a Christmas story; a sequel to "Matrimonial"


                    ***December 1, 2021***

"It's apparently my fate to be an FBI widow," Alexandra Eames Goren said, amused.

Her husband's head rose from the thick brown three-part folder crammed with documents that had absorbed him until she spoke. "'s only–" Then his eyes flicked to his wrist and he groaned. "Six thirty. Hell, I'm sorry. The last time I looked, it was 4:15."

"Which was about fifteen minutes after you went upstairs when you got home from Big Brothers. But this time you get a pass. I was writing and when I noticed what time it was, it was five after six." She looked wistful. "I cancelled the last of our reservations. With the B&B quarantined, and once the Smithsonian announced they were going to close some of the museums due to Omicron, it seemed best."

Robert Goren closed the file folder. "DC's a pretty bleak place in December, except for the Christmas decorations. I was there on TDY just before Christmas nine years ago. We'll go in the spring—see the cherry blossoms. You'll love it. But I'm sorry you did the reservation work for nothing."

She perched on one of the bar stools from her old apartment. "My mother would have said," and here she mocked a singsong voice, "'The best laid plans of mice and men.' So, I've made a green salad and we can warm up the leftover risotto in the microwave. But I'd prefer if you grilled the steak. It always tastes better when you do it."

"Flattery will get you everywhere." He rose, stretched, then crossed the length of the big attic room that served as his office and home library to shove the file folder in his safe, then looked around. "Where's Sam? He usually follows you upstairs."

"Guarding the steak, of course."

"Let's get downstairs before he decides to take custody."

But Sam, the oversized tricolor collie that Bobby had adopted just over a year earlier, was sitting serenely in the kitchen, nose pointing toward the kitchen counter, where the ribeye remained unmolested. He continued to watch, ever hopeful, as Bobby expertly grilled it, even when Alex poured a serving of his own food into his bowl. Bobby rewarded his forbearance by dribbling a little meat juice on his food; Sam savored each nugget separately as they ate dinner in peace.

Bobby's appetite still seemed a little off, as it had the last week or so, and, vaguely worried, she watched him pause as he was eating to look around the kitchen. "Have I said thank you lately for making this place look nice?"

She shrugged, pleased inwardly, but answered, "It was always nice. It just needed a little spit, elbow grease, and paint."

The small, shabby Cape Cod house had undergone major overhauls since October when she'd re-encountered her old partner from the NYPD, and, with minor stumbles, they had reconnected in a more intimate way. Some changes, like new furniture, were made before their wedding in November; more had come afterward: a new refrigerator, a new extractor fan with a built-in microwave over the stove; the dark brown paneled walls covering half the basement painted a brighter color and new flooring installed, with covers placed over the bare light bulbs, and both sets of their file boxes set in rows on new shelving. They'd taken a week to repaint the interior: pale mint green in the kitchen and hall to match the mint green-and-black vintage tile on the lower portion of the wall; light grey with a tint of blue for the living room; sage green in the guest room; and pale winter blue for their bedroom. The only project not finished was the new floor for the kitchen and hall, because Alex was holding out for linoleum instead of vinyl.

"It works better with the retro theme in the house," she told her sister Elizabeth, who laughed at her perfectionism, but it was one of the things he loved most about her, how she got an idea and efficiently followed through with it. She was already looking into landscaping the yard in the spring.

In the meantime she continued working on her career memoir. When he came downstairs for breaks, he'd find her with her head bent over her laptop, one of her records boxes opened before her, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. She wondered if he knew she could see him in the reflection of her computer screen when he stopped at the foot of the stairs and watched her for minutes at the time—while she considered the wistful smile on his face.

Now she proposed, "I've been thinking...maybe bump out the back of the house? Remove the porch and have a two-car garage built here on the kitchen side, and extend the second bedroom to make a master bedroom with a small three-quarter bath? Upstairs there could be office space for both of us, separate from your library."

He regarded her with a troubled expression. "Is this place already too small for you, Eames?"

She stared at him, startled at his tone of voice coupled with the use of her last name in the rebuke, as he commonly used it as a term of affection, then asked, "What prompted that?" When there was no response, she continued, "It's this case of yours, isn't it? Every night when you come downstairs, you're more quiet and more unhappy. I know you can't tell me the details, but–"

"I wish it were finished," he said abruptly, and that alone was jarring. Bobby had always lived for his "puzzles," as she'd once called them; they were the warp of his existence. In her head she ran through his triggers, and then asked tentatively, "Does it has to do with children?" As a former abused child he was always sensitive to the subject.

"It involves a child prostitution ring." His distaste was evident as he considered his half-finished plate and then pushed it aside. "I have some understanding of the type of personality that desires–" and here his lip curled a little. "–pubescent children. The salacious need for sexual vitality and supple flesh. But the desire for younger kids...I have to push aside my revulsion at the concept alone; looking at hard evidence, reading journals and web chats...getting into the perps' heads turns my stomach."

"Couldn't you request a reassignment?" she ventured.

"This wouldn't have been assigned if they though I couldn't work it," he said practically, as she knew he would.

"Bobby–" A pause. "Did you ever think of...retiring?"

He gave her an uncomprehending look. " what?"

"You...could work more hours at Big Brothers, with Russ. The boys love you. Or...why not write up some of your cases? Surely they'd be of interest to law enforcement journals or psychology publications? You could lecture–"

"I don't have any educational credits," he argued.

"I didn't say 'teach,' I said 'lecture.'"

"But who would catch these...bastards?"

She shrugged, thinking that perhaps the current case might be easier for someone not quite so close to the subject matter, then patted his arm. "It was just a suggestion. Do what makes you feel whole."

They managed to finish dinner before Jeopardy came on—as always Bobby completed more than 90 percent of the boards and aced the final—and they put on a rerun of a crime series they could both tolerate without laughing. She settled in the sofa and coaxed him into lying down with his head in her lap, her hand smoothing his greying curls as the inevitable complication occurred onscreen.

About 8:30 his cell phone shrilled from the bedroom and he rose reluctantly to answer it. When he returned he looked uncomfortable.

"What?" she said, having paused the program they were watching.

"I've got a change of schedule for tomorrow." She could tell from the way he was shifting from foot to foot that he was about to say something she wouldn't like and she steeled herself. "That was the psychiatric unit at the penitentiary. Um...I'm going to visit Dec."

She saw him brace himself just as she exploded. "Dec? Declan Gage? is still alive?"

"He's...tough," he said, his eyes averted.

"And you still visit him?" and when he replied, his voice was level and face as impassive as he could manage. "A couple of times a year."

"Why?" She sprang to her feet, furious. "Didn't he admit he tricked Nicole Wallace into killing your brother? And then he killed Nicole—or thought he killed Nicole—and left 'her' heart to you? After what he did to his own daughter? Why?" Unsaid, of course, was "After what she did to me?"

"I haven't forgotten," he said with a swallow, "and none of it is condoned. But–"

"But what?" It came to her that she sounded like a shrew and that her ears were ringing and that if she didn't unclench her fists her knuckles were going to explode.

"I can't expect you to understand–"

She took two steps toward him. "You're damned right I don't!"

He rubbed his neck with his left hand as he did when puzzled or distressed. "I the end he ruined everything. But in the beginning he saved me." He met her eyes earnestly, and put his left hand over his heart. "The partner you bonded with, the man you married...he's only what he is because Declan Gage kept him from going in the wrong direction. I'm only me because of Dec."

She was unmoved and he sighed. "Alex, he isn't the unrepentant egotist you met the first time. He's not even the crazy man you saw the second. He's been dying by inches for the past fourteen years, his mind chipped away a millimeter at the time. That's what the call was about. His nurse says he's been uncharacteristically lucid today and thinks he might still be tomorrow. It's probably my last chance to talk to him. His heart's giving out, and most of the time when I'm there he doesn't recognize me. And if you're glad he's dying...I understand that, too."

She couldn't speak; she knew it was her imagination, but she could still feel the pain in her shoulders, the throb of her wounded head, the cuts in her wrists; the metallic, sickening smell of blood remained in her nose and screaming echoed in her ears. Bobby blurred before her; she simply stared at him, unblinking, then stalked from the living room, down the short hall, and into the guest room, shutting the door hard behind her. She dropped down at the edge of the bed, shivering, angry at him and angry at herself for crying. After a few minutes, she stretched out on the bedspread, and lay eyes open, staring at the wall, not quite awake, not quite asleep.

She knew from hearsay that Bobby had not taken the kidnapping quietly. He'd assaulted his old mentor twice, heard after the fact how Declan had told him to expect the worst so that he'd walked around in a sort of quiet madness. Then the whole pathetic affair the following year, Declan trying to "clear" Bobby's life of all his distractions by framing him for murder, expecting him to intuit his way out of it, not understanding the emotional toll his mother's death and the other events of two years had taken of him, including her own rage at him for keeping her out of the loop of his undercover assignment.

It felt as if only a few minutes passed, but it was over an hour before the door to the guest room opened tentatively, silhouetting Bobby in the doorway. His shoulders were slumped, and his voice was low. "It's time to take Sam out. Will you walk with us?"

The collie squeezed by him and padded to the side of the bed, nuzzling her hand, then gently touching the tip of his tongue to the remnants of salt tears on her face. She petted Sam's ears, then told him to lie down as she sat up.

Even in the dimness of the nightlight-illuminated room she could see Bobby's eyes were grieved. With a sigh, she patted the bedspread next to her. "Come sit."

He shambled to her side, the bed creaking under him, his hands fidgeting as he always did when disturbed.

"Why?" she asked again.

"Because he's the closest thing to a real father I ever had," he said dully. Then, almost fearfully, "'ve forgiven me, haven't you?"

"For what? When Jo Gage kidnapped me? You tried to find me!"

"But I was the reason you were kidnapped in the first place! Because, all full of myself at the foot of the master, I was the reason Declan ignored his own daughter. I should have seen it. She chose you because she knew you were the one person who mattered most to me, the one loss that might push me over the edge."

"Even he told you it wasn't your fault," she argued.

"So you can forgive me...but not anyone else?"

"Those guards who tied you down and left you to dehydrate at Tate's...and Warden Pellis—you've forgiven them?"

He played with his lower lip. "Absolving them of their sins? No. But I've moved on...because hating them didn't hurt them; it only hurt me."

She considered his words.

"Then I'm coming with you," she said crisply, "to make sure that monster doesn't get into your head again."

"I don't even know if they'll allow it."

"Then I'll take my laptop and wait outside." Alex was adamant.

"Suit yourself," he said in an exhausted voice. "But you'll see the monster has no teeth."

. . . . .

He woke her at six a.m., already half dressed; she was fairly certain he hadn't slept much the night before, as she had awakened several times herself and discovered his side of the bed empty. "I'll finish getting dressed and take Sam outside for a few minutes. Then we'll have breakfast and leave by seven."

Blinking in the light of her night table lamp, she noticed he was in dress pants and a dress shirt, and in the process of putting on a tie. "You're wearing a suit?"

He said a little impatiently, "I don't go there as a friend, Alex, at least not on the surface. I'm an 'interested observer.' As far as they know, I'm following his case to its...inevitable conclusion." His voice softened. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather get more sleep?"

She reached up, touched his hand. "No. If you're right...maybe I need to revisit the monster in order to banish it."

Sam sensed something unusual still going on and leaned against Bobby's leg, and Bobby idly rumpled his ruff as they ate a cold breakfast of cereal, fruit, and juice. Then they patted him farewell and went out into the frosty-dark early December morning. It had been a clear night and the stars were diamond pinpoints; the moon had already set hours earlier.

"Why don't you let me drive?" she proposed. "I know you didn't sleep well last night."

"If you know I didn't sleep, then you must have been awake, too."

"Touché. If I get tired we can trade off." She put her laptop in the rear footwell of her Honda CRV and then slid into the driver's seat; he slipped into the passenger seat and fastened his seat belt, and they pulled out of the driveway to head for the freeway.

"Am I here for a reason?" he asked presently.

"Talk to me," she said, "about Dec. Not what you told me years ago. Tell me about you and Dec."

"And I can't drive because–?"

"You move your hands when you talk."

"True." He collected his thoughts. " know my dad was absent much of my life. It didn't bother me much until the schizophrenia manifested in my mother. The more she withdrew, the more I tried getting his attention. So when I was younger he'd tell my mother he was taking me to a ball game or the park; instead I was watching a stranger's color TV while he and his mistress banged in the other room. I always wondered...did he take me because he knew I was the cuckoo in the nest? He never invited Frank. When I shot up to his height, my color TV Sundays were over."

He was so restless that she was thankful she was driving. "Dad never knew what to make of me. I got good grades, had my head stuck in a book half the time. He'd have understood me better had I'd been like Frank, standing on street corners bumming cigarettes from the adults, smoking pot, and talking dirty about girls. Then I joined the Army...and that was a revelation. They appreciated that I was smart, that I caught on quickly, that I could be counted on to follow procedure. I loved it, Alex. I lapped it up. The praise filled an empty place inside me."

"Is that unusual? We all like to be praised, Bobby, even when our parents support us."

"But I hungered for it, like a vampire after blood. Then Dec came along. The father I never had. The one who appreciated my skills and let me know it. He encouraged me to read as much as possible. He'd sit by the hour with me, ramble on about his cases—of course!—let me pick his brain about the people involved and their motivations. A master class just for me." He snorted. "'An instinctive profiler,' he'd brag about me while I was completely oblivious what psychological damage he'd done to Jo. So damn smart I never noticed I came between him and his daughter. I thought it was wonderful that the sweet little teenager with the big eyes could do the same job her father did. I basked in the praise and ignored the consequences." There was a shudder in his sigh. "It almost cost you your life."

