A Jax and Gabe Story
“Swear to God, sometimes I think the angel of my best nature is a fool.”
That was the thought emerging in Jax’s head. It had been haunting her for days, and she wasn’t sure why. But there it was.
For example, sometimes Jax thought if she was a little more selfish, she’d be making a better living. She needed more clients, and could be frankly duping people for more cash. But even if Gran wouldn’t have given her hell for it, Jax just couldn’t do it.
So the thought had trailed her from the warm nest of a bed she shared with Gabe, down the cold late December streets of San Francisco, and up the ramp into this ancient Victorian office that was only hers three days a week.
The office had scarred wood floors. A ratty red flowered carpet that caught at her ’chair wheels. Jax would’ve gotten rid of the thing, but her office mate wanted it to stay.
At least Jax had won with the curtains. They were creamy velvet, with burgundy tiebacks. Gabe had hung them over the high windows that rose up the twelve-foot ceilings and caught every bit of low winter light.
She was grateful for the sun. And grateful they’d gotten a nice Solstice sunrise before the rain that threatened the rest of the holidays rolled in.
There’d be rain on Christmas. Day of Chinese food and the latest action flick. A pagan appropriation of time-honored Jewish tradition.
Jax’s phone was on her lap, slipping a little on the black jeans that matched her black hair. And her black VNV Nation T-shirt.
Gabe’s voice squawked through the black earbuds jammed in her head.
“Yeah, yeah. Look. No, Gabe. Gran insisted…” Jax said.
Jax sighed and pivoted her wheelchair toward the battered gray metal filing cabinet. She clicked on the electric kettle. The little switch glowed blue, the color that promised tea as quickly as possible.
Rattling the top cabinet drawer open, Jax grabbed a little pyramid bag of tea out of the green and red PG Tips box and dumped it in the plain white mug sitting next to the kettle on a tray. One teaspoon of raw sugar followed it.
Cream was in the dorm fridge to the right of the cabinet. She hoped it was still good.
“No. Gabe. Gran insisted that the wormhole wasn’t stable yet…”
She needed tea. Oh yes. Boy, oh boy, did she need tea.
The brass knob rattled on the black-five paneled wood door.
“Gabe. Babe. Someone’s here. I’ve gotta go.”
Jax pressed the phone off, and slid the earbuds out and onto the old wooden desk.
The door squeaked open. She really needed to oil the hinges again.
A bright red lace-up lug-soled boot emerged through the crack before the door opened all the way. Onto the most beautiful woman Jax had seen in a long time. Like, the kind of woman that made her mouth water. The kind of woman whose hair she could dig her fists into.
The kind of woman she’d explain to Gabe later that, you know, Jax might need to revisit their temporarily-in-place-because-our-relationship-is-fresh monogamy agreement.
Angel of her better nature be gone? Or welcome home.
Oh yeah. Half a shaved head with a generic “Celtic” knot-work tattoo snaking behind the woman’s ear. The rest of her head a fall of blue hair that swept around her brown eyes, ruddy cheeks, and on down to the wool peacoat that covered her shoulders.
Her large shoulders.
The peacoat was partially open; a red-and-blue scarf wrapped around the woman’s neck and fell into the coat opening down her chest.
And under the coat, black leggings emerged from a tiny stretch miniskirt, thick thighs curving down to muscled calves that ended in those glorious red boots.
“May I help you?” Jax hoped her voice hadn’t risen into its stupid nervous squeak. But she thought it had.
“Are you Jax?” the woman asked, voice rich, from deep in her throat. Like she was a singer or something.
Jax wheeled to the edge of the flowered rug and held out a hand.
“Yes. And you are?”
Jax coughed, then willed her facial muscles into stillness and choked back whatever-the-fuck stupid comment she really really wanted to make.
“Yeah. I’ve heard it all. Yes, I like mascara. And no, I can’t be true. So don’t ask me to be.”
“Right.” That was the only response Jax could make in the moment. She kind of wished for a wormhole right about now, sure that she was blushing.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Maybelline? I was just about to make some. All I have are bags though, so hopefully you’re not a purist.”
“Proper tea is theft,” Maybelline replied, with a tiny, red-lipsticked smirk.
Jax groaned out loud. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
Maybelline grinned wide then, mouth a wicked, sexy slash of red opening onto straight white teeth.
“Hang around with enough anarchists, and the bad jokes just rub off.”
Jax couldn’t believe this gorgeous woman was maybe, kind of, flirting with her.
“Have a seat.” Jax nodded toward the two chairs grouped under the tall window. There was a small round table tucked between them.
“Do you need me to…?” Maybelline gestured to the second chair.
