Welcome to the 12th day of this season of cheer! A couple of months back, when I had the idea of setting myself a Christmas blogging challenge, I asked my mailing list subscribers which of my existing characters they’d like to see again in a short story. And yes, there’s plenty of Jack, Gareth, Nico and Daniel on the blog this month. But today it’s the turn of Joel Weston and Kieran Ross from the FireWorks Security team. (If you haven’t met them yet, you can check out their story here.) I’m aware I owe you all a sequel, which is glaring at me from my WiP stack, but for today’s short I’m not going to be snipping from that.
In Leap of Faith, we meet Joel and Kieran four years into their work partnership at FireWorks Security. The two are fast friends (as well as secretly in love with each other). They know each other well. But like every friendship, theirs had to start somewhere, and with two such stubborn individuals, that path would never be smooth.
So here, we get to see them early on in their partnership and at the tail end of a fight.
Accept it, Weston. You’ve pissed him off once too often. Joel stood outside Kieran’s row house and listened. Nothing moved. Nothing should, with Kieran’s bike not in its customary spot out front, the doors locked, and security on. Joel wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find, but he’d driven over every day after work for the last three days, hoping that Kieran would open the door.
Not knowing where his partner was bugged him. Not knowing whether Ross would come back bugged him more. As did his father’s unsmiling order to fix it or else.
“I know you’re an ass, Weston. You don’t have to keep proving it to me.”
Kieran’s words echoed in Joel’s mind, taking on new inflections with every repetition. A stupid argument born from boredom and too much caffeine had sparked the fight, and Joel hadn’t been able to let it go. He’d kept prodding and poking until he’d pushed Kieran’s patience beyond its limit. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Kieran had hit him. He had been surprised by Kieran simply getting out of the van and walking away.
And three days later he still didn’t know where Kieran had gone.
Joel stepped out of the elevator at the FireWorks Security office, phone still glued to his ear, even though he didn’t need to hear Kieran’s voicemail greeting to know what it said. He had no better luck in the office. Kieran’s desk, facing his, was as empty as it had been the last three mornings.
Joel’s, however, was not.
A box sat in the middle of his desk: addressed to him, covered in UPS labels, and watched over by three pairs of curious eyes. Everyone in their team had noticed that Kieran hadn’t returned to the office with him at the end of their surveillance shift. Kieran’s continued absence had caused as many questions as Joel’s foul mood.
Dreading what he’d find, Joel sliced open the cardboard. Four heads craned over the revealed opening.
“Get lost,” Joel snarled, not appreciating the audience.
“Now, what would make you say that Weston? Are you expecting Ross to return the socks and sweaters he’s had to nick from you every time you landed him in the shit?”
“Crude, but accurate,” Cass agreed, and Joel wanted to take the box and hide somewhere. Because Hartnett was eerily accurate. Joel’s mind had gone right there, the moment he’d seen the box. Testing one’s partner’s mettle was one thing, he’d realised during one of the last three sleepless nights. Taking out one’s sexual frustration on him was something else entirely.
Kieran Ross was temptation personified. And Joel had been losing his rag because he couldn’t decide what to do about it.
And because seeing Kieran riled was fun, of course.
“Come on, Weston. Don’t make a production of it,” Cass wheedled.
And that’s when Joel spotted Kieran’s name on the sender label and his blood pressure went through the roof.
He yanked the top off the box.
And stared at a chest made from dark wood and bound with black metal. A bright blue combination lock secured the lid, and when he lifted the box from its cardboard prison, a folded sheet of paper fluttered onto his desk.
The writing on the paper was Kieran’s.
Four locks. Four clues. And something for your next surveillance gig
D in a L Y + M & H D
H of the A + H in a W
H in a R of G + S of the Z
Y in a M + M of a J
Text me what you find. And don’t you dare pick any of them!
By dinnertime Joel contemplated picking the first lock anyway. He’d tried substituting numbers for the letters. Had even tried to substitute other letters for the letters in the clues, but nothing produced a usable numerical code to open the lock.
The clues looked so simple, but the key to the riddle eluded him. And wasn’t that ironic, seeing how their argument had started?
If he picked the first lock and got the combination, he could solve the first riddle, which would give him an idea how to solve the others. Assuming they didn’t just look similar, but were constructed along similar lines.
Knowing Kieran, that wasn’t something he could easily assume.
Neither could he rule out that Kieran didn’t have a spy in the office.
No, he needed to work it out. Somehow.
“Joel? Aren’t you planning on going home?”
His father’s voice came from behind him. Joel sat up straighter, realising for the first time that the office lay dark and quiet and his desk light was the only remaining illumination. His back cracked as he stretched and he sighed.
“Still trying to work out the clues Ross sent me,” he said tiredly. “Glad you stopped by. I was close to picking the lock anyway.”
“I don’t need to tell you that he’ll know when you do it, right?”
“Will he really? Or does he just want to make me think so?”
“Well, he’s your partner. You should know. These the clues?” Joseph picked the paper off Joel’s desk and scanned the writing. “Ambiguity thy name is Ross,” he murmured, going through the list again and testing each line. “Holes in a round of golf?” he ventured, dubious.
“H in a R of G. Holes in a round of golf?”
“Eighteen. Godammit, Ross!” Joel yanked the paper from his father’s hand and settled back at his desk. Only to jump up and head for the coffeemaker. “Caffeine. That’s what I need. Caffeine.”
“If you say so.” His father’s hand landed briefly on his neck. “And apologise, you hear? The two of you make a good team, but keep your damned fights out of the office.”
“Yes, sir.” Joel’s reply was automatic, but he meant it. He would apologise. As soon as he’d unravelled Kieran’s clues.
Signs of the Zodiac yielded quickly after his father had provided the inspiration, but 1812 wasn’t the combination that opened the lock on the box. He kept going doggedly, realising there were 1760 yards in a mile and 168 hours in a week. From there, it was an easy jump to 366 days in a leap year. And then he got stuck.
Rather than brew more coffee, he packed up the box and the sheet of clues and drove home, stopping at an all-night bakery for donuts and cherry pie to go. His mind never ceased spinning, teasing at the three remaining clues and Kieran’s frequent headaches began to make sense.
Looking at this DVD collection gave him the next clue. There were 12 members in a jury. And thinking of Kieran’s music choices made him think that H of the A stood for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That left only one clue. One he needed to open the first lock and test this whole fragile edifice he’d built on top of his father’s suggestion.
Which could all still be wrong, of course.
He nodded off where he sat, long after midnight.
And jerked awake equally suddenly when the answer occurred to him.
His fingers shook when he turned the little wheels on the lock to 3661.
The lock clicked and Joel freed the lid and lifted it up.
As he’d suspected, a second locked box sat inside the first. The lock opened at 4168. The third box, a tight fit inside the second one, opened with 1812. And it came as no surprise that the final box had a lock with a six-number combination.
What came as a surprise was the contents of the fourth box. A cloth bag. And a note.
“By way of an apology,” Kieran had written. “Pouring your coffee out the window was an overreaction on my part. But if you ever put sugar in my mug again…”
Joel grinned until his cheeks hurt. Kieran would be back. They were still partners. Might even be friends now. He lifted the little cloth bag from the box and opened it.
His grin got impossibly wider when he realised what he was looking at. His two favourite things in one easy to carry snack: espresso-flavoured sugar cubes.