Jude can’t not be doing something. In this case, a work of social merit. And personal gain.
He woke before dawn to the usual sounds, the safe sounds, of the woodlot. A lark announced his presence, with other birds chirping their defiance of his claim to the world. A few leaves brushed against their fallen fellows as they landed on the ground. Thump. Thud. Soft sounds of apples dropping to the ground. The air smelled of morning mist, overripe fruit, and damp soil. Jude relaxed, testing his muscles and stretching as best he could. His left hand ached a little, as did his left shoulder and right knee. The latter two would work out with movement and exercise. He sat up, waited, listening, then pulled on jacket and boots and gathered his rucksack. Oh so slowly he opened the hidden door to the half-cellar, listening and sniffing the air.
“All clear,” Shoim called. Still, Jude took his time, easing the wood and metal up, then emerging and closing it again. He scuffed a little brush and some leaves over the straight sides, breaking up the pattern. Straight lines and perfect circles attracted attention. A soft, ripping sound came from overhead, and four black feathers floated down from the old beech. Jude studied one where it lay. A grackle. Good riddance. Shoim tended to hunt nuisance birds and field pests, at least the edible ones. He’d eaten a seagull once. It had not agreed with his mage, since the harrier had smelled like rotting fish for several days afterwards. That harriers were not supposed to take birds on the wing passed without comment, like so many things.
“I need to go to town,” Jude told his Familiar. “Do you need anything?” It felt odd to ask, but seemed rude not to.
Another handful of feathers floated down. “No, thanks. I’ll catch up with you. These don’t taste good once they get cold, this time of year.” The wet tearing sound of Shoim ripping flesh off of bones came from overhead. Harriers also did not generally eat their prey in trees, but on the ground. Again, not worth mentioning. Jude nodded and started walking toward town.
He strode with a purpose, as if he belonged. Well, he did, just not the way most people would assume. He cut through woodlots and skirted pastures, avoiding farmyards when he could. Half-way to town, he left the woods and followed the new walking path along the county blacktop. He heard heavy, rapid steps behind him, and someone panting. He stepped out of Mr. Linebarger’s way. The older electrician had been ordered to get more exercise, as he had loudly complained to all and sundry within hearing distance the next day. Jude, loading fresh bread into the shelves at the bakery, had nodded and did his best to look sympathetic. He worried more about hunger than avoirdupois. He could not eat what he Hunted.
The small St. Vincent du Paul shop sat in town, not far from St. Boniface Catholic Church. Jude considered things, then went around to the back door and tapped. Brother James opened it. “Yes?”
“Good morning, sir. Do you need help sorting?”
The elderly Franciscan considered, then nodded. “Yes. Come in.” Jude eased through the half-open steel door and closed it behind himself. “Just a second, let me, ah.” Clunk the heavy switch flipped, and dim fluorescent lights flickered to life. “We have four boxes to go through, half clothes and half household goods and books. Why don’t you start with the clothes, Jude?”
“Yes, sir.” He set his black leather rucksack and jacket on the shelf for volunteers to leave things, and started to work. Brother James watched for a minute or so, then went up front to finish cleaning and getting ready to open. Since Jude volunteered whenever he had time, and had been helping for half a decade, the others trusted him to work unsupervised. He shook out an intensely pink child’s sweater and smiled a little to himself. What would he do if he stole the goods? Sell them? Devon County was too small. And he most certainly could not wear most of the garments! He checked the size and wrote it down on a tag, along with the like-new condition, then folded the sweater. He set it and the tag in the appropriate bin.
By the time the shop officially opened, he’d gotten through one large box and half of the second one by himself. Miss O’Malley and her mother had also arrived, and they did household goods with Br. James. “No, I’ve not heard anything, but that’s Robert’s cousins, not mine,” Mrs. O’Malley said.
“Mr. Harbaugh asked Fr. Gregory,” the monk said. “I’ve not seen any of that family come in here that I know of.”
“I don’t think we can sell this.” The red-headed court reporter held up a pot with a heavily charred bottom. “It’s not flat, either.” She set it on the table and watched it rock. “The last Jantzen who graduated from Devon West was Petunia, ah, no, Pauline, and she died in that bad wreck over a decade ago, Mom. The only reason I remember is because at the combined class reunion, she was on the memorial list. She graduated in eighty-two.”
Jude listened as he shook out a puffy coat. The zippers worked and it didn’t appear stained. He checked inside, and found a sales tag. It was new. He shook his head a little. Given the colors, he could see why it had not sold, and had been donated. Lime green and orange the same shade as the highway workers wore, in horizontal stripes, did not flatter many people. Martha had used blunt words to describe the marketing person who insisted that fluffy down jackets could be “slimming.” He’d kept his head down and mouth firmly closed.
“Well, the lawyer was asking around, although why he didn’t say. The Jantzens sold to Jude’s aunt and uncle at least thirty years ago.” Mrs. O’Malley turned to him. “Jude, has Mr. Harbaugh’s office called you or your aunt?”
He blinked, as if trying to recall. “Not that I know of, ma’am. She’s not mentioned a call.” Which was completely true. “Uncle Sean purchased the farm in, ah, the early eighties if I recall correctly.” He chuckled. “A little before I paid attention to farm things.” Not true, exactly, but close.
