This slice-of-life romantic dramedy belongs in the Uber/Original category. All characters are created by me. Also, it depicts a budding romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story contains a tiny bit of profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: November 20th - 25th, 2021.
- *Wave* Phineas! :)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Happy New Year! Five days have passed since Claudia MacCready and Elaine Sutcliffe's romantic heart-to-heart at the frozen lake. On New Year's Eve, they go out on a date that'll take them from a cozy dinner café to a tour of the bustling metropolis Carlyle - and ultimately home to Claudia's penthouse apartment for the traditional New Year's fireworks…
SANTA CLAUDIA: NEW YEAR'S MAGIC
Friday, December 31st - five minutes past four in the afternoon.
'-The weather update was brought to you by the Winston White Cocoa Company. Winston White works wonders when you wanna get warm!' blasted out of Claudia MacCready's smartphone that she had placed on one of the two sideboards in the living room of her apartment. Docked to a pair of speakers, the telephone provided the background noise while Claudia knelt on her yoga mat to complete her daily set of exercises.
She wore a loose-fitting, pale-gray sweatsuit that carried the familiar S.C.B.C.-logos of the Sterling-Calthorpe Business College that she had graduated from an eon ago. A pair of white sports socks was lined up and ready to be put on in case she needed them, but the temperature in her living room was pleasant enough to go barefoot while she exercised.
Taking her four-pound dumbbells, she literally put her arms through the swings, bends and other routines she had developed herself. It required a little more effort to keep the same level of fitness after she had turned forty, but the results spoke for themselves: she was able to get through even the hectic, fourteen-hour working days around the year's various Holidays without coming to a grinding halt - mentally as well as physically - in the late afternoons.
The dumbbells were soon replaced by a large, baby-blue exercise ball that she used to strengthen her back and her abdominal muscles. As she did so, the on-air host of the talk radio station she listened to returned to the fascinating topic of why there were so few songs about the New Year compared to the thousands of evergreens associated with Christmas.
A professor in musical studies soon called in to add his two cents' worth to the conversation. It all turned a little too dry and academic for Claudia's tastes, so she got to her feet and padded over to the sideboard. A quick sequence of swipes later, she gave up on the online radio stations and settled for her streaming playlist - it didn't take long before her living room was filled by the laid-back, jazzy tones of the Lloyd Baker Trio playing the old standard See You Tonight, My Dear.
Her apartment was the penthouse of a classic, fifteen-floor brownstone on West Eighteenth Street. The daily grind and general hustle and bustle of the grand metropolis Carlyle literally fell into the out of sight, out of mind-category as the typical soundscape from the streets were unable to make it that far up.
The high-rises further north in Carlyle's financial districts were far taller, but few - if any - of the modern palaces made of glass and concrete could compete with the charm of the old brownstones that were placed like a string of pearls right across the bohemian district that reached from Belvedere Street in the east to Cassandra Street in the west.
Whenever Claudia told people where she lived and what kind of apartment it was, they automatically crammed her into a shoebox labeled self-centered and uppity - what they failed to take into account was the frequent water seepages from the flat roof during the wet months in the autumn and the snowy months in winter, or the baking-hot conditions over the course of the summer when the sun bore down relentlessly on the black roofing felt or shone through the panorama windows with the strength of a microwave oven.
She could happily live with those challenges and obstacles as long as she had such a breathtaking view across Victory Park toward the east. Even if she would have preferred to have a panoramic view of the sunsets rather than the sunrises, she was able to see a great deal of Carlyle's impressive, jagged skyline on clear days - not that there were too many of those in the busy, densely-populated metropolis.
To fit the theme of the classic brownstone she lived in, her apartment was dominated by warm, earthy colors. The pale-brown carpet and the coffee-and-cream paint on the walls set the tone as did the fact that most of her furniture was hand-crafted and made of genuine beechwood rather than hastily slapped-together chip board. A couch arrangement featuring a three-seater sofa, a low coffee table and two satellite armchairs had been put close to the biggest of the sideboards to create a cozy corner.
A large TV with an integrated Blu-Ray player stood on a low, open sideboard in the corner of the living room, but she rarely used the electronic equipment save for the times where she needed to stay up-to-date with breaking news. The long working days meant she had little interest in mindless entertainment once she got home; instead, she preferred to restore her strength by soaking in her vintage bathtub or simply sitting on the roof patio watching the skyline with a cup of coffee or a sugary snack.
Three tall bookcases filled with large tomes and small decorative knick-knacks took up the entirety of the living room's northern wall while colorful reproductions of vintage posters graced the southern wall: a 1950s-era drawing of the legendary circus clown Charlie Rivel caught in his famous pose took center stage above the sideboard. Two movie posters from the Golden Age of Hollywood - Miracle On 34th Street and It's A Wonderful Life - flanked Rivel to create a triumvirate of class and elegance.
A selection of framed photos of Claudia's family had been put atop the sideboard in chronological order. The first one was the wedding photo of her parents Douglas and Marianne MacCready, and the final one was the official photo taken at her niece Rosie's baptism where her brother Jonathan and his wife Marie-Chantal held their tiny tot while their first child, Mark, did his best to add some life to the traditional pose by pulling faces at the camera.
The photo made Claudia stop her routine with the exercise ball and lean back on her thighs. Never taking her eyes off the photo of her brother, she wiped her neck and throat with a towel before she threw it onto the yoga mat and bounded to her feet.
Five days had passed since the embarrassing scene involving the grand Christmas lunch and Jonathan's unwillingness to tear himself away from the big parade that was shown live on TV. It had ended in a fiery argument that in turn had caused Jonathan, Marie-Chantal and their children to leave early - that fact still hurt Claudia whenever she had a moment to spare in her hectic days as the owner and general manager of MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency.
Following their father's accident at Spencer & Woolcott's Department Store on the sixteenth of December, they had all spent the Christmas Holidays at his house on West Seventy-seventh Street so the elderly fellow would be able to see his grandchildren. Claudia would never forget the look of raw disappointment etched onto her father's face when Jonathan reversed out of the driveway and left in an petulant huff four days sooner than what had initially been planned.
Needless to say it had been a bad deal for all involved. The complete radio silence that had followed from Jonathan's side of the battlefield only made it worse, but at least she had spoken extensively with her father since the drama.
The final hours leading up to New Year's Eve seemed like a good opportunity to at least attempt to mend the fences, so Claudia removed the telephone from the docking station and padded over to the nearest armchair. She made a small detour on the way there to pick up her sports socks, and she slipped them on after having found her brother's number in the registry. Once she was set, she grabbed a pillow she could press against her in case the conversation would turn ugly all over again.
'The MacCready residence… this is Marie-Chantal,' her sister-in-law's familiar voice said at the other end of the connection. Despite the importance of the day, the voice didn't sound slurred.
The absence of the familiar, alcohol-induced drawl took Claudia by surprise - she hadn't expected Marie-Chantal to go without her beloved dessert wines for that long into the day, especially not considering it was New Year's Eve.
"Hello, it's Claudia. Happy New Year. May I speak to my brother, please?" Claudia said and gave the pillow a pre-emptive squeeze just in case. When a stony silence was all she could hear through the connection, she pressed the pillow hard against herself to make the soft fabric act like a comforter.
The customary greeting was left unanswered; instead, a short spell of fumbling filtered through the tiny speaker before a male voice spoke up: 'Hello, Sis. Happy New Year.'
A brief, cautious smile spread over Claudia's lips at something that wasn't there - the upset undertone that had soured their shared Christmas Holidays. "Happy New Year, Jonathan… how are you?"
Enough time went by before Jonathan replied that it made Claudia clutch the pillow all over again. When he finally spoke, the message was a slightly brusque: 'I'm fine, thank you. And you? I'll bet you're working as always.'
The corners of Claudia's mouth twitched; her brother's voice had fallen into the same, old upset register she had heard far too much of in the latter stages of their family get-together. Although perhaps less hostile and confrontational than it had been at their father's house, the voice held little to no warmth toward her. "Actually, I'm not. I… I have a New Year's date, remember? Elaine and I will hit the town a little later on."
'I still think it's weird you're dating someone you've worked for. Not to mention the fact she's way older than you. There's something unnatural about that.'
Claudia rubbed her eyes and let out a long sigh. "Elaine's not way older than I am, Jonathan. She's six or seven years older. Please listen to me, I didn't call so we could carry on arguing. Let's keep it civil… all right? How are Rosie and Mark?"
Another pause followed before Jonathan said: 'They're fine. They didn't understand much of what went on between us.'
"That's a relief-"
'We'll drive over to Dad's later today for some coffee and maybe a pizza or something later on. Marie-Chantal and I were just gonna watch some teevee tonight, but Dad asked if we would come over so he could see the kids.'
'I guess Dad knew you'd be too busy smooching with your boss to invite you-'
Claudia pressed the pillow so hard against her front she could feel her clenched fist through the soft fabric. A tidal wave of anger and frustration that rose up inside her caused warm tears to sting her eyes, but she blinked them away as soon as they had appeared. "Jonathan, stop… just stop. I can't do this again. Please. Not now. I'll… I'll call you next week. Happy New Year."
Before Jonathan could reply, Claudia had already terminated the call. The telephone was soon thrown onto the nearest table so she could press her hands against her forehead; the gesture was sorely needed as a countermeasure to the explosive headache that rattled around inside her skull.
It took the headache a few minutes to settle down to a bearable level. Once it had, she got up from the armchair and re-docked the telephone to the speakers.
Drastic situations required drastic remedies, so while the silver fox crooner Alberto Torrillano took care of the musical side of things singing Will I See You On New Year's Eve?, Claudia made a beeline for the kitchen to get herself a can of apricot-flavored soda and dig into her emergency rations of dark chocolate.
The next fifteen minutes were spent eating and drinking while curled up into a ball in her favorite armchair. She sat with her eyes closed and just let her mind drift away from all the negative family affairs that refused to ease off. Though it had been a departure from her typically sensible, pragmatic self, the impromptu feast had been the right thing to do; she sensed that while she let the last block of dark chocolate melt in her mouth.
Feasting on all those naughty calories had negated her hard work on the yoga mat, so after emptying the soda can, she went back to working the dumbbells for another fifteen minutes. To rid her mind of her brother's stubbornness and petulance, she had turned up the volume on the docking speakers so the golden voices of Teresa Madison, Brock Armstrong, the Smokey Whiskey Quartet and the incomparable Veronica 'Lady Blu' Masterson produced an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack that told her to Leave Your Worries Behind and Come Swing With Me on their way to a little Midnight Magic For Two.
Midnight magic would most likely not be on the cards considering it was the first proper date for Elaine and her - their occasional encounters in the best women-only bar in Carlyle, the Purple Sector, didn't count - but it didn't matter. All she wanted was to spend the evening in pleasant company to get the sour taste of bad family relations out of her mouth. Elaine Sutcliffe would provide that in spades, of that she was certain.
Time flew by as always so she needed to pack up her exercise equipment before long. A quick shower and a restrained application of an exquisite perfume followed before she padded into the bedroom to slip into the classy outfit she had selected for the important evening: an emerald-green pant suit that matched her eyes perfectly. The suit jacket sat well over a burnt-orange blouse that sparkled under a certain light, and the ensemble was completed by a pair of dark-emerald shoes with two-inch heels that would give her a good stance.
The outfit had cried out to be worn the second she had clapped eyes on it in her wardrobe, but it had taken her longer to decide on whether or not to wear makeup and jewelry. She had eventually arrived at the conclusion that she would only wear a faint layer of anti-gloss and the tiniest amount of eyeliner.
Similarly, she had gone for a simple, yet beautiful set of jewelry: the most visible was a silver necklace that had been made by braiding four strands of the precious metal into a single one - it would offer a great contrast to not only the emerald-green jacket but the burnt-orange blouse as well. Though her telephone would never be further away than her pocket, she put on a gold wristwatch that her mother had given her for her twenty-first birthday. She had taken great care of it over the years so the lens and housing were clean and unscratched.
