Authors’ Note: 2020 has certainly been a year. I got a little behind on Ficmas due to a breathtaking head cold. But I’m back in business. Caleb Saint Claire first introduced himself to us a few years ago at Ficmas. He’s now a staple of The Arbitratus Universe. He has a bit of a cameo in Before the Dawn, and you’ll be seeing him in Book III, Fiat Lux, before too long. This story takes place a number of years ago. A certain blond demon has an uncredited cameo here as well. Enjoy.
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
No Space of Regret
Caleb skidded around the corner on icy pavement, almost wiping out. That would have been consistent with how his day had been going. He’d also lost his trainee a couple of blocks ago.
Caleb would have to bring home the point that you don’t get to call yourself a Knight of the Order of the Temple of Solomon if you crap out after chasing a single homicidal demon eight measly blocks. Damned rookie was going to be hitting the hills every morning for the next month.
That said, Caleb was starting to lose steam. Of course, he had the excuse of bleeding freely. He pressed his hand to the wound and increased his speed, not acknowledging what was driving him forward when he knew there was a recovery team on its way and he’d tagged the demon with a locator during their fight.
Speaking of, he was pretty sure this bastard’s claws were venomous, because he felt pretty woozy, too. Enough that he’d lost sight of their target. Damn it.
He ducked down an alley and reached for his radio to check on the status of their back-up.
His next breath caught as he slammed with supernatural force against the cold brick wall. Two of the creature’s four arms pinned him while the others went through his pockets.
“Hey there, Ormru,” Caleb said, wanting to see the demon flinch at its name.
He wasn’t disappointed. But it’s hot breath in his face made him cringe a second later.
“Caleb Saint Claire.”
It knew him, too. Great.
“Taking out a member of the Order is an eternity long dream. To make them tremble at the name of Ormru. The fact that it’s you will be quite the feather in my cap.”
Caleb flashed a tight smile as he wrested one of his hands free. “I imagine it would be.”
“Doing it on Friday the 13th will be the coup of the century. Ought to add to the Order’s superstitions.”
Ormru pinned him more securely and one of the claws grabbed his injured side. His cell buzzed in his pocket and the memory of the voicemail he’d woken up to helped him bite down on the urge to groan.
Caleb leaned away from the stench of the creature’s breath and managed to free his hand again. A fraction of a second later, he sank the ceremonial dagger under the demon’s ribs.
“That’s a myth.” Caleb walked away, cleaning his blade on his jacket, as the body flickered with the telltale stinking blue flame.
He reached the street as Novice Helms finally caught up. “Backup’s en route, sir.”
“Good.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run the kid ragged after all. “I wondered where the Hell you’d gotten to.”
“I was right behind you, but that location spell I tried finally pinged back. I found where Ormru and his buddies have been crashing.”
Caleb’s eyebrows went up, impressed. He buttoned his jacket before his young partner could catch sight of his injury. “Where?”
Helms pointed at a crumbling apartment building up the street. “If I did the spell right, there are three more of them.”
Caleb grinned. “Well, isn’t this just our lucky day?”
The kid grinned. “Maybe, sir. But you’re bleeding.”
Caleb grimaced. The kid was quick. “It’s not bad,” he said dismissively.
“You don’t look good, sir. Should we wait for the team?”
“How far out are they?”
“Jake, c’mon. Don’t try to bullshit your way through this one. Did you ask?”
Caleb nodded his approval at the kid’s honesty, even if he’d had to force it. He got on his own radio and received the disappointing news that backed up traffic due to a possible jumper on the Aurora bridge made their ETA uncertain.
Caleb tucked his radio away. “Alright, kid. We’re on our own.”
He took off down the street ahead of his trainee, mostly able to manage the effects of his wound through what a voice from his past, the voice from this morning’s message, called, “A stubborn refusal to bend, worthy of Lucifer himself.”
Unfortunately, the entrance wasn’t just locked; it was enchanted, too. But they didn’t figure that out until after Caleb rammed it with his shoulder and delivered several solid kicks. Helms was the one to notice the spell, which let Caleb know the venom was working fast.
“Sir?” Helms put himself between his superior and the door. “Look.”
The young man held up the small circle that looked like nothing more than a watch glass. The sickly green glow revealed a reasonably powerful enchantment sealing the building.
“Damn it,” Caleb mumbled. “Do you think you can take care of the counterspell?”