Br. James chuckled in turn. “Just a little.” He left the volunteers to continue working and went to open the shop. Jude filed the gossip away and finished sorting the box. He’d found one suspect item, a work-shirt with oil stains concealed by the pattern. He set that aside with the rocking pot and other rejected things. Most got caught at the main warehouse and distribution center, but a few slipped through now and then.
Jude finished and wrote down his time on the list. Then he went around and entered the shop by the front door. As he’d hoped, the boots he’d seen in the window were still there. They were seconds with discolored leather, in his size. He double-checked the quality and that they didn’t have any surprises, then carried them and three pair of socks to the counter. Br. James smiled again as he rang them up. “I wondered if you’d get those,” he said. “Thirty-eight forty four.”
Jude set two twenties on the counter. “I’ve gone from outgrowing them every summer to wearing them out every-other summer.” He smiled in turn, careful not to show his teeth.
“One fifty-six is your change, and if you get two years out of a pair, you’re doing better than most. My superior issued orders that it was better thrift to get good winter boots that last rather than inexpensive ones that fail before spring.” The elderly monk tilted his head to the side, expression patient. “Poverty does not mean foolish cheapness.”
“No, sir, it does not.” Which was why he haunted the St. Vincent shop, and why Martha checked the Community Thrift in Riverton for him. And the charity stores did not question cash purchases, unlike a few places he’d encountered.
“God bless you, Jude, and have a blessed rest of the day.” The Franciscan handed Jude the boot-box, socks tucked inside. “The receipt is in the box.”
“Thank you, and may He be with you as well.” He carried the box under his right arm, since it would not fit easily in his bag. He held the door open for Mrs. Mercer and her small, bouncing brood. The three children chattered and smiled as they followed their mother. Children’s clothing never stayed on the shelves for long, not here.
His stomach grumbled. He had almost twenty dollars left from his “spending” wages at the bakery. The scent of grilled meat had settled over the street outside the thrift shop, beef and something else. “Fried” also wafted on the breeze, and his stomach reminded him that he had not broken his fast except with water. Jude turned north and followed the scents to the Courthouse Café on the main courthouse square.
The rush had not begun, such as it was on Monday when court wasn’t in session, so he found a table in the back corner beside an emergency exit, where he could see the front door and kitchen door. Gretchen Schuhman appeared as he picked up the menu. “Drink?”
“Large soda, please. And fried cheese.”
“Big pop and fried cheese. I’ll be back.” With that ominous promise she hurried to the counter to harass the two deputies staring holes in the menu board. They harassed her right back. Barely five minutes passed before his drink and the steaming, batter-fried cheese arrived. “What else, Hon?”
“Double cheeseburger with bacon, no secret sauce, onion rings, and a slice of whichever pie needs to be eaten, please.”
“Double cheeseburger, bacon, no sauce, rings, and French silk pie.” She glared at him over her reading glasses. “Cook’s going to be steamed you don’t like his sauce.”
He smiled—carefully—at the ritual warning. “I like the taste. I don’t like wearing my dinner.” The sauce tended to be thin and drippy.
Gretchen gave him a skeptical glare and snapped the order pad closed as she departed. He had a sip of pop, then tried to pick up one of the sticks of fried cheese. He blew on his scorched fingertips and stabbed it with a fork. Eight years and he still missed the fresh, soft herb cheese he’d grown up with. He shook his head a little. He should miss his mother, and brother and sister, and he did. But he really missed herbed cheese, and winter sausage, and those soft ginger cookies that his aunt-by-marriage made every year at Christmas. And dill potatoes, although he’d come close to duplicating those. He ate the hot cheese and set the memories aside, as always.
When he left, Deputy Andersen stopped him. “Jude, how’s your aunt doing?”
“She’s fine, sir. The last time I stopped by, she was grumbling about the firewood stack being too tall, and the price of propane being almost as high.” Why did he ask?
The stocky, dark-featured man listened, expression thoughtful. “Huh. When was that?”
“Sunday afternoon, sir, before she left for church.”
“We,” he used his thumb to indicate the other deputy, Sanders, “got a call asking if she still lived on the farm. From an out-of-state lawyer. Under-sheriff didn’t say which state.” Andersen raised his eyebrows.
Jude guessed the question. “My father is in Connecticut, or that’s where his mail goes. He’s on submarines, so he’s probably under the Atlantic right now. Aunt Salley passed away three years ago in November, and Aunt Georgia’s in Kansas. Uncle Rob died in February.” Martha had taught him enough to pass as her nephew. And it was all true save the first part.
“Thanks, Jude.” Andersen paused. “Where’s your friend?”
He smiled, carefully. “He doesn’t do indoor dining. By popular request.” He hadn’t bothered trying to hide Shoim, and after the initial flurry of gossip everyone ignored the harrier.
Deputy Sanders rolled his eyes. “No joke. My boys love watching the nature shows where the lions and eagles are eating. The messier and bloodier, the better. No thank you, not during my supper.”
“I hope they grow out of it, sir, or they apprentice with Mr. Heinz.” The butcher was regionally famous for using every part of the animal except the moo or grunt.
“So do I. My regards to your aunt.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Jude strolled back to the main road, then to the city park. “About time,” Shoim grumbled from the big red maple near the eastern corner. “I’ll fly, since your hands are full.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Not exactly, but Martha slipped and landed hard on her dignity.” Shoim sounded a little worried. “She moved pretty slowly and didn’t finish the noon chores.”
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved