Sunday, December 29, 2013

At Midnight

09:40 p.m.
Sneaking into her sister’s hotel room and searching for stolen jewelry was not how Valencia Lancaster had planned to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Val turned her head left then right to make sure she was alone in the hallway. She inserted the keycard she had swiped from Sienna’s purse into the slot and heard a click. As she slowly turned the door knob, Val noticed that her hands were still dry from the winter weather. With grim humor, she thought that the night began innocently enough when she borrowed a jar of hand cream from her sister’s purse. What she found inside the jar, had changed everything.

Val held her breath and quickly entered the room. She exhaled and leaned against the closed door. Sienna would kill her for this. Val pulled a flashlight from her purse and pressed the button. She didn’t want to turn on the overhead light in case Sienna, who was at the New Year’s Eve party in the interior hotel courtyard, would see her room illuminated.

She pawed through neatly folded clothes and eyed a cute camisole in her favorite color. Better leave it. Regretfully, she closed the drawers then searched the bathroom and closet. Nothing. Both suitcases were empty too. Her hunch that the rest of the stolen jewelry was in Sienna’s room was either wrong or she had overlooked a hiding place.

Perhaps she was just jealous of Sienna’s quick rise in the family jewelry business. Val thoughtfully nibbled her lower lip as she sat on the bed. Did she secretly hope that her sister was guilty? Yes, maybe…no. Admittedly, she had been hurt that her father was grooming her sister for the CEO position. Plus, Sienna had begun relying heavily on her new assistant, Gemma, relegating Val to outsider. Hurt feelings aside, she knew something was very wrong. That something could damage her family and their business.

She stood up, turned toward the door, and stubbed her toe against an object. Val clenched her hand into a fist, trying not to cry out. Moving the flashlight to examine her foot and the open toed, black Ferragamos she had borrowed from Sienna, her light shone on the offending object she’d tripped over. A backpack? She knelt on the carpet and pulled it completely out from under the bed, unzipped and folded back the cover. Val frowned as she saw a large battery operated drill and several drill bits. Odd.

A sudden loud knock at the door followed by a gruff voice, froze her. “Anyone there?”

Immobilized by the ache in her knees from kneeling, she listened. Beads of sweat formed under her Christian Dior dress.

Val heard the familiar click of the door being unlocked. Hastily she shoved the backpack under the bed and dove behind an arm chair. From her vantage point she saw the outline of a man with a flashlight reach under the bed and pull out the backpack. He picked it up and left.

There was silence except for the sound of Val’s teeth chattering like clinking castanets.
10:05 p.m.
Val limped into the hotel’s glass atrium lobby. Her toe still throbbed from ramming it against the backpack. She paused to watch the crowd enjoy the party in the magnificently decorated room. It was a beautiful sight; imitation snow fell slowly from the sixty foot high ceiling onto a Christmas tree. Lights from the harbor twinkled through the floor to ceiling windows. The band played their rendition of the Seals & Crofts song, “Diamond Girl”. Sienna knew how to throw a New Year’s Eve bash.

“Good evening. I believe you’re Sienna’s sister, Valentine?” A well-dressed dark haired man looking like he belonged in a fairy tale walked up to Val.

She went weak at the knees. “Yes, I’m Sienna’s sister. My name is Valencia.”

“Charmed. I’d kiss your hand but...” He shrugged, and Val saw he held a glass of champagne in either hand.

“I’m at a disadvantage since I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Pardon me. I’m Alexsandr Cerovic, Gemma’s significant other. Shall we join them?”

Val nodded, then sagged. This incredible man was dating Gemma? Life really was unfair. Alex led the way as they walked past happy partygoers, heading toward Sienna and Gemma who stood with a group of people.

“Victoria, have you seen the ice sculptures?” Alexsandr nodded his head toward a door with a short line of people outside.

"Va-len-cia. I haven’t had a chance to walk through the exhibit. Too busy with the jewelry show and the aftermath.”

Alexsandr looked at her. “Sorry to hear about the theft. That must have been a blow to your business. So many pieces of white glass, I mean diamonds, were stolen including the Derouin Diamond.”

