“If that is all, I’ll get right to work on that background check. It shouldn’t take me more than a few days.” Solomon Sugar closed his notebook with a snap and stood up. When Ray simply grunted, he took that as a dismissal and turned for the door. He had a good deal to get done before Ray and Florian left for Germany in two weeks time.
“Hey, Sugar! You’ll be here for the holiday, right? Florian has something special planned.”
Solomon paused before heading out the door of Ray Balzac Courland’s well-appointed office.
“Is that an order?” He hesitated and then added, his face deadpan, “Boss.”
Ray rolled his eyes and tossed his pen down. He leaned back in his plush leather chair and surveyed his newest and possibly most difficult employee, which was saying something considering the problems he had with Florian and Laila. It wasn’t that Solomon Sugar, formerly of the Paris Police Department and currently on staff with Ray, aka, Noir, as a private investigator, was incompetent or disrespectful. On the contrary, sometimes Ray thought he’d had a closer, more light-hearted relationship with Solomon Sugar when the man was obsessed with putting Noir behind bars! Sugar was so intent on earning his way, on being a contributing member of Noir’s team that he had lost some of his light-hearted insouciance that was such a good match for Ray’s own sense of humor.
At present, Solomon continued to return Ray’s scrutiny with his own completely deadpan expression. Ray sighed.
“No, it is not an order, Solomon. It is an invitation. I apologize for it not being issued sooner but I assumed that Florian would have spoken to you. I would like very much if you would be back from your investigation in time to join us for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day festivities, whatever they may be this year. Florian and Laila take charge of that, but as part of our household, of course you’re invited and expected.”
Solomon had a funny expression on his face. Ray assumed it was shyness. Or perhaps it was concern over gifts? Ray remembered what that could be like, from his days at the university. He was quick to reassure his new, seemingly sensitive employee.
“We don’t do a big thing with gifts, except of course Florian gets young Noel some toys and such. He and I try to give to some street urchins we ran into the other year instead of to each other. It is really quite simple, just an extra special dinner on both days, and Florian likes to go to Church. It would be nice to have you spend the time with us, part of the family as it were.”
Ray felt himself babbling which was far from his usual style, but the unwavering stare Sugar was giving him was unnerving. Naturally he gave a Christmas bonus to his employees but there was no need to mention that now—this was supposed to emphasize the family-like relationship they’d all developed, and indeed, he’d begun to feel quite close to the annoying detective, so why was he making Ray feel like he’d spilled the luncheon soup on his tie?
“Well?” Ray asked finally, feeling that the awkward silence had gone on long enough.
“I don’t think so,” was the unexpected answer. “But thank you for your invitation. I will report back to you as soon as I have more information on this case. I hope you enjoy your Christmas—and please extend my best wishes to Florian and Laila as well.”
Solomon Sugar closed the door firmly behind him, leaving a somewhat surprised and curious employer on the other side of it.
It was only a few days before Christmas. True to his word, Solomon had not been back to the mansion, choosing instead to send his updates to Ray in encrypted written reports which only the two of them would know how to decipher. Ray had thought him still away from the City on his assignment but then the most recent report was hand-delivered by a street urchin, a clear indication that it had been sent from within City limits. Of more concern, Ray noticed that Solomon’s handwriting was shaky, and he thought it more likely than not that his prickly investigator was holed up somewhere, alone…and injured. He instructed Laila to delay the messenger boy’s departure for a few minutes, which gave him time to don the guise of Noir and be ready to follow the boy back to his rendezvous with Sugar.
Noir was very good at staying in the shadows. It was a skill that stood him in good stead when it came to sneaking into buildings that did not belong to him or eluding pursuers who meant him harm. It enabled him to follow the boy on his way to meet with Solomon Sugar with no trouble at all.
What Noir did not realize was that Florian had also actually become fairly good at tailing someone without that someone becoming suspicious. It wasn’t until Noir was waiting outside a small apartment building on the edge of Paris’ poorer section that he realized that he had been tailed, which was only because Florian spoke into his ear as he waited in the shadows across the street from where the young boy had entered the apartment building.
“Do you think this is where Solomon is living now?”
Noir managed not to jump in surprise, but it was close. He turned toward his lover, who was staring curiously at the building, seemingly unaware that Noir had been unaware of his presence until that moment. He decided he may as well keep his shock to himself—though he wondered when Florian had gotten so good at sneaking around.