“Yeah. Just move it to the side. Thanks.”
Jax slid an antique tray out from between the file cabinet and the dorm fridge. A thrift store find, it was dark brown, edged in faded flowers and gold leaf under thick layers of lacquer.
The tray just balanced on her strapped-in legs. Jax dropped a tea bag into the second mug, poured the boiling water, and loaded up the tray with the mugs, cream, the bowl of raw sugar, and two teaspoons.
Wheeling herself toward the window, she was impressed that Maybelline had moved the chair, taken off her peacoat, and actually sat down in her own chair. Legs crossed. Red boot swinging.
She’d kept on the red-and-blue scarf. That, the boots, and her hair offered the only color to the otherwise black outfit.
And her brown eyes. And red lips.
Okay. Points to Maybelline for letting Jax negotiate her own way with the tea tray.
Jax carefully bumped her wheels up on the damn flowered carpet and got all the way to Maybelline’s knees.
“Can you grab the tray?”
When the woman leaned forward, her blue hair brushed Jax’s right hand. She smelled like amber.
Maybelline got the tray onto the wood table and Jax backed her ’chair into place.
Both women picked up steaming mugs of tea. Maybelline liked one sugar, splash of cream. Just like Jax.
Not that Jax was reading anything into it. Oh yeah. Tea. Just what the doctor ordered.
"So. What can I do for you?”
Maybelline tapped her fingers on the white mug. She wore three plain silver bands on each hand. All the fingers except pinkies and thumbs. The rings sounded like tiny woodpeckers on the thick mug.
“I heard you find things.”
“Sometimes. What’s missing?”
Jax practically aspirated the tea, setting the cup on the table before the coughing fit spilled the hot liquid all over her jeans.
Maybelline frowned a bit, red lips turning down at the corners. A tiny crease insinuated itself between her dark brown eyebrows.
“I’d been told you understood things like this. That you’d been trained by a witch.”
Okay. Jax took a breath.
“That’s my gran. And you’re right, I do have some training, though Gran was the expert. I just never thought…”
“Someone needing her soul back would show up in your private eye office three days before Christmas?”
Jax nodded. “Something like that.”
“Well, here I am. Can you help me or not?”
Maybelline was like a lot of other people. She hadn’t valued what she had. Treated her soul cavalierly. As if it didn’t matter much. As if it wasn’t the fuel for her art. Maybelline was a singer, as it happened. But once her soul was gone, so was the passion that drove her to write songs.
She could still sing her old material, it turned out, though without the verve needed to turn in a performance that was much above just good.
Her bandmates had all taken off, one by one, pleading work or the need to take on other projects to pay rent. Real reasons.
But Maybelline suspected the truth: the shine had left her and sucked all the juice out of her band. She still had a pick-up band to play the occasional gigs that hadn’t dried up. Like that standing gig on Christmas Eve.
But it wasn’t the same as before.
Jax peered into her white mug, wishing she’d made a pot of proper tea after all. She could use some tea leaves right about now, but milky brown dregs didn’t offer up much insight.
She really needed Gran. Which meant Jax really did need that wormhole.
“So, you’ve told me about what happened since your soul went missing, and I agree, it does sound like that’s the problem…but you still haven’t told me how or why it went away.”
“It was last Christmas…” Maybelline said.
The band had a Christmas Eve gig at a nightclub on the edges of the Mission, near Potrero Hill. The place was jammed, and the band was in great form.
Then he walked in. A muscular dude, maybe around thirty, with a prematurely white beard and a red suit. Like, a nice red suit, fitted perfectly for his body. White shirt and tie straining a little over his large gut.
And on his head, he wore a damn red stocking cap with white trim and a white poof ball on the tip.
Maybelline thought he was pretty cute. He bought her a hot toddy.
“For your voice,” he said.
She was charmed.
He told her his name was Nicholas. She just laughed at that, and said, “Whatever.” If he had a Santa complex, that was fine with her.
When she introduced herself as Maybelline, he said he knew.
Well, that was strange.
But because it was Christmas Eve, and because Maybelline hated Christmas because yadda yadda family bullshit, and because all her housemates were gone for the holidays, she jumped at the opportunity to not go back to her flat alone.
Three hot toddies and a final set later, the band packed up their gear. Maybelline and Mr. Nicholas Red Suit helped load it into the drummer’s van, then stomped their way back into the club, breath steaming in the air.
Nicholas picked up what looked like a white laundry bag that he’d tucked at the back corner of the tiny stage, and hoisted it on his shoulder. Then he offered Maybelline his arm.
