[Home | Quicksearch | Search Engine | Random Story | Upload Story]

Much thanks to Maverick for doing that coercing and coaxing this along. It would never have happened without her.

One For My Baby, chapters 1 - 8

by Riley Cannon

One ForMy Baby


The pick up had looked easy enough on paper. Jaz Hoyt, sometime biker and dope dealer, had been snagged in a sweep down on Stark Street and charged with being drunk and disorderly, public lewdness, and resisting arrest. Released on bail, his appointed court date had come and gone without him and that meant my cousin Nicky was going to be out a bundle of cash soon because it was his bail bonds business that put up the money for Jaz - and if there's one thing cousin Nicky hates, it's losing money.

That's where I come in. I'm Tobias Beecher, fugitive apprehension agent.

Okay, I'm a bounty hunter. It's just the other job description doesn't give my mother as bad an attack of the vapors. My mother's life would be much happier if I went to work in a three-piece lawyer suit every day, like my law degree from Harvard says I can. Days like this, I can see her point.

That bit about the pick up looking easy on paper? Well, up to the point I tracked Hoyt down to his occasional place of employment, El Cid's Body Shop, things were looking good. Even when Hoyt came out to meet me, wiping his hands on a blue bandana that matched the do-rag around his head, I felt in control of the situation. Right about the time he got my handcuffs away from me and used them to cuff me to the body shop's chain link fence, and opened his pants to whip out his pride and joy, however, I can admit to sensing my moment of triumph was slipping away.

And so was Hoyt, tucking himself back in his pants and scrambling into my car, flipping me off as he slammed the door and gunned the engine. He only made it to intersection, a semi not able to put the brakes on in time as Hoyt ran the red light, and slammed into my car hard enough to spin it around and take out a line of gas pumps at the corner QuikStop. It was still raining debris as the first emergency vehicles raced up, lights flashing, sirens wailing; the QuikStop manager and his lone customer standing in the middle of the street with matching dumbstruck looks.

I wasn't gawping. I was trying to get the handcuffs off, calling on any latent psychic ability to make the metal weaken so I could snap them off and be the hell out of here before the unmarked sedan down at the end of the street got here. I knew that car, I knew who was behind the wheel, and the last thing I needed to top off this day was *him*.

Too fucking late.

The car pulled up to the curb and the door opened and there he was, looking tired and rumpled, sporting some stubble, jeans hugging the best ass on the eastern seaboard, and to his credit trying hard not to grin like he'd just won the lottery. "Yeah," he walked on over, casting one look over his shoulder at the spectacle, "I heard a call on the radio about a guy cuffed to a fence and a car exploding, and something just told me it had to be you."

Chris Keller, voted most likely to do twenty-five to life in state prison and defying the odds to earn his detective's shield as a vice cop. He's been in and out of my life since we were kids. When he was the scourge of the neighborhood my mother caught us in his dad's garage, playing doctor, and when I was home from my first year at Harvard he got me in the backseat at the drive-in and made me forget about girls. The next time I saw him, I tried to run him down with my car because he not only hadn't called or dropped me a postcard, but he'd immortalized the experience in a poem down at Mr. Nappa's Pizzeria.

We're a little better at the relationship thing now, but moments such as the present situation tend to have a detrimental effect on things.

"Well go ahead and gloat," I said as he looked me over, head cocked.

"Nah, I'm done," he said with a smile as he produced a key to unlock the cuffs. "You okay?" His voice was softer now, the concern in his eyes genuine.

I sighed - or huffed, as he calls it - and nodded. "Yes. Nothing wounded but my pride."

"Glad to hear it." His hand was cupped around the back of my neck and he gave me a reassuring little squeeze, his expression telling me that was sincere too. "So who was driving the car?"

"Jaz Hoyt."

"Built like a fireplug, lots of tats, likes to wave his dick around?"

"That'd be him."

Chris looked over at the still-smoldering wreck. "Be ironic if that's the only part they find."

I huffed again and shot him a cranky look. "You're scum, Keller."

"Yeah," he said with a slow smile and a touch along my back that made my toes curl, "but you like my kinda scum, Beech."

Yes, I did - God help me.

~*~*~ "You want to go in?" Chris said as we pulled into the lot at Mr. Nappa's.

In the fading daylight I counted four police cruisers and guessed there were some unmarked cars in there as well, and shook my head. "Get something to take home." I'd given the Burg's finest enough entertainment for one day.

"Sounds like a plan," he said, the heat in his eyes giving me second thoughts.

We go through these cycles, on again/off again, and lately we had been more off than on because of some unresolved issues simmering between us. Long story short: he thinks I'm a screwball in need of a keeper, and I'm not always sure I trust him. When things are going good, those problems loom as pretty dinky obstacles on the path to perfect bliss. When we hit a bump in the road, they start to look like Mt. Everest and a guy has to wonder if it's worth it.

I watched him cross the parking lot and drank in that sexy swagger, remembered him naked in my bed and how the flex and bunch of those muscles felt under my hands, the things he did to my body with nothing but his mouth, and had to ask myself the big question: What was I - nuts? I haven't had an orgasm in weeks that wasn't self-induced and now the hottest guy in the tri-state region wants to get into my pants. If that's not a no brainer than there is no such thing.

Hey, I'm easy, not stupid.

He was back in record time, carrying a pizza box and a bag that could only contain Mr. Nappa's special breadsticks. My mouth was watering for them before Chris even got the door open. At least, I think it was for the breadsticks.

"That was quick," I said as he handed me the box and bag and slid behind the wheel. "You didn't even have time to visit the men's room."

He cleared his throat and shot me a suspicious look from the corner of his eye. "You know damn well Mr. Nappa had that wall painted over years ago. Everyone's forgotten all about it."

"Not everyone," I told him in a dark tone as he pulled out into the street and headed for my apartment building. Truth be told, I am over the poem - most of the time. It's something to needle him with though.

"Recite one stanza," he dared me.

"A blond, blue-eyed babe, named Beecher Was in need of a talented teacher. We could see the Big Dipper As I undid his zipper, At the Starlight Drive-In's double feature." I finished with a sniff, and a huff for good measure because I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

"Hey, you know how hard it was to find something that rhymed with Beecher?"

"Oh, I guess you wanted an A for effort."

"Well, yeah, I put a lot of work into that poem."

"Trust me, I noticed." He hadn't left one thing to the imagination and I could feel myself getting steamed about it all over again.

He must have sensed that. He slipped into a parking space at my building, shut off the engine and turned to face me, an apologetic look on his face that was about three-quarters authentic. "I was a rotten kid," he said, hand at the back of my neck again. "I'm better now."

I made a skeptical face at him because I'm not *that* easy. "Sometimes, on occasion," I conceded.

"I'm working on it." His voice was low and he was close enough for me to feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek.

Yes, he was, and I was the only one he'd ever done that for; I was the only one he'd ever come back to. That knowledge helped a lot whenever it was time to start climbing Mt. Everest.

His tongue was in my mouth then and my hand was on the back of his head to keep him there, and I figured we were about two minutes from reenacting the poem. That same thought must have crossed his mind as well because after he took the kiss up one more exquisitely torturous notch - his tongue scraping against mine and flicking the roof of my mouth, my fingers digging into his scalp, his hand rubbing my crotch - he dragged his open mouth across my cheek, breathing hard as he buried his face in the crook of my neck.

"Oh, Jesus, Toby," he groaned out, "we keep going like this I'm gonna have to write another poem."

My laugh was short and just as breathless, my need for him still sizzling through my body as I stroked his hair. It was okay, though. This first surge might be ebbing but if I knew anything for a certainty by now, it was that once we got our motors revved up we could keep them running for a really long time.

~*~*~ "Going up? Ladies apparel on the third floor." Burr Redding, one of my neighbors, was playing elevator operator this evening. He held the door and gave Chris a persuasive look. "Got some nice new silk ties in the men's department today."

"Maybe another time," Chris said and wasted no time guiding me over to the stairs. He waited until we were alone to begin a familiar refrain. "You could live anywhere you wanted."

"And I do," I told him as we climbed the stairs to my apartment on the third floor.

He sighed and rolled his eyes and I knew he was fighting hard not to lecture me about the current state of my life. Few things are more guaranteed to kill the mood, for one thing. And I really do know the song by heart; I hear it from my mother a minimum of once a week. Every now and then I even get this hunch my resistance to the tune is grounded in sheer stubbornness more than anything else.

Would it kill me to dig into the trust fund my Grandfather and Grandmother Beecher set up for me? That *would* allow me to move into a far more upscale establishment, with a doorman and security and a basement garage to hold a fleet of cars that might never blow up. I could take that Harvard law degree I'd worked so hard to earn and go to work for any high-powered law firm in the city, pull down a six-figure salary that would have me sitting pretty. In fact, I had done all of that.

To show that Chris Keller had been a youthful aberration, as my time at Harvard Law was drawing to a close I convinced myself happiness resided in an alliance with fellow law student, Katherine McClain. We celebrated passing the bar and landing positions at one of those very same prestigious firms by getting married. My mother, at least, was happy for a few months. My illusions shattered the day I came home to our swanky, sleek and glossy apartment to find Katherine on our dining room table, riding Tim McManus like she was racing him in the Kentucky Derby.

The divorce was spectacular and I think it's taken on status as an urban legend.

Besides leaving me a bit gun-shy of relationships, the main thing the whole experience brought home to me was that I needed to reevaluate my life. The one thing I knew for sure was that I really did love practicing law - but not in some gleaming skyscraper, protecting the interests of corporate weasels. Somewhere along the line it looked like I had picked up my dad's idealism, and just as he had done I went to work for a storefront outfit, providing legal aid to the people being steamrolled by an uncaring world. The work was hard and the pay was lousy, but it was the most satisfying thing I'd done in my life and was exactly the therapy I needed to get over the whole McClain debacle.

And then the outfit went out of business, leaving me high and dry and with bills to pay, and suddenly it was of vital importance to me to *keep* standing on my own two feet. That meant no dipping into the trust fund. That meant finding a new job pronto - and that brought me to cousin Nicky's. Not my first choice for employment, and maybe I'm not dazzling proficient at it, but it's something I chose, something I've worked to achieve, and if I ever decide to hang it up and go onto something else that's going to be my decision too.

"You're pretty quiet," Chris said as we reached my door.

I dug my spare key out of my back pocket and put it in the door. "I could say plenty if you want me to," I warned him as the door swung open. Out of habit, I flipped on the lights and proceeded inside with caution because every now and then an uninvited guest has been known to come on in and make themselves at home.

"All clear?" Chris was right beside me, helping me feel secure - aside from the way he was breathing down my neck.

"Looks like." I set the pizza and breadsticks down on the counter that divides the kitchen from the living room. "So, do you want to talk?"

"It's not top of my agenda."

Yeah, big surprise there.

He went into the kitchen to help himself to a beer in my fridge and his easy familiarity in my home suddenly gave me a warm feeling in my stomach. Nuts, sure, but it feels good that he knows where to find the bottle opener. He caught me watching him as he pried off the bottle cap and tossed it in the trash and for once didn't spoil the moment with a smirk or a wink. Instead he walked back over to me, a serious look on his face as he set the bottle on the counter and wrapped both arms around me - tight - letting out a deep breath as he held me close.

"Toby, I don't want to order you around. It just makes me nuts, thinking about how something could happen to you."

"Yeah, and being a vice cop is the safest profession in the world?" I didn't want to fight about it; I just wanted him to know I have those same fears.

He hugged me tighter. "We could both quit and open up a Laundromat."

I laughed, squeezing him back. "That your five-year plan?"

"Yeah. Sound good?"

"Mmmm, I'll give it some thought."

"Yeah?" His head lowered, his lips brushed my throat.

I pushed into him, loving how the hard length of his body felt against mine. "Yeah."

"You know what I think?" He gathered up his beer, the pizza and the breadsticks. "I think you probably need to go lie down."

I bit my lip to keep from smiling. "You do, huh?"

"Yep. You've had a stressful day."

"And you know just the thing to make me feel better?"

His smile was the cat-and-canary kind. "Why yes I do," he said, headed for my bedroom.

If I wanted those breadsticks I had no choice but to follow.

"Remember when we used to play doctor?" he said as he put everything down on my dresser and tossed his jacket over the chair.

Like I could forget. And no matter how many times my mother told me to stay away from that Keller boy, I always found myself going back. "You *said* you were going to give me tips to earn my first aid badge," I said as he took off his gun and tucked it away in a dresser drawer, leaving him in nothing but faded blue jeans and a form-fitting white t-shirt. It's a good look on him. Bare-assed naked's pretty good too.

"Baby," he caught me around the waist, lowered me to the mattress, "whatever made you think I was a Boy Scout?"

Hell if I know. What he's best at, they don't have merit badges for. "I was nave and impressionable." And irresistibly drawn to him even though I knew he was bad for me. What he was doing right now, though ... that felt really, really good. I arched my neck so he could reach more spots to nibble and wished he would just hurry up and get my shirt off; I didn't care if he popped some buttons along the way.

"That's what scares me sometimes," he murmured as he pushed the cloth out of the way and ran one hand along my ribcage, palm coming to rest over my heart.

"What does?" I caught hold of his head, brought his face close to mine.

"That you're still that nave and impressionable."

I pulled him down, bit his ear, kissed his lips. "I see through you like a plate-glass window, don't I?"

"Yeah, but that's `cause my primary goal's always been the same." His fingers circled a nipple and sent a shiver through me that had nothing to do with the AC kicking on. He stroked those fingers along my ribcage again, pressing gently as if probing for tender spots. "Does this hurt?"

I smiled and played along. "No."

"Hmm..." He undid my belt and zipper and pushed my pants and boxers down enough for him to rub a thumb back and forth along my hipbone, my pubic hair peeking over the cloth. "How about here?"

"Maybe just a little."

"Yeah?" He gave me a sympathetic, thoughtful look. "Maybe I could kiss it and make it feel better?"