“Of course.” Helms wasn’t normally one to question opportunities or orders. However, “Are you alright, sir?” was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“I’ve had better days.” Caleb reached out to steady himself against the wall. “If you can get us through the door, I can–” His knees buckled before he could finish, and he slid down to the ground.
“Sir!” Helms helped him turn around to rest his back against the wall.
Caleb opened his mouth to reassure his trainee, but felt like his tongue had swelled to three times its normal size. His chest squeezed like a giant hand wrapped around his ribs, and his heart stuttered, as his vision narrowed down to a pinpoint. He’d only encountered demons in their Hellforms a few times in his career, and he’d never been so careless as to let one get the drop on him physically.
If he had any regrets … Well, he had a number, but they weren’t about this mission … it was that he might not make it back due to his determination to take out their opponent on his own. He’d told himself it was Helms fault for not keeping up, but he knew he’d outpaced the kid on purpose. Driven by his need to prove himself to be the best, again and again. He was probably going to die here on the cold wet pavement because he’d let the sin of pride rule the day.
His eyes fluttered shut to the sounds of his young partner trying to get a response out of him.
“Goddamnit … Caleb! CALEB!”
Helms looked around frantically for a moment, then, lacking anything more useful to do, he pulled out his radio to get an updated ETA and let their backup know they had a man down. He put the radio back in his jacket as the door banged open.
A tall blond man strode out of the building swearing under his breath and wiping a faintly iridescent yellow ooze off his hands onto the stone facade of the building and, when that didn’t work, onto his jeans.
The ring on Helms right hand grew warm and he glanced at the stone. Normally clear and smooth as glass, it turned a tumultuous black, like rolling smoke. But it also had strange streaks of gold swirling through it, like it belonged to a powerful human aura. But the indication of a minion of Hell was more important than any inconsistencies in the enchanted stone.
“Hold, demon!” Helms said in as commanding a voice as he could muster, which, he had to admit, fell well short of the tone his mentor always managed.
The blond looked his way. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Are the Knights so desperate these days they’re recruiting from the local high school?” He noticed Saint Claire bleeding on the ground at Helms feet. “It’s even worse than I thought.” He pulled a flask out of his light jacket and held the container of luminescent electric blue liquid out to Helms. The young man recoiled and the blond rolled his eyes. “Just take it. And dump some down your partner’s throat before he drops dead on you. Poison from these particular assholes works fast.”
When Helms still made no move to accept the potion, the blond huffed a sigh and put it on the ground next to Saint Claire. He wiped his hands on his pants again with another mumbled curse, then walked off down the street at a casual pace, as though a Templar wasn’t pulling a weapon full of consecrated bullets and aiming it at his back.
“I said hold!” Helms shouted at his back.
The blond half turned and in the shadow of the building looming over them, Helms caught his eyes glowing the same deep golden color that swirled among the black in his ring. He also caught a flash of white teeth. “Could do,” the demon said. “But your bosses are gonna take it real personal if you waste your time catching me instead of saving the life of their favorite son.”
Helms hesitated. “You….”
“Cleaned up the demons in that building already. And lucky for you I didn’t wind up needing that potion to keep from getting kicked out of my body. Put your gun away and save your partner.” He started walking again.
“You killed them?”
“Yeah,” the blond called, not stopping or turning around this time. “Fuckers can’t go around up here in their demon form. That’s against the rules.”
“And mine.” He turned again. “Now, quit yapping at me. He’s fading fast. I ought to know because I used to collect souls, once upon a time.”
Caleb’s lips had gone blue, his breath slowed to shallow, irregular gasps. Helms holstered his weapon. He knelt and rested his fingers against his partner’s wrist and couldn’t find his pulse. From behind him, he heard, “Dude! Hurry up.”
Thinking he had nothing to lose at this point, since his backup was still at least ten minutes out, he tilted Caleb’s head back and poured the contents of the flask into his mouth. He was rewarded by a long coughing gasp for breath and a groan as Caleb’s arm wrapped around his injured side.
“There you go!” the deep voice called with approval. “You’re welcome.”
Helms spun to get eyes on the demon again and maybe perform an illuminating spell so he could give an accurate description to their sketch artist, but the demon had already disappeared.
Caleb drifted in and out of consciousness. Familiar faces passed through the fog he dwelt in. He had some sense of getting in and out of bed with someone on his elbow. But other than the ebb and flow of disembodied acquaintances, he had nothing by which to mark time.
