Despite its big-city reputation, Chicago had been founded by pioneers and filled with the hopeful of the plains for too long to be anything but a city of Midwesterners at heart: polite, generous, corn-fed, confident, and both diverse and traditional about their holidays. Christmas in Chicago was not the main event; it was a footnote, a stay-at-home party for those who celebrated it, a foreword for the big metropolitan bash of New Year's.
Which was why, when Sarah picked up the phone on the 25th, she figured it must be someone calling to wish her a Merry Christmas, possibly under a delusion or in a state of denial about 1. her Jewish upbringing and 2. the rocking Yule ritual she'd done on the 20th.
Instead, the caller ID read "Anna-Work". (Of the three Annas in her phone, the other two were an ex-girlfriend and a mechanic respectively.) Sarah felt perplexed, and when she was perplexed she liked to spread it around. She answered:
"Were the sunchokes everything Ian dreamed they would be?"
"What?" Anna asked. "Sarah?"
"Yes, dear," Sarah said patiently, rolling over in bed so that she wasn't elbowing Mark every time she adjusted the phone against her ear. Boudicca complained from the depths of the blankets and batted at her with claws extended. "The sunchokes. Jerusalem artichokes. You had them for a starter last night. Ian was fantasizing about them when I read him the preview menu."
"Oh, they were orgasmic, but that's not why I'm calling," Anna said.
"I didn't think so, but I'm glad to hear it," Sarah said. Mark dislodged Hildegarde from his head, leaned over Sarah, and cocked an eyebrow. "Anna," she whispered, covering the phone, then uncovered it again. "Why are you calling at three in the afternoon on Christmas day?"
"I overslept, and then I had to get ready to visit my parents, and this was the first time I could get away to make a call, while they're washing the brine off the turkey -- "
"If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable," Sarah intoned. Hildegarde yowled that she was cold, puny humans!
"What?" Anna asked.
"It's Eliot, look it up. For what reason
are you calling me, Anna?"
"Trent," she said. "Okay. Um. If I tell you something about someone committing a crime are you legally bound to tell anyone about it?"
"Ethically and morally bound, but I make an exception for friends," Sarah said.
"So, last night, we went to Sixteen, and we were having dinner -- "
"The orgasmic sunchokes and the Macadamia foam."
Mark mouthed orgasmic sunchokes?
and Sarah waved him off. Boudicca tried to attack her arm.
"Yeah. And the mustard-crusted lamb -- not my point," Anna said, as if shaking herself back to the present. "We had it with wine pairings, but you know I think most wine tastes kind of the same, so I wasn't drinking much and just sort of praying for a margarita later."
"I hear those aren't cheap at Trump."
"No, they're not. So we're talking and Trent's a little wasted and he starts telling me about how he's going to Paris in the new year, and I said, how do you afford all this -- that was pretty funny, actually, we bantered for a while about how I know all his secrets because I work for SparkVISION -- then he says to me, like he's still recruiting me for a job..."
Sarah sighed and tried to prevent Hildegarde from burrowing under the pillows. "What did he say?"
"He said a big charity like Union Arms doesn't notice when a few grand here and there goes missing," Anna said. Sarah sat bolt upright. Mark yelped in protest and clutched the headboard to keep from falling off the bed. The cats erupted from the blankets indignantly, then wormed their way back in, curling up against Mark for body heat.
"He said what?
" Sarah demanded.
"I know! What do I do?" Anna wailed.
"He's admitted he's skimming the books?" Sarah climbed out of bed and began hunting for her clothes. The cats both stared at her as if she'd lost her damn mind. So did Mark.
"I think he has to be! Seriously, do you know how much he dropped on our food alone last night?" Anna asked.
"I knew it," Sarah said. "I knew it! He didn't show you any proof or anything, though, right? Still, a sworn deposition -- "
"He might have been joking," Anna said, sounding nervous. "He just said it offhand. I don't know what to do. I thought you would."
"I do. We're going to call Naomi and see what she says and then -- "
"Sarah!" Mark called.
"Not now, honey -- "
"Sarah, it's Christmas," Mark insisted. "Naomi's probably at the movies, and it's her day off. And ours
," he added meaningfully. Sarah paused, underwear in one hand.