"Worth a shot," I agreed, not a doubt in mind about that, in fact. I watched his head descend and felt his lips touch my skin, the wet tip of his tongue shooting fire straight to my groin. I touched his head and said, "I don't think it's helping, feels like it's spreading."

"Yeah?" He worked his hand inside, long fingers cupped over my crotch. "There does appear to be some swelling all right. This might require a series of treatments."

"Any side effects I should know about?"

"Well," his hand was warm and possessive, pressed against me, "you might have some trouble walking in the morning."

Hell, it was Friday; we could both sleep in tomorrow. I drew him down again, kissed him - hard - and whispered in his ear, "I might not be the only one."

He laughed and rubbed his cheek against mine, his stubble scratchy against my skin. "I'm counting on it," he whispered back, lips tender now as they sought mine.

Yes, I definitely prefer the way we play doctor now. Not only do we both have a much firmer grip on the situation but also my mother hardly ever interrupts us now.

Even better, there was nothing awkward and nervous about how I felt right then, splayed out half-naked as Chris went on with the examination, hands and mouth slowly exploring every inch of me and peeling more clothing out of the way so he could get to everything. And sweet holy Jesus, did he get to *everything*.

He yanked my boxers all the way off and flung them over his shoulder, and pushed one leg up to kiss behind my knee before nibbling along my inner thigh. I was a moaning mass of nerve endings by the time he got to my cock and swallowed it down until his nose was buried in my crotch. Knees raised, my hips arching off the bed, I whimpered as he drew his mouth s-l-o-w-l-y up the shaft of my cock until only the tip was caught between his lips as he licked and sucked and made me feel so fucking good. But it wasn't enough, not quite. I needed to touch him more, needed to feel his skin, hot and naked, against mine.

Propped up on my elbows, I watched my cock slip from between his lips, his hand retaining possession, and had to fight really hard not to give into the need for instant gratification. Knowing things were only being postponed for a couple of minutes helped. I reached down to grasp the back of his neck and pull him up to over me, loving the weight of him as I cupped both hands around his head and kept him in place so I could kiss his mouth again and again.

My mouth was against his ear, my tongue making him shiver as I ran the tip along the ridges and whorls. "Get naked -- *now*," I told him, no way he could miss the urgency in my voice. No way he could miss me helping him get started, tugging his t-shirt out of his jeans and hiking it up so my hand could slide along his broad back, his skin warm and smooth under my palm.

He kissed my throat, my collarbone, struggled to rear back on his knees. For a second I couldn't understand why he was having a problem with that; then I realized it was because my hands were still clamped to his shoulders, holding him to me. "Gotta let me go, babe," he whispered, singing my lips with another kiss and squirming free, sliding off the bed.

I lay back, catching my breath, the veins on my forearms standing out as I propped myself up again to watch him strip. T-shirt first, his hands crossed over each other to grip the hem of the garment and peel it off one tantalizing glimpse of skin at a time. I licked my lips and visually mapped out the flesh I was going to explore, and reached down to keep my cock company as Chris turned up the volume, lazily rubbing his palm across his nipples and sliding down to pop the button on his jeans. Instead of getting right to it, he worked his hand under the waistband to stroke the visible bulge in his crotch.

I moaned and held my breath and feared I might go off any second from nothing more than watching him touch himself. "Goddamn it, Keller..."

He laughed and relented, shedding the jeans and his boxers and kicking them out of the way, standing there so I could look my fill. It's funny, I've probably seen him naked more times than myself and yet the sight never gets old. Since he's already insufferably smug about that, I try to control my drooling when possible.

"You know," I settled back and strove to appear nonchalant, "you aren't the first guy who's shown me his dick today." Of course I wasn't fooling anyone in the room. Keller's might not be the first dick I'd seen today, but his was the only one I wanted to get my mouth around.

Chris came back to the bed and settled over me, muscular arms braced like he was going to do pushups. "Yeah but, cupcake," he smiled down at me, "I'm not gonna blow ... up," he finished and lowered his head to devour my mouth.

I was counting on that, actually.


"Pizza's going to be cold."

"Yeah." Chris stretched out even more comfortably. "Beer's probably flat too." He didn't appear in any big rush to get up and do anything about that.

It was good like this. Hot and sticky, but good. And there wasn't one single twinge of tension lingering anywhere in my body. I turned on my side to face him, rub a hand along his arm and look at him, content to stay in this moment for a while.

Truth? Sure, he is a wonder to behold and there are times that nothing but a smile from him can take my breath away, but he's never sexier than when he's like this, relaxed and sleepy in my bed. His face softens and his eyes go tender in a way that makes me need to hold him close. It's easy to give into that impulse because he reaches for me at the same moment, and neither of us in any hurry to move then as the AC gradually cools our bodies.

A lot of people wouldn't believe this, wouldn't believe him like this anyway. That gives me another good feeling, that he trusts me enough to let down his guard so completely, and I don't take that lightly. It doesn't hurt to keep him on his toes, however, and I hug him closer and sigh happily, whispering against his ear, "My honeybear," and wait.

It takes a few moments. He presses into me first, returning my embrace before he goes still, my words fully penetrating. Another moment and he scoots back enough to look at me, dubious regard in his eyes. "What?"

It was tough but I fought hard to keep my face straight. "Well," my voice was that of perfect reason, "if I'm your cupcake then that makes you my honeybear, right?"

Usually Chris Keller could give inscrutable lessons to a cat; this is one time I could see every thought passing through his head, annoyance giving way to grudging concession. "You ever call me that in public I'll handcuff you to the bed for a week."

"Oh, yeah, like that would be a punishment."

Laughter burst from his throat as he rolled over on his back, me on top of him. "Yeah, must've had you confused with someone else for a second."

My hands pressed his against the mattress as I put my mouth to his, seducing his mouth into complete submission, his entire body surrendering to mine. Does he know what an incredible turn on that is, what a gift? My appreciation can be expressed only one way, with the caress of my hand along his side, the brush of my lips along his throat as I taste the salt tang of his sweat. "Remember me now?"

He slipped his hands free of my grip and reached for me, long fingers digging into my back as he held me there against him. One hand slid up to stroke my hair, pull on it as he demanded more and longer kisses. "Yeah," he rubbed his cheek against mine, knowing I like the feel of his stubble scratching my skin, "some bells are ringing."

That was one way of putting it.

He stroked my back and I arched into his touch, my hands gripping handfuls of sheet as we kissed some more, chasing the deepest connection possible through just the merging of our mouths. We can never kiss enough, never touch enough to satisfy us. This chemical reaction between us - I think it must be like crack with a heroin kick, instantly and totally addictive, and neither of us with any incentive to find a cure. Someday I want to find out if we can make each other come with only these scorching wet kisses, this sensuous exploration of each other. I bet we can. I bet it will be beyond spectacular.

And I bet we have to wait until all our relatives are dead before we get to test it out.

I let out a groan that had nothing to do with passion and buried my face against Chris' shoulder. The phone was ringing in the outer room and a flash of psychic intuition told me it could be only one person.

Chris massaged the back of my neck, said, "The machine'll get it," but we could both feel the moment slipping away.

"Toby? This is your mother. If you're there, you should pick up." Brief pause punctuated with a worried sigh. "Are you asleep?" Keller snerked and I smooshed my face deeper into his shoulder. "Our phone's been ringing all evening but your father said to ignore it, it was probably telemarketers, but your grandfather just came home and said it's all over the neighborhood that you blew up another car and some dope fiend exposed himself to you. What am I going to say to Olivia Gunzel tomorrow at our book club meeting? Her son never has crazy people flash him and blow up." Yeah, well, given Adam Gunzel is a dick, that would be redundant anyway.

She finished with a reminder that I was expected for Sunday dinner and a polite comment that Chris could come too. That's progress. She tells people that it was being married to Katherine that made me gay, even though I'm pretty sure she knows better - mind you, that would have done the job all right. That she is willing to include Chris in these invitations has to be a sign the walls of denial are crumbling bit by bit. Probably it helps that my brother Angus is practically perfect. He works at the family law firm, never gets his car blown up, and is married to Whitney Chandler-Martin, of the Park Avenue Chandler-Martins. They look like Ken and Barbie, except I'm pretty sure Angus actually has genitalia. Whitney - it's anybody's guess.

I rolled off Chris but stayed close. "Maybe we should break for some pizza and pick up where we left off."

He ran a hand down my side, over my hip, and gave me a light smack on the ass. "Yeah, gotta keep our strength up."

Well, one of us did anyway. Come Monday morning, I would be a big mass of boneless goo plastered to the sheets. An incredibly content and satiated blob of goo, true enough, but utterly incapable of forming coherent sentences much less dragging my carcass out of bed and actually functioning. Keller, by contrast, would be doing handsprings; he'd be ready to run a marathon, wrestle crocodiles, and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Sex invigorates him, turns him into the Energizer Bunny.

Case in point: He was lazily sprawled across the bed, half-asleep and exhibiting no inclination to budge as I crawled out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom, thinking a cool shower might be nice. I'd barely adjusted the water and reached for the soap when he pulled back the curtain and joined me, taking the bar of soap from me and pushing me against the tile as he sudsed me up and kissed my breath away.

Honest, look up insatiable in the dictionary - there's a picture of him right beside it.

"You don't take Viagra or something, do you?" I said, soaping up his back now as he nibbled along my throat.

He growled against my neck. "Toby, the day I need anything but the sight of you to get it up is the day you're shoveling me six feet under."

Flattering and melodramatic; that's my honeybear.

And then it was really tough to think snarky thoughts because he had me pressed against the cool, wet tile again, and he was kissing my face and my mouth as the water poured over us and our cocks rubbed together. I pressed my face into his shoulder and bit him as I came, my fingers digging into his back hard enough to bruise as his orgasm shuddered out of him the next instant. Chests heaving as we sucked down air, we could only rest there, holding each other up as our semen mingled at our feet and swirled away down the drain.

Hell, this rate, I'd be a blob of goo by Sunday afternoon.

~*~*~ We were happily stuffed with pizza and breadsticks and stretched out comfortably on the couch, watching a Law & Order marathon in our boxers, because I can't eat naked, when Keller's cell went off. He swore and aimed a resentful look at it, over on the counter.

"Better get it," I said, trying not to hate the damn thing.

He sighed and sat up, said, "It's probably nothing."

I nodded but both of us knew better. Cops don't get calls in the middle of the night just to chat about the weather.

I sat up too, turned down the volume on the television and tried to read his body language. His side of the conversation was mostly, "What? What the fuck? You outta your fucking mind?" and concluding with a bemused, "I'll be fucked," as he set the phone down again and spent a few seconds staring at the Formica. Something told me he didn't mean that in a good way.

"What's up?" I said as he came to the couch and sat down on the edge.

"That was Murphy. He says they found Father Calhoun laid out down at St. Tom's."

"Laid out?" I sat up straighter. "You mean dead? In the church?" He nodded, and even though I wasn't Catholic I knew this was huge. I also knew Murphy wouldn't have called him if the priest died of natural causes. "What happened?"

"Someone whacked him with a candlestick."

"They know who?"

He nodded and I could see this was the part that had him floored. "Chris," I touched his shoulder, "what? Is it somebody you know?"

"Yeah." He looked at me then, disbelief all over his face. "Murphy says it was my aunt Pete."

Fuck. It was my turn to gawk. "Sister Peter Marie?"


"Holy crap."

He sighed again, heavy. "Yep."

I rubbed his back. "Do they have her in custody?" I could already see tomorrow's headlines - Nun Whacks Priest - over a picture of Sister Pete in handcuffs, being led away by homicide detective Pierce Taylor.

Chris shook his head, tension bleeding away under my touch. "Not yet. Murphy says they're looking for her." He pulled in a deep breath, held it, let it out slowly, starting to put on his cop face. "Nobody saw the murder but Murphy says they have witnesses to an incident earlier in the day. Fr. Calhoun's housekeeper and another priest, Mukada, both say Sister Pete was agitated about something all day and made threats against Fr. Calhoun. Something about how if he didn't do something she was going to see he paid for it." He shook his head, having a hard time working up a sense of distance with this one. "Toby, I gotta go. Maybe I can find her first, get this straightened out."

Yes, this was family, and I nodded my understanding of that. "Can I do anything?"

He gave me a crooked, tired smile. "Yeah - know any good lawyers?"

I hugged him close as we stood up. "I'll make some calls."

He held me tight then stepped back, heading for the bedroom to get his clothes. Five minutes later he was at the door, clipping his gun and badge to his belt, and I had to ask, "Do you think she could have done it?"

His cop face was in place, inscrutable as they come. "Don't know."

But the poker face told me that he thought she might have.

"I'll call when I know something," he said, leaning in for a brief, soft kiss. Then he was gone.

I locked the door after him and went to my bedroom window to watch him drive away. So much for our weekend of naked debauchery.

With a thoughtful huff, I dropped the curtain and went back to the living room, checking the time as I picked up the phone. Tempting as it was to wake up my brother, I thought my dad might have some more useful advice under the circumstances.

~to be continued~


"Hello, Chris."

I stood at the bars of the jail cell and looked at Sister Pete sitting over on the single, narrow bunk, all calm and composed. "You know there's something wrong with this picture, right?" No mistake either, if it wasn't for her believing in me when no one else did and fighting to keep me on the straight and narrow, our situations would have been reversed and it would be her coming to see me in prison right now. A lot of what I am today - I owe to her. Toby's got a chunk too. Anytime I was ready to give up on myself and fulfill everyone's low expectations, remembering how the two of them believed I was better than that, how they expected more of me, helped keep me going. I wasn't about to leave Pete high and dry when she finally needed me.

She smiled and got up to come over to me. "I'm fine."

"Are you gonna tell me what happened?" No real point in asking, I could already see she had her mind set on stubborn, but I had to give it a shot.

"Whatever happened is between me and God, Chris. You know that."