When he came around fully, he immediately recognized the infirmary at the Templar compound he’d called home for more years than he hadn’t. The room itself could have been any hospital in all of Creation, but the view of the majestic peaks in the northern part of Washington was too distinctive for him to mistake it for anywhere else. Even if his brain did feel full of cotton batting.
He took a long slow breath in an attempt to dispel the cobwebs in his brain, then felt for the remote control to raise the head of the bed. After he fumbled around for a minute or two, it raised, apparently of its own accord. Caleb blinked several times and looked around. None other than Novice Jacob Helms was adjusting his bed for him.
“Helms,” came out as a breathy rasp instead of the fully formed question he intended. He cleared his throat, but before he could speak again, the young man pressed a cup of water, complete with a straw, into his hands. He took a long, cool drink, then tried again. “How long have I been out?”
Helms looked around like he’d rather do anything other than answer the question. “Someone has been blowing up your phone, sir.” He gestured toward Caleb’s personal items on the table beside his bed.
“How long, Jacob?”
He hesitated, then puffed out a resigned sigh. “You haven’t so much been ‘out’ as delirious, sir.”
Caleb simply raised an eyebrow at him.
“Most of a week, sir.”
Caleb closed his eyes and pressed his head back into the pillow for a second. He made himself open them and engage with his young partner. “I guess I was right about Ormru’s claws being venomous.”
“Yes, sir. You almost didn’t make it, sir.”
“Good thing we called for backup when we did.”
“Oh, no, sir. If we’d waited for backup, you wouldn’t be here.”
Caleb shifted in the bed, peering at Helms with intense focus that made the young man squirm slightly. “Explain.”
“Well, sir, we were trying to breach the door on the building where the other demons were staying and….”
Caleb sat silently while Helms reported the events that led up to his awakening. Then he pinned Helms with a stern gaze. “What made you decide giving your commanding officer an unidentified potion from glowing-eyed, self-identified demon was a good idea?”
Helms didn’t even hesitate. “Your breathing was labored. Your lips were blue. I couldn’t find your pulse. Our medic was nowhere near close enough to help. At that point, neither of us had anything to lose, sir.”
Caleb looked at him for a long moment. “Dismissed.”
“Sir, can I–”
“I said ‘dismissed,’ Helms.”
“Yes, sir.” Helms got to his feet, snapped a regulation salute, and left the room without further comment.
Caleb sat thinking about what Helms reported until he was interrupted by Sister Lieutenant Caffee, an altogether overly zealous member of their medical team, bustling through the door to make a nuisance of herself.
When Helms returned the following day, Caleb was sitting in bed, clicking away on his laptop. Caleb saw him standing in the doorway out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t look up until Helms ventured a tentative, “May I come in, sir?”
“If you like,” he said, concealing a smile. He gestured toward the room’s one chair. “Have a seat. I’m just finishing up some paperwork.”
“I already filed the mission report, sir,” Helms said, almost letting it be a question. Caleb didn’t respond right away, so Helms hurried to add, “I know it was without your signature, sir, so if I need to recall it after you’ve reviewed it, I can–”
“I’ve already reviewed it. You did a fine job.”
“Thank you, sir. I tried to remember everything you’ve said about those writeups.”
Caleb finally allowed his expression to soften into almost a smile. “You took those lessons to head and heart, most assuredly, Helms,” he said formally. “But I didn’t mean the report so much as the mission. You can credit that demon for providing the antidote if you like, but you were the one who made the tough call to use it without being able to consult with your training officer.”
“I’m just glad you’re recovering, sir.”
“As am I.”
“When will they be letting you out, sir?”
“I like how you make it sound like parole.” Caleb sighed. “Alas, I’ll be taking a disappointing Thanksgiving dinner right here. But by the weekend, I should be free of Caffee’s tyranny.”
Helms gave an almost startled laugh. “Well, I’m sorry about your Thanksgiving, sir. But I’m glad you’re nearly well.” He frowned when Caleb started typing again. “Can I help with the paperwork, sir?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said and waited for Helms’s crestfallen expression at not being able to assist him. He grinned. “Because you can’t write your own recommendation for taking Holy Orders and becoming a full-fledged knight.”
“I just sent it to the printer in the main office. If you grab it for me to sign, we’ll be able to celebrate me getting out of here as brothers in the Order on Sunday.”
“Yes, sir!” Helms all but ran from the room.
