follows "Anniversary"


                             ***October 21, 2022***

Robert Goren tried once again. "Alex, it's my turn to drive."

"Bobby, I'm okay," said Alexandra Eames Goren serenely. She wore sunglasses against the angle of the afternoon sun, chilled out, driving with her left hand. Now that they were close to their destination, she was determined to finish the drive and begin the next phase of their vacation.

"C'mon, let me drive, Eames," he coaxed. "There's a rest area ahead and Bandit's tired of me shifting back and forth. Not to mention I need the men's room." He offered one last temptation, knowing she'd been experimenting with her camera: "You can take more pictures."

"This late in the day?" But he'd distracted her enough that she began to reconnect with the brilliant landscape she was navigating.

It was the final leg of their journey back to Virginia and the bed and breakfast "Talboys" where they'd lodged earlier in the year, about to exit I-81 in favor of US 33 heading east. Their travels had begun at daybreak when they pulled out of their driveway in Milbury, Connecticut, and headed for I-84 westbound, continuing to I-287 south and west where Alex sincerely hoped her photos of the Tappan Zee in early morning looked as good on Facebook as they had on her camera viewfinder. Then to I-78 westbound toward, then through Pennsylvania Dutch country until it intersected with I-81 south.

It had been a long, uneventful, but happy day. They'd breakfasted in the car—homemade egg, ham, and chive muffins and juice—and at lunchtime detoured east on the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg, where they bought lunch to eat in the town square, followed by over an hour exploring the battlefield site before returning to the freeway.

Trees flaunted autumnal color. If peak had been beautiful in western Connecticut, it was glowing in the Blue Ridge, despite the highest elevations being past peak, leaves in colors that could only be described with a painter's palette: pale lemon, saffron yellow, gold, orange, cantaloupe, burnt orange, bronze, rust, scarlet, brick red, maroon, reds shading to purple, russet, and mixtures thereof. Each curve of the road brought fresh beauty, and now, as they entered the "golden hours" before sunset, when the angle of the sun changed the light, the gilt only accentuated the brilliance.

The rest area was basic, just a pull-off for trucks at left, cars at right, with rest rooms and vending machines in a brick structure, but it bustled with activity due to vacationers and leaf peepers. Alex took her restroom break first while Bobby walked their oversized tricolor collie Sam; since the temperatures were in the mid-60s he also carried Bandit in his travel cage. Alex had cut sheets of thin, clear plastic, then used clear tape at the joins to almost fully enclose the cage-bar-topped plastic carry box a foot long, eight inches wide, and seven inches tall, so that the inquisitive parakeet received air, but no drafts, and could see everything. Bobby's peripatetic maneuver with both pets resulted in Alex returning from the rest room in time to hear a woman enthuse, "Oh, it's a bird! LaTisha, look how cute!" and to find Sam shaking hands with half dozen children who surrounded him while Bobby was boxed in by four women cooing over Bandit. At least Alex, her tongue firmly in her cheek, thought they were cooing over the budgie. She recalled her half-acid comment about Bobby's trivia groupies last year when she'd discovered her former NYPD partner running a fiendishly difficult trivia game "in the wilds of Connecticut," as she had teased, and here he was surrounded again, a droll expression on his face.

"Hi," she said, smiling brightly to the women gathered around him, and Bobby gave a sheepish grin as she extricated budgie and collie from their respective fan clubs so he could take his turn at the rest room. Later, as he pulled out of the parking space, he said, amused, "Who knew carrying a parakeet would make me so popular? The minute I lifted him out of the car they just appeared."

"You never used to need outside assistance," she chuckled.

"Don't need it now." He patted her knee, eyes on the road. "Everything I want in my life is right here."

"Except your books," she countered, and he laughed.

Presently Alex groaned as brake lights blossomed on the two-lane highway just a few short miles from their turnoff. As the white CRV inched forward, both tried to spot what they assumed was a traffic accident ahead, but it turned out to be vehicles waiting to turn left into the parking lot of a restaurant and bar. The garish yellow and orange neon sign identified the long, low building as 'Sidewinder'; even with the car windows closed and the band inside the venue, they could hear the throb of music as they crawled past. Alex noticed Bobby become distracted and braked for a moment as they came abreast of a row of 18-wheeler sleeper cabs. Finally the last vehicle obstructing them turned left and they were able to speed on.

"That wasn't there in March," Alex observed.

"Still all boarded up with a for sale sign," he agreed.

Finally they made the turn onto the long gravel driveway that led to a spacious brick-red Queen Anne-style home trimmed with bright white restored "gingerbread" trim, nestled within woods and shrubs, and the CRV crunched into the oyster-shelled guest parking area to the right of the structure. The porch, furnished with a rustic assortment of wooden rocking chairs, tramp-art side tables, and quaint lamps, was bright with a mixture of autumn-hued miniature lights and Edison bulbs, autumn leaf garlands entwined in the cords. Evidently Ariana Entwhistle and Kaye Voytek had been on the lookout for them, as Ari emerged from the door almost instantly.

If Bobby Goren and Alex Eames could be compared to Mutt and Jeff, Ari and Kaye were of similar stock: Ari resembled a homespun drawing of an Irish hearth witch, red curls, full-figured, eyes lake blue, fond of Liberty print dresses and soft moccasins. Kaye was taller, dark haired, grey eyed, tending toward 40s-style cuffed slacks and crisp solid-color blouses, shod in penny loafers, hair in a French braid, as if she'd stepped out of a vintage copy of "Photoplay." Having bonded originally via their love of mystery books, Ari and Kaye had restored, with the help of friends, the aging home that previously belonged to an elderly recluse whose heritage harked back to Virginia's "first family" the Lees. They'd then converted it into a mystery-teemed bed and breakfast which Alex had discovered the previous November while planning what turned into a belated March honeymoon, listed in a web article entitled "Twenty B&Bs You Must Visit." Each room was named for a classic mystery writer—the Gorens were once again booked into "the Agatha Christie Suite"—and the home's name came from the farmhouse Dorothy Sayers' amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey bought for his new bride, mystery novelist Harriet Vane.

"Alex!" Ari said in her lilting British accent as she rushed to meet them. "Bob! So glad you're back! Oh, my goodness! Kaye, come quickly—see the budgie!"

Bandit, who'd quieted in the past hour after singing blithely for most of the journey, heard the word "budgie" and chirped, then uttered his favorite word: "Hi!" At Ari's shout, Sam crowded against the rear left window, panting happily, his tricolor face animated. Within five minutes of Kaye's making a fuss over the collie, crooning "Good boy!" repeatedly, Alex had shared with Bobby a look that said if they didn't watch out, the dog would come home five pounds heavier and the bird would be imitating Ari's voice, and he'd given an understanding nod in return.

Once they were moved into the Christie suite, Alex presented the couple with a large shopping bag.

In the past six months, the B&B had become an informal project with them; whenever they discovered mystery-related items that could be used for decor, one or the other procured it. Alex had removed pages from incomplete mystery books Bobby retrieved from a free book bin; on each page she printed a silhouette motif—for the Christie pages elaborate mustaches for Poirot, a teacup for Miss Marple, entwined wedding rings for Tommy and Tuppence—and appropriate items on the rest (Sherlock Holmes, of course, rated the traditional but inaccurate calabash pipe), then framed them. Out of a trash bag of unusable vintage clothing dumped in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters donation bin at the location where Bobby and Alex volunteered, Bobby rescued an aged fedora, a tarnished cigarette lighter, and a "skinny tie" as a contribution to the Raymond Chandler room. A formal white bow tie from the same source, bleached clean, with used paintbrushes and a half-finished landscape on canvas were intended for the room devoted to Ngaio Marsh's inspector Roderick Alleyn and his artist wife Agatha Troy, adding a framed print of a kiwi to acknowledge Marsh's New Zealand roots.

Kaye smiled her thanks in her quiet way when presented with the items, but Ari gushed over each find, then beckoned them upstairs to the Dashiell Hammett room, for which they'd found new treasures: a framed newspaper ad for The Glass Key, a lightly-used 1930s-era leather dog collar and lead representing Asta (who, both Bobby and Ari would quickly tell you, was a standard Schnauzer in The Thin Man novel, not a wire-haired fox terrier as in the film), and a vintage photo from a San Francisco newspaper of Hammett and Lillian Hellman.

Finally Ari invited them into the kitchen for bowls of steaming turkey and vegetable soup, hot tea and coffee, and home-baked cookies; she was a Susan Branch fan and her kitchen was colorfully decorated with the watercolorist's work: a calendar, mugs, tea towels, framed prints. She brewed herbal tea for Alex and herself, and as they finally sat at table Ari said breathlessly, "It's all worked out so well I'm chuffed! The leaves are lovely this year and you'll be able to attend the car rally and the uni book sale as well."

"I have something, too," Kaye said, offering Alex a small blue tissue paper parcel, "for your wedding anniversary next month," and Alex unwrapped it, then showed it to Bobby with a nostalgic smile. "I'm sorry, but they only had a house with pines on either side. But nothing's totally exact. She hadn't any dogs with pointed ears, either."

The item was a miniature rustic "shadowbox," a wood-framed watercolor-and-ink sketch of a cabin flanked by pine trees. A slice of molding formed a shelf at the bottom and set on the shelf were handmade dollhouse-style items: a black dog, a birdhouse, a bowl of eggs, a box of popcorn, the front of a bookstore, a red-white-and-blue star, supplemented with miniature books and a tally sheet with pencils. A tiny sign with a 3-dimensional acorn and two autumn leaves was pinned at top, with maple-leaf and heart-shaped buttons attached on either side. Kaye explained, "It's the story you told us: the dog for Sam, a birdhouse for Bandit, Bobby making eggs for your first breakfast together, popcorn for the movie you watched together, the red-white-and-blue star for the NYPD, the books, and a trivia scorepad. The acorn and autumn leaves are for October, when you reunited, and the leaves for your maple trees, too."

She added, "I love these do-it-yourself shadowboxes by a couple from Kansas who come to the Staunton craft fair every year. I always buy something from them. The cooking theme I put together for Ari is there next to the Welsh dresser, and we have a camping one in our bedroom. I know I showed you photos of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other seasonal ones in March." Alex nodded, recalling the flower-themed arrangement she'd admired in the spring—the autumn version was probably in the front parlor right now.