He lapsed into silence, and she was loath to ask any more on the subject. So instead she asked, "I was wondering...since it's after Thanksgiving, do you have any Christmas decorations? Mine were all destroyed in the fire."

"I haven't celebrated Christmas since I was eleven," he responded quietly.

So much for something happier to talk about. "I'm sorry, Bobby." She paused. "Was it because your mother was ill?"

"That Christmas she had a psychotic break," he admitted, but surprised her by continuing reflectively, "We had some great Christmases before that. My mom's family was Puerto Rican–"

"Wasn't it her brother who took you to the magic shop?"

"That's right. My uncle Salvador. We'd do the whole season when Frank and I were small, especially Nochebuena all the way to Day of the Kings. One year when I was five and Frank was eight, my mom got us out of her hair by teaching us how to make those Mexican decorations...Ojo de Dios?"

"Eyes of God," Alex said instantly. "Made them in Brownies one Christmas."

"You were a Girl Scout?" he asked, amused.

"I was never a Girl Scout," she responded, deadpan. "I was in Brownies only because I was best friends with Lenore Beckman. By the time I was old enough for Scouts, Lenore and I weren't friends any longer."

"I remember Mom found dowels and cheap yarn at Woolworth's. She fastened the sticks together and then showed Frank and me how to wind the yarn." He smiled reminiscently. "We must have made...three or four dozen of them. Most were lopsided—we weren't the most adept crafters—but they filled up our tree. We had old glass and plastic ornaments from my grandmother, some so faded they barely reflected the lights any longer, but we still hung them on the tree and thought they were beautiful. My mother loved poinsettias. We had little plastic ones from Korvettes to tie on the branches with red yarn to finish off the tree, then we put a wooden Nativity underneath."

"It sounds nice. What's Nochebuena?"

"Christmas Eve is the big celebration when you're Puerto Rican...special foods, music, family. My dad was almost never home at Christmas, and we'd go to Uncle Sal's house and party past midnight."

Alex considered. "Do you remember any of the dishes you liked? Maybe we could make them and have a Christmas Eve party. Invite everyone at the Dark Crystal and feed them for a change."

"I do owe them, don't I?" he chuckled ruefully.

"Both of us do," she reminded, and it was silent again until she finally asked, "So...what happened when you were eleven?"

"It started when she had a fight with my dad. He called on the 23rd and said he'd run into a great business opportunity—he was in Chicago—and would be staying a few more days. She swore at him about his whores and hung up." His voice lowered. "As it got dark, she called Frank and me into the living room. She unearthly look in her eyes and asked us, 'Who did this?' Frank told her to stop sounding crazy, and I said, 'Mama, we didn't do anything.' I was terrified; I'd seen that expression on her face before.

"She pointed at the tree and said it was spying on her, that the 'Eyes of God' were staring into her soul. Frank just laughed. I tried to talk her down, but she went into Frank's room, grabbed his baseball bat, and...just beat the tree to pieces. Methodically. One ornament at the time, and saved the Nativity for last. Finally she threw the bat into the wall and sat down on the armchair and just...shut down, staring into space. I finally called Uncle Sal. When he arrived, my mother wouldn't react to anything he said to her, in English or in Spanish, and he called an ambulance for her, cursed my dad, then took me home with him. Frank told him he didn't want to come—spent Christmas with one of his buddies instead. Uncle Sal died next year and Aunt Elena went back to Puerto Rico. And that was the end of it."

She reached out her hand to caress his cheek. "I promise this Christmas will be happier."

. . . . .

"He's been very sharp since yesterday, Dr. Goren," the nurse said to them. "You should be able to speak with him."

Alex, standing beside him, ramrod-straight with her laptop case gripped tightly in her left hand, dressed in her most severe black pantsuit with a crisp white blouse, spared him a curious look at the "Dr. Goren" address, but was uncomfortable in the atmosphere of the prison hospital ward: the glaring blue-white light, the worn and dirty blue paint on the walls, the scuffed flooring, the smell of stale bodies and urine and floor cleaner. Bobby's face was impassive, but she could see the tension in his jaw.

"And Ms. Eames–" Jonah Mortenson continued, curious.

"Is conducting research on dementia patients in the prison system," Bobby said smoothly. "I invited her as she's been especially interested in Dr. Gage's case."

Mortenson issued them two visitors' passes and then conducted them through a series of barred gates, finally stopping them a few feet away from a final one, where a guard sat at a bank of video cameras. As he conferred with the guard, Alex whispered "Doctor Goren?"

"Have never represented myself in that way," he murmured. "They have just always assumed."

She nodded in response since the nurse was returning to escort them into a final corridor lined with barred doors. He stopped before the second door to the left to let them in.

"We won't be monitoring your conversation. Buzz me when you're finished," Mortenson said, and closed the door behind them. Alex felt a brief flash of claustrophobic panic before concentrating instead on the institutional green room, dotted dirty white where paint had flaked, which contained a sink and an open cupboard stuffed with urinals, an open wardrobe, an ancient tube television bolted high on the wall, and a flimsy side table, the hospital bed itself the only modern item in the room. The close chamber reeked of stale urine and cleaning ammonia. The man in the bed was staring out the window, completely oblivious to them.

"Good morning, Dec," Bobby said, voice upbeat.

He was right, she realized. The wizened figure in the bed bore no resemblance to the arrogant figure who'd strode into the interview room at Major Case fifteen years earlier to pick up his daughter, or the erratic disheveled man who'd confronted Bobby in the interrogation room a year later babbling about how he had set him free. This Declan Gage was frail: nearly skeleton-thin, his scraped-back dwindling hair pure white, his face hollow, his arms bony with ropy veins. No wonder the guard held no fear of them being unmonitored! A lightweight rolling tray was next to the bed with a plastic pitcher of water and what looked like a tattered puzzle book and a pencil set on it. Only his eyes, suddenly bright with recognition, looked familiar, and the face lit up as he turned to them. "Bobby! You've finally come!"

"Haven't been able to make it lately, Dec." Bobby pulled up two aged plastic bucket chairs from under the narrow window and placed them side by side by the bed. "The FBI's keeping me busy."

"So you're still working with them?" Gage's eyes were like an alert bird's. "What are you working on? C'mon, tell me about it."

Bobby sat down, moving slowly, casting reproving eyes at his old mentor. "Aw, Dec, you know I can't tell you. You've worked with the FBI. Ten times more strict than the NYPD or the Army."

Alex followed his lead sitting down, and it was only then Gage acknowledged her. He pointed a wavering finger in her direction. "I know you. Eames, right? Alexandra Eames."

"That's right," Bobby said easily, "my partner back on Major Case."

Gage's eyes clouded briefly as if he recalled something painful, then cleared. "I'm surprised to see you visiting me."

"It's a surprise to me, too," she said softly. The hand that was still holding the laptop case tightened.

"You're...working with Bobby now?" The elderly profiler looked confused, and she glanced at Bobby for guidance. In response, Bobby held up his left hand. "In a manner of speaking we're working together. See?" and he tapped his wedding ring.

" are married?" Gage asked, his face clearing a little.

"That's right," and Alex set the laptop case next to her chair and held up her own left hand. The chased gold wedding bands were alike except that hers had a line of four sky-blue stones at center, her compromise instead of an engagement ring.

Gage smiled delightedly, sounding almost like his old self. "Congratulations! When did you tie the knot?"

"Last month," Bobby said, folding his hands in his lap, and she could see how his fingers gripped themselves in order to keep still. "November 15."

"I would have loved to have seen that," Gage said contemplatively. "But—of course I can't leave. Did Jo come?"

"She couldn't, Dec. Remember? She has to stay at the hospital."

"Oh–" Gage collected himself. "That's right. I forgot."

Alex's head was swimming. Of course she couldn't have come. Jo had been in prison, too, for murdering three women to get her father's attention. She herself might have been the fourth.

In any case, Jo Gage was dead. She'd survived in a coma for years, then passed on about the time Alex had earned her captain's stripes.

Had no one told Declan Gage his daughter was dead? Or had he just forgotten?

"She knows, doesn't she, that you married? She should!" Gage said with childish glee. "She knew! She told me, way back."

"Told you what, Dec?" Bobby was puzzled.

"About Eames. Sharp like her father," the old man boasted. "It was the first time I went to visit her after–" He stopped, eyes unfocused for a few seconds. "After she–" He began to rub at his left eyebrow fretfully. "After I went to talk to her for the first time. She smiled at me when I walked in. She said she felt bad for me, and I asked why. She said I'd lost you, too, Bobby. 'He's not yours anymore, Dad.' She...giggled at me. It was very odd. 'You've lost him, Dad. He's Eames' now.'" He looked at Bobby brightly. "She was a smart girl." Then his brow furrowed. "Is a smart girl." He smiled sunnily. "You tell her when you see her."

Bobby nodded. "I will, Dec," and Alex saw him cast his eyes desperately around for a distraction, then fix on the puzzle book laying on the rolling tray. It was dated six years earlier and looked tattered, but was unused.

"You still working those cryptograms, Dec?" and Gage's eyes wandered in the same direction. "Oh, those. Since that's all they let me work on." His voice became wheedling. "Please, Bobby—tell me just a little about your new case? You've got a new case, right? That's why you've been too busy to visit."

"Dec, you're gonna get me in trouble–" Bobby said patiently, as if speaking to a small child.

"I'm going soft in here, Bobby. I need something to do in my head. These four walls around me, all the time. Crap on TV. Look, who am I gonna tell?"

"It's...a child prostitution ring," Bobby said carefully. "Run somewhere out of the New England area."

Gage's eyes narrowed. "Children bought and sold. The lowest of the low. What are you thinking about them? Home grown? Or some type of cartel?"

Bobby shook his head. "Just started on it, Dec," he fibbed. "Still doing the preliminaries." He was moving his hands now, in a slow ballet. "Got to put the clues together, get in their heads, just like you taught me."

Gage smiled. "Atta boy, Bobby. But you've got leads, right?"

Bobby paused as if considering. "We have...a clue. These bastards tattoo their kids on the back of their necks."

"Typical! Typical! They have to mark them, like alpha dogs. This is how they assert their power. I had a similar case in the was a–" Abruptly, he changed tracks. "Say, Eames? Can you do me a favor?"

Alex's mouth was dry and her voice came out nearly as a whisper. "Certainly, Dr. Gage. What is it you need?"

He waved a bony hand at the window. "Can you move that lamp? It's in my way. I can't see the view."

She saw Bobby flinch. There was indeed an attractive view out the narrow window; the prison's hospital ward faced the countryside and you could see a slice of bare trees and the blue edge of the Hudson River in the distance.

But there was no lamp in front of it.

"I can get that for you," she said, crossing to the window. "Do you want it to the right or to the left?"

His voice was irritated. "I don't care. Just move it."

She mimed moving something to the left. "Here, that should be out of your way."

"Thank you," Gage said gruffly. "Why they put lamps in front of windows–" Then he gave her a confused look. "Who say you were again?" and Alex knew the scale had tipped.

"She's my wife, Dec," Bobby said softly, swallowing hard.

"Wife?" Gage looked confused. "When did you get married?"

"Last month," Alex said, smiling, then reminded, "Bobby, don't forget our appointment."

"What?" Bobby started, then grasped the distraction gratefully. "Yeah, our appointment. Alex has an appointment with her publisher, Dec. She's writing a book about her career with the NYPD."

Gage looked at him blankly. "She worked with the NYPD?"

"Yes. And we have an appointment at one o'clock to talk about the manuscript." Bobby stood up, swooped to get her laptop case. "Hate to cut out on you, Dec."

Gage's eyes were already drifting back toward the window, and Bobby stepped next to the bed to touch his old mentor on the shoulder. Gage looked up, eyes clouded in growing confusion."Bobby?"

"I'll come back, Dec."

"Of course you will. You'll have to tell me about your case. You did say you had a new case? You promise?"

Alex crossed to the door, and fiercely hit the buzzer three times.

"I promise, Dec." Bobby was already struggling to keep his voice steady.

Gage said fretfully, "Before you go, could you please move that lamp away from the window?"

"Sure, Dec." He gave the old man's hand a squeeze, then briskly crossed to the window and shifted the phantom lamp to one side. "That better?"

Gage didn't answer, and when Bobby turned around the old man's eyes were already glazed over.

Alex almost gasped in relief when Mortenson opened the door. Bobby saw it as his chance and nodded to the nurse formally as he headed in that direction, handing the laptop case coolly off to Alex. But in the doorway he stopped, turned one more time, and said, "Good-bye, Dr. Gage."

There was no answer from the bed and Bobby merely walked out into the glaringly-bright blue-lighted hallway, his head up, with Alex following briskly behind him.

"Finally lost him, huh?" Mortenson said sympathetically.

"Typical case," Alex interjected, because she wasn't certain Bobby could even respond. "I'm glad I was able to speak what little I could with him. What does the doctor say about his condition?"

"Dr. Staples doesn't give him more than a couple of weeks. Says he'll probably be gone by the new year. His heart's more erratic by the day."

"I'll include that in my report," Bobby stated evenly, and then Mortenson walked them out. Alex watched the military set to Bobby's shoulders, and his composure held until they reached the parking lot, where she could see his gait start to falter and cursed her high heels, but managed to pull ahead of him in time to open the passenger side door so that he could collapse into the seat of the car, his eyes tight shut. She stood in the open doorway, rubbing his right shoulder with her hand, looking back at the prison complex, her vision blurred.

"Things all right, ma'am?"

Alex, startled, turned her head to see a uniformed guard in a golf cart halt his rounds.

She said diplomatically, "My husband...just got some bad news. His stepfather is dying."