The next morning, when Maybelline woke blinking at 10 a.m., in her forest-green bedroom, under her favorite silvery-gray comforter, sore throat coming on, he was gone.
No kiss goodbye. No stray white hairs on the extra pillow near her head. No trace at all.
Maybelline was sick for days, crawling to the kitchen to open tins of soup and heat water for tea. Then to the bathroom. Then back to bed.
Five days later, the strange illness broke. Her housemates came home. Things seemed normal.
She thought the strange, empty feeling was just an aftereffect from the illness.
But then things with the band started to go wrong. And she realized her shine was gone.
And here it was, almost one year later. And Maybelline didn’t know what to do.
“Santa stole your soul?” Jax asked.
Maybelline had the grace to look mildly embarrassed at that.
“That’s one way of putting it.”
Jax wheeled back to the filing cabinet to switch the kettle on again. This problem was going to take a second round of tea.
Maybelline followed with their empty mugs.
“Can you help me?” she asked. “Can you find stuff like this?”
Jax exhaled, then ran a hand through her hair.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. Gran could definitely help, but…”
“Can you ask her?”
“That’s a little tricky,” Jax said. “Gran isn’t exactly around anymore.”
“Oh! I’m sorry! Is she dead?”
Steam boiled from the kettle spout and the switch clicked itself to off. Maybelline set the mugs down on the filing cabinet with a clink.
“Kind of. It’s a long story.” And not one Jax was going to tell a woman who had just walked through her office door.
Jax’s grandmother had wanted everyone to think she was dead, because it was easier than explaining she’d been working with a bunch of psychics and scientists to open up a wormhole. And that she now existed in some weird alternate universe that Jax could access through the dance floor of her favorite Folsom Street nightclub.
’Cause that wasn’t weird at all.
Unlike having your soul stolen by Santa. After you’d taken him home for some hot, post-club romping in the sheets.
Uh. Jax didn’t really want to think about that. But here she was.
Staring at Maybelline’s lush lips. Because Maybelline was peering down at Jax’s face with some concern.
“Are you going to get more teabags?” she was asking.
“Oh. Right. Sorry. Sometimes my brain gets away from me.” Stupid thing to say. Good going, Jax.
She grabbed two more PG Tips bags from the file cabinet and plopped them in the mugs. Maybelline poured the steaming water over the bags and carried the mugs back to the table by the window.
Jax was rapidly regretting opening this “finder” business. She’d had a couple of clients before Maybelline, but they’d been relatively simple. One of them had his harp stolen and wanted help tracking it down.
Three hours with some maps and a pendulum had taken care of that. The guy’s friends had taken it from there. How they were going to retrieve the harp was none of Jax’s business. She’d just heard they were successful.
Her other clients were a couple that had lost their cat. Jax “found” it hiding in the laundry room of their apartment building by staring at a picture of the tabby and sending her spirit out to chase it down.
But a lost soul? If Jax didn’t have rent to pay, she wasn’t sure she’d even take this case on.
Gran had taught her how to do soul retrieval-type operations, it was true. But those were for bits and pieces of self that people had left behind or giving away willingly.
Jax had never dealt with an entire lost soul. And not one that was stolen by a supposed-to-be-jolly-and-benevolent supernatural being. Especially one that turned out to be both a player and a thief.
Jax wheeled her way back to the little table and her gorgeous client.
She picked up the mug, appreciating the heavy warmth of it in her hands.
“All right, Maybelline.” Jax took a sip of tea. “Here’s what we’re going to do, if you’re okay with it.”
Maybelline paused with her own mug halfway to her lips and nodded, waiting for Jax to continue.
“You’re going to give me something of yours. Something close to you. Something that has a trace of you on it.”
“Like what?” Maybelline asked.
“Like one of those rings. You always wear them, right?”
Maybelline set down her mug and stretched out her hands, looking down at the six thick silver bands.
“I’ve worn them day and night for seven years,” she said. “You really need one, huh?”
“Something that has been that close to your skin for seven years? It’s perfect.”
Maybelline sighed. Then slipped one of the rings off her left hand. The spot that on most people would hold a wedding band, if they weren’t a person who just happened to wear six rings on the same three fingers on each hand.
Jax held up the palm of her right hand. Maybelline dropped the ring in. It was warm. Buzzing slightly. Jax forced herself to not drop directly into the metal, to find out what it knew. It was so tempting. The ring was live with Maybelline’s past.
But she didn’t want to go that deeply yet. She needed some help first. At least, she thought she did.
“It feels so weird. Like my hand misses the ring. No. Like the other rings know its gone.” Maybelline flexed her left hand. Her eyes looked troubled.
