been around the block a few times with cops—then something in his facial expression changed. Faltered, maybe.
“What’re your eyes doing?”
“Moving,” I answered, my tone more dry than white bread left on too high a setting in the toaster. My Dancing Eyes condition was hardly noticeable as an adult, but still they wobbled involuntarily at times. “I have achromatopsia. Sometimes my eyes move strangely when I get stressed.”
“Yes, Officer,” I said with a hint of mockery. “I’ve only had one cup of coffee and found a head in a box.”
“Your stressed is pretty calm, Mr. Snow.”
I shrugged. “Hysterics won’t change the situation. Although, I did vomit, if that’ll make you happy.”
“For Christ’s sake, Rossi,” the female cop said, loud enough for me to hear. She leaned over the counter a second time and asked, “Do you know the deceased, Mr. Snow?”
I stared at her, at Rossi, then back to her again. “Do I—know—the head? We’re not acquainted, no.”
Rossi started to speak, but the bell over the shop’s front door chimed for the umpteenth time and gave him pause. He looked around me, raised his lip, and all but rolled his eyes.
“Calvary’s here,” he muttered.
I turned around.
Rescue came in the form of Calvin Winter.
My most favorite detective of the NYPD.
Not that I was biased or anything.
He marched across the showroom floor, making a direct beeline for me where I stood at the base of the elevated counter with Rossi.
“Calvin—” I started, hoping I sounded cool and relaxed and not utterly relieved that despite our soon-to-be legally recognized relationship, he’d still been the one shouldered with another case involving yours truly.
But Calvin cut me off by grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into a bone-crushing embrace. His heavy coat was damp from melting snow. The wool was itchy and cold against my skin, but the discomfort was eased by the familiar warmth and hard body under the layers. Sure, I’d been in bed with this handsome man only a few hours ago, but I didn’t think I’d never not find comfort in the scent of Calvin’s earthy cologne or the ever-present cinnamon on his breath from obsessive mint-popping.
He’d shown up like a knight in shining armor.