"And one in the library," Bobby observed; the former butler's pantry had a book-themed shadowbox supplemented with tiny books made for dollhouses.

"I made a sewing-themed one for Ari's mum, too. So, when the vendors announced they were retiring this year, I had to buy one last thing," Kaye finished, "but I'd run out of ideas to make for us! So I put together one for you instead."

Alex leaned over to give her a hug. "It's perfect. Thanks."

"So when did the neon palace down the road open?" Bobby asked, offhand, between spoonfuls of the savory soup, thick with pot pie noodles.

"You mean the 'Sidewinder'?" Kaye laughed. "It's something, isn't it? Comes off like a honky-tonk, but we haven't heard anything bad about it yet."

"Looks like a trucker's haven," Bobby added, to which both Ari and Kaye affirmed. Now Alex eyed him, sensing significance in his idle observation.

"We've been," Ari arched one eyebrow. "Last week two customers took umbrage at us."

"Cis assholes, huh?" Alex said, making a face. "We'll make sure to avoid it."

"Ari, that's not fair. It wasn't Kenan and Fred's fault," Kaye protested. "They were just a couple of jerks. The owners are cool, like most of the people who eat there."

"I know. They just brassed me off. And you shouldn't judge them by the loud crowd tonight, either," Ari added. "It's 'TGIF Roundup,' or whatever they call it. It's quieter other nights. There's pub trivia on Tuesdays—you might check them out."

"Check out the competition?" Bobby ventured, arching one eyebrow at Alex.

"Oh, they don't compare to yours, ducks," Ari said fondly, "but we can go Tuesday night and have some fun. Kaye and I played on our own once and won a mug for third place."

Alex gave a smug smile. "No worries. With Bobby we're a shoo-in for first."

He warned, "Unless they ask which Kardashian sister is the oldest or who's number one on the country charts."

Kaye burst out laughing. "You're better off than me—at least you know they're sisters! The first time someone mentioned the Kardashians I wondered why they were talking about Gul Dukat's people in Star Trek: Deep Space 9."

Ari giggled. "That's my love. I remember when she asked me!"

They finished the soup in companionable silence, then Alex was in the midst of relating the story of Bandit's popularity at the rest area as they sipped tea with oatmeal-and-raisin cookies when she had to cover a yawn.

Kaye said firmly, "We've worn out our greetings tonight. We don't want to get your second honeymoon off to a bad start."

"Aw, come on," Alex said mischievously, "Bobby and I used to do all-nighters at stakeouts, then be on duty next day."

"If you don't need rest," Ari countered, "that adorable little budgie probably does."

Indeed, when they'd climbed the elaborately balustered staircase to their room, Bandit, whose cage had been set on a fold-out wooden tray facing the murmuring television, was perched sleepily on one foot, the other tucked up in his puffed feathers, and when they entered the room, he gave a prodigious yawn, making Bobby chuckle. "We get it, buddy." Then he gave Alex a curious look. "Is this our second honeymoon?"

She said with a grin, "I didn't know we were done with the first one yet."

Sam had been walked upon arrival, fed in the kitchen, then had lain sleeping under their feet during soup and conversation, and now he was settled happily on his familiar rug, drowsily following them with dark eyes while they unpacked and tucked their things into drawers and closets—or, rather, while Bobby did so: full of nervous energy, he was removing items from Alex's hands as quickly as she lifted them from the suitcases. She managed to transport the toiletries into the bathroom on her own before returning to ask, "All right, Bobby, what the deal?"

"What deal?"

Her skeptical expression would have cut glass. "Bobby—I worked with you nearly twelve years, chatted and e-mailed with you for eight, have lived with you for a year, and been married to you for eleven months. Really? You're gonna try to snow me?"

He smiled sheepishly. "No, Captain Eames."

Alex gazed at him with lowered head as if she were looking over a pair of eyeglasses. "You've been edgy since we pulled in. What's up?"

"I thought–" He drew a breath. "When we slowed down in front of the neon place I-I thought I saw Ronald Grant's sleeper cab."

Understanding dawned. Fifteen years earlier Bobby's late brother Frank had abruptly informed him that he had a teenage son, Donny Carlson, who'd been falsely convicted and sent to prison for a year, where the boy was endangered after having witnessed a murder. Finding no other way to assist his nephew, Bobby had gone maverick and had himself arrested in order to be locked up at the same facility, an act that had not only nearly destroyed him psychologically, but had gotten him suspended from the NYPD. In the tumult surrounding his rescue Donny had feigned illness and managed to escape; Bobby's efforts to find him by questioning Frank were hampered by his brother's drug use. Since Frank's death, Bobby had continued to fret about his nephew. Then, that past December, while he'd been working a child trafficking case, a strange twist delivered one of the trafficked children to the Big Brothers facility via an independent interstate truck driver who turned out to be Donny operating under the name "Ronald Grant." He and Bobby had spoken on the phone once, and Donny had dropped off a Christmas card at their home; otherwise they had not heard from him again.

"You're certain?"

"Alex, I've studied that surveillance footage several dozen times."

"And you want–" she began.

"No. Not tonight. I know you're right—he needs to contact us on his own." His eyes met hers earnestly. "But Tuesday...if he's still in the area, there's no harm in saying hello if he's–"

"No harm, if," she agreed, stepping toward him until she was in reach of his embrace, and he enfolded her in his arms, prompting the same throat-tightening feeling of home that welcomed her each time he did so. It was October and each day since October 12, a tattoo beat in her head what-if-I-hadn't...what-if-I-hadn't–

"Are you cold?" he asked, feeling her shiver.

"Tired," she lied, knowing he wouldn't believe her.

Bandit made a cross little chipping sound, to which she responded. "We know, little bug. Time for bed."

. . . . .

It was rare when she awoke before him, but next morning was one of those days. The sun made a vertical yellow slash through crisp dotted Swiss curtains as the chill scent of the woods wafted from a barely open window to the four poster bed. She was curled on her left side, fingers lightly teasing the springy wedge of hair on Bobby's chest as it rose and fell as he slept. She breathed in deeply; Ari washed the sheets in and scented the bed and the bath with lavender—Bobby had joked about it in March, saying he hoped Mike Logan wouldn't visit before the scent washed off—and the scent made her feel dreamy.

Her thoughts flickered to Kaye's sweet gift, still sitting on the night table. It was like Kaye to remember it was almost their anniversary, even though Bobby still considered October 12 the "official" date.

Now she realized he was watching her, a smile teasing his lips. "Beautiful Alex," he said, reaching out for her.

Perhaps it was a second honeymoon after all...

. . . . .

Dressed in jeans, t-shirts layered under a flannel shirt since the afternoon promised to be warm, and footwear suitable for a long walk, they wandered into the kitchen some time later with Sam at heel to find Ari just removing fragrant breakfast muffins from the oven. She arched an eyebrow at them. "You must have needed your sleep! I'd gathered from your last stay that the two of you were early risers."

Bobby felt comfortable enough with both Ari and Kaye to return, "Oh, I was up early," the result which made Ari chortle and Alex bite back a smile. He grinned, then retrieved the dog food bag Kaye had placed in a corner of the kitchen and fed Sam first.

"Well, you've missed your fellow guests. The Owusus left at seven—they're at Luray Caverns today. The Graemes arrived after you went upstairs last night, but were off at eight. They'll be at the car rally this afternoon. They have a Kaiser auto and wanted to set up early. The rally begins at noon." She scattered bacon slices in one frying pan on her vintage six-burner double-oven Roper gas stove, began to whip eggs, and put a pan of already prepared scones into the oven. In ten minutes bounty was spread before them: the ham-and-egg muffins, cinnamon scones, clotted cream, strawberry and blueberry jam, scrambled eggs with scallions, bacon, toast from homemade bread, and fresh strawberries with cream.

"We'll have to walk all morning to burn this off," Alex warned, but it didn't keep either from digging in with enthusiasm.

The B&B fronted several acres of wooded property, and there was an adjoining state park, so after switching on the television for Bandit—the bird enjoyed nature shows and they left him calling enthusiastically to the chirping birds in North Woods Law—the three of them, Sam forging ahead with his nose to the ground, scrambled for a couple of hours up and down through little copses, discovered mushrooms still growing in moist hollows, were surrounded by swirling multicolored leaves, and jumped a narrow, meandering creek. At one point sun blossomed like a spotlight through the clouds and the tree cover, illuminating Bobby staring upward at the sky, and Alex snapped a quick photo before pulling him into an embrace. The kiss that followed was so intense that he was speechless for a moment.

"If we don't watch out, we'll re-enact January Madness," he finally said throatily, and she flushed, recalling a Friday afternoon much earlier in the year.

"Let's not indulge here," she returned, but didn't sound reluctant to re-enact the event somewhere more private. If anything, Alex read in Ari's mischievous face upon their return, their moment of passion was still written all over their faces.

She had packed them a picnic lunch: roast beef-and-gravy sandwiches in sourdough bread, fresh apples from a local orchard, hot cider in an insulated flask, and four more breakfast muffins in case they wanted a snack. They drove to an abandoned strip shopping center, where police officers were briskly directing traffic into an empty, grassy lot across the street. The local car club had arranged an informal weekend meet, and, in the shopping center lot, row upon row of vintage cars and their owners were lined up, from a vigorous couple in their 80s with a 1912 Stanley steam car to thirtysomething owners of classic Mustangs and Carroll Shelby vehicles. It indeed proved to be a warm afternoon, so after tailgating out of the hatchback of the CRV, they discarded flannel shirts, Alex popped on her broad-brimmed summer hat and Bobby donned a baseball cap, and they wandered through the rows of vehicles as if at a carnival fairground.

More than an hour into their stroll they discovered the Graemes, a tow-headed Englishman and his wife from Barbados, along with their 1954 two-tone green Kaiser Manhattan, one of the rare line of automobiles Henry Kaiser had manufactured for nine years after he broke Liberty Ship production quotas during the second World War. Monique welcomed them enthusiastically and regaled them for almost an hour about traveling to car shows along the East Coast while Howard showed off the car itself with pride.

Bobby's heart, Alex noticed, still belonged to Mustangs; he'd owned one until he had to sell it to pay his debts. Alex was constantly tempted to call his mechanic friend Lewis and ask how much it would cost to scrounge up another. When they passed a matched pair of Ferraris, she asked gravely, "Remember Roger Coffman?" He nodded in recollection of their case, and the brand-new Italian racing car that had smelled of intoxicating leather.

All three couples were present at the supper table that evening, with Ari's feast consisting of cubed lamb in a red wine sauce, with roasted potatoes and butternut squash, and a chaser of chocolate fudge cake. Kobla and Lahari Owusu had emigrated from Ghana two years earlier; this was their first vacation since arriving in the United States and they were happily working their way down  I-81. In the morning they would leave for Roanoke to visit relatives, and later would travel to Williamsburg. They were Longmire fans and Alex found herself debating the merits of the books versus the television series. William Graeme was sunburned and cheerful after a day out with his beloved car, and was happy to chat about Christie and Sayers with Bobby while gregarious Monique happily recounted stories about people encountered at the rally.

Bobby and Alex ended their day by allowing Bandit free flight in their bedroom, after which the bird snuggled under Bobby's chin preening his beard while Alex updated her sister Lizzie on their day via Facebook and e-mail.

Sunday following their walk, they headed to Skyline Drive with Sam to explore the sights, and on Monday they drove north to Luray Caverns for a tour, then visits to the car museum, souvenir shops, and a few used bookstores, before returning for yet another savory dinner. That Monday was warm and windless enough just after dark to sit Bandit's cage next to them on the front porch with the flannel cage cover providing him draft protection, where the budgie tweedled happily to the night birds and then at the crickets, and Sam lay at the top of the steps industriously sniffing the night air, while Alex sent a note and photos of the day's events to her sister and Bobby half-read the vintage psychology text he'd picked up and half-stared heavy-lidded at the trees outside. The air was sweet with the scents of faint wood smoke, vegetation, and the distinctly autumn tang of decaying leaves.

"Thinking of Donny?" she asked when his gaze wandered afield for the sixth time.

"A little," he admitted, rising, stretching. Sam thumped his tail in invitation, so he walked to where the dog lay, squatting down to say "good boy" and caress the silky head.

"Still want to go tomorrow night?"

"Why not?" He smiled over his shoulder at her. "We get to play for a change."

"And you'll be cool?" she asked, looking at him over her reading glasses.

"As the iceberg that sank Titanic if you like." Then he smiled. "You look cute in your glasses."

"'Cute'? 'Cute'?" she challenged, repressing a smile. "The last time someone called me 'cute' was in college."

"Did you deck him?"

"No," she said after a pause. "It was Mark Sherman. He was too cute to deck."

Ostensibly he returned to his book, but he added a few minutes later, "Would have liked to have known you in college."

"I think you would have preferred Alex 2.0 to Alex 1.0," she smiled with her head bowed and eyes half-curtained by her hair. "I went a little wild freshman year. Dad took one look at my grades and told me I wouldn't even make meter maid at that rate—yeah, it was that long ago. I wised up fast."

"I dunno. I wasn't at my best as a frosh either," he said reflectively. "I had a couple of people who were ready to declare me 'Most Likely to End Up in a Clock Tower With a Rifle.'"

"That's not even remotely funny."

"Not trying to be. The Army—and Dec—really did save me."

From the woods came the deep sounds of an owl hooting. Sam sat up, woofed, and Bandit responded to the hoot with several calling chirps, then loudly said his favorite word, "Hi!"

"I wouldn't invite him, little bug," Alex advised the budgie fondly. "That guy would eat you."

. . . . .

"Only a few sleeper cabs," Alex observed as they pulled into the Sidewinder parking lot on Tuesday evening, "and not one of them is green."

Bobby answered, as if unconcerned, "It was always a possibility he wouldn't be here."

Ari and Kaye, holding hands in the rear seat of the CRV, exchanged glances, but said nothing. Alex steered into a parking space fronting the end of a deep, covered porch, dotted with rocking chairs and rustic tables, but no one was waiting for seats outside. Inside Sidewinder was everything their regular venue the Dark Crystal wasn't: loud and raucous, with a hodgepodge of faux Western decor on every free vertical space. Between the warm day and the place being crowded, the air conditioning had kicked in, and they threaded through trestle-style tables with sturdy matching chairs under blasting vents, following their server, ending up wedged near the front at a table with just enough room for four. The dining area had two levels, the second being four steps up from the entry floor forming a tier of more tables in an L-shape around the far edge of the room, and a large table in the corner of the upper tier was where their trivia master sat, surrounded by items familiar to both Bobby and Alex: papers, pencils, containers, notebooks.

"I'll get our stuff," he said once they'd put their drink orders in, and loped from his seat, Alex wondering if he were scouting the place. She and the B&B owners had heads over the menus when a derisive male voice floated over Alex's shoulder. "Well, look who's here, and they brought another lezzie with them."

Alex turned her head slowly, deliberately, arching a stiff eyebrow at the interlopers, unfazed. "Well, you do know we all flock together, right?" She cast an appraising look over both. "Like you incels."

You couldn't really, she'd comment later, pick these two easily from a crowd; they were that nondescript. The one who'd spoken was about six feet tall, ashy blond hair lank on his head, gray eyes, oval-faced, wearing a green football jersey and jeans. His friend was more olive-skinned, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, rich brown eyes, a scruffy beard, also in a football jersey, this one red, over cargo pants. Alex's opinion was the former wouldn't be bad if he washed his hair more, the latter if he didn't bathe in Axe body spray.

"What're you saying, lezzie?" the blond mocked. "That we don't get any?"

"Oh, I figure I get more action than you do," Alex said dryly, maintaining eye contact.

"I'd watch out for her," Bobby's voice intoned behind them. "She was NYPD for 25 years. She can probably take you down that many different ways."

Alex grinned when she saw Ari's eyes widen, because Bobby had pulled himself up to full height and crossed his well-muscled forearms, shown off to best advantage in one of the Dark Crystal's shocking purple and black T-shirts, so that he resembled someone out of WWE, sans tattoos. The dark-haired punk curled his lip. "That bitty thing?"

"Homeland Security taskforce captain," Bobby answered evenly. "Wanna see her street creds?"

It was only then that the two young men turned to see who was speaking, and Alex stifled a snort when the blond paled and his darker-haired companion took a step sideways. Bobby's voice was lighter than his size would lead you to expect, plus he was clearly posturing for the irritating pair, although his eyes remained benign.

At this point every head in the adjoining area was swiveled to see what would happen next, when another young man's voice broke the silence, making Bobby freeze. "Jared? Pat? You dimwits causing trouble again?"

The newcomer, in his early 30s, wore a burgundy polo shirt over jeans and Converse sneakers, had dark brown hair combed straight back, blue-grey eyes staring impatiently at the two troublemakers, sensitive mouth set in a scowl. Now Bobby grinned and Alex's eyes brightened in recognition.

"We don't need your input, Ron," the dark-haired troublemaker returned with curled lip.

"You're gonna have it, like it or not, if you keep hassling my uncle and aunt," retorted the newcomer, "and I wouldn't mess with my Uncle Bob. He's still FBI." He added in caustic tones, "You geniuses aren't still transporting weed across state lines, are you?"

The blond man flushed and his dark-haired companion said hastily, "C'mon, Jare, these chumps aren't worth–" only to have Bobby crowd behind him and deliberately block his retreat. "That's not a nice thing to call my wife, dude."

Now an older, balding Black man dressed in red-checked Western shirt, bolo tie, and jeans appeared, with a younger, bulkier man clad in essentially the same outfit in his wake. "McIntyre! Pradhan! Didn't I tell you to quit bugging my customers? Get the hell out of here before Theo gives you the bum's rush. You know how I give everyone three chances? Well, you got one more left. Out!"

With resentful looks, the two young men shouldered rudely through the crowd, including several other men their age who jeered at them, then exited, while the older man looked grave as Bobby regained his seat. "Y'all guests of Ari and Kaye?"

"Yes," Alex answered.

"From Connecticut," Bobby added.

"Giving us Virginians a bad name," the older man grumbled. "I'm Frederick Edmonds and this is my son, Theo. He's my bouncer. My bro Kenan owns the place, I run it. Those two aren't locals, thank the Lord. I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt and keep hoping they'll wise up. Dipshit truckers—sorry, Grant, no offense. Please let me comp your meals tonight."

They negotiated a few minutes, and finally agreed to accept a free appetizer and dessert. The dark-haired young man stayed quietly to one side until Bobby said, "I think we can make this work," and he and Ari shared one side of the table; with Alex and Kaye both being slim, Theo was able to wedge an extra chair in for the young trucker. When the hubbub had quieted and they were once again alone with their menus, Bobby said casually, "How're you doing, Donny?"

Kaye looked questioningly at Alex, who mouthed "Later," as Bobby's nephew ducked his head and responded, "Everything's going okay." Then he added, shy. "I'm sorry I haven't been by. I've been mostly working this area for the past seven months."

"Glad to hear that your work's been steady." Bobby answered, but his melancholy eyes reflected his true feelings; Alex pushed his foot under the table; he blinked, then schooled his face into a more neutral expression.

Alex smiled. "And how's your cat?" and now Donny relaxed. "She's fine. Sleeps curled up under my chin every night."

There was the sound of a mic being keyed and Ari scrabbled for the trivia supplies. "Tonight," she said exultantly, "it's the grand slam."

. . . . .

Bobby twirled the restaurant credit voucher meant for first-prize winners in his long fingers, then handed it to Ari. "Enjoy a couple of nights out."

"It's yours!" Kaye protested, and Ari added, trying to hand it back, "Use it for the rest of the week, luv. You answered three quarters of the questions!"

"Not our type of place," Alex said, amused, and truthfully: the menu was heavy on fried food, the music was catchy but at maximum volume, and the atmosphere generally chaotic. "So enjoy. We were a great team."

"Thanks for the country-western music help," Bobby said, giving Donny a congratulatory clap on the shoulder.

"I've been listening to the stuff for fifteen years. I guess it's sunk in by now," his nephew said sheepishly.

Alex asked, "Come back to the house with us, Donny?"

Bobby added firmly, "It's a reunion, not an interrogation. You don't need to say anything you don't want to say."

Donny looked at him steadily. "I think there are some things I do want to say, though."

. . . . .

His nephew followed them back to the B&B in his sleeper cab; as he parked out of the way of the rest of the cars, Bobby hopped from the CRV and disappeared inside. He returned with Sam in time to find Donny at the open door of the cab, cradling a small "tuxedo cat" in his arms, introducing her to Alex, Ari, and Kaye.

Sam viewed the world as his friend, animals as well as humans, and now the big dog alerted on Donny and his pet, tail waving madly as he padded forward with excitement. The black and white cat had one look at the "wolf" advancing on her and squirmed in Donny's arms. Bobby halted immediately, snubbing Sam's leash, and told him to stay. Sam remained in a sitting position, thumping his tail and lolling his tongue happily. Skunk quit struggling, but she immediately hunched in Donny's arms and fixed huge, suspicious green eyes on the dog.

"There's a friendship that's not to be," Alex said lightly.

"Let me walk him," chuckled Bobby, and the cat relaxed as soon as the dog retreated. Ari and Kaye excused themselves to go inside, leaving Alex alone with Donny. She was silent as she caressed Skunk behind one ear, said softly, "You're a sweet girl," then hazarded, "Bobby's been worried about you."

Donny said reluctantly, "I guess that's good to know, even if I'm sorry he had to worry about me."

"He still misses your dad," Alex said reflectively, "even as adversarial as they could be." She played with the fingers of her left hand as she did when she was thoughtful. "Did... you know we caught the woman who killed your dad?" When Donny shook his head, she admitted, "She turned out to be...someone getting even with us...with Bobby specifically."

"So a criminal not only murdered my dad, but it was a woman? When I saw the news article, I figured he just stiffed one of his drug dealers," he responded cynically, tucking Skunk back into the sleeper cab, closing the door firmly. He snorted. "Although...I suppose that's ironic. As far as I can tell, my dad screwed up any relationship he was in. My mom was the only one who bought into his lies, and even then they couldn't make it together. What happened to his killer? Is she in prison?"

"She booked it," Alex said bitterly, "then we were led to believe she was dead, until the Paris police found her living under another name in 2013, under the protection of a French government official. We almost had her in the spring—Bobby and I were the ones to interrogate her, and the FBI had her in custody—but her lover made a deal with the State Department. She was escorted back to France in May, under orders never to set foot in the United States again."

Donny regarded her glowering face. "You think she'll stay there?"

"She has a daughter," returned Alex, with a wry smile, "whom she adores, a darling little girl considering her mother's such a b–...well, you know. I'm hoping that's enough to keep her out of Bobby's hair." She chewed her lower lip. "It would mean a lot to him if you two could talk. He misses having close family. Did you know you have a great aunt in Michigan? Bobby reconnected with the family after your grandmother died--his dad's sister Agnes. And cousins."

Bobby was strolling back, Sam trotting at his side. When the dog saw Alex, he started to dance, and Bobby, seeing Skunk was absent, freed the collie to run to her, his tail a blur. Once he'd greeted her, he turned his attention to Donny, who squatted down to pet him.

"Skunk will give me hell to pay later for smelling like a dog," he grinned as he followed them into Talboys.

Despite the big meal they'd just eaten, generous Ari couldn't resist setting out fruit and cheese, then brewed both coffee and tea. Alex finally coaxed Donny, who'd retreated into himself as the food was served, to talk more about Skunk and he told a few funny stories about the cat at truck stops while he nibbled on the strawberries.

Finally he stated, "I need to say some things, Uncle Bobby, without being interrupted." When Bobby nodded, he continued, "The first is 'thank you.' I know what they did to you at Tate's. I heard you calling for help, begging for water, counting to ten over and over and over. You did that for me." His eyes were filled with pain. "Whenever things got hard for me, the first couple of years, I thought of you tied down in that room...for me. That's something I can't ever make up to you."

Bobby glanced at Alex, whose face was ashen. "It's what family does. Or should do."

"Not like that," Donny said intensely, thumping the table with his fists. "Not like that. I saw the stories in the papers: yeah, they got the goods on the murder, but they suspended you for helping me. Worked in Jersey for a while for a guy who was ex-NYPD, so I heard a lot about the case. I wish I could make it up, but I can't, so I've done my best for the last fifteen years to try to live the best I could. To keep my nose clean. I knew I had to help that little boy back in December. It was something you'd do." His earnest eyes met Bobby's. "How is Scotty?"

"I had an e-mail from him and his parents a few weeks ago," Bobby said, smiling in recollection. "He's doing well. Just started fifth grade."

Donny looked relieved. "That's good." He helped himself to a slice of Gouda.

"You spoke to your mother on my behalf, didn't you?" Bobby asked, stirring his coffee.

"Oh, yeah—that one time, when I called her after Dad died to make sure she was okay. Mom told me every word of what she said to you! I couldn't believe it! My dad fed her all that bull, that you never helped me, that you ignored him. I set her straight—when she protested I got mad. I told her what you did. Everything you did for me."

"She...must have called me directly afterwards," Bobby explained. "She was...extremely apologetic."

Alex couldn't suppress her irritation any longer. "She damn well should have been! I remember the way she talked to Bobby when we were investigating Frank's murder. Like he was some inconsiderate do-nothing. Frank didn't even bother showing up to your grandmother's funeral!" Then she checked herself, with an apologetic glance at Donny. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't trash your dad like that, but he always made me furious."

"No," Donny said wryly, "you're just being honest. He made me mad, too."

"After that, she'd contact me whenever one of your cards arrived," Bobby continued. "We never could figure out who was dropping off that yearly Christmas card. Neither of us considered it might be you."

Donny squirmed sheepishly in his seat. "Yeah."

"But...I don't understand why you haven't visited her, or at least called again."

Now Donny shifted uncomfortably in his chair, reddening. Ari picked up on it at once, took a breath, and expertly feigned a prodigious yawn. "Bother! Pardon me, I'm not used to such late nights. I guess the evening's shagged me out."

Kaye was just as quick on the uptake. "I know, I'm just barely keeping my eyes open. Donny, please stay and talk and have more tea while we go up to bed? Just leave the cups and things in the sink. Ari and I will clean up in the morning."

Ari patted Alex's shoulder. "See you tomorrow, luv. Please lock up for us, Alex?"

"Will do." she said firmly.

"Tactful as always," Bobby said after they departed.

"Pretty perceptive, too," Donny agreed, looking as if he was gathering courage to speak. "I want you and Aunt Alex to promise me something."

"I won't make a promise I might not be able to keep," Bobby warned.

"Look," Donny said, rising from the table, his face darkening. "This...thing...happened in my life. I rolled with it. I've dealt with it. There's someone else involved, and...well, maybe you'll think I'm nuts, but I don't want them harmed. They can't hurt anyone anymore—no one's in danger."

"What's the promise?" asked Alex shrewdly.

"That you don't bother...the person I talk about. I mean it."

Bobby was shifting restlessly in his chair as if he'd already worked out what he was going to hear. "All right. I promise." He took a deep breath as Donny re-occupied his seat, then related, "The last thing I heard about you, you'd called your father. He thought you were in an arcade. I...uh...hunted around at Times Square, but I couldn't find you."

"I was long gone by then," Donny confessed. "Figured the NYPD was on my tail, so I hid out in Jersey for awhile. Lived rough. Cadged pennies. Did chores for the ex-cop I mentioned—just for a few months for food and a flop. Then I got afraid he was on to me. Stuff he said. Or maybe it was in my head. I dunno." He dropped his head, quiet for a moment. "So I was hitchin' out of town and a guy with an 18-wheeler picked me up. Jinn, his name was. Lunchtime came, I had no cash, and–"

Now there was a long silence as Donny looked from Bobby to Alex and back again. Finally he shrugged, adding roughly, "Look, do I gotta draw you a map?"

To his surprise, it was Alex who commented levelly, "You traded sexual favors for food and shelter." Bobby was almost too quiet; she could see the distress and anger on his face.

"Hey, I was hadn't eaten in over a day, and after being in Tate's, it was practically a walk in the park. I got pegged more'n once there—it wasn't like the guards cared," responded Donny with some resentment. "And what I say next is going to make you think I've got Stockholm Syndrome...maybe I do. Because after awhile– Jinn was...he didn't hurt me. Not on purpose. He was cleaner than my mom, used protection, and didn't try to 'share' me like some of the other drivers' 'partners' got shared. He taught me how to drive the rig, and trained me so I got my license. We drove most of the country and I saw things I never would have seen elsewise. After awhile...I was like...his partner, y'know? At least he said– Jinn read a lot. Historical novels, like Ken Follett. He said we were 'blanket buddies,' like Roman soldiers. Convenient excuse, I guess, for picking up an underage kid and–" He stopped, pursed his mouth, then stared at both of them as if daring either to protest. "About five years ago, he started having trouble at night. Not just seeing, but...managing. Forgetting stuff, like our destinations. Depending on me more."

Bobby ventured, "Sounds like sundown syndrome. Alzheimer's?"

"I guess. Nobody talked to me. I was just 'the other guy.'" Donny shifted in his chair, twisting his hands. "Knew he was losing it. And I was watching him do it. Anyway, when he was still doing okay in the daytime, we drove to his hometown and went to an attorney's office. That's when I learned his real name. He signed the truck over to me—said I deserved it—then had me take him to his sister's house. Didn't even know he had a sister. He said goodbye, that he was going to have his sister put him in long-term care." He locked eyes with Bobby, clearly distressed. "He did, too. Went there last year, hunted him up." His eyes dropped. "Didn't even know me." Now he looked defiant again. "That's why I said leave him alone. I know he was a pedo, but he's finished. He won't be exploiting other kids."

"And you?" Alex asked softly. "How are you?"

When he smiled in that reflective way, Bobby could see his brother's face mirrored in his nephew, the softness that had been in Frank before he did a deep dive into addiction. "I'm...okay. I enjoy what I do—unless I'm driving through Kansas and Nebraska. That's just miles and miles of miles and miles." He winked. "Got friends on the road. Got the cat. It's something I couldn't have imagined as a kid."

"Telling about Jinn," Bobby asked gingerly, "is the reason you haven't visited your mother?"

Donny fixed eyes on his hands. "I...I got friends like I said...all sorts of lifestyles. Gay, bi, pan...Mom's traditional...I don't know what she'd say. Some of my friends...they told their parents...they were still the same person after they ended the sentence as when they started it, and at the end of that sentence, all of a sudden 'you're no kid of mine!' I don't get it. You raise a kid from a baby, celebrate all his milestones, know his heart,...and all he says is 'I'm gay' and he's the Antichrist." He paused. "You think...I ought?"

Alex met Bobby's eyes. He shrugged. "I think you should. But...I've no way of conceptualizing the odds. The little I do know...tells me she'd accept you."

"I would," Alex said earnestly.

"Thanks, Aunt Alex."

"So, where do you go next?" Bobby asked, sitting back, face still troubled.

"For now, nowhere—I'm takin' off for a while. I did a straight month of runs—well, with a coupla Sundays off—one all the way out to Berkeley, and I'm dead tired. I been here before. Got stuck here for months during the lockdown, worked for Fred and Kenan in their old place doing takeout orders, so I came by to see how they were doing in the bigger place. Wish those jackasses Jared and Patel hadn't showed up, though. They're bad news. Funny, huh, running into you?"

Alex lifted her chin and smiled, and Bobby knew what she was thinking: "Just an ordinary day with the Gorens."

"I have some friends coming in on Thursday, Rocky and Enrique Sanchez, brothers from Santa Fe. Looking forward to seeing them. Come to dinner with us?"

"If you want to hang out with a couple of old duffers," Bobby said wryly.

"Speak for yourself," Alex said with mock indignation, and Donny grinned when his uncle leaned over and kissed her.

Bobby then rose and collected the plates and mugs from the table. Donny followed his lead, and Alex brushed crumbs from the table, wiped it down, then dried it with a towel, and finally returned the autumn centerpiece of mums on its tatted doily to the center while Bobby washed and Donny dried, laying the clean dishes, silverware, and teapot in the drainer. When they finished, the kitchen was ready for the next day.

"I'd better get back," Donny said. "I haven't fed Skunk yet."

"Hey," Bobby said as Donny started to turn away. "We're visiting the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library tomorrow and then Monticello—want to come with us?"

Donny turned back toward them, his eyes wistful. "I'd be a third wheel."

Alex said matter-of-factly, "Family's never a third wheel."

"And one more thing before you go," and Bobby suddenly gave his nephew a fierce bear hug, tears in his eyes. "It's good to see you, Donny."

. . . . .

Bobby was seated at the edge of the bed, staring at his hands, when Alex emerged from the bathroom. "I don't know what Ari's cooking for dinner, but it smells delicious."

"Chicken," he said idly. "Fairly sure it's curried. Rice as a side."

"Should've known no one could fool your nose." She settled down next to him. "Donny?"

He nodded, his hands fidgeting, one foot tapping against the braided oval rug next to the bed.

She asked thoughtfully, "What do you say about a pedophile who encourages his victim to finish high school online and earn his GED? How do you wrap your mind around it?"

"I don't know," he said wearily. "Not to mention a man who was more of a supportive father to him than my own brother. If I'd known–"

"There was no way you could have. Frank kept that secret close to the vest until he needed you to know it." Her anger toward Frank always simmered close to the surface. "He cheated Donny of a future with your family, and you of a chance to know your nephew. But–" And now she looked at him earnestly. "But...Donny seems to have thrived despite it. He's tough, like you."

"'Like me' hasn't always been a compliment," he responded ruefully. "He...he should talk to somebody–"

"Says the man who agreed to therapy only to get his job back?" she reminded. "It has to be his choice." She slipped her arm under his and leaned on his shoulder. "Enjoy this time together."

The day had been a revelation in more ways than one. Not only had Donny told them that "Jinn" had encouraged—if not downright bullied—him into finishing his studies and acquiring a GED, but they learned the elder man's historical interests had awakened Donny's curiosity about the past. As they'd explored the Woodrow Wilson Library and later the home of Thomas Jefferson, Donny was genuinely absorbed by the exhibits, especially those concerning First World War policies and the Fourteen Points, and the influence Edith Wilson had after Wilson's stroke. He admired Jefferson's scientific and architectural bents along with his role in early American government, but had problems understanding how two educated and intelligent men like Jefferson and Wilson could buy into the rampant racism of the time. He and Bobby had a long discussion about Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, a book Donny admitted was one of his favorites. When they dropped Donny off that evening, Bobby presented him with G. J. Meyer's A World Undone: The Story of the Great War and Alex gave him Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. He seemed embarrassed.

"Shall we cheer up a little for Ari and Kaye?" Alex said finally.

He smiled, just a little. "I can. Wanna hit the hot tub later?"

"Thought you'd never ask." she said mischievously.

. . . . .

A faint whistle woke Bobby on Thursday morning; the promised cold front had indeed arrived and he padded to the cracked-open window and closed it for Bandit's health. Alex still had her nose buried in her pillow, so he wandered into the bathroom, watching the golden and orange maples and hickories and the scarlet oaks toss in the brisk north wind through the stained-glass framed window, the sun between the leaves making abstract patterns on the wall that mesmerized him. When he checked out the fat blue vintage alarm clock set on a shelf, he realized he'd been sitting there half an hour. He shook his head, washed his face and sipped some water, then, seeing the lamp on, ambled into the bedroom saying idly, "We'll need jackets and scarves today. Maybe we–"

His voice died. Alex was awake, lying on her right side, the blankets pushed down, wearing nothing but an elfin smile.

"Sorry, Eames," he said, grin flooding his face. "I didn't realize you already had plans. But...let me take Sam out first. I'll have to bundle up."

"Don't worry," she said, eyes crinkled. "I'll warm you up when you get back."

. . . . .

It was after noon and they were dozing in each other's arms when a rap came at the door, followed by Ari's voice. "I hate to interrupt you two lovebirds, but there's a call for you, Bob."

He pushed himself into a sitting position. "For me?"

"It's Fred, at the Sidewinder. I think it's your nephew."

He immediately stumbled from the bed, heading for the dresser and clothing. Alex followed more slowly, retrieving a pair of trousers from the closet for him, and transferring his shoes from under the bed to the bench where he was dressing. Then she began to pull on her own clothes. He jerked each garment on abruptly, underwear, socks, jeans, flannel shirt, Dr. Martens, tying his shoes with lightning speed, then turned to wait for her.

"Shoo!" she said in her Captain Eames voice, releasing him.

Ten minutes later she padded downstairs in a warm sweater over jeans and in ankle boots, carrying her purse, having uncovered Bandit's cage to check he was ready for the day and then turned the radio on for him, and given Sam a dog biscuit in apology for abandoning him, to find Bobby just hanging up the 50s-era wall phone, like the one in their own house, but in Princess pink. He was already fidgeting, which was a bad sign.

"What's up?" she said quietly.

"Donny's apparently parked at the bar, sipping the day away."

"Fred know what happened?"

"I think it's what we discussed Tuesday night."

"Calling his mom?"

Bobby nodded and she continued, "Well, shall we see what we can do? You ready to go out?"

"I've got my wallet," he shrugged. "What else do I need? Ari, will you feed Sam, please, if we're not back by dinnertime?"

"Will do, luv," she said, understanding.

Some time later, clad in jackets and hats, they entered the Sidewinder, where there was a small lunch crowd. At the cowboy-motif bar at the far right, with horseshoe outlines acid-etched into the big wall mirror behind the liquor bottles, sat a lone figure, gesticulating to the bartender. Then the figure stopped moving as the bartender looked up, craning his neck around his obstreperous customer, who slowly revolved on the barstool.

"Well, look who-sh here," Donny said with a foolish smile on his flushed face.

"Titanic," Alex said, sotto voce.

"Iceberg," Bobby responded wearily, then strode forward, pulling off his watch cap and stuffing it in his jacket pocket. "Hey, man, whatcha doin' drinking alone? Thought you were expectin' some buddies."

"Thash laterr," Donny said offhandedly. He gave Bobby a cynical look. "You t-think if I told themz they'd shtill be friends with me?"

"I don't know," Bobby said, sobering. "If they're really your friends, they shouldn't care."

Donny stared before him, focusing on nothing. "I guess I don't know anybuddies like that, 'cept you and Aunt Alex. Maybe Mom." Then he turned a beseeching gaze on Bobby, his voice breaking. "How can I tell her I let...that I...can't you call her for me?"

Bobby lowered himself to the stool next to Donny. "Man, this isn't something I can tell your mother. It shouldn't be hearsay. Besides, when another person tells a story, they...they color it with their own feelings. The only one who can tell her is you."

"An' if she h-hates me?" Donny poked an angry finger into Bobby's chest. "What if?"

Alex sank into a chair closest to the bar, kneading her watch cap in her fingers. "I...would want to know and end the indecision. But that's me."

"Not brave like you," Donny muttered, made a face, then reached back for the beer he'd been drinking, only to discover it out of reach. He eyed Bobby resentfully. "'N can't help it if I'm not smart like you."

"Yeah," Bobby said cynically. "Yeah, I was really smart. Never realizing my brother resented me because school was so easy for me. Me resenting him because my mom favored him. Doing my best at work to alienate people I shouldn't have, time after time. I'm not a positive example of always making good choices." He swallowed. "Like thinking long ago...that my closest friend in the world was all about her job, just like I was all about mine, and that my walking out of her life would be a good idea."

Donny, befuddled for a second, looked at his uncle, then fixed on Alex, who added softly, "You can count me in that 'not-so-smart' club, too, because when my best friend left, I didn't even tell him I didn't want him to go."

She watched his eyes flicker back and forth between them, then added, "Why don't we get some lunch to sop up all that beer?"

Donny looked reluctantly at his half-finished drink, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess I oughtta be sober when 'Rique and Rocky show up. You still sticking around to meet them?"

"We said we would," Alex assured him.

They claimed a table at the back of the Sidewinder and ordered sandwiches; Alex would have preferred whatever Ari had for lunch, but she ate her grilled cheese and salad without complaint while Bobby and Donny both indulged in messy, overstuffed hamburgers, and it was gratifying to see Donny sober up and his mood improve. About 4:30 two men appeared in the doorway and Donny waved them in.

Bobby said aside to Alex, "Damn, it's just like Frank and me...they don't look a thing alike." She wondered if he was considering that the reason was that he and his brother had different fathers, but she only smiled to distract him, then filched three French fries from his plate.

To Donny's surprise, a married couple that he knew from the road, Tim and Jessie Townsend, arrived a half hour later. They were NASCAR buffs who rapidly turned the conversation to classic cars. By the time Alex and Bobby finished their own meals, Donny appeared to be in good enough company that they could excuse themselves and return to the B&B. Alex had noticed Bobby's preoccupation as the meal had progressed, although he'd also showed appropriate interest in the Sanchez brothers' travels. Now when they strolled into the house, Kaye looked up from where she was reading in the front parlor. "You two need any supper?"

"No, we ate with Donny," Alex answered, then looked penitent. "Ari didn't hold dinner for us, did she?"

"We had a casserole, and leftovers are in the refrigerator if you need a little break from honky-tonk food," Kaye grinned.

"We may avail ourselves later," Bobby answered as they started upstairs.

"Now what's up?" Alex leaned up against the door to their room after she closed it.

"I was...wondering...if I couldn't...smooth the way for Donny," he said pensively as he sank onto the bench at the foot of the bed.

She wore the perceptive expression he so loved. "Test the waters with Evelyn?"

"I mean, even if he wasn't thinking of calling her...we would call her to say we'd seen him...wouldn't we?"

She stepped forward and kissed his forehead in agreement.

Presently he pulled out his cell phone, collected himself for a few minutes, took a breath, then tapped in a number and put the call on speakerphone.


"Good evening, Evelyn. This is Bob Goren."

A pause. "Bobby! How are you? How's Alex?"

"Alex and I are fine. I hope this isn't a bad time to call?"

"No, I was just watching Netflix." A pause. " it about Donny? There's nothing wrong, is there?"

"It is about Donny, but it's good news. Alex and I have spoken to him."

Now an audible swallow. "You're telling me the truth?"

"Evelyn, why would I lie to you?"

"Because I...was very unkind to you once."

"I don't play those kinds of games. I called to let you know that he's fine. He has a good job and he's healthy. Oh, and he has a pet cat."

Brief silence. "Isn't that funny? I always had cats as a child. Maybe he gets his love of cats from- Oh, Christ, what am I babbling about?" Now a sniffle. "Bobby—did he tell you...why he hasn't called except for time...he set me straight about you and Frank? Why he hasn't...visited?"

Bobby shifted, met Alex's eyes. "Evelyn...I want to assure you that Donny has done nothing illegal or violent. He drives interstate trucks. He's been cross country more times than he can count. We just had dinner with him and a few of his friends. They're good people. You'd like them."

"Then why does he just leave me a card once a year? I want to see him. Know he's safe." Then a gasp. "He doesn't think I'd turn him in, does he?"

"Nothing like that." Carefully chosen words. "In the course of his travels, Donny has had certain things to survive. As I said, he's done nothing illegal, and has never committed a violent act against anyone.'s something sensitive, and he's afraid if he tells you, you'll repudiate him."

"Is Or trans? Because I don't care...he's child."

"I don't know about his sexual preferences, Evelyn, because I haven't asked. He's Donny, it's all that matters. But he does want to call you. He told us. Will you give him more time?"

A pause. "You're certain he's...okay?"

"I swear."

There was a smile behind her voice now. "All right. I'll wait."

"Evelyn? You...won't tell him I called?"

"So it's like that? All right. Mum's the word."

. . . . .

Friday Ari woke them early for the university book sale, as it was a hour's drive away. She arose at six, happily creating a breakfast spread while Bobby and Alex walked Sam, and they left directly afterward. Bobby spent three hours browsing, by Alex's estimation, every single nonfiction book in the place, and she was astonished when he also presented her with two or three mysteries by her favorite authors and also two nonfiction books he knew she wanted, all of which she hadn't had the patience to find by rooting around in the boxes of books still stored under the tables. They ended up with three reusable grocery bags full of books, which, Alex noted when they got back to the B&B, included a trio of history texts, one about Woodrow Wilson, another "Great War" history, and a biography of Thomas Jefferson.

"Donny?" she asked, knowing the answer, and his offhand shrug confirmed it.

There were new guests arriving that evening, so Ari invited them to make sandwiches for a late lunch while she and Kaye prepared the Hammett room. Since they were leaving on Sunday, Alex routed Bobby from his treasures and they took Sam on another long walk, venturing further into the adjoining park. Bobby was no nature aficionado, but Alex had learned within a few weeks of moving in with him that walks helped release his nervous energy. By suppertime they were both mellow and made small talk with the family that arrived just before supper, the Lachmans; both husband and son were into spy thrillers, but Tina Lachman turned out to be a Jeopardy fan as well as fond of the Kate Shugak books that Alex read.

Alex noticed Bobby growing restless as the meal progressed; she finally whispered to him, "Did you want to take Donny's books to him?" and he gave her a grateful look. Ari put their desserts aside as they bundled up and drove back to the Sidewinder. It was already dark and there was a line to get inside; through the slightly open car windows the noise from the music inside was already overwhelming.

Then Alex noticed the driver's side door of Donny's sleeper cab, which was parked at the far end of the crowded parking lot, was ajar, and even over the throbbing of the amps they could hear his anxious voice calling for Skunk.

"Something's not right," she said, and they braked to a stop behind the cab and jumped out.

"What's going on?" Bobby called over the canned music; evidently there was no live band that night.

Donny wheeled, upset. "Came out to get something I saved for Rocky. The three of us went to Luray today, to the car museum, and I grabbed him something as a surprise–it's his birthday tomorrow. Skunk sleeps under my bunk, and she didn't come out to greet me."

"Maybe she's just way underneath?" Alex suggested. "Or hiding under clothes? You know cats—they like to hide and then pounce."

Donny indicated the interior of the sleeper cab, and Alex crossed to the opposite side of the vehicle, carefully opening the passenger door while Bobby peered in at the driver's side. There weren't many places for Skunk to hide, they discovered, since Donny's truck was neat as a pin; he used all types of storage tricks to keep his personal possessions from cluttering the sleeper portion of the cab. The only items out were a jacket and Ken Follett's Hornet Flight.

"What's this?" Alex asked, squinting down at the footwell of the passenger side, holding up a paper parcel that had been placed against the underside of the seat. Scrawled on it were the words "for the lezzie lover," and she gritted her teeth.

"I never saw it before."

Bobby now shifted to the outside of the driver's side door, examining it with the mag light he kept in his jacket. "Eames–"

After slamming the passenger door shut, she came to the driver's side of the truck, eyes following the flashlight beam, then said, scowling, "That's the problem with these older models."

"What?" Donny asked, looking over her shoulder.

"See the scratch marks?" Alex said, pointing.

"Someone jimmied your lock," Bobby added grimly, then saw the brown paper parcel she was gripping tightly. "What's that?"

Alex handed it to him, wordless, but the fury in her eyes was evident. His gaze went from the parcel to the Sidewinder, then he snatched it from her and went striding for the front door.

She knew that walk. "Bobby! Don't you–"

"Iceberg!" he shouted back.

"Never mind," she commented when Donny gave her a startled look. "Lock up and follow me," she ordered as she secured the CRV, then pelted after her husband.

Bobby halted at the front door, scanning the crowd; on Friday, it was one that was uniformly youthful, from early twenties to early thirties with perhaps a half-dozen older people. In a moment he'd zeroed in on the group of truckers occupying the large booth in the far corner where the trivia master had run his game on Tuesday: brothers Rocky and Enrique Sanchez, Tim and Jessie Townsend, and also a rangy Black man who was traveling with his older teen son that week, a red-haired young woman, and, backs to the door, Jared and Patel.

Jared was in the midst of loudly relating a story when the teen boy opposite him gaped and stared over his head; every other face at the table followed his gaze—Jared noticed their attention fade at the same time he heard a tearing sound behind him. Then a big hand smacked the brown paper, the ugly words on it face up, to Jared's left, and the sex toy that had been wrapped in it, bright purple with glitter, down on his right. Jared's eyes went from one to the other, then he tried to jump up from his chair, only to have Bobby bump him in so that his stomach wedged against the table.

"What are you, Jared, fourteen?"

Bobby's voice was icy but calm as he continued. "Ariana Entwhistle and Kaye Voytek are two of the most pleasant, finest people I've ever met, as opposed to you, a sniveling little bigot who doesn't know what he's talking about. Their lifestyle hurts no one and is none of your damn business." He bent over Jared's left ear. "Now where's the cat? If you've hurt it, I promise you Ron Grant is not the only person who's going to be pressing charges."

Patel started to push back his chair as if to leave, only to have Alex announce behind him, "None of that. Where's Skunk?" and shove the chair back in.

Jared twisted his head to face Bobby. "I...I don't know, man!" He indicated Patel. "It was his fault anyway! If he hadn't jerked the door open when–"

"Didn't your mommy tell you it was rude to point?" Alex said coolly. "After nearly thirty years a cop, a song I've heard often enough. Did you hear that, Patel? He's ready to rat you out."

Patel was already glaring at Jared. "He thought it would be funny."

Now Fred was hurrying up, the inevitable Theo in his wake. "What's going on?"

Donny said angrily, "These two clowns broke into my truck, and Skunk's gone."

Fred turned immediately to Jared. "This true?"

"It was a joke!" the blond man cried out.

"It's won't be a joke if something happens to the cat," Bobby said, impassive. "What did you do with her?"

"We didn't touch her, man," Patel protested. "Jared picked the lock to drop the fleshlight–"

"Man, you didn't–" Tim Townsend said, making a face.

"-and when I opened the door the cat hissed at me and then jumped out. She ran into the woods–"

"Pendejo!" Enrique Sanchez burst out. "You nuts? There's coyotes out there—they make a meal of cats!"

"I should have run you two off when I had the chance," Fred barked. "Theo, go call the sheriff."

"They can't arrest us over a cat!" Jared spit.

"No," Theo retorted, pulling out his cell phone, "but they can arrest you for breaking and entering, you stupid ass."

"It was a just a joke!" repeated Patel.

"Tell it to the goddamn judge!" Fred said between his teeth.

Donny shouted over the music, "Fred! Stop, please!"

Everyone went silent, and Fred whispered something to Theo, who hurried off, and, seconds later, the music volume fell so that normal voices could be used. One by one people twisted in their seats to see what was happening in the far corner.

"Look," Donny said quietly, "I don't want anyone arrested." Then he glared at Jared. "But you're wrong about Ari and Kaye. They're good people. I've talked to them, they've welcomed me to their home." He jerked his head at Alex, then at Bobby. "My aunt and uncle used to be NYPD. They've met actual evil. Murderers. People who torture other people. Rapists. Serial killers. My uncle saved me once...from being killed. You're hating on the wrong folks." His eyes shifted to Patel. "But, go ahead, you think what you want to think. All I want is Skunk."

"That's magnanimous of you," Fred said, clapping Donny on the back. "You're good, dude." Then he narrowed his eyes at Jared, then at Patel. "You know, at your age I was a punk, too. I made judgments. I called names. Frankly, I acted like a shit. But someone gave me a chance and I cleaned myself up. That's why I've always given people three chances, even if they act like jerks. You two didn't deserve them." He indicated the door with his chin. "Get out—don't come back."

Bobby and Alex stepped back simultaneously. Jared protested, "But–"

"Theo! Escort these two out!"

"We're going," Patel said angrily, shoving back his chair with a screech and glaring at Jared.

They walked out the door, arguing, and Bobby followed them at a tiger's stalk, watching through the front door as they got into their truck and drove away; when he turned, Alex was behind him, her eyes following the vehicle's rear lights until they vanished.

He said, eyes still faraway, "Cool enough for you, Captain Eames?"

"Antarctica," she responded gratefully.

The other truckers and several other restaurant patrons had already surrounded Donny as they returned to the table. Fred had just finished saying that he would place leftovers outside to attract Skunk when Rocky held up his plate on which remained a small portion of trout. "Here, man, put this outside your truck. Skunk knows where she lives, bet she comes back."

"Let me take the bones out," offered the red-haired woman, taking Rocky's plate.

"Thanks, Nancy," they heard Donny say gratefully.

"If that doesn't get her," Enrique said firmly, "Rocky and I will help you look for her tomorrow."

"Count us in, too," said Jessie Townsend.

"You know what?" Alex said confidently as they stood outside the supportive circle, "I think his friends have him covered."

Bobby nodded. "We'll bring the books tomorrow."

"And help look for Skunk," she added, before he could.

Ari met them at the door, took one look at their faces, and made tea, then commiserated with them on the loss of the cat. When they finally headed upstairs, Sam met them at the door and immediately sensed something was wrong, pressing himself against Alex's leg and whining. Bandit was fluffed in a little ball with his head under his wing. When he saw his humans his head popped up, and he gave a puzzled little tweedle.

"It's okay, little bug," Alex soothed him. "Go back to sleep."

Next morning they were somber when they took Sam on his morning walk—in fact, even the dog seemed unusually preoccupied, casting about the woods, and at one point he turned up a chipmunk, which he joyously chased. Alex followed his pursuit curiously. "You don't suppose he could track a cat down?"

Sam came lolloping back at Bobby's whistle, his tongue streaming like a pink ribbon, and Bobby chuckled, scratching him behind one ear. "He's a wonderful therapy dog, and a good boy, but he's never been trained to track."

"He could surprise us."

So they brought the collie along when they returned to the Sidewinder. The sleeper cab was locked and vacant; apparently Donny was already awake and out looking for his pet. Only an inquisitive trio of ants had discovered the trout and would soon be leading an army of their fellows toward it. They skirted the restaurant and discovered the food that Fred had put out was gone, but the prints in the soft soil around the plate were not cat prints. Alex pulled out her phone and identified them as belonging to a raccoon.

In the trees behind the Sidewinder they heard a faint voice calling "Skunk! Here kitty-kitty."

"I've never met a cat who came when called," Bobby said.

"Some do. Skunk might if she's frightened enough," Alex replied. Sam tugged at his leash, now intensely interested in a patch of weeds about five yards away from the emergency exit, surrounded in soft soil. "Bobby, check it out." When she used her phone again, it told her the pawprint the dog had found was indeed that of a cat. Now she gave a good-natured shrug, then coaxed the collie into sniffing at the print. "Can you find the cat, Sam? Fetch! Fetch the cat."

Sam tried his best, or at least he kept nose to the ground, but when he approached a thready creek around which there were numerous animal tracks—Alex identified more raccoons, deer, fox, mice, and rabbits with Google Lens—he lost the trail, if he'd indeed been tracking Skunk at all.

Donny and his friends had returned to the sleeper cab when they finally emerged from the woods, having had no luck as well. The Townsends were just wishing Donny good luck—they had a load to pick up the next day and needed to leave—as did the Johnsons, the man with his teen son. Mr. Johnson handed Donny a business card with his phone number and e-mail, and asked him to let them know what happened.

"If you don't find her," the man said gently, "you call me, too. I got a sister who lives out here. You think if maybe you want a kitten, I'll give you her number, and you can give her a call. She's got barn cats and they always have a litter."

Donny nodded with grieving eyes. When the Johnsons and the Townsends had departed, Rocky and Enrique excused themselves to grab coffee at the Sidewinder, which had just opened for lunch.

"You get any sleep?" Bobby asked his nephew.

"What I had didn't do me much good," Donny admitted. "Nightmares mostly. I know it's stupid–"

"Neither of us thinks it's stupid," Alex said firmly.

Bobby vanished for a few minutes, then returned with the books. "Something to ward off the nightmares."

Donny checked the titles and smiled. "Everything we talked about Wednesday. Thanks."

"That was...really something, what you did yesterday," Bobby added. "forgiving those two."

Donny laughed, bitterness clearly evident. "C'mon, you gotta know I wasn't being completely altruistic. I realized if those two goons got charged, the sheriff might start looking into me, find out my real name—charging them wasn't worth the risk. Even if the sheriff didn't look into me, I might have to testify at a trial. If I got on the witness stand, and they asked me under oath if I were Ronald Grant, I'd be committing perjury." When Bobby cocked his head at him, smiling, he added, "See, history isn't the only thing I've been reading up on."

Alex gave him a hug. "You know, I have a very, very good attorney. If you ever want us to ask...what we might be able to do to fix that, you let us know."

"Thanks," Donny responded. "Now why don't you guys go enjoy your last day of vacation? I have a feeling I'm the only person Skunk will come out for. But Theo promised me he'd help look for a couple of hours, after he helps prep lunch."

He waved farewell as he walked back toward the Sidewinder.

"How about it, Princess Ozma? What would you like to do?" Bobby asked in a light voice, referring to their alter egos at Saturday/Tuesday trivia.

"I don't know, Oscar Diggs," she said with a slow smile. "Maybe the Wizard me some magic?"

"Actually, Kaye did tell me about somewhere special."

To her surprise, he didn't take her back to Talboys, but instead drove up Baldface Mountain, off Skyline Drive. Bobby parked the CRV without saying much, helped her out of the car, clipped Sam's leash on, and the three walked together quietly, looking over the Shenandoah Valley spread in shining color below them. Birds chirped from the trees, crickets chorused from the tall grasses; the nearly-bare trees now past peak at the summit swayed limbs back and forth in the gentle wind. Alex finally ventured, "You know, when we came here in March, I wondered if you'd last the three days."

"I had my doubts," he said reflectively, then stopped, faced her. "Instead it was a tonic after that child trafficking case. Glad we came back. This...has been the best vacation. Thank you for finding this place."

"But coming back was your choice, remember? On the way home from DC? You did good." His face was so introspective that she added only half-teasingly, "This isn't 'Donny's found so it's been a great trip' speaking, is it?"

He shook his head. "No," then shifted restlessly, then swallowed. "Mrs. Goren, it's been a year, more or less, depending on which date we're celebrating. Are you happy with the choice you made?"

Now she understood, knowing the demons in his past. She beckoned him with her forefinger, settling down on the stone wall that kept visitors from venturing too close to dangerous footing, patting the space next to her. Once he was seated, Sam immediately dropped to his haunches in front of him, laying his head in Bobby's lap, and he stroked the dog's head as she said reminiscently, "On my first visit with Dr. Chaudry, she asked me about myself."

He observed, "New patient modus operandi for her."

"I told her about life as a police officer's daughter, a little about college, working Vice, Major Case, Homeland Security. About...the summer of 2020, the house fire, losing Robbie...and how I retreated into myself when I retired. Every so often she'd stop me, ask a question..." this in pointed tones, "some about you, and our partnership. Then I told her about the Saturday night I ran away, and coming back Tuesday...the kiss in the shed. And she asked 'How did that make you feel?'" Now she met his eyes with her own full of love. "I feel the same way right now as I did that night, the very words I told her," and she put one hand on his, "''"

He swallowed, then recounted in a husky voice, "While you your apartment getting fresh underwear," and here she chuckled and squeezed his hand, "and after she said, 'Robert, something's changed. Tell me what's happened,' I t-told her about Saturday night...and how...hurt I was when you walked out...and why you might have left–" He took a breath. "T-that I believed you'd come just to find out why Shard looked so familiar...then you did–"

Now his face lit with a tender, nostalgic smile that made her throat tighten. "And I told her about Tuesday night—well...I might have held back a few intimate details...and she asked 'How do you feel about Alexandra being back in your life?'"

She smiled, too, waiting. "I only needed one word," he confessed.

This time she was the one to tilt her head.


Alex shivered in pleasure and pain and love, and squeezed her damp eyes closed, and he put his arm around her to pull her close. The wind eddied around them, browning gold and crimson leaves spun in slow arabesques to the gravel of the parking area, on the hood of the car. It felt, she'd recall later, as if they'd been pulled out of time.

Finally Sam whined and Bobby said reluctantly, stroking the dog's head, "It's time for us to head back. I keep thinking...what you said about mixed feelings back in March. I feel like that right now."

Alex said practically, "We can always come back. But you're right, I did want to wash a load of clothes, so we won't be drowning in laundry when we get home–"

"And find out what gaffe your cousin Phil made this time while substituting as The Wizard," he added mischievously.

"Oh, damn!" Alex recalled suddenly. "I promised Ana some postcards."

"There will be some at the rest area or the Virginia Welcome Center," he reminded.

"Where you'll attract another harem carrying Bandit around?" she bantered.

"You won't ever let me forget that, will you?" Bobby said wryly as they walked hand in hand to the CRV, Sam pacing sedately beside him.


. . . . .

Bandit burst into a volley of chirps as they entered the room, where she stopped dead in her tracks. "Damn, Bobby–"

He shook his head. "Those two–"

All the clothing they had deposited into their pop-up hamper during the week was sitting at the foot of their bed, washed, dried, and neatly folded. Kaye had left a note on top of Alex's shirts. "Ari made strawberry shortcake. It's in the fridge. Has the cat been found?"

Bobby asked playfully, "Well, you did ask for something earlier. So...what's first? Magic or dessert?"

"Dessert," she said firmly, "should always come after the main course."


                             ***October 30, 2022***

The sun was painting slim lemon-yellow shafts of light on the eastern horizon when Bobby pulled the CRV next to Donny's sleeper cab.

They'd been awake since five, preparing for the day, then allowed Bandit to stretch his wings before his confinement to the travel box, and Bobby played a game of fetch with Sam; finally they took him for a final walk. Next they played "trunk Tetris," as Alex dubbed it, so that the additional bags of books fit in the CRV along with certain other souvenirs and clothing they'd purchased. Although they'd simply planned to take a few slices of shortcake from the refrigerator for the road and not wake up the household, Ari was the proverbial "early bird," at the stove when they came downstairs with the suitcases, the scents of eggs, bacon, and crepes wafting from the kitchen. They gratefully accepted the final meal and Ari handed Bobby two paper bags. "I know Kenan and Fred are probably feeding Donny well, but these are some treats for him when you stop to say goodbye. The smaller bag is for the two of you."

Kaye had appeared, in bathrobe and slippers, for a farewell hug, just before they rose from the table, and Alex thanked her once more for the shadowbox. Then it was time to transfer Bandit into his carry box, fit the cage in the back seat, and harness Sam next to it. The big collie curled up happily right next to the budgie's home. Finally Alex carried Bandit down and they were ready to leave.

"Drive safely, love," Ari said, giving Bobby a hug before he slipped into the driver's seat.

"Thank you," he said, low. "And thank you for welcoming Donny."

"You thank him, love, for defending us," she said.

"I will," he had promised.

The rear window was left cracked open for Sam, and when they pulled into the restaurant parking lot, he scrambled to his feet, his tail drumming on the bird cage. Bobby firmly told him to sit down, which he did, but he tried to wedge his long nose through the crack in the window, whining.

"Be a good boy and quiet down," Bobby said sternly, emerging from the car with Ari's "care package," and crossed in front of it to rap on the driver's side door of the sleeper cab. Sam continued whimpering, then wheeled in his seat, sticking his nose under Alex's arm, huffing under his breath.

"Chill out, Sam," Alex soothed. "We'll be on the road in a few minutes."

She saw the door to the sleeper cab crack open and heard Donny's blurry voice. "Man, you are leaving early! C'mon in," and Bobby slipped into the cab. In the meantime, Sam wheeled again, thrust his nose at the cracked window, whimpering.

"What is up with you?" Alex asked, frowning, and Bandit, perched in the box, gave a kiss while Sam scratched at the rear door. "Sam, stop that. Do you need to go out?"

"Wuff!" Sam said, tail beating a tattoo on the bird's cage.

She sighed, "Okay, little bug, Sam needs to pee," and she opened the passenger side door and set the bird's carry box gently on the seat. It was wrapped in the flannel cage cover to insulate it and make sure Bandit didn't get a draft. His two bright black eyes stared at her. "We'll be right back."

She hurriedly crossed to the left rear door where Sam was shifting impatiently, grabbed his leash from the floor and clipped it to his collar. Almost before she could shut the door, the collie began towing her toward the opposite end of the parking lot.

In the meantime, Bobby was crouched in the warm, dimly lighted cocoon that was the rear of Donny's cab. His nephew, in a pale, well-worn t-shirt and flannel pajama pants, still looked drowsy, but to Bobby's surprise, the tenseness was smoothed from his face and he actually smiled when Bobby said in greeting, "Ari sent some treats for you. I'll wager there's at least one piece of fresh strawberry shortcake in there."

"Those two are nicer than I deserve," Donny answered in a chipper voice, hefting the bag, which was quite heavy.

Bobby's eyes searched the cabin. "Something's happened, Donny," he continued, unconsciously repeating what Dr. Chaudry had said to him a year earlier. "Has Skunk come back?"

"Written all over my face, huh?" Donny said with a wistful grin. "Well, you are trained for this after all. Not Skunk, though. Oh, I'm sure she's close by—something ate the food I put out last night, and the tracks look like a cat's. But those asshats Jared and Pat scared her good. I'm sticking around a few more days...and then Fred said he'd keep a lookout for her if she doesn't show up by then." Now his smile blossomed. "I called my mom last night—we had a long talk, almost an hour. I spilled my guts...about Jinn...and what happened. And Wednesday I'm heading up to see her." Only then did he look a bit uncertain. "Can I stop by your place while I'm up there?"

Bobby leaned forward to give him a hug and Donny returned it. "You are welcome at our house any time. For as long as you want. And I'm so glad you called her. It's what she's been waiting for."

"I know," Donny said softly. "I don't know how I'll make it up."

"Just go home. For her, that's enough."

He shifted in surprise when Alex's fist thumped on the window. "Bobby! Donny!" She pulled open the door. "You have to see this," she added, her eyes alight.

Bobby slipped out of the cab, then Donny shoved stocking feet into his Converses and emerged as well, pulling a plaid flannel shirt over his nightshirt without buttoning it. With a "Check it out," Alex pointed to the tree line that began at the far edge of the parking lot. Sam was seated under an oak tree almost divested of its leaves, his nose pointed toward a dark lump on the lowest branch, close against the trunk of the tree.

"Skunk?" Donny now moved at a choppy trot, with Bobby and Alex jogging behind.

"Wuff!" Sam said as Donny halted at the foot of the tree and craned his neck upward; the "lump" arched its back and spit.

"Bad girl! Bad Skunk!" Donny scolded. "Why didn't you just stay with your food? Come down from there now!"

Her eyes enormous, the cat stood on her toes, as if ill-balanced on the branch, seemingly helpless. Then Skunk opened her mouth to let out a cry—and nothing came out.

Donny's disciplinary attitude collapsed. "Oh, you poor kid. They scared hell out of you, didn't they? Gotta get you down–"

Bobby chuckled behind him, quoting, "'I cannot begin to tell you how effective the Silent Miaow can be for breaking down resistance...the effect is simply staggering.'"

"What?" Donny asked.

"Paul Gallico. The Silent Miaow, supposedly a cat's manual on how to handle humans."

Alex teased, "This must have been during your Cat Lady phase."

"Her name was Lola," Bobby said good-naturedly, then reached up; even standing on his toes the branch was out of reach.

"Gimme a boost," said Donny.

Bobby made a stirrup of his hands and lifted his nephew, bracing himself against the tree trunk so that it partially supported them both. Skunk hunkered down again, looking plaintive, and when Donny extended his hands, she opened her mouth once again to soundlessly plead with him. "C'mon, little girl. Everything's okay. C'mon, lil bean toes...sweet girl...pretty girl..."

Finally Skunk allowed herself to be plucked from the branch to snuggle in Donny's arms, at which Sam gave a happy, but mistimed whine. Now the rattled cat yowled once, then twisted in Donny's grip, only to set claws into him to clamber up his body—"Ow!" he exclaimed involuntarily—and ended up perched on his shoulder, lashing her tail and hissing.

"Let me put Skunk's mind at ease by locking up the 'wolf,'" Alex laughed, and walked him back to the car. There she gave him a big hug and a "good boy!" Quickly she dipped a hand into Ari's goody bag and fished out a cream-enrobed strawberry, which the dog wolfed down.

By that time Bobby and Donny were strolling back to the sleeper cab, a calmer Skunk draped on his shoulder. Alex spotted several lopsided splotches of red on Donny's night shirt just at collarbone level.

"Looks like she got you," she said ruefully, indicating the blood.

"A couple of places," Donny winced. "It's okay. Fred'll fix me up later."

"Robert will fix you up now," Bobby responded sternly.

Donny lifted Skunk back into the sleeper cab, caressing her gently, and she began to purr—until he slipped on her harness and leashed her to the bulkhead. "We're not doing that again," he told her firmly, and Skunk abruptly turned her back on him. "Have it your way, Ms. Ungrateful."

In ten minutes Bobby had patched up Donny with Betadyne and Band-Aids while the affronted cat continued to ignore them. "I guess we'll be seeing you a few days earlier."

"You will." Donny said, tugging his shirt back on. "Maybe I'll see if I can manage your trivia. I'll be my own team."

"No need to play alone unless you want to." Bobby smiled. "Phil—Alex's cousin—will be glad to have you on his team. The Cochrans take care of family, too."

Alex honked the horn of the CRV.

"My lady awaits—impatiently," Bobby said with a grin. "See you soon."

"I'll send some 'Skunk is safe' texts before I move on, giving Sam the credit," Donny replied, matching the smile along with a farewell hug.

Bobby emerged from the cab to find Alex at the wheel of the CRV. "Eames. It's my turn–"

"C'mon, Agent Goren, quit arguing and hop in," she said with the smile and crinkle of caramel-colored eyes that had charmed him for years, "we're burning daylight."

Bobby lifted the budgie's carry box from the passenger seat. "I guess we do what the captain says, Bandit."

Bandit fluffed his feathers. "Good boy!" he piped.


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