The story so far: The annual holiday party of the Yule Be Sorry Club at R&B Automotive has been interrupted by the arrival of a stranger in distress.
An army of fumbling hands helped Tony Renzi to steer the frozen fellow who'd just stumbled into the shop to an empty folding chair in the service bay. The chair was next to the ice cooler that had chilled the beer for the party, now winding down.
Too many hands, in fact, plucked at the old man's clothes, too many voices offered a jumble of suggestions. Someone plucked his fogged classes off his nose; his unfocused eyes darted fearfully.
"Step back, guys, step back," Tony said. "Give the poor guy some room to breathe."
Tony's partner, Bart Brewer, produced a glass of water.
Upon stumbling into the place, the fellow had gasped a couple of words. One of them was water. That one, Bart figured he knew what to do with. The other - flowers - was a puzzlet. Not too many flowers to be found out in the Arctic cold that gripped Philadelphia.
Bart offered the water; the man tried to clasp the cup, but his hands, knobby and bent, couldn't quite steady it. Bart helped lift the cup to his lips; he took a sip, closed his eyes, shook his head.
The man's eyes opened, seemed to notice Tony for the first time.
"Lost," he rasped, his lips and Adam's apple working hard to push the one word out. "Looking by water. Flowers. Niece."
The man shook his head, eyes flashing irritation. He licked his lips and worked them into a faint No! Every word a struggle, he pushed out more information,
"Lost. Looking for niece. Christmas. Lives by water. . . . More wine. Please."
"OK, OK, now we're getting a picture," Tony said. "You're looking for your niece's house. You're due for Christmas. They live near water? What kind of water? River? Lake? Ocean?"
The man opened his mouth; behind his eyes, his brain busily rummaged through its compartments, seeking the needed word. Nothing. A grimace, a fist pounding his thigh in frustration.
"OK, don't worry," Tony pressed on. "Easier question. What's your name, sir?"
The same drill. The lips parted, the eyes darted, another pound of the fist.
"OK, OK, don't worry. You're at R&B, sir, where we always diagnose the problem. Scootch, make yourself useful. Go out and check the glovebox of his car; see if he's got his owner's card."
The old man nodded: "Me."
"We are cooking now, Mr. Bontempo," Tony pried the cup away. "Let's get you more wine. Every sip, we get a new fact."
He'd driven aimlessly for hours yesterday looking for the house. He'd slept overnight in his truck in a Wawa parking lot, and resumed his feckless search today. The pickup's heater conked out at some point, and he was just about frozen through and bone-dry on gas when something about the light inside R&B, shining into the gathering dusk, had made him stop.
'That's great, Tony, but I can't help you anymore," said The Kid. "If I'm late to Rachel's mom's tonight for dinner, Rachel will kill me." Several other club members began to make similar mumbled excuses, grabbing for coats and car keys.
"Coll," Tony began, knowing what he was about to say wouldn't wash, "I can't do that, you know that. I can't just dump the guy. I gotta see this through. Tell ya what: You go on to church and I'll meet you there. I'll be there in time for Bridge's song."
The service bay was a chaos of empty plastic cups, beer bottles, folding chairs at odd angles, crusted paper plates with red plastic cutlery, and strewn garlands. But no people remained except Bart, Tony and a suddenly slump-shouldered and snoring Gino. The rest of the club members had melted into the frosty night.
Bart closed his flip-phone, looked at Tony and grinned. "Well, pardner, looks like it's just you and me to the rescue."
Tony grinned back. "As usual. Well, Bart, ol' buddy, let's do what we do."