"Hey," Anna said, on the other end of the line. "Was that Mark? Were you in bed? Are you naked?"
"Yes," Sarah replied.
"Don't be, I'm not."
"No, I mean -- "
"I know," Sarah sighed. "It's okay. It's good you called me."
"Seriously, what do I do?"
Sarah glanced at Mark, who made pleading eyes. He held up Boudicca, who made venomous, vengeful eyes.
"Nothing, today," she said. "Look, Naomi knows a guy at Union Arms, he's looking into it for us."
There was silence on the other end of the line. "You knew?"
"I suspected. Nobody in charitable work can afford a weekly table at Tru
, sweetie." Sarah sighed. "Look, you haven't got any evidence and it's a holiday weekend. We'll talk about it on Monday. Just sit on it until then, okay? Are you seeing him again?"
"No. I'm dumping him, for real this time. I didn't even sleep with him last night, I put him off until he passed out. It's too creepy and I don't want to be robbing orphan children for my eighty dollar steaks. I mean, they're really good steaks, but I'm going to have nightmares about the big-eyed kids."
Sarah smiled. "Anna, I think you should never change."
"Good! I suck at self-improvement. You're sure I should do this? I won't get in trouble for it?"
"Let's just talk Monday," Sarah told her, and hung up. Mark sighed with relief.
"You weren't talking about Sparks just now, were you?" he asked. "I like Sparks, I'd hate to see you send him to prison for robbing the company."
"If Sparks tried that kind of shenanigans, Naomi would smite him," Sarah said. "And then she'd let me have a shot."
"Is it something I shouldn't know about? Legally?" Mark asked.
"Anna's boyfriend is a dick," Sarah said.
"Ahh. Say no more."
"I wasn't planning to. Is it still snowing out?"
Mark pulled a corner of the drape aside from the window. "Yep."
"Good. Stay right there, I feel the need to huddle for warmth."
Although nobody wanted to admit it, because the weather hadn't been that
good, it had to be said that until Christmas it had been unseasonably warm in Chicago. It had only snowed two or three times, and even the rain on the 25th was accompanied by warm air from somewhere or other.
The next morning, however, snow began to fall.
Zoe and Charles, like most of the staff of SparkVISION, lived on the north side, close enough for a short commute to work but far enough from downtown to be able to afford something larger than a studio. They were literally down the road from Ian's apartment building, and not more than two miles away from the condo building both Jess and Roxy lived in.
Just after noon on the twenty-sixth, with snow still falling, Zoe and Charles were watching a movie when something hit their window with a thud. It turned out to be a snowball, spattered across the glass, and Zoe peered through another window cautiously before grinning and sliding it open. Zeke already had his harmonica to his lips; Ian burst into a vaguely on-key rendition of Here We Come A Wassailing
"Aren't you boys a little lost?" she called, after they finished. "Not to mention late for caroling?"
Ian waggled a large snow shovel in the air.
"Better shovel out before it gets any deeper!" he said. "We're doing the rounds."
"That's good of you," Zoe said.
"We've been given four cups of eggnog and made fifteen bucks in tips," Zeke announced.
"He shovels, I hustle," Ian said.
"Hang on!" Charles yelled. "No tips, but I'm getting the snow-blower!"
"Oooh," Ian and Zeke chorused. A few seconds later, the garage door opened and Charles wheeled a squat machine out into the still lightly-falling snow. Both of the other men bent over it interestedly.
"You know how to work one of these?" he asked.
"Yessir," Zeke replied.
"Well, you can take it anywhere else you're going, just have it back by Sunday," Charles said.
"We thought we'd go dig Jess out, she's having the interns over," Ian said. "This keeps up, Zeke said he'd drive me out to help Naomi if she needs it, and Sparks."
"Can you picture Sparks letting someone else shovel his walkway?" Zoe called from the window. Bolo, waking up from his impromptu nap on the sofa, wandered over.
"SNOWBLOWER," he yelled.
"That's right, kiddo," Charles said. "Daddy's loaning the snowblower to Ian and Zeke."