While she sat on her bed to put on the heeled shoes, her telephone started ringing in the living room. The incoming call cut off one of Lady Blu's hits mid-word which left the room bathed in sudden silence save for the electronic pling-plong melody provided by the ringtone itself.
Claudia took off her shoe again and hurried into the living room in case it was important. When she noted the caller-ID said Dad, she made a quick glance at her wristwatch before she snatched the telephone off the docking station - it was ten minutes to five in the afternoon which meant she only had just over an hour to wrap everything up, call Blue Ribbon Limousines to confirm that her ride would be on time and then be driven to the café that Elaine had picked for them.
"Hi, Dad! Happy New Year!" she said as she moved over to the armchair where she'd had the negative conversation with her brother. She hoped lightning wouldn't strike twice, but she reached for the soft pillow just in case.
'Happy New Year right back at you, lass!' Douglas MacCready said at the other end of the connection. As always, their family's Scottish roots came through as a charming timbre to his voice. The brogue always grew stronger when he was grumpy or in a fabulous mood - fortunately, it soon became evident that his present state of mind could be filed under F for Fabulous. 'I'll bet it's strange not to be behind your desk working your butt off on New Year's Eve!'
"It is! No doubt about that," Claudia said and settled down in the armchair. Her father's voice produced the pleasant, and much-needed, sense of feeling safe that she had hoped to get from the conversation, and it soon blossomed through her system like a calming presence. "I've already called the office four times today to ask about the state of affairs… I think Beryl got a little annoyed with me after the fourth call, so I better not do it again!"
Douglas' characteristic Santa-laugh boomed through the connection. 'Oh! I can hear her now! I agree, you should definitely give it a rest! So… when are you meeting Miss Tall 'n Gorgeous?'
"At six in a dinner café over on West Twenty-seventh not too far from Avenue C."
'A dinner café? Is that like an old-fashioned diner?'
"I honestly don't know. I've never been there," Claudia said and shuffled around on the armchair. Her brow gained a few furrows as she thought back to the earlier conversation. "Listen, Dad… I just spoke to Jonathan. He's being an a-hole about the whole date thing."
A long sigh came through the connection. Claudia nodded though she knew her father hadn't developed X-Ray vision and was thus unable to see her gesture. "Yes," she continued after a moment of silence, "I don't understand why he's being so rude all of a sudden… or what he thinks he'll gain from it. It's almost like he's only just discovered my preferences…"
'Claudia, I have an inkling why. It's something I picked up between the lines last weekend. At first, I thought it was maybe just a wrong impression on my part, but the more I studied it, the more I realized that your sister-in-law felt… well… that she feels threatened by your sexuality.'
"Oh. My. Frickin'. God!" Claudia said and clapped her free hand across her eyes. "Marie-Chantal?! I wouldn't touch her with a twenty-foot pole if she was the last woman on Earth!"
Douglas let out a knowing, but certainly loud, laugh at the other end of the connection. 'I know that. I think even Jonathan knows that, but your sister-in-law seems to have a few wires crossed-'
"I'll say," Claudia mumbled.
'When pressed, Jonathan admitted over the phone that his wife had watched some kind of anti-gay documentary on Youtube. I guess it's led her to the assumption that you're on the prowl. For her.'
Claudia's eyes rolled so hard they went on a prolonged tour of the ceiling of her apartment - it took quite a while before they returned to the large panorama windows. "Sheesh… that's just offensive in so many ways I've lost count. I get it. She's probably told Jonathan he'd be sleeping on the couch until Easter unless he distanced himself from me. And he's doing it by being disrespectful toward Elaine."
'Could be. Sounds logical. Of course, has Jonathan ever-'
"Yeah, when did Jonathan ever follow logic?" Claudia said and let out a tired chuckle. She shuffled around a little after checking her wristwatch again. "I don't have much time now, Dad, but thank you for clueing me in. This is something I need to get to the bottom of in a hurry… before it spirals completely out of control. The more I think about what you said, the more sense it makes. By the way, brother dearest told me he and his wife are coming over later today?"
'That's right. They'll be here at seven, seven-thirty or so. I… I invited them for entirely selfish reasons, Claudia. I just wanted to see Rosie and Mark-'
"That's okay, Dad. I understand perfectly. I'm sorry for causing so much crap and so many ill feelings last weekend-"
'Hold it right there, young lady… you did nothing wrong. Nothing. Frankly, I was amazed you managed to keep your temper under wraps for as long as you did. If my knee hadn't been bad, I would've had Jonathan over it for being so obnoxious toward you and Miss Gorgeous!'
Douglas's stern defense of her made Claudia break out in a wide grin. Her old adversary - tears stinging the back of her eyes - made its presence felt, but she blinked them away before they could ruin her eyeliner. "Thanks, Dad… I really like Elaine and I won't allow anyone to come between us… not even my brother. But…"
"I haven't been on a date for so long that… that I really have no idea what to do or say or-"
'I'm not the right person to ask, lass!' Douglas said and broke out in another loud, booming laugh highly reminiscent of his Santa Claus character. 'I haven't been on a date since before you were born! And that was with your mother! Once I met her, there wasn't any point in even trying to look elsewhere. And by the time you came along, well, we were too much in love to ever consider seeing someone else.'
"Jeez, Dad… now you're really gonna make me cry!" Claudia said in a choked-up voice. She dabbed every pocket of her pant suit for a handkerchief but found none. Instead, she got up and padded over to the nearest of the sideboards. The high-quality beechwood furniture was equipped with two wings and four drawers, but none of which held even the smallest hankie.
'I'm sorry, sugar. Oh, I don't want to take more of your time. Have fun tonight, okay? Don't think about Marie-Chantal and Jonathan and all their nonsense. Just relax and see where the evening takes you. And, uh… uh… I don't need to know all the details…'
Chuckling, Claudia wiped away a stray tear with an index finger since her quest for a handkerchief had come up short. "Thanks for the encouragement, Dad. Oh, I hope my Blue Ribbon Limousine will be on time so we can beat the worst of the traffic… in any case, I need to run. Talk to you later. Okay? Love you."
'Love you too, sugar. Bye! And have fun tonight!'
"Thanks, Dad! I know I will," Claudia said before she closed the connection. A smile graced her lips before she went back into the bedroom to dab her misty eyes and complete the preparations for her date.
As Claudia stepped out of the brownstone's front door down on West Eighteenth Street, she closed her overcoat around her in order to do up the row of bone buttons and tighten the belt. Once those tasks had been accomplished, she donned a pair of black gloves and pulled a stylish, dark-green fleece beret a little further down onto her hair.
A small suede purse on a metal chain was slung over her shoulder. Her telephone and her wallet rested safely in the overcoat's pockets, so the purse only contained the essentials: a hand mirror, a comb, a handkerchief, a few dollar bills and a stick of lip balm.
She couldn't help but be disappointed in how much the weather had changed in the short week since Christmas. The cold front that had brought a big freeze and a blanket of white to all of Greater Carlyle on the twenty-fifth was long gone - the warmer temperatures that had followed had reduced the beautiful wintery landscape to piles of filthy slush. All that meltwater had to end up somewhere, so every gutter in every street had become impassable rivers that evil-minded drivers exploited to drench the pedestrians and the countless bike couriers whose jobs didn't stop just because the weather turned poor.
West Eighteenth couldn't be counted among the busiest in Carlyle, but the two-lane one-way street did see its fair share of traffic in the shape of the ubiquitous taxi cabs and delivery vans. Police cruisers from one of Carlyle's many precincts rumbled past at infrequent intervals though they rarely had any business in the bohemian district. There were fewer family cars around than on regular Friday afternoons, but that was a blessing since it meant that getting across town would - hopefully - be quicker.
White stripes painted onto the wide sidewalk marked out a handful of parking bays reserved for disabled drivers, but only two were in use at present as most residents kept their cars in a permanently monitored, six-story parking garage just down the street. Trees had been planted between the painted bays to give the street a cozier and more homey feel; that only one had been knocked down by a car during parking and a further two had been vandalized was hailed as a great success.
Claudia was about to check her telephone again when a deep-black Lincoln Navigator from the Blue Ribbon Limousines company rolled up to the curb. A female driver wearing a pristine uniform hurriedly stepped out of the huge vehicle, zipped around the back - performing an Olympian long-jump to clear the river of meltwater - and strode across the sidewalk while adjusting her dark suit, shaded cap and white gloves. "Miss MacCready?" she said in a pleasant, unhurried tone of voice that had most likely taken a vocal coach days if not weeks to perfect.
"Yes, indeed," Claudia said with a smile.
"Good afternoon, Miss. My name is Jacqueline Wyndham and I'll be your chauffeur for tonight." After delivering her introduction, the uniformed driver hurried back to the Lincoln and opened the back door for her passenger. While Claudia got in and made herself comfortable on the leather seat, Jacqueline continued her spiel: "Please note this is a non-smoking vehicle. You'll find magazines in the pockets on the back of the front seats if you so desire. Juices and other types of non-alcoholic beverages are available in the small refrigerator down to your left. Are you all set, Miss MacCready?"
"All set," Claudia said as she clicked the seat belt into place.
Nodding and smiling to her passenger, Jacqueline closed the back door, jumped over the river of meltwater and hurried back behind the Lincoln's steering wheel. She took off her shaded cap and put it on the passenger-side seat before she manipulated the touch-screen on her GPS-equipped City Tracker. The destination had been pre-selected when she was given the assignment, but the computer still needed to recalculate the route to make sure it really was the quickest way there.
Once a green light flashed on the screen, Jacqueline waited for a gap in traffic on the one-way street. When it came, she drove away from the curb and fell in behind a white delivery van that appeared to be used for distributing the Carlyle Tribune. "Miss MacCready," she said over her shoulder, "it'll take us approximately seventeen minutes to reach your desired destination. Do you wish to listen to some music while we drive?"
"No, I'm fine. Thank you," Claudia said and took one of the magazines from the pocket in front of her. Though the ride was exceptionally smooth, she felt a touch of motion sickness creep in almost at once. That wouldn't be the best way to start what she hoped would be an exciting New Year's date so she put the magazine away and settled for looking out of the tinted windows.
The luxury vehicle soon reached the intersection of West Eighteenth and Cassandra Street; the traffic lights turned red just as they approached so Jacqueline trickled up to the stop line and came to a halt with the tenderness of a newborn duckling. Cassandra was far busier than West Eighteenth so right-turns on red were strictly prohibited unlike at most other intersections in town.
Just like every traffic signal in all of Greater Carlyle, it seemed to take an eternity for it to change back to green to allow them to continue. Claudia tried the magazine again, but put it away for good soon after. Instead, she leaned forward to look out of the Lincoln's windshield. "The traffic looks busy tonight…" she said to kill time.
"It is, Miss MacCready. Sunderland has been closed after a three-car accident just by the Sisters Of Mercy Mission."
"Oh… nothing serious, I hope?"
"I can't say, Miss. I just know from my dispatch that it's been closed," Jacqueline said before the lights finally changed to green. Wasting no time, she hung a right and continued onto Cassandra Street. One of Carlyle's countless city buses did its worst to leave dense clouds of foul-smelling diesel smoke as it lumbered north on the six-lane artery. Though the Lincoln Navigator was equipped with a state-of-the-art air conditioning system, Jacqueline had soon had enough of the James Bond-like smokescreen and effortlessly moved out to pass the bus.
The many facets of Carlyle shone through as the luxury vehicle drove north on Cassandra to get to the dinner café on West Twenty-seventh Street. The greatly diverse bohemian neighborhood offered all its typically warmth and vibrant colors before the financial district's stark tones of white, gray and chrome took over.
