Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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A Cainsville Universe Story

Gabriel Walsh shielded his eyes against the late-afternoon sun and squinted up at the gargoyle, peering back at him from under the eaves of the towering bank. One of Chicago’s oldest buildings, his teacher had said. No longer a bank, though. There was no need for such an elaborate financial establishment in this neighborhood. It was elaborate, with intricate stonework and swooping eaves. And, apparently, a gargoyle.

Gabriel hadn’t seen the gargoyle before, which meant it hadn’t been there. If it had, he’d have spotted it. He was something of an expert. In Cainsville, where his great-aunt Rose lived, there was an annual May Day contest to see which child had found the most town gargoyles. Gabriel had won for the last four years. This year, he was determined to take the grand prize: the honor of having found every gargoyle in Cainsville. The town elders had assured him he had only one left to go.

He sidestepped to get a better look at this gargoyle. The fact it did not seem to have existed a day ago came as no great shock. Cainsville would hardly make such a big deal out of the competition if the gargoyles were always there, waiting to be counted. Some kids claimed they were living things, that when no one was looking they spread their wings and flew about the town and guarded it against all comers. Which was ridiculous, of course. The real explanation? Simple illusion. A visual sleight of hand. A concept Gabriel was far more familiar with than flying stonework.


He tried not to stiffen at the voice. Jay Hoover, toughest kid in the fifth grade. Also the stupidest, which had made Gabriel’s school days slightly more bearable. And much more profitable.

“Yo, Gabe!”

He didn’t turn. That wasn’t his name. Which Jay knew very well, and which was why he insisted on calling Gabriel by it.

Jay swung in front of him. He was a big kid, a prerequisite for bullies at this age. The second-biggest kid in class, and that, Gabriel had decided, was the root cause of the issue.

Jay stepped up toe-to-toe with Gabriel, as he did with all his victims. Not too bright and, apparently, lacking proper memory skills, because he always moved right in front of Gabriel and then looked up at him before remembering who was the biggest kid in fifth grade and quickly stepping back before anyone else noticed the height difference.

“So, Gabe, you didn’t tell the class what you’re getting your mommy for Christmas.”

Gabriel said nothing, just eyed the trio of Jay’s hangers-on, bouncing on the sidelines, waiting for the first blow, rather bored by the verbal preamble.

“I’ve got something you can give her.” Jay pulled a crack pipe from his pocket. The others laughed obligingly. It was a poor joke. Anyone who knew his mother would realize a needle was the proper tool and, therefore, would have been much funnier.

“You don’t like that?” Jay pulled a ten from his pocket and waggled it. “What do you think I could get from her for this?” He made an obscene gesture. Two of his friends giggled. The third said, “Nah, you don’t need that. Everyone knows Gabe’s mother isn’t a whore. She does it for free.”

More laughter now. Gabriel waited it out. Again, neither allegation was entirely accurate. His mother did not take cash from her “boyfriends.” That would be asking for a prostitution charge. She did, however, accept and expect “gifts”—either drugs or something she could hock for drugs. Yet there seemed no point in clarifying. So he waited.

“You listening to me, Gabe?” Jay said as the laughter died down.

“Only to see if you’re going to say something interesting.”

Jay hit him. His first blow went for the stomach, as always. Gabriel deflected it and landed one of his own on Jay’s jaw, which was the signal, as always, for the others to join in. Gabriel avoided the worst of the blows but made only a half-hearted attempt to return them. After a few minutes, they tired of the game and strolled off, high-fiving each other on their victory.

Gabriel lay on the cold pavement and stared up at the old bank. No sign of the gargoyle. Something landed on his bruised face. He sat up, put out his hand and caught a fat flake of first snow. He watched it melt on his palm. By then, the other boys were long gone. He rose and pulled Jay’s ten from his jacket, along with two fives and three singles he’d picked from the pockets of the others.

A faint smile, one last look toward the perch of the now-vanished gargoyle, and Gabriel headed home.

With the extra twenty-three dollars in his pocket, Gabriel allowed himself to detour out of his neighborhood and into one his mother called “Where the rich folks live.” Which was laughable, really, and a perfect example of his mother’s low aspirations. It was a middle-class enclave, barely teetering above the line from working-class. Gabriel set his goals higher. At least two zip codes higher. Preferably downtown, close to the Loop. Suburban living would never be for him. A downtown address, then, was his goal. Not a dream or a wish. Those were for the weak. Gabriel had goals.

