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THE BROKEN HALLELUJAH by C. BRIAN HICKEY

The Holiday Party was always a big deal. Pictures from the affair always made the top of the Society columns, and it was a reliable source of water cooler discussion for weeks afterward.

Since the firm’s early days, the party was held at The Four Seasons. Open bar, a brass band in the foyer, the entire scene awash in pine boughs and velvet bows. Bonuses were in bank accounts, and the entire company gathered to revel in their collective success. A titanic Douglas Fir stood sentinel over the festivities

Jason December stepped out of his vintage Porsche. “Do me a favor,” he said as he produced a hundred dollar bill before the astonished valet. “Don’t press this button,” indicating a green key on the anti-theft fob. He handed the younger man the note; he looked about ready to weep. “Thank you, sir! Merry Christmas, sir!”

He winked and adjusted his cashmere scarf as the doorman tipped his hat.

He loathed the dog-and-pony show Mr. MacDormand put on. He generally had bigger fish to fry, and the last thing he wanted was to deal with a bunch of wasted yuppies all night. The masquerade, the wolves play-acting at civility, was too much to handle.

Who am I kidding, he thought. I’m the biggest faker in the room.

“Hey, there he is!”

The mailroom table was an oasis of authenticity in a vast, yawning desert of fake laughs and sexual harassment suits waiting to happen. He strode forward, shaking their hands as if there were no difference in their salaries. “Evening, boys! Who’s having one?”

“You’re allright, Mista Decemba, don’t ever let ‘em tell ya otherwise.” Jamesy, the senior guy at the mailroom was already well ahead of the game, judging by the fortress of glasses around him. December took their orders (Jack and Coke for Jamesy, Heineken for Darnell, cranberry juice for Brad, Bushmills for Jed, and a Bud for Sean) and wove his way towards the bar, evading the braying laughter and blustery conversation of his peers as he did.

He returned with all of the drinks in one trip; if he had Worked probability to keep the whole thing from falling, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He sat down, enjoying their talk. The merits of Shaq’s addition to the Celtics’ roster was hotly debated, and Sean was going to see if he could pour Debbie, the cute admin from the fourteenth floor, into a cab to his place at the end of the night. They laughed as they drank.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything, gentlemen.” Donal MacDormand, CEO of the company, had sidled up to the table behind Jason. “No, no - don’t get up. I was wondering if I could borrow Mister December for a moment.” Jason made a face - yikes, I’m in trouble - and stood. “Merry Christmas, gents.”

MacDormand put his arm around the taller man, a miasma of Glenfiddich wafting forth. “Jason, I just wanted to thank you for all your help with the Dubai issue; I don’t know how you did it. I don’t ever know how you do it, but by God, you’re a miracle worker.”

Some miracle, thought Jason. The bite that bouda gave me still aches when it rains.

“What you do for us... it means a lot to the company, and it means a lot to me.” He produced an envelope from within his jacket. “I want you to have this, off the books.”

Jason raised his hands. “Don, I appreciate it - I do - but you know I can’t accept this.”

“Oh, come on, son. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter with this false modesty all of a sudden. You never take a bonus, you barely take vacation... come on, this is standard operating procedure!”

“I told you before, Don, it’s against my religion.” So to speak.

MacDormand sighed, aggrieved. “Okay, Jason, okay. But you’re taking a goddamn vacation next year, even if I have to bundle you on a plane myself.”

“As you wish.” Jason bowed, a slight incline of the head. It looked like a joke, but it was a command from his Liege, his lord and master, and protocol had to be observed.

“You bet your ass, ‘as I wish.’ And it appears, Mister December, that the whisky fairy has deserted me again. Try as I might, Scotch doesn’t just appear by magic.”

Jason smiled and shook MacDormand’s hand. “Anything’s possible, Don. Anything’s possible. I’ll catch up with you later.”

