Interlude

Snow & Winter Collection: Volume One

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Emporium Press

April 8, 2021

Cover art: Reese Dante

Genre: Amateur sleuth mystery, romance

Dopamine: Take Only as Directed

After The Mystery of Nevermore

POV: Sebastian Snow

 

“You’ve got the flu, boss,” Max said.

I lay facedown on the bed, my cell on speaker beside my head. “It’s not the flu,” I weakly protested.

“You have a fever?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Chills?”

“I guess.”

“Have you barfed?”

“Max—”

“How many times?” he demanded.

“I don’t know. Do dry heaves count?”

“I’m calling your dad.”

“Do not call my father,” I said, doing my best to sound authoritative, but even I could hear that particular note of pathetic in my tone.

To be honest, it probably was the flu. It was January—well, it’d be January in about fifteen hours—the season of illness. And don’t doctors say stress can weaken your immune system? In the last two weeks, I’d broken up with my boyfriend of four years, found my former boss murdered, gained a stalker, and was shot at. Oh, and had fallen head over heels for an older, newly out-of-the-closet cop who I’d heard very little from since Christmas.

That all might have had something to do with these sniffles.

I shifted in bed and stared at the nightstand. I had a full fucking pharmacy in action: a half-empty bottle of cough syrup, torn-open packages of a few different cold medications I’d been using over the last twenty-four hours, tissues everywhere….

“—run the Emporium myself,” Max was saying.

I raised my head from the mattress. “What? No.”

“I can, Seb.”

“I know you can, but you don’t have a security code or even any petty cash. Take the day off. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you.”

“Sure, but—”

“Happy New Year,” I interrupted.

“Fine. I know when I’m not wanted,” Max concluded. “But promise if you get any worse, you’ll call your dad or Calvin, yeah? It’s hard to pick up a paycheck when you’re in the city morgue.”

I laid my head down again, frowning at the mere suggestion that Calvin Winter and I were now close enough that he’d be in my Top Three Contacts to whine to when I felt like human excrement. I mean, sure, I had this roller-coaster sensation in my gut whenever I saw him. The indescribable feeling that the personification of home was smiling at me. And he’d spent Christmas with me and Pop too, which I had assumed at the time meant… something. Confirmation that he felt about me the way I did him, I guess. Honestly, though, for someone who identified as a guy and had been exclusively into other men his entire life, I really didn’t seem to understand jackshit about them.

“Uh-huh,” I agreed. “I’m hanging up now.”

“Get some rest.”

“Thanks.” I tapped the End button, turned off the phone screen, and shut my eyes. I welcomed either breathing out of both nostrils or sweet death.

Whichever came first.

 

 

I’d probably taken a bit too much cough syrup prior to Max’s cross-examination phone call, because when I woke to the sound of my front door opening, I immediately chalked it up to Neil coming home from work. And then the facts, delayed though they were, fanned themselves out for my feverish brain to take in.

I had ended things with Neil. It’d been messy, and he’d moved out just before the holidays. Then, in an attempt to warm Calvin up to the idea of dating—something he had pushed back on during the Nevermore case—I’d given him keys to my place. But he’d not used them once.

“Kiddo?”

That’s when the quiet shuffle of steps in the front room finally made sense. It wasn’t Neil, who had a quick, almost agitated pace, like he was late and stuck walking behind tourists in Times Square. It wasn’t Calvin either, who was heavier on his feet, slow and methodical, but always sure in his destination.

“In here,” I called around the marbles in my throat. “But put on a hazmat suit.”

Pop opened my bedroom door. “Max called me,” he stated.

“That traitor,” I mumbled, unmoving.

“He said you were simmering in your own juices.”

“I’m a little underdone. Another hour, tops.” I pulled the comforter over my head.

Pop sighed, and then the blankets were yanked from the foot of the bed and I was exposed like a newborn baby.

Dad,” I whined, adding a few syllables that didn’t otherwise exist in polite society.

Pop finished tugging the tucked-in blankets free and dropped the bedding into a pile on the floor. “You smell, Sebastian.”

“I definitely do.”

“Go take a shower and I’ll make your bed.”

I sat up, grabbed my glasses, and put them on. “I’m a grown man.”

“You’re more stubborn than a mule, is what you are.” Pop moved to stand in front of me as I planted my feet on the hardwood floor.

“It’s a man-cold. I’m being properly dramatic about it.”

“Sebastian Andrew Snow.”

I winced. “Christ, Dad. Leave Andrew out of this.”

Pop pressed his hand to my forehead and frowned. “It’s not a man-cold.”

