******October 14, 2021***
Alexandra Eames sighed, stretched, stacked a sheet of paper on a growing pile at the edge of his desk, then gazed with an inaudible sigh at the still-towering pile on the folding tray table set between them.
"How do you stay awake doing this all the time?" she asked.
Robert Goren quirked an eyebrow over his own sheaf of papers. "This isn't the type of work I usually do. If it was, I couldn't allow you to see the files, or leave them out for that matter. These records are tagged only by number. We mark anomalies in the records and separate those out. Someone else will match the numbers with a confidential personnel record and conduct a more complete investigation."
"What type of anomalies?" she'd asked three hours earlier.
"Same process as at Major Case to single out someone being blackmailed or transferring large amounts offshore. Check for sudden spending increases. Note irregular large payments. The usual drill."
"But that's not at your pay grade, is it? Why are you doing it? Are you hurting for money that badly?"
Two days ago it would have been an incredibly intrusive question. Three hours ago everything had changed.
He laid the sheaf down, rubbed his eyes. "I'm out of debt finally. But rent is high, Sam and I need to eat, and I'm trying to rebuild my savings. So I take anything they'll throw at me, even if it should be done by junior clerks." He stood, stretched, fingertips just touching the low ceiling, took three steps to her chair, kissed her forehead. "More coffee?"
"No Red Bull?" She feigned disappointment.
"Folgers only." His fingers brushed her cheek. "No need to stay."
"You ever see me quit something I agreed to do?" she asked with a lift of her chin.
"Then please get me some coffee, and don't spare the sugar."
"Will you lean your head back and relax while I do?"
Leaning back in his office chair (when she'd volunteered to help earlier, he'd brought a chair from downstairs for himself) and closing eyes seemed the best thing to do, but she was too restless to remain that way long, so when he returned with two fragrant cups of coffee, he found her bent over a steno pad rescued from the desk debris, making a list.
He read the list aloud over her shoulder. "'Dresser. Narrow bookcase. Night stand.' What's all this?"
"Storage," was the practical response. "No matter how much bureau space you've given me, I'll need more. We'll have to replace the bookcase in the bedroom with a dresser, but we can pick up a narrow bookcase at IKEA for your side of the bed which will give you some book storage back. My small night stand will just fit on my side. And the bed–" Here she jotted down "bed." "We might be able to find a bookcase headboard. I think they may still make them.
"If you already owned the house there are a half dozen other things that need to be done. The extractor fan over the stove barely works. It can be replaced with one that has a microwave underneath—how do you manage without a microwave? The basement stairs need handrails." She jotted something else down. "Small kitchen table and chairs—I'm surprised that card table hasn't collapsed."
Amused, he sipped the coffee in his right hand. "This is mine. Sugar shock for you," and passed her the left-hand cup, then added, "I won't save much money paying for all that."
"I have my insurance money," she said, referring to the payment she'd received for the fiery demise of her old house.
He said abruptly, "That's your money, Alex!"
She raised her head in disbelief, then exhaled loudly and continued, "You are aware that I'm about to be homeless in just over a month? So I'd be using my money to find somewhere else to live?" Then she set the coffee down, stood up, and went as nose-to-nose with him as she could manage, considering he towered a foot over her. "And unless you slipped LSD in my breakfast and I've been tripping really badly, you asked me to marry you three hours ago. So it's fair that I invest some of my money in what's going to be partially my home. Damn, Bobby, don't go all Victorian on me."
He put his cup down as well, expression still solemn. "You do realize you never said yes?"
"Of course I did!" Then she stopped, puzzled. "I thought I did."
He shook his head. "Remember, an hour earlier you were ready to kill me."
"Oh...that," she said with a sigh. "But I did say I'd stay forever."
When he tilted his head at her, a smile tentatively appearing, she realized how important it was to him. She took his hands and met his eyes. "Well, let me correct that omission. Robert Goren, I love you, and yes, I will marry you." She tilted her head to the right to match his. "Will that do?"
His response was to suddenly smother her in his shirt. Finally, she turned her head to emit a muffled, "Now can we get back to work so this torture will end sometime today?"
She put down her final sheet four hours later, fortified some time earlier with yet more coffee and a sandwich, he just minutes after. Darkness had fallen, and even Sam, Bobby's oversized tricolor collie, had become bored with their stationary state and padded downstairs to his bed. "It's time for some real food. I don't know about you, but I don't feel like cooking, or even making a salad. What passes for delivery in Milbury?"
He yawned, stretched. "I usually just walk to the Dark Crystal and have TJ feed me."
"You've done this before?"
"A few times a month—if I'm absorbed in whatever I'm doing I tend to forget to eat."
She stood, straightening her back with a grimace. "Think TJ will feed two tonight?"
"You're family now," he reminded her. "We'll give Sam his dinner before we leave."
Ten minutes later, clad in jackets, they crunched through the leaves scattered on the sidewalk of Courant Street and then turned on to Milbury, Connecticut's Main Street. Someone along the street had lit their fireplace and the tang of hickory wood spiced the air along with the musty scent of leaf mold.
"Funny," she said absently, "This is the last place I thought I'd find myself, out for a walk on a fall night in a small town just short of a Hallmark movie, just like an ordinary person."
"Not even after you retired?"
"Never thought much about it. You?"
"Since I've never wanted to retire, no." He looked curiously at her. "You and Joe never discussed it?"
"Back then even being forty seemed eons away. Joe joked once about opening a hot dog stand at the Jersey shore when we 'got in our twilight years,' but that's all it was, a joke," and then she asked curiously, "Does it bother you when I talk about Joe?"
"Should I resent that you were married before?" He seemed puzzled.
"I hope not." She mentally shrugged, wondering if someone as knowledgeable of psychology as Bobby didn't know how many men certainly would resent it.
They crossed Sycamore Street and, while Alex headed for the front door of the Dark Crystal, he beckoned her toward the back. "C'mon, I have my own entrance."
They threaded their way past stragglers heading for the front door and turned instead so that they were at the rear door they'd exited almost 48 hours earlier. He gave her a shy smile to show her he was thinking of Tuesday night and she felt herself blush. "So, spaghetti outside like Lady and the Tramp?" she asked mischievously, to cover.
He chuckled, then rapped on the door, and a few seconds later it popped open to reveal a short, blond-haired woman with an apple-round face. She grinned, then shouted over her shoulder, "Hey, Teej, Bob's worked through supper again." Her pale blue eyes widened as she spied Alex. "And he's brought a date!"
TJ Gomes appeared, wrapped in a butcher's apron and wielding a wooden spoon.
"Good God, Bobby," he boomed, "did you inveigle this poor woman into starving with you? Get the hell in here. Alex, did this bum not feed you?"
She held out supplicating hands like Oliver Twist and in a faux British accent pleaded, "Please, sir, may I have some gruel?"
"Sorry, I nixed gruel from the menu tonight, but I do have fresh chicken wings. You want Thai again?"
"I'll try teriyaki this time. And potato skins as a chaser. You do know that if I lose my girlish figure, it will be the fault of your potato skins, right?"
"You could ask for the salad special, Ms. Eames!" TJ said wryly. "Shan, prep some skins, okay?" The young Asian man working one of the prep counters nodded, laughing. "Mr. Stick-in-the-Mud, shall I fire up the chicken tenders?"
"First I'm insensitive to my fiancée, now I'm unimaginative," Bobby complained, feigning injury. "I'll have the same, but clam cakes instead of potato skins."
TJ swept an arm to a small counter at the far side of the kitchen area that was fitted with three stools. "Your table awaits, O Wizard." Then, "Wait, what did you say?"
Alex winked at him and TJ laughed. "Tilde, you got a minute to get the affianced some drinks?"
In fifteen minutes they were digging into their meals. When TJ delivered the potato skins, Bobby arched a brow and said with amusement, "Alex has started a list of new furniture. She's 'sivilizin' me, Teej, just like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally."
"Serves you right," TJ said crisply. "So what time do you need us? We'll get Mickey to borrow his uncle's F-150. Monday, of course, since we're closed."
"Need you for what?" Bobby paused in mid-bite.
"Moving Alex into your house, of course." The stocky Black man shook his head as if there was no other interpretation.
Alex blinked at Bobby. "Have they been plotting this whole thing without us?"
"I've had the feeling," he returned, "that Shard and TJ have been invisibly directing my life for a while."
If that bothered him, it didn't show; instead he seemed to be content with his place within the circle of his adopted family.
Richard Carver, TJ's partner, co-owner of the Dark Crystal, and the son of their old ADA liaison at the NYPD's Major Case squad, pushed through the swinging door with two more orders, then caught sight of them at the table. "Not again!" he exclaimed, "You worked through dinner and took her with you?"
"The lecture's already over," TJ said from the grill, suppressing a grin, as he started on the orders. "We're discussing moving day logistics."
"Monday," Shard said with assurance.
Alex surrendered to the inevitable. "We'll both have a lot of things for donation, recycling or a landfill. No one will want that sofa with broken springs in the basement."
"That old thing came with the house as I recall," Shard continued, snagging a fresh wing from the draining rack to snack on. "Bobby allowed the landlord to leave a bunch of junk behind because pretty much all he had was the bed, the books, and his momma's dresser."
"I remember that trip to IKEA in Mickey’s truck," TJ added ruefully. "We spent most of a day in that attic assembling bookcases."
Shard wore a smile that made Alex think so much of his father, who was now a district court judge. "And when can we expect...other developments?"
"That would have happened this morning."
"You owe me five bucks, bro," TJ announced triumphantly. "And come help me plate."
Shard fixed Bobby with a glare. "You couldn't have waited until tomorrow?"
"Really? You guys had a pool going?" Alex asked, shaking her head.
"Just between us," he said innocently.
Now Sharon bustled in. "Here's the order for the party of six. Hi, Bobby...you work through dinner again?" and Bobby shrugged and looked innocent when Alex made a face at him.
"You available for a moving party on Monday, Sharon?" TJ asked as he ran a practiced eye over the order slip and then started listing prep items for Tilde, who set to work at another counter.
"For Bobby and Alex?" she responded cheerfully. "You bet." She went to the drinks dispenser for that portion of her order, then hurried out with a full tray.
"Well, the wedding party will be here," TJ said briskly as he juggled three different dishes. "Shard, can't we get a cake from..."
"Varano's would be my choice. Gotta give them a week, though." He fixed them with a stern glare. "I suppose you two have no idea where you're getting married."
"He's gonna say 'county clerk's office,'" TJ warned.
"Seriously? Alex, you going along with that?"
Amused at the ping-pong of plans going on over their heads, she swallowed a last bit of potato skin. "Yes, I am. I don't see myself floating down a church aisle in a white gown at my age."