Val nodded and frowned when she thought of last week’s unsolved theft including the famous pink Derouin Diamond set in a ring, worth a cool half million dollars. Captivated by the famous ring, she’d even purchased a replica. The news media referred to the gang of professional diamond thieves as the Pink Panthers after the Peter Sellers comedy movies. But, according to detectives, they weren’t a joke since they had already stolen about half a billion dollars’ worth of jewelry and committed five hundred robberies. Val sighed. She wished her father had stayed in town, but he left after the detectives concluded the thieves were in another country and the jewelry permanently gone.

Alexsandr pursed his lips. “It was clever of the Panthers to put a ‘wet paint’ sign on the bench so nobody would sit on it and witness the robbers leaving. I heard the police don’t have any leads on the jewels or thieves although it’s rumored that they lost the ring.” He gazed intently at her. “Do you know anything about that?”

Val felt a sudden chill. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms with her hands. Probably delayed nerves from sneaking into her sister’s room and almost getting caught by an unknown man.

A “thwack”, hit near her eye then tickled as it retracted. She jumped.

“Tharpy New Thear!” A drunken man stumbled off, blowing his pink-feathered noisemaker.

Idiot. This night couldn’t end soon enough.

Alexsandr shook his head. “How bourgeois.”

Val easily spotted the back of Sienna’s floor length dress. It was an elegant Zhang Zhifeng haute couture contemporary version of a traditional Chinese dress made from red silk with applique flowers scattered across it. While Val preferred wearing a simple black dress, Sienna liked elaborate clothing.

Alexsandr said, “Look who I found on my way back with drinks. Valarie.” He handed Gemma then
Sienna a glass of champagne.

Val didn’t bother to correct him and elbowed her way into the tight knot of admirers surrounding her sister. Most people ignored her, only referring to her as Sienna’s sister.

Sienna grabbed Val’s arm and pulled her close. “Where the hell have you been?” she hissed. “Where’s my purse you took without asking? I noticed you’re wearing my shoes.”

Val shook her arm from Sienna’s grasp. She smacked her sister’s rhinestone clutch into her arms. “I borrowed the jar of lotion from your purse. I’ll give it back later.” She watched to see if Sienna showed signs of being scared or panicked.

“Fine.” Val noticed that Sienna looked upward as if asking the heavens for patience to deal with her annoying sister then clasped her purse to her side. But she didn’t seem nervous.

“That cream is expensive.” Gemma folded her arms across her body. “You’d be wise to return the jar.”

Sienna raised her hand. “It’s okay, Gemma.”

Val reached into her own purse and took out the cream. She started to hand the jar to Sienna but Gemma intercepted it.

“I’ll put it in your room, Sienna, since I still have your second key card.” She tucked the jar into her satchel.

Alexsandr raised his eyebrows and gave Gemma a long, considering look.

Val needed air and began walking away. Sienna turned toward her. “Don’t you dare leave the party, Valencia Lancaster. You’re never there when I need you.” She turned back.

10:30 p.m.
Val stood on the patio next to a bench, the outside entrance to the now cancelled jewelry show behind her. White lights twinkled on trees surrounding the peaceful harbor. Decorated boats, moored to the wharf, gently rocked on the water. It looked magical.

To her left she saw Alexsandr and Gemma walk on the dock and stop under a light. A large man stepped off a nearby speedboat and met the pair. He looked like the man who had been in her sister’s room! Her intuition on high alert, Val stood in a half crouch behind a planter so she could see the trio without calling attention to herself.

As snippets of their conversation drifted close, she heard Gemma mention white glass. Wasn’t that the expression Alexsandr had used to refer to diamonds? Other words didn’t make sense like birdwatcher, violin, and lizard. But it sounded like their plan was to take the speedboat to an airstrip then fly to Montenegro.

The boat captain handed Alexsandr a backpack. Then he gave Gemma a small rectangular card. Was that the extra keycard to Sienna’s room that Gemma had mentioned? A cold chill slid down Val’s spine. She bet these three were the jewel thieves and they were using her sister’s room to hide incriminating evidence. How dare they set up Sienna and rob her family.

10:45 p.m.
Alexsandr and Gemma left the harbor area. Val followed. If she was correct, they would lead her to the stolen jewelry. They walked through the lobby and into the ice sculpture exhibit entrance. She waited, then walked in the anteroom containing warm clothing for guests. Grabbing a thermal jacket and pants Val threw them over her clothes then kicked off her shoes and pulled on a pair of boots. She slipped on heavy gloves.