Zeke raised the harmonica to his mouth again and played We Wish You A Merry Christmas
. Bolo yelled along delightedly. "We wish you a merry Christmas, we WISH YOU a merry CHRISTMAS!"
"Is Sparks even home, do you think?" Ian asked Zoe. "Doesn't he have family in Michigan?"
"Well, I hope he got there safely if he does," Zoe said. Ian clutched his chest, a quick sharp movement, and for a second she worried he was having a heart attack until he pulled his phone out of his breast pocket and answered it.
"Hi-ya," he said, leaning against the fence while Zeke rolled the snowblower around to the sidewalk and fired it up. Zoe watched, unable to hear the conversation over the blower, as Ian's face went from confusion to sly amusement to sardonic tolerance. When he hung up, Zeke stopped the snowblower and looked at him questioningly.
"That was Cee," he said Zoe, grinning. "She's 'snowed in'. So is John, so they won't be back at work tomorrow."
"Imagine my surprise," Zoe drawled.
"Wait, what?" Zeke asked.
"I'll tell you later, it's a whole thing," Ian said to him. "I told her I'd cover for her, but she should call Erin or Sparks and let him know. My vote's for Erin; Sparks might be oblivious but he's not stupid, you know."
"I'm not even sure he's oblivious," Zoe said. Ian, oddly, tilted his head and frowned.
"Really?" he asked.
"Sometimes he's more perceptive than he seems," she said. "He just pretends not to be, in order to get up to shit."
"Huh." Ian tucked his phone back in his pocket, shrugging. "Whatever. Come on, dude, we're burning daylight," he added to Zeke, who fired up the snowblower again with a roll of his eyes.
Erin felt that she had used her three-and-a-half-day weekend very wisely, all things considered. She had gone last-minute shopping for Christmas, got her hair done, seen a film, spent Christmas day with her family, gone post-Christmas shopping, and made it home before the snow got really dire after falling all day on the 26th. Plus, she hadn't had a single phone call from work.
She was going to spend the Sunday resting, enjoying her Christmas loot, and possibly drinking a lot of mulled cider. At least, that was the plan until the phone rang.
"Ohhh this had better not suck," she groaned into the phone, pulling it off its charging cord and rolling away from the bedside table.
"Erin, it's Cee," said the voice on the other end of the line. "It's going to suck."
Erin sighed. "What is it?"
"You know how there's a big storm in Illinois?"
"You know how it hit the western part of the state worst?"
"I'm kind of in it."
Erin groaned again. "You're snowed in? In rural Illinois?"
"For a given value of rural," Cee said.
"Is John with you?"
"Uh." Cee hesitated.
Erin sat up. "You're not really snowed in, are you."
"We are! The snow is past the door! We're just...not calling the plow yet," Cee confessed. "It might be a day or two. There are
people who legitimately need to be dug out more than we do."
"So neither of you will be in tomorrow," Erin concluded.
"Look, there's no work for John this late in the year, and Ian's said he'll cover for me. It'll be quiet, you won't even know we aren't there," Cee said hurriedly.
"Where are you, anyway?" Erin asked.
"Galena. We're at John's parents' house."
"Where the hell is that?"
"About ten miles from the Mississippi."
I hope the sex is good," Erin said. There was a pause down the line. "Cee?"
"Can you keep a secret?" Cee asked.
"Not for very long," Erin replied, but Cee ignored her, steamrolling over the end of the sentence.
Erin felt she should probably squeal and jump around on the bed, but really she just wanted to go back to sleep.
"That's great," she said, as enthusiastically as she could muster. "Enjoy your snowbound bliss. I'll let Sparks know. Give John a kiss for me."
"I will," Cee said. "Thanks, Erin."
"You totally owe me."
"Bye." Erin sighed, rolled over, and spun through her speed-dial.
"Boss?" she said, when he answered. "Something you need to know..."
"How did I get roped into this?" Roxy asked, as the four-by-four bounced along the snow-covered backroads of northwestern Illinois.
"How did you get roped into this? How did I
get roped into this?" Naomi asked from behind her.
"You answered your phone when Sparks called you," Vicky said. "Same as I did. I don't know why Melinda's here."
"The things I do for love," Melinda sighed, sitting next to Naomi in the seat in front of Vicky.