Bobby said, tongue in cheek, "What about in pink and arriving in a bubble?"
"Not that pink with my complexion. Incidentally, 'Glinda the Good'?...couldn't I at least have been Ozma?"
"I completely blanked on Ozma," Bobby admitted.
"A likely story," she said. She could still shake her head in disbelief at the entire unlikely scenario that had unfolded: finding her former partner running a twice-weekly pub quiz under a covert identity of "The Wizard" in a restaurant founded by an old friend. And having him nickname her "Glinda the Good" when he'd sweet-talked her into helping with that night's game.
"So," Tilde asked from her prep table, her high voice like a happy bird's, "are we the first to know?"
"You even beat my sister," Alex assured her.
The remainder of the meal was spent bantering over moving arrangements, and ninety minutes later, both were feeling decidedly shell shocked. They returned to the house absorbed in their own thoughts, and she waited at the foot of the porch stairs while Bobby opened the door quickly to put Sam on his leash so they could walk the big collie.
"Come with me tomorrow to visit Lizzie?" she finally asked as Sam busily snuffled through leaf mold and sundry other scents along the sidewalk.
"I...had plans for tomorrow," he admitted. "I usually set the questions for Saturday and Tuesday on Saturday morning into the afternoon. I planned to do it tomorrow so we could drive to IKEA Saturday morning."
"What if we worked the questions on the train instead—or do you need your books for reference? Most of the time I just listen to music or podcasts. We could ride in the club car to work; it has wifi–"
. . . . .
"Do you do anything thematic in October?" she asked as they took seats in the club car and she opened her laptop.
"As in Halloween?"
"Or autumn. Or horror."
"Not last year. Should I?" he asked as she logged onto the internet.
"This is your gig, Bobby. You know your audience."
His binder thudded on the table in front of them and what looked like a half-ream of paper popped out as he unzipped it just as the train jerked and pulled out of the station. The car eventually settled into a gentle rocking motion as Alex picked up the sheet at the top of the stack and read, "'The identical name of two queens, one who grew up in relative poverty in Denmark and became a benefactor in the Great War, and a second woman who met her demise before the close of the same war. Bonus point: the similar name given to Great Britain's former longest living monarch as a child.' I'm fairly certain the 'former monarch' is Victoria, but I've no idea about the rest."
"You ought to. You have two of the three names," he said. "The question's in your honor."
"Alexandra?" and he nodded. "Queen Victoria's daughter-in-law as well as Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II, last czar of Russia. As a child Victoria was known as 'Drina,' from 'Alexandrina.' As queen, she called herself after her mother although the British considered it a very unusual name."
She patted his arm. "My very own librarian," she said fondly, then bent her head over the laptop.
The only other person in the club car was a Eurasian teen two seats behind them. His attention was mostly fixed on a game on his iPhone, but at one point in the next half hour they heard him chatting in an unfamiliar language. Bobby murmured to her, "Mandarin. I think he's talking to his mother."
His confidence was used as an excuse to kiss her under the left ear for probably the third or fourth time, and she whispered, "I thought you wanted to get these questions done. We'll never get anywhere if you keep distracting me."
"Actually you were the one who wanted to get this done. I was planning to stay home and let you have alone time with your sister." He added sotto voce, "Do you want me to stop?"
"No—but we have work to do," and they did make progress, despite the distractions, until the train pulled into Penn Station. The Eurasian boy snatched his backpack and made a hasty exit, but they leisurely gathered their things and departed through the same door, only to nearly collide with the teen, now talking to a tall man with brown hair, "...and I'm not taking the train again, Dad. There was an old couple snogging during the entire trip! It was weird."
Alex had already opened her mouth in protest before, laughing, Bobby steered her away.
. . . . .
Lizzie answering the door on the first knock should have been her first clue.
Bobby was leaned out of sight against the wall of the hallway, and saw her start, surprised, as the second clue stepped behind her sister. "Hi, Liz...and Steve?"
"Hi, Allie," Lizzie Hogan said brightly. She was slightly taller than her younger sister, with darker hair, but their faces were very similar, Lizzie's just a shade rounder. Her husband Stephen, however, was short, stocky, square-faced, and redheaded. Alex remembered how her father had snorted when Lizzie brought him home the first time and called him "the leprechaun."
"Hadn't seen you in a while, Allie," Steve said breezily, "so decided to stick around and say hi."
She made a skeptical face, looked slightly sideways, and Bobby grinned at her. "Don't you work at the Hibernian Club on Fridays?"
"Can't I take a day off to see my favorite sister-in-law?" he protested.
And you picked this particular Friday? Alex thought cynically.
"I think Patty might object to that description–" drawled a male voice from the living room doorway.
Now Alex crossed her arms and lifted her chin, sensing a trap. "And what's your excuse for being here, Jack? Since you're not retired like Steve."
"On comp time today," her younger brother said, offhand, sauntering behind Lizzie and Steve. Jack was nearly as tall as Bobby and well-muscled from his firefighting job, with Alex's coloring and grey-blue eyes.
"Patty's here, too, I presume?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"I am," and her willowy blond sister-in-law appeared behind Jack, but she had the good grace to say, "I told you she'd be angry."
Alex narrowed her eyes. "I'm not angry, Pat. It's nice to see all of you. But I think on Saturday night I need to give a good talking to good old 'Phil Revere.'"
Bobby smothered a chuckle, but it made enough noise that Lizzie alerted to it. "Are we going to spend the entire visit with you two in the hallway?"
"That depends," Alex said sternly, "if you're going to behave in front of your future brother-in-law," at which point Bobby took his cue and peeked around the door frame. "You didn't tell me there would be lions."
"After Maureen Leighton," she said crisply, "these are practically raccoons."
. . . . .
An hour later, while working their way through Chinese takeout, Alex regretted the "raccoons" wisecrack. The problem wasn't Lizzie, nor Steve, or even Patty, who were all making small talk with Bobby about his trivia competition, but the family trivia aficionado's silence. Jack's face was growing more stormy by the moment, to the point where she and Bobby were exchanging troubled glances. He finally laid his chopsticks down and asked mildly, "Jack, before this meal goes any further, can we let the elephant in the room out for air?"
Jack didn't bother equivocating. "You were both reinstated after she quit because of you. So why did you leave again?"
Patty gasped, "Jack!" and it was evident she had no idea what sort of emotional baggage her husband had arrived with, but Alex still recalled his outraged reaction ten years earlier when she'd casually remarked at a family dinner that her partner had been recruited by the FBI for a position in the state capital and had accepted.
Still she said firmly, "John Patrick Eames, that is none of your damn business!" but Bobby held up his left hand in a placating motion.
"If she were my sister," he said quietly to Jack, "I'd consider that a legitimate question." He paused. "Your sister had career goals. I was a liability to her. I left. It's what you do for your best friend."
Crisply pared down to twenty-one words that hid the emotions that boiled underneath. She waited.
Jack seemed nonplused. "You could have..."
Bobby continued calmly. "Knowing Alex, there was no other way to do what I thought had to be done. I didn't enjoy what I did nor how I did it."
"Jack!" Alex repeated, on her feet with thunder on her face. "Guest room. Right now." And she grabbed his upper arm in a lock that would have done a wrestler proud and pried him away from the kitchen table, steering him down the hall.
Bobby spared Lizzie, Patty, and Steve an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about. Be sorry for Jack," Steve said mildly. "Allie's about to rip him a new one."
In the meantime Alex had her brother pinned to the wall in the guest room with a forefinger. "Not one more word about this, Jack. You don't realize it, but you're talking to someone whose love for his family outweighs his own self-preservation. Who got himself incarcerated at a prison he suspected was abusing a nephew he'd only known for a few days and nearly died as a result. Who put caring for his mother before his own sanity. In any case, we've already hashed this out ourselves in minute detail. It's none of your business."
Jack raised his hands in supplication. "Jesus, Allie, enough. I don't remember you getting this defensive over Joe!"
"Bobby isn't like Joe. Or any of us, even on Mom's side of the family," she admitted, pulling back. "We make a decision, do what we think is right, and abide with what we did. Most people don't see past Bobby's size. They think he's thick-skinned, but inside he's all heart and brain. Things stay under his skin, and they fester and he can't stop until he makes it right."
"So you're...what?...his sanity?"
"Yes..." and then she paused and thought a moment. "Well, maybe I used to think that. But...maybe we're each other's sanity, just in different ways."
He made a skeptical face, muttered something about her giving in too easily, and she scowled, hissing "Be like that," exited the room with Jack trailing behind, and re-entered the kitchen. Bobby, seeing that she was still upset, rose and said stiffly, "Are we square now?"
Jack, flushed and angry at himself, answered "Yeah, we're square," but Lizzie stood up, commanding, "Get out of my kitchen, Jack. If you can't behave yourself when you're my guest, and be civil to my guests, you can consider your sins by yourself. Go watch television where the only person being offended is you."
Jack's flush grew deeper, but before he left he looked Bobby in the eye and said, "I'm sorry I didn't accept your explanation at face value."
Patty, still upset, apologized for a third time, "I had no idea he'd do that. Allie, I am so sorry."
Alex said grimly, "Pat, stop. It's okay. Jack keeps things bottled up. And he thinks he has to take Dad's place protecting us as if we can't do it ourselves."
"What do you two want, tea or coffee?" Steve asked with a set jaw, crossing to the kitchen counter.
"Coffee, please," Alex said, then noticed Bobby's increasingly restless fidgeting as he stood looking toward the living room. She steered him into the hallway where they conferred for a moment, then they heard the door thump against the safety latch and Alex came back looking slightly more relaxed. "He's just going to...work off a little energy in the hall."
"Rather than giving Jack the black eye he deserves," said Steve grimly.
"As if that would help," Lizzie grumbled. She was getting out mugs. "Would Bobby rather have tea?"
"Coffee's fine," she nodded, then added, "He worries me. He's been on his best behavior since I found him, and, except for one time yesterday...don't ask any questions...he's been reining himself in so much it scares me."
Once the coffee was brewed Alex wandered into the hall to find Bobby leaning against the exterior window, peering through the crosshatched safety wire at the skyline of the city. "Do you still get homesick?"
"Not as much as I used to. The first year in Albany was the worst. I'd take the train into the city once a month, check with my rental agent, go by the place to see how the renters were treating the property...they were nice people. I hated selling it from under them. Then I'd visit Lewis and eat at all my favorite places. You?"
"Sometimes. But I was back so often that it was like I wasn't really gone." She leaned against his arm. "Thank you for putting up with Jack's nonsense and not losing your temper. But I almost wish you'd do something a little crazy to assure me it's still you and not a pod person."
It had the desired effect and he chuckled. "If you only knew..."
