Iris cringed and turned around to see Charles Baxter standing behind her. “Mr. Baxter,” she greeted.
Behind them, the Congregational Church choir was singing “Silent Night” as the small crowd milled around on the common. The snow had been cleared away enough that people could comfortably stand, but the whole thing seemed more contained this year than it usually did. Everyone was pressed together, with the remaining snow blocking them in. The music was beautiful, the decorations as festive as ever, but Iris was beginning to regret coming here. Even before Charles Baxter arrived.
Now she couldn’t imagine what had possessed her to come.
“You’ve been busy.”
Iris frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Your store,” Baxter clarified, though she could tell from his closed-off expression that there was another layer of meaning under it. “You’ve had quite the year, haven’t you? Bringing on staff… bringing in business from out of town…”
Her customer base had always consisted partially of people from outside of New Winslow, that had never changed. For some of them, the thrill of coming to the cursed town was part of the experience. She didn’t exactly advertise it, but she wasn’t going to prevent people from coming. “I guess,” she said uneasily.
Baxter studied her in the colorful light from the Christmas trees. She didn’t need to use her powers to feel the fury bubbling underneath his placid-looking demeanor.
“Business has been good,” he repeated. “You’ve been really getting around.”
“Just make sure that you don’t push yourself too hard,” Baxter said.
Iris darted her gaze around, but there was no escape. There wasn’t much space in the path that had been dug out here, so it wasn’t like she could go around him. And there were too many people behind her to try and go back the way she came.
“It’s interesting,” Baxter continued. “I’ve heard some strange things lately. People reporting activity at your store late at night. Wild tales of ghosts and monsters. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“My apartment is above my store,” Iris said. “And I own the property. There’s no rules against my being there or having anyone there.”
“No, no, of course not,” Baxter said. “I would never try to say that. Everyone’s free to do what they want on their own property. It’s when it impacts others that it becomes a problem.”
“Mr. Baxter,” Iris said, steeling her nerves in an attempt to end this situation as soon as possible. “If there’s a problem, I’d appreciate you just telling me.”
He knew. She could feel it with sickening clarity. He absolutely knew about everything. Someone had given him her records, he knew that she’d made the connection. He knew.
“You’re making waves in town and it’s unnecessary,” Baxter said, leaning in closer. “Stop this crusade, or whatever it is you’re doing to break the curse. You’re wasting your time. We’ve tried everything and nothing worked. It’s just something we need to accept.”
It was easy to accept when it didn’t impact him. But rather than say that, Iris nodded. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Baxter reached out and grabbed her wrist tightly. He moved so quickly she barely noticed until his shockingly strong grip was squeezing her. His face was now inches from her own. “I mean it,” he hissed. “Let it lie, Iris. Or you might not like what happens.”
He let go and offered her a wide politician smile. “Nice talking,” he said. “See you at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting?”
Before she could answer, he turned around and started walking toward a group of women who were watching the choir. Adrenaline making her shaky, Iris watched him go, then turned around. She didn’t know where she was going, but she had to get out of here.
The caroling wasn’t much fun this year. If Roman was being honest with himself, they should have skipped it. The town had tried. They’d plowed out enough of the common that they could have the little stage and the Girl Scouts’ cocoa table. But it felt colder than usual and the little ones kept falling in the snow, both on accident and on purpose. Celine was helping the Girl Scouts with their cocoa and Jamie hadn’t been feeling well, so he’d stayed home. So now Roman was wrangling two toddlers solo and he was feeling cold and grumpy about it.
“Abby!” Roman snapped, scooping her off the ground one last time. “Come on, get in your seat.”
She squirmed as he snapped her into her seat in the double stroller, but as soon as she was buckled in, she thankfully stopped fighting. Aidan had already been captured, so Roman tossed a blanket over the two of them and started down the path.
He nudged his way through the crowd, apologizing as he bumped into people. It was time to get these two home. Maybe he could drop them with Jamie just long enough to come back for Celine at the end of the night.
“Hey Beckett,” Rick, an insurance adjuster who regularly came into the House of Pizza, said as Roman tried to pass.
“Hey, Rick,” Roman said, adjusting the stroller as a wheel got snagged on a piece of ice.
“Cold one, huh?”
“Think you’ll be on drunk duty again this year?”
Roman stopped. Rick was grinning foolishly, like he’d said something hilarious and clearly expected Roman to join in. But Roman just looked at him in disgust. “Really, man?”