One goal he intended to achieve very soon lay in that neighborhood, nestled in the glass display case of an antique shop. Before opening the shop door, he checked his reflection in a nearby window. He wiped dirt from the fight off his face. Removed his winter jacket and folded it under one arm, hiding the frayed hems. He ran a hand through his hair, smoothing his cowlick. Another quick check in the glass assured him he didn’t look like a street urchin out of a Dickens novel, which was the most he could usually hope for.

The bell over the door rang as he walked in. The elderly shopkeeper poked his head out from the back.

“Andrew,” he said, which was the name Gabriel had given him. “Looking for work?”

Gabriel nodded.

“I don’t have anything today, but I’ll need a pair of strong hands tomorrow to help me move a few pieces from the basement. Think you can do that?”

The old man smiled. Gabriel often felt a twinge of remorse at that—genuinely kind grown-ups who tried unsuccessfully to coax a smile from him. He dipped his head in a nod, murmuring his thanks and hoping civility would be enough. The shopkeeper smiled again and said he’d see Gabriel the next day.

Before leaving, Gabriel detoured past the glass box. Inside was a Victorian tarot card deck. His Christmas gift for Rose. Or, it would be, once he’d saved up enough to dicker over the hundred-dollar price tag.

He didn’t need to pay for it, of course. Despite the fancy glass box, the deck could easily be stolen. Incredibly easily, given that the shopkeeper had already retreated into the back and would never suspect a ten-year-old boy of stealing old cards. But the man had given him work, and that meant he was off-limits as a mark. There were rules, Rose would say. First, don’t cheat family. But a close second: don’t cheat anyone who’s helped you.

Gabriel took one last look at the cards, mentally ran through the calculations of his funds, what he could earn, and the amount of time remaining before Christmas. As long as the deck remained there for another week, the goal was achievable. With a nod of satisfaction, he left the shop.

Television bored Gabriel. He saw little appeal in the dull, overacted dramas and even less in the screeching laugh-track-plagued sitcoms. His mother felt differently, which meant he could hardly escape the medium, not when she’d turn it up so loud it reverberated through their tiny apartment. In those shows, children would come home after school, bang open the door and yell, “Mom, I’m home!”

Gabriel did not do that. First, he didn’t remember ever calling Seanna “Mom.” In his head, she was Seanna. In front of others, she was “my mother.” To her face, she was nothing at all. It was remarkable how one could simply avoid calling someone by name, if one tried hard enough.

When Gabriel came home, he unlocked the door and eased it open an inch. Then he listened. If he heard a man’s voice, he would withdraw and go to the library. Same if he heard Seanna thumping around or grumbling or slamming drawers. That meant she was jonesing for a fix, and he should steer clear. If she was already high, whether he went in depended on his mood. It was only when Seanna was high that the fact of Gabriel’s existence didn’t annoy her. She could be downright maternal, wanting him to talk to her, asking how his day had been, offering him a Coke or a candy bar from her stash. Some days, Gabriel could tolerate that, if only for the free food. Other times, he saw her smile and heard her wheedling voice, and he wanted to shout and snarl at her. To get angry. Perhaps even to lose his temper. But that would mean she’d won, that she’d made him feel something, that she’d made him care. On those days, he’d rather face the cold and pay for his own snacks.

Today, though, was one of the best days. A day when he opened the door and heard nothing. When he walked through the apartment, he found no one inside. That’s when he smiled. A genuine smile as he slung his backpack off his shoulder, grabbed his books and tossed them onto the table with none of his usual care. Then he went into his bedroom, eased the loose floorboard free and took out a warm can of Coke. He turned to go . . . and noticed the corner of his threadbare throw rug flipped back.

With a sigh, Gabriel checked under the rug. This morning, there had been seven dollars and fifty-three cents in an envelope there. Now there was just an envelope. And a penny that Seanna had dropped. Gabriel took two singles from his pocket and put them into the envelope before fixing the carpet. Then he hid the rest of the money—minus a five for dinner—in his proper hiding place, a tiny tear in his mattress. He had seventy-six dollars in there now. Another ten and he’d have enough for the tarot cards if he bargained properly. But he couldn’t eat the cards. He’d need twenty more in backup for food before he made his purchase.

As he left his room, he felt a pang of . . . something. Not anger. That was too strong an emotion. Too uncomfortable. What he felt was mostly a weary sense of annoyance. He kept that small stash under the carpet for Seanna to steal because as long as she found money there she’d never think to look elsewhere. After years of addiction she wasn’t that smart. The drugs addled not only her mind but also any sense of self-respect, and that’s what brought the annoyance close to contempt. She stole from family. There was nothing worse than that.

Yet, as he left his room, his step lightened, and he popped open the Coke can, guzzling half. The missing money meant his mother would be gone for a few days. At school, the teacher had asked what they wanted for Christmas. Gabriel hadn’t answered, but if he did, it would be this. An empty apartment. The only thing better was . . .

He glanced at the calendar in his binder. He’d circled this weekend in red. No notation was needed. Red meant Cainsville. At least two days Seanna-free, and then Rose would pick him up for the weekend. Then he’d be back to Cainsville for Winter Solstice. He smiled. Happy holidays, indeed.

Gabriel perched on a stool in Rose’s kitchen. It was his stool, an antique his great-aunt had picked up the first time he visited, when he was three and couldn’t reach the counter on a normal chair. Now that he was five-and-a-half-feet tall, the stool was admittedly a bit ridiculous. He had to hunch to read the yellowed recipe cards spread across the counter. But the stool was his, and, no matter how many times his mother moved, leaving everything behind as they fled in the night, this stool remained exactly where he’d left it, in Rose’s kitchen.

Rose herself was in the parlor with a client. Gabriel could hear her telling an old woman that she saw strife and dissent in her future, and it wouldn’t improve until she kicked her freeloading grandson out of the house. Gabriel suspected the cards said no such thing. His aunt might have the Sight, but, when it came to telling fortunes, the only real gift needed was a working pair of ears. Listen to the mark and tell them what they needed to hear. Rose would not approve of his choice of wording there. Clients were not marks. Not all of them, anyway.

Gabriel flipped through the recipe cards. A pointless exercise. He knew which he’d want. Rose knew which he’d want. But it was tradition, and, at this time of year, one did not break with tradition. Not in Cainsville.

Gabriel slid off the stool and poured himself a glass of milk and grabbed an apple from the bowl. Good food, better than he was usually able to afford, though he made the effort. Staying healthy was as important as staying clean if one wanted to avoid the attention of those who might think Seanna should be relieved of her parental duties. That included Rose.

Once he’d shown up at school with a bruise on his jaw and fingermarks on his arm, courtesy of a drunken “boyfriend.” The teacher had taken him into a private conference room and asked about the bruises. He’d said nothing of course. But then she’d explained that if his mother was abusing him, he could go live somewhere else, perhaps with a relative.

Live with Rose?

The possibility shone like a star that had always dangled far out of reach, now dropping so close he could almost touch it. A few years before, Rose had tried to keep him, failing to return him to Seanna after the weekend. Seanna came for him, and she’d been furious and Gabriel hadn’t gone back for a year. After that, Rose didn’t try again. But if she could have him, legally . . .

She couldn’t. Gabriel discovered that as soon as his mother learned of his chat with the teacher. Her brain might be muddled by dope, but she had a certain cunning intuitiveness, that part of her that was still a Walsh. She knew what Gabriel had in mind, took him aside and explained exactly why Rose would never get custody of him.

“She has a criminal record,” Seanna said.

“So do you.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m your mom. She’s never been married, and she doesn’t have kids, which is a huge strike against her, but the criminal record is worse. Plus, she’s a dyke.”

“She does date men,” he’d said. “I’ve seen them.”

“And what about the women? You think they’re just really good friends?”

“No, she dates them, too. I just meant that I’m not sure ‘dyke’ is the correct term. I think it’s ‘bisexual.’”

She’d cuffed him for that, her eyes narrowing. “Don’t be smart, Gabriel.”

One of us has to be, he’d thought.

“You’re too smart,” she’d grumbled as she walked away. “It’s creepy. No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

Gabriel hadn’t taken her word about Rose and custody, no more than he’d believe her if she claimed it was snowing. Every tidbit that came from Seanna’s mouth had to be verified. This one, unfortunately, had turned out to be true. Combine “unmarried woman” with “criminal record” and “nonstandard sexuality,” and there was no chance Rose could get custody of him. If child services took him away, he’d never see her again. Never see Cainsville again. That wasn’t happening. He decided he could manage the situation.