"I had an uppercut followed by a right hook in mind," she said dryly, "so it can't be anything worse." She paused. "I'm sorry I talked you into coming, Bobby. I should have been the one ambushed, not you. But we're here now...and the coffee's hot."
"First things first," and he patted her arm and walked back into Lizzie and Steve's apartment. He vanished into the living room and, knowing what he was about to do, she remained standing just outside the entranceway, where she could see only the television screen and a repeat of Match Game.
"I wish my brother had taken as much of an interest in me as you do in Alex," she heard him say.
Jack said quietly, "You hurt her. When you left."
"I know. But they'd already offered Alex the captain's job once. If she wanted to see that captain's job, I needed to be elsewhere."
"Maybe it didn't matter to her any longer?" was Jack's rejoinder.
"I didn't know." Bobby responded truthfully. "And if I had been able to stay...you're in the municipal system, Jack. Partners—or co-workers—who get into relationships—how many survive?"
"I guess...not many?"
"If the relationship goes wrong it usually kills the partnership as well. One of them transfers. Or quits. And the hatred runs deep." He took a breath. "What she and I had...I couldn't take the risk. Plus back then I didn't think myself fit for a long-term relationship. And if she had received the promotion with me still there? I would have had to transfer whether there was a relationship or not, because any 'attaboy' I received would have raised the shadow of favoritism. 'Goren was promoted only because he and Eames used to be partners.' Or worse, 'He only won the award because they're shagging on the side.' It would have undermined her integrity and her authority, and I couldn't do that to her. Now...we're free. She fulfilled her dream. I faced my demons and won, even if they bare teeth at me occasionally. Ten years on I'm a better person. And it's a better time."
"Allie told us about your brother Frank. She said you did your best."
"Cold comfort when you watch someone drowning and can't help them."
"Liz and I were worried about Allie like that."
"I'm glad you didn't see her apartment," Bobby observed. "As if she'd wiped herself clean. It...upset me." A pause. "There's coffee."
"Lizzie banished me, remember?" Jack reminded with a rueful chuckle.
"I've worked as a bouncer," Bobby said easily. "I'll run interference."
Alex whisked herself into the kitchen, and when they entered, a truce had evidently been declared: Lizzie, Steve, and Patty were sipping coffee, and Alex had set up two chairs for Bobby and Jack on either side of her. Jack mouthed "Sorry!" to her, and she shrugged and smiled, and then asked, "So, what's up with Eddie?"
"Like I hear from him any more often than you do! We're only his parents." Lizzie grumbled. "Why not ask what we're up to, and that we can answer."
"I'll bite...what are you up to?"
"Remodeling, like we've only talked about for...what is it, six years now?"
"More like eight." Steve answered, freshening his coffee. "Of course we're doing something easy; the guest room. Floor refinished, paint, new furniture, the works. By then hopefully we'll agree–" and here he smiled at his wife, "–on what we want for the rest of the place."
"Of course that may take another six years," Lizzie laughed.
"You're ditching the bed?" Alex asked quickly.
"All of it, why?" Steve asked as he spooned sugar in his coffee.
"We'll take it. A good cleanup with Murphy's Oil Soap and paste wax should do the trick. You've hardly used it. And," she smiled at Bobby, "it has a bookcase headboard."
. . . . .
Scarlet stained the western sky as the train gained speed. In a few minutes they were heavy-eyed as the club car rocked them soporifically. On this run it was half-full, but they had acquired good seats on the final row of the eastbound end of the car.
"Not getting much trivia done," she said sleepily. "Maybe we can go to IKEA on Tuesday."
"Tempting, but I have a feeling we'll regret it if we procrastinate."
She sat up with an effort and opened her laptop on the table before them, then logged on. In a moment her brow was furrowed. "Check out Facebook, Bobby. What are Shard and Tim up to?"
He roused himself from torpor and they sat heads together in front of the screen, he reading aloud, "'Don't miss our special edition of trivia on Saturday night, October 16. With revelations by The Wizard.'" A flood of questions on the page followed, to which Timothy Stratton, the medical student who ran his Facebook page, simply responded, "Come and see—and don't forget your mask." He made a humming noise in his throat. "Tim doesn't know. Shard asked him to post. Our identities are on the menu, as well as an engagement announcement."
At her questioning look, he opened his hands and explained further, "Because initially I didn't want to be the one to pose the questions, The Wizard's identity has always been under wraps. I was just a voice hidden behind a carefully positioned hat. It's why I made an issue about your 'Glinda outfit' after the game Tuesday. But...you made me think. It's my game. I'm not ashamed of it. I want to own it. Shard and I were texting about it while I was out in the hall cooling off. And what are you smiling about? Because crazy Robert Goren suddenly wants credit for 'playing Dungeonmaster at a trivia game in the wilds of Connecticut?'"
Was he never going to let her forget she said that? She teased, "No, the fact that Mr. Former Technophobe was texting someone willingly."
He chuckled. "I'll have you know I actually signed up for Twitter a couple of months ago." Then he added, "I did neglect to ask you if you wanted to be 'outed.'"
"Why not?" she said, chin raised. "I'm retired, after all. Maybe it's my turn to be a little crazy."
Bobby steepled his fingers with a smile. "How about some secret identity questions? That would be appropriate, don't you think?"
. . . . .
They spent the entirety of Saturday afternoon assembling a tall narrow bookcase, a gate-leg table that would fit the tiny kitchen, four plain wooden chairs, and a Mission-lookalike brown dresser. While the others were assembled quickly, the dresser took them, working together, more than an hour and by then both were grim and perspiring. Bobby sprawled, outstretched on his back on the floor when the last drawer was fit; Alex, seated cross-legged next to him gathering up the assembly tools, patted his stomach. "We're safe now," she quipped. "They say if you can assemble IKEA furniture without killing each other, the marriage will last!" He gave an exhausted chuckle.
Sometime later they headed to the Dark Crystal, but halted in astonishment when they reached downtown. Cars filled the length of the street, the rear parking lot was full, and people were jockeying for parking on the side streets. Outside, Mickey and Tilde were putting out additional tables and chairs, and setting up patio heaters. Part of the old Rite-Aid parking lot was blocked off for tables and Tim was testing speakers. They exchanged wordless glances and hurried to the back, where a harried TJ let them in. "We knew this would be big, but we didn't know how big. Shard started taking reservations this morning and we realized we'd have to put people outside. Let Sharon know what you want."
Shard was measuring distances inside to create safe spaces between tables, and they joined him shifting tables and chairs, faces carefully hidden within their jacket hoods, until he shooed them away and they retreated to the storage room to change. Alex had worn all blue; in the cape, a seed-pearl necklace she'd fished from a jewelry box, and the tiara, she looked like a snow queen.
He tilted his large-brimmed hat over his face, swept the green-lined black cape around him, took her arm, and they strolled to their seats, where he spread out their notes. The dinner crowd, which usually didn't mix with the trivia crowd, gave them occasional curious glances as they entered, but they put their heads together doing a last check of the order of the rounds, and kept themselves occupied until Sharon returned with their food. By then the bulk of the trivia crowd was seated, and more trickled in as they ate.
Now Tim entered escorting a dark-haired young woman and Bobby smiled. "That must be Tamar. His fiancée. She's not big on trivia so she doesn't usually come; she and Tim met at med school. She's training in pathology." Tim seated Tamar at the little table for two near the dais, then bustled up, wearing a face mask with a jack o'lantern motif. Bobby raised an eyebrow at Alex. "Thematic questions next week, I think."
Tim slipped down his mask briefly to grin and ask what was up, only to be told it was a surprise; his eyes flickered over them before he smiled even more broadly before popping the mask back up. "Oh, I think I can guess."
"Busted," Alex said softly as Tim returned to his table, then went quiet. Bobby noticed her eyes wander and thought nothing of it until her faraway stare lasted for several minutes, and then he laid his left hand over her right. "Alex?"
She said soberly, "What if I hadn't come on Tuesday? I'd be back at my apartment tonight...alone. We wouldn't have–"
"Do you think Phil would have given up?" he teased gently, "Mr. Persistence?" He rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. "If he'd confided in me, maybe I would have done what I should have done two years ago and made one phone call. I'm sorry, Alex."
She took a deep breath, turned to him, her forehead almost touching his, her voice pitched for him only to hear. "I don't think I've heard those words more than I have this week. For some things they were necessary—my secrets, your secrets, things unsaid, things misheard, Jack–" and she gave a pained laugh. "Jack holding 10-year grudges! But you were right—we can't undo the past. Let's let it rest, though?"
He took her hands, kissed them, whispered, "Yes, my lady" in his best Wizard's voice, then glanced up at the clock. "Just about time to start—and there's Shard. You're ready?" He paused. "You surprised me when you said you wanted to make the announcement."
She smiled, color returning to her face. "You had a new start—this is mine. Besides, it's like my old press briefings—just a little more personal."
As always, Shard looked like he'd popped from a bandbox, outfitted tonight in his usual outfit of bright purple-blue blazer and darker blue slacks over purple dress shoes, with amethyst studs and tietack adding sparkle. He came striding across the floor to hop on the dais, already miked, and noisily cleared his throat. Almost immediately the volume of the crowd lowered, and he added, "Friends of the Dark Crystal, if I could have your attention—or at least keep it down to a dull roar?"
There were chuckles followed by relative quiet. "Hey, someone outside knock on the window if you can hear me, okay?" he added, and after a few seconds someone triple-rapped on the front windows.
"Good. Happy to see so many people here tonight! If you're wondering what's going on, well...it's not precisely a measurable anniversary, but it's a little over a year since we went out on a very long limb and opened this place in late summer at what we hoped was the end to a pandemic. Of course it wasn't, but I don't think we've had any problems with people contracting illness at our location. So, this is a big thank you to everyone for complying with our guidelines.
"Now, if you talk to my partner TJ and if you talk to The Wizard here, you're gonna hear two different stories. The Wizard's gonna tell you that it's TJ's cooking that makes this place, and TJ's gonna come out–" and here TJ appeared from the kitchen, removing his voluminous apron, revealing a conservative white shirt and plum-colored trousers underneath. "–and tell you it's The Wizard's contest that keeps all of you coming back. Me, I think it's the best of both worlds—what say you?"
The audience responded with applause, then Shard motioned with his hands for them to be quiet. "Those of you who were here on Tuesday noticed we added a new face to the game. We weren't certain she was going to stick around, but things happened very quickly. But I'll let the lady speak for herself."
Alex took a deep breath and rose, cuing her mike as she'd been instructed. "I'll ask the inevitable question...is this thing on?"
"You're live, Allie," her cousin Phil Cochran called from the audience, and, after a small pause, someone tapped on the window from outside again.