December nursed his own drink, scanning the room. He felt miserably out of place here. What were the other Practitioners doing right now? Some were probably Working; he’d heard rumors of a bruja down by Providence that needed taking care of. Soul Invictus was probably throwing a rave in SoHo, Streetcar Pete reading the signs for the Solstice.

He bit his lip. He wasn’t a Practitioner tonight. He wasn’t selling himself to planars, or shooting white fire at monsters. He was just a businessman in a $1400 suit, nursing a Gray Goose and feeling miserable.

He felt a tap on his shoulder. “Well, well - if it isn’t Jolly Jason himself.”

He turned quickly. “Grace! Hi! I was just -”

“You were just going to buy your plucky administrative assistant a drink, right?”

“It’s open bar. You look amazing, by the way.” She did. She’d traded her daytime attire for an honest-to-God little black dress. Her reddish curls were locked with a phalanx of bobby pins. “Walk with me, Ms. Eggleston.”

They sat for a bit, making small talk with the other Partners (‘duck-quacking’ was the term Jason used) and enjoying the cocktails. The dance floor was half-full of people doing The Hustle.

“Having fun?” Grace was into her third rum and Coke, her skin erupting in a fiery flush.

“Oh, sure. Having to listen to the men and women who’d step over my dead body for my job tell dead-baby jokes is my idea of a good time, let me tell you.”

Grace sat, her chin on her palm, staring at Jason.

“What?”

“I don’t know. You’re just... Permission to speak freely, sir?”

Jason chuckled. “Granted, Ensign.”

“I always figured that this would be your big night. You know, mingling, shaking hands - I figured this would be like your stage. And yet...”

“And yet what?”

The music changed; Lady Gaga gave way to a low bass riff, piano notes like small silver bells – ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen. Grace smiled.

“And yet this is my favorite song, Mister December, and you’ve yet to ask me to dance.”

He stood, extending his hand. “Ms. Eggleston, may I have the pleasure?”

She raised a fluttering hand to her chest. “Oh, be still my beating heart!”

As they swayed in time with the music, Grace looked up at Jason. He felt a strange energy in the air, a sort of coiling in time.

“So what were you going to say? ‘And yet’...”

She shrugged slightly. “And yet, you seem out of it. Like you don’t want to be here.”

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be right now than right here.” He regretted it the second he said it, wishing he could rewind time. That wasn’t his specialization, and the moment hung.

She wound her arm more tightly around his shoulder, resting her head on his chest. The dour-voiced Canadian was singing about Bathsheba cutting King David’s hair, and he knew how it felt. Here, now, they were the only two people on Earth.

Just a boy and a girl dancing to a song.

“Do you dance with the other girls, Jason?”

“Hm?”

“The girls you go out with. Do you dance with them?”

“No.”

“Just me?”

“Just you, Gracie.”

The song reached its crescendo. The song stopped, the breathless catch just before the drums and Cohen’s voice swooped in and caught them. The moment was swollen and heavy as she looked up into his eyes.

“I want a cigarette. Do you have any on you?”

“You don’t smoke.”

“Sometimes I do. Come outside with me, Jason.”

They left the dance floor. ‘Tragedy’ by The Bee Gees crashed in, obliterating the moment. Grace’s colleagues, the other admins, had kicked off their shoes and were dancing, laughing.

They stood on the patio area. The traffic sounded like a far-off thing, far away from everything.

Jason handed her a cigarette, lit it for her. “They’re Silk Cuts, from England. Any good?”

“Mmm. Nice.” She took a demure hit, blowing it out into the clear night air. “It’s a gorgeous night.”

“You never can tell when winter’s going to hit you. We might have a warm Christmas this year. Are you cold?” He doffed his jacket and draped it over her bare shoulders.

She circled his neck with her arms, drawing him in. He gestured at the door, Working it so anybody who passed would see nothing but an empty patio and move on. His jacket dropped to the ground as he enveloped her in return.

They kissed. It was long and good. Jason breathed her in, sampling her perfume.

“Take me home with you, Jason.”

“I can’t.” It was like a minor piano chord, crashing down into the moment.