Managing it meant being particularly careful around Rose, because if she had any idea how bad Seanna had gotten, she’d do something, even if it meant losing him forever. When she’d picked him up that morning, he’d been waiting outside. No need for her to discover Seanna wasn’t home. He’d showered, trimmed his hair, worn and packed his best clothes—the ones he kept especially for Rose’s place. He’d brought his homework bag, complete with two A-graded tests that he’d “accidentally” let fall out when she could see them. He’d even brought a banana to eat on the drive to Cainsville. See, everything is fine. Not ideal—you know what she is, and there’s no hiding that—but she’s doing a perfectly adequate job of raising me.

Rose had noticed the bruise on his face, but when he said he’d made twenty-three dollars off the skirmish, she’d laughed and said as soon as the relationship no longer proved profitable, he needed to show Jay why picking on him was a very bad idea. Which he would, of course.

The mark/client departed, and Rose walked into the kitchen. Gabriel didn’t need to look up from the recipe cards to hear her enter. His aunt still towered over him, nearly six feet tall, with the Walshes’ usual jet-black hair, light-blue eyes and pale skin. “Black Irish,” Rose called it. Or “Gypsy,” if she was playing Rosalyn Razvan, as her business card proclaimed her. In build, like him, his aunt was not small. In a novel, she’d be called sturdy, implying she was not thin, but not fat either. Solidly built. Big boned. Whatever adjective worked.

“Picked one?” she asked as she started the kettle for tea.

He handed her a card.

She sighed. “There is nothing festive about chocolate chip cookies, Gabriel.”

“You asked what I wanted. There were no restrictions placed on the choice.”

“All right, then. I’ll decorate them with—”


“I’ll cut them into reindeers and—”


A quirk of a smile. Year after year, the dialogue never changed. By now, it bordered on absurd. Yet it was tradition, so they stuck to their lines.

“What if I colored the dough green and red and—?”

He handed her a second card. “Sugar cookies. You may make these as well.”

Her brows lifted. “May I?”

“If you must.”

She laughed and headed for the fridge to take out the eggs and butter. “That bag on the table is for you. A gift for your mother for Christmas. One’s from you and the other’s from me. I know you never know what to give her.”

This too was tradition. He suspected Rose knew perfectly well that, without her contribution, he would buy Seanna nothing. He used to, when he was little. When she still played Santa for him. Then, one year, his gifts mysteriously went missing a week later and turned up at the pawn shop, and he went home and told Seanna he didn’t believe in Santa, and there was no need to continue the charade. So she stopped. And so did he. Yet Rose wouldn’t let him pass a holiday without a gift for his mother.

There was only a ten-year age difference between Seanna and Rose. His mother had been like a little sister to his great-aunt. An adored little sister. While it was difficult for Gabriel to put himself in the shoes of others, he made the effort with Rose. He had come to understand that, no matter how far Seanna fell, part of her was always that little girl to Rose, who still hoped Seanna could be that again. A vain hope, but Gabriel let her have it.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked.

“An afternoon’s work making cookies.”

He slid off the stool to fetch the flour.

While the cookies baked and Rose cleaned, Gabriel wandered into the parlor. There wasn’t far to wander in the tiny Victorian house. The parlor took up half the main floor space. It was like walking into the antique shop—if the shop specialized in the occult. Rose called it her collection of “old junk,” but she was proud of that junk, and for good reason. The pieces were valuable relics from the history of her craft. All the ways people had sought to peer into whatever mysteries lay beyond the everyday, whether it was reading tea leaves or communicating with spirits or catching a glimpse of invisible fae.

Gabriel took down a book on Cornish folktales and laid it on the desk, as if to read, but it was only an excuse for sitting at the desk and poking through the drawer. Getting a look at Rose’s cards and making sure she hadn’t added to the collection since he’d last been there. She hadn’t. There was the Thoth tarot and the Visconti-Sforza tarot and the Tarot of Marseilles. Her favorite—the one she used most—was a replica Victorian deck.

“Yes, a replica,” she’d say with a sigh. “Not that the clients know the difference.”

The problem was that an authentic Victorian-era tarot was difficult to find. Most from that period originated in France or Italy. A true Victorian tarot was rare, and she’d been hunting for years. Now Gabriel had found one.

He’d filched fifteen dollars from holiday shoppers last week. In Chicago, of course. He didn’t pick pockets in Cainsville. The shopkeeper had given him five dollars for helping move things up from the basement and promised another ten for work the following week. Then Rose would finally have her cards.