"Come on, this is fun!" Sparks insisted, swerving across ice to avoid hitting a squirrel. The car skidded for a second before regaining traction. "It's a rescue mission! SparkVISION rescues John and Cee from the snowdrifts!"
"I'm sure they'll be grateful," Roxy murmured, gripping the arm of the front passenger seat as Sparks punched the gas.
"Did I hear sarcasm?" Sparks inquired, grinning at her. "See, this is why they should have told me they were dating instead of pretending everyone didn't know. If I 'knew'," he took his hands off the steering wheel to make airquotes, and Vicky yelped, "that they were together, then I would never think of interrupting their extended vacation like this."
Roxy stared at him. "You are a terrible human being."
"I am not!" he protested. "I just want all my staff back home safe in Chicago under my watchful eye. I can't trust that pair not to break up for some stupid reason while they're trapped in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere."
"They seem to have done all right before now," Melinda pointed out. "From what Naomi's said, anyway."
"Of course they have! I've been managing them," Sparks announced. He leaned forward to peer through the windshield at the still-falling snow. "Half the country being sucker-punched by a blizzard is no reason for them to weasel an extra day off out of me."
"Maybe they just want to keep it private," Naomi suggested.
"Oh man," Vicky said, startling everyone. "The ride back's going to be awkward."
"I'm counting on you to do a lot of the digging," Sparks told her, looking in the rear view mirror. "You're young and you have a lot to prove. So probably you can sleep on the way back. Or pretend to, anyway."
"Aaaand I've lost satellite," Roxy said, waving Sparks's GPS around as if it was going to help. "My God. How do people live like this? I didn't think there was anywhere in civilized society that didn't have cellphone coverage."
"It was a simpler time, before cellphones," Sparks said.
"Not for those of us who have fretters for parents," Vicky sighed.
"Or those of us who like to check our email at lunch," Roxy added.
"Or those of us who need realtime stock quotes -- " Naomi began.
"Okay! A simpler time for people who are not us," Sparks conceded.
"How do you know where we're supposed to go, anyway?" Melinda asked.
"John's parents are listed as his emergency contacts. I looked up their address," Sparks said proudly.
"Well, that's great and all, but if we don't have satellite, how are we going to know when we get where we're supposed to be going?"
"Prayer," Roxy said.
"Does that work for you?" Naomi asked.
"Well, it got me this internship," Vicky said. "Not sure if that's a positive thing at the moment."
"Nonsense. This is good team bonding," Sparks told her. "Someday, when you're a manager at your own company, you remember this and learn from it."
"What exactly am I learning?" Vicky whispered to Naomi.
"When to say no, I think," Naomi whispered back.
"I think I see it!" Sparks said, leaning forward over the wheel. "Nope, never mind, it's just a forest."
"Just a forest?" Roxy asked.
"You know, a nature preserve. Hey! I bet there's deer."
"If I die because you hit a deer, I am haunting you for the next thirty lives we spend together," Naomi announced.
"Should have brought your rifle," Roxy said to Naomi.
"Compound bow would be more fun," Melinda put in.
"Look!" Sparks crowed. "Elk!"
When they finally skidded to a halt in front of John's family's house, it was only because they'd been told what kind of roof to look for by a man at a service station two miles up the road. The snow was in drifts easily six feet high; the car was handling all right, crunching it down as it went, but Bo could see it was going to be a legitimate problem getting John and Cee out of the house.
He blew the horn and then got out gingerly, sinking down into the snow up to his hips; the cold was enough to make him snap the chemical hand-warmer he'd picked up at a drugstore in Chicago and shove it way down in his pocket. On the other side, Melinda was helping Naomi out and Vicky was climbing out through the trunk, a snow shovel under each arm.
"WHO'S THAT OUT THERE?" a voice called from the general direction of the house.
"SPARKVISION RESCUE TEAM!" Bo yelled back. He thought he heard a faint groan, and grinned. Sometimes when your staff was naughty there was nothing to do but embarrass them. The fact that he'd be embarrassing them in front of John's parents was a bonus, really. "DON'T COME TO US, WE'LL COME TO YOU. Vicky!"