Ready for the bracing nine-degree cold, Val opened the door and entered. As the door swung shut, the clamor from the party ceased. Most people viewed the sculptures during the day so the exhibit was deserted. The beautiful and whimsical sculptures glistened under bright lights like shiny jewels.

Val followed the carpeted path winding its way through the sculptures and saw Alexsandr and Gemma walk into a room containing ice sculptures depicting New York City. They stopped in front of a large red apple obviously meant to represent the Big Apple.

Alexsandr shrugged off the backpack and set it down. He pulled out the drill and began boring into the apple around the crystal clear ice stem. Val gasped and threw her gloved hands over her mouth. Small pieces of ice flew out shimmering in the light. He stopped and removed the stem. Gemma reached in the hole, pulled out a clear bag, and set it on the ground.

To get a closer look, Val crawled on the carpeted floor and up—onto a taxi bench inside an oversized ice taxi used for photos. She lay down out of view, but where she could still peek out of the doorless taxi. It looked like loose diamonds in the bag. They must have taken the diamonds out of the settings before hiding them. According to the news, the gang’s usual modus operandi was to immediately take a motorboat and get away after a theft, but apparently they had altered the plan.

11:10 p.m.
Sienna! What was she doing here? She watched as her sister slowly stepped out from behind a
reindeer made from ice and bumped into a snowman sculpture. Her elbow hit his carrot nose. It fell off and shattered on the ground. The jewelry thieves turned around.

“You,” Gemma yelled at Sienna. “Give me the Derouin diamond ring. I know you have it. It wasn’t in your hand cream where I hid it.”

Alexsandr started. “Gemma, you took the ring? You double crossed me! You’re the reason we didn’t leave on time. You’re dead.” He threw the apple stem on the ground which splintered.

His fairytale shine disappeared. He turned into a thug.

“Sorry, darling. You’re not as clever as you think.” Gemma continued advancing on Sienna.

“I don’t have your ring.” Sienna backed up further, holding her hands in a defensive position in front of her face.

“Liar.” Gemma pushed her.

Sienna hit a sculpture, twisted, and fell to the ground clutching her ankle.

Frozen with fear, Val couldn’t move, but Sienna was in danger. She had to act. With an inner strength she hadn’t known she possessed, Val sat up. “Gemma. Stop! Here’s the ring.” She flung it out of the taxi. It pinged off the Empire State Building sculpture and rolled across the ground. Gemma leapt after the ring, grabbed it, and ran toward the exit.

Charging toward Val like an angry bull, Alexsandr spit out, “You’ve ruined everything. You will pay.”

Val slid out of the taxi, scooped up the bag of diamonds from the floor, and bolted up a nearby ramp. At the top she hesitated realizing she was on the second floor with an ice slide the only way down.

Taking advantage of her pause, Alexsandr caught up to her. He grabbed her right arm twisting it backward. “Give me the diamonds.”

“Take them.” With her left arm she hit him in the face with the diamond bag. He winced and let go of her but grabbed the bag kicking Val behind her knees. She fell backward onto the ice slide, hurtled to the bottom, and landed in a heap.

Alexsandr held up the bag and waved it. “I won.”

Over-exuberant, his foot slipped on the ice. Lurching and swaying to maintain balance, he dropped the bag. It opened upon impact and diamonds spilled out, rolling and plinking down the slide. As he
reached down to collect them, Alexsandr slid on loose diamonds. He fell face down, hitting the ice with a “crunch”. His still body started to slide down the icy chute.

Val somersaulted to her feet to get out of the way.
Alexsandr came to a stop at the bottom, diamonds continuing to roll around him.

Val holding onto an ice wall for support yelled at his body, “My name is Valencia. V-a-l-e-n-c-i-a. Don’t forget it.”

11:45 p.m.
Val walked back to the atrium lobby, Sienna leaning heavily against her. She told security about Alexsandr and Gemma and instructed them to call the police. Then she helped Sienna to a chair and propped her foot up on another chair.

Sienna said, “I can’t believe we made it out alive. I went looking for Gemma because I needed help with my speech and saw the three of you go into the ice sculpture exhibit. I just wish Gemma hadn’t gotten away with the ring.”

Val smiled. “She didn’t.” Taking her glove off, she twisted a ring on her finger. This is the real Derouin. I threw her my replica. If she’s lucky, she’ll get ten dollars.”

Turning serious Val said, “You need to see a doctor for your ankle, Sienna.”

“Not until after the opening speech.”