I rested my hands on the crossbar, glaring down at her. "And *you* know this isn't just a walk in the park."

She looked right back at me, about as intimidated as a rhino facing down a squirrel. She's *tiny*, but I've never seen that faze her, never seen her back down from anyone. That's why I couldn't give Toby an absolute no when he'd asked if I thought she could have whacked Father Calhoun. One thing being a cop teaches you real quick is that anyone is capable of anything under any given set of circumstances; things click together a certain way, the most dyed in the wool pacifist'll come out swingin'. So yeah, if she was really riled up about something I could picture her grabbing the first blunt instrument at hand and smackin' someone upside the head. Not likely, million to one odds against, but it wouldn't be completely outside the realm of possibility.

But being a sneak, being a weasel, creeping up behind Father Calhoun while he was kneeling in prayer, and beating his head in so bad they were gonna need dental records for a hundred percent positive ID? No, that I don't see her doing, not in a million years. And that was exactly what I'd found when I stopped by the crime scene, Murphy and Ortolanti keeping an eye out for Spanky while I took a gander at it all, the CSU gang still swarming over the place. M.E. hadn't moved the body yet so I was able to take a good, long look. Woman could have done it, maybe even one on the small side if she'd caught him completely by surprise, but she'd have to be the kinda gal who got a buzz from it, got off on it, `cause whoever'd done it had *kept* on doing it long past any reason - and that wasn't Sister Pete either.

Here's the clincher, though: *if* she'd done it, the first thing she would have done is call 911, then go to Father Ray and confess and then turn herself in when the police arrived. What she wouldn't have done is calmly go on about her business, like stopping in over at the church run hospice, which is where Spanky had nabbed her.

Conclusion? She's covering for someone. Who and why - yeah, that'd be the crux of the matter.

"You know," I tried to go for my best persuasive voice now, relaxing my grip on the bars, "whoever you think you're protecting, in the long run you're just making things worse."

"I don't think so, Chris. Will you trust me to know what I'm doing?"

"Yeah - if you weren't on the wrong side of these bars. Dammit, Pete--"

"*Chris.*" Her look and tone warned me this wasn't going to accomplish anything.

I made a frustrated sound deep in my throat, shaking the bars a little, and wondering how it was the most important people in my life are also the most stubborn, bullheaded people in creation. "Listen," I cleared my throat, tried to calm down, "Beecher's finding you a lawyer--"

"How is Tobias? Tell him I said hello and I was sorry to hear about his car."

"I will, and he's fine." You know, if I didn't count the getting his car blown up part. There's a reason I tease him about winding up in those situation: it's that, or sit down and have a nervous breakdown. Every time I hear a report about him being stalked, threatened, shot at and otherwise harassed by the psychos he goes after, my heart stops for a couple of beats. "He gives me enough worries," I told her, wondering if guilt might get me somewhere, "now I gotta think about you being in the pokey."

"How about if I give you my solemn word not to shank anyone?" she said, letting me know how serious she took that. "Chris," she reached through the bars and tapped me on the chest, "don't get all worked up about this. There's no need. Everything will work out."

Yeah, and pigs'd fly through the sky whistling Dixie.

"Well at least tell me what I'm supposed to say to Mom," I said, not admitting defeat, just falling back until I could work out a better approach.

She smiled again. "She'll believe the worst, no matter what. Don't worry about that either."

I scowled back her. "Anything I *can* worry about?" What did she expect me to do, go home and sleep on it?

She gave me a hard look then and said, "You can apply your energy to things actually within your grasp to change."

I stepped back, fingers curled around the bars and head cocked as I looked at her. "Want to put that in English?"

"How are you and Tobias?"

I let out a breath, shrugged. She wasn't prying, not just for the sake of it anyway. "We're ... good."

"So you're talking?" she asked and I guess I must have given something away with the look on my face, because she smiled and nodded to herself like she'd known it all along. "More than talking, I take it."

"Person might get the idea you were glad to hear that."

"A person might be right," she batted right back. "He's good for you, Chris. I think you're good for him too."

I shrugged again, thinking this was kind of a strange time and place to be having this conversation. "We get one thing really right anyway," I said, and smiled when she didn't blush. "It's all the other stuff that trips us up."

"Does trying to bully him get you anywhere?"

I scowled back at her, but more because of the ring of truth in her words. "Not really," I admitted. "What am I supposed to do, though? Stand there and watch him get in over his head?" I'd already come too close to losing him once and that had about killed me.

She knew about that too, but still said, "Maybe. You have to let him make the decision anyway. Trust him to make the best one?"

Head tilted again, I thought about what she'd said, wondered if she had just slipped me something between the lines there. "Hard to trust someone's judgment when you don't have all the facts laid out."

She patted my arm. "That's what faith is about, Chris."

I wanted to pursue this, see if her faith in me would stretch a little more, but any chance for that right now took a hike as Homicide dick Pierce Taylor, strolled in just then. He didn't look surprised to see me there - wasn't ready to do a jig about it either. Spanky and me got history, that's the problem. When he was a patrol cop and I was doing my best James Dean, he busted me a couple times for minor infractions and hassled me a whole lotta other times `cause he'd made up his mind about me. I was nothing but trouble the way he saw it, a potential menace to society, and it's a burr under his hide that I wound up being a cop just like him. Since vice and homicide overlap a lot, it ain't always easy to keep from stepping on each other's toes either.

"Detective Taylor," I leaned against the bars and smiled, "looks like ya nailed yourself quite the desperado here."

"Laugh it up, Keller," he said, mild enough. "Anything you want to know about this case, you can read about it in the papers."

"I'm just here consoling my aunt, Spanky."

His icy blue gaze told me how much he bought that. Not bothering with a response, he faced Sister Pete and told her, "Your lawyer and Father Mukada are here."

"Thank you, Detective, but I don't need a lawyer."

"Yeah, well, you got one anyway," I said and caught Taylor looking just about as exasperated as me. Well, to give him credit, booking a nun for murder probably wasn't the highpoint of his career. "Try cooperating, huh?"

She gave me a cranky look at that just as Mukada came in, and I looked around to see who Toby'd snagged to act as her lawyer. Toby or his dad would have been my own top picks, but I wasn't expecting to see Minister High-and-Mighty walk on in.

He glanced at me, nodded a neutral greeting. "Keller."

I nodded back, just as cool. "Said."

"Beecher said your aunt was in need of my services."

And that was a surprise. Last I'd heard, Toby and Said were on the outs because Minister Stick Up His Ass didn't approve of me, of Toby's relationship with me. They've been friends for a long time, worked together in that low rent legal aid outfit before it went belly up, and I know Toby respects him a lot. Respect has its limits, though, and Toby had finally gotten fed up with his friend lecturing him about how the way we love each other is wrong. Have to admit I hadn't expected that. Have to admit I was wondering what kind of deal might have been struck now.

"There a catch I should know about?"

He smiled, like he'd expected that. "We don't all have ulterior motives, Detective."

Yeah, guess that was supposed to make me go *ouch*.

"May I have some privacy with my client?" he said, looking at me and Taylor.

I had to smile at Spanky grumbling, "Knock yourself out," as we both headed for the door, out of earshot.

I looked back at the three of them, tried to pick up some clues from their body language. Said was trying to take command of the situation, that much was clear, but if Mukada's exasperation was anything to go by, Said's powers of persuasion weren't getting him very far at the moment. "You know what'd be a good course at the academy?"

Taylor canted me a look. "Lip reading?"

I nodded, thinking how that was the closest Spanky'd ever come to making a joke or cracking a smile in my vicinity. "You can really picture her bashing in Father Calhoun's head?"

He shrugged. "Doesn't matter what I can picture, Keller. Until and unless evidence to the contrary turns up, Sister Peter Marie's the prime suspect."

Funny thing was, I had this feeling that was Spanky's way of telling me he wasn't happy with the case as it played out now. And maybe that meant nobody's toes'd have to get stomped on if I explored my own line of investigation.

Although what the fuck that would be...? Throw a dart at the board and see where it struck, that was how it felt right now.

There was nothing more I could do at the police station, and as I cruised by the church it looked like the crime scene was taken care of; M.E. van was gone, yellow crime scene tape was stuck across the door and all the interested bystanders had cleared off. I wondered how Father Mukada was going to handle Sunday services as I drove on along. I wondered where I was going as I found myself turning down a street that would take me back to Toby.

Another aunt, Rose, left me her house when she passed away a couple years ago and I'd need to backtrack about a mile if I was going to crash there for the night. Seemed like a long way to go, what with it's coming up on three o'clock in the morning and Toby's apartment building just halfway down the block there.

I pulled in and parked in the spot formerly occupied by his car and smiled, remembering how good it had been to get back with him even at the expense of another car. Soon as I knew he was okay and my heart started up again, the only thing on my mind was getting him alone and *not* fucking things up because I really don't like it when we're not in each other's orbit.

Us breaking up ain't exactly a newsflash anymore but this last go around, there'd been a different feel to it. This had been the first time I had slammed into the idea that we really might be over. And let me tell *that* was a kick in the gut. Even him getting married hadn't stung as bad. Sure, I can remember looking at a picture of them in the paper and feeling a load of resentment simmering away, looking at the gold-digging bitch in her wedding dress and hanging onto his arm. What saved it was how Toby'd looked kinda dazed and confused in the photo, and how that made me think his heart wasn't really in it. So hearing they were splitting up hadn't come as a bombshell and I won't try pulling anyone's leg and claim I was all broken up about that.

And yeah, it crossed my mind to go around and see if I could take his mind off his troubles. Have to admit, looking back I'm actually glad life intervened and made me put that off a while. I could have done it, and it would have been good, but I know the way his mind works. He'd have started thinking I'd taken advantage of him at a low point in his life, and he would have started resenting that, and quick as could be we'd have been back at square one again.

The way things actually worked out was better, and my conscience is clean since about the last way I would have wanted us to come back into each other's orbits was because I was in a jam and needed legal advice.

See, couple years back, the local P.D. made a major drug bust, only some of the evidence went missing - in the form of 5 kilos of coke. Internal Affairs got involved, and Spanky fingered me for the likely ringleader. My union rep told me to get a good lawyer and I headed over to this outfit I'd been hearing about, idealistic lawyers out to change the world, and if I was cynical about the truth of that I couldn't deny their rates sounded reasonable.

I'd heard something about Toby being involved with them but that honestly hadn't been on my mind when I walked into the place. Chalk one up to fate, though, `cause the only guy available to talk to me was Tobias Beecher, Esq. - and he hadn't looked too thrilled about it, least not at first. Seem to recall his first words were somethin' like, *"Oh Christ."*

Wanna hear something crazy? I almost wished my case had gone to trial, `cause if Toby operating in the courtroom is as hot as Toby sitting in an office and making it clear to the D.A. and Internal Affairs boys how their case against me was full of more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese, then he's gotta be a motherfucking sight to behold when he goes before a judge and jury. He even made Spanky back down and put a lid on it.

He had my blood sizzling like crazy, *and* he fucking knew it even if he went all cool and coy on me and tried to blow it off. The connection between us was like a live wire all over again, the minute we'd locked eyes, and there was no way I was walking away. He knew that too.

As I got out my car and locked it, started across the parking lot to his building, it was easy enough to remember all the details of that reunion. It had been a summer night like this, late, and he had this crazy idea a locked door was going to keep me away from him. I had the lock picked before he'd finished telling me we didn't have anything to talk about and let's just say he didn't call 911 to report a break in. There was a kitchen counter involved, us pressed tight against it as we started to get reacquainted. There was a kitchen table, us naked on top of it because he wanted a certain memory wiped out of his mind. And there was a lot of holding each other close in bed afterward and me asking why he'd ever married that bitch, and him making my heart stop in a good way `cause he said it was because the one he wanted hadn't wanted him. I kissed him and asked him to forgive me for that, and things were shaping up pretty good for us - and then he came home one day and told me he was going to be a bounty hunter.

In retrospect, sure, my reaction could have been dialed down some. Wasn't like I had this psychic flash he was about to embark on a life of exploding vehicles and getting stalked by psychos - those events weren't long in coming, though, and derailed us again. They also got us back together when I found out he was pursuing a particularly nasty piece of work, one James Robson. I did get some bad vibes that time, not even reassured that Gypsy was keeping an eye on him, and you gotta know it's bad when even that Irishman thinks things are looking nasty.

Worst night of my life? When Gypsy called me at a quarter to midnight to tell me Robson had Toby and was holding him hostage down at a warehouse on the riverfront. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that Robson would carry out his threat to kill Toby and thinking about that, trying to imagine him not being in my life ... yeah, I never want to feel like that again.

So, yeah, him hanging up the bounty hunter toys would just about make my life. And yet I know Sister Pete's right, I can't *make* him do that. Gotta have faith - even if that means a case of the heebie-jeebies every now and then.

None of Toby's crazy neighbors were stirring at this hour, although light showed under some of the doors and I could hear the television blaring from the apartment across the hall as I got to Toby's door. The way he's jinxed with regard to cars? His run of luck's no better with door locks. No matter how many times it's been changed, no matter what kind of lock has been installed, I can slip in with hardly any effort. The bad part is so can anyone else - like Robson had. Reason #709 why he should move in with me. Reasons 1 through 708 would be all the hot lovin' possible any time of the day or night, of course.

He was sound asleep as I let myself into the bedroom and I stripped down quietly, slipped in beside him and kissed his face.


I smiled and kissed him again. "It's just me, go back to sleep."

He let out a soft sigh and turned into me, breath warm against my neck. "Did I give you a key?"

"Not yet."


I laughed quietly and stroked his hair, kissed his forehead. I'd give a lot to keep him just like this, safe and sound in my arms. There's a lot of reason to believe that feeling's mutual. Well, I hear there's this thing called *compromise*; we might try looking into that one of these days.

He moved against me, waking up some more. "How's Pete?"

"Stubborn, pig-headed - you know, same as always." I smiled. "Thanks for sending Said, by the way. Thought you weren't on speaking terms lately?"

"We aren't, but Dad thought he would be the best choice."

"Well, thank your dad for me."

He rubbed a hand along my arm, over the tat there. "Thank him yourself when you come to dinner Sunday," he said and kissed my shoulder.

I smiled some more and got my fingers tangled in his air. "I will." I tilted his head up so I could kiss his lips, feeling better by the second. "You okay with calling up Said?" It was still on my mind that Toby'd had to strike some kinda deal there.

"I'm still pissed off at him, but I can put that aside for Sister Pete's sake. How about you?"

I nodded, kissed him some more. "As much as I think he's an arrogant prick I also know he's one of the best defense attorney's out there, and he'll do right by her. Like you say, this ain't about us right now."

"Glad to hear it." He curved a hand around the back of my neck, fingers scratching into my hair. "Now you've talked to her, what do you think?"

"I think ... she's covering for somebody." First thing in the morning I was going to get cracking on trying to figure that out. Toby pressed against me then and kissed me, his tongue filling my mouth, and I amended that. Maybe *second* thing in the morning. "She told me to say hello, by the way, and that she's sorry about your car."

"Geez," he buried his face against my shoulder, "does everybody know about that?"

"Yeah." I smiled and stroked his back, his skin warm and smooth under my hand. "Think the President even gets briefed about it."

"Oh yes, very amusing." He sighed, the warm breath caressing my cheek, and fitted himself along me, holding me close. "Anything else I can do?"

"You're doin' it, babe," I said, turning so my head was resting on his shoulder, thinking about how everything looks better when we're wrapped up each other. I moved my head and kissed his neck. "Love you."

He squeezed me, kissed the top of my head. "Love you."

Yeah, he always can kiss it and make it all better.


When Aunt Rose left me her house it hadn't looked like that much of a blessing. In fact my first idea was to sell it. What did I need with a house, especially one crammed with big, clunky furniture and knick-knacks collecting dust in every single nook and cranny? I was persuaded to hang onto it, though, try it out for a while, and have to admit it has gradually become a more comfortable fit. Most of the furniture and knick-knacks are gone, turned out there were some really beautiful hardwood floors underneath the godawful carpet, and every fresh coat of paint helps put my own stamp on the place. Have to say the latest addition is my favorite even though it's not quite permanent.

Toby was in the kitchen fixing breakfast as I came downstairs, knotting my tie. And when I say `fixing breakfast' what I mean is he had the coffee maker going and Pop Tarts in the toaster. Someday one of us is probably going to have to learn to cook, but there's no rush. After all, a week ago I didn't even have Pop Tarts. Or Twinkies and Ding-Dongs.

We're not co-habiting, not yet, but every step along that road's good, like him leaving a toothbrush here and bringing me groceries. Everything on that front has been really promising the last couple of weeks. Nothing's exploded, no one's been shot at or otherwise menaced, and I've been to dinner at his folk's three more times. If Victoria's still got the thermostat set on lukewarm, it's hard to notice when Grandpa Rebadow's regaling us with the latest news. Seems the mob's power has been slipping lately not because of any law enforcement crackdown, but because space aliens are muscling in on the business. Apparently Sammy the Bull, for instance, was kidnapped, probed, and implanted with a device that made him spill his guts to the Feds.

And actually I can buy the part about one in every five FBI agents being alien robots.

I stepped up behind Toby at the counter where he was setting out mugs, and curved my hands around his waist as I kissed the nape of his neck, blond curls tickling my nose. "Good morning."

He turned around to greet me, murmuring, "Good morning," as he came in for a long, deep kiss, fingers of one hand digging into my scalp because, you know, it *had* been about forty-five minutes since we'd made love - and let me tell you, waking up to Toby's big, fat, beautiful cock poking me in the back beats the hell out of any alarm clock.

He stepped back then and looked me over, expression very serious as he fixed my tie. "Is Said calling you as a character witness?"

I shook my head as the Pop Tarts sprang up, all toasty warm and gooey. "I'm just going as moral support."

The situation with Sister Pete had been the only dark cloud hanging over everything. Her hearing was today and it was looking good for Said making a case for dismissing all charges. I can admit he's been doing a bang-up job with things, even with ADA Martin Querns throwing up roadblocks at every turn. Said's countered everything smooth as can be so far, showing up Querns at every opportunity, and while that's probably made him even more unpopular in the D.A.'s office it's all in a good cause. Kinda strange being on the same page with Said about something, but for Sister Pete's sake I can stand being beholden to him.

I hadn't made a lot of progress in tracking down any leads that would put Pete completely in the clear and while that was frustrating, especially with her still keeping her lips zipped, at least I knew Spanky wasn't doing any better. The crime scene boys had turned up plenty of evidence - hairs, fibers, fingerprints - but it was a church, open to the public, and that didn't exactly add up to conclusive evidence. They had scored one big point: Pete's prints on the murder weapon. Knock wood, Said would be able to point out the candlestick also had Father Calhoun's own prints, as well as Mukada's and a couple others that hadn't been ID'd yet.

There was one little mystery, but so far it hadn't led anyone anywhere: CSU had found a handkerchief in the confessional, good linen, some decorative embroidery but nothing as useful as a monogram. The curious thing was the smears of makeup found on it. Hadn't looked like any big deal to start with, but our resident forensics whiz, Donald Groves, had tested it and reported the makeup was theatrical grade quality, not something you could buy down at the Wal-mart. Did it mean anything? Christ knows.

Mukada and the housekeeper's testimony still put Sister Pete in the general vicinity, still had her worked up about something, but no one had seen her actually inside the church at the time in question. Better yet, there *had* been sightings of another woman entering the church at about the right time. We had a good description of her; she'd stuck in the housekeeper's mind in particular because, "She was turned out so classy," Mrs. Alvarez had said. "Nice suit and hose, hair and make-up done so nice. Well, she had a black lace scarf over her hair so I can't be too sure of the color, but I'd say it was red. Oh, and she had on gloves. You don't see that anymore. I remember thinking she was a real lady." Mrs. Alvarez couldn't recall seeing this woman at the church before and there hadn't been any progress made in tracking her down. Was this lady the one who'd dropped the handkerchief? Was she the killer or a witness, or just a red herring?

I didn't know how hard Spanky was looking for her, but I was keeping an eagle eye out.

"Any chance the judge won't dismiss the charges?" Toby said as we sat at the small kitchen table, the morning light picking out the red and gold in his hair.

I took a swig of coffee, shrugged. "Said seems confident."

"That's his job."

I smiled, had to let it fade a little as I went on. "The only thing that's got him worried is how hard Querns has been pushing to make the charges stick."

Toby gave me a cynical look across the strawberry Pop Tarts. "No, really?"

I laughed, sharing the joke. Querns is a particularly ambitious ADA, concerned with making headlines and appearing to wield a sword of justice to wow the constituents, because rumor has it he's been promised the attorney general post if our mayor, the honorable - yeah, right - James Devlin is elected governor. Neither of them has ever met a photo op they didn't like, and since this case has stirred up a lot of media attention they've had plenty of opportunity to turn it to their advantage. If their spin is to be believed, dropping charges against Sister Pete would give license to nuns everywhere to go rampaging through the streets. If Pete's life wasn't on the line, it would be laughable.

I was just finishing my coffee when my phone went off. "Keller," I said, tracking Toby's movements as he cleared the table. It would take a lot to get my mind off how good he looked today, in faded jeans that hugged his ass and legs, and a black polo shirt that fit just as snug. Murphy's next words did the job, though. "Oh fuck."

Toby leaned back against the sink, watching me as the brief conversation finished up, concern in his eyes. "What's up?"

I scrubbed a hand across my face, shook my head. "Ahhh," I tried to wave it off, but knew he wasn't buying it, "case I've been working may be going belly up. Murphy and Ortolanti just found a guy I was using as a snitch, dead of an overdose." I hadn't put all my eggs in Timmy Kirk's basket by any means, the kid was too much of a blatant weasel for that, but he had been holding some big pieces of the puzzle. "I gotta go."

He nodded. "I know. I need to head to the office too."

I tugged him close for a kiss to keep me going. "Don't blow anything up."


I laughed, snatched another kiss, and headed for the door. "I'll call you when I hear about Sister Pete."

~*~*~ Timmy Kirk had been renting a room in a boarding house down on Apple Street. If apple trees had ever grown there, it must have been back in a whole other world. The street had given up a long time ago, surrendering to empty lots of hard-packed dirt and gravel, littered with trash and broken glass and rusted out old heaps. Even the weeds looked pitiful and forlorn. There was a gas station on a corner and a couple of bare bones bars. Residents loitered around those establishments and the cracked sidewalk, sullen and dead-eyed, no more life in them than in the weeds. The cop cars and ambulance parked outside the boarding house provided a brief diversion, I guessed.

I parked and got out, showed my badge as I headed inside. The exterior of the house hadn't been inviting and the interior lived up to that promise. Back when the apple trees had flourished this might have been a house to be proud of; there were some remnants of that past glory in the peeling wallpaper that had once been all the rage, in gouged and dried out woodwork that might have been polished to a gleam once upon a time. The house had given up a long time ago too. It was dark and stuffy; a fan whirred somewhere but it wasn't doing much to stir the hot, humid air filled with unappetizing odors. I could feel sweat breaking out as I climbed the stairs to the third floor, my shirt sticking to my back, and I pressed back against the wall as two patrol cops made their way down, nodding a greeting.

Times I'd met with Timmy, it had been downtown at a biker bar he'd liked, one of his bases of operations he'd always said. He'd always wanted to talk about my bike, a '51 Indian Chief I'd treated myself to a few years back. Always asked me to bring it around next time, said it would be a real kick to see it, excited about that as a little kid. Made me think he'd aspired to something more than Apple Street.

Maybe they'd put that on his headstone.

He was stretched out on a narrow bed, needle marks standing out on his skin, his eyes open like death had surprised him. M.E. Nathan confirmed what my nose already told me, even with the window cracked open: Timmy'd been here a while, since around 10 p.m. last night was Gloria's estimate. She'd firm that up for her final report, for whatever that might be worth.

Hard to tell if any of his neighbors might have traipsed in to help themselves to some belongings before calling the cops. I doubted Timmy'd had much to loot and everything looked fairly neat and tidy. He'd stuck up some posters to brighten up the dingy walls - Harleys and Indians, a couple of pinups, the old-fashioned kind, like Vargas glamour gals. There was a 10-year-old boombox on top of the scarred dresser, a stack of CDs beside it, no collector's items. A couple of snapshots in cheap dimestore frames also sat on the dresser and I zeroed in on one of them: Timmy Kirk, about 12, bright-eyed and still full of better of possibilities. He was decked out in altar boy duds and stood there frozen in time with Father Francis Calhoun.

We'd looked into the obvious, had to these days, but there hadn't been a whisper that Father Calhoun had an unhealthy interest in the kids. About the biggest scandal that had come to light was Father Frankie liked to play the ponies once in a while. There wasn't anything suspicious in this photo either. It was just an unexpected connection.

"Yo, Keller," Murphy stuck his head in, radio in hand, "Dino and me are hitting the road. Just got a call about a suspicious pair of hombres casing a house over on 4th and Elm."

"Yeah, and...?" He was smiling too much for there not to be more to the story.

"Well," he scratched the side of his face, "seems one of these outlaws is a big black guy with a hat stuck on the side of his head, and the other one's a blond guy with handcuffs and a can of something in one hand."

"Oh Christ." Laurel and Hardy were at it again. "Keep me posted?"

"You know I will."

I tried to put that out of my mind, glanced at my watch to check the time. If I was going to be on hand for Pete's hearing I needed to roll. There was no reason to hang around here looking for clues. Even so, a ticket caught my eye among the homely clutter on the dresser, stuck under a Snoopy mug that had been broken and glued back together. It was to a show downtown, at a place called Metamorphosis. I knew the address. Used to be this movie theater that went in for art house stuff and went bust because of that. Toby'd dragged me there a couple times and I can say this: there's nothing like a foreign film to cure your insomnia.

So it wasn't a surprise I hadn't paid attention to what kinda outfit had moved into the place. With a name like that, it sounded like it was still something high-falutin' and I wondered what the attraction had been for Timmy Kirk. More aspirations maybe? Probably nothing in it, but I figured the wouldn't be any harm if I moseyed on down there and had a look, just to settle my curiosity.

I was thinking how when I could work that in when my phone went off. "Keller," I said and wished I'd had a chance to brace myself. I put a hand against the dresser to steady myself, my brain trying to process what I was hearing. It wasn't working. I mumbled something about how I'd be right there and sank down on the lone chair in the room. I sucked down some deep breaths, put my head down a little, barely heard Gloria asking if I was okay.

'Cause no, I wasn't okay. Wasn't even near that ballpark.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.


"I think maybe we in the wrong place."

"Don't tell me you're afraid of dogs."

"That's not a dog, that's a werewolf."

I huffed and pointed out, "Werewolves only come out on nights of the full moon - it's broad daylight." Still, as I peeked over the picket fence at the snarling mass of hairy muscle on a leash, I could see Adebisi's point. Probably there were some other means we could employ to apprehend our quarry.

The quarry in question being one Len Lopresti, disgruntled ex-cop, up on charges of sexual misconduct among other things. Seems for years he's been shaking down the local ho's, telling them he'd look the other way in exchange for freebies. Apparently it was a good racket for him - until he hit on a policewoman working undercover. She busted his ass, he got canned, and then he got tanked and crashed his SUV into Chief of Police Glynn's brand new Town Car. Glynn wasn't in it at the time but rumor had it that wasn't being regarded as a mitigating factor. I'd had enough run ins with Lopresti to admit that, while I had my pepper spray out for the dog, it wouldn't ruin my day if I had to give him a face full too.

This was his mother's house. Adebisi and I had stopped over at his place first, but his wife, Sheila - soon to be ex -- had met us at the door, sporting fresh bruises and a cut lip. First thing she'd done is ask me to recommend a divorce lawyer, one who'd serve up her husband's balls on a silver platter, and then she told us she'd kicked him out last night and bet he'd run home to mommy. "And when you catch up to him," she'd said, "you won't hurt my feelings any if you shoot him."

Well, I might give him an extra blast of pepper spray in her name anyway.

Adebisi left me on the sidewalk and went back to lean against his car, a '66 cherry red Pontiac Le Mans convertible, approximately the size of a whale. It suits him.

Simon Adebisi, Laverne to my Shirley - or at least that's what Gypsy calls us. He's a jazz trumpeter who's been between gigs ever since some of the boys broke his hand as encouragement to pay up on some gambling debts. He was a going-out-of-business client at my old firm, and stuck around when I took up fugitive apprehension as a new career because he thinks he owes me for keeping him from getting deported back to Nigeria.

He reached into the backseat now for one of the oranges he'd insisted on buying at a roadside stand on the way over. It went with his outfit: black-and-white camo shorts, neon orange tank top that didn't quite cover his stomach, and white Converse high-tops. His hat was neutral, set at a jaunty angle on his shaven head and kept in place by mysterious forces that I suspected involved super glue. Something I had picked up pretty quickly was that it's hard to be stealthy with Adebisi tagging along. Fortunately that wasn't an issue in this particular instance.

"You know," he said, taking a big chunk out of the orange and spitting out some of the rind, "one time I hear how you handle a growling dog is, you get down on your hands and knees and growl back at him, show him you the boss and he'll back down."

"And you're telling me this because...?"

"I think you try that, see how it work."

Oh yes, very helpful. "Why me? It's your idea?"

"That's true, but I remember when you bit that Chuckie Pancamo that time."

I huffed back at him. "I swear, bite one fugitive, one time, and you never live it down."

He shrugged, ate some more orange. "You let me carry a gun, I take care of dog for you."

"No," I said firmly. "No guns, no shooting anything."

He made a disgruntled sound. "Huh. You take all the fun out of everything. Don't run red light, turn down the music, put down machete, don't shoot the werewolf - I'd have better time at a funeral."

"We're not here to have fun, we're here to pick up Lopresti."

"And how we do that? Ask him come out pretty please?"

I'd been thinking about that. The dog's leash had been tied to a ring on its doghouse, but the more the beast lunged, the more that ring worked itself loose, and the rest was just timing. "Okay," I could see the wood splintering, the ring coming free, "we're going to open the gate, the dog's going to charge out the gate, we shut it and then go knock on the door, Lopresti answers and we grab him. Sound like a plan?"

Adebisi nodded and voiced his vote of confidence, "That sounds like a plan that will land one of us in hospital needing rabies shot."

I let it go since there might be one or two tiny details I wasn't taking into account here. "Just stand by to go when I give the OK," I said and made sure I had my cuffs and pepper spray ready.

It was at that point fate stepped up and kicked everything in the balls.

"Pumpkin, what the fuck are you barking at?" Lopresti yelled as he opened the front door to see what had the dog agitated. Spotting Adebisi and me in the next instant, he yelled, "Motherfucker!" and slammed the door shut just as Pumpkin finally broke free and charged for the gate.

"Go, go, go!" I yelled at Adebisi as I opened the gate, the dog sailing right by us. "Around back! Around back!" I fumbled with the gate latch, got it, raced after Adebisi, half-tripping over a garden gnome and making it to the backyard just as Lopresti was yanking at another gate that let onto the alley. This one was fastened with a padlock, though, and he threw one look over his shoulder at us and jumped for the fence. It was a high, chain-line fence, and I didn't think he'd make it on his first try, but he snagged the top and was trying to bring a leg up and over when I got there, latched onto his ankles and yanked him back down. We both tumbled down on a patch of freshly turned garden, wet and pungent, rolling around as we each tried to get the upper hand. His elbow cracked me in the face and I jammed a knee in his stomach. He fell back with an oof, on his knees and one hand pressed to his stomach - but I saw him reach around his back and knew he was going for a gun jammed in his pants. Even expecting it, I was still pissed off and yelled, "Cocksucker!" as I kicked out, knocking it out of his hand before he could get off a shot.

It went flying across the yard and I heard myself yelling at Adebisi, "Get the gun! Get the gun!" - showing there really is a first time for everything. I didn't have time to see what Simon was doing, though, because Lopresti had me down and was trying to put a chokehold on me. I struggled, would have bit him if that was an option, but then my hand closed on something solid and cylindrical -- my can of pepper spray. This close, I'd get myself too, but better that than get choked till I passed out. I aimed the nozzle at his face, pressed down ... and nothing happened. Fuck.

Lopresti was looking pretty happy with himself right about the second I smacked him in the head with it.

"You cocksucking little faggot!" He flopped back, one hand pressed to his head.

I got on my knees, looked around to find Adebisi lounging against a tree and looking on, Lopresti's gun tucked into the front of his shorts. Breathing hard, I told him, "Feel free to jump in any time."

"No, you doing good. Have him right where you want him. And besides, you always say I have no license to be bounty hunter, I'm just here to drive."

I narrowed my eyes at him, about to unload some choice words about picking a fine time to actually listen to me, when Lopresti popped off:

"Yeah, got your monkey trained real good, Beecher."


"What did you call me?" Adebisi started for him. "You brave man, beating up the women? Huh? You think that makes you better?"

"Simon," I caught his arm, held him back. "He's not worth it, he's just an asshole. Hand me the cuffs." I'd dropped them in all the scuffling and held my breath - and Lopresti - as Adebisi eyeballed him before he finally forked over the handcuffs.

"Bet lots of people will be happy to see him in the pokey, hey?"

"I wouldn't be at all surprised," I said, about to snap one cuff on Lopresti when the sonofabitch twisted around. Just like that, a split second, we were wrestling around in the mud again, him trying to get my own cuffs on me and I was damned if that was going to happen again. One steel bracelet clinked around my wrist but before he could snap the other on, I punched him in the nose and clicked the other bracelet around his wrist while he was crying about that.

"How do you like that, Lopresti?" I said, breathless, as he held his nose and looked stupidly at us cuffed together. "Just think of me as your shadow."

Adebisi helped me up, dragging Lopresti along, and I looked around at a suspicious snicker from the alley. Sure enough, a patrol car was pulled up, lights blinking, the radio crackling, Officers Sean Murphy and Dino Ortolanti enjoying their ringside seats.

I blew out a breath, glared at the pair of them. "Enjoy the show?"

"Yeah," Dino said, "especially the part where you conked him with the pepper spray." Dino and I went to high school together; he was way too cool for the likes of me back then but he's loosened up some over the years.

"I want to press assault charges against this fairy," Lopresti said, appealing to his former colleagues to step up and support him.

"Shut your yap, you jackass," Murphy told him. "You're lucky I'm wearing my uniform or I'd beat the crap out of you too." So much for the thin blue line.

Ma Lopresti came out then, dressed for gardening and pissed off when she saw the mess that had been made of it. "Take him and good riddance," she said, opening up the padlocked gate and slamming it shut after us.

"Come on, Beecher," Murphy opened the back door of the squad car, "Dino and me'll give you a lift down to the station so you can hand in this asshole."

That sounded like the best plan of the day, and after asking Simon to follow us in the red whale, I settled down next to Lopresti with the satisfaction of a job well done ... or at least a little less half-assed than usual.

~*~*~ Adebisi was parked across the street from the police station when I walked out after delivering Lopresti. As I got over there, I saw he'd spent his time spreading newspaper along the seat and floorboard, and looked at him behind the wheel. "What's the deal?"

"You're not riding in my car all covered with mud."

"It's dry now." I picked at a patch stuck like glue on my arm.

"That's beside the point. You want a ride, sit on the paper."

I opened the door with a huff and got in, the paper crackling as I parked my ass on a picture of our mayor and his entourage. Adebisi peeled out before I got the door shut all the way. Police stations make him nervous.

"How bad do I look?" I said.

He looked over at me. "Keller not gonna be happy."

Yeah, that's about what I thought. When we got to the office, I handed Floria the paperwork on Lopresti and let Adebisi fill in the more colorful details as I pulled a change of clothes out of my carryall and headed for the washroom to clean up. The mud caked in my hair was the biggest challenge and I decided a long, hot shower was going to be the only real solution to that. No reason I couldn't take care of that before I saw Chris again, and what were the odds he'd notice I was wearing different jeans and a white t-shirt now? Because, you know, the bruises and scratches on my face, neck, and wrist would probably distract him.

I sighed, toweled my hair one more time and went back to the main office to find Gypsy waiting, and looking amused about something - usually that's not a good sign.

If I'm the joker in Cousin Nicky's pack of bounty hunters, Gypsy, aka Ryan O'Reily, is the ace. He says he's descended of a long line of Irish tinkers - gypsies - and while I don't know about that I do know he used to head up one of the city's toughest street gangs, the Bridget Street gang. There's a problem with being the biggest and baddest, though: someone always wants to knock you down, and when you're as wily as Gypsy probably was from birth they have to find indirect means of getting at you. Gypsy's vulnerable point had been his brother Cyril, about a year younger. A rival gang ambushed him, and the leader beat him up so bad he was left with permanent brain damage. Arrests were made but the leader, Raoul Hernandez, aka El Cid, skipped out on bail and Gypsy went after him, found him -- *didn't* kill him because he knew that would leave Cyril with no one looking after him - and brought the guy in for Cousin Nicky. Got some publicity for Stanislovsky Bail Bonds, which had just started up, and showed Gypsy his calling in life.

He's dangerous, he straddles the ethical fence most of the time, and sometimes I think Keller envies him that ability to operate outside the strict limits of the law - especially times some nutjob's been on my tail. I don't entirely trust Gypsy, but it's usually a good feeling knowing he's out there, watching my back.

He's about an inch or two taller than me, slim, with dark hair brushed back from his forehead. Lately he's been sporting long sideburns that go with the scar on his chin and the two gold rings in his ear. He can clean up and pass for a choirboy if it suits him, though. He was dressed for action today, black everything, no weapons visible but I knew better than to suspect he'd left *his* gun at home, hidden in a cookie jar.

"We need to saddle up, Beecher," he told me, "you're gonna want in on this."

I was? Usually he enlists me only when he's really desperate, or he needs a good laugh. "Why, what's up?"

Surprise flickered for a moment in his hazel eyes. "K-boy didn't call you?"

"No, my phone's ... out of order." Thanks to rolling around with Lopresti.

"Yeah, well, his aunt's gone AWOL."

"What do you mea--" I started, my brain needing an extra moment to process that. Then it clicked. "No, she hasn't."

"Oh, she fucking has. Said went to pick her up at St. Tom's and Father Mukada met him, told him Sister Pete was nowhere to be found."

And Chris must be having a fit. I wanted to get him, find out how I could help, and suspected the best thing I could probably do right now was my job. Whatever he thought of it, that had to provide him a little bit of comfort right, that it would be Gypsy and me looking for Sister Pete?

I was trying to make up my mind about that when Cousin Nicky stormed out of his office, not happy to see all the loitering.

"Why do you stand there, yap yap yap?" he said, coming up to us. "I should hire old KGB, they would do a better job for me! Even a nun does not stiff Nikolai!"

Gypsy just shrugged, unimpressed. "I don't know, comrade, she's got God on her side."

"I am atheist - hah! Find her!"

Gypsy nudged me along to the door and called back over his shoulder, "Yeah, and we'll keep an eye out for moose and squirrel too."

I laughed despite myself, but sobered up just as quickly. Damn, I couldn't believe Sister Pete had skipped out. "Maybe she just forgot her court date was today?" I said as Gypsy unlocked a black and gleaming Lincoln Navigator, the latest in the line of high-end vehicles he acquires through methods it's best to leave a mystery. I don't ask, he doesn't tell, and everyone's happy that way.

"Or maybe someone wanted to make sure she keeps her vow of silence," Gypsy said, not afraid to face that possibility square on.

I didn't even want to think about it.

~*~*~ A couple of police cars were parked outside St. Tom's as we pulled up, and I spotted Chris' blue Jeep Wrangler parked near the rectory, an unmarked sedan nearby. Gypsy pulled up beside the Jeep and we got out, no one challenging us as we went into the rectory and followed the voices to the study.

Chris and Det. Taylor were talking to Father Mukada, Taylor quizzing the priest about some note. It was fairly obvious Taylor didn't like the answers.

"And you're telling me you don't know anything more about this, Father?"

"Detective," Mukada was just as clearly growing more exasperated by the minute, "how many more times do I have say it? I came to find Sister Pete, I found the note, and that's it. If I knew anything more don't you think I'd tell you?"

"Frankly, no."

And much as I hate to admit it, this was one time I had to agree with Det. Taylor. I thought Chris was in that same boat and liking it even less.

I cleared my throat and said, "What note are we talking about?"

Chris and Taylor looked around at us, Chris zeroing right in on me while Taylor just looked like he'd bitten into an especially bitter lemon.

"What the hell are you two doing here?"

Gypsy stepped up, told him, "We're here as representatives of Stanislovsky Bail Bonds which, as you know, put up the money to get Sister Pete released. Seeing as she has failed to make her scheduled court appearance it's our duty to find her and bring her in."

Taylor failed to look impressed. "And I suppose it's just a wild coincidence that you two got the assignment?"

My turn now. "Are you implying some sort of collusion to obstruct justice is in the offing?" I put it that way because I know Chris likes it when I talk lawyer.

"Do I think you'd jump through hoops to help out your boyfriend? Yeah."

"Nobody's jumping through anything, Spanky," Chris said. "You know damn well Sister Pete's no danger to anyone but herself right now."

"What I know, Keller," Taylor moved in on Chris, way too close, "is that in two weeks of investigation there hasn't been a single lead to anyone but Sister Peter Marie."