"Coming, boss!" Vicky said, shoving her way through the drifts. She was a little shorter, and in her white coat she looked like a classical bust in a bobble hat, poking out of the snow. She handed him a shovel and then looked at the snow thoughtfully. "Where do we start?"
"Like eating an elephant," Bo told her. "One bite at a time. Let's get a space cleared. Melinda, Naomi, Roxy, you stay there and stamp out somewhere solid to put the car."
"Already on it!" Melinda said cheerily. She'd brought a bag with her that Bo hadn't asked too many questions about; now she took out a couple of expensive-looking snowshoes and began strapping them on. "Naomi, honey, you follow in my footsteps and stamp. Roxy, have you got something to clear the snow around the wheels with?"
Bo bent industriously to shoveling with Vicky, while the others cleared a space in front of the car. "So, did you have a good Christmas?" he asked her.
"It was great," she said. "My grandparents came in from out of town."
"Yeah, gift cards mostly. What about you?"
"I was supposed to go to Michigan," he said, stopping briefly to knock caked-on snow off the shovel. "My folks are out there. Their airport got snowed in, I thought I'd cash in the ticket and visit sometime other than the winterpocalypse. I don't mind staying here. Chicago's beautiful in winter."
"You think Chicago's beautiful all the time," she said, then looked horrified at her presumption. Bo laughed.
"You know, ever since that thing with the cake, you've stopped hiding behind someone every time I walk in the room," he observed. "Courage suits you, Vic."
"Thanks," she said, turning bright red. Possibly embarrassment; possibly just the exertion of shoveling. His shovel hit something hard, and he yelled in triumph.
"We've achieved sidewalk!" he called. Roxy, Melinda, and Naomi raised a somewhat sardonic cheer. "Anyway, I do think Chicago is beautiful all the time. I love it," he continued.
"It shows," Vicky told him.
"Good. It should. You shouldn't live somewhere you don't love," he told her. "Not unless you're planning to turn it into something you can
love. When I got to Chicago I was horrified by some of what I saw, but I decided that instead of getting used to it I was going to try to fix it."
"Seems to be working okay," Vicky said.
"Yeah. I guess I like fixing things. So, you know, bad things still happen, but I'm trying to fix them, and that means I get to love it," Bo said.
"You should write a book," Vicky told him.
"I think I might, one day," Bo replied. They worked on in silence until they reached the front door. "Hey, McGill Family! Don't open the door yet!" he shouted.
"Sparks! What the hell, man?" John shouted back.
"We came to rescue you and bring you back to Chicago, so you don't miss work!" Bo said, winking at Vicky. She covered her mouth to keep from laughing as Roxy joined them, Naomi helping Melinda down into the narrow path they'd dug.
"Say thank you to the nice man," someone else said on the other side of the door. He heard John groan as he and Vicky cleared the last of the snow off the front step.
"Okay, open up!" Bo yelled. The door swung wide and a blast of warm air emerged, along with Cee, who burst into his arms and hugged him.
"I love being a superhero," he said to Vicky, over her shoulder. Cee let him go and, bizarrely, thrust her hand into his face.
"GUESS WHAT," she said. "We're engaged!"
Bo stared at the ring. He was vaguely conscious of John, in the background, covering his face with both hands. Naomi rushed past him to hug Cee. Roxy punched John in the shoulder. Melinda laughed so hard it looked like she might fall down.
"Uh, so, by the way, boss," John said, "Cee and I are dating."
"I know," Bo said. He stared at the ring for a little while longer (it really was delightfully shiny) and then picked John up bodily in a hug. When he set him down, John was stammering and blushing. A crowd of people, all vaguely resembling John in one way or another, stood back behind the happy couple, looking frightened.
"Hi!" Bo announced, over the sound of Naomi cooing at Cee's ring. "I'm Bo Sparks, Cee and John work for me. You must be the McGills! I look like I might bite, but I don't, I just have great teeth. This is Vicky my intern, Roxy my IT Manager, Naomi my Finance Director, and her girlfriend Melinda, who has snowshoes."
"Oh," said an older-looking woman, standing behind John. "I'm John's mother, Vivian."
They regarded each other for a minute.
"Cookie?" she offered, holding up a tray of snowman-shaped pastries.
"We are going to get along really well, I can tell these things," he told her. "SparkVISION rescue team, everyone inside! Shoes off at the door!"
John glared at him as they passed inside. "I'll get you for this, Sparks," he growled, out of earshot of his family.
"Call it payback for all that dallying in the copy room," Bo replied.
Tanya, sitting on Bo's couch with her feet tucked up, smiled a little and accepted a glass of wine as Bo settled in next to her, the dim evening light making everything in the room soft and welcoming. "So you went adventuring, huh?"
"It was a beautiful drive in the country," Bo said. She smiled a little at his enthusiasm. "Galena's very nice."
"Galena's under seven feet of snow," she pointed out.
"That's no reason it can't be nice. All those shimmering white blankets," he replied, leaning forward to kiss her neck affectionately. "You should have come."
"I had deadlines," she said. "And I don't think your staff likes me."
He snorted. "My staff, huh?"
"You are ten years old," she remarked.
," he said, "probably have some pretty good reasons not to like you. You were pestering them."
"Pestering's what I do."
"Then you shouldn't complain about being disliked," he pointed out, kissing her again. "You'd have reveled in the awkwardness, driving back. You could have done a freelance piece or something. Six Hours In A Car With SparkVISION.
Or taken the opportunity to pester them some more." He leaned back, grinning at her. "Found out who Non Prophet is yet?"
"I am getting very close to cracking that case, don't make fun," she said, even as a little guilty pang spiked through her. He looked unmoved by her declaration; either he didn't think she was anywhere near to it, or he really wasn't Non Prophet.
Bo settled into the couch a little more, arm around her shoulders, one leg drawn up so he could precariously balance his wineglass on his knee. He stared at it, concentrating hard, as he spoke.
"What bothers you so much about it?" he asked. "Is it the mystery? Or is it about professional pride?"
"Little bit of each," she said, shrugging, careful not to jostle him. "Everyone likes a mystery, but if it were just that I wouldn't be writing a story on it. He's taken a lot of swipes at print media and journalism."
"Undeserved?" Bo prompted. She looked up at him. "What? I don't know."
"Some. Maybe some deserved. The point is, it's easy to laugh at someone from behind a wall. He should be held accountable for his actions. With his face."
Bo caught his wine before it could fall, laughter shaking it loose. "With his face!"
"You know what I mean," she said, elbowing him. "If you're going to criticize someone, you should be willing to show your face, to give your real name."
"What if you legitimately feared reprisals?" Bo asked. "Anonymity is traditionally the best tool of the weak against the strong. One man against Chicago's entire print empire -- that has to be a little intimidating. You can spot him an anonymous blog, I think, in that particular game."
Tanya leaned against him, considering this. "You're smarter than you pretend to be," she said.
"Another good tool," he told her. "You'd be amazed what a moron can get away with in this burg."
"Okay, direct question," Tanya said, turning to him. "Are you Non Prophet?"
He seemed to be pondering the question, as if it were a mathematical formula he had to solve. She chewed the inside of her lip, releasing it when he smiled.
"I know half of what I do seems like an act, but that's because I get something out of it. There's no gain in being Non Prophet." He shifted around to face her, too. "Come on, this is going to be the great argument of this relationship, we'll have plenty of time to go around and around with it. Let's talk about something else. How was your holiday?"
She noticed he hadn't actually answered, but she sat back and let herself talk without much input from her brain, about visiting family on the east coast and the perils of holiday travel. It almost felt, with Bo, as if every conversation was really two conversations: the one you wanted to have with him, and the one he wanted to have with you. It was interesting -- definitely a challenge -- but it made getting to the truth of things very difficult.
On some level she hoped he was Non Prophet, because if he was she would find it out sooner or later; on the other hand, she was beginning to hope he was telling the truth, because she liked him, and didn't want to think of him saying the things Non had said, or hearing some of the things Non had heard her say about him.
But, of course, if Non were some other man, he was probably still a nice guy with a hard job and a city apartment and a life, like Bo.Sympathy for the devil
, she thought to herself. It wouldn't do. The investigation had to go forward anyway. She was, after all, supposed to at least pretend to be objective. Chapter Fourteen