The silver-haired guard looked sympathetic. "Is there anything I can help with?"

She heard Bobby clear his throat, then he swivelled in the car seat to face the guard, his face smoothed into calm again, wet stains on his cheeks. "I'm fine, thank you. Just...a bit of a shock."

The guard shook his head. "Did that with my stepdad. We had some fights royal, but it tore me up when he passed. You two have a better day," and he continued on his way.

Alex looked down at Bobby, her eyes soft. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you."

"Believe what?"

"That the monster had no teeth."

"You're the realist. You have to see the evidence to get the facts," he said, squeezing her hand. "Are you up for some lunch? I'll drive and you can hunt something up on your phone."

"I'd like that."

They ended up at a restaurant called "Pennsylvania Pantry," which was colorfully decorated with tulips and hex signs, billing itself as "PennDutch in New York." Bobby was intrigued by a menu item called "turkey with 'filling,'" which turned out to be stuffing made with mashed potatoes, while Alex satisfied herself at the soup and salad bar. The restaurant capped one end of a strip shopping center, and Alex elected to check out the Joelle Crafts several doors down. He ambled behind her as she picked up a few artificial Christmas flowers as well as a small vase, intending them for the kitchen table, before discovering the store sold artificial Christmas trees. She'd planned to get a small tree to sit at the top of the tier table in the front window, and she checked out several artificial ones in that size.

"Do you like any of these?" she asked Bobby, and he shrugged disinterestedly. "Too small?"

"Don't like artificial Christmas trees," he confessed. "They sell trees that size at the farmer's market."

"A small live tree would be pretty. White or colored lights?"

"White's traditional...but–"

"But we both had colored lights as kids?" she continued with a smile.

"And Christmas is always about nostalgia," he finished, his face still sober.

So they picked out several strings of lights with opalescent bulbs, boxes of small ornaments in vintage styles and multiple colors, and some bead garlands, and, as they were heading to the checkout counter, Alex halted.

"Look," and she pointed at the packages of popsicle sticks. "We could get some yarn and bring them to Big Brothers–"

. . . . .

                    ***December 10, 2021***

While Alex didn't always spend Fridays in the city with her sister any longer, they had planned this particular Friday to take Amtrak into town, visit her family, and spend the evening at Rockefeller Center taking in the Christmas festivities. Alex knew Bobby would want to spend several hours browsing in the Strand Bookstore and he awoke just after 6:00 a.m. fairly upbeat. He was completely dressed when his cell buzzed, and was surprised to find Russ Jenkins' ID on the call.

"Bob, man, I'm sorry to wake you at this time of the morning–"

"Alex and I were already up—we're visiting family in New York today. What's up?"

There was a pause, then Russ said reluctantly, "I'm sorry...maybe I should try someone else."

"What's up?" Alex mouthed and he shrugged, puzzled, then switched to speakerphone. "Russ, what's the matter? We've got time to listen; we're not on a schedule."

"The problem is, this is a lot more complicated," Russ began, voice slightly breathless. "I thought of you two because you're both vaccinated and have had background checks–"

"Russ, calm down," Bobby said, adopting a collected voice, "Now, what's going on?"

Russ Jenkins was a retired accountant who spent most of his new "free time" working at the Big Brothers, Big Sisters facility between tiny Milbury where they lived and larger Southbury north. The organization was quartered in a grammar school that had been partially demolished, but still had a gymnasium, small cafeteria and kitchen, and several other rooms which served the children of the area. Bobby—and now more often Alex—volunteered there on Wednesday afternoons.

"I usually have three to four families where I can send kids when we have an emergency," Russ explained, "but this Omicron variant thing has me floored. All four families either have someone in the family with COVID or someone in the family who's been exposed. I'm not permitted to do it because I'm a single guy–"

Alex said in exasperation, "Russ! Cut to the chase—what's up?"

"Carlos and Luciana's grandmother is in the hospital. I'm told it's nothing dire. She's been having some irregularities with her heart rate and the doctor thought he had it under control, but this morning she had to call 911 because of heart palpitations. They need to monitor her for a couple of days and get her meds standardized, and the kids need somewhere to stay in the meantime. Their aunt and uncle from Cleveland can come for them, but it would be hard."

Alex's eyes were so anticipatory that Bobby muted the phone before murmuring, "Don't say it–"

"Say what?"

"'No room at the inn.'"

"You thought of it, I didn't," and she reached out and cancelled the mute. "Russ, we only have one free bed. Ana would have to sleep on the sofa. I thought they were very strict about kids having their own beds."

"Alex, I don't want to turn these kids over to social services. It's a mess right now with COVID—and Mrs. Diaz's doctors claim she'll be out in a couple of days. Better your sofa than jammed in some institution where they'd be separated—you know how close they are even though Carlos won't admit it to the other guys. The aunt and uncle say they will come out if it turns out to be more serious."

"Hold on–" Bobby muted the phone again. "Alex, I still have my'd have to shoulder most of this–"

"It's not as if they're babies," she said thoughtfully. "And they're used to living with an older person."

"Ana's very fond of you," he mused. "And the kids could play with Sam–"

She clicked to unmute. "When do you need us, Russ?"

"Right now. They're here at Big Brothers. They've been up since about three a.m. and they're unhappy and tired. I fed them some breakfast, but they didn't eat much, as you can imagine."

Alex said, "How about their things? How will we get them?"

"I have a key, and I've got a Southbury police officer who'll escort you to the apartment with the kids, so they can show you where their clothes and personal items are."

Even when they'd worked together they'd been able to speak to each other with their eyes and now they met in agreement. "Let us take the dog out and then we'll head there," Bobby said.

"You two are lifesavers!" Russ exclaimed. "See you in a while."

Bobby hung up.

"What have we done?" Alex said, expelling a deep breath.

"Made room at the inn." He grinned and she rolled her eyes.

"I'll call Lizzie while you walk Sam, and then get my suitcases from downstairs," she said briskly.


"They might not have their own, and I know how they transfer foster kids in the system! They throw all their possessions in garbage bags! Sorry, not with these kids." And she grabbed her cell as she wheeled and headed for the basement.

. . . . .

They found the children in the cafeteria, next to each other on plastic chairs in front of a long cafeteria table. Luciana had her head down on her arms, but Carlos was sitting at attention next to her, right hand on her shoulder as if he were guarding her, his round, sturdy face impassive but eyes swollen with lack of sleep. Bobby looked so somber as they walked in that Alex nudged him; he summoned a more cheerful expression and said "Hola, Carlos."

"Mr. G!" he said in surprise, then shook his sister. "Ana! Ana! It's Mr. G and Ms. Alex."

Ana's thin, tear-stained ten-year-old face rose, then she pushed her chair away and pelted to Alex, who bent forward to hug her. "Oh, Ms. Alex, Abi-Abi is sick!"

"We know, honey. We're here to help."

Carlos stood up as Bobby approached. "Mr. G, do you know how our abuela is?"

"We hear she's doing okay, Carlos," he soothed. "Her medications just aren't working properly. The doctors will try different ones so she can get well."

"But what about us?" Carlos was twelve and knew what usually happened next. "Mr. J said he couldn't find a family he knew to take us in. I don't want to go to the county. I promised Abi-Abi to take care of Ana, and I can't do that if they separate us. Besides, I've heard about those boys at County. They pick on kids like me."

"You're not going to the county," Alex said decisively.

"Once we pick up some clothes and other things for you, you're coming home with us," Bobby finished.

Ana's jaw dropped. "We can come to your house?"

"¿Es eso cierto?" Carlos demanded.

"King's X," Bobby said, making a cross on his chest.

"Can we play with your dog?" Ana asked.

"If he wants to be played with, sure," Bobby said with a grin.

"And go to your trivia game?" Carlos added.

"You'll have to; we're not leaving you home alone," Alex answered. "Ana, there is something I have to tell you. We only have one spare bed—you'll have to sleep on the sofa. But if you have special pillows or a blanket or a stuffed animal, we can bring them so you'll be comfy sleeping there."

"She has a stuffed lamb she talks to," Carlos whispered to Bobby. "Isn't that silly?"

"I don't think it's silly. I still had a stuffed dog when I was Ana's age." Bobby confided. "I'd had him since I was little and kept him hidden from my brother under my bed. When my mom wasn't feeling well, I had Wolfie to hug."

Carlos looked at him curiously, then snapped to attention as Russ entered the kitchen with a uniformed police officer. The woman, in her late twenties, tall with blond hair bundled in a bun behind her head, gave them a friendly smile.

"This is Officer Kate Shadley, and she'll take you back to your abuela's apartment so you can get your things. Ms. Alex has brought suitcases so you can pack your clothes."

"We're not arrested, are we?" Ana whispered anxiously to Alex.

"No, honey. She's just going to make sure no one thinks we're breaking into your grandmother's apartment."

They found Abril Diaz's small apartment cozy and welcoming. She used the smaller bedroom of the two-bedroom apartment for herself in order to leave the larger room for her grandchildren to share, and made the home comforting with framed photos, some embroidered motifs, and dollar store decorations. The children's room was basic: a twin mattress on either wall and discount-store furniture warmed with embroidered huck-cloth bureau scarves, and little plastic saints' statues. Bobby helped Carlos with his clothing while Ana and Alex rummaged in the little girl's possessions.

Presently Bobby looked around the room and said casually, "You know, Carlos, when your abuela is better, I have an idea for you and Ana. I know you can't change a lot of things in an apartment, but I think we could put hooks in the ceiling and hang a curtain in the middle of the room. Then you and Ana can both have 'private space' when you want, and leave the curtain open other times."

"That would be okay," Carlos said, but they could hear the longing in his voice.

"Yeah, then he won't watch me writing in my diary," Ana complained.

"I don't care about your old diary," her brother scoffed.

"I saw you peeking over my shoulder," she needled him back.

"Hey," Bobby said quietly. "Nobody peeks at someone else's diary. That's not a cool thing to do."

They asked the children to pick out anything in the living room or kitchen they wanted to bring, and when they disappeared, Alex asked, "What's with the hooks?"

To her surprise, he flushed. "Well...Carlos is about the age...where a g-guy starts know," and she had to suppress a smile.

"Bobby, you're blushing," she said soberly. "But it's good of you to think of that. Pretty soon Ana's going to need a little privacy, too."

"This early?" he said, surprised.

"Sometimes it does come this early."

The kids returned with a few personal things: Ana's floppy stuffed lamb and a periwinkle-colored fleece blanket, the diary and three gel pens, a hand-held game toy, a Spanish version of "Go Fish," a small stack of Marvel comics with a well-worn "Spiderman" issue on top, a few used volumes of "Arthur" books, two Harry Potter paperbacks, and Carlos' soccer ball. They'd also gone into the bathroom and retrieved toothbrushes and hairbrushes; Alex followed in their wake, finding some vitamins and checking out what kind of soap and shampoo they used to make sure they didn't need anything hypoallergenic. Bobby removed items from the refrigerator that might spoil in the next few days: milk, eggs, fruit, and put them in a string bag found hanging near the apartment door. "When your abuela comes home, we'll buy all this fresh so she won't have to go grocery shopping, okay?"

Alex noticed that Ana was having trouble keeping her eyes open. "How much sleep did you two get?"

"Not much," Carlos admitted. "Abi-Abi woke us up about three. She said–" He bit his lip.

Bobby patted his shoulder. "It's gonna work out, Carlos. Look, let's get you back to the house. You two can sack out for a couple of hours and I'll call the hospital. Maybe they'll let you talk to your abuela for a few minutes."

"I would–" and here Ana yawned deeply, "–like that."

As Alex stuffed their bed pillows in a clean trash bag, she asked, "I like the name you call your grandmother. Does Abi-Abi mean something?"

"Carlos thought it up," and Ana yawned again, "when he was little."

"To tell our abuelas apart," Carlos explained, taking the bag from Alex. "Papa's mother is Abi-Theresa and Mama's mother's name is Abril, so she's 'Abi-Abi.'"

"I'll bet nobody else has an Abi-Abi," Alex told him, ushering him out the back door, and Officer Shadley locked the apartment behind them. They drove back to Milbury in relative silence, and Bobby had to carry a sleeping Ana into the house. Alex placed the child's pillow and the stuffed lamb on the sofa, then he laid Ana down and removed her shoes, while Alex tucked her under the fleece blanket.

Sam had been told to sit and stay when they entered, but now he was consumed with curiosity. Carlos started as the collie pushed past him, nose working, tail waving slowly. Bobby started to admonish the big dog, but Sam just delicately sniffed at Ana's face, cocked his head curiously, then lay down in front of the sofa, looking up at them and thumping his tail. Carlos bent down to pet him and he licked at the boy's hand.

"Look at that." Alex said, smiling. "Maybe we should train him as a therapy dog. He's a natural."

"Good dog," Carlos said. "You–" Now he gave a prodigious yawn. "–guard Ana."

"Your turn," Bobby directed, and led the youngster into the spare bedroom. Carlos pulled off his shoes and sank down on the bed, Alex handed him a pillow and he stretched out on the denim spread; he was nearly asleep before Alex laid one of the living room throws over him. "Thanks, Ms. Alex...tell Abi-Abi we misser–"

Bobby closed the door behind them. "I'd better call the hospital."

In a few minutes he had called St. Mary's, identified himself, and then asked that the hospital call Officer Shadley or Russ Jenkins to confirm his identity if they needed corroboration. He asked after Abril Diaz's condition and let the operator know that he and his wife were caring for Mrs. Diaz' grandchildren Carlos and Luciana.

He stepped out of their bedroom a few minutes later, looking amused. Alex emerged from the bathroom simultaneously, saw his face, and asked, "Did you have to pull rank?"

"In spades. She said she might be able to have the doctor call me today. I told her if she needed further information, she could call the FBI field office in Hartford and ask for Agent Marcus Thuringer to confirm the identity of Agent Robert Oliver Goren, then gave her the number and the extension. This time she said she could have Dr. Avebury call me in a few hours."

"So much for Christmas shopping," Alex commented lightly.

"We did the right thing."

"I know."

He looked around. "We've got to find you workspace, Eames."

She loved when he used her maiden name affectionately and gave him a hug. "I'll sit at the kitchen table and keep an eye on the kids. Go upstairs and find your bastards." Anger flickered on her face. "Somewhere out there they're after kids like Carlos and Ana."

"Should I stay here while you go out for a run first?"

"We can all go for a walk after lunch. The kids'll probably be antsy."

He started to turn toward the living room, then said, "What will we do about lunch?"

"Ask them when they wake up." Then she grinned. "Bet they say 'pizza.'"

. . . . .

"I love pepperoni," Ana said, wide awake now and busy devouring a slice of pizza. "Do you, Ms. Alex?"

"I like mushrooms and ground beef better, but pepperoni is good," Alex said, with an "I-told-you-so" expression on her face. She was glad she'd ordered two large pizzas because Carlos was already wolfing down a fourth slice. She looked at Bobby and mouthed "Growth spurt soon!" to which he grinned.

Carlos halted in mid-bite. "You know, I forgot—we're supposed to be in school!"

Ana looked startled. "Will we be expelled?"

"Don't worry. Mr. J. called your schools and explained what happened. They should have e-mailed us your lesson plans for today. You did do your homework last night, I hope?" Bobby said, feigning sternness.

"Abi-Abi is really strict about that. We did it before bedtime," Ana explained.

"When you go back to school Monday, we'll give you a note saying you did it on time," Alex said smoothly. "If your grandmother is still in the hospital Sunday night, we'll take you back to the apartment to get your school things and then take you to school the next day."

"Thank you, Mr. G. Thank you, Ms. Alex," Carlos said politely and then kicked his sister under the table so that she parroted a similar response with her mouth full of pizza.

As Alex had suggested, they took the pair out for a walk after lunch. Carlos chose to jog with Alex and Sam while Ana elected to keep Bobby company as they walked, holding fast to his hand, and Bobby shortened his stride to accommodate her. She must have had her eyes on him as Alex, Carlos, and Sam passed by, because she observed softly, "You really love Ms. Alex, don't you, Mr. G?"

"I do," he said just as gently.

With the quick shift of a child's mind, Ana changed gears. "So when do we get to talk to Abi-Abi?"

"I'll call the hospital if they don't call me soon, Ana. I promise."

Upon returning to the house Bobby retrieved and printed the kids' lesson plans and classwork and sat them down at the kitchen table, then called the hospital again. Dr. Avebury was located and stressed to him that Mrs. Diaz was fine, but was sleeping after having had a stress test and other laboratory work. He then transferred Bobby to the charge nurse, who said she would have Mrs. Diaz call around dinnertime. Further inquiries appeared fruitless, so he went back upstairs. Alex checked on the kids occasionally but mostly remained in the living room working on her manuscript. About 4:00 p.m. Bobby came loping downstairs with a grin on his face, setting his phone in the middle of the table and turning on the speaker.

Mrs. Diaz sounded cheerful if a little impatient with being in the hospital. Neither of them had ever met her, but they got an impression of self-sufficiency and strength from her voice. Alex's Spanish was limited, but Bobby translated as the kids chatted with her. She was bored. She thought the dinner she'd had to order—meat loaf and mashed potatoes with green beans—sounded unappetizing. What was on television was terrible. The doctor was kind, and so were the nurses. There had been a very handsome technician at one of her tests; he looked like Raul Gonzalez on Telemundo! And then her voice became stern and both Carlos and Ana sat to attention. After a few moments Bobby was stifling laughter.

"She's telling them," he whispered to Alex, "that they'd better behave for us, not one step out of line, or there will be no Nochebuena and no celebration for the Kings—not even a King cake!"

She added a message for Carlos to give to them, which Bobby understood, but allowed the boy to pass on himself after she hung up muttering about the bland-looking meatloaf that had just arrived. "Abi-Abi says to tell you gracias for caring for us, and that when she is home and well she wishes that you come for dinner and she will treat you like la familia real. Like a king and queen."

"But first we concentrate on making sure she's well," Bobby concluded.

Carlos looked down at his almost completed class work. "You know, I'm starving."

"Well, finish up," Alex said teasingly, "and we'll take you to the back door of our favorite restaurant."

. . . . .

By the time they left the Dark Crystal, both Carlos and Luciana were on their way to being spoiled by the entire staff. Despite Alex's teasing, they'd actually entered through the front like regular customers, and Richard Carver, co-owner of the restaurant where Bobby ran a Saturday-and-Tuesday trivia challenge, personally sat the quartet next to the dais where "The Wizard' and "Princess Ozma" customarily held court. On Friday nights Shard, as he was known to his friends, invited independent musicians to perform, and that night a young Black woman was playing smooth jazz arrangements of Christmas carols on acoustic guitar. TJ Gomes, Shard's business and personal partner and chef extraordinaire, made them chipolte wings and potato skins, and head server Sharon fussed over them like a mother hen. As they ate Ana kept staring at the Christmas tree, which, in keeping with the restaurant's theme colors, was black with ornaments in various shades of purple and blue along with silver and gold, draped with purple and blue bead garland, and finally asked, "Mr. G, where is your Christmas tree?"

"We haven't bought one yet," he admitted.

Carlos asked eagerly, "Can we go with you tomorrow and get one?"

There was some eye conversation between the adults. "That sounds like fun," Alex said with a smile.

Back at the house, Bobby settled in his recliner with a stack of various history, linguistics, and scientific volumes to extract trivia questions from them. The kids sat cross-legged on the floor watching Elf on a movie channel while Alex tapped away on her manuscript, but during a lull in the plot Ana rose and peeked over Bobby's shoulder, reading his backhanded notation. "'Three parts. What was the un- uni-'?' I don't know that word."

"Unique," Bobby prompted. "It means 'one of a kind.'"

"'-unique as-pect of coun-ter- feet money fab-ri-ca-tors in Co-lonial America? Name the most fam- famous of these: clue—the name relates to a dry meas- measure. What did this person accomp- accomplish that made the colony of Rhode Island angry? Bonus: Name the first of these Colonial coun-ter-feeters.' What's a coun-ter-feeter?"

"Counter-fit," Bobby corrected, patting her arm. "You read well, Ana."

"Oh, you know, Ana," Carlos cut in impatiently. "We saw counterfeiters on Dateline once. They make fake money, remember? And then people like Abi-Abi get in trouble for using it."

"You kids have permission to watch Dateline?" Alex asked, surprised, knowing the news series' penchant for featuring violent crimes.

"Well, Abi-Abi doesn't know we're watching–" Ana admitted and Carlos elbowed her, which made her bite her lip. "Ow!"

Alex made a mental note to talk to Mrs. Diaz, then added, "The amazing thing about this question is that Mr. G expects someone to answer it! Where did you get that one, an obscure history textbook?"

"October issue of 'Early American Life,'" he parried.

"Well, don't keep me in suspense!"

"The majority of Colonial American counterfeiters were women. The most famous was Mary Peck—the 'unit of dry measure.' And Mary Peck created such flawless counterfeit money that she bankrupted the Rhode Island treasury." Bobby said comfortably. "The first of these women was Freelove Lippincott, also from Rhode Island."

"And now you know something no one will ever want to know again," Alex teased.

"Someone will know," he said. "You know they come for the challenge."

Dialog from the movie penetrated the conversation and Christmas Eve was mentioned. "I hope Abi-Abi is well for Nochebuena," Ana said sadly, and immediately the mood in the living room became somber.

"Mr. G was telling me about Nochebuena the other day. Did you know his grandmother was from Puerto Rico?" Alex interjected.

"I didn't know that," Carlos said, surprised, and Ana echoed, "Me neither."

"That's why I know Spanish," Bobby explained. "My mother spoke it to me." He flicked eyes at Alex, then added, "We were talking about having a Nochebuena dinner for our friends at the restaurant. I've forgotten a lot of the food, though–"

Carlos and Ana started chattering about banana-leaf wrapped pasteles along with arroz con gandules (Alex googled it to discover it was rice with something called pigeon peas), lechón (more googling—roast pork), and pastelillos (fried empanadas), and he raised an approving eyebrow at her distraction.

Finally first Carlos and then Ana were shepherded off to bath and sleep, and they retreated to their bedroom, perched at the edge of the bed. Bobby murmured, "Remember the first time we sat here?"

"Forever," she said with a sentimental smile. Then she reached up and smoothed his hair. "You don't have to worry any longer, Bobby. You would have been a wonderful father. Mark Ford Brady didn't taint your blood. Your dad didn't ruin your heart. And I was wrong, too. Declan Gage never stole your soul."

. . . . .

"Why is everyone still sleeping?" Bobby called from the hall next morning. "I thought we were going out for a Christmas tree!"

Alex sat up in bed, then laughed. He'd left the bedroom door open and was standing already dressed in a Fair Isle-style sweater over jeans and Dr. Marten's, his hair still rumpled from sleep. Carlos popped from the spare bedroom in shorts and a T-shirt, surprised, but Ana, in pink and lavender unicorn pajamas, bounced off the sofa and ran to grab Bobby by the left hand. He lifted his arm out horizontally and she spun around underneath his hand like a ballet dancer, then lost her balance and went plump to the floor, giggling. Sam finished off the madness by jumping up from his blanket under the window and thrusting his muzzle in Ana's face, licking her thoroughly.

Alex watched twenty years drop away from Bobby, seeing once more the restless bright-eyed former narcotics detective she'd been paired with on her first day at the Major Case Squad; he'd impressed many, infuriated others, rattled her cage for a few months until she became used to his eccentric working style, riding his enthusiasm and passion before his family problems wore down his energy and his confidence. With a small smile she rose, pulled on her robe, and padded out into the hall barefooted, looking up at him and saying, "Say, aren't you Detective Goren, the new guy?"

He understood at once, laughter in his eyes. "You must be Detective Eames." He held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

Instead of shaking his hand, she clasped it between her own and kissed his thumb. "Best acquired taste ever."

Then, seeing the kids looking confused, he added, "Why am I the only one dressed?"

He remained in high spirits all day. There were pancakes for breakfast (even for Sam), then the five of them bundled into the CRV to drive north to a lively farmer's market attached to a now-dormant apple orchard. While neither Carlos nor Ana believed in Santa Claus any longer, they enjoyed watching the smaller children approach the "North Pole Workshop" building with Santa and his wife. Santa had already charmed the kids by explaining that he and Mrs. Claus weren't immune to coronavirus, so they had to speak to them through the clear plastic barrier, and the sympathetic kids cooperated fully.

The faux log-cabin market building was filled with every variety of farm products, including the tasty blackberry spread Bobby favored. Alex suggested the kids pick out some jams and treats for a Christmas gift for their grandmother, and they slowly filled a gift basket with jam, honey, spices, and candy. Dogs were allowed in the market if leashed, and they found themselves stopped a dozen times so both kids and adults could pet Sam, who greeted all comers with a lolling tongue and a rapidly wagging tail. Finally they reached the tree lot, set closest to the parking area, and, instead of picking out a tabletop tree (the market called them "elf trees," which Carlos and Ana found extremely funny—"You could get one and name it 'Buddy,'" said Ana), Alex found a potted four-foot fir tree that could be replanted in the yard.

As they waited in the checkout line, a restless toddler squirming in her mother's arms began to cry. The embarrassed mother, just in front of them, tried to soothe her, but the girl only wailed louder, until Bobby made eye contact with the child, flashed two open hands before her, and then, whisking his left hand behind her ear, flourished a quarter in front of her face. The little girl's cries ceased and she stared round-eyed and open-mouthed at him. Bobby asked if she could have the coin and her smiling mother nodded, so he handed it to the child solemnly, where she regarded it, and then had to be stopped from putting it in her mouth.

A boy about Ana's age just ahead the woman and her child wiggled from his place in line for a closer look. "How'd you do that, mister?"

"Do what?" Bobby asked innocently, flashed hands again, and produced yet another quarter from behind the boy's ear.

"Good thing the line was short," he said ten minutes later, as they fastened down the tree in the back of the CRV, "or I would have run out of change."

"Can you teach me how to do that, Mr. G?" Carlos asked.

"Me, too, me, too!" Ana chimed in, and Sam, now between them in the back seat, barked.

They hurried home after a fast-food lunch so that they could call the hospital, then prepare for Saturday night at the Dark Crystal. The children regaled Abril Diaz with the details of their day, then Alex made sure they were clean and dressed warmly before the four of them bundled up for a walk in the frosty night. Shard had set up seats for the kids in a corner of the dais.

Alex bumped into her outgoing cousin Phil Cochran on the way to the restroom, wincing at the ugly Christmas sweater he'd chosen to wear, rows of reindeer in shades of lime green, candy apple red, and a bronze gold. He gave her a hug, then asked "Who are your friends?"

"Couple of kids from Big Brothers, Big Sisters," and she explained about Mrs. Diaz.

"Bobby looks really happy tonight," he observed.

"I think," she said soberly, "this is the first time in years he's convinced his sanity isn't going to implode someday."

"But," and usually clownish Phil had on his most serious expression, "the big question is: are you happy?"

"Happy enough that I almost feel guilty about it," she responded with a smile.

. . . . .

"Who calls at this hour on a Sunday?" Alex said as Bobby's cell shrilled from his side of the bed.

He was staring at the phone fixedly. "It could be about Dec."

"Do you want me to grab it?"

"No," and he answered the phone. "Hello." A beat. "Russ? I hope this isn't about taking on new kids! The house is full."

"Speakerphone!" Alex hissed.

"No, no, but the strangest thing has happened." Russ Jenkins said in a hushed voice as his voice was amplified. "I got here to open up at nine as always, doing early prep on the brunch, and about fifteen minutes ago somebody pounded on the front door. I didn't know what the hell it was, so I grabbed one of the kids' baseball bats from the sports cupboard, then went to the door.

"Anyway, there was this young guy standing there, late 20s, early 30s, dressed up like those stereotypical rednecks you see on TV. You know, John Deere baseball cap, checked shirt, jeans, plaid jacket, work boots, the works. I could see a green cab of an 18-wheeler parked out in the lot. Well, this dude has a little kid with him, no coat, no shoes, about nine I'd say, and when I opened the door he pushes the kid toward me and says, 'I found Scotty running away from an older man with a van. Scotty told me the man kidnapped him. I grabbed him up and put him in my truck and we ran for it. I can't stay, but I know he'll be safe with you guys,' and then he bolted for the truck and was gone. I was too busy with the kid to chase him down or get a plate number—the kid corroborates the dude's story, or he did until he freaked out on me. He started to cry and said his mother was never going to let him go out alone again and he wasn't saying another word to strangers until a policeman came, then he pushed his way inside. He's holed up behind the washing machines in the laundry room. I've tried a couple of times to talk to him, but he just yells 'Call the cops!'"

"You've called the police?"

"Man, yeah, but they're down in that mess at the railroad bridge at the Housatonic...hell, you just got up; you don't know—it's all over the news this morning: a derailment right before the bridge, traffic's backed up, and even though none the cars that derailed were hazmat, there are a couple of natural gas tanks in the train and they've got them cordoned off until the mess is straightened out. I called Officer Shadley directly and she said she'd be here as quickly as she could, but it might take up to two hours."

There was a knock at the bedroom door, then Carlos and Ana peeked in. "Is everything okay?" Carlos whispered.

"We didn't mean to wake you up," Alex apologized.

"Oh, we've been up for a half hour. We were watching TV with Sam," Ana said artlessly. "Elf was on again."

Russ said then, "Bobby, the reason I called you is that the one thing this kid did tell me—besides sticking to his story that the young dude in the truck really did rescue him, not hurt him—is that he's from New Hampshire. If it is kidnapping, doesn't interstate involve the FBI?"

"Someone's been kidnapped?" Carlos breathed.

"Wow," Ana said. "Just like on Dateline."

Alex winced and made a "shhh" finger motion to them.

"Bobby, you're the one with the psychology degree," Russ continued. "Could you come talk to him while we're waiting for the police? He might come out from behind the washers for you. I wanted to make sure he was okay. The only thing I had time to notice is that some sonu- some creep had tattooed the back of his neck."

That brought Bobby to his feet. "What kind of tattoo?"

"Three orange stars," Russ responded.

Alex scrambled out of bed. "That's your case, isn't it, the one you told Dec about?" and Bobby was already yanking clothing from a dresser.

"Mr. G–" Ana began tentatively, and now Alex turned to them. "All right, you two go back to watching television for now. Mr. G will go help the boy at Big Brothers and we'll make some breakfast–"

"Mr. G, can't we help?" Ana asked shyly, and Bobby blinked at her. "What did you say, Ana?"

"Please, can we help? The little boy is probably scared, just like we were before you took us home."

Carlos added tentatively, "I think Ana's right. He could be scared of grownups right now. Take us with you and let Ana and me talk to him."

"We can't do that," Alex protested. "Carlos, what happened to's not something you and Ana should have to deal with."

"Maybe not, Ms. Alex," Carlos argued. "But we do know about this stuff. We see it on TV, they warn us about it in school, and Abi-Abi warned us about strangers. Mr. G helps stop them. If this boy is scared, maybe we can help. Please?"

. . . . .

"What the hell?" Russ said when he saw Carlos and Ana.

Bobby held his palm up in a "stop" motion, then squatted in front of Ana, who had chosen to wear a Christmasy shirt and woolen leggings. Alex had done her long hair in two ponytails so that she looked the innocent child she was. "Are you sure you want to do this, Ana? Neither of us will be angry if you don't."

Ana nodded her head vigorously. "I want to help. Really."

Bobby gave her a high five. "All right. Remember, don't mention what happened to him. That's for an adult to do. Just talk to him like you were making friends at school, okay? Just be a friend. It's what he needs right now."

"I will," and Ana kissed his cheek. "Just like you and Ms. Alex."

She was, Alex noticed, more self-possessed than either she or Bobby felt. He'd started to put on a suit, then felt it would intimidate the child and settled for the sweater and jeans he'd had on the night before. Alex and Carlos had also dressed informally and now they were all standing outside the laundry room.

Now Ana stepped forward into the small room itself, then said in a treble voice, "Hi, are you still in here?"

There was silence, then a scuffle of feet on the floor. "Who are you?"

"My name's Luciana," she said, then more importantly, "Luciana Antonia Maria Serrano."

Another pause. "Hi."

"So—what's your name?"

Another pause to consider. "Scott Alan Gibson."

In the doorway Bobby started, then whispered to Alex, "He hit my 'missing' list this morning. They texted me his name and a couple of others."

"Can I come talk to you?" Ana asked.

"Is the policeman here yet?"

"The policemen are all at a big train wreck," Ana said. "But I have Mr. G here with me and that's better than a policeman." She dropped to her knees on the red-and-white checkered floor and crawled behind the washers. The boy they had told her about, younger than her with dark, tightly curled hair, and deep brown eyes, was scrunched hard against the wall, sitting with his arms around his knees, shivering in a Franconia Notch sweatshirt and a grimy pair of jeans. He had no shoes on, just dirty socks.

"Who's Mr. G?"

"Right now he's taking care of me and my brother, but he works for the FBI."

Scott's voice had a squeak to it. "The real FBI, like on TV?"

"Of course not," Ana said loftily. "Those are actors. Mr. G's the real thing. And he and Ms. Alex—that's his wife—are taking care of us—me and my brother Carlos—because..." and Ana launched into the entire story about Abi-Abi's heart problems and Russ' phone call and their home for the weekend and would have continued with Christmas tree hunting and the trivia contest had Carlos not crawled in behind her and said, "Hi, I'm Carlos, and Ana talks too much–"

"I do not!"

"–and if you want to talk to Mr. G he's right out here sitting on the floor with Ms. Alex, and Ana and I will sit on either side of you to keep you safe if you want."

"Do you like dogs?" Ana asked hopefully.

"I have a dog," the boy said, having already straightened out from his semi-fetal position and looking less terrified than he had before Ana began her rambling exposition. "Dingo. He's an Australian shepherd."

"Cool," Carlos said. "C'mon, we'll introduce you to Sam."

. . . . .

"It's the breakthrough we needed, Penelope," Bobby said, exhausted, leaning his head back against the wall of the crafts room. "He was taken from one of the towns in the hot zones, Colchester, New Hampshire, near the state line, in a black and white electrical repair service van that was spotted parked near at least two of the abduction locations. His mother had given him permission to walk to a friend's house because it was early afternoon, only one block away, and around the corner. An older man—50s, blond, around my height, blue eyes, ink on his forearms and neck according to the boy—snatched him off the sidewalk and dragged him into the van—not a soul noticed, according to the intelligence I received. Scotty told us the guy tied his hands behind him and bound his legs and gagged him with duct tape–"

Alex gave an audible, angry huff through her nostrils as he spoke and then looked back to the center of the crafts room where Scott was sitting cross-legged, eating an apple, Sam draped over his lap like a collie security blanket, talking to Carlos and Ana who had flanked him as promised, while Officer Shadley wrote up her report on her laptop. Russ had gone off to the kitchen for the brunch.

"–and I agree, Alexandra," Penelope Saltonstall's voice said from Bobby's cell phone. His former supervisor and now the administrator of his consultant position was up early—it was only 7:00 a.m. in Los Angeles—but she sounded as if she had just had a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast.

"Once he had Scotty all trussed up, he used a damn do-it-yourself tattoo tool he bought online—bragged about it to the kid!—to put the stars on the back of his neck. Treated his neck with something he claimed were 'numbing wipes,' splashed alcohol on it, and cussed the kid while he moaned and struggled. Then he drove across Massachusetts until he got a flat.

"I have to hand it to this kid; even frightened and in pain he kept his head. He'd wiggled out of his hand ties, untied his ankles, and yanked off the duct tape, and when the perp rolled to a stop, Scotty opened the door of the van and ran like hell, even though the perp had taken his shoes. He told me he was on some sort of country road, paved but in bad condition, and he saw the young guy with the 18-wheeler cab stopped in a little lay-by and ran up screaming for help. The perp noticed and came after him, telling the trucker it was his son who was being disobedient, but the trucker was having none of it. Scotty said he grabbed him by the belt and slung him into the truck, got in and hit the gas—as least as much as you can with all those gears—and peeled rubber out of there. Nearly hit our perp in the process. Our trucker got a partial plate on the van and a description of some body dings.

"The Gibsons are on their way from New Hampshire and they told Alex they will do anything to help with this case. I think Carlos and Ana have already persuaded Scotty it's his duty to help out."

"Agents Sullivan and Awoloju will be there within the hour," Penelope said. "How about this truck driver? Can we find him? He might have additional information."

"Russ is fairly certain our trucker has been in trouble with the law, probably as a juvenile. He told me 'they all have that look in their eye,' and he's worked here long enough to know. However, we have footage of him and the truck. They've had some break-ins in the past month, so a bunch of us got together and had a surveillance system installed. We might have a partial plate and an individual ID on the sleeper cab. Scotty didn't know much about the trucker except that he got a look at the registration card on the truck and remembers the trucker's name as 'Ronald.' I can try and track him down."

"Excellent," Penelope said. "I'll be interested in the results. Now I need you to do one final thing for me."

Bobby rubbed his eyes. "Yes?"

"Box up all your materials having to do with this investigation and give them to Marcus Thuringer tomorrow. You've made the breakthrough, and you deserve the reward."

"I can finish this, Penelope!" Bobby protested. "There's more work to be done...what happened today was a...f-fluke. It fell into our laps–"

"It did indeed, and you worked it magnificently. You also have provided dozens of leads and insights and expertise on the case via long hours and lost sleep. I know you can take this case to its conclusion. I also have listened to your voice every time you reported to me. I take care of my people, Robert; you know that. I will not break anyone—I am not Harry Cavanaugh. Follow up on your trucker and then submit your final report. You've done more than enough, and your remuneration will reflect that."

He looked up and met Alex's eyes. "Thank you, Penelope."

"Don't thank me yet. You may not like the next case I have for you. But that can wait until the new year." She paused. "In fact, I'd be interested in seeing Alexandra's insights as well."

Alex asked archly, "Does this mean he doesn't need to stay sequestered in the attic any longer?"

Penelope laughed. "That's entirely up to Robert. In any case, Happy Christmas."

"Thank you," Alex answered for them both. "Merry Christmas to you, and Happy New Year."

"Penelope! Before you hang up—those little badges you give to children who take tours—could I get three of them?"

"Certainly. I'll have Marcus bring them to you when he comes down tomorrow. Scott certainly deserves one, and so do Luciana and Carlos." She chuckled, then finished, "Bobby...good job. Have a good afternoon," and hung up in her usual abrupt way.

He looked stunned. "'Bobby'? In ten years she's never called me anything but 'Robert.'"

"A Christmas miracle?" Alex asked, then added, puzzled, "Have I just... been recruited?"

"It certainly sounded like it."

He slid closer to her and put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him comfortably. "Penelope did tell me at the wedding reception that I was 'always the fourth member of her team.' Incidentally, what happened to the Polaroid photo you kept on your desk?"

"Sock drawer," he confessed.

"And the print you had made?"

He arched an eyebrow. "She was chatty that day. It's at the back of my binder in archival plastic."

She reached up to squeeze his hand. "Have I mentioned lately how much I love you?"

They left only after Russ had served them extra portions of the brunch he and the St. Rose of Lima sisters fed to the homeless on Sunday mornings (pancakes, oatmeal, toast, juice, and milk) and Scott's parents arrived (Alex wondered privately how many speed limits they had violated to get to Milbury so quickly). The early-morning adventure had only amplified Carlos' and Ana's energy, and they persuaded Bobby and Alex to let them help decorate the Christmas tree late that afternoon. Bobby found a vintage fruit crate in the basement as a stand for the small fir, and Alex retrieved a green fleece throw from the basket under the television as a tree skirt. The small tree in its glossy red pot was set on top, and after Alex had strung the lights on the tree, the children were free to hang ornaments, then Bobby finished by putting a small lighted star at the top.

"There aren't enough ornaments," Ana finally said critically, as they had only the bead garlands left. "Are there some in the other bag?"

Alex's eyes brightened. "No, because we'd planned on a smaller tree, but–" and she pulled out the popsicle sticks and small skeins of yarn in red, green, yellow, blue, and black. "Have you two ever made–"

"Ojo de Dios!" Ana and Carlos chorused.

"I'll find the superglue," Bobby said.

. . . . .

Alex smoothed an invisible piece of dust from the sofa cushions. The television was playing the news at low volume, and Bobby was sitting in his Laz-Y-Boy ostensibly reading his forensics book, but mostly staring at the Christmas tree, where, among the purchased, shiny ornaments, about two dozen Ojo de Dios ornaments dangled between the bead garlands. They all sparkled because the yarns Alex had bought were shot with silver. Sam was curled next to Bobby's chair, asleep.

"Quiet," she said.

"Yeah," he answered.

After supper the previous evening, they'd returned Carlos and Ana to their apartment so they could retrieve backpacks, textbooks, homework, and clothing for school. Alex wrote each an excuse for the previous Friday and noted that if the teacher had any questions, he or she should call Alex's cell. (To the teachers' credit, neither did.) That morning Bobby cooked breakfast and made lunches, and Alex helped them gather their scattered items, then they drove Ana to her elementary school followed by dropping off Carlos at middle school before returning home.

When they reversed direction in the afternoon, first Ana and then Carlos were full of chatter about how they had told the other children about Scott and no one believed them.

Suddenly Ana said, "This isn't the way back to your house."

"No," Alex said with a big smile. "You're going home."

Carlos whooped. "Abi-Abi is home!" and he gave Ana as big a hug as he could, considering they were seatbelted in the back seat. "But all our stuff–"

"Back at your apartment," Bobby said. "Even Ana's lamb. And a couple of Ojo de Dios from the Christmas tree, one for each of you, and one for your abuela, for souvenirs."

"When did Abi-Abi come home? What happened?" Ana shouted.

They explained they'd received a phone call about noon that Mrs. Diaz would be released in a few hours and would they be able to pick her up? Hastily they'd packed all the children's things and stuffed them into the car, then waited until the hospital called back. Bobby had never met Mrs. Diaz, and they were surprised that the elderly woman they expected was only a few years older than him, a thin, tall woman with a serene face like the portrait of a Spanish Infanta, long dark hair shot with silver, and done in an old-fashioned plait coiled at the back of her head.

On the return trip, they stopped at a supermarket to replace the groceries they'd taken as well as provide the family with food for the week. Mrs. Diaz chided Bobby in Spanish each time he added something to her shopping cart, and he would respond that it was in thanks for having lent her wonderful grandchildren to them for the weekend. At least once, he told Alex later with a grin, Mrs. Diaz gave him a skeptical look and asked "¿Estamos hablando de los mismos niños?" ("Are we talking about the same children?"), but at the same time she'd looked pleased. They'd helped her put the groceries away, and the children's things, and finally had sat in the car outside the school waiting to pick them up.

"Your grandmother asked how she could express her gratitude," Bobby said soberly, "and I told her there was no need, but we made a deal."

"You are invited to our house for Nochebuena," Alex continued, "and we will supply the food and she will help Mr. G cook it."

"Everybody wins!" and Carlos gave Ana a high five.

At the apartment they had hugged good-bye and Carlos said, "I'll see you on Wednesday, Mr. G."

"It's a date," Bobby said, bumping his fist. "Bring Ana."

"But the guys–"

"I suspect," Alex said conspiratorially, "that when we tell them the story about how you helped Scotty, they won't bother you anymore."

Now she wandered to his chair and ran her fingers over the curls at the top of his head, and with a fluid motion he scooped behind her back so that she ended up sitting in his lap. The forensics book tumbled to the floor, but he was too busy giving her a kiss.

"I loved having them for the weekend," he said softly, "but I'm glad it's just you and me again." He flicked his eyes toward the tree. "What do you want for Christmas?"

"I feel silly even being asked that question," she admitted. "I love buying gifts for my family, but it seems childish to respond for myself. What do you want for Christmas?"

"I don't need anything," he said comfortably. "I have you."

"See?" She regarded him seriously. "There is something I do want–" and when he looked at her, she added, "I appreciate that you missed me. That my turning up was something special for you. But...I feel uncomfortable sometimes being treated as if I were a miracle on two legs. I'm just Alex. It's all I ever wanted to be."

"All right," he said quietly, then added with a raised eyebrow, "And Princess Ozma."

"That," she said, kissing his forehead, "I'm not giving up."

In return he kissed the soft spot under her throat. "Could we adjourn to someplace more comfortable?"

"Thought you'd never ask."

. . . . .

                    ***December 16, 2021***

"So you had the chance to be parents for a weekend," Alex's sister Elizabeth said brightly as they slid into the worn vinyl seats at the Plum Blossom restaurant in Chinatown where Lizzie and her husband Steve, both retired, had arranged to meet them. Alex and Bobby had taken the early train into New York City, and, before meeting the Hogans, had wandered Rockefeller Center like tourists, peeking in store windows, strolling through the Plaza Hotel, and slipping into St. Patrick's Cathedral to find the choir practicing, sitting at the rear to listen for more than fifteen minutes, finally stopping for a hot pretzel. After lunch they were heading to one of Bobby's meccas, the Strand Bookstore in the East Village, then they would meet his friend Lewis and their mutual friend Mike Logan for dinner at a Catalan restaurant the former had recommended.

"Well, yeah, but we lucked out," Alex said. "Carlos and Ana are used to being cared for by someone older, so they were pretty subdued compared to some kids."

"Imagine taking care of Rafe all weekend," Bobby joked, and Alex rolled her eyes. Rafael Sanchez and his two rambunctious cousins were the wildest of the boys who came to play basketball at Big Brothers, Big Sisters after school on Wednesdays and they were a handful for Russ and Bobby combined.

"We had a lot of fun, though," Alex added. "The farmer's market needs to be a regular trip. Fresh veg there all summer, I presume."

"And fruit," Bobby confirmed.

"What are you two doing for Christmas?" Steve asked, and they explained about the Nochebuena party.

"Think you'd be up to coming in for dinner the next day?" Lizzie asked. "We'd be eating about two."

"That's probably manageable," Alex concluded after a brief eye conference.

"So, have you located the trucker who helped the little boy involved in the case you were investigating?" Steve asked Bobby as they dug into dim sum. Information about the arrests made in the case had hit the national news the previous night, and the Hogans had been told about Bobby's involvement.

"I've narrowed it down to five leads and those I have to call. Since our trucker seems to be authority-shy, the one thing I need to figure out is what to say to get the information I need without him hanging up and going on the run. Sometimes the most difficult part of the case is knowing what words to use." Bobby expertly picked up a pork dumpling with chopsticks.

"You know," Alex said, "you're welcome to come to the Nochebuena party."

"Oh, but we can't," Lizzie said, assuming a hoity-toity voice, "because you never will guess who has deigned to spend Christmas with us, his mere parents."

"You mean," and Alex pretended utter surprise, "Edward?" referring to the college-age nephew whom she had been a surrogate mother for.

"Yes," and her sister added, "after telling us all through October he'd be spending the holidays with his girlfriend Cilla."

"I think Eddie broke up with her," Steve said matter-of-factly. "The interesting thing is that he did it right after your wedding."

"Meaning?" Bobby asked curiously.

"Well, we know he's been texting and Zoom chatting with your young cousin Molly," Lizzie said, amused, "because we've caught him at both."

"And he certainly had no objection to 'looking after her' at your wedding, either," Steve continued, helping himself to a rice ball while suppressing a smile.

Bobby lifted his eyebrows. "Eames, am I going to have to have The Talk with your nephew?"

Alex lifted her chin. "My nephew is a perfect gentleman."

Bobby coughed. "Yeah. So was I."

. . . . .

                    ***December 19, 2021***

"What time is it?" Alex asked, squinting at her Fitbit.

"After one," Bobby said as they unlocked the back door.

"You told me Shard and TJ go all out for the last Saturday trivia before Christmas," she said in awe, "but...that was impressive."

"Did you enjoy yourself, Princess Ozma?" he asked teasingly, bowing to her.

"I did indeed, Oscar Diggs." She curtsied in return.

At this point Sam pushed between them, looking first at the door, then up at them, and Bobby put the sizable bag of leftovers Shard and TJ had sent home with them into the refrigerator, and, without removing their coats, they leashed the dog and took him outside.

"I know we don't usually walk him on trivia nights," Alex pointed out, "but I need the walk. I feel like I'm about to explode."

It was too dark to stroll to the pond as they did in the mornings, so they headed back toward Main Street. Bruno Volpe's house next door was draped with scallops of white Christmas lights around the porch railings and the front door.

Bobby remarked casually, "I know Sam doesn't know Christmas from Wednesday of next week, but I'd like to go to PetHaven tomorrow and buy him a new toy. He's worn his tug rope out. Maybe get him a new ball. Some dog treats."

Alex looked back toward their house. She could see the little Christmas tree shining in the window, but the front door looked bare. "If we went to the PetHaven in Naugatuck, I could go into Joelle next door. They might have wreaths left."

"I was thinking more of the one in Waterbury. They have a bigger selection."

Alex eyed him and almost asked what he was up to, but decided to keep quiet. Time would tell, and she didn't mind a trip to Waterbury.

With a good night's sleep, breakfast, and dog walk behind them, Alex drove into Waterbury, Sam pushing his head and then shoulders into the space between the front seats, and Bobby commented, "Maybe we need to get him a car harness, too."

The big collie danced on his feet as they walked into the pet supermarket; he'd been often enough to know it meant a treat at the checkout counter. This time he was in luck: he was able to greet a Jack Russell terrier, a laid-back Newfoundland, and a colorful patchwork of mixed-breed dog; his one social failure was the Miniature Pinscher who decided he was a monster and retreated, growling, behind his elderly owner, despite Sam's friendly whining.

The sounds of PetHaven filled their ears: the hiss of heat in the ducts, whines from the dogs in the grooming salon at left, the plaintive meowing of a cat up for adoption in cages at right, the faint bubble of water circulating in the fish tanks, and, above all, the chirps and squawks of the residents of the bird department. Sam spent time intensely sniffing every toy in the dog aisle, finally nuzzling a red tennis ball with a bell in its center, and they also chose a new tug toy, plus peanut butter treats in the next aisle. At no time did Alex leave their sides as she was wont to do on previous visits, and when they had finally had selected a car restraint, Bobby was eyeing her with amusement.

"Where did I go wrong, Eames?" he finally asked as Alex brightly suggested it was time to check out.

"'I was thinking more of the one in Waterbury. They have a bigger selection.' Subtle you weren't," she responded with a grin. "You called around to find the best place to go, didn't you?"

"Guilty as charged," he answered, unabashed.

"And since you're determined to do this," she added fondly, "we can go check them out."

The smaller glass enclosures in the bird department held tiny, nervous brown finches, a half-dozen canaries, several turtledoves, and even two bright conures, but Alex had eyes only for the big central corner compartment with the parakeets. There were two dozen of them bouncing around on perches and ropes, three were asleep, and a few were on the floor playing with busy balls and some paper tubes.

"So," Bobby said, squatting to check them out, "the green ones with the yellow heads are the way they look in the wild in Australia–"

"–and the rest are color mutations from breeding over the past 170 years," she finished. This was her expertise, and she began pointing out the color variations: the yellow bird with the pink eyes she called a lutino, two pale yellow-and-green birds with pale brown rather than black striping that she referred to as cinnamon-wings, the colorful and mostly yellow birds with atypical green markings and mostly white birds with atypical blue markings that she called "harlequin pieds," and the blue-breasted birds which came in two varieties, yellow-faced like their green cousins, and white-faced like the bird he had given her fourteen years earlier, which had died of smoke inhalation when Alex's house caught fire the previous Christmas.

"He's almost a dead ringer for Robbie," she said, pointing to the enclosure's sole white-faced blue budgie, and then froze, face growing hot as he stared at her. She had never told him what she had named the bird, had seldom mentioned it on duty; when she did talk about it at work, she would always offhandedly refer to it as "my bird" or "the bird you gave me," never by name.

"You named...the bird after me?"

"Of course I did," she said matter-of-factly. "Budgies are smart. They're members of the parrot family, and parrots and corvids have tested as smarter than apes in certain intelligence tests. Who better to name it after? You gave him to me." She kept talking to cover her embarrassment. "Did I ever tell you that Robbie used to play hide-and-seek with me? When he was tame enough that I could let him fly free, he would hide behind lamps or books, anything he could find, until I would start to get upset calling him, and then I'd hear a tiny 'cheep' and he'd peek out like it was a big joke." She tilted her head at him. "Drove me as crazy as you did, too."

The budgies had gone silent due to the sight of two humans in front of their enclosure, but when Alex said "cheep," there came several urgent calling chirps, not from the main enclosure, but from somewhere above. Curious, Alex stood up and checked around the corner, where, in a small glass cage on top of the finches, a lone parakeet moved back and forth nervously, stretching its neck to try to see its flock mates. It was another harlequin pied, white from the top of his head to midpoint on his body, with the usual black "shell markings" sharply edging the feathers around his eyes, but then scattered randomly on his white wings rather than in a regular pattern. The lower part of his body was a storm grey, finished off with a pure white tail. "He's beautiful," she said admiringly. "He's just a baby, like most of the others—see the black stripes over his cere? Maybe they're holding him for someone?"

At that moment the lone clerk in the store on a Sunday morning approached, a tall young man with carrot-orange hair in a mohawk. He asked pleasantly, "Can I help you folks with the birds?" and then grinned down at Sam, who was staring in fascination at the little flitting avian forms. "Your dog seems to like the parakeets."

"Why is this one separated from the others?" Alex asked, indicating upward with her chin, brows furrowed. "Can't you see he's upset to be alone?"

"I had to pull him out," the clerk said in a kind voice, "because the other birds were bullying him. He's damaged, you see," and he indicated the right foot of the little bird. One of the two front toes on the parakeet's zygodactyl foot was twisted upward rather than downward, so that the claw pointed up, and one of the back toes was noticeably smaller than the other.

Bobby responded in a tone that chilled Alex's blood. "'Damaged'? Don't you mean 'injured'?"