“You can’t stand and give a speech in that condition.”

“I know, Val, but you can.”

Val snapped her mouth shut. “I’d rather die than give a speech. I…I can’t.”

“If you can save us from a notorious group of jewel thieves, you can give a speech. I have faith in you. Look, Val, I do things even though I’m scared. Most days I feel like a fraud trying to run a business—a cubic zirconia among diamonds.” Sienna patted her arm. “Go.”

11:55 p.m.
Valencia walked onto the stage nervously fingering the speech that Sienna wrote. A spotlight shone in her eyes momentarily blinding her. The music stopped although the chatter continued. She felt everyone looking at her and couldn’t decide whether to faint or throw-up. Sienna nodded and smiled encouragingly.

With lowered head and in a quiet voice Valencia began reading from Sienna’s speech. “Welcome…” She paused and gulped.

Someone yelled, “Louder.”

The chatter grew as people became restless. Val straightened, then dropped the speech to the ground.

Gaze fixed on the audience, she said, “The New Year is a time for new beginnings so I’ll start again. My name is Valencia Lancaster. My sister, Sienna, and I are happy and honored you are with us tonight to celebrate New Year’s Eve and the grand opening of our East Coast headquarters.”

She paused until the clapping died down.

“Some moments are life changing. Tonight was one of those moments for me. A few hours ago I never would have been brave enough to speak in front of a large crowd. So, face your fears that hold you back. If I can, you can. Let’s celebrate this year of new beginnings together. Everyone ready?”

A small diamond ball began to slide down a pole.

Val pointed to the crowd. “You know what to do. 10, 9, 8…3, 2, 1.”

At Midnight
“Happy New Year!”

The crowd went wild with noisemakers. Through the floor to ceiling windows, Val saw fireworks explode outside in the harbor, lighting up the night sky. Sienna gave her a thumbs up. Valencia grinned and felt like a million bucks.

Disclaimer: While there is a group of professional diamond thieves referred to as the Pink Panthers, the characters and situation in this story are fictional.

Photo of boats in the harbor courtesy of Christopher Martin.

Thank you to my niece for playing the part of Valencia Lancaster.

Friday, December 27, 2013

An Unexpected Christmas Gift (First Person)

by Paula Gail Benson

[This week features three variations of a story -- narrative, screenplay, and first person. If you post a comment or holiday greeting during the week (December 22-28, 2013), your name will be entered into a random drawing for a copy of the recently released anthology MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink). Hope this makes your holidays happier!]

