Placing the large, shiny bow on the box she just wrapped, Afton Tremaine passed the gift across the counter to her last customer of the evening. Christmas Eve and the young man had been desperate for a last-minute gift for his girlfriend. Afton's shop, the Magical Mystery Store, offered a wide variety of items in the kitschy, fun line, including costumes, adults-only items, and magic supplies, but nothing that oozed sentimentality or bespoke of a personal affection between romantic partners. Finally, her customer chose a skimpy, red satin teddy with black-lace heart appliques on each breast, a pair of chocolate-cherry edible undies, and a coordinating black boa, what Afton billed as the Naughty Baby Doll Costume. She wrapped his gift in green foil paper, and then added curly ribbon along with her iridescent bow.
"I hope she likes it," Afton ventured when the young man handed her four twenty dollar bills for the $72.50 tab.
He thought for a moment with a lopsided grin. "I know I'll like it, or rather her in it! The fun will be in the unwrapping, her I mean, not the box."
She handed him the change. "Thank you, and Merry Christmas."
"Hey, thanks, and a Holly Jolly one to you, too!"
Still offering her customer a holiday-charged smile, Afton watched him depart with his gift clutched under his arm. By the time he made it to the exit, her carefully-made bow had fallen off, crushed from his grasp. With a little sigh, she went to fetch it off the floor, and then turn off the front lights and lock the outside door. Her shop was situated on the ground floor of a multi-use building. The adjacent hall offered a staircase that led up to private apartments on the next three floors. Besides the door to the sidewalk, she had another one that opened to the hallway. As Afton began to lock that door, she paused and observed the newest tenant enter the hall and proceed to fetch his mail from his allotted slot along the wall of mail boxes.
She hadn't met him yet but knew his name from the tag on his slot: M.C. Barrett. In his mid-thirties, M.C. Barrett offered much more in the physical department than the usual men who inhabited the building or came into her shop. Tall and athletic looking, he possessed an attractive, craggy face and neatly styled hair in a rich caramel color with just a slight feathering of gray at the temples. Normally, Afton wouldn't have noticed the color of his eyes but the striking blue clarity of Mr. Barrett's radiated from a distance. He certainly sparked in her more than casual interest. From what she could see beneath his blackberry wool overcoat, M.C. Barrett wore a tailored, dark suit, a slate-gray shirt, and a maroon- and silver-striped tie. A powdery snow had begun to fall in the late afternoon, and his hair and shoulders wore a light dusting of it.
For a moment, Afton thought about opening the door and striking up a conversation, but she had no idea where to start, other than to wish him a Merry Christmas. Of course, he could practice another religion or even profess to be an atheist... but she rather doubted it. She pegged him as the WASP type-white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant.
Her Aunt Winnie, who lived upstairs, had mentioned that the new tenant worked with books. Now Afton wondered if he might be a publisher, a librarian, or a book dealer-seller. Of course, if she really wanted to know she could consult her crystals and divine his occupation/avocation. Then again, she could always prod Aunt Winnie to find out more.
And speaking of her aunt... Winifred Graylock appeared on the bottom half of the steps and intercepted Mr. M.C. Barrett before he went upstairs. As they talked for several moments, Afton noted that her aunt had a flair for the dramatic, either swaying her hands to and fro or pointing up to the ceiling.
Fighting an urge to open the door just a crack to catch some of the conversation going on between the two, she watched as Mr. Barrett ended the discourse with a brisk nod of his head. Then, bypassing Winnie, he headed upstairs with a determined gait.
Afton opened the door to allow her aunt to enter, although refrained from asking about the encounter. Short and a bit on the plump side, Aunt Winifred possessed pert features, rosy cheeks, and a head of russet curls. She loved to wear peasant skirts and festive blouses, long, shimmering scarves and big earrings. Winnie told everyone that she just celebrated her fortieth birthday. Of course, Afton knew her aunt hadn't seen that numerical figure for some time, her real age in the low to mid sixties.
"You noticed that man, the new tenant?" Winnie began as she breezed inside the store. "He's rather uppity if you ask me."
"What do you mean, auntie?"
"He accused me of going into his apartment when he's out and rifling through his things."
"Oh, auntie, you didn't!" Unfortunately, Winnie had a habit of inviting herself into people's private domains without waiting for an invitation, or what was commonly known as breaking and entering. For awhile now, Afton harbored a terrible feeling that her aunt's curiosity would land her in jail sooner than later.
"Well, okay, I might have... just a little," Winnie admitted with a bit of a sheepish grin. "I wanted to let you know more about him. For instance, his first name is McKenzie, and he's single... so far. I found a framed photograph of a woman on his desk, but that doesn't mean a thing. She's rather bony and tight-looking, if you ask me. Oh, and he has books everywhere so I imagine he's involved in the book business."
"Tight looking? What does that mean?"
"Like she has a broomstick stuck up her butt."
"Really, auntie!" Afton donned a stern look. "I wish you'd stop all this snooping around. It will get you in trouble one of these days."
"Darling, you know I do it for your own good. You'll never meet anyone nice stuck in here all the time."
"I'm not looking for anyone nice."
"All right then, not so nice, but at least someone! You need to get out more, go places and do things." As she spoke, Winnie wandered over to the Fantasy Section and picked up and examined several pewter wizard figurines holding miniature crystal balls.