follows "Synthesis" and "Dear Irené


On the Road With the Gorens

- Milbury, CT; May 15, 2023 -

"Are they here to see us off or make sure we leave?" Robert Goren joked as they paused on the top step at the front door of their white-trimmed grey Cape Cod house.

"Stop," Alexandra Eames Goren responded, but she was smiling, too, her left arm hooked into his right. She regarded him in satisfaction because, at his monthly excursion to the barber that morning for a beard trim and haircut, he'd left the silvering curls of his brown hair a little long the way she liked it. She'd had her own hair appointment yesterday, with the usual highlighting and ends trimmed; Olivia's blond curls had received TLC as well.

The specially-outfitted tour bus which would take them, their young ward, and the child's tutor on their book tour had just pulled up in front of 4 Courant Street, and neighbors and friends were approaching to check it out. The exterior was nondescript as busses went, a wide-bodied coach with a slightly elevated roofline and gradually darkening stripes of blue from top to wheelbase creating an ombre effect, belying the light, comfortable interior that duplicated a recreational vehicle. The Danielsons, the quiet ex-hippie septuagenarian couple from down the road, stood aloof at the fence line between the Goren property and the Novellos next door. Mike and Carla Logan, who would be house-sitting during their absence, had just pulled into the driveway in her diminutive Toyota Prius, followed by Bobby's nephew Donny Carlson in his truck cab with his mother in the front seat.

Their local friends, the crew from the Dark Crystal restaurant and bar, had simply elected to walk the four blocks from Milbury's tiny business district and were passing Bruno Volpe's corner house when the slight, seamed-face Korean War veteran slowly stepped outside to join them. Shard Carver immediately halted and opened the gate for the elderly man, the entire group behind him waiting patiently, bright-faced Tilde Svenson wiggling her fingers at them. Bobby watched their neighbor with concern, as he had been under the weather for the latter portion of the winter and was only now regaining his strength. Alex squeezed his arm comfortingly as Shard outstretched a hand just behind Bruno's shoulder just in case he stumbled. If Volpe noticed, he gave no sign but lifted his chin as he marched as he had when he served in Korea.

Now a second car parked in front of the Novello house, a sleek electric vehicle in a silvery gray, and two men emerged, the first in his late 60s with a receding hairline combined with short-cropped grey hair and mild brown eyes gazing out from a lean, mustached face, and the second, the driver, in his late 30s, his face resembling the older man closely enough that strangers would recognize them as father and son despite a difference in eye color and rounder cheeks and chin. The younger man's shoulder-blade-length brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail tied with a leather thong trimmed in blue beads; the first man was in a smart grey suit and blue shirt with an open collar, the second in stone-washed grey jeans, a soft orange cotton pullover shirt, a large red jasper pendant on a matching leather thong around his neck, and red Chuck Taylors on his feet.

"Quint and Zes are here to see us off," Bobby said, amused as always by their publishers' generational difference in appearance; not for nothing did Quentin Hastings V call his son the "world's oldest millennial hippie." They descended the front steps to approach the front gate, and Quint continued toward the house to greet the couple. Just then, their nine-year-old ward Olivia appeared in the doorway of the bus, her tutor Donna Hogarth standing behind her, and finally, his broad shoulders visible even in the low interior light, their driver, the formidable-looking Michael Agostino. Curious now, the younger man halted, then tarried at the front of the bus.

"Hello," he said in a cheerful voice, dark blue eyes flicking over the child and her tutor. "This must be Olivia!"

She pivoted, looking him up and down appraisingly. "You must be Zes. Mama said your outfits were...interesting," she returned in her light British accent.

Donna whispered, "Olivia!"

"Your mother would also tell you I like being 'interesting,' Olivia," he answered in a jaunty fashion.

Now Olivia spied their silver-haired neighbors in their simple button-down shirts and jeans as they took a few steps closer to the bus, calling out politely, "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Danielson," even though they had never answered her back. This time Mr. Danielson tilted up a seamed, leathery face to meet hers, saying in a raspy voice, "Olivia, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," she answered, brightening. "Mignon Olivia Pepin."

"What's happening?" asked little Mrs. Danielson with a cold expression.

"Mama and Papa have each written a book," Olivia eagerly explained as her tutor leveled a thoughtful look at the couple, and the newly-arrived visitor watched the scene while trying to work out the dynamics of the situation. "Mama's is called Ice Blue and Papa's is The Refuge, and we're leaving on a book tour while Uncle Mike and Aunt Carla care for our house. You'll like them."

"More police officers?" Mrs. Danielson queried stiffly.

"Uncle Mike was, but he's retired," Olivia said, her smile fading. She offered hopefully, "Aunt Carla's a librarian. She's on sabbatical, writing an academic paper. And now Uncle Mike works with...he says 'boys at risk.'"

Mrs. Danielson tugged her husband's arm, and they turned to walk away. Everyone now watching the little drama saw Donna flush, and, in a flash, she sidestepped Olivia, hopped down the two steps to the pavement, circumvented Zes Hastings, then jogged after them. "Mr. and Mrs. Danielson! Stop...please?"

The man pivoted first, then reluctantly, his wife.

Donna stood tall, pushing her densely-curled dark hair back from her face, saying clearly, as if she were addressing one of her classes, "My grandmother was a girl during World War II. Her two older brothers served in the European theater. They were both wounded, but returned home safely. But my grandmother had a best friend who was like her sister; they shared everything, even each other's pain. Her best friend's older brother fought in the Pacific, was captured by Japanese soldiers and tortured, then died." She paused, then added, "Because of what happened to her best friend's brother, my grandmother hated Japanese people for the rest of her life. I don't think that was very fair, do you?"

With Donna's hazel eyes fixed on them, Mr. Danielson suddenly looked uncomfortable, his mouth working as if he wanted to speak, but Mrs. Danielson's eyes shifted suddenly to Bobby and Alex. Her lips thinned in disapproval, and she once again tugged at her husband's arm; they walked back to their house without another word.

Alex expelled her breath as Donna's shoulders slumped briefly, then she tossed her head and strode back to the bus. Zes Hastings gave her a sympathetic look, but she walked past him to where Olivia stood chewing her lower lip. Donna stopped at the foot of the stairs, caught her breath, then said quietly, "Can't be helped, kitten. You can't make everyone like you."

Olivia said soberly, "I know. But I wish they would understand that Papa and Mama were good."

Donna sighed. "You know the old cliché about the one rotten apple that spoils the barrel. When some police officers do bad things, every other one suffers. Maybe they'll change their minds someday."

Reluctantly, Olivia nodded, then gestured to Bobby and Alex. "Papa, Mama, come and see!"

Bobby said, "We've already checked it out, Olivia. We're talking to Quint right now."

Now Donna regarded her ponytailed observer curiously. "'Zes'?"

"Quentin Hastings VI," he said, offering her his hand, "but my mother came here from the Netherlands as a little girl. 'Zes' is 'six' in Dutch. Dad's number five, so he's 'Quint.'"

She smiled at him mischievously, her eyes curving at each end as her mother's did. "Was your grandfather nicknamed 'Quart'?"

Not offended by her teasing, Zes simply chuckled. "No, sadly. Wouldn't that have made a great story? He was born during the second year of the Depression, though—not much use for humor back then. They called him 'Little Quentin,' which is funny all on its own because he was as tall as Bob Goren, half a head taller than Number Three. But his father always labeled all his snapshots 'my little son'—even with photos of him in his forties."

"I suppose all our parents think of us as little children occasionally," said Donna, shaking his hand firmly. "I'm Donna Hogarth, Olivia's tutor."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Donna Hogarth," Zes said briskly. "So I take it you like the tour bus, Olivia?"

"Oh, yes!" and Olivia proceeded to chatter about the interior while Zes and Donna listened, their eyes flickering to each other occasionally.

Bobby, watching the interaction from the sidewalk with a practiced eye, looked at his wife and quirked an eyebrow. "Do you detect a zap of electricity there, Captain Eames?"

She laughed, a familiar twinkle appearing, although Quint looked mystified. "I certainly do, Agent Goren."

The Dark Crystal crowd had now entered the yard, and Mickey, Carmella, and Shan had stopped to help Mike and Carla with the luggage that completely overwhelmed the tiny Prius—indeed, Carla had to hand out a toiletries case and a beach bag before she could emerge. Bruno Volpe steadily made his way to them to hug Alex, then Bobby pulled the shorter man into an embrace. "Bruno, you'll call Mike or Carla if you need anything? P-Promise me."

Volpe looked at him and shook his head. "You worry too much, Goren. I'll be fine. And I swear, on my honor as a fellow Army vet, I will call if I need someone."

Alex called to Carla, "Did you bring the entire apartment?"

Carla, who, like Alex, was short to her husband's tall, with a heart-shaped face surrounded by short-cropped red hair threaded with a bit of silver, responded loudly, "You hadn't bargained with Mr. GQ here. He's gotta have his wardrobe or he can't stand it."

Mike Logan, their former fellow detective at the Major Case squad of the NYPD, his once dark hair also laced with silver, came behind her to capture her by the waist. "Hey, you got the best looking husband, right?"

"The best dressed one, anyway," Carla teased.

"We have to get on the road!" Bobby finally reminded, raising his voice. "Alex's sister is...um...expecting us for dinner."

"But Papa," Olivia wailed from the bus steps, "Ana and Carlos aren't here yet."

"Ten more minutes," he said firmly, and she sighed, but nodded and continued talking to Zes. When ten minutes had passed, Bobby looked at his watch with regret, gave his nephew and Evelyn Carlson final hugs, then walked to the bus steps, extending a gentle hand to Olivia. "Maybe they can't make it. We need to go."

Olivia gazed at him, knowing the big-eyed routine she'd used for years on her biological father wouldn't work on Bobby, then nodded. "All right, Papa. Everything else is aboard, Michael says. I'll help Mama."

She skirted Zes and Donna, who were still chatting, and pelted up the front walk to disappear inside after Alex. Bobby gestured to Donna, then returned to the yard to rejoin Quint Hastings.

Zes laughed, smiling at Donna. "You've got your hands full with that one."

"Hey, I'm used to older kids in packs of 20 to 30," Donna joked. "I taught public school for fifteen years."

"You've been teaching since you were twelve?" Zes asked, arching his eyebrows, and Donna rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. "Oh, now there's a line–"

"All right," he said good-naturedly. "Fifteen, then. And you must be a lion-tamer to put up with 25 teenagers."

"I manage," Donna said, amused.

"Watermelon stone?" he asked, noting the sparkle on her face, and she automatically brushed the pink-and-green stone on her right nostril.

"Yes, I've loved them since I was a little girl. I'm surprised you know what they are."

"Hey, guys know about jewelry, too." He tapped the ruddy gemstone around his neck. "Good luck piece."

Now Olivia re-emerged from the house with Sam, their oversized tricolor collie, on his leash, followed by Alex carrying Bandit in his little blue travel box, his birdcage already in the bus and fixed to the stand reserved for it. Once in the open air, the white-and-grey budgerigar chirped excitedly to his songbird cousins in the trees.

Bobby handed Mike Logan the house keys, then shook his hand. "There you go. All yours for the summer."

Alex added to him as she walked by, blinking hard, "You keep our little dovecote safe."

Logan hugged her. "Scout's honor, Eames."

"Of all people, you were never a Scout," she scoffed, but bit back a smile.

Olivia looked at Alex, puzzled, because her usually sensible mother's eyes were moist. Knowing Alex had triumphed against the formidable Evangeline Pepin, she found this behavior baffling. "Mama, we're going on an adventure. All of us. Together. Don't cry. Aunt Carla will take care of the house even if Uncle Mike doesn't."

Logan gave a full-bellied guffaw. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid." But his eyes were dead serious as he told her, "I promise, Olivia."

Alex, biting her lip, had her gaze still fixed on the house. "Olivia, your mama has become a very sentimental woman in the last nineteen months." Then she smiled a little and added mischievously, "Your Aunt Lizzie is probably contagious."

Bobby proffered his arm with "My lady?" then quoted, "'Sancho! My armor, my sword!'"

She laughed at last. They had managed to get tickets for a revival of Man of La Mancha in the city in March, before Paris, before Olivia. "'More misadventures?'"

"'Adventures, old friend,'" he finished with an understanding grin as he escorted her and the budgie to the tour bus, with Olivia and Sam leading the way.

Near the door of the bus, Zes motioned Donna in front of him and walked her the few steps back to the stairs, then nodded at her gravely. "I hope we can talk more in New York, Ms. Hogarth."

Donna tilted her head. "That will be...interesting, Mr. Hastings."

"I hope so," he grinned, then stepped back to join his father as they made a procession into the bus and Agostino reached out to shut the door manually. Hastings senior gave him a look of dawning comprehension but said nothing.

"Taught public school for fifteen years," Hastings junior said with admiration, the sparkle in his eyes unmistakable. "Incredible."

Peering from the front window of the bus, Olivia suddenly pointed and shrieked, "Mama, Papa, wait! Michael! Please wait!"

They realized Russ Jenkins, Bobby's fellow volunteer at Big Brothers/Big Sisters, had arrived, followed by Viola Perrino, Alex's friend from Southbury, catching her breath as she trotted ahead of him to wave at them urgently.

"Mr. G, Mr. G!" they heard Ana shout. "Open the door!"

Amused, Michael triggered the door mechanism, and Ana and Carlos Serrano came pelting up the steps, leaving their abuela Abril Diaz to join her friend Viola. "Abi-Abi got out of the doctor late," Ana gasped. "These are for you."

"These" were a pile of handmade farewell cards that the eleven-year-old spilled on the dinette table, one from each of the children Bobby and Alex mentored, and thirteen-year-old Carlos handed Bobby a large plastic container. "These are pastelillos. So you'll think of us."

Bobby put his hand over his heart. "You and Ana and Abi-Abi are h-here, amigo," and he hugged both children, which Alex followed with one for Carlos. Then Bobby threw caution—and schedule—to the wind, and he and Alex went to the foot of the bus steps to say goodbye to the newcomers. Meanwhile, Ana threw her arms around Olivia for a final hug and said gravely, "Viaje seguro, mi hermana."

Olivia grinned. "'Safe travels, my sister,'" she translated. "Gracias, mi hermana."

"You take good care of Captain," Ana said, stern-faced, as she gave Alex a parting hug at the top of the bus steps, "and remember to post on the blog and Facebook page. And e-mail me!"

"Si, mandona Capitan Serrano!" Olivia said with a salute, adding impishly, "Pinky swear!"

. . . . .

It was Ana who, a week earlier, had suggested the blog.

Ever since Olivia had arrived, Ana had coaxed Viola Perrino into driving her to the Goren home after school twice a week so she could spend time with the younger girl. If you had asked her, she would have admitted truthfully that initially she was fascinated by Olivia's previous life, but, as the girls shared stuffed animals and chatted the first few days, she sensed Olivia needed someone to talk to, especially when she wistfully mentioned her school friend Renata. Ana was savvy enough not to talk about anything "deep" unless Olivia initiated the conversation—both her grandmother and Bobby had warned her earlier; it was like the time she and Carlos had helped Bobby with one of his cases, speaking with a kidnapped boy, Scotty Gibson—and was there to assist as they unpacked Olivia's books.

Olivia finally asked one day, "Do you remember your parents?"

Ana confessed that she didn't, except for a faint memory of her mother singing to her. She said Carlos was the one who remembered Mama singing lullabies to them in Spanish and Papa bringing him along in his pickup truck. They would go to an open field to watch the men play football—what they call soccer here, Ana explained—after work on summer nights.

"Maman used to like to talk about books and history," Olivia said wistfully.

"That's what Mr. G likes, too," Ana grinned. "I like his stories, and I like books...but I don't think I love them like you do. The book tour sounds like a lot of fun, though. Too bad–"

Then she said excitedly, "Olivia, why don't you and Mr. G and Ms. Alex blog your trip? Then Mr. J and all us kids can follow you, and even Mrs. Perrino and Abi-Abi, and Donna's mother Ms. Saltonstall, and your friend Renata, and your brother Laurent. Maybe even your nanny Luisa will have time to read it when she isn't caring for her sister. And when it's finished you'll remember all the things you did. You can post pictures and videos...what'd'ya think?"

"Tim Stratton said that, too, except he suggested a private Facebook group–"

"You could do that, too, just for quick things...like, maybe if you were driving across the prairie and saw a buffalo. You'd take a picture and post it quick! The blog would be for longer stories, like what happened during the book signings or behind the scenes when you get interviewed."

"Nobody's going to interview me," Olivia said, surprised. "I didn't write a book."

"But you're related to people who did. It's what's called 'human interest,' Mr. J says." Ana jumped to her feet. "C'mon, let's ask Donna and Ms. Alex–"

"All right...do you think we might really see a buffalo?"

After bursting from Olivia's room with Sam close at their heels, they found Donna in the living room and Alex with her. Donna was supposed to be reviewing Olivia's latest math exam, but instead, the two women were chuckling over Bandit, who was perched atop Donna's laptop screen attempting to catch the mouse pointer she kept jiggling while also pecking at his reflection in the screen.

"May we keep a blog of our trip?" "Could you keep a blog of your trip?" came out in unison.

Donna had responded enthusiastically, "That's a great idea. It can be a long-term project and also a remembrance of the trip." She raised eyebrows at Alex, who had frankly stated at least once in Donna's presence that working on one book was enough, and the longest thing she ever wanted to write again was a to-do list. Alex glanced up—she was sorting through the battered shoebox of postcards that Frances Goren had saved, all the ones Bobby had sent home from his Army travels, for she was hoping that it might result in a second memoir from him.

"It sounds like something Bobby might enjoy, too," she said with a thread of doubt. "I suppose I could throw in a line now and again."

Ana said excitedly, "You could call it 'On the Road with the Gorens.'"

It was at bedtime, when Bobby settled next to Olivia's bed to read to her, a routine cultivated since the first weekend after she arrived in Milbury, that she looked at him questioningly.

They were reading A Little Princess, the novel that had become a personal joke between Alex and Bobby ("Well, you have me there, Eames. A book I haven't read.") since their trip to France, with many digressions about imperialism and Victorian attitudes toward orphans. Bobby had turned to a new chapter when he noticed her face. "What's up, Olivia?"

She knew by now that he could read her face nearly as well as he read Burnett, and said shyly, "The blog."

He smiled at her. "I like the idea, don't you? We can write as little or as much as we like, and tell everyone about the countryside we're driving through, what happens at our stops. I traveled to dozens of cities while I was in-house and doing courier work at the FBI, but it was mostly from airport to city and back again—minimal sightseeing. We'll be crossing three mountain ranges, desert, the prairie–" He stopped. "You had a question. What about the blog?"

"Ana said we should call it 'On the Road With the Gorens.' But I'm not a Goren."

He closed A Little Princess, bookmarking it with a forefinger. "We can call it something else if that bothers you."

"Papa–" He waited now, let her finish. "Are...you and Mama going to adopt me?"

"We want to. Right now we're making certain...um...our guardianship is secure. Tony says we need to make sure all the 'i's are dotted and the t's crossed.' But it's pretty much a d-done deal. A formal adoption...well, that requires your input, too. Do you want us to adopt you?"

Olivia fidgeted, cuddling Captain, her stuffed fox, to her chest. "I can stay here—no matter what?"

He had answered very seriously, "We won't let anyone take you—no matter what."

"What difference would adoption make?"

Bobby wanted to say that adoption or not, they would care for her always, but he also wanted her to relax before bedtime in hopes of continuing to fend off her nightmares, so he said lightly, "For one, you would be able to inherit after we're gone."

Olivia's eyes widened and she cried, "You're not going anywhere!" as a shiver ran through her.

Bobby dropped the book, cursing silently at his thoughtless slip of the tongue, and moved to the side of the bed, lifting her up and into his lap as if she were a kitten. "It's legal talk, Olivia. We're not...I swear. I promise."

She clung to him, face buried on his shoulder for a few minutes, then, sniffling, she sat back up.

"And," he continued comfortably, "even when we do adopt you, you don't necessarily have to take the Goren name. You could choose to keep your Papa Marcel's surname, to honor him. You could be Olivia Haynes-Pepin, to add your maman. Or be Olivia Pepin-Goren." His tone lightened. "A hyphenated name sounds very...erudite, don't you think? 'Professor Olivia Pepin-Goren, Department of English Literature-' Or whatever you want to specialize in." Then he proffered his left hand with his little finger extended, a smile flickering on his lips. "Alex and I aren't going anywhere. Pinky swear."