Everything became far colder and more impersonal, and the number of black-clad, heavily armed security guards who manned the lobbies of the various banking corporations, insurance companies and other types of conglomerates only added to the latent unease that was an unfortunate trademark of the entire district.
Claudia furrowed her brow as her driver turned off Cassandra and immediately made another turn to head onto West Twenty-seventh that consisted of nothing but corporate high-rises. At first glance, it seemed a strange place for something as cozy-sounding as a dinner café, but it was only logical that the many people working for the various companies on the street needed better quality food than what their own staff cafeterias could provide.
Years earlier, she had accompanied her father who had been hired for an appearance as Santa Claus at an early-December party at Croyden-Lawson Mutual Insurance. The event - that had been a chore to get through because of the inherently wooden and inhibited nature of the insurance employees - had taken place in the McMahon Building they had just driven past. She craned her neck to look at it but couldn't see much beyond a well-lit lobby and more security people wearing dark suits that all seemed to bulge out under their left arm.
Jacqueline Wyndham eventually slowed down and began to search for somewhere to park as the Lincoln drove past a construction site not too far from their destination. Long stretches of the curb on either side of the street had been cordoned off to act as temporary storage areas for gigantic slabs of concrete that Dillon Construction & Demolition were to install in the Greater Carlyle Banking Corporation's seventy-floor behemoth after the New Year.
It left very little space anywhere for the huge Navigator so Jacqueline rubbed her chin in a nervous fashion. She kept an eye on the countdown timer on the City Tracker display - it told her they were getting dangerously close to arriving later than promised. The warm lights of the dinner café beckoned not too far ahead of them on the opposite side of the street, so she made a snap decision and drove up to the far end of West Twenty-seventh.
There, she made a silky-smooth U-turn and returned to the café. The river of meltwater in the gutter was of mammoth proportions, so she drove the right-hand set of wheels up on the sidewalk so the passenger wouldn't risk getting her feet wet and thus give Blue Ribbon Limousines a negative rating.
After donning her shaded cap, Jacqueline zipped out of the Lincoln, jumped over the evil water and opened the back door for the lady in green. "Here we are, Miss MacCready. Whenever you need me, just call the special number you were given when you made the booking. I'll stay close by so you won't have to wait for me," she said as she reached in to offer her passenger a gloved hand.
Though Claudia didn't need it to get out, she took it and gave her driver a good handshake to show her gratitude for a job well done. "Thank you very much. Jacqueline, right?"
"Yes, Miss MacCready."
"It was a perfect drive here, Jacqueline," Claudia said with a smile as she stepped out of the Lincoln and took her first real look at the fabled dinner café. The golden light that shone from the large windows made it seem like a wonderfully cozy establishment - just like she had hoped it would be. Turning back to the driver, she smiled again. "I don't know how long this will take… I hope you won't get bored waiting for me."
Jacqueline closed the door and adjusted her shaded cap. "Oh, there's little chance of that, Miss MacCready. I have plenty of things with me to keep me entertained."
"Good. Ah… please tell me, am I supposed to tip you now or when we're done?"
"Neither, Miss MacCready. Tips are already included in the fare."
"Oh… okay. That doesn't seem right to me. Let's see about that," Claudia said with a grin.
Jacqueline Wyndham returned the smile before she offered her passenger a quick salute and slipped back behind the wheel of the deep-black luxury vehicle.
As the huge Lincoln Navigator drove off to search for somewhere to park, Claudia turned around to get a better look of the café that had its entrance on the corner of West Twenty-seventh and Avenue C. The establishment's name - the Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant - featured prominently on a white sign that ran the length of the café above the windows. The name had also been painted in gold and white on the storefront windows with plenty of artistic dips and swoops, but it was still possible to catch a glimpse of the interior through the lettering.
The Golden Crescent was held in that certain traditional style that could only be pulled off in a convincing fashion if the owners and their associate interior decorator weren't afraid to go all-in with regards to the design; it seemed they'd shared a clear vision of how it should look as everything appeared classy and elegant, yet laid-back and cozy.
A smile appeared on Claudia's lips when she took in the sight of an old-fashioned, ornate Samovar tea-maker up near the wooden counter. The tables and chairs were made of wood rather than metal or plastic, and the lamps that hung over the tables were of older designs as well. Just taking in the sight of the quality interior prompted a warm feeling that eventually produced an even wider smile.
A lightbox above the counter advertised five delicious-looking desserts that each caused Claudia's appetite to break out in wild celebrations: a bowl of whipped cocoa cream sprinkled with white chocolate shavings - a slice of German Sacher torte layer cake - hot waffles and large globs of cool strawberry jam - a slice of caramel fudge cake and finally a pair of petite chocolates covered in frosting sugar.
The desserts alone were enough to convince her to climb the three steps and enter the dinner café. Simply from stepping inside, she was nearly bowled over by the multitude of rich scents that greeted her nostrils: ranging from dark chocolate and freshly ground coffee to warm dishes like a cream of asparagus soup that a waiter carried past her on a tray.
Soft music played from hidden speakers to literally set the desired tone of affairs. Claudia broke out in a chuckle when she recognized one of Lady Blu's signature songs, Love Is Like A Wheel Of Fortune - she had only just listened to that on her playlist during her exercises. The fact the café played classic jazz would earn them a gold star in her little black book, there was little doubt about that.
The ambient temperature inside The Golden Crescent was pleasant, so she took off her gloves and her beret and stuffed them into her left coat pocket. Out of sheer reflex, she took her purse off her shoulder and held it in her hand. It was a nonsense to do so in such an upscale establishment where no pickpockets would roam, but old habits were hard to ignore.
Beyond the counter and the spring-mounted doors to the kitchen, the Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant was divided into two sections of which one was nearly twice the size of the other. The area to the right of the front door was the café part and consisted of five tall tables that only offered standing room for the busiest customers; three smallish tables provided seating arrangements for those who had more time or less inclination to rush through their lunch breaks.
The dinner section was located on the opposite side of the front door and saw nine square tables that each had room for four. Five of those were lined up by the large windows while four had been pushed up against the establishment's back wall to allow the customers a little more privacy.
All tables carried off-white tablecloths and matching cloth napkins, but those gracing the tables in the café section seemed to be made of simpler and more easily washable fabric - perhaps a necessity due to the countless coffee stains that would inevitably end up there over the course of a typically busy break.
The Golden Crescent had added special New Year's decorations to the tables in the shape of brass-and-silver-colored party streamers, fake firecrackers that had no charge in them, and finally long-stemmed roses of various breeds. The five vacant tables carried neither Reserved For-cards nor any decorative items so Claudia briefly wondered if Elaine had in fact made reservations or if she was so sure there would be space for them that she had deemed it unnecessary.
Before Claudia moved up to the counter, she studied the people who sat in the dinner section. Four of the nine tables were occupied by well-dressed, mature couples who spoke to each other in soft, subdued tones while they enjoyed their meals. From observing how several of them kept a close eye on the progress of time, Claudia had a hunch they were going to a New Year's show in one of Carlyle's countless musical theaters.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a female waiter appearing from the kitchen. "Ah, good evening," Claudia said as she approached the counter. "I'm waiting for a friend of mine but I don't know whether or not she's made reservations. Would it be possible for me to wait here by the counter until she arrives?"
"Of course, Miss," the waiter said with a smile.
Claudia nodded before she loosened the overcoat's belt and undid the row of bone buttons - the pleasantly warm ambient temperature inside The Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant meant it wasn't necessary to keep the coat tightly wrapped around herself. "All right. Thank you very much. I'm sure it won't be long."
"Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?"
"Ah… well," Claudia said and turned around to look at the front door. It didn't seem Elaine was about to enter the establishment any time soon, but it was obviously hard to say for certain. Shrugging, she turned back to the counter. "No, thank you. I'll just wait here. If my friend hasn't shown up in five minutes, I'll buy a cup and maybe a slice of your Sacher layer cake."
Claudia's tastebuds were only allowed four minutes of anticipatory joy before the dinging of the small bell above the front door spelled doom to the notion of sampling the delicious-looking layer cake. A chilly breeze rushed inside in Elaine Sutcliffe's wake before she could shut the door behind her. Her hair had been upset by the sneak attack, but it was nothing that couldn't be fixed through a quick rescue mission with a gloved hand.
When blue eyes locked onto green, both ladies grinned so broadly their smiles could hardly fit onto their faces. Elaine wore her regular, dark-gray winter overcoat, and the garment stood out behind her like a wedding gown as she strode across the smooth floor of the Golden Crescent Café to get to her friend at the counter. They met at the exact halfway point and exchanged a pair of quick and strictly platonic kisses on the cheeks before engaging in a deep gaze that the Ancient Greek Goddess of Love Aphrodite would have been far more proud of.
Claudia kept her hands on Elaine's elbows as she took in her New Year's date's elegant outfit under the coat: a dark-blue two-piece suit over a black shirt where the upper two buttons were undone to reveal a gold chain-link necklace. In addition to her regular gold bracelet that she always wore on her left wrist, her earlobes were graced by a pair of diamond studs that sparkled when she moved - her grayish-brown, shoulder-length hair had been swept back at the ears to show off the small, but effective pieces of jewelry.
"Well, I must say," Claudia said without taking either her hands or her eyes off Elaine's presence, "you look amazing. That's a very good style for you."
Elaine smiled and leaned in to add another tiny peck on Claudia's cheeks. "Thank you. You look very fine yourself. Oh, that's a lovely silver necklace… is it a Celtic design?"
"Scottish!" Claudia said while sporting an exaggerated accent.
"Ooops, pardon me!" Elaine said and let out a snicker before she turned to a safer topic: "The emerald-green matches your eyes perfectly."
"It should. To tell you the truth, I spent an entire hour yesterday… that I really didn't have… trying to come up with the best combination."
"I know exactly what you mean," Elaine said as she loosened her winter coat. "For a long while, I considered jumping into my flannel shirt and the torn jeans from the grunge revival night…"
"Ohhhh, I'm glad you didn't!"
"So am I. Anyway, I hope I haven't kept you waiting for too long," Elaine said as she and Claudia made their way back up to the counter. "The traffic was awful. There had been some kind of accident over on Sunderland. There were police cars and ambulances everywhere. We even had to drive on the wrong side of the street for several hundred yards just to move ahead!"
"I know… my chauffeur told me. Oh, I've only just arrived so no worries. By the way, I didn't know if you'd reserved a table or not so I didn't want to order anything…"
"No, I decided to chance it," Elaine said with a smile. "I've been here often enough to know their peak hours are during the day. The Golden Crescent is a charming café, don't you think?"
"Very much so. I love all the traditional décor."
"I had a feeling you would," Elaine said and leaned in to rub shoulders with her friend; the statement and the contact earned her a warm smile in return.
The same waiter who had asked Claudia about the coffee returned to the counter to greet the new customer. Unlike the old days where waiters would take the orders on a notepad, tear off the page and then hand it to the kitchen staff for further processing, the young woman held a Digital Assistant in her palm that was connected directly to the chefs who toiled away in the back of the establishment. "Good evening. How may I help you?" she said with a smile.
Since Elaine was the regular at the café, Claudia allowed her friend to step forward. As the tall woman did so, her voice changed into her no-nonsense business tone - the one that had earned her the Commander In Chief nickname by the people working in her department at Spencer & Woolcott's. "Good evening. We would like a table for two, please. Preferably away from the windows. Do you still have the Appassimento Rosso from the Carrara Vineyards?"
"We do, Miss."
"Good. Please bring a half-bottle to our table while we decide what to order."
"Very well, Miss. Table three is available," the waiter said with a smile before she picked up two leatherbound menus and moved away from the counter. "Follow me, please."
Claudia had taken off her overcoat while the brief conversation had taken place; she was pleased to see a vacant hallstand right next to the table they were being led to. After putting the garment on a coat hanger, she took her purse, her telephone and her wallet and shuffled over to the nearest chair. While Elaine tipped the waiter, Claudia sat down and made herself comfortable. "How come you specifically requested a table away from the windows?" she said as she put her suede purse on the table next to her spot.