Caleb’s phone chimed for perhaps the tenth time. He picked it up, looked at the text, and turned his phone off. He was feeling better, but not well enough to deal with that particular issue.
Caleb had to admit, Helms was coming along nicely. Sometimes new members of the Order let their performance slide the moment they received their first rank and a room of their own outside the trainee’s barracks. But not Helms.
He was no small amount of pleased that Jacob had chosen magic as his specialty and sought to apprentice with him as his next step. He knew the request might not be granted. Caleb was widely considered the exemplar for the Order’s training officers. And it was an important job. But an apprentice would mean less time doing routine missions or paperwork, and more time engaged in his own chosen field.
Almost as though his thoughts summoned his superior, a tap came on the frame of his open door. He looked up from his computer and started to stand.
The older man held up a hand. “No need to get up.”
Caleb stood anyway and had to resist the urge to salute, but given that he was in his bathrobe and awaiting clearance, he didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that he’d actually been working. Instead he inclined his head in the slight bow that passed for a salute in less formal circumstances. “Good morning, sir.”
“One of these days, I’ll surprise you into breaking protocol for a moment and call me Tom,” he said with fond exasperation. “But delirious with demon venom, you still called me ‘sir’.”
Caleb grinned just a little at the man who’d more or less raised him. “I should hope so, sir.”
“I suppose I’ll be grateful you didn’t escalate to calling me Father Abbot Brigadier General Edwards,” he chuckled as he sat on the bench next to Caleb’s desk.
“Well, I was apparently quite ill, so a slip into the familiar is embarrassing, but no surprise,” Caleb said lightly.
The Abbot laughed. “Always by the book, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so.” Caleb’s smile faded.
“What is it, son?”
Caleb tried to put words to it, but found his mouth simply hanging open like it might have when he was a teenager. Fortunately, he knew the gentle question wasn’t a demand. It was more of an invitation, as it always had been. He closed his laptop and turned to face the Abbot more fully.
Another minute, helped him gather his confused thoughts. “I guess I’m grateful Helms hasn’t been working with me for long enough to have that drummed into him, too. If he’d gone strictly by the book, I’d have died on that street.”
The Abbot nodded thoughtfully. “Our books are there to guide us, Caleb, not to be all that we are.”
“So you’ve always said.” He sighed. “I’m afraid it’s one of your lessons that I’m still trying to learn.”
“Well, you had a great deal of … instruction … in the other direction, I suppose.”
“That’s certainly true.” Caleb shook off the introspective turn his mind wanted to take without his permission. “Not that I don’t always enjoy our visits, but … To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning, sir?”
“Another masterful subject change,” the older man chuckled. “I wanted to give you the good news myself.”
“Helms has been granted apprenticeship with you by the Home Office.”
Caleb’s smile returned somewhat. “Fantastic. He’s really quite adept.”
“He certainly does have raw talent. You’re the best in the Order to help him refine that. And I know you’ll appreciate the respite from bringing along entirely green recruits and the paperwork that comes with it.”
“Yes, sir,” Caleb acknowledged like it was a shameful admission. “I’ll be happy to get back into the field in general after this.” He gestured at his bathrobe and the bottle of pills on the corner of his desk.
“I imagine you will. It should please you to know you’ll probably be cleared for limited duty later today.”
Caleb felt his slightly reluctant smile shift into one that was truly pleased. “Been bullying the infirmary staff on my behalf, sir?”
The Abbot laughed again. “More like they can’t wait to be quit of your dogged insistence that you’re fine!” He paused. “But … I do have an assignment I’d like you to take care of. And it will be a good one to begin Helms’s apprenticeship as one of our mages. It should be very low risk, but highly valuable.”
Caleb’s shoulders squared at the change in expression on the Abbot’s face. “Sir?”
“Ari Sinclair has been in touch. He’s concerned that someone has been tracking them again.”
“That’s not good.”
“No, it isn’t. But he’s certain it’s their RV and not them personally. So, he’s asked us to do a security review and upgrade.”
Caleb bit his lip as he contemplated the assignment. There was nothing more important he could do for the Order than ensure the safety of the wandering Scion and her father. “Is it wise for us to involve an apprentice with the Sinclairs?”
“I like that you finally question things. It only took two decades, but still, I’m pleased.” Caleb shook his head, blushing faintly, but he didn’t interrupt. “I normally wouldn’t dream of involving an apprentice with the Scion, but you won’t have any direct contact this time out.”
