"Salutations on this glorious day," said the pleasantly plump, middle-aged man in the black raincoat. He spoke in a posh growl, the voice of a habitual smoker, doffing his bowler hat with exaggerated decorum when Veronica looked askance. "May I request entrance?"
She stood in the gap between the frame and door, edging the latter closed. "I'm sorry, who are you and what is this concerning?"
He gave an obsequious smile. "Now where are my manners?" He extended his hand for her to shake, which she did only apprehensively. She suspected it might be clammy at best. Instead, she found it firm and uncomfortably hot. She scoped his face for signs of flushed cheeks, fatigue, or perspiration, but he seemed otherwise healthy.
"I am Boyles. My business is in fact not with you, but a gentleman by the name of William, age eight."
She pulled open the door a bit, smelling old matches and burnt steak. "What business could you possibly have with Billy, Mr. Boyles?"
"Ah, yes. Your son wrote a letter to be delivered to my principal. Our organization is in the business of accommodating petitioners, when possible." He shifted his weight onto his back leg as if in preparation for the door to be slammed in his face. "I am here to uncover whether his request meets the definition of our intercession."
"Billy wrote a letter?" Veronica searched her memory for the last time he wrote anything of his own volition, particularly anything that could be classed a letter. A manifesto, possibly. Maybe it was something one of his therapists suggested. She wished they would tell her these things. Billy needed oversight. They knew that. "Was this a letter to Santa?"
He gave a wolf's smile. "What an arresting accent you have there, my good woman. May I come in to discuss this matter further?"
She gave a faint, uncertain nod, not seeing the prudence of putting this man out when he had traveled any distance because of her son's letter. He walked around her, making broad strides toward her living room sofa, where he took the liberty of seating himself on the center cushion. She pulled a chair away from the desk in the corner, one cluttered with bills and receipts, and sat across from him. His manner seemed overly familiar and she considered showing him the door for that alone, but she didn't wish to be discourteous. Billy so rarely provoked the interest of polite parties, but Billy had torn the Christmas tree to shreds and yanked the lights from the walls when Veronica let slip how lean this Christmas would be in order to pay for his doctors.
"Are you saying that someone actually reads those letters to Santa?" she asked. "I always figured they were, I don't know, burned up in January."
"Was not a stamp placed on the envelope? Was it not addressed? Dropped in a mailbox for delivery?" asked the man, hat on lap and eyebrows arching so high as to make sharp creases across his forehead.
"Are you from the post office?"
He gave a low chuckle. "Alas, I cannot claim that particular pleasure."
"Who are you, then?"
"As I've said, I am one Mr. Boyles. I represent he to whom your William wrote."
"Is this a Make-A-Wish visit? I thought those were just for, you know," Veronica lowered her voice, leaning forward, "terminal kids."
He clapped his hands together. "What a delightful phrasing you employ. One could go so far as to saying I am loosely in the business of causing the wishes of the sincere to come true. Now, if you might be so immensely kind as to direct me toward your William?" He looked around patiently, his gaze resting on the portions of the ceiling under her son's room, where she had exiled Billy a half hour ago as punishment. She knew Billy was not thinking about what he had done, just sitting and staring out the window until his time was up, but she needed this time to set right their home again.
"In a minute," said Veronica, her own patience waning. "Who are you here for?"
"Your son," he said, whip-crack quick, his eyes boring into her with rapidly waning tolerance.
"No, I mean, who do you represent, exactly?"
Just as fast, he replied, "Myself and he who employs me in this task. I answer to no one else."
She rose from her chair, feeling her anxiety rising with his evasiveness. "A name. Give me the name of the organization that sent you."
"That information," Mr. Boyles said officiously, "belongs to he who requested my presence, with all relevant respect due to you, madam."
Veronica heard a creaking on the staircase. Mr. Boyles turned, his smile seeming more genuine. "Ah," he said warmly. "This must be our young William, mustn't it? Hard to mistake him." Billy took an uneasy step down, looking at his mother with empty eyes. "Well, come over here. Let us get a good look at you in the light, if you would be so very kind."
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