"Well," Elaine said as she sat down, "mostly because I'm always in the spotlight at work. Hundreds of people gawk at me when I make the regular tours of the floors. I don't want to be stared at during my own time as well."
"Oh… right. Of course. All the more for my eyes to feast on, then," Claudia said and winked at her date in a rather exaggerated fashion. When she was rewarded by a toothy grin, she settled down and opened her menu.
After finishing her delicious meal, Claudia pushed the empty plate away and took the final sip of her Appassimento Rosso. As the hands of time had moved around to seven, the Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant had filled up nicely without ever becoming overcrowded. A second waiter had come to work to provide an additional pair of hands, but even so, a small line of new customers had formed at the counter to announce their arrival.
Party-clad couples were in high spirits all around Claudia and Elaine - no doubt a result of the copious amounts of champagne that had been consumed. Though the animated conversations at the other tables drowned out the jazzy soundtrack that continued to be played from the café's high-quality sound system, they were rarely intrusive except for an inebriated fellow wearing a plastic set of Groucho glasses complete with a big ol' honker and a bushy mustache. The man had obviously started celebrating the New Year several days before everyone else and thought it was the funniest thing in the history of Mankind to yell "Down the drain!" and "Happy New Year!" at the top of his lungs at all-too frequent intervals.
The dinner conversation between Claudia and Elaine had flowed well. They had touched upon the latest goings-on in their respective lines of work, the recent releases of books, movies and plays, the weather, the horrendous traffic, sports results and similar safe subjects. As the noisiest dinner guests paid and left, a calm fell over The Golden Crescent that seemed to allow Elaine to breathe easier and let down her guard a little.
Her blue eyes explored Claudia's face for a while before she took another sip of her red wine. "Isn't it strange? I'm nervous and I don't even know why," she said in a quiet voice meant for Claudia's ears only. "It's not like we're on a blind date or anything… we've known each other for several years already. And after all the things we did together in the run-up to Christmas, we don't have to worry about making poor first impressions!"
"I know exactly what you mean," Claudia said at a matching volume. She broke out in a shy smile as she began to toy with her spent cloth napkin. "I have the jitters, too. It's silly, really, but… it's different now, isn't it? This is different. It's a proper date."
"The kisses we shared at the frozen lake made everything… oh… they just opened a door to something far bigger and better than-" Claudia stopped herself to let out a guffaw and a croaked "God, what melodrama!"
An embarrassed laugh soon followed as the cloth napkin was given an extensive push around the empty plate. She couldn't hold Elaine's warm gaze so she kept close track of the napkin instead. "What I meant to say was-"
Elaine put out her hand and placed it atop Claudia's to stop the fidgeting; the gesture finally made Claudia look up and lock eyes with her. "You don't have to explain a thing. I felt everything you did back at the lake. I know exactly what you mean."
"Good. So why are we still nervous?"
A few seconds of reflective silence went by before they both let out laughs that seemed to liberate them from the worst of their insecurities. "Now that's a good question, Claudia," Elaine said in a voice that held a certain undertone of warmth and humor. "If we wrote a book that offered a walkthrough of the psychological aspects of women's love life, we could retire to Bora-Bora. Hey, we could buy Bora-Bora!"
"Isn't that an atoll?"
"I think so."
"Okay… we could make it our winter retreat. The Carlyle summers are too lovely to miss," Claudia said with a grin.
"True," Elaine said and took the final sip of her glass of wine. "On a related, though somewhat different, topic… how's your family? Is your Dad's leg getting better? Did your brother ever forgive you for telling him to fix the Christmas lunch last weekend?"
The grin froze on Claudia's lips. An awkward silence filled the air while she composed her reply - the silence grew so loud that it made Elaine reach for the outstretched hand all over again to show her support. "Dad's doing pretty well now," Claudia eventually said, "but Jonathan's being an… a pain in my neck for no good reason."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Thank you. Dad thinks it's because my sister-in-law has somehow manipulated Jonathan into thinking that I'm some kind of… sheesh… threat to her. Because of who I am."
Elaine shook her head in a puzzled fashion. "Why? For religious reasons?"
"Possibly. I can't say for sure. I guess she considers me a big, bad lezzie who's just dying to deflower her. Or something. It's grotesque. Preposterous!"
"I'll say!" Elaine said and let out a harrumph of pure disgust.
Claudia's spent napkin was given another couple of tours around the empty dish before she pushed the whole thing aside for good. "Change of subject. Please," she said as she found her telephone. She cast a quick glance at the white digits on the display that read ten past seven. "The evening's still young. The dinner was wonderful… I really enjoyed it. I'll definitely come back here. Ah-"
"I'm sorry for bringing up such a painful topic, Claudia. I had no idea it would keep hurting you like that… are we still good?" Elaine said and took Claudia's other hand as well. She gave them both a fair-sized squeeze to show that she'd still like to continue their date if at all possible.
"We're good. Don't worry. But I don't want to talk about it," Claudia said with a smile that slowly returned to its previous levels of joy. "So… what would you like to do for the rest of the evening?"
Elaine let out a small sigh of relief before she added another squeeze for good measure. Leaning back on her chair, her eyes never left Claudia's. "Well, I tried to get us a couple of tickets for the big New Year's Eve TV spectacular. It's being broadcast live from ten PM onwards… or so I thought. When I got in touch with the ticket brokers we always use at Spencer and Woolcott's, I was told it had been taped way before Christmas!"
"Oh, really? It's all an illusion then? Figures. Get this, I've set my DVR to record it!" Claudia said and let out a brief chuckle. "Lady Blu is the show's hostess. She and the Lloyd Baker Trio are some of the headlining stars. The Johnny Fortunato Five… The Woodsmen… and there's a wonderful gospel singer as well. Tashana Bailey. They call her the new Mahalia Jackson. Do you know her?"
"I'm familiar with the name, but…"
"Her gospel choir is made up of underprivileged kids from the black neighborhoods. She and Hollywood star Edison Cullen… you gotta know him, right?"
"Oh, sure… he won a Best Actor Oscar a couple of years back."
"Yes. Well, he was in countless musicals all over the country before he turned to the silver screen. He and Tashana Bailey have joined forces on the community project," Claudia said before she continued in a dreamy voice: "Oh, I love that kind of jazzy, spiritual music…"
"So you're a real jazz gal?"
"You better believe I am!"
A few grins were exchanged between them before the quiet, cozy atmosphere in the Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant was greatly disturbed by the arrival of two party-clad couples.
The four people were all dressed like they had stepped out of a time warp or were going to a costume party at midnight: the gentlemen carried canes and wore patent-leather shoes, tail coats, monocles and top hats while the ladies wore button-up boots, wheel-sized hats and puffy dresses from the early years of the twentieth century - whichever decade the dresses were supposed to be from, they looked cumbersome to the Nth degree. Though they were all middle-aged, it seemed they had yet to discover the art of toning down their voices.
"That's our cue," Claudia said and hurriedly got up from the table. Retrieving her telephone from her pocket, she called the number she had been given to contact her Blue Ribbon driver. "Hello, Jacqueline? I'd like to be picked up now, please. How long will it- oh, you're just down the street? Excellent. I'll be outside in two minutes. Bye!"
"A limousine from Blue Ribbon is waiting for us," she continued off Elaine's puzzled look. "How did you get here?"
"I booked an Uber. That's a funny name, isn't it?" Elaine said as she took Claudia's overcoat off the hallstand's hanger and fluffed it out so her date could put her arms down the sleeves. She looked around for one of the waiters so she could settle the check, but they were both busy.
"I suppose it is," Claudia said with a grin as she closed the bone buttons and tightened the belt. Once all that had been accomplished, she donned her fleece beret and her gloves. Her purse came last and was flung over her shoulder with a suave flurry. "Whatever the name, I don't like to use them. You never know what you get before it shows up."
"I can't argue with that."
"The booking at Blue Ribbon Limousines can be tailor-made to suit all your requirements. I've used them on-and-off for a couple of years now and they've yet to let me down. The only downside is that you can't call them and expect them to show up at once like you would a regular taxi cab… there are far fewer of them out there so everything has to be planned ahead of time."
"It sounds like a better deal all 'round," Elaine said as she continued to scout for a waiter - with little success. "I think I'll get in touch with them the next time we have a VIP visiting Spencer and Woolcott's."
As the party-clad people created a little more noise of the abrasive and uncool kind, Elaine quickly donned her own winter coat - with a little help from Claudia - before she strode up to the counter to settle the check so they could make an escape while their ear drums were still intact.
The air had turned crisp by the time Claudia descended the short flight of stone steps and moved onto the sidewalk. It wasn't quite cold enough for her breath to form the large, impressive plumes of steam that had been seen at Christmas, but the harshness that nibbled on her cheeks offered a hint it couldn't be far off. She tried to look up at the dark sky to search for stars, but she was unable to see anything beyond the green sheen caused by the light pollution from the hundreds of thousands of sources within Greater Carlyle.
The well-dressed, though noisy, couples who had been the cause of Claudia and Elaine's swift exit had requested one of the tables by the windows. Once seated, the two inebriated men were far more interested in gawking out onto the sidewalk than looking at the leatherbound menus or even their lady companions who had been seated on the opposite side of the table.
Claudia snorted and moved out of their line of sight. While she waited for Jacqueline and Elaine - who had been detained by the line at the counter - she strolled around the corner of West Twenty-seventh Street and Avenue C to look at the Golden Crescent Café & Restaurant from another angle.
The wide avenue was suddenly awash in garish emergency lights as a large, boxy ambulance from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One raced past closely followed by a paramedic unit from Carlyle's city-run Medical Emergencies department. Claudia tracked them as they drove past; it didn't require much mental arithmetic to figure out they were headed for St. Mary's Hospital on West Twenty-eighth Street. She let out a brief yelp and jumped up on tip-toes when the ambulance driver suddenly activated some kind of extra horn that cleared the street ahead of them in an almighty hurry.
'Claudia? Where'd you go? You didn't leave me hanging, did you?' Elaine asked from somewhere around the corner.
Chuckling, Claudia strolled back onto West Twenty-seventh Street and waved at her bewildered date. "Of course not. I just wanted to get some air."
"Good. Tell you what, I've just had an epiphany. We middle-aged people shouldn't be singing contemporary top-forty pop songs. Or at least not in public…" Elaine said and cast a sideways glance at the window where the people in question carried on being animated. Two bottles of champagne had been delivered to their table; the bubbly liquid had barely been poured into tall flutes before it was chugged down.
"Huh? Oh… the two fellows in the top hats and tail coats?"
"Exactly. Yikes," Elaine said and rolled her eyes.
"By the way," Claudia said and dug into her overcoat's pocket to find her wallet, "let's split the check. It's only fair."
"Oh, yes. I insist," Claudia said and found a couple of one-hundred dollar bills.
Chuckling to herself like something was rather funny, Elaine looked up and down the street before she leaned in toward Claudia so she could speak in a hushed voice: "You can insist all you like, but I've already settled it and I put it on my department's expense account."
"After all, Spencer and Woolcott's owed Santa Claudia and Mrs. Santa a top-quality dinner after all the hard work we put in before Christmas… oh, and not forgetting the Cheeky Elf!"
"Well, in that case… thank you very much, Mrs. Santa," Claudia said and performed a small bow - then they both started snickering.
While Claudia and Elaine spoke on, Jacqueline Wyndham arrived on the scene and brought the deep-black Lincoln Navigator around in another U-turn. She drove up onto the sidewalk like earlier so her passengers wouldn't risk getting their feet wet. The huge vehicle had barely come to a halt before she hopped out, jumped across the river of meltwater and opened the back door. "Good evening, Miss MacCready. I trust you had a pleasant dinner?" she said as she held out her gloved hand to show the way to the two ladies.