“What will we be doing, sir?”
“Mr. Sinclair will be dropping off their RV for ‘scheduled maintenance’ with one of our cloisters and taking young Malin on a holiday to her mother’s family in Canada. You will simply be going over the vehicle for physical and magical security issues and installing what you think would be best in both respects.”
“Is he finally going to concede to GPS tracking so we can keep tabs on their location relative to breaches in the veil, sir?”
The Abbot nodded. “He’s authorized whatever you deem necessary.”
He appeared to hesitate, so Caleb prompted, “You seem uncertain, sir? May I ask why?”
“Nothing to do with the mission itself, Caleb. I’m just now realizing it may be a difficult trip for you personally, and I’m not sure I should ask it of you, especially while you’re still recovering, though there is no one I trust more with the task at hand.”
“He’s leaving the RV in Boston.”
Caleb glanced at his phone before he could stop himself, then cleared his throat. “It should pose no difficulty for me, sir.”
“You know he’ll hear of your whereabouts. He’s quite friendly with Abbot Major General Carmichael.”
Caleb’s chin lifted. “My duty is to the Order and the Scion. I will fulfill that duty, sir.”
“Of course you will, Caleb. I would never doubt you for a moment.”
Caleb had been able to distract himself from troubling thoughts during their flight, due mostly to his amusement at Helms’s reaction to the jet.
“But, sir,” he’d said, entirely wide-eyed. “We’ve taken a vow of poverty.”
Caleb nodded. “But, you may have noticed, the Order itself has not. Money buys invisibility. No one questions the comings and goings of those wealthy enough to arrive in a private jet. The airports we access this way even have security in place that can keep governments out of our affairs.”
The novelty wore off for Helms as he focused on reading the briefing materials. Instead of using the time to do his own reading, or even thinking, praying, or meditating as he might normally have done, Caleb closed his eyes and drifted off for the last leg of the journey. He told himself it was part of the recovery process, but, at least a small part of him understood, there was a certain amount of avoidance in sleep.
He was jostled awake by their touchdown. He’d no sooner taken his phone out of airplane mode than it chimed with a text. Helms head came up from rereading the briefing materials for what Caleb guessed was at least the twentieth time. “From the Abbot, sir?” Helms asked.
“No. From Lieutenant General Xavier Saint Claire, United States Marine Corps, Retired.” He cleared his throat. “My father.”
“I … oh.”
“What is it, Jake?”
“I just … I had heard….”
“Well, I know you were raised in the Order, sir. The rumor is that you … Well, that you were an orphan, sir.”
Caleb glanced at his phone as another text came through. “I lost my mother when I was very young. My father was active duty. He sent me to the Order rather than take the compassionate discharge he was offered.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. About your mother and … It must have been very difficult for you, sir.”
Caleb shrugged. “At first, yes. But once I left Boston behind, things were much better.”
“Ah, so you’re from Boston, sir?”
“Yes. And now that my father is retired, he lives here full-time again in the family home in Beacon Hill.” Caleb allowed himself a sigh. “He’s invited me to spend Christmas Eve with him if our mission has concluded.”
“That’s nice, sir,” Helms said carefully.
“You’ve never met my father,” he said ruefully. He was about to text back, but his phone rang. He sighed again and answered. “Good morning, sir. I was just about to call.”
Caleb waited on the stone steps, trying unsuccessfully to resist the urge to shift from one foot to another like a nervous kid. It bugged him.
He was a grown man, a decorated Knight, and he’d been facing down demons and even the occasional Fallen angel since he was still a teenager. This shouldn’t be so unsettling.
He expected to hear the steady, almost stately thump of his father’s cane, but was caught entirely by surprise by the door cracking open. He had a second to be grateful the wound in his side that had been so slow to heal due to the nature of the demon’s venom finally didn’t twinge every time he moved before he was caught around the middle by two bony sticks that squeezed him with surprising strength.
He looked down at a tangle of thin silver curls. “Mmm … Mrs. O’Hara?” he stammered with disbelief bordering on awe. She’d been about a hundred years old when he was still single digits himself.
She pulled away, smoothing her old-fashioned maid’s uniform before she wiped her eyes. “Well, of course it is, my silly boy!” She took another step back. “You come inside now so I can have a look at you.”