"You're silly, Papa," Olivia said, hooking fingers with him briefly as she did with Ana, then laying her head on his shoulder with a relieved sigh.

"Do you want me to go back to reading?" he asked softly.

"I'd rather hear my song."

"All right."

And when Alex came in a few seconds later to listen to him read and then say goodnight, she had found him singing "Touch and Go" to Olind Go" to Olivia instead, rocking her back and forth.

. . . . .

From "On the Road with Gorens"
May 15, 2023

From Alexandra Eames: "I was told to introduce myself, so, to borrow shamelessly from Charlie's Angels, once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to go to the police academy. Oh, her dreams didn't stop there—some day, she vowed, she'd become captain of a squad. And later on, she wrote a book about her experiences. It's called Ice Blue, and I'm currently on a tour bus traveling from city to city, in the television camera's eye and autographing books. This will be a journal of our cross-country journey."

From Robert Goren: "Once upon a time there was a little boy whose childhood left him feeling alone and frightened. But his mother, a librarian, despite her own challenges, had taught him the secret of the power of books, and the library became his refuge and his friend. Later on, he became a law enforcement officer—and in the luckiest moment of his life, met Alexandra Eames. The Refuge is my story of libraries and solace within books, and together with my wife and our daughter, we're embarking on a voyage of discovery."

Olivia considered the previous two paragraphs, then posted: "Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in France with her mother and father until they had a car accident. But her maman made sure there was someone there for her. Now I am traveling on a tour bus with Mama and Papa Goren, my tutor Donna Hogarth, and our collie Sam, who is tricolor and large, and Bandit who is a budgerigar (mostly white) and very noisy. (Also our bus driver Michael Agostino, who used to be a Marine.) We are keeping this blog as an album of memories, and so that our friends and family like Auntie Lizzie and Ana and Carlos and Renata and Luisa and Laurent can follow our travels. I am nine years old and hope to see a buffalo!"

. . . . .

- New York City, NY; May 15, 2023 -

"Bunt, you moron!" exclaimed Steve from the living room.

Elizabeth Hogan chuckled as she cupped the goblet of white wine before her. "Sounds like the Mets are losing."

"No!" came a yelp from Bobby, followed by a groan.

Alex, sipping her little shot glass of bourbon, joined in laughter with her older sister.

The two women were relaxing in the Hogans' cozy yellow kitchen with the lights low. Donna had already returned to the tour bus escorted by Alex's brother Jack, sister-in-law Patty, and daughter Eleanor, carrying a meal for Michael, but the sisters had wanted one more hour together. Their husbands had tactfully retreated to the living room and that night's baseball game, where Olivia was curled up in Steve's armchair, asleep with Captain the stuffed fox fast in her embrace.

Once more, Lizzie examined the list Alex had given her of the tour cities and their dates in each one, and the map of their journey. "Are you sure whomever turned out this schedule wasn't smoking really good weed?  I would have thought it would be more sensible to go down the east coast and then start working west."

"It was based on the bookstores' availabilities, not the convenience of the driver," observed Alex. "Michael's actually very happy with it. He says with the salary he'll receive, he probably won't have to work for the rest of the year and can spend Christmas with his sister in Plattsburg. Bobby's happy that he'll see his Aunt Agnes before the end of the month, and I'll get to meet his old partner Ben Siler that same night."

"But there are so many gaps, especially once you get out west–"

"More ground to cover, remember? With no more than two cities per week we can take our time, and we may pick up a few more cities before the tour is over, at least that's how Krystine explained the schedule to me. Plus a day without a signing doesn't necessarily mean we have nothing to do that day. We have several morning show interviews even on days and in places when we don't have a signing." She pointed to the schedule. "Take here—it looks like we have nothing between Denver and Salt Lake, but there's a newspaper interview the day after the Denver signing, and a television and a newspaper interview in Cheyenne on July 28. Not to mention during that gap we can take Olivia to Yellowstone. Michael's all for it."

"And Hastings House is paying the bill?" Lizzie asked skeptically.

"Any expenses to do with the book tour, yes, and our meals in any city where we have signings or interviews. Bobby surprised them by asking them if they could stock the fridge, then we would buy groceries and he would cook himself on non-tour days. So we have a grocery budget as well as a meal budget. Of course, any attractions we want to see on our route are on our own dime—but Bobby and Michael have talked about taking a detour to Cleveland one day during the weekend between Columbus and Chicago so we can see the Museum of Rock and Roll, and Bobby wants to go to Dayton to show Olivia the Wright Cycle Shop and the Paul Dunbar House, even if it's on the return leg. And remember, any photos we take and share on Hastings House's Facebook page are good publicity."

"Are you planning to get any rest at all?"

"I'm considering this a once-in-a-lifetime trip! As long as we can hang in there and not exhaust Olivia–"

"She's the sweetest thing–" Lizzie let the remainder of her words drop.

"You mean, considering that she's..." and here Alex checked if there was motion in the hallway, then still whispered, "...her mother's child?"

Lizzie ducked her head, embarrassed.

Alex shook her head, then shrugged. "Liz, I...I don't know. Maybe Bobby's right, maybe this time...she did change. According to Olivia's stories, Nicole's relationship with Marcel wasn't without its...difficulties. But the Maman Olivia talks about, the relationship between mother and child—it's nothing like the woman Bobby and I matched wits with. It's like she put her hostilities aside. I can't reconcile it sometimes. But I know how Olivia turned out—and that Olivia's Nicole is as real as the one we knew."

Regretfully, she looked at her Fitbit. "We've got to go. Bobby and I have to be up at five for our appearance on Manhattan Alive! I'm dreading it. I've watched that show and they sometimes pull nasty surprises."

"You'll do fine," Lizzie soothed as Alex rose.

"You always say that," Alex said as she hugged her sister tightly.

"That's because you always do fine," answered Lizzie confidently.

. . . . .

Milbury to New York City, NY, May 15
New York City, NY May 16 . . . . . | . . . . . Boston, MA, May 18
Philadelphia, PA, May 22 . . . . . | . . . . . Columbus, OH, May 25
Chicago, IL, May 30 . . . . . | . . . . . St. Louis, MO, Jun 1
Nashville, TX, Jun 6 . . . . . | . . . . . Roanoke, VA, Jun 9 (replaces Richmond)
Washington, DC, Jun 13 . . . . . | . . . . . Charlotte, NC, Jun 15
Ft. Lauderdale/Miami, FL, Jun 20 . . . . . | . . . . . Tampa, FL, Jun 22
Orlando, FL, Jun 26 . . . . . | . . . . . Atlanta, GA, Jun 29
Birmingham, AL, Jul 6
Houston, TX, Jul 11 . . . . . | . . . . . Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX, Jul 12
Kansas City, MO, Jul 19 . . . . . | . . . . . Omaha, NE, Jul 21
Denver, CO, Jul 25
Salt Lake City, UT, Aug 2
Seattle, WA, Aug 7 . . . . . | . . . . . Portland, OR, Aug 10
Sacramento, CA, Aug 14 (added) . . . . . | . . . . . San Francisco, CA, Aug 16
Las Vegas, NV, Aug 21 . . . . . | . . . . . Los Angeles, CA, Aug 25
Return Trip begins August 27

. . . . .

- New York City, NY; May 16, 2023 -

"Look at this place," Mike Logan said with a big grin, waving an open hand to the crowded bookstore around them. "It's like one big NYPD reunion."

"I'm surprised anyone has showed up, considering what happened this morning," Alex said dryly.

"Are you kidding me, Eames?" Logan said incredulously. "Carla and I stopped by O'Malley's at lunchtime and it was all anyone could talk about, and ninety percent of it was 'Go, Eames!'" She glowered at him skeptically. "I mean it, and you know me, I'm the head hothead around here. The only guys bothered by what you said were the ones 'most likely to'—well, y'know."

Bobby patted Alex's knee under the autograph table, watching tension still pulse through her body. He was still angry about that morning but suppressed his frustration for her sake.

Their appearance on Manhattan Alive!—a morning talk show that often tackled controversial subjects—had taken the exact negative turn Alex had predicted. She'd already been buttonholed by several Connecticut reporters who'd been hostile to her about writing a book about a law enforcement career despite continued police arrest abuses and specifically after one event in January; Alex still couldn't watch the footage of that fatal traffic stop without wanting to explode. However, she welcomed civil discussion about the use of force by arresting officers. But this morning's program had replaced the regular host with a man who very much opposed law enforcement, and he arrived on stage already hostile, assuming that, like the officers in Memphis and other cities, Alex was a bully and would defend the actions of the police.

Bobby glowered but left the matter in Alex's experienced hands.

She'd kept control of the situation by going deadly calm. "If you had actually read my book, Mr. Trephano, you would have seen that I addressed many of these issues, including the continued cover-up of use of deadly force and the still rampant 'buddy boy' system. The event you mention was a travesty of authority. If I had been that commanding officer, the arresting officers would have been off the street the moment I had received the first complaint. Several of them had previously used excessive violence during arrests and shouldn't have been on the streets at all. The best and most proactive action that any police department can do is weed out these abusers, and weed them out now, before anyone else has to die. Aggressive, entitled, and especially racist police personnel have no place in any type of law enforcement situation.

"What troubles me most is others making excuses for these officers. There are no excuses. There are no reasons for a law enforcement officer to abandon their humanity and the tenets of justice. We're supposed to protect and serve, not endanger and intimidate, nor belittle and demean, and police officers throughout this country must operate to a higher standard—at the least they must behave better than the criminals they arrest!"

Her eyes were fiery as she finished, and she concluded, "And if the NYPD disagrees with me, that's a risk I'll have to take."

The show cut to a commercial abruptly, and when she had looked back at Bobby, she smiled at his nearly imperceptible nod.

"Mike's right," James Deakins said casually, leaning back in the heavy, ubiquitous blond wood-and-vinyl bookstore chair Bobby had pulled up for him. Dressed in a khaki-colored cotton shirt and soft beige trousers with rubber-soled canvas shoes, still damp around the shoulders from the rain outside, he looked more like a "silver fox" each day with his wavy grey hair framing his long face. "A buddy of mine called me from his precinct in New Jersey this morning. He said practically the whole bullpen cheered when they heard the broadcast."

"Even better, I heard from Van Buren about ten minutes after that moron cut you off," Logan said with a decisive nod. "First thing she said was 'Mike, did you catch Manhattan Alive! this morning? How about that Alex Eames?'"

"That means a lot, coming from Anita," Alex said gratefully. There were a few protestors outside the bookstore, but not as many as they had expected, and they were respectful of the bookstore customers. She inclined a chin toward the doorway. "I almost want to step out there and join them."

Logan added with raised eyebrows, already anticipating her reaction, "I heard a couple of beat officers say they wish you'd stuck around to be Chief of D's instead of that..." and he quickly looked around to see if Olivia was in earshot, "...that asshat McGrath."

Alex, predictably, groaned. "Nothing would have persuaded me to put up with the political bullshit McGrath has to endure. I almost—almost, mind you—understand why he's an asshat."

"Whatever people...um...thought, it definitely hasn't kept familiar faces from coming," Bobby observed as several more detectives and officers they both knew entered the store, and at that moment gave a friendly thumbs-up to Megan Wheeler and her daughter just as they came through the door. The freckle-faced former detective returned the gesture with a grin. "Isn't that Rodgers near the end of the line—never mind, it has to be; Wheeler just–"

Olivia abruptly appeared at Alex's elbow with a curly-haired boy at her side. "Mama," she requested urgently, "can Noah and I...'hang out'?"

When Alex turned her attention to the pair, she also met the amused face of the dark-haired woman who had just strolled up behind them, otherwise Olivia Benson, Captain of the Special Victims Unit. "I don't know, Liv. Can my daughter...uh...'hang out' with your son?"

Benson leveled a fond look at Noah. "You'll stay within earshot?"

Noah restrained from rolling his eyes. "Yes, Mom."

She smiled at him then. "Would you like to buy Olivia a frozen hot chocolate or another drink?"

"Yes, Mom—thank you," he said with a grin blossoming on his round face under his untidy mop of dark hair as she acknowledged one of his favorite treats. She handed him a folded bill. "I want the change."

"Yes, Mom," he returned, laughing, then took Olivia's hand. As they turned away, he called back, "Yes, Mom!"

Benson stifled a smile. "What was that for?"

"You'll think of something," Noah assured her cheekily, and the adults laughed.

As the children moved away, they heard Olivia say, "Is your Mama like that, too, always fussing?"

"Well, in Mom's case," he said gravely, "she has to. Some gang members attacked her back in January. I was there, it was pretty scary–"

When they were out of earshot, Alex observed, "I think she's about to hear a long story."

"And I think she has a little crush on Noah," Benson said lightly, settling gratefully into the chair Deakins pulled up for her.

Bobby groaned, "Not yet. She's only nine!"

Deakins gave a belly laugh and nudged Alex, "I see it hasn't taken him long to sound like the father of a daughter."

"And you went through it with three girls," teased Alex.

"They start early these days," countered Benson with a small grin. They rarely saw her dressed this informally, in a forest-green soft chambray blouse with open collar, dark jeans, and blue running shoes, her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, but Alex regarded her with some concern at the weary expression on her face.

While the adults chatted, Noah directed Olivia to the queue for the bookstore café while telling her of his mother's battle with the BX9 gang, censoring much of the violence, then continued chatting about a new case his mother was working on, this involving internet crime. The line for beverages was long but moving well, and Noah made sure to check the menu board for his favorite iced drink. Olivia finally tugged on his arm and pointed to a chair nearby. "May I go sit there?"

"Sure," Noah said, "but don't move. My mom and your folks would kill me if I let anything happen to you."

"Surely they wouldn't kill you," Olivia said, her eyes mischievous.

"Your dad's awfully big," Noah returned, widening his eyes. "I wouldn't risk it."

"I promise," Olivia replied, and sank into a chair that was backed by a small section of wall adjacent to the magazine department. The day had begun early and they had been on the go since then.

A few seconds later, a female voice said sweetly, "You must be Olivia," and the girl looked up to face a smartly-dressed woman in a cerise blazer and skirt, the outfit finished with red high heels, her blond hair sleek in a short cut. Olivia thought that she might be close to Alex's age or maybe younger (so hard to tell with adults!), and she spoke with a faint accent that she remembered that her maman had referred to as a "Southern" one, meaning the American South. The woman snagged a free chair from one of the café tables and sat beside her.

"I knew your parents," the woman added confidingly, "when they worked for the NYPD." Here she rummaged in her purse and withdrew her cell phone.

Olivia felt slightly more at ease hearing this, but remained on her guard, ready to rejoin Noah if need be. She wondered if Ana had been right the day they had talked about the blog—would someone want to interview her? "Were you also a police officer?" she asked politely.

"Oh, no," the woman replied, "I was one of their media contacts."

"Oh," said Olivia.

"I understand that Mr. and Mrs. Goren are your guardians now because your parents passed on," the woman remarked soberly. "I'm sorry to hear about your parents."

"Thank you," was the deferential answer; she took care to gauge her response. Better to say too little than too much, she'd heard Maman say once.

"So you were brought up in France?" the woman asked.

"Oui, madame."

"Well, aren't you cute! Now, didn't your father already have another–"

"Hey!" came a yelp, and Olivia's glance shot to her right. Noah was standing there, a paper cup with a lid and straw in each hand, his eyes wide, looking outraged. "You stay away from her!"

As if by magic, a tall man with a lean, rugged face and shaven head was at Noah's side, giving the woman a black look at her unwelcome presence. She met his eyes nervously while ignoring a scowling Noah, and fluttered her free hand before explaining boldly, "Now, Detective Stabler, I'm just talkin' to this precious little girl, tellin' her I was sorry to hear her parents had passed."

Elliot Stabler smiled thinly and narrowed his blue eyes with a gimlet stare. "Ms. Yancy, if you wish to interview Ms. Olivia, I suggest you talk to her parents first. Bobby Goren doesn't deal well with those who take advantage of the people he loves. And Alex Eames is Mama Bear personified. You don't want to go up against her."

"Well, I-I–" the woman stammered, then collected herself and bridled slightly. "I don't see what your problem is, Detective Stabler. I'm looking for a simple human interest story, the Gorens being named guardian of this darlin' little child, and I just wanted to chat with her."

Stabler took two deliberate steps forward, not breaking eye contact. "Talk to the parents, or leave, Ms. Yancy."

Faith Yancy stood up, looking indignant. "You never change, Detective Stabler! You've never had any respect for the fourth estate."

Stabler said grimly, "I have a lot of respect for the fourth estate, Ms. Yancy. What I don't have respect for are attention hounds like you." He thumbed toward the back door of the bookstore. "You might want to make yourself scarce. There's a Major Case reunion nearby and I don't think any one of them will be happy to see you."

Yancy straightened her shoulders, then looked down at Olivia and said, "Well, it was nice to meet you, honey."

And then she flounced past Stabler with an acid glare, her chin in the air, and vanished.

Olivia looked quizzically at them. "Who was that?"

Noah handed her one of the cups. "A television reporter. Mom respects reporters, but she says Ms. Yancy's no reporter, she's a muckraker." When Olivia still looked puzzled, "You know, she does stories to make people look bad." Then he gave Stabler a grin. "Thanks, Elliot."

"Aw, you would have taken care of her yourself if you didn't have your hands full," Stabler grinned.

"Olivia, this is Elliot Stabler. He and Mom used to work together, and they're collaborating on a case right now."

Olivia shook hands with the tall man gravely, and he smiled and said, "Glad to meet you, Olivia. We'd better get back before your folks and Liv start to worry."

They worked their way to the autograph tables where Benson spied them first. Alex looked at her sideways, stifling a smile, because it seemed, at least to her, that her friend colored a little before relaxing again.

"Hi, El," Benson said with a smile, then narrowed eyebrows at Alex.

"Mom," Noah said soberly, "that Faith Yancy was trying to talk to Olivia," and he saw Bobby's head snap toward the girl so quickly that he finished in a hurry, "um...and I told her to stay away and Elliot drove her off."

Elliot spread his hands. "Hey, I just threatened to sic Eames on her."

"Thanks, Stabler." Bobby's face was flushed. "That woman is a menace. I can't believe she's still on the air."

"Some people like her brand of television," Benson answered grimly, but gave Noah a thumbs-up.

Olivia sat down beside Alex. "I still don't understand what happened."

"After we get finished we'll explain," Alex reassured her. "Let's enjoy being here with our friends right now."

Olivia shrugged, then finally sipped at the drink. "Hou la, what is this?"

"It's frozen hot chocolate," Noah explained. "You know, hot chocolate...but...iced," and Olivia looked at him, baffled, but enjoyed the chocolate treat thoroughly.

Now Mike Logan threaded his way back through the crowd to slap Stabler on the back. "Hey, man, I saw you give Yancy the bum's rush. Good for you!"

Bobby looked sideways at Olivia, who glanced up from her chocolate with a troubled quirk of her mouth. "Why don't we drop it, Mike?" he suggested quietly, and Logan, after one glance at the little girl's face, gave a decisive nod. "Say, kid, what happened to your tutor tonight?"

Olivia had figured out weeks ago that Logan's use of the word "kid" was affectionate, and only made a face. "Zes invited her to dinner. I don't know why she thought that would be more fun than coming to the signing tonight."

Benson smothered a grin, then bent over close to Bobby's ear and whispered, "I don't think you have to worry about that crush quite yet," giving Alex a big wink.

Some time later, the two women ran into each other just as Alex exited the ladies' restroom and Benson was approaching the door, and the former took a deep breath. "I was hoping I'd be able to catch you for a few minutes, Liv. You in a hurry?"

Benson shook her head. "Just wanted to hit the bathroom before we got back on the subway." She inclined her head toward the wall of the corridor next to the restrooms; the passage led to the employee break room/lockers, and they both turned into the narrow hall, where Benson leaned back against the cool wall painted in shades of green and indigo, her head lightly resting on concrete. "I didn't think I'd make it tonight; I almost called Lucy to see if she could possibly bring Noah instead. But Fin cornered me in my office and read me the riot act—said I could either come here or go home; but no way was I staying—said I needed some downtime."

"Good for Fin. You look exhausted. Is this the case that's Angie's List for hired killers?"

Benson said sourly, "Not funny, Alex."

"It's the only way I can wrap my mind around it," Alex replied, scowling. "It's grotesque. Bobby said one of the vics was a homeowner's association president? And that the people who arranged the hit were HOA members? What the hell? It's one thing when the criminals off each other and leave civilians alone, bad enough when civilians get caught in the crossfire. And now I have to consider...what? I'm bringing up a daughter in a world where your neighbor can anonymously hire a hit on you because she hates your dog barking? It's terrifying."