"Hello again, Jacqueline. Yes, our dinner was quite delicious, thank you. This is Elaine Sutcliffe," Claudia said and pointed at her friend. "Elaine, meet Jacqueline. She's a first class chauffeur. I promise you'll never go back to an Uber after this trip."
A blush colored Jacqueline's cheeks as she shook hands with the tallest of the women present. "Good evening, Miss Sutcliffe. I hope you'll be satisfied with Blue Ribbon Limousines… and thank you very much, Miss MacCready. I try my hardest. Please, have a seat," she said as she helped Elaine and her original passenger up onto the comfortable leather seats. Once everyone had settled in, she put her gloved hand on the heavy door's handle. "Are we going back to West Eighteenth Street, Miss MacCready?"
"No, the night's far too young for that," Claudia said as she leaned across Elaine's lap to be able to look at the driver - a quick shared wink proved they both enjoyed the physical contact. "Ah… tell you what, Jacqueline… first of all, why don't you get behind the wheel where it's nice and warm? We need to figure out what we'd like to do now."
"Very well, Miss MacCready. Watch the door, please," Jacqueline said before she closed it. After performing her regular Olympian long-jump, she hurried along the side of the Lincoln and slipped behind the steering wheel. Her shaded cap was quickly put on the passenger seat before she turned her attention to the GPS-equipped City Tracker so she could plot in wherever her passengers would be interested in going.
"Okay," Claudia said and leaned forward to peek between the front seats. As she did so, Elaine put out her hand in an invitation for a little squeeze down among the shadows - Claudia wasn't shy in picking up the hand and holding it close. Another little wink followed before she concentrated on the driver and the colorful display mounted on the dashboard. "So… my friend and I were thinking… are there any events tonight that a couple of adults like us could visit without feeling ancient? Indoors or outdoors doesn't matter, but preferably something with limited alcohol-related content. Or to put it more bluntly, little drinking and no drunks. Am I correct, Elaine?"
"Very much so," Elaine said and let out an affirmative grunt to underscore her opinion. She glanced out of the tinted side window at the animated, party-clad couples inside The Golden Crescent. It seemed they'd had an accident of the champagne-spilling kind as one of the waiters was working hard to mop up the flooding.
"Let me see, Miss MacCready," Jacqueline said as she tapped the request into the City Tracker's integrated keyboard. A wheel started spinning on the display as the device went online to access the databases used by Blue Ribbon Limousines. "Well…" she continued after a short list of possible destinations had appeared on the display. She ran her finger down the list with little success. "I'm afraid there isn't much. The Virgin Tower Organiza-"
"No!" -- "No," Elaine and Claudia said as one; when they realized they had said the same thing at the same time, they broke out in identical snickers and leaned in to rub shoulders.
Up front, Jacqueline allowed herself a brief chuckle as well before she returned to the list. "Here's one, Miss MacCready. It's a family-friendly New Year's market run by a charity organization. It promotes home-made arts and crafts in traditional Mexican as well as Central and South American designs. It says there'll be an acoustic Mariachi band and other types of musical entertainment. It's over in North Tijuana on East Twenty-first Street not too far from Beauregard."
"A traditional Mexican New Year's market?" Claudia said and looked at Elaine who shrugged in return. "Well… why not? Oh! Do you know if Sunderland has been opened for traffic yet, Jacqueline?"
"It has, Miss MacCready."
"In that case, we'd like to go to that market, please. Thank you."
"You're welcome, Miss MacCready," Jacqueline said and plotted the course for the New Year's market. "It will take us twenty-six minutes to get there. Is that satisfactory?"
Nodding, Jacqueline started the luxury vehicle and drove off the sidewalk with the greatest of care so her passengers wouldn't be shaken about. Once she had made another U-turn to head in the right direction, she put her thumb on the Lincoln's entertainment system. "Would you like some music while we drive, Miss MacCready?"
"No thank you. We need to rest our ears!" Claudia said with a chuckle.
"Very well, Miss MacCready," Jacqueline said and focused on the driving. Once the traffic lights ahead of them turned green, she hung a right onto Avenue C and began the trek across town to get to the Hispanic neighborhood on the east side of Carlyle.
The ride was as smooth and pleasant as Claudia had promised. Elaine took full advantage of that by toying with Claudia's fingers out of sight of the world's prying eyes. The grins they shared proved the date was going well, and if it hadn't been for the seat belts they were required to wear, chances were they would have been sitting right up against each other.
The hands of time moved steadily toward eight o'clock. With just over four hours to go until the big celebrations would commence, the world around them grew less restrained and more eventful.
It seemed New Year's Eve and the night going into January 1st would be just as fraught and stressful as always for the Carlyle Police Department. Over a stretch of three city blocks, the deep-black Lincoln Navigator drove past no less than six police motorcycles or patrol cruisers that had stopped drunk drivers or had been called to intervene in bar room or sidewalk brawls - the latter often involved fiery young men fighting over the attention of a party-clad lady.
The sixth and final incident they went past had gone beyond that: an ambulance crew from Sklar & Bonney worked flat-out treating a young fellow's badly bleeding stab wounds while the perpetrator had been pacified on the cold sidewalk by a brawny and tough-looking female police officer. As she slapped a pair of metal handcuffs on the offender, her riding partner secured the knife used in the attack and put it into an evidence bag. Blood continued to drip off the blade; the scarlet smear made Elaine break out in a shiver and look away in disgust.
"Are you cold? We can get Jacqueline to turn on the heated seats," Claudia said for her friend's ears only.
"No, it's not that… it was just… ugh, that scene back there," Elaine said and shook her head. "Sometimes, I just don't understand people. We see it at Spencer and Woolcott's at least twice a month. Some of the customers get into an argument that ends in a shoving match or worse."
"Wow, even at S-and-W's? I thought the store was too exclusive for things like that to happen," Claudia said and gave her friend's hand a little squeeze.
Elaine shook her head again. "I wish. We always hand out immediate store bans to the worst offenders, but they don't really care either way. The crisis has already taken place by then so we're just bolting the empty bay, so to speak."
"Mmmm. I'm suddenly reminded of those Stone-Age customers last week who couldn't accept a female Santa Claus," Claudia said and reached over to nudge Elaine's side in the hope of coaxing a tiny smile out of her - it worked.
The ethnic neighborhood known as North Tijuana was Greater Carlyle's natural center for people of Hispanic and Latino blood from all over the Americas. That Carlyle in general was as far removed as humanly possible from the arid, scorching hot city that had lent the neighborhood its name was yet another of those cosmic ironies that seemed to pop up at all too frequent intervals.
East Twenty-first Street wasn't too far from the dark, depressing Skid Row down south near Twelfth Street, but the neighborhoods were so different they might as well have been on different planets. Everything about North Tijuana was the exact opposite of the slums - it was a squeaky-clean residential area where everyone took great care of each other and their surroundings. Some lived alone, but most apartments were home to proud, multi-generational families that worked long hours in blue-collar jobs to support their own.
The community-run New Year's market proved to be a popular affair with the locals who arrived in a steady stream. Some pushed baby strollers and others pushed wheelchairs occupied by their family elders. Most came as groups where the little ones raced around full of energy while their parents tried to keep an eye on them so they wouldn't disappear in the crowd. Everyone had wrapped up in layers upon layers of warm clothing to combat the chilly conditions, but it was easy to see that people had found their nicest sets to wear for the important market that provided the day-to-day funding for a good deal of the year's community work.
Jacqueline Wyndham had barely driven onto East Twenty-first Street before she was forced to come to a halt - everything was blocked up ahead of them. Letting out a small grunt, she used the rear-view mirror to eye her passengers before her gloved fingers ran across the City Tracker's display. "Miss MacCready," she said and turned around in the seat, "I'm afraid this is as far as I can go. The rest of the street is inaccessible. We're still two hundred yards away from the market. Do you wish to be driven somewhere else instead?"
Claudia leaned between the seats to look out of the windshield. She mirrored Jacqueline's grunt as she took in the sight of hundreds of people walking along the street to get to the community market. "Huh… no, that's all right, Jacqueline. We can walk two hundred yards. I don't think you can park anywhere around here, though…"
The driver offered her passenger a brief, but confident smile. "I'll figure something out, Miss MacCready. I'll be ready to return the moment you call me."
"Well," Claudia said and looked at Elaine who nodded and shrugged. "All right. We'll get out here and-"
Claudia didn't have time to finish the sentence before Jacqueline had donned her shaded cap, vacated the driver's seat, raced around the rear of the deep-black Lincoln Navigator and opened the rear door.
"-walk the rest of the way," Claudia continued with a grin though her comment was no longer necessary.
As they followed the stream of happy, excited people who strolled toward the New Year's market, Elaine reached out for Claudia's gloved hand. Once she had it in her own, she swung it back and forth a couple of times before she pulled the woman it belonged to a little closer so they could bump arms while they walked. "I could get used to that kind of service. Nobody ever opens a door for me these days," she said in a relaxed voice that proved she had let down her guard.
Claudia grinned at her friend's seemingly innocent statement. "No wonder. Everyone's far too intimidated."
"Of me?!" Elaine said in a comical fashion while she pressed an index finger into her chest.
"Yes. It's your height. Some guys are scared witless of tall women… and everyone is scared witless of getting on the wrong side of the head of the Human Resource department," Claudia said and flashed her friend a cheeky grin that wouldn't have looked out of place on the Cheeky Elf she had played the previous week.
Elaine let out a croaking laugh. "God, you make me sound like I'm the reincarnation of Attila the Hun… am I really that bad?"
"No, not bad… just a little scary at times," Claudia said through an entire series of winks. "Anyway, I promised the drive would be a great experience, didn't I?"
"You sure did. And it certainly was. My, would you look at all this!" Elaine exclaimed as she clapped eyes on the hustle and bustle at the New Year's market.
Held on a grassy square that was used as a baseball pitch in the summer months, the community-run market saw more than forty booths and smaller stands where the local residents sold home-made garments, traditional jewelry and fashion items, and even various earthenware jars and bowls that would fit right into any well-stocked kitchen. As expected, the din from the large crowd was massive with plenty of squealing children and laughing adults - nary a harsh word was heard anywhere save for the inevitable moments when someone accidentally stepped on someone else's toes or bumped an elbow into someone's ribs.
Vendors cooking all kinds of spicy street food created strong and mouth-watering scents that permeated the entire area; glowing lumps of coal on flat pans took care of the mood lighting while adding their own unique smell to the mix. Proper light was provided by a series of twenty-foot tall poles that each carried a strong lamp that cast golden rays onto the booths and the hundreds of visitors below.
Four acoustic Mexican guitars had been lined up on a small dais raised a foot off the ground, but the Mariachi band was yet to make an appearance. In their stead, a sound engineer checked the instruments and made sure the microphones worked.
Off to the right, two women wrapped up in multiple layers of winter clothing and wearing colorful beanie hats had set up a Diamonds table. The taller of the two sat behind the table shuffling the deck of cards used for the classic sleight-of-hand trickery while the other - a short, feisty blonde - performed a welcoming spiel that was certain to lure in unsuspecting punters for a game or two: "Come this way, fair Ladies and Gentlemen!" the feisty one cried like a side show barker of yore. "We welcome all and not just the fit! If you place a coin on our table, we promise to take good care of it! The rich can place two if they so desire, but it is a treat we do not require! One coin shall suffice… after all, you are more than welcome to play twice!"
Claudia tapped Elaine's shoulder and pointed at the amusing scene. Just as they watched it unfold, two security guards accompanied by a burly fellow - Hector Martinez, the organizer of the event - approached the hustlers and asked them politely to pack up and leave or the police would be called. The hustlers in question smiled and nodded and smiled a little more before they stowed their entire gear into two bags and left the scene without any complaints.
Half an hour later, the traditional Mariachi band was well into its set which created a party-like atmosphere at the market. The top-professional musicians had the spectators lapping it up, and some among the visitors had even begun to dance to the crisp tones and fast rhythms.
The fairly narrow lanes between the booths didn't allow for such exuberance, so the dancers inevitably bumped into each other which at times created a chain reaction - inevitably, that led to a few heated words from the vendors whose booths had nearly been knocked over.
Claudia chewed on her lower lip as she glanced around one more time. Although lively, cheery and colorful, the market had turned out to be less exciting than she had hoped it would be and they had already seen everything at least twice. A quick peek at her telephone proved it was getting close to nine o'clock. "Ah… Elaine…" she said and hooked her arm inside her friend's. "Would you be really disappointed if we went somewhere else now? Perhaps even home to my place? I need some hot coffee… and my sweet tooth is rebelling against me for not feeding it for so long."
Elaine let out a relieved chuckle. "I wouldn't be disappointed at all. To tell you the truth, I've been working on a good exit line for at least ten minutes now. I thought you'd be disappointed, so…"
They stared wide-eyed at each other for a second or two before they both broke out in giggles and leaned in to bump arms. "Huh," Claudia said, "I guess there's a life lesson in there somewhere…"
"Yes. Always speaketh your mind," Elaine said with a grin. The smile grew into a sly one when she realized where following that mantra might ultimately take her - the spark between them was still present, that was undeniable.
Her mouth was suddenly dry as she took in the awfully enticing sight of Claudia's kissable lips and pixie-cute face. The busy New Year's market wasn't the right place for a display of such emotions so she bottled it for later; all it would take for the cork to burst was a gentle shaking that she hoped would follow at some point of the evening.
They kept their eyes firmly locked onto each other's for what seemed like an eternity. Claudia reached up to caress Elaine's cheek with a gloved hand. "I think we should go back to my place now," she said in a voice that proved she knew exactly what went on in her friend's mind even without hearing it.
"You know… I think that's a very good idea…"
Behind them, the spectators broke out in wild applause. The reason for the celebration was the fact that the Mariachi band had finished their live set, but the timing was impeccable as there was plenty to celebrate elsewhere as well.
Claudia nodded and reached for her telephone at once. "I'll call Jacqueline right away. Who knows where she ended up… it might take her a little while to get back here."
It didn't bother Claudia and Elaine a bit that the trip back to West Eighteenth Street took eight minutes longer than what the City Tracker computer had initially calculated. Yet another fender-bender and subsequent police intervention on the busy Sunderland Street had delayed everything by sending them on a detour around some of the smaller side streets - which had been a challenge for the huge Lincoln - but they had simply spent the entire drive back across town holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes.
When Jacqueline Wyndham had noticed that her passengers had become a great deal more interested in each other than on the trip over to the New Year's market, she had pressed a button that had made a black privacy curtain slide into position immediately behind the front seats - the curtain created a cozy, little world for the back seat passengers so they could follow their hearts' desires without having the chauffeur as a witness.
Jacqueline soon reached West Eighteenth Street and pulled over to the curb. A quick look at the gutter proved the level of water there was less severe than elsewhere in Carlyle so there was no need to drive onto the sidewalk. After she had officially ended her assignment for Claudia MacCready by updating her driver status on the computer display to Vacant, she cleared her throat to let her passengers know something was up. "Miss MacCready? We're back at your apartment."
'Already? Didn't we just leave the market?' Claudia said from somewhere behind the black privacy curtain. 'Oh… where did that curtain come from?'
Chuckling quietly at how even a little romance could cause major confusion, Jacqueline activated the button that made the curtain slide back to its outer stops. When the ladies in the back literally saw the light, Jacqueline sat up straight and put on her shaded cap. "I hope you've been satisfied with the services of Blue Ribbon Limousines, Miss MacCready. If you have any comments or complaints about the quality of the-"
"Oh, phooey, Jacqueline… you did an amazing job!" Claudia said vehemently. "In fact… and I'm a severe stickler for professionalism… I can honestly say you did a perfect job throughout. Is there any way I can call you directly the next time I need to go somewhere?"
"I'm afraid not, Miss MacCready. It's all controlled by the dispatch. But you can specifically request a female driver on the booking app. There are only three of us, so it'll be a one-in-three chance."
"Oh, is that new? I didn't even notice that! I just filled out the form as I've always done…"
"Yes, I believe it's a recent addition, Miss MacCready."
"Great! I'll do that in the future. Here's a little something for your bother," Claudia continued and found a fifty-dollar bill in her suede purse. She held it out in the gap between the front seats, but Jacqueline shook her head.
"Thank you, Miss MacCready, but tips are already included in the fare-"
"All right…" Claudia said and looked at Elaine who shrugged. "Ooops, clumsy me. I just forgot a fifty-dollar bill on the back seat. Finders keepers. Goodbye, Jacqueline… it's been a pleasure."
Elaine nodded. "And that goes double for me." - She had barely finished the sentence before Jacqueline had bolted from the driver's seat, run around the back of the behemoth Lincoln and opened the rear door.
Smiling, the chauffeur put her white glove to her shaded cap to offer her passengers a proper parting salute. Once they walked up the stoop to get to the front door of the apartment building, she reached onto the back seat to pick up the supposedly forgotten bill that soon disappeared into a pocket.
A broad grin was firmly etched onto her lips as she closed the driver's side door and returned to the leatherbound steering wheel. The computer display on the center console was soon checked: a new assignment had already ticked in which made her drive away from the curb and into the semi-darkness of West Eighteenth Street.
Claudia paused for a moment to watch the deep-black Lincoln Navigator drive away before she opened the door and ushered Elaine into the lobby. To match the rest of the old brownstone, the lobby was functional rather than opulent - the only splash of splendor was a stone mosaic that graced every inch of the floor and even onto the lower rung of the staircase.
Elaine stopped to study a notice board where a multitude of colorful pieces of paper offered everything from home-grown hemp plants to old baby strollers. Someone had even put a trumpet up for sale - according to the classified ad, it was a steal for $450. "You can learn a great deal about the residents through such ads," she said with a grin. "I majored in Marketing with a bit of Psychology and Graphic Analysis on the side."
"Oh… right. Well, I have so little to do with my neighbors your guesses will be as good as mine. The elevator's down here," Claudia said and held out her gloved hand.
"Thank God… I was worried we'd have to climb the stairs. What floor did you say your penthouse apartment was on?"
Claudia grinned as they reached an old-fashioned central elevator that was separated from the rest of the lobby by intricate wrought-iron fences. "The fifteenth," she said as she pressed a brass button to call for the car. The old chains and counterweights whined, whirred, creaked and groaned as the heavy cables were manipulated into bringing down the car from its previous stop somewhere above the lobby.
The car soon appeared through the hole in the roof created by the elevator shaft. It came to a halt in the lobby with a few squeaks, several creaks and a whole slew of groans from the counterweights as they were forced into stopping their perpendicular motion.
Having learned from a few incidents over the years where freshly applied lubricating oil had stained gloves to the point of ruining them, Claudia took hers off before she moved aside the wrought-iron fence held in the classic scissor-design so typical of the era the brownstone buildings came from. She had to chuckle at the look of pure, undiluted skepticism that was written all over Elaine's face at the prospect of setting foot in the near-ancient contraption. "Don't worry… it hasn't failed me yet. It's perfectly safe!"
Once Elaine had moved inside the old car - somewhat reluctantly - Claudia let go of the sliding door that scissored shut at once. The panel where the brass buttons for the various floors lined up in perfect order looked far too old to still be in everyday use, but an inspection sticker at the bottom of the panel proved it had in fact been inspected and approved by a service technician from the Greater Carlyle Housing Authority & Fire Prevention Unit at the end of November.
The recent inspection didn't stop the counterweights from squeaking, creaking and groaning, however, so Elaine sought out Claudia's hand as the old car rumbled upward - the grin-and-wink she got in return promised that everything would be just fine.
Upstairs on the fifteenth floor, Claudia once more manipulated the wrought-iron scissoring fence before she and Elaine stepped out of the car and onto the landing. Three doors led away from the small space in front of the elevator: one was a fire escape onto the roof, the other provided access to a utility room that housed all the mechanical works controlling the elevator, and the third and final one obviously led to Claudia's penthouse apartment.
After finding her house keys and working the two cylindrical locks, Claudia pushed the front door aside and deactivated the alarm by punching in the correct code; then she flipped a light switch and held out her hand. "Welcome to my humble abode… you can hang your coat in the open wardrobe off to your right."
"Thank you," Elaine said as she entered a narrow entrance hall held mostly in white. Apart from the aforementioned open wardrobe, it had a handful of photo frames on the walls, a door leading to what she presumed would be the bathroom, and finally a full-sized mirror with an integrated shelf at its base. The shelf carried the typical items: a hairbrush, a spare stick of lip balm and an open bowl filled with crushed, scented rose petals.
While Claudia closed the door to the landing, worked the two locks and slid the sturdy safety chain in place, Elaine took off her gloves and overcoat and looked for a hanger to put it all on. When her eyes fell on the single hanger on the rack - which was obviously meant for Claudia's own coat - she turned back to her hostess: "Not to be a bothersome burden or anything… but you wouldn't happen to have an extra hanger somewhere around here, would you?"
Claudia let out a grunt as she eyed the last remaining hanger on the rack. While she looked around for a spare, she removed her fleece beret and ran her fingers through her hair to get it to breathe a little. "Well, I do… somewhere… ah, just take that one. I'll put my things on my bed."
"Deal," Elaine said and proceeded to hang her coat in the open wardrobe. With Claudia leaving the corridor to enter her bedroom, Elaine had time to study the photos gracing the walls. They were all of the MacCready family and acted as a timeline from a faded Polaroid of a tiny tot - the eyes and the smile revealed it was Claudia herself - to a super-high-definition candid made decades later of Jonathan and Marie-Chantal's children Mark and Rosie. There were several photos of Douglas as well. In some, he wore regular clothes while others showed him in his full Santa Claus costume at a children's function somewhere.
One photo in particular seemed to hold special value to Claudia as she had put it in a golden frame and had given it a spot on the wall that made it impossible to miss. A teenaged Claudia, dressed as the Cheeky Elf, stood between 'Santa Douglas' and her late mother Marianne who wore her fabled version of the Mrs. Santa costume - it was a near-perfect Yuletide photograph, and certainly a memento to cherish.
Moving away from the entrance hall, Elaine had barely set foot in the dark living room before she let out a loud: "God, what an incredible view!" as she got an eyeful of the panorama windows and the sweeping vista of Carlyle's skyline beyond them. She didn't bother to turn on the ceiling lights but simply hurried over to the windows to take in as much as she could. Everywhere she looked, a grand spectacle of lights greeted her eyes. Some were solid, some blinked in slow on-and-off patterns and some flickered at irregular intervals.
The colors on display were magnificent. Golden light shone from tens of thousands of homes; other sources were colder and harsher similar to the type of illumination produced by LEDs and strip lights in offices. Further away, red warning beacons blinked on the roofs of some of Carlyle's tallest buildings and all the way up the chimneys and cooling towers of the distant power plants. Despite the permanent light pollution, the surprisingly clear conditions meant Elaine was even able to see as far out as the international airport several miles to the east - in the two minutes she stood there with her eyes out on stalks, she observed at least two jets taking off and another one coming in on final approach.
"Pardon me, Miss Kid-In-A-Candy-Store?" someone said from somewhere behind the mesmerized Elaine.
Claudia chuckled when her friend turned around and replied to the question with a highly eloquent "Huh?" that was reflected on her blank face.
The fact that Claudia carried a tray loaded with coffee mugs, saucers, dessert plates, cake forks, a selection of marzipan and chocolate treats and finally a stack of napkins provided the nature of the request. "Would you mind turning on the ceiling lights? I'd rather not do a forward somersault holding all this."