She took his hand and he let her lead him into the foyer of the stately home. He turned and closed the heavy door behind them before she could do it. She immediately took both his hands and looked up at him, positively beaming. “You grew into quite the giant!” she chuckled. Her ancient voice was like unoiled hinges, but in a way Caleb found pleasant, familiar, like the old wrought iron gate at the end of the walkway.
“Maybe you’ve just shrunk,” he said with a laugh, thinking she almost definitely had. He’d guess her bones were hollow by now based on how light she seemed when she’d hugged him outside.
“I have, at that,” she said, laughing, too. “You don’t get to be my age without being humbled a bit by gravity.
“How old are you, Mrs. O’Hara?” he asked, plainly curious.
She cuffed him lightly on the arm. “Manners! Didn’t anyone ever teach you never to ask a lady her age?”
He might have thought he offended her, if not for the twinkle of her translucent green eyes. “My apologies. Is it just as rude to guess?” he asked with a big grin. “Because, if I had to offer an estimate….” He squinted dramatically. “I’d say you’re not a day over twenty-nine.”
She cackled, patting him affectionately, as though she’d seen him every day of his life, rather than twenty years ago. “At least you haven’t outgrown your charm. I’m sure your mother looks down from Heaven every day absolutely delighted.”
“I hope so,” he said, almost shyly. He opened his mouth to ask after her family, but it caught in his throat with the unwelcome bellow from the dining room at the end of the hall.
“What is all that noise, Nora? Or have you forgotten what day it is?”
Caleb held up his hand to stop her from scurrying in response. “I’ll go get you off the hook.”
“Oh, Mister Caleb, don’t you go getting yourself in trouble on my account.”
He tipped her a wink. “I’ll get into it on my own account then. For old time’s sake.”
She laughed again, but silently, behind her hands this time. She gestured for his coat, but Caleb shook his head. It was cold in here, barely warmer than outside, he thought. Although, he supposed the chill could have been coming from within since he grew colder the further he got down the dim hall.
He glanced at the walls as he walked. As a kid, they’d been covered with family portraits. Now, there was just the same floral wallpaper he remembered, unbroken by any indication that the home was inhabited.
When he stepped into the formal dining room, he knew the cold was all in his head because a roaring fire filled the hearth, just as it always had on Christmas Eve when he was a boy. It was a tradition his mother had loved.
It appeared that was the only tradition of hers still alive in the house. There were no evergreens dotted with red berries, no tree, no lights, no flowers. There was just a man with close-cropped steel-grey hair at the head of the table, posture so ramrod straight, if he didn’t know him, Caleb might have thought he was a statue. Where a plate of food should have been, given the hour, there was only a huge Vulgate Bible open in front of him.
Caleb’s mother hadn’t thought learning Latin was especially important for a kindergartner, but he’d known that book would be brought out whenever his father was home. He’d learned to read that Bible while most children his age had just been learning to read at all. He cleared his throat to announce his presence, but the older man didn’t look up.
“General,” Caleb said loudly enough to overcome his father’s combat-induced hearing loss.
The elder Saint Claire finished the page he was on, slipped a strip of white silk close to the binding, and closed the book, finally raising his head. Even though the reflection from the fire on his reading glasses obscured the view, Caleb imagined he could see the ice blue eyes he’d been convinced could see every transgression when he was a boy. He’d inherited those eyes, and he’d spent time searching them as he shaved every morning, reassuring himself that his own held a warmth that his father lacked.
“Sir,” he said formally, realizing he was standing at parade rest inside his own childhood home. And feeling, whether rationally or not, that it was far too casual. “Thank you for having me here this evening.”
“It’s late. I wondered if you’d changed your mind.”
“No, sir. I was pleased to be given a pass.”
“That’s unusual, is it?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. It’s never come up.” He wanted to say he’d never been invited home, for a holiday or any other reason. That’s not fair, he admonished himself. His father hadn’t been home much until his mandatory retirement a couple of years ago.
“Thank you for coming, Caleb.” Caleb thought he caught a flicker at one corner of his father’s mouth. “At ease.”
Caleb forced himself to relax. But he couldn’t make himself move from the doorway.
“Come in. Sit down.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Caleb reflexively chose the seat that had been his as a child, about halfway down the long mahogany table. He thought the table was even sadder now that he was sitting at it.
“You were expecting dinner, I suppose.”
“I had a bite with the brothers and sisters before I came here.”
“I assumed members of the Order fasted properly.”
“It was a meatless meal, sir.”
“I said properly.”