“Of course it must be—he would have instructed the boy to return to him with my response to his report,” Noir snapped in a low voice; still, the arm he snaked around Florian’s waist belied his harsh tone. He pulled the slender blond close and inhaled deeply of the scent that was uniquely Florian.
“I knew Solomon was struggling since leaving the police force but to find him in this section of the city….”
Florian didn’t need to finish the thought. It was already in Noir’s mind—how could he have missed the signs that one of his people was in the kind of need that he swore would never touch his life again? Sugar always dressed well—not that his clothes were new or all that fashionable, but they were in good condition and classic, which meant that their age was irrelevant.
Still…Noir prided himself on seeing beneath the obvious. It was a critical skill in his line of work. And yet he’d missed all the clues when it came to the man who’d saved his and Florian’s lives more than once. Noir took care of the people whom he considered part of his “family.” It was something he’d learned as a street rat so many years ago, when he and Azura had only each other to rely upon—but that bond was as strong as any blood bond could ever be. Solomon Sugar was part of his family now, even if the bond with Azura was long broken, and Noir would not easily see this new one severed.
“Hush now, Florian,” was all he said, in a voice so low it was barely a whisper of wind in the gathering dark. “We’ll wait to see if Sugar comes out.”
They didn’t have long to wait as it turned out. A few minutes later, Sugar came out with the boy. He was still fastening his coat, stooping a bit to hear the excited chatter of the youngster. Noir and Florian waited for them to get a head start, then followed at a safe distance.
Sugar and the young boy he’d used as his courier to Ray walked slowly. Noir noticed that the investigator was favoring his right leg—and his left arm appeared to be in some sort of sling. That explained why the left-handed Sugar’s hand-writing had appeared off; he must have been using his right hand. Noir knew that the man was somewhat ambidextrous, as many left-handers were, but there was still a marked difference in his handwriting with his right hand. He frowned—the man really should have included it in his report if he ran into trouble of that nature.
Florian tugged on his arm to alert him to the fact that Solomon and the lad were stopping at a doorway. If Sugar’s rooms were in a more modest part of the City, this area was just as poor, but brighter seeming as it was the habitat of the artist community, not to say bohemian. Still, the woman who opened the door to Solomon was dressed in a nice black dress and looked like a mother, Noir thought, then grinned to himself—Florian probably thought she looked like an upstairs maid. To the surprise of both watching men, but especially Noir’s, Solomon hugged her close in greeting and they kissed warmly.
“Could she be…is Solomon…?” Florian didn’t finish his questions but again, he didn’t need to—Noir knew what he was asking. Was she someone special to their friend? He would have sworn Solomon did not care for women in that way but obviously there were things about the man that they had not known.
“Come on,” he hissed, and tugged on Florian’s arm. They took advantage of the gathering shadows of sunset to creep closer to the front window of the apartment, into which Solomon had been drawn, along with the lad. The sight that met their eyes surprised both of them even more than that of their friend hugging the woman. The three inhabitants were gathered around a small table, the woman had a shawl over her head and Solomon and the boy both wore caps. A candleholder was before them and they appeared to be saying something, while the boy held a lit taper, ready to light the center candle.
“That is a pretty candelabrum,” Florian commented softly.
“It is a Menorah,” Noir corrected him absently, the scholar in him never quite silent. He was piecing together the answer to Solomon’s behavior over the holiday invitation—it made more sense now, Noir realized. He’d assumed that Solomon was Christian, which was ironic, given that he had not been raised Christian himself, Noir thought, smiling wryly, and remembering his own adjustment to living in a Roman Catholic country after growing up in a Muslim world.
“What’s a Menorah?” Florian asked, his amethyst eyes reflecting his confusion.
“I will explain at home. Come, I have a note to write to our Solomon Sugar.”
Solomon Sugar presented himself, as requested in a terse note from his employer, at the mansion the following afternoon. He was somewhat nervous to called before Ray Balzac Courland, when he had not expected to see him again until after the New Year. He could not help a nagging worry that Ray had found some fault with the results of his investigation, thorough though he believed it to have been. Yet, there was nothing in his demeanor to reveal his anxiety as cool blue eyes met bright green ones.
“You summoned, dear black cat?” Solomon sat back against the cushions of the leather chair Ray invited him to take, and crossed his legs negligently.
“I did, dear former Detective Sugar. I have a complaint to lodge with you.” Ray moved around his desk and leaned against the front of it. He held one of his glittering, jewel encrusted knives that he used as a letter opener. Solomon had trouble taking his eyes away from it as Ray spun it in his hands. Still, with some effort, he dragged his eyes back to Ray’s, and asked, “And what is your complaint? I felt the investigation was going well.”