The clerk froze, blue eyes widened slightly. "He wasn't hurt by anyone here, sir. It's probably from his being raised in too small a nest box, or maybe a birth defect. This batch came in with mites, too. We had to have the vet treat them before we could offer them for sale. My manager sent a note to corporate asking that we not use that breeder anymore, and asked that they be reported to the FDA."

Bobby met Alex's eyes, then told the clerk. "We'd like to buy that one."

The clerk now looked nervous. "I can't sell him to you, sir. It's against store policy to sell a damaged animal."

Bobby fixed him with a expression that had quelled more than one suspect in an interrogation room. "He's not 'damaged.' 'Damaged' should be reserved for inanimate objects such as scratched furniture and malfunctioning electronics. Is the bird otherwise healthy? Can it eat, drink, move, fly, and defecate properly?"

"Yes, sir, but- My manager–"

"If you can't sell him, I know what happens to him next," Alex interjected ominously. "I saw the 'Insider News' report about what happens to injured or 'damaged' birds in this store. They put them in the freezer. Alive."

The young man started to speak, but Bobby interrupted, "How about this? I saw a card up front asking for donations to the ASPCA. What if I tender a 'donation' of the same value as that bird, can tell your manager that you found it dead this morning and disposed of the body. Would that work?"


Bobby pulled one of his business cards from his wallet. "If your manager gives you any trouble, just ask him to call me."

The clerk glanced at the card and blanched when he reached the words "Federal Bureau of Investigation."

"Now can you please get the bird for my wife—presumably without 'damaging' him any further?"

"Yes, sir," said the clerk.

Twenty minutes later they walked from the store with Sam crowding Alex's right side as she cradled a small cardboard box with air holes punched in it, and Bobby carrying a plastic bag with all of Sam's purchases in it. The clerk, still looking unhappy, bundled in a coat, followed behind with a shopping cart containing a good-sized two-level birdcage, plastic water and food dispensers, manzanita perches of different sizes, a rope perch, a swing, a mirror, several chewing toys, birdseed and parakeet pellets, millet sprigs, treat bowls, a bird bath, a set of busy balls, and a bird "snuglie" which looked like a little pup tent and which was for the bird to take refuge in, and loaded the items into the back of the CRV. They told him "thank you" and watched him turn away with a dazed expression.

Alex suddenly bit her lip. "Oh, Bobby, his face–"

"'Damaged,'" Bobby repeated fiercely under his breath, and she realized only then that it had been a trigger word—how many times, she wondered, during the two long years—and even afterward—when he'd been harassed by family problems and the sneering voices of other officers spreading rumors about him, had people whispered behind his back that Bobby Goren was "damaged goods"? She felt a brief surge of anger, then shifted the little box securely into her right arm and gave him a hug with her left. "You're a good man, Robert Goren," she said fondly, and then looked down at Sam, smiling, recalling Bobby's story of his adoption. "saving the world one unwanted animal at the time."

. . . . .

They'd stopped at the Joelle in Naugatuck, where Alex handed him the little box. "Just talk to him."

"Is there prescribed budgie conversation?" he asked with a faint twinkle in his eye.

"I don't know. I used to tell Robbie about my day. Tell him about Dr. Grissom's bugs. He's a bird, after all," Alex said with a grin and vanished. When she returned presently, carrying a plastic bag containing a plain green wreath with a red bow along with some colorful Christmas "picks," as well as a length of flannel cloth stuck out of the top of the bag ("cage cover for at night," she told Bobby later), she opened the car door to find Bobby chatting soberly about blow flies.

"Is he enjoying the lecture?" she asked.

"He chirped when I mentioned beetles."

"But which, John, Paul, Ringo, or George?" made him laugh.

Once home, she redistributed the books on top of the breast-high bookcase located between the vintage dial telephone and Bobby's Laz-Y-Boy, set the cage there instead, arranging the inside of the structure: positioning perches, making a feeding area, hanging the swing at the top level, creating a snack area with a millet sprig, placing the "snuglie" in a rear corner, and finally lining the tray at the bottom with paper towels, and adding food and water to appropriate containers.

"And now," she said, "I hope I do this right and he doesn't get loose. It's been a long time since I've handled a baby bird."

Bobby had been sitting in his recliner, cradling the little box while watching her. Now Sam, sitting next to him, suddenly stood up, wagging his tail. Alex carefully opened the top of the box and extracted a wide-eyed wiggling bird with one hand, holding the squirming creature just firmly enough to get him through the door of the big cage and sit him on the thick perch at center. The parakeet clung to it, looking shell-shocked, staring around the room with eyes like black buttons.

"What now?"

"Now we...wait. Let him get used to us and find his food and his water. Quiet sounds. Good music. Soft voices. Talk to him. Say 'good morning' and 'good night,' and say hello, and call him by name."

"What do you plan to call him?"

"I've been thinking of that all the way home. The way the little stripes on his face make a mask–"

"Zorro? Ranger?"

"Zorro's cute, but I was thinking of Bandit." She tilted her head at the bird. "Right now I'll get out of his face. I'm going to use the bathroom and then change."

Twenty minutes later, she emerged from the bedroom in sweats and fuzzy socks. Bobby had the stereo on and was playing a CD on low volume, his head buried in the book about parakeets he'd picked up at PetHaven. She checked out the DVD case and smiled to herself; Bobby was starting him off on classic jazz. She said softly to the bird, "Hi, Bandit," and then sat down on the sofa with the undecorated Christmas wreath and the different holiday-themed floral "picks," which she wove within the faux pine branches to make a bright design of multicolor spheres, miniature bunches of holly, candy canes and peppermint sticks, and small snowflakes scattered around the wreath. When it was completed, she hung the wreath on the front door using a clear wreath hanger; that finished, she switched on the Christmas tree lights, then sat down with her laptop to e-mail Lizzie about the day's events. This diverted her attention so well that she only flicked eyes up when Bobby rose to change the CD. In a minute the Beatles were singing "Come Together."

"Abbey Road" and Miles Davis. A well-rounded musical education for a bird indeed.

. . . . .

                    ***December 22, 2021***

"May I speak with Ronald Grant?"

"This is Ronald Grant," was the brisk response. The voice sounded about right—male, possibly 20s-30s, Midwestern accent. "Is this Mr. Pulaski?"

Alex, bowed over her laptop, looked up curiously. She had thought Bobby would call the man he suspected was the "Ronald" who had helped Scott Gibson from his office, but he was seated in his recliner, leaned back calmly, the speakerphone on instead.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not."

"Well, damn," Grant said good-naturedly. "I was hoping for one more job before Christmas. What were you calling about, Mr.-?"

Bobby said very gently, "Just call me 'Bob,' I was calling to thank you for helping Scotty."

When he was met with silence, he hastily added, "Please don't hang up, Mr. Grant! I'm not with the police. We just wanted to thank you."

"How'd you find me?" Grant asked. His pleasant manner had vanished and his unease was plainly heard.

"Like every other business, Big Brothers, Big Sisters has had break-ins. There were security cameras outside. We were able to identify your truck with a partial plate number and ID of the body itself. I want to assure you that no one is coming after you. We were just hoping you might be able to help us–"

"Who's 'us'?" Grant snapped.

"I represent the FBI," Bobby responded, still using level, soothing tones. "Mr. Grant, Scott Gibson was kidnapped by a child prostitution ring, my eternal disgust, somewhere here in my home state of Connecticut. We know that now, and we know it because you rescued him. He's back with his parents, and they're helping us bring these people to justice. Thank you."

Another pause. "You...won't send anyone after me?"

"I swear," Bobby promised.

Bandit, who had been at his food and water dishes a second earlier, chose that moment to give a short series of tentative juvenile chirps.

"Would a guy sitting next to a parakeet cage lie to you?" Bobby added lightly.

Grant sounded relieved. "I'm glad to hear Scotty's safe. Was he able to tell you everything he remembered? He was so wigged out when I picked him up. Poor kid!" And when Bobby answered in the affirmative, he added, "I don't think I can add any more to what he told me. I stopped the truck because I had to...well...take a leak. As I was coming back out of the trees, this van with a flat came clunking by and stopped, and then the kid busted out of the back. The big ugly white dude chased after him, and I knew right away that guy wasn't this kid's dad. He was scared to death. I had...a time in my life I felt like that, but I was lucky—somebody saved me. I just yanked him in the truck and booked it. I...well, for reasons I don't want to talk about, I didn't want to talk to the cops. I figured someone at a Big Brothers would take good care of Scott."

"Russ Jenkins figured you had a run-in with the police in the past," Bobby said mildly. "He's the gentleman you left Scotty with. He's done youth counseling for years."

"Pretty smart guy," Grant admitted.

"I've got to say your voice sounds familiar to me," and Alex saw Bobby pull a puzzled face. "I just can't recall where I've heard it before."

"Well, I don't know any FBI agents," Grant chuckled.

"This is a cell number, right?" Bobby asked.

"Yeah, why?" Mistrust again.

Bobby shifted back to a soothing voice. "I'm going to text you my business card. If you remember anything else, contact me. Please. And thank you again."

"You're welcome," Grant said, mollified. "Merry Christmas."

"Same to you," and here Bandit tweedled again.

Bobby put his phone down and looked up at the little bird, who was observing him curiously. "I think our rescue has found his voice."

. . . . .

She knew Bobby's cell phone ringing at 3:00 a.m. the following morning would not be good news.

He squinted at the phone number and answered immediately. "Yes, this is Goren." Pause. "I understand. Thank you for calling." One more pause. "He did? No, I had no idea." And the last pause was the longest. "All right, I'll look for it in the mail." And in silence he placed the phone back on the bookcase next to his side of the bed.

"Declan's gone?"

"Yes. About an hour ago." He cleared his throat. "I called them a few days ago. Mortenson said that after we left that day, Dec seemed more confused than ever. When he spoke he was talking to Jo as if she were a child. Or talking to Anita—his late wife. Or rambling on about his cases."

She turned on her left side, took his right hand in both of her own as he cleared his throat again. "Sunday he came out of a fog long enough to ask for a pen and paper, and very carefully wrote down a message for me, and had Jonah Mortenson and another one of the guards witness it. He put this paper in an envelope and wrote my full name and my birthdate—apparently he was worried there might be another 'Robert O. Goren' for me to be confused with—and asked that I get it. They're sending it registered mail."

"Maybe he wanted to apologize?" Alex asked cynically.

"And needed witnesses?"

"We'll find out when the registered letter gets here." She scooted over and pressed up against him. "Are you all right?"

"" And he enfolded her in his arms until he was able to sleep again.

. . . . .

Alex had her mouth half-full of savory lechón as Bobby wandered up with a plate stacked with three pastelillos. Around them the Nochebuena party was in full swing. She swallowed, then said, "Mrs. Diaz should be cooking professionally. Weren't you helping her?"

Bobby took a bite of the first pastelillo, made a blissful face, chewed and swallowed. "She keeps throwing me out of the kitchen. 'Ve a estar con tu esposa,' she says. 'Go be with your wife.' Carlos is helping her. If he's still that enthusiastic about cooking in four years, Mrs. Diaz might look into sending him to Johnson & Wales." When she looked puzzled, he added, "Culinary school in Rhode Island. Turns out some good chefs. TJ's alma mater."

Almost everyone from the Dark Crystal had come except for Sharon and Carmella, who had family commitments. Bobby had invited Mike Logan, and to his surprise, Logan had accepted, and brought a date, a demure red-headed woman in her early fifties, only a little taller than Alex, with a shy heart-shaped face framed in a bob. "This is Carla Antonacci," he'd introduced. "She's one of your kind, Bobby—works at the New York Public Library."

"The main branch," Carla had smiled as they bumped fists, "with the lions."

At one point TJ sidled next to Bobby and asked, "Do you think Mrs. Diaz would give me the recipe for the pastelillos? Damn, man, these are good."

One by one as the guests arrived, Bobby had greeted them and added, "Please don't feed the dog. He's lying to you; he's not starving," but they watched Sam wind his way through the crowd for the fifth or sixth time, waving his tail and looking hopeful. And then Bobby thumbed toward the corner of the living room to the landing for the second story stairs. They had put Bandit's birdcage on a tray in the corner so that he wouldn't be overwhelmed by strange humans, and Ana had been sitting on the stairs most of the night talking to him.

"I'm keeping him company," she'd told Alex earlier. "I'm next smallest to him in size, except for Sam, so he shouldn't be scared of me."

Indeed, Bandit was so comfortable with her that he was settled on his topmost perch, fluffed contentedly, sitting on one foot, and grinding his beak, which, Alex had told the girl, was a sign that he was happy.

Carla was sitting between Tilde from the Dark Crystal and Viola Perrino, Alex's former neighbor from Southbury, and chatting, so Mike Logan was standing by the Christmas tree, looking outside. As Alex and Bobby glanced at him, they saw him crane his neck slightly, then peer through the big front window. Seeing them watching him, he beckoned.

"You know someone who drives an 18-wheeler?" he asked curiously.

Just beyond the fence they could see a truck cab parked; and a man bundled in a parka was walking up the sidewalk.

"Could that be the mysterious Ronald Grant?" Alex asked suddenly.

"Well, if it is, I'll make sure he doesn't trip," Bobby responded, and just as the man reached the front steps, he snapped on the porch lights.

The man in the parka jerked, and then stared directly at them, giving them a split-second impression of a long thin face and nose and a flash of grey eyes and beard stubble and a sensitive mouth. Then something white flashed in the air and he turned tail and bolted, and Bobby was out the door after him, the eyes, the shape of the nose, the mouth, and the voice on the phone all coalescing in his memory as he raced after him. "Come back! Mr. Grant, come back!"

And then in desperation, "Donny!"