“Total fasting was eliminated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. But of course, you know that,” Caleb said stiffly.
“I’m aware. I was surprised though when Dougie told me the Order follows the newer model for things.”
“Carmichael. We grew up together. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that.”
“He’s discussed the practices of the Order with you?” Caleb asked sharply.
“Of course he has. I needed to make sure it was the right place for you when the local Catholic school failed to manage you and I knew you’d never make it in military school.”
Caleb’s jaw tightened. “You did? When I was eight?”
“No, you were eight when we tried the Catholic school. You were ten when I made the decision about the Order. Because Dougie thought you could be useful to the organizational mission.”
Caleb’s teeth hurt from how hard he was biting down. He forced himself to speak though. If Carmichael had violated security and disclosed the existence of the Line simply due to an old friendship, Caleb would have to make a difficult phone call. “So, the mission of the Order appealed to you, sir?”
“Well, yes, of course. Providing security to the Church’s most sacred possessions and its holiest people all in secrecy to ensure its not infiltrated by the enemies of God. I can imagine few missions nobler than that one.”
Caleb breathed an internal sigh of relief. Carmichael really shouldn’t have discussed the Order at all, but at least it was a harmless cover story. “It’s worthy work.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
Caleb’s eyes widened. “I suppose so, sir.”
“Perhaps enjoy is the wrong word. You find it meaningful?”
“Yes, sir,” Caleb said carefully. He’d always felt that conversations with his father were like navigating a minefield. The slightest misstep could always blow the whole thing up. Even when his mother was still alive.
“Have you ever considered leaving?”
Caleb gave his father a hard look. The dancing flames were all he could see when he looked at his glasses and the set of his mouth revealed nothing. “What sort of question is that?”
“No need to get offended, boy. I’m just curious.”
“Well, now. That is a question, isn’t it. The one you always asked. Without ceasing. Regardless of what I said about it.”
“Curiosity is seen as a virtue in the Order.”
“I would think obedience would be the greater virtue.”
“Certainly.” Caleb ground his teeth again. “I suppose it will please you to know that I’m known for my adherence to protocol. For my obedience.”
This time Caleb was certain his father’s mouth curled up at the edges. “That does please me.”
“Though it may displease you to know that the Order frowns on blind obedience without consideration. At least my unit does. Questions are an important part of our lives.”
“Mmmm,” he said noncommittally.
“So, I’d like to return to my question. Why?”
“Why am I asking about your job?”
Caleb frowned. Now that he’d given himself permission to question the man at all, he found more questions bubbling up. “That. But also why the messages, the texts, the phone calls? Why the invitation to visit you?”
“I shouldn’t call my son? Shouldn’t ask to see him?”
Caleb pushed away from the table and nearly stood, but mastered the urge with a hard swallow. “With respect, sir, I’ve heard from you at most a few times a year and you’ve never asked if I would visit. Not once. Usually you only call to remind me of the anniversary of Mom’s death and you tell me you put flowers on her grave. And that’s it.”
“It’s something we should both remember.”
“Do you honestly think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of her?”
“No. No, you were always the apple of your mother’s eye. I didn’t mean those phone calls as a judgement.”
Caleb shook his head sadly. “I didn’t assume you did. She’s the thing that ties us together.”
“Why did it take you so long to get back to me about today?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said stiffly.
His father chuckled and nodded with an approving smile. “So, you were on a mission and not just avoiding me. And you were injured if I don’t miss my guess, based on how you’re moving.”
Caleb wasn’t about to violate security and confirm or deny any of what his father said. He let silence hang between them.
“Very good. Before I give you my why, I’d like to ask again, have you ever wanted to leave the Order? Perhaps to have a family?”
Caleb didn’t answer, just took a slow breath.
“You’re still as stubborn as the Devil himself. Alright. I’m asking because my brother’s boy found out he can’t have children. I have a friend who could, if I asked, find you a very nice position, either in the military or in intelligence work, if that’s more to your liking. You’d still be doing exciting, meaningful work. And you could fulfil another sacred duty. To your family.”
“No, sir,” Caleb said firmly. “I have no interest in leaving the Order.” He didn’t plan on his next words, but they escaped anyway. “They’re my family. And they have been since I was a child.”
“I suppose that’s fair.” The elder Saint Claire leaned back in his seat, contemplating Caleb for a long moment. “I don’t suppose this house and the family fortune could tempt you to reconsider? I’m planning on moving south anyway. You wouldn’t need to see me, wouldn’t even need to work if you chose not to.”