Far from being intimidated, Chris crowded Taylor right back, growled, "Then pull your head out've your ass and fucking look harder."

Gypsy and I moved in tandem, getting between them before things really boiled over.

Taylor stood back, steaming, looking for an exit that wouldn't make it look like he'd blinked first. "You're on thin ice, Keller - these two pull any kind of stunt with your okay, I'll see to it you go down."

"Kiss my ass," Chris shot back and I rolled my eyes. I love him, but sometimes I wish he'd work on his diplomacy skills.

Father Mukada intervened, saying, "Det. Taylor, I do remember one thing. Mrs. Alvarez's grandson, Miguel, was here earlier helping her with some chores. He might have seen something - I think he's in the kitchen with her."

Taylor nodded and went along with him and the tension in the room dropped about fifty percent. Chris watched him go and I stood behind him, rubbing his back, feeling the strain that still had his muscles in knots. "Shh," I breathed against the back of his neck, too soft for Gypsy to overhear. "Ease up, baby."

He turned to look at me, letting me see the fear that was eating him up. "Thanks. I don't think that's gonna happen until she's in her favorite easy chair with her knitting."

Gypsy cleared his throat and said, "If Sister Pete knits I'll eat my hat. What's the deal with the note?"

Chris managed to tear his gaze away from me for a second to glance over at him. "Mukada found it on the table there," he nodded at the little telephone stand out in the hall. "It wasn't what you'd call informative, though."

"What did she say?" I drew his attention back to me even though I knew he was already cataloging the scratches and bruises.

"Have faith." He quoted, shrugged. "That's it."

"Well," I searched for some positive spin both to inspire him and to postpone him demanding what the fuck had happened to me, "that could be good, right? That has to mean whatever happened, wherever she went, it was of her own free will."

"Maybe." He didn't sound convinced or sufficiently distracted. "Weren't you wearing a black polo shirt the last time I saw you?"

"Yes, but the good news is I didn't blow anything up."

"Oh yeah, that's a comfort."

Gypsy snorted and said, "You guys mind if I nose around a little? Yeah, didn't think so," he answered himself, footsteps receding.

"I had Adebisi with me," I told Chris, still trying to make light of things because, really it hadn't been anything and he had more than enough on his mind right now.

"Well that makes me feel sooooo much better. Toby..." He sighed, one hand cupped around the nape of my neck, squeezing gently, fingers tangling in my hair, blue eyes tracking every bruise and scratch like they hurt him even more than me. "Damn," his voice was dropped down to a whisper, for my ears only, "do you know how badly I want to kiss everything and make it better?"

I nodded, managed a faint smile. "Probably about as much as I'd like you to."

He brushed gentle fingers along my cheek, my neck, reached for my hand and rubbed his thumb lightly over the bruise from the handcuff. That was enough to make feel a million times better already.

"Chris, I'm fine, honest." I reached out to him, knowing he needed my touch just as bad, watched his eyes close for a moment as my hand curved around his neck, my thumb brushing along his jaw.

"I'll be the judge of that - later. You are staying at my place."

"Are you giving me an order?" There was absolutely no other place on earth I wanted to be, of course, but sometimes he needs to be reminded that he never has to demand that.

"I'm ..." He looked into my face, sighed, one corner of his mouth quirking up with a tiny smile. "I'm asking, and hoping you will take pity on me today and actually listen to me."

"Chris, I always listen - I just don't always give you the answer you want." I smiled back at him, made it gentle, rubbed my thumb along his bottom lip. "I'll be there."

"And you'll be careful?"

"I will if you will."

He narrowed his eyes at me then looked past my shoulder as Gypsy rejoined us; I knew it was him without looking because he barely made a sound. He and Keller can both be like cats that way. Apparently it's a talent you have to be born with.

"Find anything?" Chris said.

"Not much. For what it's worth, there aren't any signs of a struggle."

"No, not right on the premises anyway," Chris said, ever the bubbling optimist. "You're gonna bring her in safe and sound, right, not so much as a hair out of place?"

"Will you relax, K-boy?"

"I know how you operate."

"Yeah, but I don't shoot nuns," Gypsy replied, a snarky note in his voice. "Okay, maybe Sister Magdala in 2nd grade, but that's because she wielded one wicked ruler."

Some sixth sense told me Chris wasn't amused.

"Don't worry, Chris, we'll find Sister Pete. She'll be fine."

He looked at me, nodded, really wanting to believe that. "I know you'll do your best." He touched my face again, fingers gentle against the bruise. "Gypsy," he said, eyes on me all the while, "keep him out of trouble."

"Geez," Gypsy grumbled, "don't shoot the nun, watch your boyfriend - when exactly did I become your bitch, Keller?"

About the time I'd gone to work for Cousin Nicky, I suspected, but kept my mouth shut. There's an intriguing dynamic between Keller and Gypsy. There's nothing sexual in it; O'Reily's dick doesn't swing that way, even though Keller could probably seduce a plant if he wanted to. It's more like they're each other's evil twin or something. When it means we're all the same page, I can appreciate the way they work together. I'm not so nuts about it when they keep the game plan to themselves and I'm stuck on the outside looking in.

I'd be keeping my fingers crossed that didn't come up as a problem this time out. It shouldn't. We all had the same goal going in, after all: bringing Sister Pete back alive.

"Probably we should get busy, huh?" I said, not wanting to leave Chris but able to face that because we would see each other later.

"Yeah, we should," he said, looking like he was dying to kiss me.

He could have; it's not like Gypsy has never been a witness to that. Sometimes it's good to delay gratification. Sometimes that makes it all the sweeter when we're able to shut out the rest of the world and drown in each other. I tried to tell him that with just a look and I think he got it.

"Whenever you two are finished making goo-goo eyes at each other, let me know," Gypsy said.

I huffed. "Did anyone ever tell you you're one of the last romantics?"


"And they never will."

He was half-right, though. The faster we got to work, the sooner Sister Pete would be safe and sound. "Is this the last place she was seen?"

Chris nodded. "This and the hospice. I was going to head over there and check around."

"It okay if we come along?"

"It is, yeah. Somebody has to know something."

They did, and the thing about our little community is that no one can ever keep a secret for long. The trouble with that is sometimes the wrong people wind up hearing things that should have stayed on the Q.T.

We went outside, Chris asking us to wait a minute while he went into the church. I followed along after a moment, hanging back in the door and watching as he went up to light a candle and cross himself, saying a prayer for Sister Pete.

I sighed and hoped it would help.


"For fuck's sake, Beecher," Gypsy's voice was laced with cranky exasperation, "you really do need a keeper, don't you? Here, call Laverne." He shoved his cell phone at me and leaned back in the driver's seat of the Navigator, arms crossed, and shaking his head as if in utter disbelief.

Although we hadn't been so lucky as to walk into the hospice and find Sister Pete waiting for us there, the visit hadn't been entirely fruitless. We did get confirmation that she had been there early that morning, just long enough to pick up a short schedule of home visits. And the receptionist was positive Sister Pete had said she would be going straight to court from there. So whatever had happened, it had occurred in a small window of opportunity and that had to be help in narrowing things down even further.

The receptionist hadn't wanted to fork over the names and addresses of the patients on Sister Pete's list, but between Keller's badge and Gypsy's bullshit Irish charm, she had finally handed it over just as Chris was called back to the station. Apparently Taylor's boss had called Chris', and Captain Yood advised Chris to leave Taylor alone for now and concentrate on his own cases. I could tell Chris wasn't happy about that but secretly thought Yood had a point.

Chris had taken off and Gypsy and I headed over to the first address. His wholly uncalled for crankiness ensued from that point, with him ripping the list in half and springing the news that we were splitting up the names to cover more ground quickly. I could see the sense in that and of course I was perfectly able to handle any interviews on my own. That was all well and good - but Gypsy was the one with the wheels and how was I supposed to get around? I had been looking at new cars but until Angus got my insurance problem straightened out my options were call a cab or mooch a ride. And since my phone was currently out of order I didn't even have that choice if Gypsy stranded me here.

I had merely pointed out these problems in a perfectly reasonable way and there was no cause for him to get all bitchy and put out about it.

I completed the call and graciously returned his phone to him. "Thank you."

"Yeah, my life's complete now." He pocketed the phone. "Now get the fuck out of my car."

He took off the instant the door was shut behind me.

I fought down a huff and checked this was the right address, before I squared my shoulders and opened the gate and marched up to the front door. This was a nice neighborhood, the street lined with trees and trim lawns. Quiet too. I could see kids riding their bikes and playing at a park down the street, but the only activity right here was a middle-aged couple across the street unloading groceries from their SUV. The receptionist had insisted we call ahead to give the patients some warning, so I knew my visit was expected. I knocked, heard a woof from within and a man call out, "Come on in, it's open."

The woof should have warned me.

As I stepped over the threshold, a large and shaggy black thing rushed at me, sniffed my crotch to say hello and gave me a messy slurp in the face as I leaned down to pet him. Tail wagging furiously, the dog was a wriggling mass of fur eager for attention and stayed at my side as I ventured further into the house. "Good boy, good boy," I told him and tried to be subtle as I wiped the slobber away. "Hello?"

"Over here," the man called again and I just followed the puppy-on-steroids to a sun porch overlooking the back garden.

The dog trotted over to the man stretched out a sofa, propped up against pillows and covered with a blanket even though it was a warm day. I wondered why he didn't just turn off the AC if he was feeling a chill; that had to be more comfortable than wearing a sweater and knit cap in this weather. The dog sighed and laid his massive head on his master's legs.

"I'm sorry about that, sugar," he said, turning down the volume on the TV in the corner and setting the remote down on a coffee table littered with pill bottles and magazines. He lifted a hand, nails beautifully manicured, and laid it against the dog's head before the slight tremor became too noticeable. "Flynn's harmless, unless you're allergic to drool," he said with a smile. "And you must be an animal lover because he doesn't take a shine to just anyone. What did you say your name was again?"

I returned the smile and went on over, shaking his hand. "I'm Tobias Beecher, from Stanislovsky's Bail Bonds. Nate Ginzberg, right?"

He nodded, his handshake surprisingly firm. "I have to say, you don't look like a bounty hunter."

"Yes, I get that a lot."

He smiled again. "Take it from me, sugar, appearances can be deceiving. Well, pull up a chair and tell me how I can help you. Would you like a glass of water or something?" He gestured at the pitcher of ice water on the coffee table. "I think there's some booze around here somewhere too."

I shook my head, smiling as I scooted a padded wicker chair closer to the sofa and sat down. "One of my earliest lessons in life was that alcohol and I don't mix well. I'm fine, thanks."

"You sure are, darlin'," he said, giving me a wink.

I could feel myself blushing and was glad of the dog choosing that moment to charge over to the sliding glass door and stand up against it, barking at a squirrel out on the patio. I watch the dog shows on television with my dad sometimes, but to the best of my knowledge had never seen anything quite like this species of canine. His head and ears made me think there might be some German Shepherd in there, he had long legs like a Shepherd too, but the overall body mass was a lot bigger and shaggier. "What is he?"

"A good old American mutt," Nate said, smile fond as he watched the dog now running back and forth in front of the door as the squirrel taunted him. "The vet says German Shepherd/Newfoundland mix."

"That's ... quite a mix."

"Would you believe I could hold him in the palm of my hand when he was born?"

"It's hard to picture, all right. What's his name?"

"Flynn," Nate said, and the dog pricked up his ears, forgetting about the punk squirrel and coming back to us.

I cocked my head, studying him, and had to say, "He doesn't look like a Flynn."

Nate scratched his ears and nodded. "I know. I should have named him Elvis or something gaudy and over the top. I always had a crush on Errol Flynn, though, you know those old swashbuckling movies?"

"Captain Blood, Robin Hood?" I nodded. "Well, those were pretty flamboyant movies."

"I think it suits him."

So did I, especially with the way Flynn looked back at Nate with complete adoration. "I had a yellow Lab named Starbuck when I was a kid," I said, enjoying the memory of that dog.

"Good dog?"

"Great dog. Drove my mother crazy, digging up her garden and chasing her cat Missy."

Nate's smile brightened a little more, then dimmed a bit. "They can break your heart, though," he said, voice thoughtful as he stroked Flynn's head. "I worry about what's going to become of him when..." He shrugged. "Well, when I'm gone."

I nodded, understanding that. Losing Starbuck had been hard. A lot of people don't get that; it's just an animal they'll say, and maybe that makes them feel better but I've never found it very comforting. It's funny, Chris had been one of the people who understood how much it hurt to say goodbye to Starbuck. One of my best memories of him is how he helped me bury that old dog and didn't mind me bawling my eyes out. "Isn't there someone you can give him to?"

"I thought about my sister, Diane, but she already has her hands full." He told me how his sister had been having a rough time for a while now, raising her little girl DeeDee on her own while holding down a job as a guard up at Oswald State Prison. "The commute alone is a pain and a half for her," he said, "and she was already worn out from looking after our mother when I got sick. Mom left her the house, so that's a help, but she has enough to do with holding down a job and taking care of DeeDee without adding Flynn into the mix." His smile turned rueful then, scratching the dog's ear again. "I'm afraid I don't have much else to leave her, though."

"There will be lots of memories," I told him. That's the best kind of legacy, I always think.

"True, although that's a mixed bag. Her father - she's my half-sister - wasn't what you would call accepting of me, so I think she has a lot of memories of some pretty ugly scenes at family gatherings. Maybe the better ones balance that out," he finished on a thoughtful note. "It's good of her to take me in, I hated to ask her that."

"I'm glad you did," I said, meaning it. Lord knows my family can drive me nuts, but I do know they would always be there for me.

"Well," he sat up a little straighter and looked at me and seemed to be turning something over in his mind as he said, "Sister Pete is always telling me the answer to our prayers can turn up in unexpected forms, so I'll keep hoping for a sign about what to do about Flynn."

"I'm sure someone will want him - he'd be hard to resist." The irresistible beast was rooting around for something in the corner, near his bed.