“You can’t.” She bent for his jacket, shrugged into it. Armor. “What do you mean, you can’t?”

“Gracie, I just can’t. That’s all.”

The flush drained from her cheeks. “So let me get this straight. You can with all those other girls - the girls you parade around like your own personal harem - but I just don’t rate? Is that it, Jason? Explain it to me, Jason, because I thought... I thought something was happening here.”

“I know. I know, something was happening. And I’m so, so sorry, but it can’t go any further than this.” He held up his hands. “Please, try to understand.”

Grace’s South Shore accent ramped up. “Oh, I understand perfectly. Here I am throwing myself at you, and all of a sudden, you don’t want to be seen fucking the help.”

“It’s not like that, Grace! I...” He dropped his head into his hand. “My life is complicated, all right? It’s not anything you need to be around.”

Grace flicked her cigarette out into the gloom. “Jesus Christ, Jason, will you make sense? What do you mean, ‘complicated’? Are you married? Have I been barking up the wrong goddamn tree all night?”

“No. It’s... Fuck.” He looked into her eyes; they were blazing. “Fine. Fine fine fine. Promise me you won’t scream.”

“I promise I won’t scream.” No hesitation.

“Take another cigarette.”

“I don’t want another cigarette.”

“Look, do you want to understand or not, Grace? Please. Humour me. Take the goddamn cigarette.”

She took it, raising it to her lips. “Well? I don’t have a lighter.”

He held up his palm, then turned his hand to the back, then tugged back his French cuff. He walked over to her and blew into his palm. A tiny flame stood there, rippling in the gentle breeze.

She lit her cigarette with shocked nonchalance, though she never took her eyes off the flame. “How did you do that?”

“Magic.”

“Bullshit, Jason, you had a fire in your hand and you made it. How did you do it.”

He sat on the low wall separating the patio from the rear parking area. “Magic. I do magic. We call it Working, but to the uninitiated, ‘magic’ is as good a word as any other.”

“You said ‘we’. There are more of you who can... can light cigarettes?”

He laughed, low and slow. “Yes. We call ourselves Practitioners. We use our will to channel energy in the environment; this effects change in the material world. Magic.”

“What else can you do?”

Jason looked around the area. “Ah - see that can over there? Right over that way.”

“Yeah.” She never took his eyes off him.

Jason stood, feet shoulder width apart, knees bent. He began to shape the air with his hands, like a kid making a snowball. Gradually, a small mote of light grew in the space between his hands. He made a flinging motion forward, and a narrow beam of white light struck the can, and it exploded with a dull bang. Grace squealed with nervous delight.

“That’s called Alberich’s Flame - a small one.” He dusted his hands and sat back down. “Now you know what I am, Gracie.”

“You’re amazing. God, Jason, why didn’t you ever tell me?!”

“Oh, sure. ‘Morning, Grace! Could you reschedule my ten o’clock, make fifteen copies of these reports, and oh, by the way, I’m a sorcerer.’ You’d have had me locked up.”

Grace shook her head. “But if you can do magic, why work? Why not just make... make lead out of gold or something?”

“We have to. Once we get out of Scholomance -”

“Wait. What’s a sho... shomo...”

“Scholomance. It’s our school, where we learn to Work.”

“Ooh, I bet it’s like Hogwa -”

Jason cut her off. “It’s ten years of research, meditation, SEAL training, and unsupervised use of weapons-grade psychedelics. But when we get out, we’re placed in positions where we can do the most good for humanity’s long-term survival. I’m here where I can tickle the numbers a bit.”

Grace was smiling ear-to-ear now. “God, Jason, you’re amazing.”

“No. No, Grace, that’s the whole point. It’s not amazing. It’s terrifying, and dangerous, and every time I make a deal with something from out there, it’s like a stain on my soul I’m never going to be able to get rid of.”

“Deals? Like... deals with the Devil?”