"Oh! Don't move… I'm on it," Elaine said and hurried away from the gorgeous view of the skyline. She quickly crossed the floor on her quest to find the elusive switch. "I'm trying… trying… really hard… any minute now… oh, where's that damned light switch?"
"That's what happens when you don't turn on the lights!" Claudia said and poked her tongue out at her friend. "No, over there… on your right… by the door. Yep, that's it," she continued as the light fixtures installed in the ceiling finally came alive.
While Elaine gestured at the switch in an exaggerated fashion like she had known where it was the whole time, Claudia moved over to the low coffee table by her couch arrangement. "Okay," she said as she put the tray on the table, "I need to ask what kind of coffee you prefer before I turn on the machine. I have classic cappuccino, caramel-flavored cappuccino, latte macchiato and a Viennese specialty known as melange. It can also make espresso, but that's not as good as the others. It's too bitter, but the user guide doesn't say how to make it less so."
"A caramel-flavored cappuccino!" Elaine said with a grin.
Claudia grinned back - and added a little wink for good measure. "We're on the same wavelength… that's what I'm having."
"Well, I could have told you that even without the cappuccino," Elaine said and hurried over to Claudia to help her distribute the tray's items on the low, wooden coffee table that had been put between the three-seater couch and the satellite armchairs - all were decked out in sandy-brown microfiber that offered a good contrast to the paler beechwood furniture.
While they set the table, she admired the colorful poster of the legendary circus clown Charlie Rivel as well as the movie posters and another batch of family photos. "I must say, you certainly have far more pictures of your family than I do. I don't think I have more than… hmmm… three or four. Maybe five. You have twenty!"
"And several more in the office, too," Claudia said and stood up straight. She looked at the photos on the sideboard; her eyes soon fell on the one with her brother and her trying sister-in-law. A dark frown briefly fell over her face before she shook it aside so it wouldn't ruin the evening. "I love my family. Most of them. Well, I love Dad and I loved Mom very much. I'm presently undecided about brother dearest."
"Kid brothers…" Elaine said and pushed her tongue into her cheek, "we can't live with 'em… and we can't live with 'em."
Claudia let out a loud laugh at the slightly mangled statement. "Aren't you supposed to say 'we can't live without them' ?"
Still chuckling at the undeniable truth of the statement - that went double for sisters-in-law - Claudia moved over to the large TV in the corner of the living room. A red LED flashing on her DVR device meant it was busy recording the big New Year's extravaganza, but it ran as a separate process which meant she could turn on the TV without interrupting anything. After rummaging around in a drawer in the TV-stand, she found an old DVD that she inserted into the player integrated in the TV. Soon, the good, old Fireplace appeared on the screen. She selected the version of the burning logs that had a gently crackling sound effect but no musical accompaniment so they could chat and listen to some of her favorite jazz without being disturbed.
"Oh!" Elaine said as she marveled at the pretty pictures on the screen. "I used to have that on VHS back in the day, believe it or not. Apart from the fact it needed to be rewound every now and then, it was so relaxing to put on…"
"And maybe a little silly, but women can be silly these days without apologizing for it," Claudia said as she went back to her friend. "I have the Aquarium as well… plenty of colorful tropical fishes in that one. It was a jokey Christmas present from Jonathan a few years back. Anyway. Are you still up for a caramel-flavored cappuccino?"
The coffee machine soon beckoned. As Claudia returned from the advanced apparatus that was an older model of the one she had at the office of the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency, she made a beeline for the docking speakers and inserted her telephone. She had already prepared a romantic playlist in the hope she and Elaine would end up back home at the apartment, so it was quickly selected and activated. Before long, warm, jazzy tones spread through the penthouse's living room.
The Fireplace DVD and the soothing soundtrack meant they were already two-thirds of the way to a cozy nest for two, and the destination was truly reached when Claudia turned off the ceiling lights once more and dimmed a few other fixtures. The flickering firelight from the TV soon dominated the living room just as she had wished it would.
"Yeah… now we're talking," Elaine said and let out a husky chuckle. "Do you prefer to sit on the left or the right?" she continued as she pointed at the three-seater couch beyond the coffee table.
"Oh… like I told you already, I'm pretty flexible when it comes to things like that. Just sit where you'd like," Claudia replied. She added a wink that could be interpreted as on the saucy side of things for those so inclined.
A moment later, the coffee maker in the kitchen sent out an electronic ding signaling it had finished making their cappuccinos. As Claudia left the living room with the tray to get the mugs, Elaine reached up to undo two additional buttons of her black shirt - for some reason, the ambient temperature seemed to have risen quite a few degrees since they had come back from their trip around town.
A little later in the evening, every last one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle had fallen into place. Even better: the picture it produced was one of genuine, glowing desire and mutual attraction. Everything was just right. The mood lighting created the desired intimacy; the caramel-flavored cappuccinos had been warm and sweet, and the exquisite pieces of filled chocolate and high-grade marzipan that Claudia and Elaine had fun choosing for each other were indeed treats. The Fireplace DVD continued to add its two cents' worth to the cozy atmosphere on its endless loop, and Lady Blu took care of the rest singing about Finding Love In The Nicest Of Places.
The ladies present had curled up on the couch under a Christmas-themed throw that Claudia always kept ready for the chilly winter evenings. Sitting close, they basked in each other's presence and the stimulating jazz that came from the docking speakers. After a brief but certainly good-natured struggle over the last piece of filled chocolate - they had split it down the middle using a cake fork - a contented silence fell over them.
The calm moment could be interpreted as a prelude to a rapidly mounting tempest when a warm hand suddenly found its desired target underneath the throw. As the daring digits came to a rest on Elaine's black shirt across her stomach, the rest of Claudia soon followed the hand to move in closer so their faces were only inches apart. The world around them seemed to hold its breath as it waited for the next move from either of the two ladies.
Though they needed permission from no one, Lady Blu gave them her blessing by reciting the erotically charged Love Me Softly in a husky, seductive style that left no question as to the nature of the lyrics that had deliberately been written as ambiguous.
The rampant electricity that created wild, crackling arcs between Claudia and Elaine's eyes proved too strong to ignore. Closing the rest of the distance between them before another heartbeat could go by, Claudia let her eyes slide shut as her lips connected with her date's. The caramel-flavored cappuccino and the chocolate they had enjoyed added a little extra, but it was their natural taste that really got them going.
Claudia's probing hand grew bolder and soon found a gap between two buttons that was just wide enough to slip through. Once inside the black, silky fabric, she pulled up an undershirt until her fingers pressed gently against the warm skin of Elaine's stomach. She allowed them to creep upward a little but made sure she didn't venture too far too swiftly - there was no point in rushing ahead that early in their delightful adventure.
A moan escaped Elaine as the hand continued its small journey of exploration across her sensitive skin. Even while the kiss went on, she wanted to do a little exploration of her own but sat at such an angle her hand could only be put on Claudia's thigh.
Her logical mind told her that such an intimate touch was perhaps a bit too bold, but the blast furnace that had come to life within her gave her logical mind a strong enough kick up the proverbial rear-end to make it surrender. Placing her own hand on Claudia's inner thigh, she clawed the emerald-green suit pants and the firm leg she could feel through the fabric.
It prompted a husky chuckle from Claudia whose eyes were opened to add a little more spice to the ancient pastime. They finally had to break off the kiss so they could breathe, but they kept their heads together in case another kiss was deemed necessary. To show she had no problem with the intimate touch, she inched even closer to her kissing partner to ease the access to her thigh.
The selection of Lady Blu's greatest hits had finished, but the playlist had segued into a group of instrumental jazz classics. I'm A Fool For You had rarely sounded better than the saxophone version playing from the telephone.
Colorful explosions out in the far distance caught Elaine's eye, and she looked past Claudia to see what was going on beyond the panorama windows. She furrowed her brow when she realized she was looking at fireworks. "What the…" she breathed, "is it the New Year already? That can't be right… it was only just ten… or ten thirty…"
"Don't tell me you turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight?" Claudia husked before she let out a saucy snicker. She kept her hand busy stroking and clawing Elaine's side. Growing ever bolder, she had moved within an inch or two of the underside of the lacy bra cupping the left breast, but she didn't want to go any further north without a invitation.
"I turn into a toad! A big, green, hideous one… c'mere," Elaine said and suddenly pulled Claudia close to her so they could resume the sweet contact. The kissing was just as good the second time of asking so they decided to continue for a while.
Once the need for air overruled even the need for carrying on the exciting adventure, Claudia finally moved her roaming hand out of Elaine's shirt and used its index finger to trace her kissing mate's cheek, chin and soft lips. "You know, I'd still kiss you. Warts 'n all," she whispered with a sly wink.
"Yep," Claudia said and dove in for a final peck just to prove there was real commitment behind her words. Several loud reports created by fireworks filtered through the windows; it drew their simultaneous interest and spelled a momentary end to the kissing session.
Sitting up straight, the first thing Elaine did was to take off her suit jacket to quell some of the heat that billowed off her. It ended up on the floor next to the couch as she had nowhere to put it. "Well, perhaps I need to tell you that I'm a scrunched-up piece of hideousness every morning. That's when the horrific toad-monster appears… at least until I've had time to paint my public face back on. Hey, don't laugh!"
"I'm not laughing," Claudia said though she was doing just that. "I just don't believe it. No, not a word of it. I'll bet you're as beautiful in the morning as you are now."
"Well, I can safely say no to that one… but thank you. I suppose you're fresh and spunky like a true Cheeky Elf no matter what time of day it is?"
"Not quite, but close. I guess I'm a little unusual… I'm a morning person as well as a night owl. Speaking of which," Claudia said and peeked over at her docked telephone where a melancholy trombone played an instrumental version of The Woodsmen's Leaving My Girl Back Home. "Oh! It's twenty to twelve already! How did that happen?"
Elaine guffawed and gave Claudia's thigh a teeny-tiny slap. "You know, I could have sworn I just said that… and you made fun of me!" - A pink tongue poking out of its cave was all the answer she got.
Claudia shuffled around on the couch to look out of the panorama windows. There were still a few colorful detonations out there, but perhaps not as many as a couple of minutes earlier. "Say, I was thinking… how about we went outside onto the rooftop patio? It can't be long before the fireworks really get going. I've bought a bottle of genuine French champagne that I was hoping we could share. Would you like a glass or two of that? Or would you prefer a little more coffee or perhaps a soda?"
"Champagne would be fine by me, thank you," Elaine said as she reached up to fan her neck that had - literally - turned hot under the collar.
Crabbing sideways on the couch, Claudia unfolded her legs and got up. She needed to find her shoes that had been kicked off when they had sat down, but once they were back on her socked feet, she made her way over to the large TV in the corner where the Fireplace DVD still ran. "The big New Year's extravaganza is coming to an end… d'you want to watch the finale?" she said as she pressed stop and then eject to end the firelight.
"Sure!" Elaine said and put her own feet back down on the floor. The second her kissing mate had left her, the chill that had followed was bad enough for her to reach for her suit jacket and then the Christmas-themed throw. She had barely put on the jacket when she realized she urgently needed to be excused. "Ah, you need to hold that thought. The first item on my immediate agenda will be to borrow your bathroom…"
"You bet. It's right over-" Claudia said while she pointed at a connecting hallway that led away from the living room. "On second thoughts, I better show you where it is so we won't have any accidents!"
Grinning, Elaine got up from the couch and slipped her feet into her shoes. "Good thinking! The tide is rather high…"
Like Veronica 'Lady Blu' Masterson had done all evening from Claudia's telephone, the singer and her friends and colleagues welcomed in the New Year on the extravagant TV show that was broadcast all over the country. The regal-looking entertainer who had recently starred in a biopic of one of the top stars of early musical theater sang and danced her way through a selection of evergreens as the show drew closer to the grand finale.