Benson asked soberly, "How'd you hear about the HOA vic? Is Bobby working on this case with the FBI?"

Alex shook her head, still looking troubled. "Scuttlebutt from one of the agents in Hartford. Penelope told him not to work anything during the book tour. She wants us to concentrate on Olivia. He's already cut down on his workload- What?" she finished, because a small smile had appeared on Benson's lips.

"I just realized," Benson chuckled, and it was evident that she wanted to change the subject. "Sunday was your very first Mother's Day."

Alex took the hint. "Which we both would have forgotten about if it hadn't been for Ana. We overheard her telling Olivia about the gift she and Carlos had bought for her abuela, and Olivia was upset. Her whole world fell apart a month ago, Liv, and there she was, sniffling to Bobby that she didn't have a Mother's Day gift for me. It made my heart hurt. She tries so hard...I'm afraid some part of her thinks we'll send her away if she doesn't please us."

Benson bit her lip. "Poor kid. There are so many things I never had to go through because Noah was tiny when I took him in. What a contrast to the girl I saw out there, all bright-eyed and bouncing."

"She's good at covering her feelings, but Bobby's equally good at sensing her mood. I'm learning her tells. And she is doing better. The nightmares seem to have stopped, although she's still waking up at night. Bobby or I—Bobby mostly; I guess my 'mother radar' hasn't quite turned all the way on yet—read to her. He sings to her, Liv. It's the sweetest thing I've ever seen. And Donna's been a big help. She came with us to register Olivia for school—although the school wasn't a hard sell. Sister Rosamund at St. Gregory's is Auntie Mame in disguise. She showed Olivia all her favorite classes and the topper was going outside and seeing the juniors launching model rockets. Hooked for good."

"So did she buy you something for Mother's Day?" Benson asked with a grin.

"Bobby made sure she had the chance. He made the excuse to me that 'they had to run to Joelle' for embroidery floss for a project Olivia was working on. We had dinner at Onorato's—a very nice Italian restaurant—and Olivia presented me with a travel set for my cosmetics. He said she picked it out herself, and insisted it be gift wrapped." Alex gave a little smile. "How about you?"

"Noah decided the best gift he could give me was peace and quiet, so I was allowed—read that as 'practically forced'!—to sleep late, then he made me breakfast. The McCanns—his half-brother's family—had taught him how to make pancakes from pancake mix and scrambled eggs when he stayed there at Christmas. I'd hardly recovered from that surprise when he told me he'd saved his allowance so we could order takeout from our favorite Chinese place—whatever I liked, even if it were lobster—and that we were 'going to hang around in our pajamas' and watch any movie I liked." She laughed. "So we did. And I was glad for the rest."

"Sounds wonderful," Alex sighed. "I cannot tell you how happy I am to be on the road with no more prep. Remember this, don't forget that, is the other thing packed. My Google Keep looked like a Rollodex. We had dinner with my sister last night and all I could do was moan that I was glad it was over." She fixed wry eyes at Benson. "But I feel like a heel for complaining about it to you when you've got this shit case, and even after Noah's 'spa treatment' day, you still look like you haven't had a decent night's rest in weeks. So this whole case boils down to one perp?"

"That's what Amanda says, and I'd trust her with my life. Oh—did I tell you that she and Carisi are expecting a baby?"

"No! Fast worker, isn't he?" Alex teased, eyes dancing, and Benson smiled, then her cheek twitched and she looked down.

"Liv," said Alex after a minute, "you know when I joke with you...especially in connection with Elliot...it is just that? Partners, good friends forever, or something else—so long as it's best for you. I remember being worried...I got to be so independent after Joe died, and I didn't want to lose that—being in another relationship scared hell out of me. But it turned out to be the right thing—for me. You do what's best for Liv. But, please—take some down time."

"After this case is complete. I promise." Benson took her hands and squeezed them. "Hopefully we'll have it wrapped up soon, get the damn website down, and then maybe Noah and I can go to the beach for a couple of days–"

"A week, lady," Alex admonished. "I'll bet you have three times that built up in comp time." She paused, then warned. "Or else I'll have a word with Fin!"

"Now you're really getting down and dirty," Benson chuckled, and the two abandoned their refuge to head back to the book-signing area.

. . . . .

<— Penelope Saltonstall, Donna Hogarth
      May 16, 2023

How was the book signing tonight, dearling?

I didn't go. I had a dinner invitation.

Would that be from the handsome publisher you mentioned in your last text?

Funny, I don't recall saying he was handsome, so I'll assume you've done your research as usual. As a matter of fact...Mom, he took me to Sardi's!

Oh, I love Sardi's. Your father took me there several times. Were there any celebrities there?

"To be honest, I didn't notice. I've never talked with anyone in the publishing business before. Zes talked about the family legacy, how they pick which authors to represent the Hastings House brand...it goes back to the 1880s."

"The original Quentin Hastings opened the business in 1880, although they didn't have their first national bestseller until the 1930s, when senior editor Belle Becker discovered the authors of two of their most popular novels, one which is still in print."

"You have done your research."

"Have you ever known me to do anything less?"

"Mom, you are as bad as Bobby."

"Thank you, dearling!"

. . . . .

"Good morning, Dr. Allyson."

"Good morning, Olivia," and her therapist gave her a cheerful smile over their Zoom connection. "Where are you today?"

"Boston. Papa says we'll see some of the landmarks from the American War for Independence once I'm done speaking with you. The tea party ship, and the Boston Massacre site, which is on something called The Freedom Trail, and there's also a Black Heritage Trail. Did you ever read the poem about Paul Revere, Dr. Allyson? We did in one of my English classes, but Papa said he never finished his ride, and in Boston I would learn the true story! Did you know that?"

"I believe I've read that somewhere. It sounds very exciting. I've never been to Boston. But you're looking a little...sad this morning? Are you still having nightmares?"

"No, but last night I couldn't sleep again. Papa came in to read to me."

"Did it help you sleep?"

"It always does...but–"

"Do you feel comfortable telling me what's troubling you, Olivia?"

"Papa and Mama..." She sighed, fidgeting. She was in her bunk room, in a chair under the upper bunk—when the lower bunk was raised, it formed a study area, and was where Donna would tutor her through the months of the tour. To enliven the blue, lilac, and green swirled walls, she and Donna had used removable adhesive to fasten all sorts of photos and maps to the wall and cupboards, including the large U.S. map that marked out their itinerary. Finally, she stared into her laptop screen earnestly.

"Papa and Mama rescued me from Madame," she continued. "If I have nightmares Papa or Mama or both get up to sit with me. Or Papa reads to me when I can't sleep. Last night Mama came in, too, and we sat together while he read." She paused. "Sometimes he sings me my song."

"I'm glad to know they care about you."

Olivia looked embarrassed. "They do. But...I...I don't love them."

Dr. Allyson steepled slender fingers, resting her chin on her fingertips. "Did you suddenly expect 'love' to turn on once they brought you home?"

Her mouth parted in surprise. "But aren't I supposed to love them?"

The therapist said gently, "Love isn't an obligation, Olivia. It isn't something you can schedule, and it doesn't happen overnight, or like the flicking of a switch. It's a deep feeling that develops over time." She paused, then stressed, "If you don't feel love, it's nothing to feel guilty about. After all, it's only a little over a month since your parents died."

"I try to say thank you to them when they do something nice," Olivia admitted anxiously, "because I am happy they helped me."

"That's a very thoughtful thing to remember. You've made a fine start. Don't rush the rest. How has your journey been so far?"

"There hasn't been much of it. On Monday night, we visited Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Steve. Tuesday morning Mama and Papa had an interview on a television chat show. The host was very rude to Mama and I could tell it made Papa angry. She said the host expected her to...Papa called it 'toe the party line,' and when she didn't, you should have seen that man's face..."

. . . . .

- Boston, MA; May 18, 2023 -

"Hello, you two!" A pause. "You one?"

"Holly?" Alex glanced up, startled, from the long conference table which had been arranged for their afternoon signing in the open foyer of Liberty Books. It had been papered in pale blue and red to match the covers of the books, and printed placards stated the titles and authors on opposite ends of the table, next to stacks of their books. To her surprise, Holly Lewin, their editor at Hastings House, had arrived, strands of her silver-threaded long dark hair wisping from her usual bun secured with a pencil, her freckled face broad with a smile, wearing her typical outfit of loose-sleeved shirt (this one red with blue piping) and a long blue denim skirt over bunchy blue socks and red sneakers.

"I had to come to your first out-of-town signing," she said happily. "The line's already out the door!"

"So you're trying to match our book covers?"

"Why not?" She pivoted to the right and left. "Where's Bobby?"

"Checking out the books, where else?"

"And I was hoping to meet the munchkin...where's Olivia?"

"She'll be at the signing tonight," Alex told her, "so we sent her off to the Boston Children's Museum with Donna. They'll be back for dinner—can you stay that long?"

Holly laughed. "My train from South Station isn't until eight. I think I can manage."

Alex asked Fred Martino, their liaison at Liberty Books, if he could find an extra chair, which he provided quickly. "You have five minutes, Mrs. Goren. Aleda will be bringing some water and snacks for both you and Mr. Goren, but we need to sit him down–"

"You're probably going to have to go find him, too," Alex warned, and Fred gave a good-natured grin and hurried off. Two minutes later, Bobby returned with several books on his arm. "I was watching the time, Eames. I'd p-planned to pick these books up anyway, so I figured I'd buy them he- Holly? Nice to see you!"

"Not enough books in that bus of yours?" the editor asked whimsically, checking out his haul after receiving a hug from him: a book on Revolutionary War sites, Your Child and the Internet: Pros and Pitfalls, and a copy of The Next Exit. "You do realize," and she tapped on the last book, "there's an app for this?"

"We could...get out of cell tower range," he said archly, and Alex laughed.

Fred came bustling back a few minutes after Aleda, a cheerful woman in a powered wheelchair, had arrived with provisions. "Showtime, folks." He checked the stack of books flanking both of them, also that there were enough marking pens for each, then spoke into his cell phone.

Presently a friendly woman's voice came over the store loudspeaker. "Good evening, folks, and welcome to our weekly signing event. This week we have a two-for-one special: husband-and-wife team Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames, signing their respective books The Refuge and Ice Blue. If you've not yet joined the queue, it begins in the mystery book department. Talk to Aleda Frankel if you'd like a special signature. There are copies of the book for purchase at the signing table."

Holly said cheerfully, "And you're off!"

. . . . .

There was a pause in the line as a woman on crutches approached, and Bobby surveyed the queue winding through the Cambridge bookstore, suddenly smiling. "Now there's a familiar face!"

"Where?" Alex asked, attempting to see what had captured his attention. Olivia had been busy typing on her laptop but also glanced up.

"The man in the red shirt," Bobby said, then gave a broad smile to the woman on crutches, who handed him The Refuge, breathily telling him how much she was looking forward to reading it. He scanned the sticky note on the front that had inscription instructions, then wrote in an almost intelligible scribble, "To Darla—may books always be your friends. Robert Goren."

"Who is it?" Alex whispered before a couple approached her with Ice Blue. The man in question was tall and slender, with silver-and-snow white hair in handsome contrast to his russet-toned skin. While he was dressed informally in an open-collared red shirt and blue jeans, he still exuded an air of authority while also having a twinkle in his dark eyes. Behind him was a younger man in his late thirties, with lighter-toned skin and oddly familiar hazel eyes, wearing a three-piece gray suit, blue shirt, and a tie in shades of gray, blue, and pale violet. Then she turned her attention to her next customers, giving them a bright smile, and started to chat with the couple; the woman turned out to be a retired Boston police lieutenant.

Olivia kept her eye on the pair, then leaned back behind Alex to hiss, "Papa. Papa?"

Bobby glanced sideways, and the woman in line whose book he was autographing smiled. "That's okay, Mr. Goren. Speak with your little girl first."

"Thank you, madame," Olivia said to her. "Papa! Is that Donna's father and brother?"

"Yes." Bobby flashed a smile. "Good catch!"

"I'll tell Donna!" the girl said gleefully; she wasn't allowed a cell phone yet, but she did have a text function on the laptop.

Bobby wrote, "To Rihannon–may books always be your friends. Robert Goren." Alex soberly signed her next volume, "To Jeff—peace and justice. Alex Eames."

Olivia's eyes kept sliding to the double glass doors of the Mariner Bookshop, their venue that evening. Eventually, she smothered a grin as the two men approached; the older man boomed out as soon as he came abreast of Bobby, "Hello, old friend!" and extended his right hand held up from the elbow with the palm open.

Bobby stood up to return the dap, and they grasped hands vigorously. "Matt, how are you?"

"I am doing good, Bobby Goren, I am doing good. And married life agrees with you, by the look of it."

"Alex has always made me more agreeable," was Bobby's truthful reply.

The younger man with him met Olivia's eyes, winking, for the child was suddenly grinning broadly. Suddenly two hands came from behind him, covering his eyes. "Guess whooooooo?"

The older man turned, recognizing the miscreant with an amused snort. His younger companion sing-songed, "I would say that's my dorky little sis-ter." Then Charles Saltonstall wheeled and gave Donna Hogarth a big hug, at which act Olivia began bouncing up and down in her chair. "Mama, Mama, look!"

Alex caught her in a hug, whispered to her, and Olivia calmed down, but still wriggled in her seat. Donna looked at her semi-sternly, reproving, "All right, Tigger, settle down," making the child giggle.

Bobby grinned. "Alex, if you hadn't guessed by now, this is Matthew Hogarth. Matt, this is Alexandra Eames."

Alex shook hands the more conventional way. "I've heard a lot about you, Mr. Hogarth."

Hogarth flashed a smile. "From Bob or from Penny?"

"Penny," Alex said with emphasis, feeling odd using the nursery form of Penelope Saltonstall's name, "was very complimentary."

"I'm glad," chuckled Hogarth. "And this dude arm-wrestling with his sister–" and both Charles and Donna, who were doing exactly that, stopped in mid-grip with wide eyes as if they were two small children caught in the act rather than both in their late 30s, at which Olivia giggled once more, "is our son, Charles Howard Saltonstall-Hogarth, Esquire."

"It's a draw," Charles told Donna, and she grinned back and hissed, "Is not," then he extended his hand to Alex, then to Bobby. "You know, Dad, we're holding up the line here."

"That we are," and both men excused themselves to the people behind them, received their signatures, then moved aside along with Donna, and as Bobby greeted his next fan, he heard Charles ask, "Did you drive all the way from Kittery for the book signing?"

"Are you kidding?" Donna grinned. "I'm part of the entourage. Didn't Mom tell you?" She inclined her chin toward Olivia. "She found out Bob and Alex needed a tutor for their daughter and thought of me."

"And Mom also realized Dad and I would show up for this." Charles shook his head. "She's done it again," then grinned and hugged her once more. "Good for you. So you're in for the whole book tour?"

"Twenty-six—at least—cities by tour bus. Fun, huh? Look," Donna said, "Bob and Alex's session has another 45 minutes to go. Can you stick around and come have coffee afterwards?"

"Dad?" Charles said with amusement. "Not able to entertain himself for an hour in a bookstore? Surely you jest."

Alex looked up from finishing another autograph. "Only an hour? Bobby plans day-long expeditions." Then she smirked as Bobby pushed her foot under the table.

"Reen's here, by the way."

"Man, I haven't seen Reenie in ages..." and brother and sister moved away to chat.

A little over an hour later, they sat in the big booth of a restaurant on Brattle Street along with Irené Fournier, Donna's best friend since childhood. Olivia's eyes were at half-mast by then, but she cuddled between Alex and Bobby, listening as Hogarth said expansively to the latter, "...pity you missed the salad days of Harvard Square, Bob—there was a time you couldn't turn a corner around here and not find a bookstore: Wordsworth, the Science Fiction and Fantasy bookstore–"

Charles checked his Apple watch. "Ten minutes, Don. I think that's a new record."

Donna sputtered, and her father gazed at them over his wire-rimmed eyeglasses. "Have some respect for an old man, offspring, and let me tell my story."

Charles leaned back against the booth's plush red seat. He'd removed his suit jacket and tie, looking utterly relaxed. "What was that comic book store he always talked about?"

"Million Year Picnic," Donna caroled, her eyes alight.

"Got all his Marvel comics there," Irené chimed in. "X-Men. Spiderman. The Hulk."

Hogarth tried to look stern but failed. "Now you see, this is what happens. In your long and illustrious career, you speak with and advise mayors, governors, and the Prez, but this is the respect your kids and their peers give you–" By the time he finished, he was laughing, as was everyone else, so that even a half-asleep Olivia smiled, and when Alex whispered to her, "Who knows, maybe in ten years you'll be telling the same stories about us," Olivia regarded her with searching eyes, then snuggled closer to her.

Now Alex saw Hogarth's eyes soften as she kissed the girl's forehead and wondered if he was recalling Donna's childhood. It made her think of Penelope Saltonstall, always prim and proper in her business suits and bound hair, in a different light: as a doting mom, in a t-shirt and shorts or a light shift as her mother had worn in warm weather, her blond hair pulled into a ponytail, cuddling Donna in her arms while Charles showed her a flower or a bug he'd found in the yard.

"Lookit, Allie!" she could remember nine-year-old Lizzie saying, holding out something small and red in the damp palm of her hand. "Lookit what I found on the back stoop. Know what it is?" And her four-year-old self crowing "Ladybug!" and her mother saying, "That's right, Alex!" until the spell was broken by baby Jack wailing from his crib.

"Now take the ladybug outside, Lizzie," her mother said, her voice tender in Alex's memory, "and let the poor thing go. Take Allie with you."

"You're a million miles away, Eames," Bobby's voice said in real time.

"It seems like it," she said, smiling at their dinner companions, "but just 53 years."

. . . . .

Bobby had chuckled at Donna, waiting for Irené. "You look like...um...one of the fathers in an old movie, back in the days when they didn't allow men in the delivery room, pacing back and forth."

"Sorry." And she had slowed her aimless pacing in the expansive front room of the tour bus. It was set up like a typical family room in a specialty recreational vehicle, with kitchen apparatus on the right side of the bus (sink, three-burner stove, full-size refrigerator, and pull-out pantry, plus cabinets up and down), and a deep, wide plush-fabric sofa, a bolted-down stand for Bandit's birdcage, and a meal/additional seating area with a removable table lined up on the left side behind the driver, everything done in soft browns and tans with highlights of teal. The ceiling-mounted flat-screen TV had been pushed up and out of the way and Michael Agostino was leaning back in the armchair-like driver's seat with his feet up on the console, paging through the history book Bobby had bought that afternoon.

Suddenly someone rapped "shave and a haircut" on the door of the bus, Donna called out "Hold on," and with an expert hand motion Alex swooped an indignant Bandit from Bobby's shoulder and popped him back into his cage.

"Okay!" called Donna merrily, and the door had opened a tiny crack. "Bird safe?" was the query, acknowledging the warning placard on the bus door.

"Pissed," grinned Donna, as Bandit glared at her from his food dish, "but safe."

Then Irené Fournier had been captured in a big hug by her best friend and given a kiss, whereupon she spun Donna around as if they were two ten-year-olds again. Next, Donna presented her with a smile. "Everybody, this is my best friend for almost forever, Irené. Reenie," and she indicated them in turn, "Bob Goren, Alex Eames, Olivia Pepin, Sam, Bandit, and Michael Agostino."

Irené had shaken hands with them—including Sam—then bowed over the birdcage, "Hi, Bandit. Sorry I spoilt your fun."

Bandit eyed her, then piped up, "Hi!" and returned to eating.

She was slightly taller than Donna, with thick black hair in a long braid down her back, a very oval face with shining dark eyes, and a winsome smile. When Olivia, who sat next to Sam on the floor working a cross stitch, had glanced up at her appraisingly, Irené checked out her project and said, "C'est très joli, Olivia."

The child gasped. "Parles-tu français?"

Irené grinned. "Mais oui, Mademoiselle."

Olivia had burst into a torrent of French, abandoning both Sam and the cross stitch to hug Irené. Alex could understand what sounded like 'I haven't spoken French in a month' and smiled when Donna sidled next to her and Bobby and explained quietly, "Reen's about as French as anyone can be without coming from France. Her father is Québécois and her maman is from Martinique. I remember her pépère—her grandfather—teaching us French songs when we were smaller than Olivia."