“Oh…that,” Ray shrugged, and flipped the knife across the room in one smooth move, sending it deep into the wood paneling next to the fireplace. Solomon’s eyes gleamed appreciatively—there was no one quite like his black cat.
“Clever trick, Noir—but I’m too used to you to be intimidated,” he drawled, not letting on that he was in fact slightly intimidated by the trick. He sensed that Ray was upset about something but for the life of him could not guess what it was.
“Is Florian all right?” he asked suddenly, inquiring about the only one whom he thought could disturb Noir’s equanimity. The green eyes lit up, but whether it was with affection or mischief, Solomon was not sure.
“No, actually—Florian is not all right. He is quite upset. And it is all your fault.” Ray leaned back on his hands, and swung his legs casually as he smirked down at Solomon in the chair in front of him. The detective looked back at him, totally confused.
“My fault? How?”
“Laila has been making potato latkes all day and making him test them for her…I think it may take him a week to recover.”
Solomon narrowed his eyes at first, then shook his head, amused. “Laila is doing that, is she?”
Ray nodded. “Also, Florian has been hunting for just the right kind of Menorah—I had to convince him that a sixteen candelabrum was not twice as good as a Menorah that held nine candles.”
“And did he find one?” Solomon asked, a smile tugging at his lips; he could just imagine Florian, the Duke, wandering through the Jewish section of the city, searching for a Menorah that would please both his aesthetics and Noir’s. “Though I take that back—didn’t Noir have at least one among his treasures?”
Ray pretended to be offended. “There was talk that the new synagogue they finished building just last year, I’m sure you know the one I mean, the Rue Copernic Synagogue, houses some amazing treasures. I’ve heard that it holds the very oil lamp that the Maccabees used, but after that Knights Templar debacle, I’m leaving religious treasures alone.”
Solomon grinned faintly. “I believe I can understand your reticence—given your history.”
Seeing his friend finally relaxing, Ray dropped down to his knees and looked earnestly at his friend. “Who is that woman and her child, Solomon? I thought we were friends…good friends. Yet you have a family that you didn’t tell us about? And you hid your religion? Why?”
Clasping Ray’s hands, Solomon looked into the green eyes that he found so intriguing and which now held a hurt that Ray was trying to hide. He sighed. Then he spoke, “Leah and Daniel are the sister and nephew of my former partner, from my early days with the Paris Police Force. Samuel died saving me from the Black Hand. I promised to take care of Leah and Daniel, which is no easy task; she is quite a stubborn woman.” Solomon smiled ruefully. “And yes, I’m Jewish, though not as good as I should be. I haven’t really practiced my faith in years, but now that Daniel is approaching the time of attaining his manhood in our religion, I’ve had to relearn some of our ways so that I can help him learn them. Though it works better for me to hire a tutor with the extra money I’m earning now. I was never a very good scholar.”
“So I wasn’t especially dense; you were not practicing your religion for all the years I’ve known you,” Ray exclaimed, relieved that he had not missed something so basic about someone who’d been around him for several years. It was a matter of professional pride.
Solomon laughed, reading his black cat accurately. “Relax, I am not what one would call an orthodox Jew. But helping Daniel prepare has made me realize how much I missed having something in my life to hold onto, and believe. And realizing that I would never even be taken for Jewish by the men who knew me best—that took me aback. This was why I reacted so rudely to your invitation the other day. And I apologize for that. I should have explained—it would have saved you the trouble of spying on me.” Solomon glared at Ray for that.
Ray laughed. “Well, you can rest assured that I’m being suitably punished—between Florian and his search for the right Menorah and Laila and her latke recipes—I will be glad when the holidays are over. Incidentally, they want to invite your friends to the house. I told them it would be up to you.”
Solomon looked at Noir, and their eyes held the gaze for a long moment. Then Solomon answered, “I think that it would be best if I kept that part of my life separate…though I thank Florian and Laila for the thought. However, I wouldn’t want to send the wrong message to Leah or Daniel. I am merely a friend of the family, with no plans to become anything more.”
Ray nodded, and then smiled warmly at Solomon as he reached out his hand. “Can I assume then that you are free to light the Menorah candle with Florian and me tonight? He’s kind of planned a special evening as a Hanukkah gift for you.”
“Tonight we light two candles,” Solomon murmured, allowing Ray to pull him to his feet.
“That works for me also,” Noir answered.
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