            I have a habit of viewing life as a screenplay. I can’t help it. That’s what happens when you teach film studies to university undergrads for twelve years. You realize most experiences are just fodder to be incorporated into a script.
            Take tonight, for example. A week before Christmas.
            Here I am at the Study Break Cafe, a local, hole-in-the-wall, fast food hangout on the outskirts of campus that caters to students and the surrounding community. A place where I’ve spent many significant moments of my life. It has lots of memories for lots of people. First jobs. Study dates. Surprise proposals.
            Oops. Let’s not explore that back-story.
            Who am I?  Full name and title are Associate Professor of English Hambly Harrison Richards, III. I’ve been called Ham all my life because Dad took Harry and Grandpa was Double H.
            Blessedly, I have only a daughter, so the moniker rests in peace with me. I’m here tonight to meet my daughter, the light of my life, my Jessica.
            I wait ten minutes, wondering when the undergrad behind the counter will come to take my order. It's not like he's overwhelmed with work. There's only one other person in the cafe, a derelict slumped in the back booth. Just mumbling to himself. Must have come in to get out of the cold.
            Finally, the undergrad approaches, pushing his black rimmed glasses up, and getting ready to write my order on his pad.
            “Just coffee, please. Black,” I tell him.
            I watch his face cloud over.
            “Oh, man,” he sighs. “I just broke down the machine. Didn’t think we’d get any more coffee drinkers tonight.”
            I hear the door to the back office slam and Mr. Kressley, the proprietor, rushes forward. I smile up at him as he reaches my booth. I can tell from the frown he gives the kid that trouble has been brewing, if not coffee.
            “Then, it’s good I’m still here to keep the Professor entertained while you set it back up and make a fresh pot.”
            “Yes, Mr. Kressley.”
            Mr. Kressley shakes his head as he watches the kid amble back behind the counter.
            “Oh, Ham. The ones who work here now are nothing like your generation. You were always here early for your shift and ready to stay late to clean up.
            I shrug. “We didn’t have iPad games and the Internet beckoning us.”
            “Even those your Jessie’s age had more gumption to them.”
            I cringe when I hear him call my daughter “Jessie.” To me, she will always and only be “Jessica,” namesake for Shylock's daughter in the Merchant of Venice. But, nobody crosses Mr. Kressley. I take a look at my watch.
            “She should be here by now.” Jessica is always prompt or early.
            Mr. Kressley agrees. “Ah, such a lovely girl. The most professional worker. Spitting image of her mother.”
            I concur. And, “spitting” is an appropriate tribute to Jessica’s mother.
            Mr. Kressley continues. “Jessie and her young man relived a little of your history here a few nights ago, you know.”
            Mr. Kressley leans close to my ear, as if sharing a good joke. “Gave her the ring. Right in the booth where you proposed to her mom.”
            History should have taught Gordo what a mistake that was. Of course, since Gordo was once my student, I knew his learning capacity was minimal, at best.
            A mechanical sputter sounds from behind the counter and Mr. Kressley goes to check out what the rookie is doing to his equipment. I sit back in my seat to wait. I can't help thinking of past visits here with Jessica. When my baby was a little girl, I brought her here so her mother could grade papers without distractions. We called it our daddy-daughter date nights. I let her wear the pink Cinderella outfit she wore every Halloween until she outgrew it and stopped trick-or-treating.
            Actually, Halloween wasn’t the last time she wore the costume. She wore it here for a very special daddy-daughter date night. Our last. When I told her that Momma and I were divorcing.
            I decided to repeat our date night ritual tonight out of desperation, despite its potential ramifications. Surely, the bad can’t outweigh all the good we’ve shared here. And, I have to confront her someplace about the decision I’m sure will ruin her life.
            How could Jessica go live with Gordo after her mother left me for the adjunct gigolo?
            Oh, sure. Mr. Kressley says she got a ring. But, I’ve seen it. It’s no diamond. And, I’ve heard no talk of marriage.
            I always told Jessica she was my princess, and to settle for no man who would treat her as less. So how did that bozo Gordo breach the perimeter?
            Good grief. I don't even like myself for thinking that. What time is it now? She’s definitely late. No doubt Gordo’s influence. I remember when he took my class. Never turned any assignment in on time.
            Mr. Kressley comes back with my coffee. “You and Jessie were all I could have asked for in employees. Nothing like the kid I’ve got behind the register now. But, it’s Christmas, and he has expenses like everyone else. So I give him a chance, despite my misgivings. I’m even going to leave for a few hours to spend time with my family. I told him I’d be back to help him close.” Mr. Kressley looks back toward the rookie. “You think I’m making a mistake?”
            “No, no. He’ll be fine. Everyone’s a little rough around the edges in the beginning. He’ll get the hang of it.” I sipped at the coffee, which is surprisingly good.
            “Do you mind to keep an eye on him for me, while I’m gone, Ham?”
            Of course, it's the last thing I want to do, but as I say, nobody ever crosses Mr. Kressley. “Sure, sure.”