Donna had remained behind with her friend when they finally headed to the bookstore for the evening signing, but before they left, Alex whispered to Irené, "Thank you for making Olivia's day."

. . . . .

Alex looked up from her reading, puzzled. "I haven't heard that ringtone before."

As with Bobby's use of the vintage FBI television series theme for Penelope Saltonstall, Alex knew he had tagged each of his contacts with a unique ringtone; Knight Rider, for instance, was his car expert friend Lewis calling. By the way Bobby snatched his phone, then said, "I need to take this in private," and pushed himself out of bed, she knew it had to be urgent.

As he made for the door, she said casually, "If you need to disappear into the Batcave, let me know, okay?" and he signaled a wry thumbs-up before he vanished.

She picked up her e-reader, but after she scanning the same paragraph six times, Alex finally expelled an impatient breath, setting the gadget down to wait, which was only a few minutes, but she could tell he'd had to collect himself first. He padded back to bed, set the phone back on its charger, then turned to her.

"That was Stabler—he wanted to make sure you heard from someone who was there that Liv is okay...she was released from the ER an hour ago, but she was wounded this afternoon in, as Elliot put it, 'some podunk town in Ohio.' They tracked their Shadowerk perp there, and the bastard put out a hit on both Liv and Elliot. They were ambushed as they ate—the would-be assassin used bear repellent to get past their guard and shot Benson in the hip. Stabler pulled his sidearm but was blinded by the spray, so Liv was the one who fired and took the guy down."

"Nothing says it like teamwork," Alex tried to quip, but her face was grim.

"But she's fine," he repeated. "Stabler, on the other hand, sounded like hell—but then h-he'd already had to phone the McCanns so Noah would know she was okay."

"I don't envy him that call." Then she asked, "So they've sent her home?"

"She'll take a redeye in a few hours, with a police escort. Stabler says his team has a hit on the perp. They're questioning his mother in the morning. Rollins was right. Alienated young man, no friends, hates the world."

They were in each other's arms by that time, and she sighed. "I keep wondering how we're going to be able to protect Olivia—Liv and I talked about this in the city—but we can't do it forever, can we? We can love her, and teach her the right things: kindness, fair play–"

"Hopefully give her all the tools she needs to make wise decisions, but protect her totally? No. The same with Ana and Carlos and the other kids. At some point we'll just have to take it on trust."

"I'll text Liv tomorrow, see how she is," Alex said, moving back toward her side of the bed. "Did Elliot say how long she's supposed to be off duty?"

"Two weeks."

"I give it two days, tops," Alex predicted.

. . . . .

Date:       May 22, 2023
To:           Elizabeth E. Hogan (eehogan@nycnet.net)
Subject:  Mom Stuff
From:      Alex Eames (alexandra.v.eames@xfinity.net)

Dear Liz,

Olivia has surprised me again. I was restless last night—got up for some orange juice, only to see a light under her door. Michael falls asleep immediately—he says it's Marine Corps training—and Donna wears a sleep mask, so neither was bothered.

It was after midnight, but Olivia was trying to write three separate e-mails about our stay in Philadelphia to her half-brother, her friend Renata at school, and her old nanny, so we had to have a quick heart-to-heart about her being able to do her schoolwork, join us at the signings, go sightseeing, and still stay healthy. We finally decided she could write about her day on the blog, then send each person an e-mail with a very brief personalized note, and a link to the blog entry. So we cut and pasted what she had written to the blog, and then she wrote three quick notes with the link and was finished. She didn't admit to me until it posted online that she was afraid what she wrote wasn't "good enough" for the blog because Bobby and I were "professionals"! If she only knew how many times Holly had me edit and re-edit, and that was after Bobby had suggested a certain change of phrase, or rearranging the narrative in a different order. I could write a report to the Chief of D's that would be praised for its conciseness and compliance with NYPD standards, but bringing 1PP to life so that an audience would want to read it was another matter altogether. Talk about impostor syndrome!

Incidentally, guess who showed up in Philly today to "make sure our book signing event went okay" since we had to change stores after the original location canceled (a catastrophic sprinkler accident). If you said "young Mr. Hastings," you've earned your detective's badge for tonight. However, I don't think it was Bobby and me he was looking after. I'll keep you posted.


. . . . .

Date:       May 22, 2023
To:           Irené Fournier (frenchfille@yorkcounty.net)
Subject:  History and His Story
From:      Donna C. Hogarth (themaineinstructor@yorkcounty.net)

Dear Reen,

I don't know why I try to teach history to Olivia when Bob gives it to her naturally one gulp at a time. :-) We drove past downtown Pittsburgh yesterday; when he spotted the big lighted sign for KDKA, he immediately pointed out the sign and told her that it was the first commercial radio station in the United States, and this probably would have led to a discussion of the Golden Age of Radio had not more historic scenery appeared.

But once Bob had seen the itinerary for the book tour, he pulled or bought books that pertained to our route. Since he'd just finished Buck's Life on the Mississippi and we were passing the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela ("sail-in' down the O-hi-o"—I have the song from The New Mickey Mouse Club burned into my brain still), this segued into a chat about flatboats and river commerce. This explains why tonight we watched Disney's hoary old film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates while learning the truth about Davy Crockett (including that he loathed being called "Davy"), Mike Fink, and keelboats/flatboats in general.

At bedtime, however, instead of reading to her, I heard Bob telling Olivia about "The Shadow" and know at some point on the road we'll be listening to how "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit..." It will make an interesting alternative to John Denver, which is Michael's preferred driving music.

Zes Hastings showed up in Philadelphia on Monday because of the screwup that happened with the bookstore shift, to make sure everything worked out at the replacement venue (the original store had a water leak). I'd hoped we'd be able to eat at City Tavern on Tuesday because I loved watching Walter Staib's A Taste of History, but it's still closed and doesn't show signs of reopening soon. Zes suggested Reading Terminal Market, which turned out to be a fabulous idea since it's like Faneuil Hall and everyone could have what they liked; well, we liked it so well that we had supper there, too, and shared a variety of foods: Cajun, Penn Dutch, ribs, Italian hoagies, Chinese, Thai—I'm hungry just thinking about it. They have a couple of meat and seafood markets, too, so we took away fudge, fresh sausage, scallops, bread, chocolates, cheeses, and cookies.

On the sightseeing front, we went to Independence Hall, saw the Liberty Bell, and also visited the Marian Anderson House and Admiral Dewey's flagship "Olympia" (you remember: "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead" guy).

As Olivia keeps telling people, "Read our blog."

Yours now very hungrily,

. . . . .

Date:       May 29, 2023
To:           Olivia M. Benson (olivia.m.benson@nypd.org)
Subject:  Get Well Soon (and a Mom Story)
From:      Alex Eames (alexandra.v.eames@xfinity.net)


Thanks for the return text. Glad to know you are feeling better. Am not surprised you're already back to work. "Relax" is not in your vocabulary. ;-)

Remember that I was concerned that Olivia was working too hard to please us? Since we returned from Paris, we've had the same morning routine: Bobby gets up to make breakfast, then when almost done raps on Olivia's door with a "rise and shine." Five minutes later, even though we're still in pajamas, she's popped out the bedroom door dressed and ready to meet the world.

Yesterday morning Olivia replied, "Deux secondes!"

Two seconds? And then I saw him grin like a fool.

He explained, "It's the French child's equivalent of 'In a minute!'"

About three minutes later he called again. "Time to get up, Olivia."

"Deux secondes!"

Michael and Donna waited to see what we'd do. Bobby plated the scrambled eggs, then walked to the bunk room door, rapped on it, and said "Olivia, since you're not interested, should I give your breakfast to the dog?"

In deux secondes, two big eyes were peering out. "You wouldn't."

He just smiled. "Everyone else is ready to eat."

"I'll be out in a minute," she promised (and was). (She'd been reading, of course.)

I think she's a bit more comfortable now. Baby steps.

Get well soon!

. . . . .

- Chicago, IL; May 30, 2023 -

He had come upon them before they knew it.

Bobby was already pleased because his elderly Aunt Agnes, his father's younger sister, had been able to attend their afternoon signing at Mysteries and More, a new bookshop on Chicago's famed Michigan Avenue, a few doors down from the now-defunct Marshall Field. She'd arrived with her son Sandy, a widower and father of Paul and Molly. Paul had remained on the family farm to care for the livestock, while Bobby was looking forward to seeing Molly, who was studying criminal law at California State at Long Beach, at the Los Angeles signing.

The crowd had thinned momentarily as the figure approached, so the four of them could clearly hear the man's deep baritone voice pronounce, "There you are, Bob Goren, with the prettiest lady in the room."

Bobby's grin blossomed even though he made no move to turn around. "And she stuck around, heaven only knows why."

"Maybe," Benjamin Siler answered with a smile, "because He always knew you needed her."

If someone had crossed Ron Carver's dapper style with an ascetic face, Alex decided when she turned to greet him, that would have been Ben Siler. Even in a button-down Oxford-cloth shirt with an open neck revealing a cross made from nails on a pewter chain, dark cords, and Dockers sans socks, he looked like he stepped out of a swanky men's catalog. Balding, with spiky silver eyebrows, his face lit up with pleasure as Bobby added, "I am, in fact, with three special ladies tonight. Alex, Donna, Olivia, this is Benjamin Siler, the voice of reason in my former FBI office trio. Ben, my wife Alex Eames, our daughter Olivia, and this is Olivia's tutor, Donna Hogarth, Penelope's daughter."

Siler blinked. "Saltonstall has...a daughter?"

Donna kept smiling to herself throughout the rest of the signing at the astonished expression on Siler's face; her mother had told her once that he was unflappable, but as they chatted between signatures, his droll face kept her amused.

At the end of the line, a familiar male voice said, "Sorry I don't have a book for you to sign."

Alex looked up, poker-faced. "Hello, Zes. I didn't realize you were going to be in town for the signing."

"Something totally different this time," he said carelessly, dropping into the chair next to Donna. "Dad asked if I would handle the branch office reviews this year. Better me traveling than him, he said. Spent the day shaking hands and looking at sales records. Thought I would hunt up more amiable company for dinner. Pretty day, though."

"We went for a cruise on Lake Michigan this morning," Olivia told him eagerly.

Zes grinned. "I take it you had fun."

Donna teased, "Well, if keeping her from falling overboard was fun."

"That isn't fair," Olivia objected, "I was too close to the edge only once."

Bobby put his head down opposite hers. "Once was too many times, Olivia."

"But I saw a fin, Papa!"

"Are all of you up for a unique dinner tonight?" Zes asked casually. "You can come along, too, Mr. Siler. The more the merrier, and six is a good number for a party at the place I have in mind." Donna started to say something, and he added, "Please? It's my favorite place to eat in Chicago, and no fun to eat at alone."

Siler gave him an appraising look, flickered a glance at Bobby, then grinned at Alex. "I'm up for it."

Ninety minutes later, they were seated around a lit brazier in the center of their table at the whimsically-named Seoul Patch Grill, with a black-aproned young woman at their side. She said brightly, "I'm Seo-Jun and I'm your server for this evening. Does everyone know how this works?" Alex, Olivia, Donna, and Ben shook their heads, and Seo-Jun beamed a smile. "Here is the list of the meats we offer and a description of what they are. We bring you the meats you request and one or more of you will cook the meats to your liking."

Alex leaned backward with a grin. "Leaving that one to Bobby, thanks."

"I'll cook, too, if no one else volunteers," Zes said. "In another life I was Gordon Ramsey."

Olivia sputtered with laughter at the idea, but when the first serving of meat came—Bobby having recommended the bulgogi beef and Siler putting in a vote for shrimp—it became Goren vs. Hastings at the grill. Donna obligingly stripped the shrimp of their tails and legs to hand off to Zes while Bobby expertly flipped the strips of beef for the table, including a well-done serving for Siler, at which Bobby quipped, "Need to have that cow completely dead, do you, Ben?" The first round created a friendly rivalry between Bobby and Zes, as they soon competed to see who could finish servings of bulgogi pork and more "Hawaiian" beef first. Zes even attempted a showman-like flip of the metal meat tongs emulating a Japanese steakhouse chef, which resulted in his dropping the tongs into the flaming brazier and their retrieval using a second set of tongs. Donna made a face at him, but he only chuckled and carried on.

They tried almost everything on the menu—Bobby and Donna even sampled the squid; Alex had taken one look and said, "Sorry, I don't eat anything that stares back"—but the beef bulgogi was the strong favorite. Olivia smiled, replete and sleepy, and asked coaxingly, "Maybe you can make some when we get home, Papa?"

As they exited, Zes asked, "Anyone for a nightcap?"

Siler laughed. "Not me, man. I'm still a working stiff. All this food I've eaten, I hope I make it through my shower before falling asleep."

Alex said fondly, "This one," and she indicated Olivia, who was leaning sleepily on Bobby, "needs her bed, and so do we." She flipped the keys of the tour bus to Donna. "I have the spare. You two have fun."

Donna smiled, whispered to Olivia, "Good night, kitten," and strolled away with Zes.

"Aren't you being slightly blatant?" Bobby asked with amusement when they were gone.

"Bobby," Alex said with an indulgent smile, "Holly and I have talked a lot about the publishing business since Hastings House picked up the options for our books. Branch office reviews are held annually...but only after end of fiscal year."

He laughed deep in his throat, alerting an almost dozing Olivia. "What's so funny, Papa? What's end of...fiscal..." Here she yawned. "...year?"

"September 30, dearest," Alex said, patting her arm.

"This an ongoing thing?" Siler asked, and Bobby said, "Since we left Connecticut," and the other man chuckled. "A man on a mission, eh?" A pause. "He's...okay, right? Not that either of you would condone harassment..."

"She's enjoying his company," Alex answered, smiling, "I can assure you. We've already talked."

Satisfied, Siler gave Alex a farewell hug and shook Bobby's free hand. "Nice seeing you guys. Keep in touch!" Then he added soberly, "Remember what I said, Bobby."

"Read our blog," Olivia reminded with a sleepy wave of her hand.

. . . . .

He was withdrawn as they prepared for bed.

Alex loved their "nest" at the rear of the tour bus. The main bedroom had been designed for tall, burly football players; their en-suite bathroom, although small, had a shower tall enough for Bobby and plenty of room for his shoulders when he turned to rinse. In fact, with judicious maneuvering (they had already tried it), she could fit inside with him. The bed was a queen-sized, extra-long version, with storage underneath already filling with a jumbled combination of books and other souvenirs.

"What's up, Bobby?" she finally asked gently as he finished brushing his teeth. "Does it have something to do with what Ben said before he left?"

He gave her the knowing little smile she understood. "Yeah."She tilted his head at him. "Anything I can help with?"

"Finish up," he said, cupping her face with his hand. "Then we'll talk."

Five minutes later she was in her tank top and shorts, barefoot, hair pulled back with a soft scrunchie. She expected to find him reading, but instead, he was seated at the foot of the bed in sleep shorts and a very faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, feet restless, fingers tapping on his thighs. She sat beside him cross-legged, caressing his right arm with her fingertips. Without prompting, he began, "When I got up to use the restroom–"

"Ben was there," she said. "I shagged Liv down the same way."

He nodded. "He waited for me as I washed my hands..."

. . . . .

"So you heard the news about Cavanaugh, I know. I figured Penelope would have told you first."

Bobby had regarded his old partner curiously as he thoroughly lathered his hands, then rinsed. "I have no idea if I was told 'first.' I was told."

"Never did understand what was with that dude," Siler said, shaking his head. "What did you finally figure out about him?"

Waving his hand under the motion sensor multiple times for enough paper to wipe his hands, Bobby finally shrugged. "He was a promotion slut, Ben. Climbing the old ladder. Didn't care who he stepped on to get there."

"Yeah, but why?"

Irritated, Bobby had scrunched the wastepaper and lobbed it into the mouth of the wastebasket. "How the hell would I know?"

Siler shrugged. "You're the profiler, man. I mean, you profiled all the UNSUBs. Helped us get under their skins, let us know why they worked the way they did. Thought you might have given him the once-over to see if you could make it easier on yourself."

Once that they were in the hallway outside the restrooms; Bobby had wheeled to face his old partner. "Why would I waste my time? He was a shit supervisor who didn't let us do our jobs properly, and when we did do them, he made sure he got the credit instead us."

Siler threw up a placating hand. "Hey, man, calm down."

"He abused us, Ben," retorted Bobby, his face scarlet. "And he was rude to Alex last year in D.C. and harassed us both. Again, why would I waste my time?"

"Bobby, man, I'm not saying he was a just human being," responded Siler, puzzled. "He was a lousy supervisor, and had a crappy personality. I just think it's odd that you never tried to suss him out." He gave Bobby a pat on the shoulder. "I'm sorry I brought it up, man. I didn't realize he was still under your skin."

Bobby had swallowed, then took a breath. "Sorry, Ben. Didn't mean to go off on you."

"I know you didn't," Siler said, smiling. "Let's get back to that nice family of yours."

. . . . .

"I agree with you," Alex said shortly, recalling their encounter with Cavanaugh the previous year. "I thought Ross was bad enough when he took over from Jimmy. But at least Ross was for solving cases, not using highly-trained Federal employees as steppingstones for his career moves. Cavanaugh made his own bed, let him lie in it."

"Maybe Ben was right, though," he said reluctantly. "I disrespected him–"

"Because he disrespected you first. Please don't add another boxcar to your guilt train, Bobby. You keep it long enough as it is."

He gave a wry, sideways smile. "He's right about one thing, though. Harry is still under my skin."

"Just like a hookworm," Alex answered sourly.

He chuckled, then rose to open the bedroom door at the sound of scratching. Sam shouldered his way in, revealing low, flickering light from the living area where Michael was still awake watching television. Olivia had gone to bed long ago, cuddling her little stuffed fox, replete with bulgogi.

"What's wrong, Sam?" he asked, and the collie nudged him under the arm and whined until Bobby sat down to pet him. "You came for me? You always seem to know."

"I hope Michael's not waiting up for Donna," Alex said, yawning, then crawled between the sheets, "because I'm pretty sure she's not coming back tonight."

"I think he's just watching Colbert before bed. He's figured out the rest." And Bobby slid into bed beside her, bowing his head to kiss her neck. Sam remained sitting at the foot of the bed, watching them with bright eyes while patting one big paw on the mattress in mute appeal. They exchanged glances.

"All right, bud, if you want to be kicked every time one of us rolls over–"

"Wuff!" the dog uttered with satisfaction as he heaved himself on the end of the bed and lay down.

"Furry foot warmer," Alex said as Bobby switched off the light.

"But who'll warm my heart?"

"Oh, I think I know just the lady for that job–"

. . . . .

From "On the Road with Gorens"
May 30, 2023

Olivia: Mr. Hastings, our publisher, treated us to a Korean steakhouse tonight. They bring you the meat and you have to cook it yourself over a real fire on the table. Papa and Mr. Hastings cooked; if it was a contest I think Papa won. The food was delicious! My maman said I should try all foods, but I did not try the squid because Mama said it was staring at her.

Alex: Definitely no squid. Otherwise, five stars all the way.

Bobby: I've had the real thing, but Seoul Patch Grill was a thumbs-up for dinner for all of us. However, Olivia, I think Zes and I tied.


Donna Hogarth: A good time was definitely had by all. Very much enjoyed meeting Mr. Benjamin Siler.

Quentin Hastings VI : An outstanding evening in good company. Thanks!

. . . . .

<— Penelope Saltonstall, Donna Hogarth
      May 31, 2023

...went out for drinks at a little club.

What time did you get in, dearling?

Not telling, Mom.

. . . . .

<— Donna Hogarth, Irené Fournier
      May 31, 2023

So, what goes with Zes? He turn up again in Chicago?

With an almost convincing story of being there on business. He even took us all to dinner before we went out for the evening.

He's safe, isn't he?

Don't worry, Alex has already asked me if he's a problem. He's not. Besides, I all but asked him to join us in Columbus. Since he's a James Thurber fan I asked if he'd ever been to the Thurber House, and that it was a shame he wouldn't be there-

What happened after dinner?

Oh, he knew a great little club, not too noisy. Techno, some hip-hop, a kind of retro disco that was weird...had a drink, a few dances, the last one to his hotel...


Hey, I had condoms in case he didn't.

. . . [Irené is typing]

😀 😮 🤩 He'll be joining us after we leave Nashville, too, I think. I asked if he knew a good place to zipline in Tennessee...

Zipline! Are you crazy...

. . . . .