After dinner, Rose had another appointment with a mark. Gabriel went gargoyle hunting. Night had fallen, but there was no need to be wary. In Cainsville, he could walk around at two in the morning, and the biggest danger he’d face would be locals popping out to see what was wrong.

He read his notebook as he walked. Again, no danger there. He could cross the road, deep in his book, and traffic would stop. Not that he did any such thing. Only a fool tempted fate.

He studied his list of gargoyles and compared it to his hand-drawn maps. While it had seemed likely that the final gargoyle was in one of the regions where he hadn’t found any, all of these areas had proven empty, and he’d developed the theory that the last gargoyle was located uncharacteristically close to another. The first would be easily spotted, and children would move on, thinking that area covered. The second would lurk above or below, visible only from a certain angle or during a certain time of day or under certain weather conditions. The solution, then, was a methodical accounting for all possibilities. Today, a light snow fell, which introduced yet another test variable.

He tramped along, snow squeaking under his shoes. A couple of kids passed by with a sled. They didn’t ask him to join them. They knew he wouldn’t. But they grinned and waved and called a hello, and he knew that if he wanted to go sledding, he could, and there was a comfort in that, a satisfaction.

He continued on down Main Street, nodding at the adults who passed and lifting his head for a more respectful hello when the elders did. Without the notebook in his hand, they’d have stopped to talk, but they saw it and left him to his hunt.

Gabriel had investigated all the gargoyles on Main Street and had turned down Walnut, to take a closer look near the community center. There was one on the rear, there all the time, a sleeping gargoyle on the roof, its misshapen head on its folded arms.

“If you’re quiet enough, you’ll hear it snore,” said a voice behind him.

“Only if there’s enough of a wind to make the eaves groan.”

The man sighed. “Always need a prosaic explanation, don’t you, Gabriel?”

“No, but if there is one, I can’t deny it.”

“True.” The man walked beside Gabriel and peered up. “Yes, I suppose it is the eaves groaning. How dull.”

The man had a name. Gabriel didn’t know it. Had never heard it. Didn’t bother to ask it. If he was being honest, he’d admit that sometimes he forgot about the man altogether. If a few visits to Cainsville passed without seeing him, he’d spot him again and, for a moment, wonder who he was. More sleight of hand, this one in the mind, truth playing peek-a-boo with memory. It was Cainsville. Such things happened.

He looked at the man. He wasn’t old. Perhaps college aged or a little more. He had a notebook of his own, sticking from his pocket, and he was often writing in it furiously. Gabriel’s own book had been a gift from him, given for “any stories he wanted to tell.” Gabriel used it for financial calculations and homework reminders and gargoyle hunting.

“Do you want a hint?” the man said, pushing his hands into his pockets and shivering against the cold.

“No. That’s cheating.”

“You don’t cheat?” A smile played on the man’s lips.

Gabriel tilted his head, considering. “It would depend on the definition of the word. In the broadest sense, everyone does. Some more than others. But cheating to reach an achievement implies that you cannot do so otherwise. That you are not good enough. While I appreciate the offer, I am quite capable of finding the last gargoyle on my own.”

“You are indeed,” the man said. “You’re capable of doing anything you want to, Gabriel. Don’t you ever forget it.”

“I know. Thank you.”

The man walked to the community center wall and leaned his back against it as he fixed Gabriel with an appraising look. “Perhaps a small hint? It’s allowed for the last gargoyle.”

“No, thank you.”

“We could bargain for it.” The man grinned. “Tit for tat. That’s fair.”

“No, thank you.”

“I hope you aren’t bothering the boy, bòcan,” a voice said from behind Gabriel. Another voice he recognized. This one a woman’s, strong and firm despite her advancing years. Ida walked around the community center, her husband Walter at her side. “You know better.”

“Old people,” the man whispered to Gabriel. “So annoying.”

“I heard that,” Ida said.

“I’d hardly bother if you couldn’t.” The man strolled to Gabriel and said, “I’ll leave you with the old folks. You’ll be back for Solstice, I hope.”

Gabriel nodded.

“Excellent,” the man said. “Christmas is well and good, but around here, it’s all about the Winter Solstice. The beginning of winter. Longest night of the year.” He met Gabriel’s gaze. “A very important day . . . and an even more important night.”

“Yes, yes,” Ida said. “Get along and stop pestering the child. He’s cold and in need of cocoa.”