"Well, since you've already broken my cover," she said severely, and Phil grinned and sat back, with both Deondre and Emelia, his team partners, looking at him with surprise, and his girlfriend Becky giving him a playful nudge.
"For those of you wondering Tuesday evening who was sharing the stage with The Wizard, originally I was an NYPD officer and later a detective. I started out in Vice, which, believe me, is nowhere near as fun as everyone thinks it sounds. Then I worked for eleven years at the Major Case Squad, and finally transferred to a Homeland Security task force. Somewhere along the line I made lieutenant, and then captain. But that's just my resume.
"When I joined Major Case, they assigned me a partner. He had a sterling arrest record but an unusual CV. He was tall and restless and apparently had read every book ever written–" Here Bobby chuckled behind her. "–and rubbed everyone the wrong way—including me, at first. As the years racked up, we learned to trust and care about one another in all but the most intimate ways. And then we separated and still did pretty well for ourselves...except there was always something missing. Typically, he figured it out before I did. But thanks to a meddling cousin– Phil, this is the only time you get acknowledged in this story, so you might as well take a bow."
She expected her outgoing relative to ham it up, but he merely stood quietly, gave her a little salute, and sat back down.
"Thanks to Phil, our paths meshed again." She paused, then smiled. "But tonight you get to see the faces behind the facades. I'm Alexandra Eames–" and here she held out her hand and Bobby rose to his feet to take it, "–but at some future date it will also be Mrs. Robert Goren."
He took off his hat and gave a deep bow, and the crowd applauded. When things died down a little, Alex turned to him. "One more thing—it's Princess Ozma from now on."
Laughter rang out and she heard Phil say, "You tell 'im, Allie!"
Bobby bowed to her respectfully. "As you wish, my lady." Then he clapped his hat back on and faced the expectant diners, his arms wide as if he were a Broadway impresario welcoming a crowd. "Now who's here to face this week's challenge?"
There was a roar of approval before people began hurrying up to get score sheets and pencils, offering congratulations as they passed by. Shard rushed back just briefly—there were so many attendees he was helping with the orders—to whisper to her, "Alex, you had them eating out of your hand."
"Better pass some hand sanitizer then," she quipped in return.
. . . . .
Despite the game having concluded, attendees wandered back for some time with best wishes. Tim introduced them to Tamar, and Phil and the rest of the team—Alex finally found out their name, "Let's Get Quizzical"—insisted on treating them to a drink; by the time they left, it was nearly 11:30. Alex was half walking, half waltzing down the sidewalk, and when Bobby tried to slow her down she pulled him into her dance, despite his somewhat awkward gait due to the duffel bag slung on his shoulder. He finally spun her out under the light at the corner of Courant Street, laughing. "Eames, all Phil bought you was a wine cooler—what did you have when I wasn't looking?"
"I asked Shard for a bourbon chaser," she said with a dreamy grin.
"It's gone to your head, Princess Ozma," he said. "Let's dance our way home."
"Home," she said gaily, and then she stopped. "I have a home again." Relief flooded her face. "Forever?"
"As forever as we can manage," he promised.
Fifteen minutes later, watching Sam examine each dry tuft of grass in the back yard, she said, "We never did get the wine and the salad for dinner tomorrow."
"I've got some wine put up," he said unexpectedly. "Nice vintage Chardonnay. I was saving it for a special occasion. Should work with lasagna."
Once Sam finished his business and they were back inside, Bobby began restlessly pacing the kitchen. "You know, I wish there was somewhere we could go dancing."
"I don't know anywhere to go, but music can be arranged." Alex smiled as she pulled out her cell phone and in seconds Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra came floating from its speaker. "1940s radio station on TuneIn," she added with satisfaction, and the next thing she knew they were taking a turn around the tiny kitchen. When they bumped into the table for the third time, he steered them into the living room where they danced to a fox trot and a waltz. Sam watched them with a puzzled face from the archway, then settled into his dog bed, tail wagging each time they spun by.
In the advertising break that followed Alex leaned against him and he murmured, "What's our next move, Princess?"
She stood on her toes and whispered in his ear.
"I think that can be arranged, too," he responded in a husky voice.
. . . . .
They woke just before mid-morning, teasing each other about the previous night. Eventually she dozed off again, but drowsily recognized when he padded from the bedroom some minutes later.
At 9:15 her eyes popped open at the bidding of her nose. In a minute she was out of bed, nude, to find him in the kitchen in the usual sweatpants and t-shirt making silver dollar pancakes on the griddle. She idly wondered just how many cooking videos he had sat through during lockdown before he glanced up, gave her a sleepy smile and commented lightly, "Eames, if you're going to stand there looking like that, I'll never finish breakfast."
Fifteen minutes later she was in her running outfit, face freshly scrubbed, eating hot pancakes with maple syrup, Sam sitting expectantly between her and Bobby.
She was nearly finished when the telephone rang. "I hope that isn't Logan saying he can't come."
Bobby consulted the clock. "He should already be on his way."
She made her way to the telephone while swallowing a last mouthful. "Hello."
A formal female voice requested, "May I speak to Mr. Robert Goren, please?"
Alex analyzed it at once, low, authoritative, with a New England accent partially blurred by living away from her birthplace so long. "Mr. Goren's eating his breakfast at the moment," she responded, rounding the corner so she was in the living room rather than the hall. "May I ask who's calling?"
As if I didn't know, she added to herself.
"Is this Mr. Goren's housekeeper?" the caller queried curiously.
The response nettled her. "No," she responded crisply, "this is Mr. Goren's fiancée."
A note of humor blossomed in the voice. "Ah, then this must be Ms. Eames. From Robert's descriptions of you, I thought you might sound more like Diana Prince."
Alex said coolly, "As I said, Ms. Saltonstall, we're eating breakfast. Could you call back in about ninety minutes, which will give us time to finish, dress, and walk our dog?"
Penelope Saltonstall chuckled. "I can see we'll need to talk more, Ms. Eames. You seem to be everything Robert said you were. Ninety minutes it is."
Alex politely said goodbye and replaced the receiver with a decisive click, returning to the table and her meal. When she didn't speak, Bobby asked, "Was that Mike?"
"Your boss," she said briefly. "I asked her to call back after we walk Sam. She has a lot of nerve, calling you on Sunday."
Bobby stared at her, speechless, and then said stiffly, "Eames..."
She looked up, blew out a breath. "I wasn't rude, although I know it sounds that way. A few things you told me so far just rub me the wrong way."
"You haven't even met her," he protested.
"She seems to know me pretty well," she grumbled. "Said I was 'everything Robert said you were' and thought I should sound like Diana Prince—I'll assume she's talking about Wonder Woman..."
He rubbed her shoulder. "Alex, she gave me a chance, like Joe Hannah did. After Ross my reputation at the FBI was in shreds. She's never forced me to do anything, only asked."
"I'm sorry. When she calls back, I'll apologize."
"I'll be the one calling back," he said.
They finished breakfast, Bobby dressed, and they went out for Sam's walk. He knew that the dog loved to run with her, and now handed over the leash automatically as he put all his attention into his walk, his mind on the earlier phone call. Once back at the house, he pulled out his cell phone and tapped out a number, laying the phone on the kitchen table and sitting down. Alex poured herself more coffee and joined him.
Penelope Saltonstall answered briskly, "Good morning, Robert."
"Good morning," he responded soberly.
"Your fiancée," she pointed out, "is very protective of you."
Bobby's lips twitched. "She ran interference for me for years. It's a hard habit to break."
"And I assume we're on speakerphone?"
"Then good morning again, Ms. Eames."
"It's Alexandra, Ms. Saltonstall," was her response, "and if I was rude earlier I apologize."
"You were remarkably polite, considering you were in the middle of a meal. I tend to think everyone is up as early as I am, and they all eat breakfast at their desks, even on Sunday." Saltonstall paused, considering. "As my father would have said to you—to be immediately corrected by my mother, of course, who deplored slang—'What's your beef with me?'"
"The courier work," Alex said promptly. "If he's required to be armed, that implies whatever he's carrying could put his life in danger."
"You realize," the other woman pointed out, "that the courier work is entirely voluntary?"
"Bobby will jump through hoops for the people he respects," responded Alex crisply. "And you're one of those people."
"The documentation he carries is only internal," Saltonstall parried, "and he transports it because he's the one I trust to do so. Nevertheless, it is still classified information."
Alex was unmoved. "I still find that worrisome."
"Considered, and up for further discussion," came the voice from the phone. "Anything else?"
Alex responded, "For now."
"Good. There shouldn't be any courier work until after the new year. Robert, I called about an assignment. I'm afraid it will take all of November and may run into December. That won't conflict with...say, a honeymoon, would it?"
The expression on Bobby's face told Alex that he hadn't considered any such thing. She ventured, "If we did decide to go away, it would be later, at Christmas or New Year. There's no trivia on those weekends."
"And how is the trivia business?"
"I have a new partner," Bobby said with a smile across the table.
"Are you a trivia aficionado, Alexandra?" Saltonstall sounded genuinely curious.
"I'm an aficionado of Bobby's friends," Alex answered truthfully.
Saltonstall chuckled, but with a nervous edge to it. "Robert, I'll pass on the assignment and you can give me an assessment of a completion time." She paused. "I also have a report from the Police Nationale about that ongoing matter. Unfortunately, the answer is in the affirmative. The person in question is now in the United States."
Bobby's relaxed face wiped clean, then Alex saw the flush rise in his cheeks, his teeth set, and his eyes darken. Abruptly, he stood up, the chair scraping backwards on the worn linoleum, and stalked out of the house, Sam gamboling behind him. The back door slammed.
"I take it we're now alone, Alexandra?" Saltonstall asked dryly.
"You certainly know how to clear a room," was her almost-envious reply. "What was that about?"
"He'll let you know. It's something that concerns you as well," was the unsettling response. "We'll talk again, I'm sure. Do you have a wedding date set?"
"Not a specific date, but soon."
"I'm sorry if the courier issue bothers you. Robert seems to enjoy the excursions—I thought it mitigated his restlessness." Alex could hear the smile in her voice. "Although I believe that problem has been mitigated permanently. He's missed you."
She said reluctantly, "I didn't realize how much I missed him."
Saltonstall chuckled. "Oh, men like to think we're the vulnerable ones. But they can be so much more so."
"Thank you for the assignments," Alex said soberly. "Bobby needs them to be complete."
"He was my best agent and is still my best consultant," Saltonstall admitted. "But I think he also needed you to be complete. Good day, Ms. Eames."