"I'm sure you're right. So, you wanted to talk to me about Sister Pete? I'm not sure how I can help you."

"Well I understand she visited you this morning?"

"Yes," his gaze strayed over to the television where Mayor Devlin was holding a news conference, "she stopped by for a few minutes to drop off my prescriptions."

"You knew she was due in court today?"

"Yes," he gestured at some local papers stacked on the tables, "it's been hard to miss the news. It's nonsense of course." There was a cautious note in his voice then, as if he wondered what I thought about it all.

That was easy enough to say. "The charges against her are groundless, I'm sure of that, but she could be in some trouble now."

Expression thoughtful, he studied me again, appearing to mull something over once more. "So you only want to help her?"

"Yes, I give you my word. I have what you might call a vested interest in keeping her safe, in fact."

"A lifelong devotion to nuns?" he said with another smile that seemed far too vibrant for a man looking death in the face.

I couldn't help laughing either. "Not exactly. She's related to someone I care about very much."

"Ohhhh," he sat up a bit more, giving me an impressed look now. "You're that Tobias."

"Ah," not sure what he was getting at and a little afraid to guess, I hedged, "maybe."

His smile didn't dim. "Don't worry, honey, I've only heard good things about you and her nephew, Chris. I saw his picture in the paper once," he added. "Is he as gorgeous in real life?"

"Even more."

"The two of you should have beautiful children," Nate said and winked. "Just teasing, sugar." He looked out one of the windows, frowning. "Is your car parked in my driveway?"

"Ah," I looked over too and Flynn stalked over for a closer view, "no, I don't have a ... Oh." The proverbial light bulb went off, prompted by the twinkle in Nat's eyes. "You know about that, huh?" Christ, that's going to be on my headstone: Here lies Tobias Beecher - He never met a car he couldn't blow to smithereens.

"It's come up a few times." He shifted around a bit, trying to get comfortable, a shadow crossing his face for a moment. "I wish I could tell you something about Sister Pete," he said as his gaze drifted to the television again.

"How did she seem? Did you get the sense she was worried about anything?"

"No, no, nothing like that. She was just her usual self."

I looked over at the TV to see what so fascinating: Devlin and his entourage, including ADA Querns, announcing that Sister Pete would be brought to justice and no one was above the law in his city. Which, given the perpetual rumors of corruption that swirl around him, was a pretty ballsy statement.

"Did she say where she was going from here?"

"Umm," Nate seemed really distracted now, "no, I'm afraid she didn't." For the first time since I had come in he really looked sick, all the color washing out of his face as he laid back heavily against the pillows. Even Flynn looked alarmed, sitting down and throwing me a look that seemed to ask what I was going to do about it.

"Are you okay?" I got up, scanning the bottles of medication. "Do you need something?"

He held up a hand, managed a weak smile. "Just some water," he said, nodding his thanks as I poured out a glass and handed it to him. "I'm sorry, I just had a little spell there."

"That's okay." I waited until he seemed calm and settled again, Flynn sprawling out with relief. "You probably need some rest, huh?"

"Honey, I'll have all the rest in the world soon. Don't worry about it, I'm enjoying the company."

So was I, and it was no hardship to sit and gossip with him a little. It tickled him to find out Chris and I had known each other since we were kids, insisting it must have been fate from the start. And actually it's hard to dispute that. He wanted to make sure we were both safe and had been tested, sighing with some slightly exaggerated delight at hearing we were in a monogamous relationship.

"Oh, I wish I could be around to plan your wedding," he said, eyes sparkling. "I guarantee it would be the event of the century."

I laughed, not doubting that for a moment.

I had to ask how he could be in such good spirits, given what he was facing, and he said, "It comes and goes, sugar - like my last lover." His expression grew more serious then and he added, "Believe me, I wasn't cracking a lot of jokes when I first got the news. The closer it's gotten to the end, though, the easier it's been to start finding some peace. Sister Pete's helped a lot with that." He shrugged, watched Flynn go back to rooting around for something. "If I had it all to do again there's only a couple of things I'd change, it helps to know that. I'd have loved the show to go on longer but that's a choice nobody gets."

I nodded, thinking I got that. That didn't keep it from seeming pretty damned unfair, though, and I doubted I could be as philosophical in the same situation. Well, not at first anyway.

He was looking at the television again, the mayor still yammering on as the camera panned over some of his entourage. Nate shuddered and I wondered if he was feeling a chill.

"I could turn down the AC for you, if you'd like?"

"No, thank you." He waved it off, pulled his blanket tighter around him. "It's on for Flynn, he's not too fond of the heat." He smiled at the dog, still busily looking for something, and glanced at the TV again before giving me a teasing look. "Our mayor could stand a queer makeover, don't you think?"

"He could stand something," I agreed, reaching for the remote to turn up the volume because I couldn't believe what I was seeing and had to hear the words loud and clear.

On the screen, Devlin was bringing forward Tim McManus, owner of The Paladin Agency, a rival bail bonds outfit. Between him banging my ex-wife and horning in on Cousin Nicky's operation, you could say McManus is not exactly my best buddy in the whole wide world. And what the hell did he have to do with the Sister Pete situation?

"Oh fuck," I muttered, drawing curious looks from Nate and Flynn as the mayor announced Paladin was being put in charge of tracking down Sister Pete. The stated reason was to relieve the police department of that burden; the real reason, one of them anyway, was that McManus couldn't resist jumping at any chance to show up Stanislovky Bail Bonds.

"That's not good news, I take it," Nate said.

"Well," I rubbed my forehead, feeling the veins standing out, "it means things just got a lot more complicated." Chris was going to love this.

I glanced at my watch, surprised more than an hour had gone by; I hadn't noticed the time flying at all. "I should probably be going," I said, really sorry to have to go. Most of the people I run into on this job, the quicker the goodbyes the better. Talking with Nate had been a pleasure, though. "Is there anything I can do for you before I go?

Nate started to say something but stopped, watching with a bemused expression that probably matched my own as Flynn finally found what he was looking for, a nubbed yellow football bearing the marks of being a well-loved toy, and trotted over to drop it in my lap and sit down, tongue hanging out with a look of expectation. "Well, that's a new one," Nate said. "I've never seen him do that with anyone before."

I picked up the toy, squeezed it, and watched Flynn perk up some more as it gave a squeak.

"It would be lovely if you could toss the ball around with him for a little while," Nate said, smile wistful and wan. "I'm afraid I'm not quite feeling up to it today."

I nodded, glad to help out, and got up to open the sliding door that let out onto the patio. Flynn bounded after me, tail waving, barking with excitement and jumping up to get the ball from me.

I let him catch hold of it between his teeth, laughing as he got into the wrestling, growling happily at me as he got it away from me and galloped down the length of the backyard. He circled back, laying the ball at my feet and waited for me to toss it this time. I wasn't fast enough for him during one series and he tackled me, standing over me as if to say Come on, get up so we can do that again.

At one point I glanced over to see Nate watching us, enjoying the show, and in that moment made up my mind to ask around and find out who could take in Flynn. There had to be a home for him somewhere.

A little while later, both of us tired, Flynn and I went back inside and Nate gave me directions to the bathroom so I could wash off some of the doggie drool. I was just coming back downstairs when a car horn honked and I looked out to confirm Adebisi was parked at the curb, waiting for me.

"That's my ride," I said to Nate.

"I thought it might be. It was a pleasure meeting you, Tobias. I hope we see each other again."

So did I. "I'm sure we will. Call me if you remember anything that might help us find Sister Pete?" I dug a business card out of my wallet and handed it to him.

"You'll be the first to know, promise."

I nodded and thanked him for his help, squeezed his shoulder in what little comfort I could offer, and headed for the front door, Flynn trailing along. "I have to go now," I said, cracking the door open and holding him back when he tried to follow. "You wouldn't leave Nate, would you?"

As if understanding my words, Flynn looked back toward the sun porch and sat down while I let myself out. I scratched his ears, smiled as his tail wagged, and told him, "I'll see you again, Flynn, promise." And you just don't break your word to a dog.

Content with that, he drooled on my hand in parting and then headed back to Nate, and I shut the door and went over to Adebisi.

"You learn anything useful?" Adebisi said as he started the red whale up again, stereo blaring for a moment before I turned it down.

"Not about Sister Pete, no."

"You hear about McManus joining the hunt?"


Simon rolled the toothpick he was chewing, nodded. "Guess we better find her first, hey?"

That was the plan all right - it was the how and the where that was still up in the air.

~Chapter Seven~

The sun was just beginning to set hours later when Adebisi pulled up outside Chris' house and let me out, promising to be on time to pick me up in the morning. Tired and discouraged - Gypsy hadn't had any better luck than me in gleaning one useful tip on what could have happened to Sister Pete - I juggled the bag of Chinese takeout, all of Chris' favorites, and dug around for my keys.

I was still looking for the right key when the door opened and Chris wrapped his arms around me, just holding me tight for a moment there on the doorstep. I hugged him back, one-armed, almost bowled over for the second time today.

"You okay?" I asked as he started to let me go.

He rubbed his cheek against my hair. "Yeah. I just needed to see you."

Well, that feeling was mutual.

I headed for the kitchen to set the bag down on the counter and saw a similar bag from Mr. Nappa's already there. "Well, I guess we can strike famine off our particular list of concerns." Given it was still toasty warm too, Chris hadn't been home long; just long enough to take off his suit coat, roll up his sleeves, and loosen his collar and tie.

He wrapped his arms around me from behind and nuzzled the nape of my neck. "Umm hmm. And I bet we can think up plenty of ways to work off the calories too."

There wasn't a doubt in my mind. I pushed the bag of meatball subs aside - my nose had identified those contents easily enough - and pondered the other item set out on the counter: a brand new cell phone, still in the box. "What's this?"

"A present." Chris kissed the back of my neck, one hand stroking my belly. "Gypsy called and said you needed a new one and he didn't want to waste anymore of his airtime on your sorry ass."

I turned in his arms to confirm the smile I suspected. "It's not funny. Anyone could break their phone."

"I know, these things just mysteriously happen to you," he said, fighting not to laugh.

"Hmph," my bottom lip was pooching out as I told him, "you shouldn't find it amusing. That's not very nice."

Gaze serious now, he brushed a tender thumb along the bruise on my cheek, leaned close to kiss it. "I'm not laughing now, babe," he said, both hands cradling my head as he tilted his head to kiss my lips.

"So I guess this means you don't have any problems with my sorry ass?"

A hand stroked over my butt, squeezed. "Toby, there ain't nothin' sorry about this ass." He drew the hand up, massaging the small of my back as he kissed me again, making a longer and slower job of it. I could definitely get used to coming home to this every day.

"Food's going to get cold," I murmured as his lips brushed over my ear.

"That's why we got a microwave." He ruffled my hair and then stepped back a bit, frowning. "Is that mud in your hair?"

"Uh, yeah, probably."

He plucked a long strand of black hair off the front of my t-shirt and held it up to the light, shaking his head. "And I ain't even gonna ask about this."

"I'll tell you later anyway." He might be able to help me find a home for Flynn, and I thought he'd like to know about Nate. "I was going to hit the shower first thing." Maybe that would take away the achy soreness that was making a gradual impression on me. Those little aches and pains were the main drawback to taking up an action hero lifestyle in my thirties.

"Mmmmm," he was kissing my neck now, lips caressing those bruises, "sounds like a good idea. You probably need some help, though."

"Yeah, you think so?" I smiled, squeezing his waist.

"Yes I do." He caught my hand and tugged me over to the stairs. "Wouldn't want you slipping or something."

No, we wouldn't - and I liked knowing he'd be there to catch me if I fell.

"What are you thinking?" Chris asked as he closed the bathroom door behind us and backed me up against the counter.

"I'm thinking," I finished undoing his tie and let the length of blue silk, one shade darker than his eyes, drop to the tile, "that we're pretty good for each other."

"There is a rumor to that effect going around," he agreed as I opened his shirt and pushed it off his broad shoulders.

I scratched my fingers along his back, digging into the muscles, and waited for him to say we'd be even better if I'd do what he said. When those words failed to materialize, I smiled to myself and burrowed my face against his strong throat, licking the pulse point, pressing my lips to it and feeling exhilarated by that rapid proof of life.

He was touching me all the while too. He always is; if we're just stretched out on the couch watching television, he'll be stroking my shoulder or the back of my neck. It's like he craves this constant physical connection to me ... and I can't say it's ever a hardship to oblige him. It's impossible to not be aware of his presence; I can feel him watching me across a crowded room, and while that is exciting, sharpening our appetite for each other, I do love the quieter moments when we're just together. Why had it taken me this long to figure out that's really all he wants too?

Chris had my jeans opened and my t-shirt shoved up, his hands hot against my skin, but he sucked in a surprised breath and stepped back, an injured look in his eyes as he looked at me.

"Chris," I reached for him, searching his eyes, "what's wrong?"

"Christ, Toby," he turned me to face the mirror so I could see the bruises spreading along my right side, a black-and-blue spot decorating my shoulder, and another one spread over my hipbone. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt this bad?"

"Chris," I faced him again, both hands curved around his neck to bring his head down just a bit, our eyes locking, "I hardly even feel it. Honest, I'm fine." And that wasn't a lie; it really did look worse than it felt and I needed him to believe that. "I probably got some of them from Flynn," I added, hoping to distract him.

It worked - for half a minute. He gave me a narrow-eyed look. "And who the fuck's Flynn?"

"A dog I met today." I ran one hand up over his head, ruffling his hair. "I'll tell you later," I whispered and started in for a kiss - but he slipped from my grasp and dropped to his knees, arms wrapped tight around my waist as he laid his cheek against my stomach for a moment and then kissed my bruises. I sucked in a sharp breath, feeling so incredibly safe and treasured, and so completely loved by this man. "Chris..." I stroked his hair, not even knowing what I wanted to say.

