clutched the plate against her bosom. “When I was younger and Herbert was still alive, we used to travel all across Europe, visiting flea markets and resale shops. He would hunt for those insipid Hummel figurines, and I would collect all the blue china I saw.” Her eyes drifted upward dreamily. “’Course I had to sell it after Herbert died and the taxes had to be paid and things got bad. Never thought I’d have any again.” She looked at Megan and beamed. “Till you showed up at my door.”

Megan coughed. “Um, ma’am, I think you misunderstand-”

“I tried to be brave when I had to sell it all off. Tried not to think about it afterward. But I couldn’t help myself. I do miss those beautiful plates. Miss them every livelong day.”

“Mrs. Tucker, I’m sorry, but the plate isn’t-”

“I can’t tell you how much this means to me, child. I’ll cherish this plate for the rest of my days.”

“Mrs. Tucker! I’m trying to tell you that-” Megan stopped cold. She peered into the woman’s eyes, those dark eyes that now, for the first time in who knows how long, seemed bright and alive.

Mrs. Tucker’s hands began to tremble slightly. She loosened her grip on the plate. “You … were saying something?”

Megan took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then nodded. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Tucker.”

“Oh. Oh!” A radiant smile erased the wrinkles of her face. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She winked. “Santa.”

Megan boot-flopped her way back to her car. Well, what’s a plate, anyway? she told herself. Eight years of being a priest, she never once put a smile on anyone’s face like that one.

She had almost reached the car door when she heard the cry from behind. “Wait! Saaaanta!”

Mrs. Tucker was hobbling down the sidewalk after her, carrying what looked like a large framed picture of some sort.

Mrs. Tucker finally caught up to Megan, then stopped to catch her breath. “You’ve been so kind. I wanted you to have something.”

“That’s not necessary, ma’am.”

“No, I insist. Even if you don’t want it for yourself, maybe you can pass it along to someone else. It’s a lovely piece of artwork. Very valuable.”

Artwork? Megan’s eyebrows rose. What a coup if she could bring a valuable piece of art back to the Legal Services offices. They could sell it at their annual auction. Something like that might pay their operational bills for a year.

“I’ll miss it,” Mrs. Tucker continued, “but who knows? Maybe this could mean as much to someone else as that plate means to me.”

“Could I see it?” Megan asked.

“Of course.” Mrs. Tucker turned it around. The framed material was not canvas but lush black velvet. Megan’s eyes fairly bulged as she gazed upon the subject-or, more accurately, subjects: several bulldogs huddled around a poker table.

“Isn’t it lovely?” Mrs. Tucker said. “My late Herbert just adored it.”

“Did he?” Megan said evenly. “Herbert must’ve been an interesting man.”

“Not really. But he did love his bulldogs.” She pressed the picture into Megan’s hands. “Here.”

“Oh, gosh. I don’t know-”

“I insist.” She started back toward the house. “And thank you again. I have to decide where I’m going to hang my new plate!”

Megan nodded and waved. “Merry Christmas!” She turned, opened the car door, and tossed the alleged artwork into the backseat. “Jasper, meet your new bulldog buddies!”

Jasper grinned, and a huge pool of doggie spittle dripped down onto the passenger seat.

“Way to go, Rudolph.” She slid into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. “To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall, now dash away, dash away, dash away all!”


“Just leave the bottle.”

“Carl, I will not leave the bottle.”

“I said leave it.”

“And I said no!”

Carl and the bartender hunched over the single-chair table and glared at each other, their eyes searing the void between them.

Carl Cantrell clenched the top of the whiskey bottle, his hand wrapped around the bartender’s. “I need a drink,” he said, slurring his words more than a bit.

“You’ve had a drink. You’ve had several drinks. And the day’s barely begun.”

Carl yanked harder, trying to get control of the bottle, but the bartender stubbornly refused. Their arms worked back and forth like pistons.

Joe the bartender stopped pulling, reached around with his other hand, and extended Carl’s arm. He saw the strip of torn shirt wrapped around his forearm, now stained with blood. “Jiminy Christmas, Carl. What’ve you done to yourself?”

Carl jerked his arm back. “It’s nothin’. Just a scratch.”

“A scratch? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me. ’Cept I need a drink.”

“Forget it.”

Carl grabbed the bottle again. “I need a little somethin’ in the mornings. Just to get my heart started.”

“You keep drinking like this, your heart’s gonna stop dead in its tracks.” The bartender jerked the bottle free. “One more drink, Carl. That’s it.”

Carl made a hiccuping noise. “Then make it a double. I’m in pain here.”

“One more drink.” The bartender pulled Carl’s shot glass closer and poured. “And after that, I want you out of here. And I don’t want to see you around anymore. Got it?”

Carl’s watery eyes widened. “Whadd’re you saying, Joe?”

“You know what I’m saying. I don’t want you around no more. You don’t belong here.”

“Joe …” A lump seemed to catch in his throat. “I been comin’ here forever. Me and the boys-”

“You ain’t been with the boys for years and you damn well know it. Those days are done. You tossed ’em away with about ten tons of hooch.”

“But, Joe …” He reached out with his good arm and was embarrassed to see that it trembled. “This is my place.”

“This is a cop bar,” Joe replied, turning away. “And you ain’t been a cop for a good long time.”

Carl watched as Joe faded into the dark recesses of the bar. His head hung in place, seemingly frozen, as if he didn’t have the strength to move it. He felt tired and washed out.

His eyes had the misfortune to light upon the wall-length mirror behind the bar. He could see himself, draped over this rickety, unbalanced table like a human vulture. His face was drawn and his hair was a mess; he looked pathetic. His chin was dark with stubble. Come to think of it, he hadn’t shaved this morning, had he? Maybe not the day before, either. Maybe not since he lost the job at the hardware store-his fifth in a year.

Jeez. He pounded himself on the forehead. No wonder Bonnie wouldn’t see him, wouldn’t let him see his boy. He looked like death warmed over. If he’d bumped into himself on the street, he probably wouldn’t let Tommy talk to him, either. Just a bum, his son would think. Some worn-out, washed-up rummy. Keep your kids away. Don’t let them be infected by the thick smell of flop sweat. Don’t let them be contaminated by the man who reeks of failure.

He picked up the shot glass and downed it. The liquor burned his throat, coating his stomach with a new layer of confidence and self-respect. The sudden warmth surged through his arms, his legs, his head.

He felt better. But how long would it last?

One thing was certain-he wasn’t welcome at Joe’s anymore. Where else could he go? There weren’t many

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