Alex thrust the phone in her pocket, grabbed two jackets from hooks on the closet door, and headed outside. She didn't see Bobby, but as she scuffed through the fallen leaves, Sam trotted to her, then led her to the shed-come-workshop at the rear of the property. Bobby was sitting in the open doorway, his feet tapping impatiently on the wooden steps. She handed him his jacket; he took it, but made no move to put it on. Alex pulled her own on, as a cold north wind was whipping its way through the yard.
"What's the bad news?"
"She didn't tell you?"
"She said it was something I needed to hear from you."
"In 2013 we received a report from the Police Nationale about a woman named Madeleine Haynes who was involved in a poisoning in Paris. It seems she didn't exist. They were able to link the woman to another identity. Over the years we've had more confirmed reports from the UK, from Germany, from Portugal." He looked up at her finally. "I don't know who Dec killed—although his mind had deteriorated so badly even then I'm not surprised if he couldn't tell one blonde from another—and I don't understand how the tissue sample in Rodgers' lab came up with the identity it did–"
The truth dawned on her face. "Nicole Wallace is still alive."
"And back in the U.S."
"Well, just fine." Alex set her jaw. "And I made all that fuss about you carrying a sidearm. You can carry it all you like." Here her face set. "Because I'm not running from her." She paused and added darkly, "I'll be sharpening my harpoon instead."
. . . . .
An hour later there was a sharp "shave and a haircut" rap at the back door. Sam barked wildly and plunged toward the door, where the barking reverted to excited yelps. Alex parted the curtain over the windowpane, then grinned and opened the door for Mike Logan. Like everyone she had once known from Major Case, he'd gone grey, hair and beard now an attractive pepper-and-salt mixture, but the cynical twinkle was still in his eyes. He had a big paper bag with the florid logo of Mamma Rosa's Ristorante in his left hand, a piece of carry-on luggage in his right, with his overcoat open revealing a New York Rangers sweatshirt over a pair of jeans and black Reeboks.
"Is there a beard epidemic going around?" she asked as she asked Sam to back off. The collie retreated, tail waving madly.
"Hey," he said, "Bobby and I go with the trends. How's tricks, Alex?"
"Fine despite the most recent news." Alex let him in and relieved him of his suitcase and coat, which she set in the spare bedroom. "Put the lasagna in the fridge, okay?"
"What news and where's the big guy?" Logan asked, when he'd stored the meal. "C'mere, mutt," and he squatted to let Sam greet him.
"Bobby's shredding documents from his last job," she said. You could just hear the vibration of the shredder through the ceiling. "The news is that Ms. Australian Bitch is still alive and in the country."
"Nicole Wallace? Yeah, that was the scuttlebutt they were passing around O'Malley's a few nights ago." Mike lowered his voice. "You know, they still call her 'the one that beat Bob Goren' at Major Case?"
"You're not back on the force, are you?"
"Not me, hon. When I quit, I quit. Not that they'd want me back. But I hang around O'Malley's, and half the NYPD does, too, including a few from Major Case. They call her the 'Australian Bitch,' too—don't give me that look, the women, too. Hell, they're more vicious about her than the guys. You intimidated?"
"By Nicole?" Alex snorted. "I told Bobby I was gonna sharpen my harpoon."
"Wait, isn't she his white whale?"
"'Call me Ishmael,'" she answered, deadpan.
Logan laughed. "I've missed you, Eames."
The whine from the second floor ceased, and Sam broke away from Mike to run to the stairs. In a moment Bobby had reappeared. He hadn't shaved and was looking scruffy in a faded sweatshirt and old jeans. Mike took it in at once. "Looks like there's something in mind besides football today. Good thing there's really nothing worth watching today."
"We were hoping you'd give us a hand," Alex admitted. "We're borrowing a truck tomorrow and the crew at the Dark Crystal is helping me move what furniture I'm going to keep from Southbury, but we thought we might take the cars today and move some boxes."
Logan shrugged. "Why not? Hell, if you don't mind me hanging around a little longer tomorrow, I'll go with the truck brigade, too."
Bobby warned, "You'll have to help move that monster sofa downstairs."
"Oh, my achin' back," he groaned. "Lunch first?"
"We can always take him to the back door of our favorite place," Alex teased.
Two hours later, fortified with TJ’s salad special but daydreaming of lasagna, she was in the kitchen of her apartment packing a box of comestibles. She also had a smaller box into which she was stacking items she no longer needed; Bobby's kitchen was so well-stocked she didn't feel she needed anything else except a few extra drinking glasses, so her nearly new collection of flatware and dishes were best served by going to a nearby women’s shelter.
Bobby and Mike had already carried the remainder of the boxes from the hallway to her car, which was almost full. Her twin bed would go to the house on Monday, replacing the futon, and she decided to pack sheets and towels next. The front door was ajar and she could see that they'd taken a break outside. She intended to join them and then heard Mike's voice saying incredulously, "–living like this since January?"
She sighed, embarrassed at having her lethargy for the last nine months revealed yet again. She should have walked out and put a stop to the speculation, until Bobby responded, "Scared hell out of me. I'd always expected to go off the deep end some day. It was a fact of life that manifested any time I was alone too long. But Alex was always a rock."
"Not doing this just to rescue her, are you?"
Bobby said explosively, "No! Do you know how long–"
Mike chuckled low in his throat. "Just making sure. I told Alex that Deakins always said everyone in Major Case knew about you two except for you two."
Alex stepped closer to the door as Bobby lowered his voice. "Others told me that, too. It wasn't true—at least I never thought so. We learned each other inside out—but, hell, I used to like teasing her about her dates, and she got me back about mine. But I dreaded the day some guy showed up who'd she'd love as much as Joe Dutton." His voice took on a melancholy note. "She wouldn’t have wanted to piggyback my genes with hers. Schizophrenia and serial killer—what great DNA to bring to a family."
"Jesus, Bobby, no one's ever been harder on yourself than you," Mike retorted. "When'd you twig?"
"Gyson asked me one day if I had any romantic or sexual feelings about my partner. I told her no. That Alex was like my sister."
Mike arched his eyebrows. "Based on what she said to me, I can't imagine anything sibling-like about the past few days."
"I lied. Because if I'd really thought that, I would have laughed. The idea should have been absurd. Instead I went ballistic on her." He added reflectively, "I don't think Dr. Gyson bought it. Certainly Dr. Chaudry never has."
"Ever think flying the coop wasn't the brightest thing to do?"
"Now I do. But only because she chewed me out when she found out the other day. I was being logical. Well, my logic. She knows."
"Wait—she just found out you meddled in her life and you're still alive?" Mike snorted. "She must love you."
"And you've loved her that long and still never said anything?"
Bobby finally responded thoughtfully, "I wasn't ready yet. I had to at least like myself first."
"Now that," Mike answered, "is profound. Me, I'm not that deep."
Bobby retorted, "Now who's being hard on himself?"
Here she swung the door open noisily. "And they say women talk too much!"
Mike popped to attention. "What's next, Cap'n Eames?"
"Linen closet," she said decisively, and he saluted with his left hand, snatched one of the empty boxes in the entryway, and headed for the hall.
Bobby, knowing better, asked, "I take it you heard all of that?"
"The significant parts," she said with a twitch of her mouth. "For the record, your genes were never a problem. I would have loved any child of ours, no matter what." Then she gave a wistful smile. "At least you finally learned to like yourself." She handed him a box. "Let's finish up."
When both cars were crammed full, Alex stood looking at the building for a moment, then turned away. She realized that if it were the last time she ever saw it, she would feel nothing, and not for the first time mourned the loss of nine months. Her boxes ended up in the basement for the present, and later that afternoon she polished the small night table and lamp she'd wedged into the CRV at the last minute and it just fit between the door and her side of the bed.
"What do you think," Mike asked, wielding the television remote. "Steelers and Seahawks?"
"Is that the best that's on?"
She made a face. "I'll take the Steelers, thanks."
The rest of the afternoon passed with chit-chat, and Bobby sat in his recliner with his leather binder, and his laptop open, preoccupied—surely it wasn't with Wallace?—as evidenced by a deep frown. Occasionally he checked the television when a commentator spoke, and once he smiled at Alex so fondly that she perched on the arm of the Laz-Y-Boy and rubbed the back of his neck. She could see he was looking at COVID stories and gave him a questioning look. "Later," he mouthed.
Closer to suppertime she uncoiled herself from the sofa and went to remove the lasagna from the refrigerator. She was reading the instructions for warming it in the oven when Bobby wandered out. She looked up. "What's up?"
"Maybe I'm just reading too much," Bobby said restlessly, "but I'm worried about the Crystal. This Delta variant seems to be under control, but the news out of various medical sources say they're worried that any new variant of COVID will spread faster even if it's not as lethal. We could be driven out in the parking lot again. The crowds managed last year, but will they have patience with it again? Shard and TJ have put so much into that place."
"Not to mention you."
"But I have a job to fall back on."
Mike chose that moment to emerge from the living room, unsure if he were interrupting something confidential. To make small talk, he tapped at the gate-leg table. "This is new. Where'd you get it?"
"The one place within our budget: IKEA," Alex said practically. She'd placed the lasagna on a cookie sheet, set the oven to the proper temperature, then discovered the timer on the elderly stove didn't work. She set one on her Fitbit instead.
Mike examined the table as if it fascinated him. "So you can fold this side in and make the table very narrow, or fold out the other side and make it twice as long. And the three drawers either side to hold silverware, napkins...free up your kitchen drawers. Pretty clever. Maybe I'll pick up one for my place. The table I've got is way too big."
Alex simply blinked at him, then arched her eyebrows. "I can't imagine you're interested in the entire pedigree of our kitchen table," with Bobby adding, "What's on your mind, Mike?"
"Wondering what you're going to do with this house. I know it's rent-to-own—and a lot of work needs to be done on it. Are you going to buy it?"
Bobby looked uncertain. "Alex?"
"Why ask me? It's your house."
"As you pointed out on Thursday, it's our house," he corrected.
"I don't know." She looked wistful. "I like walking to the Dark Crystal twice a week...and when you forget to eat. But would you want to be somewhere else?"
"I like living here," he said. "Do you?"
Mike rolled his eyes. "God, you two are pathetic right now! Neither of you is saying what you think because you're afraid of driving the other one away. Look, you're both city kids. You grew up in 'the city that never sleeps,'" and here his voice sharpened, "and now you're in the small town that usually does." He pointed a finger at Alex. "Tell him the truth, Eames. You've got a stake in this, too."
She was surprised by her answer. "I...like this house. It reminds me a little of my old one, and I like what retro touches are left: the overhead light here, the tiling, the wall phone. I'd– I'd like to fix it so it keeps the retro look. I like the neighbors. I think I'll like watching the seasons change during my morning jog, rather than smelling low tide sweeping past Canarsie. And maybe some day after things settle down, Main Street might come alive again." She met Bobby's eyes. "Maybe it's time to talk to the landlord?"
Later that night, Alex added "stove" to her growing list.
. . . . .
Monday morning was clear and chilly, and, as Bobby had promised to cook eggs and bacon for the moving crew, by nine o'clock people were scattered all over the house eating from paper plates as he and TJ manned the stove. Alex handed out bagels with cream cheese and lox, and orange and apple juice flowed from containers in the fridge. Sharon surprised them by arriving in an old beater of a Dodge Ram truck belonging to a cousin, which she volunteered for the dump run. With some eye-popping maneuvers, the odious sofa from the basement was loaded into it, along with other unsalvageable furniture, and detritus dumped in the basement after Bobby's move. The futon ended up in the F-150, as did Bobby's sofa, to be driven past the local Goodwill before proceeding to Southbury to pick up Alex's bed and sofa, and other odd items.
Once the house was cleared, the group re-assembled in Southbury where the apartment was emptied, and Alex eventually found herself alone with Bobby sweeping and cleaning up as one group made a final dump run with her battered dresser while the second group returned to Milbury. He cleaned the bathroom while she worked on the kitchen, then mopped the floor, vacuumed, and did a last check of the closets. Finally they stood in the little foyer one final time.
She said wistfully, "I hope the next tenant has a better life here."
She knocked on her neighbor Viola Perrino's door, hoping to say farewell, but no one was home. "Probably at Silver Sneakers again."
Bobby patted the pockets of his jacket and found the notepad and pencil she'd kept in the kitchen and he'd picked up, and she scribbled a note with her phone number on it and stuck it under the door, then loaded the cleaning supplies into his Camaro.
She gave Bobby an anticipatory look. "Can I drive your car?"
"Didn't you always drive?" With a smile, he handed her the keys, and she finally laughed.
At the house, their friends had been busy. Mike and TJ had put together the bed; Tilde had unpacked the bedclothes and made it, carrying the dirty sheets down to the washer; Sharon and Shard were rearranging kitchen cupboards. Mickey had stocked the six drawers in the gate-leg table. The sofa was in place with a few throw pillows tossed upon it, a handsome wooden side table had replaced the plastic Parsons table next to Bobby's recliner. Shan and Carmella, the latter the Dark Crystal's regular bartender, were standing at the head of the basement stairs, and buttonholed them both with ideas: the paneling could be painted and a new vinyl floor relaid, Carmella told them briskly; her dad's paisan did jobs like this all the time.
In the meantime Sam wound his way happily from one group to another being petted and slipped surreptitious treats from TJ's pocket. Eventually Sharon and Mickey left with their respective trucks, Shard and TJ walked back to their apartment over the restaurant, and the others departed, including Mike, who Shan drove back to New Haven to catch the train. Alex saw each of them out the door with an "In a few weeks you won't recognize the place."
. . . . .
Long after Bobby dropped off, she was still too wired to sleep. Recalling the all-nighters he'd pulled in the past, she finally looked down at his sleeping form, whispered, "You're contagious," and, donning flannel bathrobe and slippers, padded into the living room and opened her laptop. Sam rose from his bed, came to sniff her and be petted, and then lay down at her feet.
An hour later Bobby rolled over in bed and, finding the other half empty, drowsily waited for her to return from the bathroom. Finally he rose and ambled sleepily into the living room, to be greeted by Sam. In the faint glow of the streetlight coming in the front window as well as the glow of her laptop screen, Bobby could see Alex stretched out on the sofa, asleep.
His attention turned to the screen, where a solid column of words covered the page. The temptation was irresistible.
The precinct cops hated them. No sooner would a juicy crime come up than the word would come down "It's being transferred to Major Case." My father had come home more than once complaining of having a challenging case transferred, with some choice—and ripe—words about that decision.
So it was with bittersweet memories that I accepted an interview. (Note: Expand later.)
James Deakins was the captain at that time. He had a good rep for leaving his detectives alone to work their cases, a trait I prized after too many "helicopter supervisors." I liked him immediately: a strong handshake, mild demeanor, but strength behind that calm.
Then came a description of the squad room, and one line about passing a tall man with a leather portfolio tucked under his arm on the way to Deakins’ office, followed by a succinct summary of her interview, which ended with Deakins offering her a position with an intriguing "catch."
"Before giving me a final answer," Deakins said, "I'd like you to meet the partner we'd want you to work with."
I'd never experienced this in an interview, and told him so. "I've always felt I can work with everyone, Captain, except...this partner isn't one of these trigger-happy types, is he? If so, I'll have to refuse." The NYPD tries their best to weed these guys out, but there's always one or two that escape the net.
"Not at all," Deakins assured me, "but he is considered a bit...offbeat. His arrest record from Narcotics is sterling and he's a profiler, trained by one of the best in the business according to the guy's stats."
"Profiling" among the officers of my father's generation was almost on the level with voodoo. They were skeptical of anyone's skills that weren't hands-on, on-the-beat experience, and the idea of "getting into the criminal's head" equivalent to believing in the Easter Bunny. But I did remember one officer who was current water-cooler conversation.
"This isn't Goren, is it? The one a couple of the beat cops call 'Detective Twitchy'?”
"That's him," Deakins said with a smile. "We passed him outside."
Bobby scrolled to the next page.
I could see him still standing outside, close to a set of gun lockers. He was tall and solidly built, with dark curly hair, dressed impeccably, and, as far as I could tell, had not stopped moving since I'd passed him earlier, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, not having stopped observing the comings and goings of the squad room. You could tell just looking at his attentive expression that he was clicking everything off, noting it, and filing it away somewhere.
And as if he could tell I was watching him, his gaze shifted toward the Captain's office. Whether he actually saw me looking at him I didn't know, but as his eyes seemed to meet mine, he gave a disarming smile...
He bent over and kissed her cheek. "Alex...come to bed."
Her eyes popped open. "What?"
"Bed. Where you should be at one in the morning, with the guy who loves you. You know," he said, motioning toward her laptop, "I was joking last Tuesday. This book is supposed to be about you, not me."
She fixed him with a disapproving glare. "If you want to write a book, Bobby, do it your way. My book I'm writing my way. The announcement Saturday night got me thinking. I'm sorry you read it; right now it's terrible, but I wanted to get it down while it was in my head."
"Then to answer your question—yes, I did see you looking at me." Now he tilted his head at her, wearing the same "disarming smile" as he had the first time she'd seen him. "Eighth or fifteenth?"
"Wedding date? How about the fifteenth? Middle of the month, easy to remember. I'll put it on my phone calendar."
"I'll write it down," he said, and then whispered in her ear, "and wear it next to my heart."
. . . . .
"We got our license this afternoon," Alex said, "and we've settled on November 15 as the date."
The tumult in the kitchen of the Dark Crystal on Tuesday night must have been heard in the dining room. She found herself swallowed in hugs, and Shard gave Bobby an affectionate slap on the back.
"Well, as we said, we'll take care of the wedding party," TJ said briskly as he cleaned up around grill and oven, "and ordering the cake."
"I know someone at the county courthouse," Carmella offered. "My neighbor Tamara. I can find out what you need to do."
Bobby said, relieved, "We could use some help with arrangements. I pick up my new assignment on Thursday, and from the initial briefing, I'll be busy for at least a month." Alex would not understand the grim flicker in his eyes until later. "Alex has started work on her book and already has six long to-do lists for the house. We have an appointment with the landlord at the end of next week."
By the time they set up on the dais they had eight eager wedding planners and no responsibilities left except to show up on time.
"Be afraid," Alex intoned to him. "Be very afraid." And she was only half-joking.
That night as they walked home, he asked, "Come with me to Big Brothers tomorrow? I want to introduce you to Russ and our boys," and she looked forward to it just from the way he said "our boys."
They were, he'd explained earlier, youngsters between twelve and fifteen whose families had fallen on hard times. Several were being raised by grandparents or parents' siblings because one or both parents were deceased, opioid victims, or in prison for minor crimes. DonJohn Stanford was an orphan and a foster child (Bobby, typically, had checked on the family). A few had a single parent working two jobs.
Russ Jenkins turned out to be a short, heavyset biracial man, good-humored with a wry way of speaking; his low-key style reminded her in some ways of Jimmy Deakins. He was a retired senior accountant and spent most of his days at Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Bobby introduced her initially as "my former Major Case partner, Alex," but the grin on Russ' face told Alex that Bobby probably had told some tales out of school in the past. Then the kids came wandering in: Raphael Sanchez, a short self-important boy of fourteen, was flanked by two taller youths (his older cousins Hector and Felipe, Bobby told her). DonJohn was of medium height, his features like a Masai sculpture; he was the eldest of them. There was a skinny redheaded kid in glasses nicknamed "Buzzy," the inevitable "bookworm" whose name was Ray, brothers Donovan and Jackson (mom was a 60s folk fan), a stocky Domenican boy who went by "Felix" although his name was Ramon, and finally the youngest, round-faced, sturdy 12-year-old Carlos, who entered with a scowl because he had his sister in tow.
"What's she doing here?" Raphael demanded, making a face.
"Hey," Russ cautioned. "Be nice, Rafe."
"My abuela had to go to the doctor, okay? Somebody has to look after Ana."
Luciana, ten years old, slim with large brown eyes, her long dark hair in braids, was dressed for basketball along with a mutinous scowl that was a twin of her brother's. "I don't need anyone taking care of me, and I can play just as good as Carlos."
"Well, we'll give you a tryout," Bobby said, squatting in front of her. "Lemme see your hands."
Luciana, who was nearly as tall as her brother, thrust out her hands, palms upward, and he examined them gravely. "You've got good hands for basketball. I bet you're fast on the court."
"I am!" she said with her lower lip set.
"Aw, Mr. G..." Rafe complained, and Alex noticed that Bobby silenced him with a look and a quiet "Everybody gets a turn here, Rafe. You know that."
Now Rafe swaggered a bit. "How about your pretty lady? Her, too?"
He'd made it easy. Bobby smiled slowly and said, "Guys, this is Alex, my fiancée," and made it sound as if he'd been waiting to say it all his life.
"Wait," Felix said, "that means you're getting married, right?"
"Hey, man," Russ laughed. "I thought you looked like the cat that got the cream." He stuck out his hand. "Congratulations!" and for a minute the basketball court buzzed with voices. Then Bobby twirled a basketball on his finger and tossed it to Alex. She considered it, then grinned and passed it to Luciana.
"C'mon, Ana," she said, "let's show 'em what we've got."
. . . . .
"You enjoy your sister-time with Lizzie tomorrow. I'll be setting up for Saturday and Tuesday as usual," Bobby told her Thursday night.
