Christmas Waltzed In

By midmorning, Garrett limped his way along the main drag in Annapolis. The cane wasn’t as awkward or conspicuous as the crutches, though the generic pain killer in his pocket did little more than take the edge off. Forward motion—actually, motion of any sort—was becoming an issue as exhaustion began to win the fight. Tourists of all ages made their way along the streets as well, and most of these scooted past his slow-moving ass at the first opportunity, casting him sidelong glances filled with pity.

The shops along the street sported high holiday style with a twist of Christmas Nautical. Holly adorned windows. Cedar garland looped from every storefront and restaurant. More garland, red ribbon, and twinkling white lights wrapped street lamps from top to bottom. Nautical flags hung from the crossbars on the street lamps. In the harbor, Garrett could just make out the motorboats and sailboats decked out with a variety of lights and other decorations in keeping with the holiday.

All very festive for those who gave a crap.

Garrett stopped to rest, feigning fascination with the window display behind a yellow and blue sign advertising the perfect assortment of Christmas presents for the holiday traveler. Bar glasses with “Annapolis” scrawled beneath the Maryland state flag rested next to rubber ducks wearing sailor hats that urged, “Go Navy!”

He used the reflection in the plate glass window to survey his surroundings and didn’t move on until he was satisfied no one tailed him.

More garish decorations greeted him in the traffic circle by the harbor, where he couldn’t miss the forty-foot Christmas tree. Festooned with red ribbon, bells made of bird seed and bird houses of every imaginable shape. The raucous noise emanating from inside and around the tree, suggested that the birds had already discovered their holiday feast. No doubt the treats would be gone long before the holiday actually arrived.

Completing the scene of seaside holiday bliss, the bells in the church tower at the head of Main Street played Christmas music. The fact that they repeated in a loop of about five slightly off-key carols irritated the hell out of Garrett, but the too-slow tempo affected him on the most basic level, lending the illusion that he was out of sync with the world around him and moving too quickly through his own life.

His leg ached like an abscessed tooth and the damp chill stiffened his bones. Garrett made his way back along Main Street, heading for a small deli he’d taken note of on his way in. Even with its crowded and cramped quarters, it was a good place to lose himself in the throng of holiday shoppers while he recovered from the elements and made plans for his next move. A second door at the rear made it all the more sweet in case a hasty exit was place on the agenda.

The hostess seated him at a table about midway toward the back. Garrett gratefully sank onto the orange vinyl seat and scanned the menu. When the waitress returned, he ordered coffee and the least expensive lunch combo on the menu, a Kosher hotdog and fries. Briefly, he considered a beer but just as quickly dismissed the thought. It wouldn’t do to consume anything that could potentially cloud his thinking at this point. He was halfway through his meal when the hostess stopped by and freshened his coffee.

“Thank you,” he murmured just as the front door seemed to blow open. Automatically, Garrett’s eyes shifted to the front of the restaurant.

Christmas waltzed in on the chilly breeze.

Her dark green jacket that was trimmed in plum colored faux fur. Though the jacket was open, the bulky red sweater beneath hid what Garrett considered might well be a very appealing figure—too bad he wasn’t currently in the market for appealing figures at the moment. The zipper on her jacket had bells attached that jingled lightly as she walked up to the counter. From her ears hung tiny, red earrings in the shape of Christmas ornaments. A headband of green felt held back a milk chocolate curtain of hair that teased her shoulders. But it was the ridiculous pair of brown felt reindeer antlers outlined in tiny blinking red and green lights that commanded attention.

Why did people do that to themselves? She wasn’t a Christmas tree, so why decorate herself like one? But something about the lively energy she radiated held Garrett mesmerized and he couldn’t look away.

Her eyes swept the room, taking in the large crowd. For an instant, her gaze lit on him and time seemed to pause for a heartbeat as her pale gray eyes met his. Then her attention was drawn to the middle-aged blond woman in an orange uniform working the counter.

“Hi, Pat!” She turned away from the room to greet the waitress.

“Hey, Anna. Here for the usual?”

“Yep.” Christmas tossed her head when she laughed, and her hair rippled in a smooth motion that reminded Garrett of chocolate silk.

“Extra whipped cream in the cocoa?”

“Of course.” Christmas rummaged in her giant red corduroy purse. “And give me a turkey club on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, and mayo to go please?”

The waitress offered a bright smile. “Cappy’s in town?”

“Tying off at the dock as we speak. What possesses him to keep sailing in this weather I’ll never know.” Christmas removed a neon pink wallet from her purse and opened it.

“Aw, you know sailing’s his whole life.” Pat briskly assembled the requested sandwich. “Still, I’d think he’d stay further south this time of year, maybe the Caribbean or someplace.” She deftly wrapped the sandwich and added it to an already bulging large brown bag with the name of the deli on the side. “There’s a little something extra in there for Mrs. Justice.”

Garrett’s radar perked at what was obviously a veiled statement of the type someone with something to hide might make. He lowered his head, seemingly to study the newspaper on the table but kept his peripheral view on the two women. Christmas slid over several large bills, dropped her wallet back in the purse, and picked the bag up by the handles. Then, with an energetic flourish, Christmas said good-bye and left. Without waiting for any change, Garrett noted.

Moving quickly but hopefully not too obviously, he stuffed the last bit of hotdog into his mouth and signaled for the check. With a sigh, Garrett stood, sparing a longing glance at his fries. They were good and he hated to leave them, since he would quickly run out of cash if he spent it on food he didn’t eat. Finally, he stuffed a handful in his mouth and headed for the front door. The lure of the Christmas mystique won out as he wondered what mission she was on.

By the time he made it out to the street, she was nowhere in sight but her comment about someone tying up at the dock made him decide to check in that direction first.

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