- Washington, D.C.; June 13, 2023 -

Bobby started feeling uneasy not an hour into that evening's book signing.

The session had otherwise gone flawlessly—people had come early to see Sam, who Alex put through his paces, and they handed out brochures for a therapy dog charity in Georgetown. Then Michael had returned the collie to the bus, and the book signing had begun. They positioned Olivia between them where the little girl played at being grown up, asking, "Do you want my Mama or my Papa's autograph or both?" then had to bite back a laugh when a woman said, "Just your mother's book, dear," and Olivia had fixed big eyes on her and said, "But you'll hurt Papa's feelings!" When the woman had returned with Bobby's book, he'd apologized to her and said she wasn't required to buy it, but the woman had blushed and answered, "I usually just read true crime and mysteries, but for this little one I'm willing to try something else."

(When Alex told Holly Lewin about it later, Holly had joked, "Should we put Livvy in charge of sales?")

"Eames–" he said quietly, over Olivia's bent head; she had her drawing pad and pencils that night and was sketching a stack of books in the front window.

Alex looked over at him. "What's up?"

"I don't know," he said, "but something's not right."

It was Alex who spotted him first. She hissed, "Bobby!" then excused herself to the man whose book she was autographing, tapping in Michael's number on her cell. When he picked up, she said two words: "Come now," and he hung up. Five minutes later, Michael sidled sideways through the crowd, a deft move that always amazed Alex; it still surprised her how someone so massive could move so quickly. Bobby noticed him enter, then surveyed the crowd and immediately spotted what had alerted Alex.

Now the driver sidled behind their table. Marc Thuringer had solved their "tour bus driver needs a clearance" problem quickly when he suggested hiring a former agent. Michael was an inch shorter in height than Bobby, but was built like a WWE star with imposing broad shoulders; his grey-and-umber hair was cropped in a buzzcut and his dark eyes stared inoffensively but implacably from a square, grave face with a scar just under his right eye where a grazed bullet had marked his warm tan skin. His forearms and chest were as massive as a professional wrestler's so that when he crossed his arms and gazed at the crowd, people noticed—he'd been a Marine before he joined the FBI and it showed.

The intruder noticed him as well, and a little smile played on his face. Donna, who was helping them out that night instead of keeping Bandit and Sam company (Tim, their Washington, D.C., liaison for this particular stop, had been left at the bus), leaned toward Alex. "What's the deal?"

Alex lowered her head as she signed the next book and whispered, "See the big dude with the thinning blond hair and the bay window? He's bad news. If something happens, grab Olivia and get the hell out of here."

"Will do," Donna said soberly.

The first thing they noticed when Harry Cavanaugh reached the front of the line was that his Armani wardrobe and swagger were no more. However, he had not lost the sour expression, nor the accompanying sneer, which appeared to be unchanged from March of 2022. They saw his eyes shift to observe Michael.

"Hello, Harry," said a male voice to his left as a slim, balding man in his sixties stepped up to him.

"Hello, Mister Cavanaugh," said a female voice to his right, and a tall redheaded woman with dark blue eyes boxed him in on the opposite side.

Tobias Fornell smiled at him. "Long time no see, Harry. Thank goodness."

Veronica Heller narrowed her eyes and said, "That makes two of us."

"Got guard dogs here, eh, Goren?" Cavanaugh said insolently. "That is, besides having both Saltonstall and Loughran doing your bidding now?"

Bobby said evenly, "Nice to see you, too, Harry."

"Now leave," Alex added, standing up.

Cavanaugh looked directly down at Olivia. "And who's this sweet little thing?"

Bobby's face flushed, but to their surprise, Olivia roused the first spark of anger they had seen in her since she'd accompanied them home, sat up ramrod straight, and her eyes flashed in an eerie echo of her mother's. "I am not a 'sweet little thing.' You're being rude to my parents, and you need to leave, as Mama said!"

Donna was behind her in an instant. "Simmer down, kitten." Then she turned her teacher's voice on the interloper. "Mr. Cavanaugh, you are out of line. Get out—or I will make sure you do."

He could keep eye contact with her for only a minute, then he barked, "Enjoy yourselves," and sauntered out of the store. Agostino followed him a moment later. When the bus driver didn't return, they assumed the coast was clear, and that Agostino had returned to the bus. An "all clear" text popped on Alex's phone about five minutes later.

Olivia was breathing so hard that Bobby put his arm around her comfortingly. "It's okay. Thank you for defending us."

"He's a bully," Olivia said, half in tears, "just like Madame. You could see it on his face."

Donna whispered to her, "Want to go back to the bus, kiddo?"

"No!" Olivia said firmly, then amended pleadingly, "I mean please, no. I want to stay with Mama and Papa." Then her eyes widened. "Papa—you and Mama will be all right?"

Fornell bent down. "Ronni and I will take care of them, kid."

"Me, too," said a third voice as a slender woman with bright, lively eyes and long red hair sauntered forward. "Saw Mr. Asshole—ooops, sorry, pardon my mouth, Ms. Olivia—as I came in. I've been here sixteen years and the creep still calls me 'Agent Fellini.' On purpose, of course." She extended a hand to Olivia. "I used to work with your folks. Nola Falacci. Call me Nola."

Bobby had already managed a smile, and Alex rounded the table to hug her. "How are you?"

"Twenty dollars poorer, I understand," Falacci laughed, and she fished in her pants' pocket to retrieve two bills.

"Don't worry about it," Bobby countered. "Donate it to a charity if you like. Mike's been working with teen boys—'guys like I was, a prick,' in his own words—if you've got something in mind like that. Or pick your own. So what's the good word?"

"The best word is that all my chicks are out of the nest, on their own, and doing well," Falacci said jauntily. "David got a great job six months ago, and Ash and I just finished helping him move into his first apartment. It's a little tiny, but he'll adjust." She grinned. "Next month Ash and I can go off on that cruise to the Maritimes we've been planning since Cassie was in diapers."

Bobby looked around, "Where is Ash?"

"Ah, well, he has to sing for his supper," she replied lightly. "If he's going to take a month off in July, he has to work overtime in June. I've been requested to bring home both books and to take a selfie with you guys and pass it along." Her eyes sparkled as she added, "C'mon, guys, gimme a break and tell me about Carla! I didn't think Logan would ever settle down with anyone–"

More than an hour later, the signing complete, the bookstore employees having helped them pack up their things, they formed a talkative phalanx back to the tour bus, parked only a few blocks away. Falacci was recounting the previous week's problems from the smoke drifting south from Canadian wildfires when the group rounded the corner.

Harry Cavanaugh leaned cockily against the curb side of the bus, supported by his outstretched left arm, watching them with heavy-lidded, mocking eyes.

Fornell halted in his tracks. "Now, wait a minute. This is too..." He paused, considered Olivia's presence, then censored his next word. "...damn much."

"Is it?" Cavanaugh asked sarcastically, his eyes fixed on Bobby, raising his voice. "You tell me, Goren, why I shouldn't beat in your smug, self-satisfied face."

Heller had yanked out her cell to call 911 and Cavanaugh's near-bellow brought Michael to the door of the bus, his face like thunder when he realized he'd been flanked, but Bobby merely regarded him with a strange mixture of weariness and thoughtful insight. And then he asked steadily, "What happened, Harry?"

It was not the answer his antagonist had expected. "What happened?" he barked. "You got me fired. You and Ruiz and the others, not to mention that bitch Loughran–"

"No, Harry," was the firm response as Bobby stepped forward, one foot after the other, in deliberate slow motion. Olivia balled her hands into fists and started to follow him, but Alex put her hands on the child's shoulders, stopping her. "You got yourself fired. Instead of working with the people who would have been happy to work with you, you demeaned them, treated them as little more than disposable pieces in your climb to the top. If you'd worked with Karin, Ben, and me, instead of against us, it would have been fine. We would have helped you. But–" and here he paused, regretful. "I do owe you an apology. Ben pointed out to me that I made an effort to always understand every UNSUB that came across my desk. I never made that effort with you, and I'm sorry. I thought after two therapists and one firing I'd gotten myself out of the habit of automatically pigeonholing people, but apparently I hadn't."

Alex swallowed and rubbed Olivia's shoulders, but Cavanaugh only scowled. "So now you think that's made it all better, like kissing my boo-boo?"

"No," Bobby said, "but Alex pulled my ass out of the fire too many times because of my own impulsive decisions, and she never deserved that responsibility. Now I have responsibility for a child. I don't want her believing that making snap judgments is ever a fair option."

Olivia looked up at Alex, her lower lip pinned under her teeth.

"I read your file, which I should have done in the first place. What I want to know," continued Bobby quietly, "is what happened. A friend of mine–" and here his cheek twitched, "–described your voice as 'he could have been one of Dolly Parton's neighbors.'" Startled, Alex recognized the quote as information Nicole Wallace had given her the previous year. "You started out only one step up from Dolly; in a Tennessee coal town where your father owned the company store–"

Cavanaugh snapped to attention, flushed, hands clenched at his sides. "Ran, you son of a bitch. Ran the company store. There's a difference. He did what the owners told him. He had to."

Fornell and Heller were already on alert, and Michael quietly cleared his throat, but Bobby nonchalantly stretched out his fingers behind him as if physically pushing them back. Then he relaxed his shoulders and finally his body, keeping his full attention on Cavanaugh. "Sorry...my mistake," but Alex knew by experience that he had made the "mistake" deliberately. "Your father ran the store. He danced to the company's tune to make sure his family was provided for. Especially with...a wife struggling with silicosis. No use endangering what pittance of medical coverage the family had. She must have coughed a lot, found it difficult to breathe. It must have been a frightening sound for a boy who feared he might lose his mom. And there were six kids for your parents to get through school on a miner's salary—and your dad sure as hell didn't want you in the mine. Not a kid as bright as you–"

Cavanaugh was listening now, his hands relaxing, watching Bobby expectantly.

"You were the eldest," continued Bobby, almost hypnotically soft. "Your mom was ill a lot, like m-mine was. I had a big brother to look after me. You had to look after your sisters...your little brother. And since your dad ran the company store, the miners' kids probably didn't like you very much."

Cavanaugh growled, "Hated us. Followed us, taunting us. Threw dirt at us. Rocks. Rotten vegetables. Once my eldest sister wore her one good dress in her favorite color to accept a school award. They threw mud on her. Mother spent hours over a washboard to get it clean, but finally had to dye it to make it look decent again."

Alex felt Olivia stir under her hands. "Shhhh," she whispered.

Bobby tilted his head. "Funny, the guys at school always said having sisters sucked. That they always bossed you around."

"Not Bel. We were a year apart, almost like twins. We took care of each other. The kid who did that to her, I pushed his face in the mud good, made sure it got in his mouth."

"My brother used to help me like that," returned Bobby reflectively, smiling. "When I was eight and nine I was an altar boy."

Cavanaugh snorted. "You?"

"Yep. Used to serve at nine o'clock M-Mass. My brother had to follow me, even though he wouldn't go to church himself, so the bigger kids wouldn't...uh...beat me up." He paused. "Doesn't sound like a great place to grow up. You must have worked hard to make it out of that nightmare."

"Three jobs," Cavanaugh said, eyes flashing again. "Plus schoolwork. Three hours sleep a night if I was lucky."

"It worked out, though. Your recruitment evaluation made you sound...well, like the next Eliot Ness. You were good, Harry. All those commendations in your jacket. You and your team even recovered a toddler who'd been kidnapped and missing for three months, taken over two state lines. Stuff like that...so often ends badly. Everyone was convinced he was dead but you."

Now Cavanaugh blinked. "The Richardson kid. He reminded me of Danny, my kid brother. Curly blond hair...couldn't let the mother down." His eyes flicked to Bobby and spit out sourly, "Yeah, like all that effort worked out in the end. Sixty-hour weeks to get to the first level of responsibility. Wife tired of being 'abandoned' for months on end. Kids I usually saw only after they were asleep. By the time I had time for them, they had no time for me, especially Tina. Next thing I knew I was divorced and 'fancy-free,' with alimony and child support out the nose."

"So you resolved that no one would take advantage of you again? No one would ever make you feel as low as those kids in the coal camp did, or that divorce lawyer? Not your wife, not your kids—especially not the sm-smartass agents they stuck you with? You'd make it to the top without help, like you always had to."

The two of them locked eyes, Cavanaugh's pale blue and Bobby's a melancholy brown, and the street was as silent as a street in nighttime Washington, D.C., could be. In the distance came the wail of a siren, the faint swish of traffic, a staccato beep of a horn, the screech of air brakes, and an 18-wheeler blasting its horn. When a sluggish, humid breeze stirred the air, still heavy from the previous day's rain, wafting overhead was the faint, faint scent of the Potomac, overlaid with car exhaust, rubber tires, asphalt.

"You son of a bitch," Cavanaugh said stiffly. "You got it all figured out, didn't you?"

"Just doing my job, Harry, the one I neglected to do three years ago."

Harry Cavanaugh regarded them one at a time: Fornell, Falacci, and Heller still looking cynical; Alex with a watchful but softened expression on her face; Donna with her head tilted thoughtfully; Michael's suddenly relaxed stance—and Olivia watching both him and her father with solemn eyes.

He finally looked squarely into Olivia's face as if seeking an answer.

"I'm sorry I bothered you folks," he said tonelessly, lifted his chin, and made a move to turn away.

"Did your father get his wish, Harry?" Bobby asked quietly.

Cavanaugh paused, snorting. "C'mon, you don't really want to know."

"Try me."

All right then, smartass...Bel...Belinda became a nurse. Got my mother through the final stages of silicosis. Shelley and Elsie both became teachers," and here, briefly, Cavanaugh's inclined a thumb at Donna. "You're Saltonstall's kid. You have to be. You have her face...and the same look in your eye."

Donna nodded at him, biting back a self-conscious smile, and he finished, "Helen married and had three kids." He jerked his chin at Olivia. "She reminds me of the youngest one, Alvia, named after my dad Alvah. Speaks up for her family, just like that one. And Danny works in the public defender's office in Lexington, Kentucky."

"So they all made it out," Bobby said with a tilt of his head, catching Cavanaugh's eye again. "What about the oldest...um, the smart one, the next Eliot Ness? Will you let him out again, Harry?"

"Too late for him," Cavanaugh said with a tiny curl of his lip.

"Fourteen years ago I woulda told you the same thing about me," Bobby answered, rocking back and forth on his heels. "But here I am."

Then Harry Cavanaugh did something several of them would not have expected: he smiled this time, a weary one, but one that looked genuine instead of sarcastic, and shook his head. "I'll take that under advisement, Agent Goren," he said wryly, then this time did turn on his heel and walk away.

They listened in silence until his footsteps had retreated into the ambient summer sounds of the district's street, then Nola Falacci walked up behind Olivia and patted her shoulder. "And that, Olivia, is what your daddy does."

The girl faltered, "I thought...it involved guns."

"Firearms are the last resort for any responsible person in law enforcement—your mother will tell you that," Bobby said, rejoining her and Alex. "You always try any other option first."

Olivia nodded, her eyes still on his pale face, although he wasn't certain she completely understood, when Fornell growled, "I still say he didn't deserve the apology."

Alex said quietly, "He didn't do it just for Harry. I asked him once if he'd forgiven someone who'd hurt him badly, and he said he hadn't, 'But I've moved on,' he said, 'because hating them didn't hurt them; it only hurt me.'"

"Ben was right," said Bobby, taking Olivia's hand. "It was time to let go."

. . . . .

Date:      June 13, 2023
To:          Renata L. Sandoval (renatasandoval@brentwood.co.uk)
Subject: Papa
From:     Olivia Pepin (mignon.o.pepin@xfinity.net)

...and then Ms. Falacci said that is what Papa does. It gave me chills.

We are spending most of our time indoors at museums due to smoke from the forest fires in Canada. They say it will reach England—have you any sign of it yet? I didn't know it could blow so far.

Did you know that along with a Mother's Day in America there's a Father's Day, too? It's coming up on Sunday. But two days ago Mama and I went to a wonderful bookshop that is in the Smithsonian Institute's American History Museum. It was very easy to find something for Papa there!


. . . . .

<— Grace Chadwick, Robert Goren
      June 18, 2023

Tobias told me you and Cavanaugh had it out last week when you and Alex were here for your book signings.

What the hell did you do to him? Today he walked in and APOLOGIZED TO ME.

Is this on the level or do I need to do major-level Apocalypse prep?

Enjoy the peace, Grace. Missed you at the signing. Two books should be on their way to you via our agent. I'll mail you a couple of signed bookplates to go with them.

. . . . .

Date:       July 5, 2023
To:          Renata L. Sandoval (renatasandoval@brentwood.co.uk)
Subject: Happy Independence Day!
From:     Olivia Pepin (mignon.o.pepin@xfinity.net)

...had a jolly time in Atlanta yesterday! Papa asked if I wished to go to the zoo or to the aquarium, and I chose the latter. You walk in a perspex tunnel amongst the fish! There are sharks and beluga whales, and also penguins, otters, and sea lions (which are different from seals; sea lions have ears and bark). I was able to pet a manta ray, which do not sting you. They feel sort of silky. In the evening we went to Centennial Olympic Park (built for the 1996 Olympic Games). They had a fireworks show and music by the Atlanta Symphony. I played in the fountains that look like Olympic rings with the other children, and got quite wet, but it was so hot—it was 33C here!—no one cared. I lost count of how many times Mama put sunblock on us.

There are photos and a lot more details in our blog!

Must stop before Mama catches me!


. . . . .

Date:       July 21, 2023
To:          Elizabeth E. Hogan (eehogan@nycnet.net)
Subject: Mom Milestone!
From:     Alex Eames (alexandra.v.eames@xfinity.net)
CC:         Olivia M. Benson (olivia.m.benson@nypd.org)

I said something so très évident to Olivia this morning that she rolled her eyes at me. I feel like I have arrived!


. . . . .

- Outside Cheyenne, WY; July 27, 2023 -

"So what do you think?"

Alex was in her usual seat on driving days, the passenger seat of the bus, which came equipped with a pull-out desk for her laptop. But that evening, she was more preoccupied with the weather ahead of them than with writing or surfing: the western sky was full not with the flame-colored glow of a setting sun, but with a boiling mass of dark clouds, steel gray and dark gray swirled with black, lightning flashes darting cloud-to-cloud in closely-timed rhythm.

"Not to alarm you," Bobby said dryly from behind them, "but the last time I saw a sky like that I was in Korea and a typhoon was bearing down on us."

Michael nodded, shifting the bus over one lane. "I'm taking the next exit. There's a Walmart there. If the tornado sirens go off, you can go inside to take shelter."

"Tornado sirens?" said Olivia behind them. She and Donna were standing in the doorway to the bunk room, and the latter said, "It's looking pretty ominous out there."

"Where tornadoes are common, they have neighborhood sirens," Bobby explained to Olivia. "If a tornado is sighted, the siren will go off warning people to get to shelter."

The girl's eyes fixed on the roiling grey-and-black sky ahead, and she stiffened when lightning forked in a brilliant arc across the horizon. "A shelter? Like a storm cellar? Will there be a twister like in The Wizard of Oz?"

"The Walmart might have some type of storm shelter," Donna said, understanding.

"That's what I figured. Of course, it's probably just a bad storm," Michael said smoothly, pulling off the highway. "I lived out here for seven years. They come up very quickly, then rumble away. Still, it's safer that we stop awhile until it lets up. How late does the KOA office stay open?"

"I'll text them," Alex said, pulling out her phone. "Let them know we'll be late due to the storm and what we should do if we arrive after hours."

Olivia walked forward until she was next to Bobby, and he placed a light hand on her shoulders. "Do thunderstorms bother you, Olivia?"

"No," she said, but she sounded uncertain, leaning against him.

"This one will probably be loud," he advised, "but everything will be okay."

The bus shuddered as a blast of wind caught it broadside. Bandit, who had been fluffed up like a little bird brooch just above Alex's collarbone, looked up, startled, slicking his feathers down, eyes enormous. She gently covered his wings with her hand. "Time to go back inside, little bug." The bird squirmed and bit at her thumb, then froze as thunder rumbled overhead.

"Better put him in his box, Eames," Bobby said shortly as they exchanged glances. Then he turned and extracted the blue carry box from under the sofa cushions, tipped a small scoop of seed into the food bowl in the box, and finally transferred the water dispenser from its cage mount to the carry box. In one smooth motion, Alex placed the budgie safely inside, where he immediately hopped over to peck at the bell toy in the opposite corner from the food.