"I don't think you need to worry about another ambush," she smiled, but kissed his forehead, and after the previous Friday the time spent on the train was relaxing. She edited endless lists and worked a little on her manuscript, but when she arrived at Lizzie's house, Patty was there as well, and they confiscated her laptop.
"We'll be eating lunch out," said Lizzie, fetching the Rollator she used when planning to walk long distances. "And going dress shopping."
"But we're getting married at the county courthouse," Alex protested. "I have a couple of really nice dresses I've hardly worn–"
"Not up for discussion," said Lizzie in her best big-sister voice.
Alex arrived home with several large boxes and a pleased smile.
A week later Mike called on Thursday, with cheerful assurance that "all was well." He'd talked to "old friends," he said, who were very happy to hear the news. They had also gone into Hartford shopping for wedding rings that day.
Friday they met with Paul Gunther, their landlord, a tall septuagenarian who had once been blond and still had a thick head of silver hair. Alex engaged him so smartly that Bobby left the negotiations in her hands. She was as shrewd at negotiation as she was in interrogation, and he knew as soon as she'd pulled out her laptop with spreadsheets and photos of the home's shortcomings and the estimated prices for just the necessary repairs that if Gunther had expected either of them to be a pushover, he'd met his match. She was cool, polite, and professional, and when they were finished two hours later she had managed a sizeable discount.
While she used the bathroom, Gunther turned shrewd blue eyes on Bobby. "So you're marrying the lady?"
He gave a fond smile. "Yes."
"Some guys have all the luck."
. . . . .
"You certainly made good on your promise," Mike said when he arrived the day before the wedding with a larger suitcase than usual. "You said in a few weeks we wouldn't know the place."
Alex didn't mention that she wasn't finished yet, but change was noticeable. Curtains were hung throughout the house, as well as personal photographs in the living room and the bedroom; Bobby's Laz-Y-Boy and side table were relocated next to the stairway under a reading lamp; in the front window was a two-shelf, scalloped edge mahogany tier table she'd found at an antique fair, topped with a mid-century Mission-style lamp. A large kilim rug centered the floor. Jack, by way of apology, had rented a van and brought them the bedstead from Lizzie and Steve's guest room; the antique fair had also provided a gilt-framed but plain 19th-century mirror to pair with the IKEA dresser. In the kitchen the replica gas-lantern lamp had been cleaned and repaired, a new gas stove was in place, cupboards were freshly painted with new handles. Railings ran either side of the newly-whitewashed basement stairway, and rubber floor mats were laid in the exercise area, where a recumbent exercise bike had been added. Carmella's paisan was scheduled to paint the paneling downstairs and Alex was soliciting quotations to refinish the hardwood floors.
And, as she glanced up during that Sunday's football game, she noticed that at some time in the past two days, Bobby had quietly added a photo of her and Joe in their NYPD uniforms to the picture gallery that led to the upstairs staircase, and had also framed and hung her silhouette drawing that had convinced him a month earlier that winning her affection might not be such a pipe dream after all.
. . . . .
They were awake before the alarm, Alex on her back staring at the ceiling, Bobby laying on his right side, his arm around her.
"There's still time to leave," he reminded.
"Not a chance," she responded. "It took me too long to find you again."
They shared a kiss, then he tapped at her Fitbit to get the time. "We'd better eat and walk Sam, before Shard and TJ kidnap me."
"What's the agenda?" she asked, stretching.
"Just that 'a real barber' is part of the morning festivities, as if I didn't already have my hair cut last week. And then, I suspect, sequestration while they dress me in sartorial splendor." He paused. "I never did see your dress."
"It is traditionally supposed to be a surprise, after all," she said, with a kiss, then added, "But once everything's said and done, we do need to find somewhere to go dancing. It'll be a shame not to show it off."
They found a cryptic note on the kitchen table from Logan: "Back soon." No sooner had they finished eating and walking Sam than they found Shard and TJ waiting for them at the back door.
He said as they looked impatient. "I'll see you at the appointed hour."
"Maybe by two o'clock all will be quiet again?" she suggested.
"Not a chance," Shard promised her.
Later she'd find out Bobby had received the full treatment at an old-fashioned barber shop: hot towels, shaved, primped, and hair styled, and when he was done he had to admit he looked more fit for the occasion. By the time they returned, Mike was back from his errand, looking innocent, and she had been whisked by Lizzie and Patty to New Haven and the county courthouse, where an amused clerk heard Lizzie's breathless question and laughed. "Oh, you're with that wedding. You know you've been moved, right?"
"Moved?" Alex said in bewilderment.
"Yes, to one of the courtrooms instead of the judge’s chambers. You and your fiancé certainly have a lot of friends wanting to see you be married."
She fixed eyes on her sister and sister-in-law. "What have you two done?"
"Don't look at us," Patty said. "Talk to your best man."
"Not that one," Shard said decisively.
Bobby, already in the trousers of his freshly-pressed black dress suit, protested, "But that's my best shirt," as TJ returned the watered-silk burgundy back into the closet and withdrew instead a dressy but plainer cotton broadcloth in a winter sky blue. He shot a look at Mike Logan, who was seated in a kitchen chair watching the spectacle with arched brows and a smug grin, but received no answer from that quarter.
"This one, bro. Trust us," TJ said, and then went through the ties until Shard settled on a silk with a black-and-blue diamond pattern shot with violet thread. Bemused but intrigued, Bobby let them dress him, and found himself with pearl studs on his cuffs. "Alex is wearing pearls and this will match," TJ said confidently.
Shard finished fitting the tie on him, then fished a box from his pocket. "From my dad."
Bobby found a gold tie bar with an NYPD insignia inside. "Will your dad be here today?"
"Sorry, no word from him," Shard said soberly. "He had court scheduled—not sure he could get out of it. But Mom will be there."
Bobby's eyes flicked to Mike as Shard spoke, saw both eyebrows twitch, and another...something...even he couldn't interpret clearly.
Finally Bobby fastened his old American flag pin to his right lapel, while TJ tucked a sky-blue handkerchief into his suit jacket pocket. Shard had the boutonnière in its box and that would be attached at the courthouse. He hadn't seen what kind of flower it was and he wondered if the conspirator he'd enlisted had actually been able to accede to Alex's wish.
"What's your favorite flower?" Lizzie had asked a week earlier.
"You know that answer," Alex said impatiently. Lizzie, who didn't drive, had come to the house courtesy Patty's chauffeuring, and they were following her room to room as she ticked things off lists and added new ones. They only bothered Bobby briefly, as he was sequestered in the attic with his new assignment, and he was so absorbed in it that he ended up patting Alex on the calf of her leg as she walked by.
"Yes, but where would we find lilacs in November?" Lizzie responded practically.
None of them saw Bobby's surreptitious text written or sent, nor did they see the response: "Leave it to me."
The three women now found themselves in the judge's chamber adjoining the courtroom, which contained a walk-in closet where he could robe and disrobe in privacy. Adela Hernandez, Judge Poppelwhite's assistant, an older woman with a brisk manner, was helping them arrange things when a man in uniform slipped through the door. Alex started, and then recognized Jack, in full FDNY regalia.
"Don't worry," he said, before she could protest, "I'm not here to give you away. I know better. I'm your escort. Oh, and to bring you this." He had a large cardboard box in his left hand and handed off an almost-as-large cardboard box that trailed a fragrance Alex recognized from where she stood. "Where'd you get this?"
"Bobby's buddy Mike just handed it to me. It's your bouquet. Said Bobby had it ordered specially."
When she opened the box there was a triple gasp and even one astonished grunt from Jack, for inside was a stunning arrangement made from fresh, waxy-petaled pale purple lilacs, like a waterfall spilling out of a white filigree cone, with blue cornflowers, and babies' breath filling in the gaps, and the sweet perfume of the blossoms filled the room. Alex buried her nose in them with a sigh. The white card in the box said simply, "Best wishes on your wedding day. Penelope Saltonstall."
The larger box had two smaller bouquets of lilacs for Lizzie and Patty, and a cornflower-and-babies' breath boutonnière for him.
"Let's get you dressed, Princess Ozma," Patty teased.
Bobby's entourage was directed into the courthouse by yet another smiling county employee, and they were sequestered in a hallway behind the courtroom. Bobby briefly admired his boutonnière, which was a silver-dollar sized blossom of lilac encircled with babies’ breath and a few cornflowers, but was also trying to solve one final mystery.
"I don't understand," he said, fixing his companions with a gimlet stare. "There should be at most twenty-two people here. They assured me that the judge's chamber could fit up to 25."
"I guess a few people must have invited a few more people," Mike said lazily, leaning back in his chair.
"Just chill, Bobby," TJ said, patting him on the back. "Everyone's here that should be. Just probably a few more."
They were opposite a door that led directly into the courtroom, and suddenly faint music could be heard behind it. "Is that Jimmie Gardner?" Bobby asked.
"Yeah," Shard said easily. Jimmie and his band played live music at the Dark Crystal on Wednesdays and Sundays; their repertoire extended from ragtime to hip-hop, but at the Dark Crystal they usually performed jazz. Now they could clearly hear the jaunty notes of a show tune, which seemed to be designed to obscure the sound of excited voices.
"'Get Me to the Church on Time'?" Bobby asked, giving Shard a half-exasperated look, to which he shrugged. "Look, I didn't tell him what to play. Just roll with it, okay?"
The same courthouse clerk who had helped them earlier returned. "Gentlemen," he said, suppressing laughter, "it's time."
As they walked through the door, Bobby stopped, blinked, and then turned to Mike. "You son of a bitch."
"And I didn't even have to twist any arms," was Logan's waggish response.
Shard slid from behind Bobby and walked to the front of the room, picking out his mother in the room and giving her a broad wink, then picked up the microphone from its stand in front of the judge's bench. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Richard Carver, and I’d like to invite the friends and family of Mr. Goren and Ms. Eames to a reception in their honor at the Dark Crystal, our restaurant in Milbury, about a 45-minute drive from here. Finger food and open bar is provided, and you are free to order anything else, my staff–" Here he motioned to the front row of the seats where Mickey, Sharon, Tilde, Shanyuan, Farouk, and Carmella were lined up "–having prepped since about six this morning. Bobby and Alex are looking forward to seeing you. There are maps at the exit door for anyone who needs one.
"And one more thing: while the vows that will be taken here are solemn, we're also going to have a little fun, because if anyone deserves it, these two do."
He turned to the band. "Maestro, please?"
Jimmie Gardner struck introductory chords on a guitar and after a minute Lizzie chuckled in the judge's chambers. "Someone had a sense of humor."
"I know the tune, but a name isn't coming to me." Alex was puzzled.