            “He should have no trouble.” Mr. Kressley doesn’t sound as certain as his words, but then another thought seems to give him some hope. “Besides, if there is something serious, we’ve installed a buzzer just under the counter that sends a silent alarm to the police sub-station. You’ll have to ask Jessica about the night she hit it by mistake and all hell broke loose.”
            I nod, figuring she might talk with me about that if not Gordo.
            “Okay, I'm off.”
            Mr. Kressley turns, and I see him smile and open his arms wide. Jessica has just walked in the door. He embraces her and she gives him a kiss before coming to join me in the booth.
            “I can’t stay long, Dad. I’m meeting Gordo at a party.” She raises her hand as I open my mouth. “Don`t try to talk me out of it because we accepted weeks ago and people are expecting us. And while we’re at it, don’t waste time trying to talk me out of living with Gordo. My decision’s final. I’ve already given notice at my apartment. I’ve got no place else to go.”
            “Stay with me. I’ll give you your space.”
            Jessica sighs. “Dad, you barely have your own space in that apartment. You don’t need another occupant.”
            “I want one. I want you.”
            She shakes her head. “I love you, Dad. But, I’m living with Gordo, so get used to it.”
            I sip the coffee, now gone cold. How can I convince her? I blame myself. I know the divorce left her rootless. But how could she think that Gordo, that lackluster student and party boy, could give her security? He doesn't even like to discuss film. Who won’t talk about the movies? What has attracted my only beloved daughter to such an unimaginative, worthless male?
            She interrupts my anguish. “Dad, don’t move.”
            “That guy who was sitting behind me in the back booth? Well, he's talking to the kid behind the register. I think he has a gun in his pocket.”
            “How can you tell?”
            “The bulge in his pocket is bigger than a fist and he's pointing it straight at the kid. I don't think he's just happy to see him.”
            “Oh, my God.” I don't even comment on her crude remark because I feel the panic seize me. I've got to get Jessica out of there. To safety.
             “Just stay calm, Dad. There’s a silent alarm beneath the counter. If only this kid remembers what Mr. Kressley told him to do.”
            I watch her face like it's a rear view mirror. “What’s happening?”
            Jessica shakes her head slightly. “The kid just keeps whispering to the guy. I can't tell if he's pressed the alarm. But, I can see the guy with the gun's getting nervous. Maybe I can call the police. Move in front of me so the gunman won't turn around and see me use my cell.”
            I can’t stand something happening to Jessica. If only I could be a larger shield.
            Jessica pulls out her phone, an old flip style model. Jeez, couldn't she have upgraded by now? What it the gunman hears her cut it on?
            Of course, the phone sounds a few notes when it’s activated. I hear a voice behind me and I know it's not the rookie's.
            “What’s that noise?”
            I can't sit still any longer. I pull out of the booth and face the gunman, head on. I glance at the hand in his pocket. I see his fingers curl around a gun handle. The rookie behind the counter shakes his head fiercely at me, but there's no stopping me now. I'm a dad. I've got to make sure Jessica is not harmed.
            Where my words come from, I don't know. “I don’t believe it myself. I ask my daughter out for a night of quiet conversation and what’s the first thing she does but whip out her cell?”
            The guy tells Jessica, “Put it up.”
            I block his view of her. “Maybe she’ll listen to you. I’m sure my pleas will have no effect. I’m just her father who’s worried sick about her throwing away her future on a worthless bum.”
            The guy starts to shake and pulls his gun further out of his pocket. I ignore the gun and concentrate on the guy's face, being sure to maintain eye contact.
            “She’s just like her mother,” I tell him. “I thought my girl was stable and secure, but no. Her head’s turned by the first male bee to BUZZ HER.” I glance at the rookie as I emphasize the words. “BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER.”
           “You mean, 'buzz around her.' The gunman must have been an English major.
            “Exactly. BUZZ ‘ER.”
            The rookie's still shaking his head, so I approach the gunman and put my arm loosely around his shoulders like we're the best of buds. I try to steer him a few steps toward the door, but he's firmly planted and not moving.
            I continue. “She’s my one little girl. I’ve always told her to settle for nothing less than someone who adores her, but what does she wind up with?”
            “Somebody like me?” At least, the guy is listening to what I'm saying. Half my students don't do that much.
            “Not half your caliber. A wing nut. Like the low life who ran off with her mother.” Then, a thought strikes me. “Can you believe it, that scum who stole my wife went on a game show, knew all the answers, and got so excited he called them out before he HIT THE BUZZER.”
            I look at the rookie, and he's staring at me like I've gone crazy. “Pitiful,” I say, not even sure who my comment is describing.
            Suddenly, Jessica decides to get into the act, which terrifies me even more. She jumps up from her seat and approaches me and my gun-toting buddy.
            “How dare you insult my mother and step-father,” she says.
            All I want to do is keep the gunman’s trigger hand immobilized while Jessica’s in range. “How dare I? How dare YOU inflict our family’s trauma on this good man who has simply come in to seek shelter from the cold. You should be ashamed to act this way so close to Christmas.”