Rick’s grin faded. Roman was tempted to light into him, but he just shook his head. “I gotta get my kids home,” he said. “Stay warm.”
Before Rick could say anything else, Roman continued onto the path. He broke away from the crowd in this narrowed part and was almost home free when he realized that Iris was standing in the path in front of him.
God dammit, he really should have just stayed home, shouldn’t he?
There was no way around her, and she was just standing there. He was about to just suck it up and tell her to move when he caught a glimpse of Charles Baxter nearby. And when Iris turned around, and Roman saw how pale she was, he immediately knew what had happened.
Iris caught his eye and Roman knew he wasn’t going home right now. “Iris,” he said, jerking his head toward Baxter. “What did he say to you?”
For a second, he could see her consider lying. She was going to say it was fine. “Not here,” she said instead.
“I’m bringing my kids home,” Roman said. “Walk me to the parking lot.”
He felt like the world’s most ridiculous spy, pushing a double stroller down the messily plowed path to the small parking lot. Iris followed behind, keeping space between them. From the serious look on her face, he knew something bad had happened. And he could appreciate the fact that she was trying to keep his kids from getting connected with it.
It wouldn’t work, but she would appreciate it.
The lot was empty when they got there. Roman loaded the babies into the backseat, then shot Celine a quick text. Once the car was on and the babies were warm, he jerked his head toward the passenger seat. Iris was standing a few cars away, but she hurried over, then climbed into the car.
“What happened?” he asked as soon as the door was closed.
“He threatened me,” Iris said. “He said if I keep doing this, I might not like what happens.”
“He’s connected, Roman.”
“No, like directly connected.”
As she explained the connections between Baxter and a shady businessman buying up property in the 1920s, Roman wasn’t sure he could get angrier. And yet, by the time she’d finished her long story, he was ready to get out of the car and go confront Baxter himself.
“So you’re telling me that Baxter’s grandfather tried to harass a lady out of her house in 1920 to make a Quabbin hotel and now I haven’t been able to leave this place for twenty years?”
Iris shrugged helplessly. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, that’s what I’ve found so far. I don’t know how the curse is connected, but it is.”
Roman rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered again.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“You could always stop.”
Iris looked at him, shocked. “You could,” Roman said. “If you’re in danger, is it really worth still going to satisfy your curiosity?”
“It’s not about my curiosity!”
The heat in Iris’s voice took him aback. After a month of slinking around with her head hanging, she was glaring right at him. “Do you really think this is still about that?” she demanded. “No, Roman, I’m not doing this because it’s cool.”
“Then why are you still doing it?”
“For you and Andrew. For Rosalind Alderidge. For her kid. And whatever it is that happened to them. Because powerful men wrecked their lives without any repercussions. And Baxter and the council have ignored all of it. That’s why.”
Part of Roman wanted to tell her not to do it for him. But it wasn’t fully about him. And if he was honest, she really was his best chance of getting out of here someday. So instead, he just shook his head with a long sigh. “So what do you want to do?” he asked.
“I’m not going to stop,” Iris said. “It’s not like he’d kill me, right?”
His first thought was absolutely not. It was ridiculous to even think that. But if Baxter knew about the origin of the curse and hadn’t told anyone, that was so much more than just business. He’d ruined lives and the payback would be a nightmare. So who knew what he was capable of doing to protect the secret?
“He could wreck my life, I know,” Iris continued. “I’ve invested too much into my business in New Winslow. I can’t just, like, up and leave.”
Then she cringed and Roman resisted saying the obvious. Instead, he asked, “How protected is your store?”
“Locked down,” she replied immediately. “Magic and physical.”
His phone buzzed. He glanced down to see Celine was all done. He texted her back to meet in the parking lot. “Are you walking home?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m only over there.”
Iris pointed in the direction of her store. He nodded.
“Listen,” Iris said. “I’m sorry for messing up so much. I mean it. I handled everything badly.”
“You did,” Roman agreed. “I’m still stunned that you could neglect Olivia like that. I’m really mad about that and about all the secrets. But I’ll keep working with you. And let me know if Baxter pulls any shit like that again.”
Iris nodded and opened the passenger side door. “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you over?” Roman asked.
Iris reached into her bag and pulled out a small container of pepper spray. “I’m fine,” she said. “But thank you.”
With that, she closed the door and walked away. Roman watched her go, not quite sure how things had gotten so wild.