“I’m not surprised. I can feel the resonance between the ring and you. It’s very strong. And that’s a good thing. It’ll make this operation easier.”
Maybelline picked up her mug again. Then added another teaspoon full of sugar and stirred.
Interesting. We all do little things to rebalance when we feel off.
“What exactly is ‘this operation’?” Maybelline asked.
“That’s what I still need to find out. Can you to trust me on this? Just for a couple days?”
“Doesn’t seem like I have much choice.”
That night, Jax and Gabe went out clubbing. There were supposedly other ways to access Gran’s wormhole, but Jax hadn’t found a reliable one yet. Luckily, clubbing happened at least once a week, so when they needed a wormhole, it tended to work out.
None of the other Goth club goers had noticed. Yet.
The music pounded around them, and the blue and yellow club lights bounced off the floor to ceiling mirrors, filling the small black box of a back room with moody atmosphere. People stomped and moved in leather trousers and big boots. The more swirly velvet and sharp-suit-clad folks were in the front room, where the lights were red and the music less industrial.
Jax sipped a glass of mediocre Cabernet and watched the dancers. Blue LEDs were woven through her chair spokes, so she matched the club. She wore black leggings and a purple leather corset. Since she hadn’t been dancing yet, her leather motorcycle jacket remained firmly on against the chill of the big dance floor fans.
Gabe looked gorgeous as always. Flattop afro shaved tight around the sides, leaving a little strip of hair that tapered into a sharp V just at his neck. Tonight, he wore a white shirt under leather suspenders, tucked into tight black jeans stuffed into his usual Doc Marten 16-hole boots. The white shirt glowed.
He smiled down at her, teeth glowing like his shirt, lit by the black light that hung above the small corner bar.
“When do you want to do this? Are we dancing first, or not?”
Jax shook her head, and motioned Gabe closer. He leaned over her, smelling of Polo Black and cinnamon gum. “I’m too distracted to have fun tonight. You can dance if you want to, but frankly, I’d rather just do this thing.”
“Okay. I’m gonna dance to a couple of songs while you finish your wine.”
Then he kissed her, leaning over her chair, body so close she was tempted to pull his skinny hips onto her lap. He tasted of the cinnamon gum, too.
“Go on, then!”
Gabe smiled at her and moved to the center of the floor, letting the steady, crunching beat of the music take him over. Jax leaned back into her chair and took another sip from the clear plastic cup, washing away the taste of cinnamon with the acidic wine.
Jax saw Gran pretty frequently now that Gran had “died.” Which Gran hadn’t. She’d just let the family think she had. Stinker.
Gran did inter-dimensional experiments. Jax still had trouble wrapping her mind around that, but frankly, it was in keeping with Gran’s entire physicist/witch existence. When Gran had lived in this dimension, Jax trained with her weekly at first, then tapered off to every other month or so.
Since Gran figured out the shift, Jax made sure to tune in at least monthly. The research Gran’s crew was doing was so interesting, it could have taken over Jax’s life.
But Jax needed to make a living. Hence the “psychic finder” business.
Why finder? Jax couldn’t bear the regular heartbreak of doing readings for people, which was the other thing Gran had trained her for.
Too many lost loves, crappy jobs, and health scares walking through the door. Jax ended up feeling like a bargain basement counselor, and that wasn’t good for anyone.
Plus, a lot of people wanted her to lie.
Jax respected the hell out of psychics who could do that work well; she just wasn’t one of them.
So. Jax used her pendulum and weird extra senses and found things for people. At least, that was the hope. That she’d find enough things on a regular enough basis to make steady rent.
“Okay Jax, let’s do this.” She tossed her plastic cup into the big gray garbage can and wheeled her way between the dance floor and the bar.
Gabe waved at her and raised his shoulders in question. Did she need him?
She shook her head and waved back, then placed her half-gloved hands back on the metal wheel rims and propelled herself toward the strange little mid-club foyer.
A no-place-place, sandwiched between the front room and the back, it held a tiny coat check and two disgusting single stall bathrooms, neither of which really fit Jax’s ’chair.
Right before the ramp started to the front room, with its longer bar, more seating, and a separate dance floor, there was a cool spot. A spot the lights didn’t quite touch, and that people instinctively walked around.
Jax felt the air shift around her as she approached it. Her head felt woozy, which let her know she was almost at the spot. Jax took a breath and kept going.
And felt herself falling through the air. Tumbling over and over, down toward the base of a funnel of energy, wind, and light. Then out the other end, into the mirror image of the tornado. She tried to loosen the grip her hands had on the chair. Her body said no way. No way was it letting go, no matter what her mind tried to tell it.
The chair thunked down into a beautiful, lavender-painted room with a translucent abstract fountain-like sculpture in the middle. And green plants, growing directly on the walls. Five walls. A pentagonal room that was becoming familiar to Jax. As familiar as the old Haight Street flat Gran used to have.
And there she was.
Her grandmother. Still with her dyed dark hair and pile of necklaces and bracelets. She was kissing some man. One of the scientists Jax had seen two visits before.
Her Gran slipped her arms from around the man’s neck and looked her way.
Her face lightened as though she’d seen the sun for the first time in a while.
“Jax! You’re here!” As Gran moved toward her, jingling and swaying, her face changed. “You’re here. But something’s wrong.”
Yep. Gran was a physicist, but the witch still drove the bus.
“Well, not exactly. Not really wrong. But there’s something I can’t figure out on my own. Can we talk?”
Jax looked over Gran’s shoulder at the man standing there, salt-and-pepper hair swept back from his forehead and cascading in a thick wave to his soft-denim-clad shoulders. How the heck did Gran find a hippie-physicist in this place?
“Henry, will you make us some tea?”
“Sure thing,” Henry said, slipping through the door into the kitchen.
“Come. Let’s talk.”
Gran sat on a cozy purple chair and Jax wheeled up beside her.
“I need your help figuring out how to get back someone’s soul. The whole thing. And she’s convinced it was stolen by some avatar of Santa Claus.”
Gran had practically fainted when Jax mentioned Santa. Luckily, Henry had come back in with the restorative tea just in time to calm her down.
Turned out that they’d been having trouble with Santa. Reports were coming in from all over that he’d fractured. Splintered. That pieces of him had lodged around the world.
They thought that was a good thing at first. The more Saint Nick, the better, right? Share the love.
It also turned out some of the fragments had parsed themselves too small, or become distorted.
And some of them wanted more soul back. So instead of giving gifts that warmed people’s hearts and strengthened their souls, they were finding ways to warm people’s hearts and steal their core essence instead.
More Saint Nick, indeed.
“So what do we do?” Maybelline asked the next day, running one hand across the bare stubble covering the knot-work on the side of her head. “Can we get my soul back from this piece-of-Santa?”
They were back in Jax’s office. This time, Jax sat in her ’chair behind the big desk and Maybelline paced the hated flowered carpet, red boots flashing in the low December sun that pushed its way through the windows, shaped by the pulled-back drapes.
Today, Maybelline wore skinny black jeans cuffed at the tops of her boots. And a long, loose black cardigan with large red polka dots in the weave.
Her lips matched the boots again.
Jax was really trying to stay on point.
She’d confessed her crush to Gabe the night before and he’d just smirked at her before pulling her down on the bed. And, yeah. Maybe in this case, the better angel of her nature needed to take a hike.
Of course, there was no telling how Maybelline would feel about (a) a woman in a wheelchair, (b) a woman with a boyfriend, and (c) a woman she had hired to do a job.
Yeah. That was kind of a lot stacked against anything ever happening with sexy Maybelline.
“What do we do? Well. Gran said I could use the pendulum to find the piece of Saint Nick that has your soul. And we hunt him down…”
Maybelline stopped pacing, hands on her substantial hips, and said, “And what? Hunt him down and what?”
Jax drummed her fingers on her ’chair arms.
“That’s a little more tricky.”
Maybelline stalked forward.
“Tricky? I thought you said you could help me!”
“I said I could help you find what you’d lost. And we’re going to do that. I didn’t say I could help you put it back.”
Maybelline’s face did not look good all of a sudden. Creased forehead. Pursed lips. Arms crossed over her breasts. Yeah. She was pissed off.
She whirled then, and went to grab her peacoat from the chair.
“Wait!” said Jax. “Wait. Just give me a minute.”
Maybelline paused, throwing her jacket back on the chair, then flopping down into it herself. Her hair was backlit by the window, the winter sun forming a blue-tinged nimbus around her. But it made it harder to see her face.
She crossed her arms over her chest again.
Jax backed up and wheeled toward her, bumping over the damn rug, until she was a couple of feet away.
“Look, Maybelline, I’ve done soul retrievals before. But those are just bits of soul. Not the whole thing. This is a big risk. I’m just not one-hundred-percent sure it’s going to work.”
Maybelline uncrossed her arms.
“You have to try, Jax. I can’t live without my music anymore.”
Jax and Gabe were near the pocket stage of the grotty little Mission club on the edge of Potrero Park. Maybelline’s band was pretty good.
Jax had found Maybelline’s soul by dowsing maps with the ring on a chain.