            “Why?” She’s taunting me now. Pushing her face so close up into mine that I’m ready to scream. “Are you threatening that I’ll get on Santa’s naughty list and receive no toys? I’m not a little girl anymore, Dad.”
            I can barely speak, my heart’s beating so strongly against my chest. “More’s the pity. The way you’re acting now, I should paddle you across my knee.”
            Jessica laughs. At me. HER FATHER. “I dare you to try. The shame’s on you, Dad, for not being able to realize how deeply Gordo loves me. I don’t care what you say, I’ll shout it from the mountain top.”
            She passes us and heads straight behind the counter where she tells the rookie, “Boost me up.”
            I see her grip underneath the counter where the buzzer must be located. Please God, let her have hit the alarm. I’ve never been so frightened and so proud in all my life.
            Then, in the next minute, she’s standing on the counter, arms spread, like Kate Winslet in Titanic. “Gordo loves me and I love him. And we’re going to live together so just get used to it.
            I am screaming now. “Stop making a spectacle of yourself!”
            “You started it.”
            Somehow, I’ve got to diffuse this situation. Think Bruce Willis in one of the Die Hards. I turn to the gunman. “I really have to apologize for my daughter’s behavior.”
            He’s looking at me as if I’ve lost my marbles. “Let me go, mister.”
            “She isn’t usually so dramatic.”
            “I just want outta here.”
            Okay, that sounds encouraging. I loosen my grip on him. “Certainly. I’ll be glad to take care of your bill for the trouble we’ve caused you.”
            Maybe not my best move. As soon as his arm is free, he pulls his gun and starts swinging it wildly, pointing at Jessica, the rookie, and me.
            Now, I'm feeling more like Bruce Willis in Look Who's Talking. Got to get back in control. I know I have to play shield for both Jessica and the rookie. I put up my hands and step in front of the gunman, making sure I’m the only target.
            “Keep away from me, mister,” he yells. “You are one crazy bastard.”
            From somewhere, I maintain that Bruce Willis inner reserve of calm. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt my little girl.”
            Suddenly, someone rushes past me. It’s the rookie. Crazy kid. He grabs the guy’s arm.
            Point that gun away from Jessica! I run forward. The minute I collide with them, the gun goes off.
            I’m falling. I try to talk, but words won’t come.
            Jessica, I love you, baby. I always will.
            “Daddy, can you hear me?”
            I open my eyes. I’m lying on the floor of the cafe. I hear noises in the background. The only distinguishable one is Mr. Kressley yelling. I can’t focus on what he’s saying. All I can think about is Jessica’s beautiful brown eyes staring at me with tears. Such worry. Such love.
            “Don’t cry, baby. What happened?”
            “It’s all over now. The police are here, taking the guy away. You all hit the floor hard after the gun went off. We couldn’t get you to wake up. The police just called the paramedics. They should be here soon.”
            “Help me up. Let me sit at our booth.”
            She holds me and walks with me. The rookie comes up, bringing me a wet towel. I hear her thank him as I sit down and lean my elbows on the table. I hold the towel to my aching forehead.
            I feel Jessica sit on the bench across from me and listen as she takes out her cell phone. “Gordo? No, I’m not going to make it to the party. I’m okay. Really. I don’t need you to come get me. Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything when I see you at home. Love you. Bye.”
            She must hear my groan. She asks, “You really hate Gordo that much?”
            Do I? Be smart here, Ham, I tell myself. This is not just about you. It’s about her future happiness.
            I take the towel from my head and look earnestly into her eyes. “I guess not. It just irks me that he only wants to live with you and not commit to marriage. Maybe what happened to your mother and me makes you wary about the institution, but Jessica, baby, a marriage is about promise and trust. Living together is just about convenience. I mean, even though your mother left me, she found real happiness with your step-father, and they committed to each other. I want you planning a future with someone, not just hoping it works out.”
            Jessica reaches for my hands and gives them a squeeze. “Okay. I get it. Now, I have something to give to you.” She lets go to get something from her purse. She places an envelope in my hands. “You were supposed to get that Christmas morning.”
            I take my time breaking the seal and pulling the card from inside. My eyes are still blurry, but I can make out enough of the printing on the card: Jessica Richards and Gordon Humphreys . . . honor of your presence . . . marriage . . . thirty-first of December . . . nine o'clock . . . University Chapel . . . Reception following . . . Faculty Club.
            When I look up at her, I see her smiling. Like she’s the happiest girl in the world. “Think you could take time out of your busy schedule to give me away?”
            I can’t give in to her that easily. “How do you know I’ll be in town?”
            “Because New Year’s Eve is the one holiday you and I always spend together. Now, we’ll just have Gordo along.”
            Oh, joy. What a grand new tradition.
            “But, I swear to you that Gordo will never put our child through what you just did to me.”
            I brace myself, wondering if another unexpected gift is about to come my way.