The man left, and Ida walked over. “You’ll come have cocoa with us, Gabriel? We’d love to hear how your history project went. We know you worked so hard on it.” She started back to Main Street as he fell in beside her. When Gabriel glanced down at his notebook, she said, “Ah, out hunting the last gargoyle. We could help with that, you know. It is permitted, with the last.”

“No, thank you.”

“Not even a hint?”

“I believe I have one already.”

She smiled, her wrinkles deepening. “Good. Now, can we drag you away from the hunt?”


The cards were gone. They’d been there Tuesday, when Gabriel came to work for the shopkeeper. On Thursday, the old man had him running errands, so he hadn’t been able to check the glass box, but, when work ended and he got his ten dollars, he’d walked to the cards and found an empty display case.

“Andrew?” the shopkeeper said as Gabriel stood there, staring down.

“The cards.” Gabriel turned. “Have you moved them?”

“Someone bought them yesterday.” The old man made a face as he walked over. “You didn’t want those old things, I hope. They aren’t real, you know.”

“They weren’t authentic?” A tickle of something like relief. “The label said they were.”

“Well, yes, they were really Victorian. I don’t sell fakes, son. I meant, they can’t tell the future. Nothing can.”

Not entirely true, as Gabriel well knew. He knew better than to say that, though. “I know. They were for my aunt. She’s a collector.”

“Oh.” Genuine dismay crossed the old man’s face. “I’m sorry, Andrew. If I’d had any idea you were saving up for them . . . Never mind those. They were too expensive. I’m sure your aunt doesn’t want such an extravagant gift from you. Better to save your money for a video game. That’s what kids play these days, isn’t it? Video games?”

Yes, and Gabriel could not imagine a bigger waste of time or money.

The shopkeeper continued. “How about I find you another set? Genuine antiques, of course. I know where I can get a nineteenth-century Hungarian deck for about thirty dollars. Or an art deco pack for twenty. I’ll ask around and make a list. Would you like that?”

Gabriel wanted to say no, but that would be rude, and, despite what others thought, he did understand the basics of civility. He merely applied them sparingly. He nodded, and the old man patted his arm, not noticing Gabriel’s reflexive flinch.

“I’ll do that then,” the shopkeeper said. “And you use that extra money to buy yourself a video game.”

Disappointment swirled about Gabriel like a fog. He almost stepped in front of a speeding car on the way back to the apartment. He walked inside without his usual Seanna-check. It’d been almost a week, and he’d grown accustomed to pushing open that door into an empty apartment. When he heard the squeal of her laughter, he stopped short.

“Gabriel, baby.” Her voice reached him before she did, and he hovered in the doorway, considering backing out when she appeared.

At one time, Gabriel supposed his mother had looked more like his aunt. She wasn’t as tall, maybe five-ten, but her shirt and jeans hung off her like grown-up clothes on children’s hangers. Her face was just as thin, with sunken cheeks and eyes that seemed more gray than blue. Today, they were grayer than usual, dull with that heroin glaze. She was only twenty-eight, but she looked twice that.

“This is my baby,” she said, and Gabriel realized they weren’t alone. A man walked from the kitchen. Maybe thirty, with the bulky build of a construction worker. He had a beer can in one hand and that same film over his eyes. New to the drug. New to the life. His mother knew her marks well.

“Isn’t my boy a cutie?” she said.

“He has weird eyes,” the man said.

Seanna punched his arm. “Don’t be mean. He has beautiful eyes. And he’s smart, too. Smartest kid in his class.”

“Must take after his daddy.”

Seanna spun on the man. “Now that’s mean. You’d better watch yourself, or you’ll be sleeping on the street tonight.” She turned to Gabriel. “Can you go get us some burgers, sweetie?”

He nodded and put out his hand. Seanna looked at the man and waited until he passed over a ten.

“That won’t feed Gabriel, too,” she said. “He’s a big boy. Only ten, and look how big he is already. He eats more than I do.” She leaned over to whisper. “And the more he eats, the sounder he sleeps.”

The man exchanged the ten for a twenty. “Get yourself something good, kid.”

Behind the man’s back, Seanna raised three fingers. Three dollars. That’s what he was allowed to take for his meal. The rest of the change went to her.

Gabriel pocketed the money and headed out.