“You can diagnose with just the hand-to-forehead maneuver, huh?”

“Sure,” Pop answered, a smile reluctantly tugging at the corner of his mouth. “It’s a skill upgrade that comes with being a parent. Now, get in the shower. The hot water will help.”

“Fine.” I slowly got to my feet, collected clean pajamas from the dresser, and padded into the bathroom. I stripped and stood under scalding-hot water until my toes and asscheeks burned, but with the trade-off being I could breathe, if only momentarily, through both nostrils. After soaping and rinsing, I quickly toweled off as the cold, wintry bite in the air worked its way through the steam and heat of the bathroom. I dressed, but before I stepped out, I caught my reflection in the mirror and grimaced. I looked pale, almost waxy, despite the shower. And I had some serious whisker growth beyond my normal scruff. This was somewhere on the scale between lumberjack and homeless, and no points for guessing which end of the gauge I was flirting with. I started cleaning up with my electric razor, then said fuck it, because who was I looking to impress on New Year’s Eve when I was sick and home alone and my not-boyfriend had been radio silent for days?

I walked out of the bathroom and glanced through the open door to our—my bedroom.

I wondered how long it’d be before my brain stopped slipping up. Four years was a long time to spend with someone. A lot of memories—good and bad. A lot of experiences—good and bad. A lot of… good and bad, I supposed. Even if I’d fallen out of love with Neil and had only realized it by the time Calvin Winter had been thrust into my shop and my life, seeing my apartment as mine and not ours was going to take a bit of adjusting to.

Pop had opened the window a few inches, letting brisk air into the room. The cardinals that nested in the tree outside were singing. The bed had been made.

I turned as my dad came out of the kitchen.

He put a teapot and bowl on the table, then sat down. “Come get something to eat, kiddo.”

I took a seat, and Pop poured us each a cup of tea. I normally never drank tea, but it’d definitely be easier on my gut than coffee at the moment. I stirred the chicken noodle soup in the bowl—Campbell’s, can’t go wrong with the classics—then asked, “Do you think I made a mistake?”

Pop took a sip of tea, set his mug down, then tapped his own cheek. “You missed a patch here.”

“I did?” I touched my face before saying, “No—I mean—with Neil.”

“No.” Finality and no room for argument.

I looked down at the soup again, hacking the noodles in half with the side of my spoon. “What about with Calvin?”

“What do you mean?” Pop’s tone softened at the mention of Calvin’s name.

I shrugged but didn’t look up. “I haven’t seen him since he spent Christmas with us. He’s got my phone number, but has only texted me a few times. He’s got a copy of my keys, but hasn’t used them. December was a batshit-crazy whirlwind of a month, but he knows…. I told him I wanted to date. I mean, is the polite ghosting my answer?” I glanced up over the rims of my glasses.

Pop leaned across the table, put his hand on my wrist, and gave it a firm squeeze. “I think you’ve been through a lot, Sebastian, and should take it slow for a while.”

I let the spoon clatter against the rim of the bowl, took my glasses off, and wiped my face on the sleeve of my shirt.

“Calvin too,” Pop continued. “He was shot. And you said he came out to his family—hey, kiddo.” Pop stood and moved toward me. He leaned over, wrapped his arms around my shoulders, and pulled me against his chest as I started sobbing like a fucking baby. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I like him so much,” I said, turning to bury my face against Pop. “I never felt this with Marcus or Brian or—even Neil. But every day I don’t hear from Calvin… I feel like I’m going to die.”

“That’s probably the flu.”

I choked out a laugh, pulled back, and coughed into the crook of my arm. “You’re right. It’s the fever talking.”

Pop fixed my hair while saying, “I see how he looks at you, Sebastian. He might need some space and some time to figure himself out, but I don’t think Calvin’s going anywhere.”

As he took a step back, I grabbed his hand and asked with a forced lightness in my tone, “Speaking of Calvin looking at me… um… are his eyes green or blue? I know they can’t be brown, right? Too light.”

“Blue,” Pop answered with a nod.

“Blue like what?”

He was thoughtful for a moment, then smiled inwardly. I’d asked this question a lot when I was a kid: Like what? Color meant nothing to me, so when I asked, blue like what, I could learn to associate. When I was little, I think that inquiry bothered Pop. It hurt him, as a parent, to see his child struggle to fit into a world that seemed to have no place for him. But eventually, Dad grew to understand why it was an important question for me, how it helped me—at least, how it helped on an intellectual and emotional level, that is.

“Blue like the sky in spring,” he answered. “Just after sunrise.”