Claudia and Elaine both sat on the floor by the TV on a huge, soft cushion they had dragged out of Claudia's box room. They could have moved the two armchairs over to the TV, but the chance of another kiss would have been severely limited if they sat separately - thus, they were up close and within touching distance of each other once more.
Claudia suddenly furrowed her brow as she took in the sight of Lady Blu. After squinting at Elaine Sutcliffe whose body was almost Elmer-glued to her side, her eyes returned to the TV where they studied the entertainer's tall frame and graceful features - then she looked at Elaine all over again. She had never made the connection before, but there was a certain resemblance between the two tall, dark-haired women like they were distant relatives. Just when she was about to comment on the puzzling fact, Lady Blu bowed to the audience and sashayed off the stage to a thunderous applause.
The show's producer had superimposed a countdown clock in the upper-right corner of the TV feed. It had just reached seven minutes to midnight when the entire cadre of top stars came back onto the stage and broke out in an a cappella version of the classic Auld Lang Syne to show that real singers didn't need electronic trickery to sound good - the stellar line-up of recording artists at the New Year's extravaganza had sold so many albums in their respective genres that the stack could have reached from the sidewalk and up to Claudia's penthouse apartment on the fifteenth floor.
"That was great!" Elaine said and broke out in spontaneous applause once the closing number had finished. As the end credits began to roll, glittery confetti, little flags and hugely long, multi-colored streamers were suddenly shot out of cannons with plenty of noise and smoke. The parting gift made the televised show's spectators go into a clapping, cheering and whistling frenzy that simply refused to stop. It only grew more unrestrained when the colorful paper items released by the blasts began to rain down upon the party-clad people in the concert hall.
"It really was… Lady Blu is my favorite singer," Claudia said as she took in the amusing, but slightly embarrassing, sight of adults acting like children when it came to scooping up the confetti and throwing it at each other. "I'm glad she got rid of that sorry husband of hers. He was bad for her. Not only did he cheat on her with one starlet, he got another one pregnant at the same time! I mean, honestly… can you believe that?"
Elaine let out a knowing chuckle as she thought back to roughly two dozen embarrassing incidents involving celebrities that she had witnessed first hand. "Well, I can believe most things when it comes to those showbiz folks. They have zero inhibitions. I know that for a fact after hosting the celebrity Christmas tree-lighting event for six years running over at Spencer and Woolcott's. The things I've seen and heard… yikes."
"I'll bet. And don't forget Mayor Goddard," Claudia added with a wink.
"Ah yes, our wonderful mayor. She must be doing something right to make people continue to vote for her. I'll be darned if I know what it is, though."
"Maybe she's just connected to the right people," Claudia said and got up from the soft cushion. Her attention was soon caught by the colorful fireworks outside. As the hands of time continued their hasty march toward midnight, the aerial explosions increased in volume, frequency and above all quality. "C'mon, let's put on our coats… I'll get the champagne and a couple of flutes and then we can step outside," she continued as she turned off the TV.
Elaine clambered to her feet as well. Cushion or not, it had been a while since she had sat on any floor anywhere so her back let out a few protests as she stood up straight. It took a few moments for the little aches to stop, but she wasn't about to complain - the situation had been so cozy and the company so exquisite that it outweighed the tiny niggles she experienced. "Ah… is it safe to do so at night? Isn't it dark out there? I'd rather not take a fifteen-floor swan dive if I can help it," she said as she tucked in her black shirt that had mysteriously come undone nearly all the way around.
"It's perfectly safe, Elaine. Don't worry," Claudia said with a reassuring smile. "The patio doesn't stretch out to the edge of the roof. There's a gap at least six feet wide between the outer railing and the really big drop."
"Well, that's nice. But it'll still be dark…"
Claudia winked. "Not if we turn on the roof lights."
"Ah… quite. That would help, I agree…"
They looked at each other for a long second before they both started giggling at the silly topic. Hooking their arms inside each other's, they headed for the entrance hall to get their overcoats.
Three minutes later, Claudia and Elaine walked onto the rooftop patio fully dressed in winter coats, scarves, gloves and knitted hats. Although the weather had grown warmer from the near-record lows during the frosty conditions of the previous weekend, the altitude and the constant breeze up there meant it was still chilly.
Claudia had turned on no less than six exterior lamps so Elaine wouldn't be concerned about taking a wrong step anywhere. The golden light cast onto the flagstones and the outdoor furniture - three upright deck chairs, a sun chair, a round cafe table and a closed parasol that were all wrapped up for the winter - was pleasant and didn't intrude on the visual feast they were about to witness.
"Can't be long now," Claudia said as she poured the bubbly liquid into Elaine's flute. "It was two minutes to midnight when we went outside…"
Elaine had just opened her mouth to reply when the church bells from around Greater Carlyle provided the answer for her - the bells signaled the stroke of midnight and thus the New Year. Because of the great distance between the various churches around the metropolis, the crisp tones of the bells arrived at the rooftop patio at different times and created a unique, but certainly heavenly, symphony.
"Happy New Year, Elaine!" Claudia said and stood up on tip-toes to place deliberately sloppy kisses on her date's cheeks.
Once the mandatory smooches had been exchanged, Elaine raised her flute. "Happy New Year, Claudia! Let's hope it'll be a better one than last year. Cheers!"
They fell silent while they enjoyed the first sips of the chilled champagne. All around them, the sky above Carlyle exploded in a wide array of colorful detonations that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Huge aerial bombs and other types of pyrotechnics were launched from the official celebration at City Hall Square some distance north of West Eighteenth Street. Further east, a massive barrage of fireworks lit up the dark sky from the areas around Sunderland Street and into the ethnic neighborhoods beyond it.
Victory Park - just across the street from the brownstone - was dark and quiet at first, but it only took a few minutes before the first firecrackers were lit and the first rockets and fireworks batteries were launched by high-spirited revelers who had run down there after ushering in the New Year in their apartments.
Thick, foul-smelling clouds of cordite rolled across the park after the rockets had detonated a good distance up in the air. Each further explosion drew plenty of fascinated ooooooh'ing and ahhhhhh'ing from the crowd that slowly formed on the open lawn. Though large signs at the entrances to the park proclaimed that all such activity was strictly prohibited and that breaking the rules would lead to prosecution, nobody gave a damn since the Park Rangers weren't working on New Year's Eve.
Predictably, the sounds created down in the zone stretching from West Fourth to West Eleventh Street just south of the bohemian district were far less friendly - they were all hard, violent detonations and window-rattling cracks and bangs from twine bombs, pipe bombs and other types of home-made explosive devices.
The zone was colloquially known as the Badlands or Scary World, and its residents did their worst to live up to the disturbing monikers. The violent cracks of the twine bombs were soon joined by the familiar sounds of scattered, random gunfire - it was an age-old tradition among the shadier individuals living there. Some were shooting into the sky just for the hell of it, some wanted to restore the honor of a wronged family member, some had personal scores to settle or debts to collect, and some were simply out for a killing.
Only a few minutes later, police sirens echoed through the concrete canyons as the night every law enforcement officer hated with a passion was truly underway - the fireworks would typically stop at three in the morning, but the criminal activities in the troubled neighborhoods would continue until dawn at the earliest. In some years, proper law and order wouldn't be restored until the 3rd of January or so.
"Ah, Carlyle…" Claudia said quietly as the direction of the breeze meant the harsh electronic sirens could be heard as far up as her rooftop patio. "Love it or hate it, but there's always, always, always something going on. There's never a dull moment, is there?"
"No. I don't know where I stand, to be honest," Elaine said in a somber tone. "I haven't always lived here… until recently, I could have moved back west without giving it a second thought." Nodding to herself, she emptied her flute in a single gulp. She knew the statement needed to end on a positive note, so she wrapped an arm around Claudia's waist and pulled her close. "But then I met you," she added in a whisper.
"Awwww… charmer," Claudia said and rested her cheek on Elaine's chilled overcoat. "I was hoping you'd say something like that. For a second there, you had me worried you wouldn't!"
"Now that would have been extraordinarily foolish of me. Listen, Claudia… there's something I need to tell you."
"Yes?" Claudia breathed.
"My toes have turned into ice cubes. Can't we go back inside… please?"
Claudia jerked back - then she poked Elaine repeatedly in the side. "Ohhh! You big tease!"
"Well, they sure feel like it!" Elaine said and let out a string of snickers as she had to duck, bob, weave and squirm to get away from the poking finger. "Let's find the couch and carry on where we left off. How about that?"
Claudia stopped her humorous poking attack to lick her lips. She cast such a sizzling gaze at Elaine the world seemed to come to a halt around them - only the constant drone of the fireworks proved there was still some life left out there. "Well, you know… actually… the coziest place inside might be my bedroom."
From one heartbeat to the next, the air began to crackle from the unrestrained electricity that flew back and forth between the eyes of the two ladies. Elaine quickly put her flute on the ground before she took Claudia by the arms and pulled her impossibly close. The romantic moment cried out for a kiss, so their lips touched in a sweet, tender contact that was a promise of things to come.
Unlike the earlier heated exchanges that were fueled by intrigue and excitement, this one was a gentle, unhurried affair that allowed them both to connect on a far deeper, far more emotional level. "Is that a fact?" Elaine whispered after they had to break off their glorious kissing to breathe.
An expression of concern spread over Elaine's features even as she continued to hold Claudia's arms. It was only there for a moment before she tried to hide it with a confident smile that didn't quite accomplish what it had set out to do. "It's… it's tempting," she said after a few seconds filled with mounting expectations.
"Well, I think so… I sense a 'but' in there somewhere?"
Another delay; another brief expression of concern flashed across Elaine's face. When she finally spoke, it was at a far lower volume than before: "But my body has changed so much recently that I… oh… some mornings, I can hardly recognize the woman I see in the mirror. I know the change is natural and that I'm not eighteen anymore, but… it bothers me. I've grown so conscious of my body that the mere thought of getting intimate with you scares me. And… it's been a while since I've… I've made love. A long while. A very long while… and… and I'm worried I've forgotten how to-"
"I see a beautiful woman," Claudia said in a quiet but resolute voice. "Alluring. Intriguing. Sexy. I'd love to be your guide if you'd let me. I'll show you what I like. You can tell me what you like… and then we can take it from there. Build it up nice and slow… the night is young and we have so many fields to explore. It'll all come back to you, I promise."
"Oh… I… I… but my toes really have turned into ice cubes…"
"In that case, you better keep your socks on at first," Claudia said with a saucy wink.
"Ohhhhh, that's good news for both of us…"
Nodding and grinning, Claudia reached up to caress the silky smooth skin on Elaine's cheeks. Another gentle kiss was shared before she whispered: "And besides, what I have in mind will soon create enough heat to light our fires…"
Any kind of quip or random comment would only break the moment, so Elaine Sutcliffe kept quiet and let a nervous smile do the talking. The nervous smile was eventually replaced by an excited one as she and Claudia walked back to the sliding door they had used to step out onto the rooftop patio.
Just as Claudia moved over to the light switch controlling the exterior lamps, she paused to cast a final glimpse up at the greenish-dark sky that still saw plenty of fireworks of all kinds. The two-week period that had gone by since her father had his accident at Spencer & Woolcott's had been a breathless affair, but it had given her a great deal more than it had taken from her.
For the first time in far too long, she was about to embark on a pleasure cruise to the giddy heights of Paradise - that she was going to share the magic with a kind and beautiful soul would only make it better. It might not be Happily Forever After, but she knew full well that the Here And Now were just as important and all anyone could ever ask for in the cold, unforgiving world they lived in.
A profoundly grateful smile spread over Claudia MacCready's features as she switched off the exterior lamps, stepped inside her living room and slid the glass patio door shut behind her. The next part of her grand New Year's adventure beckoned - and her heart told her it would lead to the biggest treasure of her life…
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