"Kitten–" Donna said softly. Bobby pivoted, saw Olivia shivering; Sam was already beside her, shoving his head under her hand, his reassuring bulk pressing next to her.

"Guys, I have to make a tight turn up ahead," Michael said tensely. "Sit. Now."

He steered the bus through late afternoon traffic on the exit road lined with fast-food establishments and shopping centers, every parking lot light already illuminated in the rapidly-consuming darkness of the storm, then slid into a left turn lane just as fat drops of rain began to plop against the windshield, exploding outward in circular splatters as they took seats on the long sofa. Alex and Bobby bracketed Olivia like a protective barrier, with Donna on Bobby's right, and Sam shifted his position so that he rested his head in Olivia's lap, his watchful eyes on Bandit, whose carry box was set in Bobby's lap, as the bird reached between the bars trying to get to Sam's whiskers.

When the traffic light changed, Michael gunned the engine and twisted the steering wheel. The bus jerked forward so quickly that Olivia gasped. Alex put her arm around her and held on as the bus jounced over the uneven surface of a portion of road being repaved and threaded its way through orange-and-white barrels into the Walmart parking lot.

Now the rain began to lash down, but Michael emitted a low chuckle. "Well, that was actually helpful. Now I know which is the lee side."

With a few deft movements of the steering wheel, he had backed into the alley to the right of the Walmart, and the shaking from the wind abated, but thunder roared overhead. Olivia buried her head against Alex's shoulder while Bobby rubbed her back.

"The sound of thunder is j-just from overheated air caused by lightning," Bobby said conversationally, "and the lightning itself...um...from static buildup in the clouds."

Alex flashed a look at him, but Michael switched off the ignition, turned casually, and said with a small smile, "When I was tiny and thunder bothered me, my mother always said the angels were bowling."

Alex was amused imagining hulking Michael as "tiny," and Donna gave a little laugh just as lightning forked overhead, illuminating the drenching rain that drummed a frantic, metallic beat on the roof of the bus. "My mom had the same story. Charlie hated thunder, even when he was Olivia's age. He'd sit next to Mom if she was home, and when there was a big clap of thunder, she'd say, "'Now that must be a strike, don't you think, Cubby?'—she called him Cubby until he started high school—and he would nod."

The next report of thunder sounded like a rifle shot so that even Bobby jumped; Sam whined and pushed his nose under Olivia's hand. "T-That was definitely a strike for the angels."

There was a small coat cupboard between the door of the bus and the sink, and Michael reached in to fish out the rain slicker he'd stashed there and pulled it on, tugging the hood snugly over his head. "I'm going to run into the Walmart and see what they know about the storm. Hang tight. Someone close the door behind me."

Donna, the only one with free hands, sprang up to comply; when he opened the door, a whoosh of cold air swept inside, accompanied by wind-driven rain that sent wet spray across the width of the bus. Olivia flinched as the droplets struck her cheek. He plunged into the gloom with a flashlight while Donna pressed the button to close the door behind him. It didn't want to shut, and Bobby started to set Bandit's box down to help her, but she shouted over the wind, "I have it!" and grabbed the manual lever and pushed the door closed in that manner.

"Brrrrr," she said, shivering, snatching her hoodie from the cupboard to put over her rain-splashed body. As she returned to her seat, she picked up Bandit's flannel cage cover and handed it to Bobby, for the little bird was crouched frozen, wide-eyed at the rattling of rain on the roof and the keening sound of the wind, and Bobby murmured, "It's all right, buddy," and put the flannel partially around him so that he would calm down. Alex felt behind her with her left hand and pulled out one of the soft throws Donna used at bedtime from their storage area, draping it around herself and Olivia.

Even in the lee of the building, they could hear the wind begin to wail around them; feel the bus juddering from side to side in its blast. Then Michael pounded on the bus door; Donna leaped to her feet once more to let him in—he had to throw his bulk against the manual lever to get the door to close. The bus driver sloughed off the rain slicker, the lower part of his pants and sneakers drenched.

"Big storm," he finally reported, "but no signature hooks on the radar yet. There's a tornado watch in effect, and if the sirens go off, it means there's a tornado warning and we need to take cover. The Walmart has blankets and hot beverages ready for anyone who takes shelter."

Olivia said timidly, "But they won't allow Bandit and Sam inside, will they?"

Alex opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. Michael said swiftly, "I'll be staying with them, Olivia. They'll be fine."

"They're our responsibility–" Bobby protested.

"Agent Goren!" Michael remonstrated brusquely. "I am not just your driver, I was tasked by Special Agent Saltonstall to protect you and your family and her daughter. I let my guard down in D.C. and won't do it again. If the siren goes off, you will leave the bus with your wife and your daughter and Ms. Hogarth. Or I will make you do it."

Another double blast of thunder rattled the bus. Olivia gave a little scream and burrowed into Alex's arms, and he laid a comforting hand between her shoulder blades. "We're here, Olivia. It's all right."

The sound of rain on the roof changed from drumming to clattering, and Michael, calm once again, sank into the driver's seat to switch on the bus headlights. "Thought so. Hail."

Even Olivia was curious enough to peek from the shelter of Alex's arms; they watched mesmerized as the tiny chunks of ice struck the asphalt parking lot, bouncing like small white rubber balls that increased in size by the second. The thunder exploded again, and the parking lot lights snuffed; the lightning flashed brilliantly once more; the bus swayed a little, the wind howling against it, and the combined rain and hail began to move horizontally, scouring the left side of the bus. A police car's bubble lights blossomed in the Walmart parking lot and its siren wailed as a flash of blue streaked in watery blurriness in front of them. Sam howled, and Alex murmured, "God keep them safe."

Perhaps four or five minutes later, Bobby cocked his head. "Is it me–"

"No," Alex said in relief, "it's moving away."

The hail had already slowed, then stopped, shining like drifts of glass shards in the headlights of the tour bus. Gradually the drumming rain slowed, reduced to pattering, and the sky lightened around them. Michael turned off the headlights, and they could see the rain slow, spit, then stop. Five minutes later, the darkest clouds had moved away, and above them spread vivid blue sky.

Alex tenderly scooped her hand into the carry box and returned Bandit to his cage. "There you go," she whispered, and the budgie hurried to his mirror to peck it. After she transferred the water dispenser, the five exited the bus. The storm clouds, lightning still forking through them, were racing east as if late to an appointment. The sun soon melted the hail, and steam rose in white mist above the pavement.

Olivia finally felt safe enough to take two steps away from Alex and Bobby, tilting her head back, regarding the seemingly endless expanse of blue sky above them. A sparrow chirped from the roof of the Walmart and then swooped past them, just as shoppers began to emerge from the store, laughing or talking on their phones.

"I think I shall leave traveling to Oz to Dorothy," she said soberly.

Bobby rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. "I'm glad. We'd miss you if you were gone."

. . . . .

<— Lizzie, Alex
       August 17, 2023


Michael's keeping our options open. We may have to cancel or change. Stay tuned...

. . . . .

- San Simeon, CA; August 18, 2023 -

She couldn't sleep. Finally, she arose, gently brushing his arm with light fingers, then padded silently past the bunk room where Olivia, with luck, was having sweet dreams. No nightmares, not even insomnia for several weeks—but then they were always on the go. Until this morning even she had been down for the count until breakfast time.

In the main room, Michael was still isolated in his upper bunk with the curtain closed, and Donna was snuggled deep under blankets on the plush sofa. Sam raised his head, but she whispered, "Shhh" and the dog huffed, reversed his position, then settled back to sleep. Alex tiptoed to the pantry, extracted a packet of PopTarts, then returned to the bedroom, fitting herself cross-legged into the narrow floor space between her side of the bed and the bathroom partition. Next she switched on her laptop, screen faced away from the bed. For a second, she was tempted by the birds shrilling their song outside, and peeked through the window blinds at her left elbow. It was just dawn, and the sky was washed pale blue-grey in the east with a watercolor line of pale yellow limning the horizon despite clouds building up south of them.

They were parked at a campground near Hearst Castle, which they would visit later that day. The PopTart package rustled faintly as she extracted one, then she plugged headphones into the laptop and surfed to CNN's website for a quick news update via a slightly erratic wifi signal. Finishing there, she settled on a current favorite go-to site and scrolled up and down.

After ten minutes, she was aware of eyes on her; when she looked up, she found Bobby lying on his stomach horizontally across the bed, chin resting on his crossed arms, watching her with amusement. "Eating junk food and spending too much time on the internet. Isn't that what we're supposed to keep Olivia from doing? What have you found, Princess Ozma, a shoe outlet?"

He hadn't called her that in weeks; trivia nights seemed so long ago. "Smartass. Go back to sleep," she said, waving her hand.

"Nah," he said, then rolled over and carefully slipped from the bed to sit beside her, awkwardly arranging himself in the narrow space, "the view here is nicer."

After he kissed her, he retrieved the laptop which had slipped from her hands. "You're re-reading our blog."

"Astute observation, Agent Goren!" she responded mischievously. "Do you realize it's been over thirteen weeks since we left home, and we'll be heading back in a little over a week?"

"Yes, Captain Eames, I have kept track of time. May I have the other PopTart?"

"Feel free."

"So," he said, taking a bite out of it, "homesick or already sad the tour is nearly over?"

"Both, I think." She leaned against him as he scrolled through the blog from the beginning. Donna had posted a photo of them inside the tour bus when they arrived in New York, Olivia sitting between them on the sofa looking a bit anxious, Bandit nibbling on the collar of Alex's blouse, Sam asleep at Bobby's feet. And then she was quiet suddenly, and he watched her eyes drift to the scar on his right calf and her right finger trace it. He tilted his head to meet her eyes, commented, "Been quite a year, hasn't it?"

She sighed in affirmation, then continued, "I wasn't very enthusiastic when the girls suggested this, but now keeping the blog is almost the favorite part of the trip for me. It's like the photo album you always look through at your aunt's house. You can almost watch Olivia grow week by week. And look how her writing confidence has improved! Ah—Korean place in Chicago."

"Also known as post-New-York Zes visit number three."

"Currently on sixteen."

"I think he'll skip Vegas, but I'll wager even money on L.A. Did you catch the watermelon-stone stud in his ear the other day?"

"Doesn't work as well on him as on Donna, though. Olivia with a Clydesdale in St. Louis. Olivia at Opryland...did she even know what that was about?"

"If she didn't, she knows now. Who would have guessed Michael was a country and western fan? And the zipline in Pigeon Forge–"

"Why did we even agree to that?" Alex put her hands over her eyes, then grinned at him. "It was fun."

"But never again. Their Titanic exhibit was interesting." Now he scrolled, then laughed at one of the photos from Virginia. "I didn't think Ari and Kaye were going to let her leave!"

There was one photo that Donna had posted which had been e-mailed to them from the bookstore in Washington, D.C.. Harry Cavanaugh hovered clearly in the background. "You sorry you did that?"

"No," he said, swallowing the last of the PopTart. "He apologized to Cris, too, did I tell you?"

"Yes. But how long will this fit of repentance last?"

"And I thought I was a cynic! It's been his choice. Were you surprised when Olivia said she'd rather do Universal than Magic Kingdom?"

"Because she wanted to see the Wizarding World more than she wanted to see Mickey Mouse? I'm hip."

"At least they got it right and sorted her into Ravenclaw. And we made it to EPCOT, which is the best part, even with the annoying movie inserts they've put into the rides. Why did we let her pose with a monkey in Tampa?"

"Donna told me the monkey at the 'Animal Encounter' picked her out." She pointed. "Ah, here's you 'flying' the Space Shuttle model at Cape Canaveral. It was as bad as the time you got in the Ferrari." He chuckled. Another scroll, and she laughed. "And Bandit hanging like a bat from the curtains. I hope they don't mind that they're going to have to replace that curtain near the dining table. He's gnawed the hem ragged every time I wasn't looking."

"C'mon, Eames, the average sports figure who rides this thing probably does twenty times the damage of Mr. Flirt."

"I love the photo Donna got of Olivia at the edge of the cornfield in Nebraska, with her looking upward. She just couldn't believe how much sky there was."

"It made me agoraphobic."

"City kid," she teased. "And Salt Lake. Olivia had to get a picture of the salt flats and send it to Renata, Laurent, and Luisa. Poor Luisa probably doesn't know what to make of the United States."

"We followed it up with a Space Needle picture," he pointed out, "and the long line at the original Starbucks."

"Why in God's name would you wait on line that long for such terrible coffee?"

He pointed to a shot she had taken of Olivia, her arms outstretched like a tree, dwarfed by redwoods at Muir Woods. "I think I'd like a print of that."

"It's a wow picture all right. And our photo at Fisherman's Wharf and then at Coit Tower. How many things have we actually gone 'up' on this trip?"

"I've lost count." He smiled at her. "I can tell you something I haven't lost count of."

"What's that, Oscar Diggs?"

"We have about seventy-five minutes left until breakfast..."

She laughed, then shut off her laptop. "I'm open for alternative ideas, my Wizard."

. . . . .

- Las Vegas, NV; August 21, 2023 -

Alex finally left Bobby chatting with a former colleague, checked that her visitor's badge was secure on her sleeveless blouse, then stepped briskly from the badging area into the building proper.

Bobby had enthusiastically taken up the invitation to the Las Vegas crime lab, the second largest in the United States save for the FBI's own at Quantico, which he'd Visited multiple times. Alex had dryly observed that one crime lab pretty much looked like another, but indulged him, only to have a silver-haired, craggy-faced gent waylay them with a pleased exclamation of "Bobby!" just as they had left the visitor badging desk. Alex was used to it by now: everyone knew Bobby, or he knew everyone; she wasn't sure which. But after being introduced to the man—"Steven Erskine," he had told her when shaking her hand, and Alex was given to understand he was second-generation FBI—Bobby had perversely decided to gab about old times. She had finally surrendered and gone on ahead. The guard had mentioned a display area to the left, so she headed in that direction until a woman whose pleasant face looked familiar walked briskly toward her from a corridor on the right. She was in her mid-fifties, Alex estimated, with shoulder-length dark hair and introspective eyes—she knew her from somewhere...

Just as the woman came abreas vit of her, then slowed, stopped, and finally gave a sunny smile of recognition, it clicked. "You're Alexandra Eames, aren't you?" n said first. "Gil and I saw you on Good Morning, Las Vegas today. You've got a book out, Ice Blue, about the NYPD."

"Guilty as charged. And you're Sara Sidle," Alex said. "I recognize you from the back cover of the book you co-wrote with Dr. Grissom."

"Last Stand of the Hammerhead is Gil's book," Sidle answered, looking slightly abashed.

"But the photos were yours," Alex countered. "And the introduction."

"Yeah, well, that's true." Sidle gave a grin. "But the heart of it is Gil's." Then she added, "I loved your husband's book."

Alex raised her eyebrows, guessing shrewdly, "And I'll bet you were the one who talked Dr. Grissom into reading it."

"Also guilty as charged," Sidle said with an impish look, shrugging. "But the review really is Gil's. He enjoyed it once he'd begun—he was up until two a.m. finishing it. Most of his reading tends to be work-oriented, and he's very single-minded about it."

Alex snickered. "You have no idea!"

"I was about to pick up coffee for me and bring some back for Gil. Walk with me?"

Alex spared one more look down the corridor, but Bobby had still not appeared. "Why not?" Then she asked, "I'd read that you and Dr. Grissom were pretty much out on your boat full time, doing research and conservation of marine life. What brings you back to Las Vegas?"

"There's a forensics symposium this week at UNev, which is still on despite the storm! Gil's doing a presentation, and we stopped by to say hello to an old colleague of ours, Catherine Willows. She's been filling in..." and the two women ambled in the direction of the cafeteria.

A few minutes later, Bobby, scanning the corridor ahead of him, arrived at the spot where Alex and Sidle had met, checking out the wall to his left where mounted three-dimensional lettering pointed to several destinations, including the cafeteria, then glanced right, where a tall, white-haired man with a full beard and eyeglasses was approaching, looking slightly perturbed. Bobby knew him immediately. "Dr. Grissom?"

It was almost as if in his brown study the second man had not even noticed another person in the hall. "Yes?"

Bobby recalled reading that Grissom was usually reserved, so simply outstretched his right hand, saying briefly, "I'm Robert Goren. I enjoy your books."

Grissom shook his hand, a puzzled expression flashing across his face, then recognition dawned. "Goren. You were on Good Morning, Las Vegas earlier today—you promoted your book, The Refuge."

Bobby nodded. "A book you very generously did an advance review for. Thank you."

Grissom shrugged. "I have to be blunt, Mr. Goren—my wife talked me into reading it." Then he added, "Oh, the review is my own. Once I was a few pages into it, I did enjoy it. Sara—not to mention most of my colleagues—will tell you I tend to get immersed in my work-related reading to the exclusion of all but a few favorites."

"I've...heard the same from my wife. No problem," Bobby grinned. "Speaking of Ms. Sidle—you haven't happened to have seen my wife in the last few minutes, have you?"

"Except for you, I haven't seen anyone here that I didn't know, but I'm presently in the same straits. Sara left our office almost thirty minutes ago to get some coffee and–"

Alex's voice, half laughing, floated up the hallway, "So Bobby said to the commissioner," and then her voice lowered, followed by a peal of laughter and an "Oh, no!" from Sara Sidle, then "He didn't."

"He certainly did! I thought Captain Ross was going to murder him on the spot!"

Now both men could see the pair ambling toward them, each carrying a large covered paper cup in one hand and sipping out of a second one as they walked.

A smile suddenly animated Grissom's face. "You know, Mr. Goren, I have the oddest feeling our wives have bonded."

"'Bob,'" was the response. "And it certainly looks like it."

"It's 'Gil' or 'Griss,' whichever you prefer." He regarded the two women enjoying their chat. "Should we join them?"

Bobby caught Alex's attention, and she smiled. "I don't think we can avoid it."

Fifteen minutes later, they were seated in a disused office as Las Vegas CSU personnel bustled to and fro outside the full-length glass windows, trading "war stories" when Donna appeared with Olivia trotting next to her, both properly badged. The latter, wearing blue shorts with a purple tank top and matching sandals, now had an LVPD CSU baseball cap perched upon her head and was chattering about the "strange objects" exhibit at the front entrance when she spied them. "There are Mama and Papa...who's that with them?"

"That's the infamous Dr. Grissom that we've been talking about, the one who studies insects. And that must be his partner, Sara Sidle."

Olivia danced away from Donna and pushed open the door. "Hello...may we come in?"

Alex smiled not only because it was Olivia, but because Bobby's face lit up when he saw her. What he always wanted: a home, a family, someone to love, to be loved. And she realized she felt it just as fiercely.

"Come on in—did you get your ice cream?"

"Oh, yes! I tried the red bean flavor. It was...interesting–" Her questioning eyes were on the two strangers in the room. "Donna says you're Dr. Grissom and Ms. Sidle."

"Yes, we are," Sara said with a smile. "And you're Olivia and this is Ms. Hogarth, your tutor."

"Bob was telling us, Ms. Hogarth," Grissom said with interest, "that you're a high-school teacher who used one of my forensics books with your students?"

"My AP seniors. It's hard to keep their attention sometimes—they're either distracted by their phones or the school social dramas. But they all love a good murder mystery," Donna said with a smile.

Olivia asked seriously, "What is the oddest insect you've ever seen, Dr. Grissom?"

Grissom bowed his head, regarding her over his glasses. "Have you ever heard of a Madagascar hissing cockroach?"

"No," was the child's response. "Have you made a study of them?"

Sara stifled a laugh. "Even better, he has a live one."

Alex made a face when Olivia looked intrigued. "How big is it?"

"Ten centimeters long."

Donna and Olivia said in one breath, "Wow!" and Olivia asked, "Is it here? May we see it?" Then she paused and added hastily. "It's in a box, isn't it?"

"It has its own little display tank," Sara answered for him, sketching the dimensions with hand movements. "It's in Catherine's office."

"That's good." Olivia looked sideways at Alex. "I don't mind if it's in a tank and I think it would reassure Mama."

Alex chuckled, "A four-inch long roach? It certainly does."

Grissom was already on his feet. "I'll show you then. Sara...do you think Alex...might prefer to visit one of the labs?"

"I think both of us would," was Sara's teasing response, then asided to Alex, "Thank goodness he didn't want it on Ishmael with us!"

"She's no fun," Grissom said with an unexpected broad grin.

"What about you?" Donna said to Bobby. "Forensics or exotic wildlife?"

"The best of both worlds? I'll...um...take a brief peek at the roach and then wander along to forensics."

