The golden gleam of sunlight on the man’s watch caught her eye as she stood in the wintry shelter, waiting for the bus. The sunlight blazed with the sort of imagined warmth which was sucked instantaneously out of you by the biting cold of Michigan’s winter. A sort of dirty snow flurry spat tiny flakes of ice at her, nipping at her cheeks and setting her ears alight with cold flame. She shivered, huddling deeper into her threadbare coat and wishing the bus would get there soon.
The whispery crunch of snow under heavy boots touched her ears and she glanced to her left. It was the man with the watch. Big man, much bigger than her. Had money, too; her eyes caught the heavy fall of the overcoat and the glint of gold on a heavy signet ring. Not the type who would be waiting for a bus. Not the type who would even notice her, with the threadbare coat, shoes held together by string, filthy hair tangled up around the nape of her neck and the odor of stale gin rising from her clothing.
The footsteps stopped. She could feel his eyes on her, raking her over like coals of flame. She huddled a little deeper into her coat, silently begging him to leave her alone. Then the voice, the deep voice that sounded in her cold-burning ears like the voices of the mighty rocks among whose crags she had been raised.
“I believe this is yours.”
A massive hand extended into her field of view, holding a thermos of some steaming beverage. Her nose spoke of coffee, and long-unused salivary glands awoke to the scent. Timidly, trying to conceal her need in case it turned him away, she reached out to take the bottle, sipping slowly to allow the heat of the beverage to tingle through her.
It seemed like a prelude of paradise, the imbibing of the first hot beverage and the first act of kindness she had seen in three days. Then the man moved past her, brushing her coat with his hand and a weight settled into the pocket.
“This, too, is yours. Use it well.”
Then he was gone, striding powerfully and quickly away into the swirling wind, head bowed against the rising flurry of snow and the swift-coming darkness. Behind him, she put her hand into her coat pocket, the only one that didn’t have a hole in it, grasped what he put there and held it up to the fading daylight.
A bundle of papers met her eyes. A voucher for a week’s stay at a local shelter, a voucher for clean clothing, a voucher for food and a small roll of bills. A name and address of a local job placement specialist, another name she recognized as a local physician. And across every one of the pages the heavy black signature: William Peterson.
She looked after the man, still moving swiftly into the gloom. And blew him a kiss that he would never see.
William moved fast, around the corner and down the road to where he had left his late-model Ford. The alarm chirped at the radio signal and the driver’s door clicked open as he slid into the seat and started the car in a single smooth motion. What had drawn him out into the bitter cold with a steaming thermos of coffee and a sheaf of papers he was still unsure, but it felt good to know that at least one person might sleep a little better tonight. Even if the money was wasted on gin, at least with the coldest week in recent memory slicing its way across the upper peninsula of Michigan, she wouldn’t freeze to death.
The heater began to thaw the icy crystals that flecked his overcoat as he drove, smoothly and steadily along the road. His home lay above the main part of the city, overlooking the downtown district from its vantage point atop a small hill. He shook his head at the snow. Snow meant ice, and salt on the roads. He hated what that did to his vehicle’s underside.
His eyes caught sight of a small red car, stopped at a light to let him go through, and for a second he thought it might be Tanya. But the thought passed as quickly as the fleeting glimpse of the car. Tanya was gone, most likely dead. No chance that she would be here. Not after eight years.
Tanya had been William’s fiancé, a glowing chestnut girl with a soft laugh and a will of steel. She and William had met some ten years ago, both lost on a back road in the Michigan wilderness and ending up at the same hotel. They had laughed together, talked together, had fun in the winter wonderland of the backwoods and the rustic hotel for the three days it took until their vehicles were retrieved from the snowy graves and they could proceed. From then on, the two had searched each other out, dated and eventually ended up in bed.
The first time had been a bit clumsy, but amusing to both, a shared intimacy of laughter and affection. In the morning, William had proposed to her and for the first time, he saw Tanya’s green eyes sparkle with tears as she said yes. The wedding had been set for six months from then.
Three months after that night, Tanya disappeared. A note on her dresser stated that she had gone to take care of old business. Her car and a small selection of clothing were gone, as were most of her jewels and cash. Her bank account had had a single check against it for most of the balance. Twenty-four hours later, William had called the police. Tanya remained missing. The discovery of her coat and a little red car at the base of a cliff, at the edge of a river swollen by spring thaw had closed the case for the police. William had gone on looking, hoping, praying for years more.
On the five year anniversary of what would have been their wedding day, William Peterson had removed the engagement ring he had worn. Over the course of the next three years, he had thrown himself into his work, making money and venturing out into the streets when he felt it was right, with sandwiches and coffee, water and vouchers to help the ones that no one else could help. Clothing, blankets, food, money, all was parceled out as best he could to the homeless and alone.
He stopped for a quick meal near the hill where his house lay, where a small restaurant lay with pinewood walls and floors worn dark by age and some of the best home-style cooking the state. The waitress recognized him, bringing him steaming coffee and a small bowl of sugar, just as he always ordered it. A baked chicken over rice followed with an assortment of vegetables and the fluffy homemade rolls that had put the place on the map. William ate slowly, thinking about the homeless person that he had handed the last thermos and paper bundle to. She had looked like many others, scared that he would reject her, hoping that he wouldn’t notice her and sneer. He remembered the timidity with which she had taken the coffee, the age and threadbare nature of the coat, the shoes bound up with string. He made a mental note to find her down at the shelter in the morning and give her what clothing he had in the warehouse.
The house at the top of the hill glowed with a welcoming blaze of lights. Obedient to his wishes, his manservant Gregory had left lights on to welcome him and had ordered coffee laid in the study. Entering, he found Gregory waiting to take the overcoat and hat and take them off to be dried and brushed. William called after him that that would be all, and that Gregory could retire for the night after that duty. Then up the stairs to the study, paneled in oak and walnut.
The phone rang as he entered, the double ring of the internal line. Wonderingly, William lifted the receiver.
Gregory’s voice was calm, dispassionate. “Sir, there is a lady at the front door who says she has a business affair to discuss with you. Shall I show her up to your study?”
William’s mind went blank. Business at this time of night? He barely retained enough intelligence to mutter, “Certainly,” to his manservant.
She was still cloaked when she entered the study, clothed in a long cloak of dark red that swept all the way to the floor. Dots of water caught the lig
ht, turning the cloak into a cape of tiny diamonds. Gregory deferentially closed the door
“I came to return something,” she said, her voice low and throaty. A slim hand extended itself from the cloak, clutching a thermos. She set it on the desk with a soft thump.
William raised his eyes, looking down as the vacuum bottle. “When did I give this to you?”
“About three hours ago,” replied the woman. “Along with these.” The hand was extended again to drop a sheaf of vouchers and a roll of small bills upon the desk.
William sat down, feeling that his knees would not hold him up any longer. “Who are you?” he asked faintly.
“That, at the moment, is not important,” replied the woman calmly, the hood of her cloak still concealing her features. “I came to return some items, and to pay off the debt that I incurred to you. A debt of kindness,” she forestalled him as he opened his mouth to protest that the items had been a gift, not a loan. “I was freezing out there when you came along. Tonight, if only for a moment, I wish to bring you in out of the cold.”
“Cold? What cold?”
The slim hand reached out, lifted a silver-framed picture from the desk. The image of a laughing chestnut-haired woman looked back at her for a moment, then the frame was set down upon the desk again with a small clink. The fingers tipped it forward to lie face down upon the desktop.
“There are more ways to be cold than simply standing outside in the winter waiting for a bus,” she said calmly. “For one night, I want to make you warm.”