“No. Well, yeah; those of us who specialize in contracts - we’re called Solomonari - do make deals with certain entities who... their idea of morality is far removed from ours. Each deal is like a black mark. Worth it in the long run.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. “If it makes you feel any better, we don’t have any proof that there is a Devil.”

Grace walked up to him, close. She took both of his hands in hers. “I understand, now. All the weird people that come for meetings. All the secrets.” She looked into his eyes, hopeful. “And I can be part of it! Think of it - you and me, doing all this stuff! You’d be like The Doctor, from Doctor Who, and I could be your Companion!” She tried not to sound like she was begging. “We could be together! You could show me your world. Let me in, Jason. I want it. I want you.”

Exactly what I was afraid of.

“Grace, that’s impossible. In my world - worlds; in business and in magic, attachment is a risk. You could be killed, and I’d never forgive myself. You could learn things about me that you wouldn’t like, and you’d never forgive me.”

“What could you have done? What is so bad that can’t be forgiven?”

He knew what he was going to do about this. Coward, fucking coward.

“Kiss me, Gracie. One last time.”

When she pulled back, the look in his eyes - distant, old, and terribly sad - made her start to cry. “What, Jason? What, Jason? I want you, and you want me; what fucking difference does any of this make?”

He was staring at the ground. “I’m so sorry, Gracie. I swore I’d never do this to anybody I loved.”

Fucking coward.

He looked up suddenly, catching her eyes in his, like a snake hypnotizing a bird. His eyes were the color of dull brass.

“Forget it, Grace. Just forget it all. Forget your feelings for me.” The Voice of the Utukku, learned with a sacrifice of his own blood. His throat buzzed like faraway insects as he spoke.

Grace’s head rocked backwards a bit as if slapped.

“Jason?” She blinked hard; her contacts had gone screwy.

“Yeah, Grace.”

“How long have we been out here?

“Few minutes.”

“Oh.” She swiped at her cheeks. “Have I been crying?”

“No. You told me you’re allergic to pine, remember?”

“I... yeah. Yeah, that’s right. I guess I had one cocktail too many.”

“Guess so.”

“Let’s go back in; I’m cold all of a sudden. Here’s your jacket!”

He took it back wordlessly. He could still taste her.

She looked back at him, arms crossed around her chest. “Jason? Are you all right?”

Fucking coward.

“Yeah, fine. Just thinking about a girl.”

She laughed, clear and bright as the Christmas bells. “Don’t think too hard! There are too many of them to keep track of!”

“Yeah.” He put his jacket back on, hoping it would mask her perfume, still rising up from his shirt. “I think I’m going to head out - this party’s gotten lame.”

“Oh. Are you sure? Maybe we could dance or something.”

“Raincheck?”

“Well, okay. Merry Christmas, Mister December.”

“Merry Christmas, Ms. Eggleston.”

The great Christmas tree in the foyer seemed to stare after him as he stalked past. Just another in a long, long line of shameful nights. The heels of his shoes beat a tattoo in time with the throbbing in his head.

The valet drove up in the Porsche, his hand wrapped in gauze. He was sweating. “You touched the green button, didn’t you.” The valet shook his head violently. “Keep the C-note. We all do things we wind up regretting.” He sped off into the coruscating city street. Maybe he’d hit NYC; maybe Soul was spinning tonight.

Two weeks later, after she got back from her Christmas vacation, Grace opened the Herald to the Around Town section. Front and centre was a photo of her and Mister December dancing. She didn’t remember that, but then, she’d had too many rum and Cokes that night... Inexplicably, she deleted Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ from all of her playlists, and never listened to it again.


This is a Jason December mystery. You can read more Jason December adventures by C. Brian Hickey right here on Weaponizer:

THE BLACK ART OF THE DEAL

SHRIEKONOMICS (5 parts)

The forthcoming Jason December comic DECEMBER FALLS has a workblog with sketches by artist Neil Ford - go and subscribe for regular updates!






Original image 'Slow Dancing...' by Sarah Gilbert, some rights reserved



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