In Cainsville, Solstice was indeed bigger than Christmas. In first grade, Gabriel’s teacher had asked his favorite holiday, and that’s what he’d said. She’d looked at him blankly. He’d repeated his answer and explained it—longest night of the year, the basis for Christmas, with feasting, exchange of gifts and all that. The next day, she’d taken him aside for a “chat” about Jesus and how he’d given his life for Gabriel’s sins, and that was the proper celebration of Christmas.

Gabriel had corrected her, as politely as possible. Easter was the holiday recognizing the death of Christ, and, while he understood the concept, he thought it rather presumptive to die for strangers. One of the younger teachers had overheard the conversation and reported it, and, ultimately, his teacher had to take him aside and apologize for questioning his religious beliefs. He’d accepted the apology, though he hadn’t understood it, not until he was old enough to realize Solstice was considered a Pagan festival. In Cainsville, it had nothing to do with religion. It was a celebration of winter. Nothing more.

The festivities began at sundown. Rose took him down to Main Street, which had been blocked off all day to prepare. Bonfires dotted the road, with a huge one in the middle. Candles covered every surface. Gifts were placed on tables according to age. They were unmarked, suitable for anyone of that age. Children had to bring one for the age group below theirs. Gabriel had brought two books: The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time. Both came from the used-book store, but neither looked as if anyone had cracked open its cover, so they could pass as new.

On arrival, every child was given a suet ball and had to find a place to hang it to help the birds through winter. They also got an orange, to represent the sun, and mulled cider, to keep them warm as they hunted for a suitable hanging spot. When they returned, Main Street was filled with tables and tables of food. Afterward, there would be caroling. And, of course, mistletoe, strategically hung for kissing. Gabriel avoided both by helping clear the food away. The night ended with stories and the burning of the Yule log. And that was when Gabriel’s night truly began—hunting for the last gargoyle, because he was certain the man had given him a hint. The final gargoyle would appear on the most important night of the year. The longest night of the year.

And it did. In fact, it was rather hard to miss, if you went looking. After the festivities, though, everyone headed home, leaving the streets bare, the bonfires smoldering. That’s when Gabriel found the gargoyle, in the most obvious place of all. Right in the middle of Main Street. Town Hall. On the bell tower.

Gabriel stood below the gargoyle as it leaned down from the tower, its twisted face grinning at him as if to say, “Found me!” He looked up through the falling snow and let out a low chuckle that reverberated through the silent street.

“Fitting, isn’t it?” said a voice behind him. It was the man, snow crunching under his shoes. Gabriel didn’t turn, just kept staring at the gargoyle.

“The bell tower?” the man prompted.

“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” Gabriel said.

“Very good. You do like stories then, even if you don’t write any in that journal I gave you.”

“I read the comic book.”

The man’s laugh rang through the night. “Liar.”

Gabriel smiled and shrugged. Then, he made the appropriate notes in his book, giving the exact location and describing the gargoyle, as was needed to claim his victory.

“You did it,” the man said as he walked up beside Gabriel.

“Yes, I did.”

“You know what the prize is, don’t you?”

Gabriel let out a soft sigh.

The man laughed again. “Not as keen on that part, are you?”

“Can I skip it?”

“Nope. You find all the gargoyles, and the town gets a new one, modeled after you.”

Gabriel made a face.

“Victory comes with a price,” the man said. “You’ll survive this one.” He looked down at Gabriel. “I’m proud of you. You know that, don’t you, Gabriel?”

It seemed an odd thing to say, but Gabriel only murmured, “Thank you.”

“Did you get a good present at the festival?”

Gabriel held up a train set.

“Ah,” the man said. “Not exactly your style, is it? How about I take that and give you something better.”

Gabriel hesitated. The gift, while unwanted, had been given with good intentions, and it seemed insulting to refuse it. Before he could answer, though, the man plucked the box from his hand.

“Happy Solstice, Gabriel,” he said as he walked away, the train set tucked under one arm. “And you’re welcome.”

Gabriel watched him go, frowning in some confusion. Then, as he turned, he saw the gargoyle again, and he nodded. That was the gift—the hint about Solstice. Fair enough.

He tried to put his notebook into his pocket, but it wouldn’t fit. Something else was in there. Gabriel reached in and felt a box. He pulled it out.

It was the cards. The Victorian tarot for Rose.

Gabriel turned back toward the man to call out his thanks. But the street was empty. He pocketed the cards, smiled and headed back to give Rose her present.

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