Caleb sighed. “No, sir. That doesn’t change anything for me.”
“You were always so caught up in those storybooks your mother read to you. All that happily ever after nonsense. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought of leaving for a chance at love.”
Caleb stood. “Love is at the very center of all that I am and all that I do. You introduced me to that life. And for that I’m grateful.”
“Very well.” His father rose as well and walked around the table, leaning on his cane. “Would you like to stay and attend Mass with me tonight?”
Caleb had assumed that was how he would spend the evening when he’d taken the taxi over here, but he shook his head. “I need to be getting back. I’m flying out this evening.”
His father extended a hand. “Have a safe trip. If you change your mind, call me.”
Caleb shook his hand. “Merry Christmas, sir.”
“Christmas isn’t a time to make merry, Caleb. It’s a time to remember the birth of our Savior and the start of His journey that redeemed us all.”
“I can think of no better time to be merry than remembering all of that.”
“And what good does making merry do you?” his father demanded.
“I can’t say. But I know it has. I think perhaps I’d forgotten how much until tonight. So I’ll say it again, and I’ll mean it for both of us. Merry Christmas.”
Caleb dressed for dinner slowly, delaying going to the feast for as long as he could. Helms had provided a pleasant distraction on their flight by making phone calls to family and singing Christmas carols, and insisting on watching holiday movies the whole time. And Caleb felt lighter the moment he touched down on the West Coast, and lighter still when he’d gone to Confession.
His Confessor had been understanding and encouraging, relieving his conviction that he’d committed a mortal sin in failing to honor his father. His education as a warrior priest told him his actions hadn’t risen to that level, and his own morals and ethics assured him that upholding his dedication and oath to the Order and to God were the right thing.
But, for some reason, his heart still felt heavy.
Helms knocked but didn’t wait for an answer, just opened his door and leaned in on his way by, dressed in, what Caleb assumed was, the ugliest Christmas sweater on the planet, covered with blinking lights. “Are you coming, sir?”
Caleb laughed. “That depends. Are you going to turn down the Wattage on that thing?”
“Are you kidding? My mom sent this to me! I’d turn it up if I could.”
Helms tossed something at him. Caleb snatched it out of the air. It was a red Santa hat. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You could wear it. On your head.”
“Why on Earth would I–”
“You said you wanted to be merry this Christmas! This is a party. Ditch the tie and be merry then for Heaven’s sake!”
“I’ll think about it. And I’ll be down in a minute.”
“I’ll save you a seat,” Helms grinned and joined the crowd headed to their dining hall.
Caleb stood looking at the silly hat for a minute, smiling faintly.
“Something still on your mind, son?” The Abbot stood in his open doorway with an expression of gentle concern.
Caleb shrugged. “Glad to be home.”
“And we’re always glad to have you home. I meant more that you don’t look like a man who is at peace and I’m not used to seeing you that way after Confession.”
“That’s a very irritating habit, sir.”
“Prying?” he grinned.
“Mind reading.” Caleb adjusted his tie in the mirror to give himself a minute. He thought it might be easier to say if he didn’t have to look at the Abbot. “I think perhaps I have more to confess.”
“I had a second … Not more than that … Where I wanted to say yes to my father’s offer.” The Abbot stayed silent, but Caleb was warmed by the lack of judgement in it. “Not because I don’t believe in what I am, in what I do, completely, but because, a family of my own would be a chance to create the things I lacked after my mother died. A chance to … repudiate the sort of father I had.”
“I think that’s more than understandable, Caleb.”
“It was a selfish thought. And I regret having it.” He turned then and the Abbot was smiling at him.
“Don’t regret. Regrets make up with length and the breadth of the home you came to us from. Instead, live. And remember to make room for something other than study and regulations from time to time.”
Caleb felt his lips quirk up on one side. “Is that my penance?”
“No,” the Abbot chuckled. “Your penance is to remember that in addition to being your superior, I am also your friend.”
“I know that,” Caleb said solemnly.
“I wasn’t finished … It is also to call me Tom when we are not on duty.”
Caleb shook his head with a rueful grin. He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of his tie, but he did pull the Santa hat on and gesture at the door.
As they walked toward the dining hall, the Abbot fell into step with him and put a warm hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “Merry Christmas, son.”
“Merry Christmas, Tom.”