"You children are too young to remember," responded Lizzie loftily. "It's the Beatles, 'When I'm 64.' And that," she added, "was our cue."
She opened the door and Patty proceeded first, then Lizzie followed, and finally Jack held out the crook of his arm. "Onward, Allie." And then he whispered, "I'll have the prettiest sister in the place."
When she entered the courtroom, the keyboard, second guitar, and drums joined in, and good-natured Jimmy began to sing,
"When I get older, losing my hair,
"If I'd been out till quarter to three
"You'll be older too,
Alex scarcely heard the music due to the scene before her eyes. The small courtroom was nearly full: Steve, of course; Phil with Becky on his arm; Timothy and Tamar; the entire crew from the Dark Crystal; their next-door neighbor Bruno Volpe; Viola Perrino sitting with Russ Jenkins and all "our boys" (who looked distinctly uncomfortable in dress suits) from Big Brothers; Bobby's old friend Lewis—plus what looked like most of the old Major Case squad and other NYPD denizens turned toward her with smiling eyes: Jimmy Deakins and his wife Angie, Ron Carver's wife Hailey and their younger son Dean, Megan Wheeler and her 12-year-old daughter Margo who had nearly been born in the captain's office in the Major Case squad room, Carolyn Barak, Nola Falacci with a man she didn't recognize, tall rangy Zach Nichols looking as waggish as ever, Joe Hannah and his wife Helen, now-retired Elizabeth Rodgers the ME, Olivia Benson from SVU who winked at her, and Dr. Gyson next to a tall, silver-and-dark haired Indian woman in a beautiful golden sari patterned in red, orange, and blue—Dr. Chaudry!—and finally a woman in her late 60s, elegant in a trim dark blue pantsuit and white blouse, with a crown of silvering blond hair. When she inclined her chin at the flowers and winked, Alex knew her immediately.
As well there were two full rows of various Cochran and Eames cousins and aunts and uncles and Jack and Patty's two girls Sophia and Eleanor—with the eldest of the group being great-aunt Colleen Cochran and the youngest being...
"Eddie!" she gasped, stopping next to him, and he leaned out, gave her a quick kiss and whispered, "Bobby said if I wasn't here today he'd kick my butt." And then he grinned. "As if I'd miss it."
Then he indicated a young woman sitting next to him; her face was mostly hidden by a hood-like silken scarf. "I'm taking care of your surprise. Now, go, you're holding up the parade."
Alex turned back to face the judge's bench, where Bobby stood with Mike next to him, his face alight at the sight of her, and she had to admit she really did feel like the two queens she was named for in the bright winter-sky blue wraparound dress with its full skirt and cape sleeves, matching blue strap shoes with four inch heels, and a two-strand choker of creamy pearls that had belonged to her mother. A little U-shaped headband with blue stones held a sparkling square of netting as a veil over her hair.
Bobby winked broadly at Jack, who grinned and freed her arm, and in rhythm to the music Bobby waltzed down the aisle to meet her and took her arm to escort her the rest of the way. As he did, he murmured, "Now I see why Shard had me change shirts."
"We match exactly," she whispered. "Down to the pearls."
Now Judge Poppelwhite, who resembled Santa Claus with dark hair and bronzed complexion, entered from the hallway, leaving the door open behind him, and stood before them all. "Good afternoon, I'm Judge Peter Paul Poppelwhite...please don't blame me; it was my parents' fault." He chuckled. "I'm supposed to be performing this ceremony, but as far as I can tell from my legal references, so long as I witness the ceremony, anyone who is authorized by law to perform a wedding ceremony can perform it. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, the Honorable Ronald Carver of the State of New York."
Shard's face was one broad smile.
Carver came through the door in his judge's robes with a solemn face that dissolved into a big grin when he moved in front of them and said directly into the microphone, "One last time in my hair, you two—and this time you do have to do what I say," to which half the audience gave an audible chuckle and Alex heard Jack's belly laugh. "First I am obliged to ask: does anyone here have a reason why these two persons should not be joined in marriage?"
For a moment you could have heard a pin drop, then Deakins said wryly, "For God's sake, Ron, get on with it."
Now Carver nodded at Alex, "Repeat after me: 'I, Alexandra Victoria, take thee Robert Oliver, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.'" Alex repeated the vows in a clear, solemn voice and by the time she finished Lizzie was awash in tears and Bobby could barely restrain himself, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, just as he had on the first day she had met him, in anticipation. Carver then directed him in his own vows, which Bobby repeated a bit breathlessly, "I, Robert Oliver, take thee Alexandra Victoria...to have and to hold from this day forward, f-for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, t-till death us do part."
Next Mike, whose smile hadn't wavered since they entered the room, came forward with the rings. Alex gravely took his, and Bobby hers, and each placed a wedding ring on one other with "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow."
"And finally the homestretch," and Carver looked fondly at both of them. "By the powers vested in me by the State of New York–"
"And Connecticut–" Poppelwhite interjected.
"–I now pronounce you husband and wife."
And when they blinked at each other owlishly, frozen in place, Rafe Sanchez said indignantly, "Well, come on, Mr. G—kiss her!"
And so he did, to applause and sweet laughter.
Jimmie Gardner cued the band, who broke into "Takin' a Chance on Love," followed by "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," "The Tender Trap," and "I Only Have Eyes for You," and one by one, people made their way out of their seats.
Bobby whispered to her, "Did you like your wedding gift?"
"You mean Eddie? I did—but let's see if you like yours." Alex could already see Eddie making his way toward them, the half-hooded young woman following close upon his heels. She saw Bobby start, then look from her to the figure. "Molly?" And then his young cousin pushed the scarf back, revealing an elfin face with dark curly hair, and she moved to give him a big hug.
"But you didn't have the money–" Bobby said in disbelief.
"Cousin Alex did," Molly told him shyly, and then, to her, "Thank you," and Alex finished, hugging her, "Sometimes money can buy happiness."
In an hour the party had shifted to Milbury, where there were drinks, toasts, and talk.
"I'm so happy you came—but all the way from Albany!" Alex said to Dr. Chaudry as she went from group to group.
"Oh, I had to come," the woman told her gently. "Robert's one of my success stories."
Sometime later Alex was able to find, alone, the one person she wanted to talk to privately.
"Lilacs in November, huh?" she said as she came up behind Penelope Saltonstall.
"You can find anything in California," was the response.
"Sorry, still not tempted." But Alex used Bobby's trick to catch her eye. "If you stick around until Wednesday you can catch Bobby's other gig tomorrow night."
Saltonstall considered. "I haven't taken personal time in several years. I should make an exception for that." Now she offered Alex her hand. "Very pleased to meet in person someone I practically worked with for eight years."
Alex looked puzzled. "I don't understand."
"You always were the fourth member of my team. Even when he didn't talk about you, you were always there. Did you know he kept a small Polaroid photo of the two of you on his desk? He told Benjamin he'd taken it during one of your cases, as a distraction to the women you were questioning."
"The one from the Brazilian place? He kept that?" she asked, surprised.
"And when it started to fade he went to a photographer and had a print made of it. You didn't know?"
Alex shook her head.
"Men can be surprising creatures," Penelope said with a small smile. She motioned with her chin toward Bobby; surrounded by the boys, he was evidently telling some type of sports story—when he mimed shooting a basket, she wondered if he was talking about seeing "Earl the Goat" play basketball in Rucker Park. "Friends?"
"He and his friend Russ mentor them at Big Brothers," she responded thoughtfully. "Bobby's always been good with kids."
"Robert is remarkably good with people, period. He can put a finger on their talents and their shortcomings faster than anyone I've ever seen. Even me. He has great untapped ability," Saltonstall agreed.
Realization dawned. "You were grooming him as your successor, weren't you?"
"What makes you think that?" Saltonstall asked archly.
"More than twenty years with the NYPD. But you had to know Bobby wouldn't ever be happy in a supervisory role."
Saltonstall considered, then admitted, "I always hoped he might change his mind. He has changed in other ways, which you know. More at peace with himself. Mostly in control of his anger. He still has such potential- But, you're correct, there are some things about himself he never would change. Not about his work—and never about you." And to Alex's surprise, she gave her a hug. "I'm going to call it a night. Don't call him over, please. But I look forward to seeing the two of you in action tomorrow. Good night."
Alex's eyes followed her as she slipped out, and presently Bobby ambled toward her carrying a glass of champagne. "Did Penelope leave already? I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. I had no idea she'd deliver the flowers personally."
"She says she'll be back tomorrow night 'to see us in action.'"
"Penelope at pub trivia," he chuckled. "Interesting."
"She respects all your talents," Alex said, taking his arm and squeezing it with an enthusiasm that puzzled him. "I think she wanted to turn in."
He said almost wistfully, "Turning in sounds good. Want to make the rounds and say good night?"
"It's only seven o'clock and everyone's still having a good time." She looked around. "Did Mike leave already?"
"Took an Uber back to New Haven and the train. Russ is taking the boys home now, though. Carlos told me Luciana wanted to come today but Mrs. Diaz thought she might be a nuisance. She swears she's coming back to play basketball with you."
"Any time. And I wish she had come!" and they threaded their way to the door to tell Russ and the lively brood goodbye. Sharon had enlisted a friend of her mother's, a professional photographer, a peppy woman in her sixties, to take photographs, both with film camera and digital one. Alex hoped she'd gotten a picture of the boys in their suits; she'd have copies made for each of them.
By the time they wandered from table to table, and then spent over a half hour sitting with the Deakins and Carvers, it was much later, and as if they were heading home from trivia. They did a group hug with Shard and TJ, slipped on coats that had been stashed in the storage room, and exited at the rear. The moon overhead was almost full, and could be seen between the now bare branches of the maples and oaks on Main Street.
"Feed Sam, get changed, sit down, watch the news, just like an ordinary couple," he said half dreamily.
But as they turned the corner and passed the Volpe house next door, they could hear Sam barking. Their eyes met, Alex picked up her skirts, and they both ran to the gate and into the yard. Lights glimmered from the windows and the floodlights had triggered at dusk, and Bobby went first to the back door and then came back to the front. "Everything's still locked, and the windows haven't been touched."
"Same in front," she said. "A solicitor? But who would be out at this hour knocking on doors?"
Sam met them, frantically wagging his tail and dancing on his feet, as they came in the back door, then dashed into the living room. Just visible under the door was an ivory-colored greeting card envelope. On the front, in precise, rounded script, it said "Bobby."
"Another wedding card?" Alex hazarded.
"But just addressed to me?" He slit it open to indeed find a very pretty wedding card, with bells and doves in gold and ivory, and inside was a simple "Wishing you joy on your wedding day."
He turned the card toward her. "On the other hand, maybe not so ordinary."
"Love," the signature said, "Nicole."