"You're no fun either, Papa," Olivia said, trying not to laugh.

. . . . .

From "On the Road with the Gorens"
August 22, 2023

Bobby: I spoke very little of my father in The Refuge. We had a contentious relationship, especially as I grew older. At the same time, he was a gregarious man—everyone knew Billy Goren and liked him: raconteur, bon vivant, life of the party. Among the things my dad favored were horses, primarily the kind you could pick for win, place, or show, but we also watched a lot of Westerns when I was growing up. I remember him noting the "points" on Trigger and the rest of the film horses.

I wonder how many Eastern kids discovered the natural beauty of the Western United States by watching Western films and television series: Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park. If you were like me, you looked those places up—saw the majesty of the landscapes, hoped maybe that someday you'd get to see them, so you could truly comprehend them.

I saw the Grand Canyon today. I still can't comprehend it.

You see photos—and years ago, all you had were snapshots, postcards, and the odd travelogue with fading proto-Technicolor, now there are high-definition photos everywhere online. Drone flyovers now see what your eyes do, and note the sprawling width, the varied colors of the layers of earth, the play of the shadows as the sun shifts across the sky and turns those layers different colors. In person, the depth, the breadth, the various hues: your eyes see it, your brain registers it, but it's still difficult to process. I have a geology textbook at my fingertips and can tell you from what material every one of those layers is composed, the color, how far down from the rim it is, what plants grow on the rim, and what animals live here.

But describe the Grand Canyon? I've never been to a location where I couldn't find descriptive words. It's...humbling.

Alex: If he can't find the words, I won't even try. Even between rainshowers it was magnificent. Check out my photos, it's the best I can do.

Olivia: I kept thinking if there wasn't an English word to describe it, there must be one in French. But there isn't. Oh, Ana, Renata, Laurent, Luisa, I wish you could have seen this!

Donna Hogarth: [speechless]
(My best friend Irené will tell you this is not how I roll.)

. . . . .

Date:       August 22, 2023
To:           Elizabeth E. Hogan (eehogan@nycnet.net)
Subject:  Without Words
From:      Alex Eames (alexandra.v.eames@xfinity.net)

Dear Liz,

You can see today's blog entry about the Grand Canyon visit.

What Bobby said. I can only give you impressions: colors—all shades of greens, reds, yellows, browns, whites. Sculpted rock protruding, or inset. Some smooth-edged, some sharp. But if you ask me bluntly, 'Allie, what's it like?' My brain fails me, my tongue...inadequate.

I'm surprised we made it at all, but that was Michael's doing—his family was originally from "back East," but his father moved them to Arizona for work, later to Wyoming, so he's visited GC at least a dozen times. He was determined that Olivia see it, even if it rained, and after we got ready for bed last evening, he pulled all the plugs and drove through the night to get us there—good thing since later the South Rim entrance flooded and closed for over six hours.

We had a couple of rain-free hours and at least one rainbow, which I missed getting a photo of.

Then there was tonight.

Michael kept checking the sky and the hourly forecast while Bobby made burgers for dinner while I whipped up some salad, and as we ate, Michael asked, "Would you like to see something else mind-blowing today?"

Donna blurted out (and then apologized afterward), "Don't tell me you have something better?"

He smiled at us—if one didn't know Michael you could call it 'sinister looking,' but that's just his face—and shrugged. "Said it was something else mind-blowing. Not necessarily better."

We were curious and agreed. He advised us to nap, that we would drive there later on, and it would take a while, and he finished his burger and salad, then clambered into his bunk, and fell asleep.

Donna shrugged and sacked out on the sofa; I spent some time with Bandit, then noticed Bobby and Olivia had vanished. Found them in our bedroom, Olivia asleep on my edge of the bed, Bobby leaned against the headboard having nodded off over a book; I crawled next to Olivia and, like them, was out like a light. When we heard the bus start up, and the three of us wandered into the main area just as Donna asked, "Where are we going?"

Michael just grinned at the lot of us. "You'll see."

We left the boundaries of the Canyon and the tourist-related mishmash until there was nothing around us but scrubland, just as the sun was setting. He parked at a rest area that was simply an open stone building where you can picnic, facing the windshield west so we could watch the sunset—there were enough clouds so that it looked like fire (more pictures coming)—and we ate dessert there.

When it was completely dark, he said, "Olivia, please make sure there are no other lights on in the bus, will you?" She was fidgety enough by that time that she went at a run, turning out the light in our bedroom and her bunkroom. When she came back, he lowered the main lights until we could just make our way to the door. "Don't look up yet," he said, as he gestured us outside. So there we stood in a bunch—when Olivia peeked upward, Donna laughed and put her hands over her eyes—and Michael came to the foot of the stairs with a flashlight in one hand, just in case—and extinguished every light.

Outside, darkness was...absolute. I was reminded of the bathroom we had in Inwood, the windowless interior one. We'd go in and shut the door and scare ourselves in the dark, remember? But this was darkness. A dark that enveloped your face like a warm black towel. That swallowed you—but at the same time-

"Oh, God," said Donna. "Look up."

Remember Mr. and Mrs. Trimble's rickety beach cottage—the place Dad rented the summer before Jack started school? All alone on the beach, nothing close to it, just the lights of the Hamptons in the distance, and we looked up and saw all the stars, dozens of constellations, nothing like the dozen or so faint stars we could make out from our backyard, so clear that we could even vaguely make out the curve of the Milky Way?

More stars than that, Liz. Layer upon layer of them, overlapping, shining, blazing. In science class they talk about red dwarf stars and blue stars and yellow ones, but here you could see every tint a star could be, with the whole Milky Way like fine mist curving over our head. You've always said, 'Thank goodness for Allie, at least we have one person with a sensible head.' Well, your sensible sister is telling you now that I will swear some of those stars were dancing.

There is a little altar boy left yet in Bobby; behind me, I heard him quote, "'When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?'"

Donna came back with Shakespeare: "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"

Michael quoted, "'Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop'd, I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.'" (Walt Whitman, Bobby told me later.)

"What do you think, Min?" Bobby asked Olivia, using the nickname her best friend at school called her. When she didn't answer it frightened me. "Olivia?"

Michael immediately turned up the bus lights, and we all realized why she didn't answer; she was still looking up, tears streaming down her face; when I touched her arm, she could only say in French, "C'est si beau. Si beau. Très beau."

I tried all sorts of settings on my camera after Bobby walked her back inside—digital cameras are such a blessing; you can just delete all the trash pics!—and managed a few with my tripod that I think are adequate before the clouds returned and it began to drizzle. I urge you to find some Hayden Planetarium pics; maybe that will get it across, and I'll post the ones I took. They can't duplicate what we saw.

Olivia cried in Bobby's arms for almost a quarter of an hour; he finally sang "Touch and Go" to her and she quieted. Michael headed back to a campground we had passed a half-hour earlier, and she took her shower and got ready for bed, and Bobby read her the rest of My Friend Flicka, which left all of us teary-eyed.

Donna said to Michael, "Mind officially blown."

Dearest Lizzie, I wish you—and Steve and Eddie, and Jack and Patty and Ellie and Sophie—love like all the stars in the sky.


. . . . .

From "On the Road with Gorens"
August 24, 2023

Olivia: We went to Disneyland today! My maman took me to Euro Disney last year, but I loved visiting Walt Disney's original park. Papa told me that originally Frontierland had stagecoaches, and I was sad not to be able to ride in one. Ana! I had my photo taken with Elsa!

Alex: Bucket list checkoff—got to ride the teacups!

Bobby: We dared each other to ride Space Mountain, and all have survived. But this Brooklyn boy still prefers the Cyclone at Coney Island. ;-)

Olivia: Papa, you sound like Mr. Hogarth!


Matthew Hogarth: And so it begins.

. . . . .

- Los Angeles, CA; August 25, 2023 -


Penelope Saltonstall, sitting next to Bobby as the clerks finished setting up for their book signing in Burbank, laughed. "There she is at last."

Alex gave a little quirk to the stack of copies of Ice Blue on her side of the table, then followed the sound of the enthusiastic female voice that had just called out. A smiling face was disappearing and reappearing behind the crowd at the bookstore, her long plait of black hair swinging as she moved, and then her whole face appeared, beaming with joy. Bobby stood up to meet her just before she threw her arms around him for a hug, her brown eyes alight. She was not much taller than Alex, wearing a bright red tank top, burgundy shorts, and red Crocs. "Oh, man, you're a sight for sore eyes. Jennie, hurry up! Wow, Bobby, you have a tan. I've never seen you with a tan!"

Behind her, a slightly taller young woman with a tawny complexion and black hair done in an almost 40s-era Victory Roll approached at a more leisurely pace, grinning at her partner's enthusiasm. "Kare, I think Ms. Eames will have something to say if you suffocate him."

Karin Hirahara laughed in delight. "Jennie, this is my former partner—if you haven't guessed—Robert Goren. Bob, this is my wife, Jennifer."

"Congratulations in person, Rocket Lady," Bobby said fondly as she finally freed him from a strangulation hug. "Glad to meet you, Jennifer. And as Karin already knows, this is Alexandra Eames–"

"Who looks much less faded than in her Polaroid," Karin teased, shaking Alex's hand.

"Older, too," Alex said with tongue in cheek, knowing Karin was referring to the photo Bobby had kept on his desk during his eight years with the FBI.

Karin looked at her fondly, chuckling, "Not that much at all. Still a very pretty lady. But then I always tried to look at you through Bobby's eyes."

Alex smiled warmly. "'Rocket Lady'?"

"Masters in Chemistry," Karin answered. "Told people I'd either work for NASA or the FBI. You can see which I chose. Worked with the bomb squad for awhile. My uncle used to call me 'Rocket Girl' and I mentioned that when I introduced myself to Ben and Bob. Bobby said I wasn't a girl, I was a woman, and he started calling me 'Rocket Lady.'" She inclined her chin toward the poster behind the signing table, which announced in large letters: TONIGHT'S SALE PROCEEDS GO TO MAUI RELIEF. "Nice idea."

Alex nodded. "We did it in Vegas, too. People even gave us casino chips. Made over two grand that way."

Now Karin waggled fingers at Saltonstall, who smiled at her indulgently. "Hi, Boss Lady. Oh, and you'll never guess, Bobby—I got an e-mail of apology from Harry Cavanaugh. Did you blackmail him back in D.C. or have you tried something new of that voodoo that you do?"

He shook his head, smiling broadly. "I'll explain later. Let me introduce you to the rest of the entourage first," Bobby said, but Karin answered happily, "No need. Jennie and I have followed the blog since the beginning—glad to meet you, Ms. Hogarth!" she enthused, offering a freshly-manicured hand toward Donna.

Olivia's eyes opened wide. "You have dolphins on your fingernails! Swimming in the ocean!"

"I know!" Karin replied, eyes dancing. "My stylist found the design."

Olivia pivoted on her feet to meet Alex's eyes, but she shook her head. "But Mama–"

"Your fingernails aren't the right size for this design, Olivia," Karin sympathized. "But while your mom and dad are signing books I can show you how to do the ombre effect in the background that makes the ocean," and she met Alex's eyes with a question in her own.

"That I can go for." Alex agreed.

Bobby said with a sigh, "She's only nine–"

Karin rolled her eyes and did an exaggerated facepalm. "Fathers, I swear! Bobby, it's 2023. Kindergarteners use fingernail polish these days. May Jennie and I take her to get the polish for it?"

Bobby bit his lip as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, Rocket Lady, I can't say I don't trust you. Go on." He eyed Olivia. "You are required to behave well for both Karin and Jennifer."

"Yes, sir," Olivia said, but her eyes were glowing.

And then he smiled at her. "Now, shoo—and have fun!"

. . . . .

The final book signing was complete. Bobby had been reunited with his cousin Molly that evening, and all of them—including Zes Hastings, to Bobby and Alex's amusement—had a lively seafood dinner on Saturday night. On the following day, Michael would point the bus toward Interstate 15, to connect with I-70 west of Denver and follow that route to Philadelphia, thence to New York City, and finally home to Milbury. They might do a little sightseeing along the way, but chiefly would wind down in preparation for the first day of school, autumn, and Olivia's first Halloween in the States. In e-mails, Ana was already talking about costumes.

At the book signing the previous evening, Penelope Saltonstall had referred them to a favorite beach. "Way before Disney thought of breaking ground in Orange County," she'd told them, Fortunato's Landing had played host to a small amusement park, but all that remained of the attraction was a parking lot, threaded with crazy-paving cracks, weeds struggling to eke out an existence between them. The shore was rocky, so sunbathers eschewed it, and due to the vagaries of ocean currents, the surfing was poor. It still had an old boardwalk paralleling the shoreline, which ragtag volunteers called "Friends of the Landing" kept up as well as possible, and a string of small shops—fair foods, shell shop, and several others—still did business at the location; families looking for a calmer time than at the crowded, more popular beaches, and old-timers who remembered the sunshine days of the postwar era and 1950s still liked to spend time there.

This particular Saturday night, the venerable parking lot was partially occupied by a traveling carnival, and the air was redolent with the scents of popcorn, cotton candy, and machine oil. Although it was Saturday, the tropical storm earlier in the week had resulted in a thinner crowd; however, a band had still set up to play music: two jean-and-tie-dyed clad men with guitars, a woman drummer in a sunset-colored caftan and turban, and the short-haired vocalist in rainbow tunic and bellbottoms, who sang in a pleasing alto. Like the band that played at the Dark Crystal, they had a varied repertoire that ranged from classic show tunes to techno; when Alex, Bobby, and Olivia had arrived, they'd been playing an instrumental version of "Purple Rain" which segued into "Daydream Believer," and, as they stopped to get funnel cakes for dessert (Zes having treated them to dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse earlier), the vocalist began crooning a smoky version of "Begin the Beguine."

In the lights illuminating the shop windows of the faded pastel wooden structures, Alex had to smile at their appearance, dressed in nondescript shirts and shorts and tennis shoes like everyone else. Would anyone even recognize the trio as the three Easterners "dressed to the nines" in Burbank yesterday? As Karin had noted at the book signing, Bobby was more tanned (even with constant application of sunscreen) than she'd ever seen him, and Olivia's hair had lightened a shade. Indeed, when Alex had looked into the mirror that morning, she'd discovered long-forgotten freckles dotting her cheeks. The air had cooled the moment the sun went down, and she removed the cloth scrunchie from her hair, leaving it free to ruffle in the comfortable breeze.

After the Disneyland visit, the carnival rides seemed old hat; still, Olivia found a caparisoned fox to ride on the wheezy old merry-go-round, and the three of them tried out the Ferris wheel as well as something called The Octopus, which had "tentacles" that whirled around while rising and falling, flashing green and violet lights into the darkness. Next, they had visited the funnel cake stand for dessert, and now they strolled the line of shops, some showing signs of recent repair, sprinkling powdered sugar all over themselves and the worn wooden sidewalk, checking out reproduction "Nantucket Valentines" and animal and seashore-themed figures made from seashells, a shop where hand-cut silhouettes were made, a cheesy photo gallery where you could stick your head through a hole in a fantastically-painted wooden flat which made it look as if you were encountering a mermaid, a stand of inexpensive seaside-themed jewelry, and next a pretty shop whose windows were decorated around the edges in Japanese pictograms.

"Look!" Olivia said, finishing her funnel cake and attempting to rid her hands of confectioners' sugar. "Foxes!" She had stopped carrying her stuffed fox everywhere some weeks ago but had retained her affection for the animals.

Bobby followed her gaze into the shop window, which had signage in Japanese and English: "Ishibashi Creations." "I believe those are kitsune, not foxes."

Olivia asked in her way, "What's a kit-soo-nay?"

"It's a type of magical fox whose powers increase as they get older and w-wiser." Bobby was back in librarian mode. "They're associated with Inari, a Shinto kami—a spirit—and serve as messengers. As they get older, they grow more tails, up to nine. Very smart and long-lived. They usually have a hoshi no tama, a round white ball...um...like a pearl, which some say holds their magical power."

The girl pointed to a watercolor-and-pen drawing of a mischievous-looking red fox possessed of three tails with what looked like a large pearl between its forefeet. "Like that?"

"Looks like it," Alex said with a smile. "Here, wipe your hands–" and she pulled wet wipes for all from her crossbag, feeling more like her mother than ever. "We'll clean up and then we can check it out."

They spent more than twenty minutes browsing the store, admiring the items sold by Mr. Ishibashi, his wife, and their bubbly teenage daughter Joyce Kaori, which included imported porcelain Japanese figures in traditional dress along with calligraphy in both Japanese and English framed by delicate watercolor-and-ink drawings, which were Mr. Ishibashi's specialty. Bobby saw Olivia's eyes fix on a small porcelain white-and-silver kitsune with three tails, and soon it was secured in bubble wrap and tucked into the reusable string bag Alex had carried with her. He noticed that something else briefly caught Alex's attention, but she said nothing, so they continued to check out the three other shops (a taffy store, a souvenir place with knockoff Disney products, and a small closet of a store that sold postcards), then had taken scant steps on the boardwalk when Alex halted.

"You two go on," she said. "I saw something—I'm going back for it," and, before Olivia could say anything more, added, "It's a surprise."

She turned back, and Bobby took Olivia's hand as they continued down the boardwalk. The railings were old iron pipes painted with silver enamel that had bubbled and cracked from the corrosive effect of the salt air, and, fascinated by the texture, Olivia ran the tips of her fingers lightly over the surface, feeling the sharp, ragged edges. Their pathway was strung with swags of lights with faux-vintage "Edison" light bulbs, and an elderly man with a smudged canvas bag slung over his shoulder slowly made his way down the opposite side of the railing, replacing burned-out and storm-shattered bulbs.

"Look," Olivia said, pointing out two figures strolling out near the surf, walking hand in hand. "Aren't those Donna and Zes?"

"Looks like it," Bobby said with a faraway expression in his eyes.

Olivia observed, "Zes has turned up in a lot of the same places where you and Mama have had your book signings."

"He has," Bobby said, straight-faced.

She halted, crossing her arms in front of her and tilting her head in unconscious imitation of one of his standard positions, regarding him soberly. "I'm fairly sure he likes her."

"A lot," he agreed, biting off a smile. "And I'm pretty certain she likes him a lot, too."

The two figures continued walking down the beach, and the man and child strolled for a little longer along the boardwalk, Bobby glancing back at the illuminated shops occasionally.

Out of nowhere, Olivia declared matter-of-factly, "You and Mama fibbed. Or at least you did."

Startled, he asked, "What?"

"You fibbed," she said, walking on, halting when she noticed he hadn't followed. "In Paris. You said you and Mama were worried about adopting me because you were old. That isn't true. I thought on it a long time after we finished at Disneyland. Look at all the things we've done. You both rode Space Mountain. And went on the Matterhorn. We had the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. And the...zip line? You know, in Tennessee. Old people don't do that. And hiking when we visited Ari and Kaye. And climbing the Washington Monument and–"

Bobby chuckled and motioned "Stop!" to her before she went into a complete retrospective of every active moment in the past four months, then replied soberly, "Well, maybe it was because we were...afraid. Bringing up a child is a b-big responsibility."

"You and Mama are never afraid...especially Mama!" she returned, surprised.

He lowered his voice. "We certainly were in Wyoming."

She made a face in recollection. "Me, too."

He took her hand again, and they continued along the boardwalk, but as it came to an end, the rotted final ten feet roped off and buried in drifted sand and seaweed, they stopped to lean on the railing and gaze at the Pacific Ocean, both lost in thought.

"Back home soon," Bobby finally said.

"School," Olivia responded almost glumly.

"Oh, you like school. And you know you've got this," he said, patting her shoulder.

"I know," she answered, then she smiled. "I can see Carlos and Ana again." The mischief in her eyes was apparent now. "And Noah."

"Now, look," Bobby said gravely, squatting down to her level, "please no growing up on us too soon, okay? We want to enjoy all the stages of Olivia, year by year. We only have 'nine' for another month."

"I guess that means you still don't like my fingernails," she answered in a droll voice.

He took one of her small hands in his big one, looking at the pretty design of dark blue fading into lighter blue to become white waves at the tips. It was a delicate, detailed job done by Karin with love. "I think your nails look very pretty, Miss Olivia. As long as it doesn't rush by, I think I'm going to enjoy watching you grow and change."

Her eyes became shiny, and she gave a big gulp as she stared back at him gravely. She finally said softly, "Papa?"

"What's up?"

She bit her lip and said in a confidential voice, "I love you."