The young man must have left the engine running, because he vaulted their gate in one smooth movement and leaped into the truck cab, screeching it into gear and the vehicle moved forward in a series of rasping jerks until it was properly in gear and could gather speed. In a few seconds the taillights were at the corner, curving to the right as it turned.

Bobby wheeled so swiftly that he collided with Alex, who had followed him out the door.

"Get my car keys!" he shouted.


"Get my car keys!" he bellowed, his eyes frantic. "Don't you see? I knew the voice was familiar—I'd just never heard it as an adult. And his eyes—Alex, it's Donny...get my keys–"

"Bobby!" And she grabbed him by the wrists and pulled him to attention. "Stop. Stop. Think."

And he did, trembling.

"If he wanted to talk to you in person," she said gently, softly, "he would have waited."

"Alex–" The remainder of his anguish was in his eyes.

"It's not time yet. He has your number. He knows where we are. He's not a kid anymore; he has to come back on his own terms. He'll come when he's ready." And then she said, so low that he could scarcely hear. "The same way I did."

Then she was swallowed in his arms and rocking back and forth to his restless rhythm.

Mike finally said, jokingly, his voice a little thick, "You guys...gonna freeze out there?"

Bobby whispered, "We ought to go in. I don't want to scare the kids."

"We should," she agreed.

As they walked back to the door, Mike handed them a greeting card-sized envelope that bore a shoe print on the rear from Bobby's haste to dash down the sidewalk. "I think he was gonna leave this on the doorstep." He smiled a little. "Clue me in later, okay?"

Ana, her dark eyes wide in her thin face, pushed through the crowd as they walked back into the warmth of the house. "Mr. G? Are you okay?"

He squatted to face her. "I'm fine. I just wanted to talk to that man. He was the one who saved Scotty."

She bit her lip, troubled. "But he should have come in and had some of Abi-Abi's food. It's Nochebuena."

"He couldn't stay, honey," Alex said gently. "He had to get home for Christmas. And I'm sure he has something to eat."

Much later, after the faint peal of church bells had sounded from St. Rose's, after two bags of trash had gone into the bin, and recycling was collected in the tub, after the last guests (Shard and TJ, as always) had left, and after Sam had been allowed to run outside and Bandit's cage was put back in its place on the bookcase, and the only sound in the house were the Christmas carols still playing softly on TuneIn, Bobby lowered himself on the sofa and slit open the begrimed envelope, which Alex took from him as he pulled out the plump card. Two printed-at-Walgreens photos nearly slipped out before Bobby laid them on his knee.

The card pictured a plump brown cartoon bird wearing a red scarf, perched on a branch and singing. Inside the words said "May the song of Christmas warm your heart throughout the year," and a message was carefully written in blue ink on the facing page.

"'Dear Uncle Bobby,'" he read aloud, "'I'm sorry for not delivering this face to face. I can't talk about everything yet,'" and here he gave Alex a pensive smile, "'and I'm not up to trying. I thought it sounded like you on the phone the other night, and then I got your business card. I promise I'll get back to you. In the meantime can you send the picture to my mom? I can't get by her house this year. There's one for you and Aunt Alex, too. Thanks for everything, Donny. PS I got you this card because of the bird. I guess you can trust an FBI agent who talks to people next to his parakeet.'" He'd finished by scrawling a smiley face at the end.

The photo showed him standing in front of the truck at what looked like a truck stop, with a black-and-white kitten perched on his shoulder. Inscribed on the back was "This is me and Skunk. Cats are pretty good travelers. She walks on a leash for truck stops." The other one said the same, but began with "Hi, Mom" and ended with "Love you, Donny."

"He looks happy," she said thoughtfully, and tapped the cat, "I hope he is. And he has a friend."

Bobby propped the photo up against the lamp on the end table. "I'll mail out the other one on Monday. We ought to get to bed so we don't fall asleep on Lizzie and Steve tomorrow." He added, "And to answer your question before you ask: ''"

But as she exited the bathroom, she heard him say softly into his cellphone, "Kashvi, when you can—please call me. This is Robert Goren."

. . . . .

                    ***December 30, 2021***

"Absolutely not!" Shard said hotly.

TJ added firmly, "No."

Alex had warned him, and he had concurred. But it didn't mean he didn't have to try.

"Can't I give something back?" Bobby entreated. "For the past two years you two—no, not just you two, everyone here, down to Farouk!—have had my back. You've fed me, supported me, gave me something to do that I didn't want to do that turned out to be rewarding. At least let me pay back the free meals and the moving help and the work you two did in my office. I know how much money you've lost in the past two years because of the pandemic. This place–" and he spread his hands to encompass the whole of the Dark Crystal, somber in its morning atmosphere, "–has been my refuge and my solace. And–" and here he looked over his shoulder at Alex, who was on the other side of the glass windows examining something. "And it brought Alex back to me. That alone is priceless. Won't you accept one gift?"

"C'mon, Bobby, you're our friend. We don't want your money."

"It's not my money," he said grimly.

The registered letter had arrived on Monday containing Declan Gage's mysterious document. Dec's spidery script had been slowly and painfully written, with fits and starts. It said simply "I, Declan Gage, freely give the contents of Safe Deposit Box 1961 at the First National Bank at 12 Main Street, Brewster, NY, to Mr. Robert O. Goren, DOB August 20, 1961, formerly of the Major Case Squad, NYPD." He had signed it in a shaky hand, and Jonah Mortenson and Georgia Ellison were his witnesses. The key had been stored in the prison safe with the meager personal effects that had arrived with him. Bobby had been bemused, but Alex said bitterly, "He probably left you his photos and tapes of tortured women."

She contacted the attorney she had consulted after her house fire in 2020, and on Tuesday they drove to the bank in Brewster with him. Anthony Ambrose Fessiden was a short, balding man in his late 50s who looked like he had last smiled in 1990, but she knew he was competent. He had accepted the key from the penitentiary the previous evening, and instructed Bobby to open the box while matter-of-factly donning a pair of latex gloves.

And counted the money found stuffed in it, and counted it a second time.

"$250,000?" Alex said in disbelief.

"Along with a note and a ledger," Fessiden added, picking up something from the bottom of the olive-green box.

"Bobby—This would have been Jo's," said the note, dated 2008. "It's proceeds from seminars and lectures I gave. I know you won't want it. Dispose of it as you will. Declan." The ledger, turned over to Alex, revealed names and dates of conferences and seminars, Gage's remuneration for each event, and attachments of receipts of payment as well as a record and receipts of how much income tax had been levied on each payment, along with cash slips from the bank.

"Is this...legally mine?" Bobby was stunned.

"The paperwork appears legitimate. So long as it wasn't obtained in the commission of a crime, I will assume so," Fessiden responded. "You'd need to come into my office to discuss the circumstances. At the least you'll most certainly have to talk to the IRS, even though the tax deductions are clearly documented. Those guys don't play nice."

"I don't want it," Bobby said automatically.

Fessiden blinked. "What?"

"It's blood money–"

"Bobby–" Alex interrupted. "Tony, can I talk with him for a minute?"

"If you like," Fessiden said crisply. He picked up his briefcase and departed the vault.

"Doesn't mince words, does he?"

Alex shook her head. "That's why I hired him originally. The insurance company was trying to dick me. Said the fire was my fault."

"What did you want to say?"

She looked at the note, then the stack of money. "Do you remember a television show called Quantum Leap?"

"I know the title, but I never watched it." He looked puzzled.

"I did, occasionally. A scientist working on a time travel project has his consciousness swapped with a person living in the past, and must 'put right what once went wrong' in that person's life before he can 'leap' into another life. You told me that before Dec started his long slide into madness, he made you what you were. He put right something in you that might have gone wrong."

She put one hand on the stack of bills, the other on his arm. "Why not do that with his money? Put right some things that are wrong?"

He had explained this to Shard and TJ. And here they were, as he and Alex had expected, saying no.

"Well, then let us invest in the place," Bobby said as Alex strolled back inside.

"Now it's our turn to tell you you're crazy," Shard said, rising from his seat at the bar and pacing back and forth. "Alex, what did you put in his breakfast this morning?"

"He makes breakfast, not me," Alex said briskly. "And why is he crazy? This place is in our blood now, maybe not the way it's in yours, but still there. It's family. We would like to invest in it."

"If this Omicron variation keeps up, I'm not even certain we can stay open," Shard protested. "No use in your losing your shirts along with us."

"How long do you think people are going to put up with the parking lot?" TJ added.

"They've lived with it so far," Alex remarked, "because they're hooked on Bobby's trivia and on TJ's cooking." She smiled at TJ. "God knows I am. So, how long has the Rite-Aid been closed?"

Shard blinked at the change of subject, his dark eyes so like his father's. "What?"

"It was closed before we even scoped out this place. The whole chain went out of business in this area long before the pandemic." TJ said, leaning back on the bar. "So what?"

"And meanwhile whoever owns the property next door has been paying taxes on it? And probably a mortgage?"

Bobby had his head tilted at her and suddenly a smile quirked on his lips.

"I would think the owner might like a break from the expense," Alex continued in businesslike tones. "It's possible if we talked to them, they might allow us to break a hole in the adjoining wall. Then we could pay rent, which would reduce the owner's debt and put the overflow customers inside the Rite-Aid instead of the parking lot. Tim's strung sound out in the parking lot—it should be a lot easier for him to set up an additional sound system inside. We could have a work day—paint, clean, etc. Maybe get some volunteers? Mike Logan, my sister and her husband, Russ Jenkins...Abril Diaz is still asking what she can do to pay us back for taking in Carlos and Ana. Our next door neighbor Bruno claims he's bored. We might even be able to trust Rafe Sanchez with a paintbrush." At the last she grinned.

Bobby added, "Plus if it looks like there's some growth on Main Street, investors might think Milbury is a good place to open a business. We could...start a renaissance."

"You offering to talk with the Rite Aid owner?" Shard asked, suddenly smiling himself.

"I'll just add it to my other things to do," and she eyed Bobby, "including talking to a builder about bumping out the back of the house."

"So we'll always have 'room at the inn'?" Bobby speculated.


"You're quite the negotiator, Ms. Eames," said TJ, rising from the barstool. "If you want to invest in this place, you've got my vote."

"Good," Bobby finished. "That will disburse the remainder of the money. It won't come right away, though. We'll need to jump through a few legal hoops first."

"What are you doing with the rest of the money?" Shard asked.

"Some is going to the Suitcase Project. That's a charity that gives foster children their own suitcases when they move from home to home, rather than having all their goods dumped into trash bags," Alex said.

"And some is going to the Innocence Project," Bobby added, "because of all the reasons Alex gave me for retiring, I knew there was only one."

"You're the profiler," she said with a lift of her chin when he'd asked her weeks ago, "What do you think?"

"George Floyd," he'd said immediately. "I know your sense of justice. You knew there were dirty cops, and loose cannons, and you were willing to put your faith in the system to weed them out. But that tipped your faith in the system. You lost confidence in it. How could you stay, knowing it had betrayed you?"

Bobby finished, "And the remainder goes to Big Brothers, Big Sisters. The roof on the building is about shot. They always need new equipment and could add new services. We're planning a book drive for the spring to set up a small library. Mrs. Diaz wants to help us get some books in Spanish."

Their conversation continued for another quarter of an hour before Alex checked her Fitbit and tapped at the time. "If we're going to catch the train, we need to leave now."

In a few minutes they were in Bobby's Camaro, heading for New Haven, but it was a bit longer until he said, "I knew if you could get TJ on your side we could make it work. And I knew he'd listen to you."

"Something to look forward to in the new year," she said contentedly, snuggling in her down jacket until they reached the Amtrak station.

"Speaking of 'looking forward,'" he said, guiding the car expertly into a parking space at the station, "are you ever going to tell me what we're doing tomorrow night for New Year's Eve? Since you've been planning to tell me since the day we went to visit Dec?"

"You don't know that," she said skeptically, exiting the car.

"I know all your body language," he said, locking his door and following her. "If you'd put a bag over your head the night you walked in the Dark Crystal with Phil, I would have still known it was you."

She smiled as he took her arm. "I'll show you when we get our seats. And I have meant to mention it, but every time I planned to tell you, something's come up."

"Like Dr. Chaudry calling Christmas night."

"That was generous of her."

"When I used her first name, she knew it was serious."

Since they'd already purchased tickets online, they merely had to go to their seats once the train was cleared to board. Once they'd settled back, Alex rummaged in her purse and found a much-folded printout.

"I was woolgathering one day instead of writing," she confessed, "and saw this online."

"'Party like it's 1952,'" Bobby read, his smile flickering and then growing, "'New Year's Eve at the Historic Waterbury Inn. Buffet, music, and dancing in the 1905-era Ingersoll Ballroom. Noisemakers, hats, and complimentary champagne provided. Music by the Ken Hotchkiss Band, in the Guy Lombardo tradition.'" He kissed her forehead. "I can take the beautiful lady with the beautiful dress dancing, anticipating a second New Year."


"The calendar new year, then. My new year came October 12."

"Our own new year," she said, pleased. "I like it."

"Then we shall celebrate it annually, Princess Ozma," he said in a portentous voice.

"In the meantime," she said, shaking her head at his foolishness, "tomorrow I will dance with the handsomest—and the smartest—man in the room." She patted her purse. "Did you want to look at the specs of the builders I found?"

"That's for next year," he said comfortably, putting his arm around her. "For the next four days, it's all about us."



With every breath,
          I will hold your name
          safe between my lips.
With all my heart,
          I will carry your love--
          patient as it is grown.
For all my life,
          I will listen to your laugh
          and know that I am home.

. . . . . . . . . . .Courtney Peppernell


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