That the Lord May Love Thee
No one seemed particularly inclined to worry about the conditions out here. He hadn’t seen a single plow or salt truck on his long drive back. Maybe they were over budget, he thought. The snow had fallen all afternoon in that soft gently lulling way that could make you forget the hazards of commuting in an area prone to inclement weather. Until a dog ran out in front of you and you tapped your breaks anyway.
The fishtailing of the old sedan made the driver realize that he was, perhaps, still a little too focused on how he had spent his day rather than attending to the basic tasks of survival. Speaking of survival, he was really pretty hungry. And damned if he couldn’t use a drink.
Caleb eased into a semi-snow free space close to his motel room door. At least it looked like someone did snow removal for the fleabag he was staying in. So, he could probably get out in the morning.
He glanced at the interview notes on the passenger seat. Reviewing and writing up the report promised to take up most of his evening. His first solo mission had him excited enough that he didn’t even mind that it was Christmas Eve, or that what he was being asked to do was pretty low stakes. It was almost make-work in the grand scheme of the things the Order typically concerned themselves with, but it was his.
He knew that everyone assigned to the Direct Action Corps of the Templars started out like this. It was a proving ground, he supposed. But given the level of training Knights like him received, before they were even allowed to take the Holy Orders of the Warrior Priest, it was a relatively safe one. Investigate suspicious activity. Observe and report. It was, for all intents and purposes, a low-level demon stakeout.
Caleb, at twenty-two, was the youngest ever to take the Oath, and was known to be bright, inventive, and ambitious. He had a tendency to throw himself completely into the task at hand, frequently disregarding his own best interests. Father-Captain Michaels had gone out of his way to remind him that, in the heat of battle that was a good thing, but going about your day to day living, or even completing a less obviously dangerous assignment, it was a tendency he might want to work on curtailing a bit.
He was reminded of that light bit of lecturing as he set down his notes on the small cluttered desk in his room. His stomach grumbled obstinately, drawing attention to the fact that he’d been so passionately pursuing his mission, he hadn’t eaten since … lunch yesterday, was it? Damn.
Caleb reasoned that his formal reports could wait for a bit while he went and grabbed a bite. Loren Michaels, the de facto father figure to most of the young men and women in his unit, had been very clear. He had said in so many words, “Yes, I want you to accomplish your basic assignment, but I also want you to remember that disregarding your own safety can make a poor soldier of you. You have to be not just alive, but alert, and in good health, to keep up the work of the Order.”
Caleb organized his notes, then grabbed a shower. He felt like maybe he was done leaving the room for the night and just slipped into his bathrobe. He hunted around for the take-out menus he’d picked up over the course of the week, but found none. Housekeeping must have been a little too thorough. He supposed he’d have to go out. He changed back into his work clothes, since he hadn’t even emptied the pockets yet, and prepared to find some place that was open this evening.
Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he dialed, and tucked it between his ear and his shoulder, so he could speak while he locked up his room. Caleb was never late with his check-in.
As he headed back out into the increasingly bitter cold, he fished for his car keys. “Good evening,” he said with polite formality. “This is Caleb. Five-two-seven.”
“Five-two-seven, acknowledged. Hold please.”
Caleb fumbled around for the key to the sedan.
“Five-two-seven, this is Control. Status report.”
“Interviews completed at fifteen hundred hours. All the effected cattle had their left eyes, tongues, and hearts removed with surgical precision. The night following the organ harvest incident, the ranchers all reported strange lights, specifically like lighting in a clear sky.”
“Preliminary findings, Five-two-seven?”
“Preliminaries confirm demon activity. Probable summoning gate activation. Full report with recommendations will be submitted in the a.m. Oh-six-hundred at the latest.”
“Take your time, Five-two-seven,” Control’s Operator of the Watch said, her voice lightly amused. The young ones were always so gung-ho. “No one will be here to read mission reports tomorrow. It’s Christmas Day.”
“Oh, yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed distractedly, trying to remember what places he’d seen on his way back that might offer a meal this late on a holiday.
“However, I can tell you that based on your preliminary report, Control will record the confirmation and mobilize a ground team to sanitize the area.”
Not bad. Not bad at all, first time out. A mobilization based on his intel. That might grease the wheels for something more engaging in his near future. His broad grin was in his voice when he replied, “Very good, Control. Have a good night.”
“You, too, Five-two-seven. And Merry Christmas to you.”
He slipped his phone back into his pocket with a satisfied nod to himself. With a ground team activated, his work here was done. He’d still file his report tomorrow and brief the team, but he could count on orders to move to another town coming down the pike in the next forty-eight hours. And, he was hopeful, it would be something more interesting.
“Shit,” Caleb grumbled as his cold hands let his keys drop into a pile of snow. For the first time since closing the door of his motel room, he really took in the state of the parking lot.
It was snowing again, and getting pretty serious about it. He’d been in his room less than an hour and better than an inch had already collected. It was the icy mealy sort of precipitation that made driving particularly treacherous.
He stooped and fished his keys out of the snow, grumbling to himself. His best friend in the Order, and bunkmate from their training days, was looking at a series of animal mutilations, too. In Hawaii.
Caleb sighed. Of course he’d scored the assignment in the northern sector of God’s Half-Acre. He detested the cold. But he supposed the point of early assignments being a bit of a slog was to help a Knight develop some grit.
As he stood, he nearly slipped and went over backwards in the icy parking lot. Well, that made the decision of where to go for dinner and easy one. The seedy looking bar across the street served food. It was bound to be mostly fried crap, but he could tell from the lights and sounds traveling across the deserted road that it was open for business.
As depressing as he expected spending Christmas Eve in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere to be, it felt like a better, smarter option than driving the twenty miles to the closest Denny’s, which was about the only other place his brain had been able to come up with as an option.
The appearance of the bar lent itself to one of those colorful honkytonk stomping ground-worthy names like The Bull Run (a place he’d actually been to in western Texas not two weeks before, and there’d been actual sawdust on the floor and a mechanical bull off to one side).
All that advertised any identity for this establishment was a flickering neon sign that said simply ‘Bar’ and cast a sickly red light over the snow. Under it, a pink sign rhythmically blinked ‘Eats’.
Caleb shrugged. “Simple. Tells the story,” he whispered to himself as he headed up the slippery walkway and pulled open the grimy door.
The place was surprisingly full, considering the weather and the lack of cars in the poorly maintained parking lot. No one paid him any mind as the door banged closed behind him. The only one who seemed to notice him at all was the no-necked chuck of muscle standing by the door.
Must be the bouncer, Caleb thought. The guy looked more than up to the task of tossing out a drunk, or, you know, fifty. Caleb looked back impassively as the guy eyed him up and down. After a few seconds, the big dude tipped his chin in the direction of the woman standing behind the bar.
He looked around for a moment. The other guests filled the noisy establishment in the booths that lined the walls or by monopolizing the two pool tables and several dart boards. The bartender smiled and motioned him over to the mostly empty highly polished counter. “Come on over, Slick. Take a load off.”
Caleb walked over to the bar, sliding onto one of its high stools and resting his heels on the crossbar near the floor. “Nice place,” he said pleasantly, giving the bartender a worldly smile that he would never admit to having practiced in front of the mirror. Sometimes his age made this job a little more challenging than it was for someone with a few years on him.
The woman behind the bar tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in speculation. “Evening, young fella. I’m Mandi.” He just nodded in response. “And as the proprietor of this establishment, I have to ask … Why you packing? You a cop?”
Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I