For a second, he wondered if he'd heard correctly. Then he wanted to howl with joy over the steady swish of the waves. Instead, he pulled her into his arms and said softly, "I love you, too, Min."

A beat, and now he asked hesitantly, "You love your mama, too, don't you?"

"Of course, Papa!" she said, sounding slightly shocked, pulling her head back to witness his damp cheeks with some surprise.

He looked over her shoulder, shaking a blond strand of her hair from his nose. "You'll tell her?"

When he loosed his embrace, Olivia turned to see Alex rambling toward them, enjoying the breeze on her face, which looked happy and peaceful. Facing her father again, she touched Bobby's wet cheek with a tentative forefinger, then kissed him on that spot before wiggling away to dash the twenty steps to meet Alex.

"I just told Papa something, and I have to tell you, too!"

Alex tilted her head to the right, eyes crinkling as her smile broadened, wondering what breathtaking bit of trivia the child had learned in the last twenty minutes that she was so eager to impart. Was it something about seashells? Kitsune? Mermaids? Maybe funnel cakes? With anticipation, she squatted the brief distance between their heights until they were eye-to-eye. "What is it, sweetie?"

Olivia put her arms around Alex's neck to whisper, "I love you."

When, seconds later, Alex broke the tight hug she had returned, Olivia could see her eyes shimmering.

"That's better than any captain's stripes ever, dearest girl," Alex whispered, and they clung to each other another minute before Alex could collect herself, and they rejoined Bobby. His face was aglow with an expression she hadn't seen since their wedding day.

"Did you...g-get what you wanted?" he asked her, not trusting himself to say anything more.

"And more," Alex said, swallowing, then fumbled inside the string bag and withdrew a square white paper bag which she held out to the child. "I was saving this for your birthday, but-." To his surprise, she stumbled through her next words. "I saw it in the shop, but it wasn't quite right...I wanted one special quotation with the kitsune motif, but I didn't see one...so I told Joyce Kaori, and she said her father could fix that for me...and–" She set soft eyes on Olivia. "I want to give it to you now."

Olivia pulled from the paper bag a matte-framed piece of calligraphy in English. In the upper right-hand corner was Ishibashi's watercolor-and-pen kitsune with three tails and the pearl between its forefeet, identical to the one she'd pointed out in the window. In the lower left-hand corner was a smiling kitsune, its three tails protectively wrapped around a smaller kitsune. Bobby craned his neck, but couldn't quite read the graceful script between the two drawings. "What does it say?"

Olivia gulped, then read aloud,

"Not flesh of my flesh,
nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget..." and here Olivia swallowed again, "for a single minute..."

She took a breath, then finished:

"...you didn't grow under my heart
but in it."

Olivia looked intently into Alex's face. "Est-ce vrai?"

Alex solemnly drew an X with her finger on her chest. "Cross my heart."

And Bobby said quietly, extending his left hand, "Pinky swear."

They took their time retracing their steps on the boardwalk, Alex holding the string bag with the precious white parcel inside so that Olivia could walk between them, in almost a dreamlike state. The music from the quartet became louder—they had segued into Broadway show tunes, and a few people were even dancing desultorily on the sand-scoured wooden peninsula serving as a makeshift dance floor in front of the shops as they approached.

Alex said suddenly, "Is that–"

"Isn't that Ms. Saltonstall?" asked Olivia, astonished.

Bobby blinked. "It certainly is."

Penelope Saltonstall was not only there, but was "in civvies": her silvering hair was bundled in an old-fashioned snood, and she was wearing a summery cantaloupe-orange-and-red sundress with white sandals. They were equally surprised to recognize the two casually-dressed men in her company—shorts and sport shirts, sandals in the younger's case, loafers in the older man's—as her ex-husband and her son.

"Matt?" Bobby asked, perplexed. Saltonstall's mouth twitched in a maddeningly knowing grin.

Matthew Hogarth laughed. "We were warned by Penny that something 'very significant' was happening tonight."

In a few minutes Alex turned her head as the sound of crunching sand and shells became louder, and saw Donna and Zes approaching after their walk on the beach. They had been talking soberly a few seconds earlier, but now Donna arched one eyebrow in imitation of her mother, then grinned. "I warned you, Zes, that she'd figured it out!" And then she turned a bright smile on Olivia. "And look who's here, my very first choice for bridesmaid."

Olivia's mouth opened in an O as Bobby uttered a chuckled "Aha!" and Alex laughed. "Bridesmaid?"

Donna outstretched her left hand and Olivia rushed to inspect it. "It's a watermelon stone! Her favorite." She looked at Zes. "Did you know just from her nose?"

He tapped at the tourmaline stud in his left ear, which Olivia had complete missed in San Francisco, and remarked with a knowing smile, "It's considered advisable, Olivia, to establish good relations with your future in-laws from a very early date."

"But this means- But Donna, what about Maine?" Olivia asked curiously. "You said it's the only place to live. Won't you have to live in New York City?

Donna and Zes glanced at each other, then he said, "I have two assistants, Olivia, whom I pay well and trust implicitly. I can keep my small apartment in Brooklyn, and commute every so often, but the internet is a wonderful thing. I can probably do quite a lot from our own little 'dovecote' which we'll buy somewhere in York County. I might even have my own little 'lair' in the attic like a certain best-selling author I know."

"We'll have the best of both worlds," Donna assured her, "with Boston and Milbury in between," and Olivia nodded, but Alex had particularly taken note of his other words. "'A certain best-selling author-'?"

Zes grinned. "It took a few weeks, but you got your wish, Alex. The Refuge just hit number nine on the list."

Bobby stood there, speechless, until Alex put her arms around him and he held her tightly. Olivia looked from one person to another. "That is...good?"

Bobby freed one arm and scooped her into the hug, and Alex said cheerfully, "The very best—just like you."

Behind them, the band had just ended "America" from West Side Story, and Penelope gave a little backward wave of her hand. Immediately the three musicians broke into a quick musical intro, and the taller guitarist began to sing in a pleasant tenor yet another old show tune:

"I hear singing and there's no one there,
I smell blossoms and the trees are bare,"

Donna rolled her eyes. "Oh, Mother!" but Penelope and Matthew just laughed. Bobby gave Alex a little nudge; she nodded, watching the older couple's light and dark fingers intertwine.

"All day long I seem to walk on air—
I wonder why, I wonder why."

Bobby critically eyed the few people dancing. "Eames, I don't think Californians know how to dance." He loosed Olivia, smiled at her, then extended his right hand to Alex. "Let's have a couple of New Yorkers show 'em how it's done." Alex held out her hands and he swung her out into the dance area.

"I keep tossing in my sleep at night
And what's more I've lost my appetite–"

Olivia remained there, clapping hands, then Matthew Hogarth looked sideways at his ex-wife and held out his left hand. "Penny?" Donna and Charles high-fived each other as they joined the dancers.

"Stars that used to twinkle in the skies
Are twinkling in my eyes—I wonder why."

"Future Mrs. Hogarth-Hastings?" Zes asked tentatively, "would you like to dance?"

"I thought you'd never ask," said Donna.

"—I wonder why."

Now the dark-haired vocalist took a turn with the bouncier second verse.

"You don't need analyzing;
It is not so surprising
That you feel very strange, but nice..."

Charles Saltonstall looked down at Olivia. "I don't really know how to dance. I guess we'll just stay here."

She looked up at him. "I do. We learned at school. American schools are so...odd. But right now it's more fun to watch. Papa loves to dance."

"Your heart goes pitter patter,
I know just what's the matter
Because I've been there once or twice."

Scattered applause came from people at the edge of the dance area, and several more couples joined in. Bobby and Alex, spinning about in their own world, turned, and Matthew and Penelope were dancing beside them.

"Put your head on my shoulder;
You need someone who's older,
A rubdown with a velvet glove.
There is nothing you can take
To relieve that pleasant ache—
You're not sick, you're just in love."

"Robert," she said with a smile, "do you have everything you ever wanted now?"

Alex's eyes crinkled as Bobby broke into a big grin. "Yes, ma'am."


"So," Bobby asked, before they moved away, "after the first of the year, we'll be closer neighbors?"

Hogarth's face split into a broad smile. "Penny told me we couldn't fool you," he chuckled and swept her away.

Playfully, the guitarist and the singer began to sing their individual parts at the same time:

"I hear singing and there's no one there,"
            "You don't need analyzing; it is not so surprising..."
"I smell blossoms and the trees are bare,"
            "That you feel very strange but nice."
"All day long I seem to walk on air—"
            "Your heart goes pitter patter, I know just what's the matter..."

As the two couples wheeled away from each other, Alex looked at Bobby with curiosity. "What was that about?"

Bobby pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. "Later, Eames. For this one night, I love the beach. Let's enjoy it together."

And she leaned into him, content.

"I wonder why, I wonder why."
            "Because I've been there once or twice."
"I keep tossing in my sleep at night..."
            "Put your head on my shoulder; you need someone who's older,"
"And what's more I've lost my appetite–"
            "A rubdown with a velvet glove."

As they made their way around the other dancers, they saw Olivia watching, her eyes shining in the carnival lights, her face bright with promise, with Charles beside her keeping time to the music. They had only to glance at one another, then Bobby released his left hand and Alex her right, creating an opening into which they beckoned Olivia to fill. She ran to them immediately, taking their hands fast in hers, and they continued to dance.

"Stars that used to twinkle in the skies..."
            "There is nothing you can take...
"Are twinkling in my eyes..."
            "To relieve that pleasant ache—"
"I wonder why."
            "You're not sick, you're just in love."

As the dark-haired vocalist finished the song by repeating the final three lines, Bobby put a new word to it:

"There is nothing we can take..."

And Alex joined in,

"To relieve that pleasant ache—
We're not sick, we're just in love."

On their final night on tour, they danced as long as they could under the stars.

. . . . .

Olivia was half-asleep by the time they returned from the beach, but was still murmuring the chorus of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" to herself; Bobby had to sit her down in her desk chair and untie and pull off her sneakers because she was swaying back and forth drowsily, interrupting her rendition only to protest that she had to wash first.

"You can shower tomorrow morning before we leave," he said in a low voice, "just this once."

"Sing with me, Papa, pleeease," she begged as she pulled off her socks. The band had completed their set with what was their signature sign-off piece, and Olivia had been singing it ever since.

Bobby chuckled and began in a low voice, "Jeremiah was a bullfrog..."

"He was a good friend of mine..." Olivia chanted along, only stopping to warn him to turn his back, which he did obediently, as she pulled off her top and shorts and put on her nightgown. "I never understood a single word he said..."

"Shhh, you two," Alex hushed them, slipping into the room. "If Michael's asleep, you're going to wake him." She had two facecloths, soap, a towel, and a basin, and washed, rinsed, and dried Olivia's face, then hands and feet before she slipped into bed, still singing the chorus under her breath. Her hands fished automatically for Captain the stuffed fox; it was cuddled under her chin and her eyes closed. She was asleep before they'd both kissed her goodnight.

"You guys have a good time?" Michael asked from his compartment over the driver's seat as they emerged from the bunk room. He had headphones on while he watched a movie, one of the Fast and the Furious franchise from what Alex could tell.

"The best," she said fondly. "We'll give you all the details tomorrow."

Bandit made a clucking noise from his cage, so Alex lifted one corner of his cage cover to whisper, "Sorry, little bug. Night-night."

The collie lifted his head from his bed at the foot of the bird's cage, and Bobby petted him. "G'night, Sam."

"Donna coming back?" Michael asked, shutting off the film and removing his headphones.

"Breakfast time, I'd wager. Big things went down tonight."

The driver laughed. "Finally? What took them so long?"

They walked back to their bedroom in a daze, Alex swaying the string bag and its precious cargo back and forth on her wrist. When they'd closed the door to the room, she lifted the bag, almost as if she were noticing it for the first time, saying in a bemused voice, "Bobby–"

He could only put his arms around her and hold her tight, rocking her back and forth. Finally, Alex set aside the string bag, gave it a final pat, and they went about their nightly routine: a quick shower, tooth brushing, nightclothes, not speaking, eyes flicking to one another briefly, their emotions too much to articulate at that moment.

When they had finished, Bobby sank to the foot of the bed, and she sat next to him, his right hand reaching out for her left, clutching it tightly.

"What was that you asked Penelope," Alex finally inquired distantly, "about being closer neighbors?"

Bobby blinked, the question pulling him back to reality. He swallowed, licked his lips. "She's retiring at the end of the year."

Alex came back to earth with a thump as well. "So this is what you were discussing so seriously after the book signing." She chuckled quietly. "She got a better offer from...Brookline?"

Now he laughed. "Why do I even bother telling you these things, Eames?" He paused. "I have no confirming evidence, but I'm almost certain that's true, because Matt's retiring in December as well. Marc Thuringer will move up to the Boston field office."

Alex smiled. "That's a good career move for Marc."

Bobby said, "Penelope told me they want to offer me the Hartford office."

The silence was absolute; Alex stared at him, waiting.

"I told her I'd turn it down if they did," he finished. "You know I've never wanted to be anyone's supervisor."

"What about the consultation work?" she asked, now concerned.

"Probably not an option," he said thoughtfully. "Lots of rising young agents, and proven agents looking to move up. A good crop of new profilers out there, ready to do their jobs."

"Oh, Bobby," she said, grieved, "I'm sorry."

He shifted sideways to face her. "Marc did have an alternative offer." And when she responded with a questioning look, he added, "Remember nineteen months ago, when you asked me why I didn't retire and I fobbed you off–"

"You did not 'fob me off,'" she interrupted sternly. "I asked you a question, and you gave me legitimate reasons why it wasn't feasible. At no time did you fob anything off."

"Yes, Captain Eames. But you talked about lecturing...seminars...except I can't say that word without thinking of Dec–"

"All sorts of seminars are given by all sorts of people," she said tartly, "including Amanda Rollins and Gil Grissom. No shame in them."

"Marc talked about the trainees needing to hear from more experienced heads. Like me. The seminars would be mostly in the city. A couple in Albany. Four in Boston. And four in Washington, D.C., but he said if I could get him Olivia's school schedule he could make certain the dates for D.C. were during the summer or other school breaks."

Now Alex smiled. "Special Agent Goren, all neat and tidy in his suit and tie, imparting wisdom to his class. I think Olivia would love to see that."

"I'd have to work up different presentations," he admitted, "that would require critiques–"

"I could oblige." She chewed her lip, then said in a low voice, "It's a big change, though, Bobby. You've had problems with change in the past."

He nodded. "But I didn't plan on leaving Major Case, either. Or not working in the field. Or owning a home, or writing a book. Or being appointed guardian of a child. It's just another step in my life. And I have you." He swallowed. "If I stumble–"

"We have each other's backs, as always," she promised. "And you won't stumble. But if it makes you feel better, we can do some dry runs."

"And when we're not doing that, we can work on the new book," and his eyes twinkled as he finished, "and...other things...while Olivia's at school."

She gave him a sideways, mischievous cat smile and sang softly,

"If I were the queen of the world, Tell you what I'd do:
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the war,
Make sweet love to you."

"I will take you up on that, my queen," he said, kissing her.

. . . . .

<— Donna Hogarth, Irené Fournier
      August 27, 2023

Reenie! We're engaged!

You woke me at four a.m. for that?

...[Irené is typing]

You goof. CONGRATULATIONS! But what the hell took you so long?

. . . . .

Date:       August 27, 2023
To:           Dr. Phyllis Allyson (phyllis.allyson.PsyD@waterburymedctr.net)
Subject:  Yesterday
From:      Olivia Pepin (m.olivia.pepin@xfinity.net)
CC:          Ruth Dunbar (ruth.w.dunbar@DFSConn.gov)

Dear Dr. Allyson:

I told Mama and Papa I loved them last night. You were right after all. I'll talk to you tomorrow and tell you more.

Ms. Dunbar, I just wanted you to know; I thought it might be important for your file. See you when we get home.

Your friend,

. . . . .

From "On the Road with Gorens"
August 28, 2023

Olivia: The photos below are from the Buffalo Herd Nature Preserve, Genesee, Colorado! That's right, Ana, I have finally seen a buffalo!!!! Of course, they are correctly called bison; buffalo are an entirely different species. The Latin name is bison bison. Actual buffalo live in Asia (Bubalus bubalis) or Africa (Syncerus caffer). The French who came to North America first began calling the American bison a buffalo... [click for more]


Sophie Eames: Olivia, you're starting to sound just like Uncle Bobby.

Olivia: Merci!

Anonymous User:

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Goren:

Forgive us for contacting you this way, but it is the only way we knew how. Lena Krentz told us about your wife's appearance on a show called Manhattan Alive! and encouraged my wife to watch it on YouTube. It has taken me this long to persuade her, but we finally watched it together day before yesterday, and now realize that we have misjudged you both. It is hard for an old man to admit he is a bigot, but I remembered what your little girl's tutor said to us before you left, and she was right. You cannot judge an entire group by the actions of some.

Perhaps we could talk when you return home?

Alvin Danielson

Bobby: Feel free to call on us any time, Mr. Danielson.

. . . . .

"This is your last tuck-in in this bed, Ms. Pepin," Bobby said, pulling the sheet and light blanket over Olivia.

"I know," she smiled, gazing at them with sleepy yet thoughtful eyes. "I've got so much to do when we get home!"

"Only you?" Alex teased. "You mean like getting ready for the first day of school?"

"That, too," she said, struggling to keep her eyes open. "And seeing Dr. Allyson and Ms. Dunbar." She gave a big yawn. "Excuse me. But I meant the important things. Ana and I have to work on our Halloween costumes. May I wear high heels?"

"For Halloween?"

"Yes, because Ana's taller than I am. We're going as Anna and Elsa. Ana said I should be Elsa because I'm blond, but otherwise we'll look just like sisters."

"We'll see if we can find a way to boost your height a little without your stumbling and falling in the middle of Main Street. If I put your hair up in a coil it will help," Alex said, patting her arm. "You're not thinking of asking Viola to make you costumes, are you?"

Olivia looked a little disappointed. "Can't we?"

"That's taking advantage of her goodwill a little bit too much, don't you think?" Bobby interjected into the mother-daughter banter.

"I suppose. And we're going to Springfield on Sunday, right? To see the Molly of Denali exhibit before it closes?"

Bobby had a sudden flashback from a year earlier, of her wheedling Marcel Pepin with big eyes about Visiting Nice for a few days when they returned to France. When he glanced at Alex, he knew she was thinking the same thing. Not that they'd been surprised when they received a postcard from Nice two weeks later, written in an eight-year-old's cursive!

"If there are no emergencies, yes."

They figured she had finally wound down, but...not quite yet. "Papa–"

"Yes, Elsa?"

Olivia smiled a little, but with some effort, she fixed her eyes on him as she did when she wanted to impart something important, but their glazed overlay confirmed her energy was fast waning. "I like it...when you call me 'Min.' You can...do it more...if you like."

Bobby smiled, and Alex asked, "Me, too?"

"Oui," and now Alex smiled at how she still reverted to French when tired. "Papa, you remember..." another yawn, "...the night we talked about the blog...about adoption?"

He bit his lip, remembering only how he'd frightened her. "Yes, Min," he said gently.

"What you said– I made up my mind," she said with a yawn, her eyes shuttering, "about names..."

"And what was that?"

But she was already asleep.

. . . . .

Donna posed them for a final photo, standing in front of the wide sofa just behind the driver's seat. Bobby suggested she take it with a timer so she and Michael could be in the photo, but the latter backed up with palms forward and a "Not me, man," while Donna responded crisply that this was a family photo.

When she had them posed "just so" and had a finger just brushing the shutter button, she made a quick kissing noise, and Bandit swivelled his head to face her.

She posted the photo to the end of the blog just as the tour bus pulled into Milbury; the staff of the Dark Crystal poured out of the front door to stand at the curb to wave them home. In the snapshot Bobby stood at left with his right arm around Alex, his eyes soft and happy as he gazed just slightly down to his right, his left hand lightly resting on Olivia's shoulder; Alex tilting her head toward him, an affectionate smile on her face with her right hand brushing Olivia's right arm; the child herself with big eyes alight, Bandit sitting alertly on her right hand with black button eyes wide as he faced the camera, her left arm outstretched, hand resting on Sam's head where he sat before her happily "smiling" for the photographer.

Below Donna typed, "Our journey now has ended, safe travels to you all!" and signed off with the whispered secret she'd been entrusted with:

Robert O. Goren
Alexandra V. Eames Goren
M. Olivia Goren
Sam & Bandit



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