Exclusive Excerpt from Yuletide Treasure
by Eliot Grayson
Tim had paused in his copying some minutes before, his pen set carefully to one side, and was regarding Sypeman surreptitiously — and a bit warily, for all the man looked like he couldn’t hurt a fly. Ever since he’d fled to his own desk like all the demons were after him, he’d been hunched over a heap of old rubbishy bits of foolscap covered in crabbed writing that made Tim’s eyes and brain hurt even from across the room.
The suspicion that Eben Sypeman might be mad as a March hare had crept up on him a bit, as he sat and watched.
It really always was the pretty ones that were a bit dicked in the nob. Story of Tim’s life. Odd as Sypeman was, he was well worth looking at: the prettiest blue eyes Tim’d ever seen, and a handsome face under his waving black hair, despite the frowning and scowling. He could stand to get a little sunshine, but if he smiled Tim might forget all about the muttering and shuffling of papers, and the way he’d looked like he wanted to throw Tim down the stairs. Not that he’d have managed it, even with Tim’s mangled leg, but the impulse had been there, Tim would swear to it.
Sypeman grasped one of the papers before him in both hands, shook it a little, and made a muffled sound somewhere between a groan and a cough.
Tim caught up his pen again, so as not to be caught out in his shirking. “Mr. Sypeman, are you all right?”
The man jolted upright and dropped the paper, then looked up and fixed Tim with those bright eyes. Too bright; Sypeman looked downright wild. “Why do you ask?”
Why indeed? If the fellow didn’t realize how strangely he was behaving, Tim wouldn’t be the one to tell him. He shrugged, and it looked like Sypeman’s gaze flickered down Tim’s body a bit as he did. Interesting. “You made a strange sound, sir. Sorry. Not quite a cough. I thought you might be choking.”
“I did?” Sypeman really did seem genuinely confused. Good gods, but what was in those bits of scrawled nonsense that could keep his attention so fixed?
Tim shrugged again. “You did, but I shouldn’t’ve interrupted. Sorry.”
“No, it’s all right,” Sypeman said. “Though I don’t know what I could have choked on, besides frustration.” Timothy’s eyebrows went up, and he wished he could see the papers more clearly from where he sat. It was two days to Yuletide. What could have Sypeman so worked up just before a holiday, when no one ever did anything important? “This ledger is rather dense,” Sypeman added lamely.
Tim stared for a moment. Sypeman really was mad. Either that, or he thought Tim was blind, or an idiot. Or, not to ignore any possibilities, he was hallucinating entirely and thought Tim was a talking horse, or a tree, or gods only knew what. That would at least explain why his eyes had gone as wide as saucers when he saw Tim on the stairs.
“You’re not looking at a ledger,” he said carefully.
“How would you know?” Sypeman snapped, his fingers twitching toward his pile of papers again.
Tim stood, slowly and a little painfully after staying in one position for too long, and took up his cane from where it leaned against his dad’s desk. Perhaps the wiser thing to do would’ve been to simply walk out the door and forget about those shillings. But over the half hour or so Tim had been watching, Sypeman had gone from miserable to looking downright ill. There was something wrong, be it madness or not, and he couldn’t leave Sypeman alone here. It wouldn’t be right.
So instead, he stiffly made his way across the small stretch of floor separating the desks, coming to a stop at the end of the desk rather than in front of it, just a foot from Sypeman’s chair. His shadow fell across the desk. Sypeman scooted his chair back a few inches and tipped his head back, frowning. Perhaps Tim shouldn’t have loomed quite so much, but too late now. Sypeman moved as if he meant to stand, and Tim went rigid. If he stood they’d be chest to chest, so better if he stayed put — but no, that put Sypeman’s plush lips just at the level of the front of Tim’s trousers, and gods, but that was worse.
Thank every deity Sypeman tipped his head back against the chair to look up into Tim’s face, because his cock wanted to rise in response to the view. Oh, it had been too long, far too long, since Tim touched another man.
“Mr. Sypeman.” Timothy sighed and shook his head, trying to find the words. A fascinating flush began to spread up from under Sypeman’s collar, tinting his cheeks peony-pink. “You’ve already looked through the ledgers. And clearly, whatever you wanted wasn’t in ’em. Now you’re grasping at straws, and those straws aren’t in a book, which is what a ledger is. Just in case you had any real doubts that I know what one is.”
“I — I don’t —”
“I’m not offended. And you don’t care if I am, in any case, so don’t go making excuses,” Tim said levelly. It wasn’t a lie; how could the ravings of a madman offend him, anyway? But what had set off Sypeman’s bout of insanity? The answer came to him after a moment. “Your partner, Mr. Marney, died last week.” Sypeman only nodded, his lips pressed tightly together. “So whatever you’re looking for, it’s something he would have known, I’m guessing. Something bad. Or something that you need to find out to keep something else bad from happening,” Timothy went on. Sypeman’s dropped jaw and frightened eyes told him he’d hit close enough to the truth. “I’m not much of a clerk, I know it. And you don’t know me. But I’m the only one here, and you’re clearly not getting anywhere on your own. You should tell me what’s got you in such a lather.”
Sypeman clearly hadn’t been expecting that. “I should? I mean, of course I shouldn’t!”
“Why not? What’ve you got to lose, Mr. Sypeman?” Tim found himself leaning forward a little, holding his breath, hoping more than was strictly sensible that Sypeman would just talk to him. He’d heard from his dad that Sypeman had few friends, didn’t go out much in society, and generally kept to himself. He was quite possibly just as lonely as Tim, who lived with a large and boisterous family and still felt, sometimes, that he was a fixed point just outside of it. It felt important, somehow, that he reach out to this man who so clearly needed a friend.