She then convinced Maybelline that the best thing to do was draw Saint Nicholas Red Suit, or whatever the guy’s actual name was, back to the club where it all started.
The music was pretty good. Some sort of bluesy, rockabilly punk.
The bass player was particularly on, her hands slapping the strings, dark hair pulled back under a 50s-style denim head scarf. Rolled-up jeans. Sleeveless white shirt showing off her dark, lightly muscled arms.
A steady drum beat kicked underneath the lead guitar. Maybelline shook her lush body in a cherry-printed black shirtwaist dress, leaning into the microphone, throaty voice wailing about the Solstice moon.
Maybelline was almost fully immersed in the music. Almost flying with the band. Almost ready to whip the crowded club into a frenzy.
Almost. Almost. Almost.
Jax could see why it would frustrate the woman. She clearly had a gift. That shine that some actors or musicians got that made everything they did extra special. Or at least, she used to.
Maybelline’s blue hair fell over one side of her face. Her hands with the five silver bands wrapped around the mic stand. Jax felt the sixth ring in her own palm, the chain coiled around it.
The ring that now connected Maybelline to the rest of her soul.
The crowd was boisterous, either filled with the holiday spirit or drunk enough to take away the pain. Temporarily.
Jax was drinking seltzer water with lime. She needed to keep her head as clear as possible. The pendulum had found the guy, all right. He lived in a flat not far from the club. That made it a pretty sure bet he’d show at the place on Christmas Eve, ready for a reprise.
Good snacking, Jax was sure. If you were a freaky shard of the spirit of Santa Claus. And how did one get from Nick to Claus, anyway? The names weren’t even close.
There was a secret there, Jax was sure. Gran always said there was power in names.
But really, the guy should have been serving soup and handing out socks at the hospitality house down the street, not stealing people’s souls.
Clearly the better angel of his nature had checked out of the Santa Claus hotel.
The ring started to buzz gently in Jax’s hand.
“Sorry.” A heavy drunk guy jostled Jax’s chair. Despite being up front to avoid getting crushed, people still bumped her. They never thought to look down.
“No worries!” Jax replied. Gabe moved closer, putting a warm hand on her shoulder.
Getting bumped in clubs was part of going to clubs, but it felt good knowing Gabe was there, in case anything started to go down.
But what was happening with the ring? She couldn’t be distracted.
Then she saw him. Goddamn Santa Claus. Just like Maybelline described him. Big. Handsome. Maybe mid 30s? Prematurely white full beard, neatly groomed.
Red suit. Like a nice, tailored European men’s suit. Crisp white shirt. Dumb red Santa hat on his white hair.
Sexy as hell.
He scanned the club and smiled at Maybelline on the stage. She faltered, missed a note, then Jax saw her close her eyes and reach for the song again. Good girl.
Saint Nicholas Red Suit frowned a little at that, and started weaving his way through the crowd toward the little stage.
Jax tilted her head back.
Jax just nodded.
Gabe moved away from her chair, slipping his skinny shoulders sideways, angling through the dance floor. His curly flattop needed to be touched up in back, Jax saw.
Like that was important.
Jax centered her thoughts again, focusing on the buzzing ring and the man in the red suit.
The piece of Santa.
The guy who was perverting the spirit of generosity and using it for his own gain.
She could feel the twisted energy surrounding him now and wondered how many other souls he had stolen from people who needed them.
People who inspired others. Made them happy. Or hopeful. Or in love.
People like Maybelline.
Gabe was almost to the man in red. The plan wasn’t one-hundred-percent clear. Jax just wanted Gabe to somehow get the guy closer to her.
Looked like he might not need to. Gabe was still caught up in the crowd, around halfway toward the Santa guy, when the man looked up and stared straight at her.
He had ice-blue eyes. Maybelline hadn’t mentioned those.
How the hell had he noticed Jax, low down like she was in her ’chair when a dancing, drinking throng was between them? And when Maybelline was on stage, drawing the attention of the room, even at what must have been half her power.
Santa made a beeline for Jax. The ring started jumping around in her fist.
He was moving faster. People gave him dirty looks as he shoved his way through.
“Okay Gran. I hope this works,” Jax muttered.
Gabe figured out the man had moved, and started angling his way back toward Jax. She wasn’t sure he’d get there in time to be helpful, but oh well.
The man was powerful. Strong. Energy moved off that red suit in waves. The ripples that washed over Jax made her feel a little queasy.
She shoved her shields out further, using the music and the energy from the dancers to shore them up. Jax was good at feeding music into her energy field. Going clubbing was her favorite way to work magic.
Jax smiled. No way Santa guy would expect that. Most people got distracted in a crowd like this. They needed a still, quiet space to center and meditate. To focus their attention and their will.
Not Jax. Nightclubs were her second home. The scent of whisky and beer, the strobing lights, the thumping music. They always made her feel more powerful than any other place on earth.
“Come at me, Santa-dude. Come to Jax.”
He moved his hands out and a wave of cold hit Jax’s shields. It tasted like last year’s peppermint candy. Kind of stale, but like you’d eat it anyway even though it might make you feel a little ill.
The cold bounced off, rippling back toward him. His frown turned into a snarl.
Santa was almost at Jax’s ’chair. Gabe was wading through the crowd, but still a few yards away. The bass line thumped, moving up through the ’chair, feeding Jax’s core.
Maybelline’s voice wailed.
Santa reached for Jax, and with all her power, the hand that held Maybelline’s ring snapped out, punching Santa directly on his jaw, lifting Jax, straining against the leg bands that secured her legs in the ’chair.
Santa fell backwards, arms windmilling. People screamed and tried to get out of the way.
Under the music, Jax heard his head hit the concrete dance floor with a thwack. The Santa hat fell off.
“Shit!” She hadn’t realized the ring would do that.
“You okay?” Gabe was at her side.
Jax nodded. “I need to get closer to him. I need to get near his head.”
And she didn’t want to risk dropping the ring by wheeling herself through the crowd.
Luckily, Gabe understood, and gently wheeled her closer.
“Excuse me, please.”
People moved out of the way.
Somehow, the band was still playing. Amazing. Good. Keep the rest of the room distracted. Jax still had work to do.
The man in the red suit groaned and drew a hand up to gently touch his head. His ice-blue eyes stared up at her. Gabe stopped the ’chair and hit the wheel brakes. Jax stared at the man.
Then she slammed a bubble up around them, so the crowd would move away. Forget anything had happened. Assume the guy had gotten help.
The ring was hot in her hand now, but it wasn’t buzzing anymore. It was as if it was waiting for something.
Waiting for Maybelline to come back.
Muffled through the energy bubble, Jax heard Maybelline’s voice saying, “We’re going to take fifteen. Go have another drink. We’ll be right back!”
Jax leaned over the piece of Santa. The shard of Saint Nick. The twisted dude who preyed on people’s good nature and used that for his own ends.
“I have this thing, you know?” she said to him, staring into the ice-blue eyes. “I call it the angel of my better nature. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. But it keeps me relatively honest.”
The man just stared back at her, barely blinking, mouth set in a straight line.
“I think you don’t have whatever that is. I think you try to take it from people you see have extra shine. But it isn’t working, is it?”
He went to shake his head, and Jax saw his face grow pale with the pain. Sweat popped up on his forehead under the snow-white hair.
“No,” he grunted out. “Who are you?”
A pair of red boots entered Jax’s field of vision, pushing through the bubble, followed by the scent of amber.
“I’m a friend of hers,” Jax said, jerking her head. “And you’re going to give her soul back. Right now.”
Jax dangled the chain holding Maybelline’s ring over Santa’s head.
His blue eyes widened, then followed the ring as it spun a circle over his face. The circle started large and grew tighter and tighter, until it came to stillness, right over his petal lips nestled between the white mustache and beard.
“What do I have to do?” he asked. He still looked pretty disoriented. Jax would use that to her advantage.
“You’re going to put this in your mouth. Hold it on your tongue. And then I’m going to pull Maybelline’s soul back out of your damn Santa body.”
Jax just hoped it worked. Gran always said there were no guarantees in magic. But a person had to try.
Santa opened his mouth.
“Maybelline, take the chain. I’ll put my hand over yours.”
Maybelline stepped forward, hands shaking a little, causing the ring to bob away from the open mouth.
“Take a breath. Stand tall in your boots. Steady.”
Jax lent the woman some of her own steadiness. She felt Maybelline grow still, and transferred the chain to her fingers, then placed her own hand on top.
Jax and Maybelline lowered the ring into the piece of Santa’s mouth. The petal lips closed around the chain.
“What’s happening?” Maybelline whispered. Jax just caught the words under the music the club was piping out into the room.
“Concentrate on who you are. Draw yourself back to yourself. Believe.”
The chain buzzed and hummed. Jax felt Maybelline’s soul begin to rise, twining its way up the metal and into Maybelline’s hand.
Jax helped pull, directing the flow up the chain.
She felt the woman grow stronger. More solid. Her skin started to shine, just a little, under the lights of the club.
Maybelline took a huge, shuddering breath.
“That’s right,” Jax said. “Draw it all the way back in. All the way back down to the soles of your boots.”
The singer inhaled twice more, taking in huge draughts of beer-tinged air.
Her body started to shake.
Then the buzzing stopped. The chain went slack.
Maybelline exhaled and blinked her brown eyes.
“Pull the ring up,” Jax said.
Jax gripped Maybelline’s hand.
“Open your mouth, Nick or whatever your name is.”
He looked at Jax, some of the steely shine gone from the ice-blue eyes. Then he obediently opened his lips.
And Maybelline drew out her ring.
Santa passed out on the floor.
“Gabe? You got a hankie?”
Gabe reached into the pocket of his black jeans and drew out a neat white handkerchief.
Jax guided Maybelline’s hands until the chain and ring were over the clean cloth.
“Drop it in. Let’s get the spit off this thing. And I recommend you give it a good washing, maybe smudge it, too, before wearing it again.”
Maybelline just nodded as Gabe wrapped the ring and chain in the handkerchief and handed it over.
Jax popped the protective bubble around them and all the muted sights, sounds, and smells came roaring back in again.
“Hey, this guy fainted!” Gabe called out. “Can we get some help?”
“Thank you, Jax,” Maybelline whispered in her ear. “I’ve got another set to do but…stick around?”
“I’d love to.”
Maybelline left a bright red lipstick smear on Jax’s cheek before she walked away.
Two big men and a woman bustled around the downed Saint Nick, freeing Gabe up to come back to Jax’s side.
“I’d like a glass of wine now,” Jax said.
Gabe leaned over and kissed her lips. “You got it.”
Then he smiled, and wiped Maybelline’s lipstick smear off her cheek with his thumb.
Well, the whole crowd got to hear what Maybelline sounded like when she was in full possession of her soul.
Jax and Gabe danced until they were both slick with sweat and grinning. The excitement of the crowd filled the club. It was one of the best shows Jax had ever been to, and that was saying a lot.
Maybelline joined them after, face flushed with success, grinning bigger than the full moon.
“Thank you so much,” Maybelline said. “That was amazing. You’re amazing. I don’t know how to thank you.”
Jax just smiled.
“Hey Gabe, can you give us a few minutes?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll be over at the bar.”
Jax’s eyes followed him for a moment. One of her favorite views. She loved it when Gabe walked toward her, of course. But watching his ass was worth the price of him walking away.
Then Maybelline was crouching by her ’chair, blue hair brushing Jax’s arm, giving off the scents of amber and sweat.
And, strangely, a hint of peppermint. Kind of like Santa. But not old, stale, peppermint.
The scent was brand new candy cane, freshly unwrapped, ready to slide between your lips and crunch between your teeth.
“How are you feeling?”
The woman put a hand on Jax’s arm and looked at her with big brown eyes. Then Maybelline wiped a bit of sweat from her forehead with her other hand, and smoothed her blue fall of hair behind one ear. Jax could tell she was buying time.
“I feel…really good. Like my old self again. Like I’m full up inside.”
Tiny frown lines emerged between Maybelline’s brows.
“You know, I do feel something else. Like…something extra is inside me. It’s gonna sound weird, but it feels like there’s an extra bit of magic in me. Like I just have more to give.”
Jax grinned. This whole thing had worked better than she thought it would. And boy, did she have a lot to tell Gran next visit through the wormhole.
“Maybelline, I think you got a little piece of the goodness our friend Saint Nick must have started out with. The generosity of spirit the original is known for.”
Maybelline leaned forward, and Jax moved, giving the singer room to put her elbows on the arm of her chair.
“What do you think went wrong?” Maybelline asked.
Jax was finding it hard to think anymore, what with the amber, sweat, and mint so close and all. But she tried anyway.
“I’m not sure. But somehow I think whatever Santa-nature entered the guy interacted with some void inside him that made him want more. So instead of giving things, he started taking.”
“Do you think that’ll happen to me?”
“I think we always have a choice, Maybelline. At least, that’s what Gran taught me. We can choose to give in to our better natures, or let selfishness, fear, and greed rule. I think you just need to make a decision about it, and do your best.”
Maybelline trained her brown eyes on Jax and took a deep breath.
“Well, in that case,” Maybelline said, “ho, ho, ho.”
Then she drew her face toward Jax’s, inch by inch, waiting for a “no” that never came. Finally, her red lips were close enough that Jax could feel Maybelline’s breath across her own mouth.
Jax closed the distance.
And she kissed the heck out of Maybelline.
And that tiny piece of old Saint Nick.
Thank you for reading! Piece of Santa will be free here for one week. You can also buy it in the holiday collection A Flame for Yuletide.