"Toby," his lips brushed my bruised hipbone, my ribs, and I would have sworn those soft kisses really did take away all the pain, "somebody hurt you, don't ask me to be okay about that."

I nodded, fingers digging into his short hair. I couldn't ask that, not when it kills me just as bad when he's hurt. My legs were weak from the intensity of Chris' stare and I kneeled down to face him and hugged him hard. He kissed my shoulder, rested his head there and sighed as I held him to me. "Chris, I really am all right."

He raised his head to look at me. "This time," he said, not masking the fear that there could be another time without a happy ending. "Toby, I..." He sighed again and shook his head, a look of grudging acceptance in his eyes now. "Just be careful, please?" He brushed his fingers back through my hair. "Even if there's a time that we're not together, Toby, I gotta know you're safe. Maybe that ain't reasonable, but there's nothin' I can do about it."

"I know, Chris, I do." I held him even tighter to me, both of us a little overwhelmed by the power of the feeling between us. We could have passed it off as the culmination of all the stress of the day, that was part of it, but we were long past wanting to deny any of this.

A few moments passed with us like that, both of us quiet, and then I felt his lips move against my skin in a smile. "What?"

"I was just thinking how we're usually doing something different when we're down on our knees like this."

I gave a short laugh and smoothed a hand over his hair. "I guess that's true," I said as we got up, each of us giving the other an assist. "Long day, huh?"

He blew out a deep breath. "Yeah," he said with feeling. But the way he looked at me right then, I knew coming home to me made it a lot easier to get through days like this. That was mutual too. He ran his fingers over the bruises again, his touch soft as a whisper. "I hate these."

"I know."

Chris looked into my eyes, nodded. "So..." he traced his fingers along my collarbone, he has a thing about that part of my body, expression thoughtful, "you were going to take a shower?"

"That was the idea."

"And I was gonna help?"

"That's the rest of the idea." We do have a really good one every now and then.

We finished stripping off and stepped into the tub/shower combo, the curtain pulled shut as the water poured down over us. It was warming up just right and I turned my face up into the spray, letting it soak into my hair. Before I could find the shampoo, I felt Chris' hands on my head, working the lather down to my scalp. Once upon a time I would have let him know I was perfectly able to wash my own hair, I didn't need him fussing over me. Where was the sense in fighting that, denying his need to take care of me, especially when I have those same urges? Loving someone is about giving - but it's about accepting too. No part of that equation is more important than the other.

I closed my eyes as he rinsed the suds out of my hair and turned to face him as he began to wash my body, strong hands so careful as they glided over my wet body. It felt good and I didn't want him to stop, but I wanted him to remember I'm a lot tougher than I look too. He does know that, he never treats me like some delicate flower, and I love him for that. He has been known to become just a shade preoccupied, however.

"Chris," I took the soap from him, worked up a handful of lather and began to work it over his chest, that *rack*, "I won't break."

"I know you won't, Toby." He pushed into my touch and I cupped a hand around the back of his neck, drawing him close for the kiss I knew he was craving. "I know how strong you are," he murmured the words against my lips, against my cheek as his hands cradled my head, "how powerful and vital. I can feel it."

My hands massaged up and down his back. "Where, where can you feel it?"

"Here," he kissed my mouth, laid a hand over my heart, "and here," his other hand slid down my side, rested on my hip for a second before reaching between our bodies to touch my dick, "and here, I can feel your power here." He kissed my neck and wrapped long fingers around my cock, stroking me. "But I need you to show me."

"How? How can I show you?" I arched into his touch, craving his mouth on me - wanting mine on him just as bad, wanting to give him anything he asked for.

He kissed my mouth again, long and deep and hungry, a groan of satisfaction on his lips as he pulled back. "I want you to fuck me till my eyes cross, Toby."

I wrapped one arm around his shoulders to hold him tightly to me, my other hand skimming down his muscular back and over his beautiful ass. "I can do that." Oh yeah - and we would both love every moment.

~*~*~ Shadows painted our bodies as we stretched out on the bed, wrestling across the sheets with no aim in mind except to stay in constant contact. Back in high school, I was going to try out for the wrestling team one year but made the mistake of telling him first. He offered to show me some moves he knew, and after that one session I knew there was no way I'd ever want to roll around like that with anyone else. Funny thing, too, I don't recall him ever trying out for the team, either.

"What are you smiling about?" he said, looking up at me.

"Mmmm, I don't know." I ran a hand up his thigh, over his hip, and along his ribs. "Might have something to do with being naked and alone with you."

"Yeah? That makes you happy?"

I lowered my head planted a kiss over his heart. "Just a little, yes." I stretched out over him, watching his face and sharing his deep satisfaction at feeling my weight, solid in his arms. As profound feelings go, this - how much he wants me, how completely he surrenders to me - is top of my personal list. It rocks my world every time.

One hand buried in my hair, still damp from the shower, he brought my face to his to claim one kiss and then another, pushing his tongue into my mouth. He rolled us onto our sides, legs and feet tangling, hands roaming over each other's bodies, our skin feeling like warm velvet stretched over hard muscle. I love that, the hardness of his body, the power surging through it. Sometimes I swear I can feel it tingling against my fingertips, taste it on my lips.

I buried my face against his neck, breathing in the clean, soapy scent of him, exhaling a groan of sweet pleasure as our cocks rubbed together. That would have been enough for me, we could have stayed just like that, pushing and rubbing against each other, devouring each other's mouths, but I didn't protest as Chris stretched an arm over to the nightstand.

I moved, straddling him as he put the tube in my hand and curled my fingers over it. There was no need to ask if he was sure, to check this was what he really wanted. My answer was in his eyes as his laser beam gaze raked over me and zeroed in on my cock. He reached out to wrap his hand around it again and I thrust into his grasp, mouth open and breathing hard with the pleasure of his touch, wanting to gorge myself on it. I covered his hand, needlessly guiding his caress another moment before dragging his fingers off me. That was sweet too, how slow he was to stop touching me. Sweeter was capturing his cock in turn, stroking him, bending to swipe my tongue around the tender tip until he was panting and whimpering, that incredible chest heaving with every breath.

"Toby..." He pulled me to him, needing my kisses again, desperate for them. "Fuck me," he whispered, anxious for that too. "I need you inside me."

I nodded, catching my breath, kissing his lips again. The tube slipping from my fingers for the moment, I kissed my way down his body, licking a nipple until he shivered, the fine hairs leading to his groin tickling my lips. One hand laid against his belly, feeling the muscles quiver, my other hand was between his legs, fondling his cock and balls. I saw the impatience in his eyes and smiled, extending my reach. His eyes grew wide for an instant before his lashes drifted down, a soft moan escaping from parted lips as I caressed his perineum and circled his anus. His eyes flickered halfway open as I moved and I knew he was watching as I lowered my head to trace that same route with my tongue.

His loud groans and his fingers gripping my hair spurred me on, and I fumbled for the lube, squeezing out a generous amount and raising my head to watch him as I worked it into him. Dark head rolling against the pillow, his hard cock was leaking against his belly as I pushed his knees up further. His skin was flushed, damp with sweat, eyes almost black as he implored me with a look to hurry it up. I slicked myself and shuddered and guided my cock into him, afraid this wouldn't last long enough - and joyously certain it would never, ever end.

"Oh, God, Chris..." I pushed in deep, hitting his prostate, feeling the pleasure that shot through him. He was completely mine, his trust was total - I could feel that as surely as each delicious sensation that sizzled through me with every thrust. And what the hell else mattered beyond this?

I paused a moment, sucking in some air and looking at him sprawled out there, one hand rubbing up and down my back, the other keeping a stranglehold on the sheets. If I died tomorrow, could I say it would be with no regrets? I stroked his thigh, felt the muscles tremble, and knew the answer was no - and knew those regrets didn't have one damn thing to do with a job I didn't even love. My regrets would be all the time we've wasted because of pride, because it's scary to love someone this much. The only thing more frightening is the thought of not having him here.

No one is guaranteed forever. All we can ever have is right here, right now - and how crazy is it for us to waste time fighting because we love each other? Because we want to keep each other safe?

"Hey," Chris touched my face, "what's wrong, baby?"

My smile was huge as I told him, "Nothing, everything is so goddamn right, Chris." I lowered my head, kissed him. "I love you, I love you."

He stroked my head, expression puzzled and wry. "I'm pretty nuts about you too."

"I know," I kissed his forehead, "I really do, Chris."

"Yeah? You know what else I'd love, Beech?"

"What? What?" I'd give him the moon if I could.

"If you'd get back to fucking me."

"Well, geez, Keller, knock my socks off with the poetry," I said, but I was still grinning down at him.

My muscles were burning as I fought to keep still, sweat slicking both of us, but even so I had to savor this a few more moments. I had never been more intensely aware of him than right then, his need for me fueling my appetite in turn. Head lowered, I kissed him again, nuzzled his jaw, and worked a hand between our bodies to catch hold of his cock. If I couldn't give him the moon, the least I could do was send him into orbit.

I pushed back into him, stroked him inside and out as we settled into a perfect rhythm. He wrapped one leg around me to pull me deeper, making me cry out, past words ... almost past thoughts. There was only sensation, his cock pulsing in my fist and my fingers wet with his cum; there was only my cock buried in him, harder and faster with every thrust. That was our whole wide world, every nerve on fire as we moved together, pressure building ... building ... He cried out my name, body rigid as he came, semen spurting over my hand and spreading between us, his climax triggering mine. One last, long, deep thrust and I was coming inside him, sobbing with it, wanting it to never end.

"Oh God..." I shuddered one more time and collapsed against him, wonderfully, gloriously spent. I might never more again. Head nestled in the crook of his neck, I rested there, feeling his heartbeat and the lazy caress along my back. I knew I should get off him, I had to feel like dead weight, but he clamped down and held me there when I started to move. No, there was nowhere else to be, nowhere more comfortable. I breathed out a deep sigh, content to stay right there as long as he wanted.

~*~*~ The sun was down by now and I had summoned enough energy to stretch over and turn on a lamp. That soft glow was all we needed to lay there and watch each other, no need for any communication more complicated than a languid caress or leisurely nuzzle. An easy breeze fluttered the white curtains, cooling our skin and drying the sticky mix of sweat and semen. We should probably get up and hop in the shower; I could form the thought but was too plastered with pleasure to put anything into action right at the moment.

It was a good feeling. We could have stayed like that for a long time, but since neither of us had been able to grab a bite to eat all day our stomachs rudely intruded with other ideas. I was tracing circles on his belly when it rumbled and growled, and I would have laughed at the comical look on his face if my stomach hadn't immediately joined in the chorus.

"Hmm," I put my head on his shoulder, "I seem to recall there was food downstairs." Right now that seemed as far away as Timbuktu.

"Yeah." Chris wasn't leaping out of bed either. "Subs'll be all soggy."

"That's okay. We can nuke the Chinese."

He flashed a grin. "Sounds kinda drastic there, Beech."

Usually I'm a squidge swifter, but my brain was still basking in the afterglow and took a few seconds to get it. "Hmph. You know what I mean."

"Did you get something good?"

I turned my head and kissed his neck. "All of your favorites."

"So -- nothin' with those weird little mutant corn cobs or water chestnuts?"

I thought about it. "There might be water chestnuts. There's nothing wrong with water chestnuts."

"Except for how they taste gross and have a freaky texture."

This from a guy who's favorite antipasta is toast with anchovies. On the other hand, I couldn't really mind that he was so particular about what he put in his mouth.

A couple of rumbles later and we stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, the shower no less enjoyable this time for being -- mostly -- all business. Being all alone with a naked Keller is never an entirely risk free enterprise. I emerged squeaky clean and only slightly breathless from a long kiss, and toweled off, looking around for my clothes. It shouldn't have been hard to find them in such a small room, but my shorts were nowhere in sight. What the hell, I could go commando for the rest of the evening, and I was reaching for my jeans and t-shirt when Chris snatched them out of my hands and was about to stuff them in the laundry hamper when I took them back.

"You don't want those," he told me, "they're all covered with dog slobber."

That was true enough, but I sensed an ulterior motive on his part. "Yeah, well, they're also my only spare set of clothes, so it's this or bare-assed naked," I said, the gleam in his eyes confirming my suspicion. "And while I realize you would appreciate that to no end, you also know I can't eat naked."

If he was tempted to argue that point, he let it go and instead produced a pair of gray sweats and one of his wifebeaters from the dresser, handing them over. "Then put these on," he said. "And, Beech, you know I got plenty of room in my drawers."

"Not the way you wear your jeans," I said, pulling the sweats on.

He gave me a serious, no nonsense look. "You know what I mean."

Yes, I did, and it would be a lie to claim that wasn't a very tempting invitation. Why resist what we both wanted? I knotted the string on the sweats and shrugged, playing it casual. "I could bring over a few more things."

Catching my tone, he nodded, his smile only around the thousand-watt range, eyes warm with the joy of it. Funny thing, it felt pretty good to me too.

Neither of us bothered with shoes and we headed downstairs to confirm the subs were indeed all soggy now. It was easy enough to pop the Chinese food in the microwave. While that was heating up, I plugged in my new phone so it would be all charged up and ready in the morning. Christ knows I wouldn't want to infringe on anymore of Gypsy's precious minutes. And then because it was such a beautiful night we carted it all out to the back porch, settling on the big, Mission-style cedar glider there. It was good and sturdy, with a padded seat, the wood aromatic as the food, and with a couple of moths buzzing around the porch light I wouldn't have traded places with anyone for the ambience of a four-star restaurant at this moment.

Plates loaded up -- Chris fastidiously picking out anything that looked like a water chestnut -- we sat back, content to enjoy the night. The breeze was cool, rustling the leaves on the beautiful old oak in the middle of the yard, and I jotted down a mental note as my gaze rested on the hammock set up there. That was the only thing Chris had changed back here, far as I could tell, and it gave me a warm feeling to see some traces of Aunt Rose left around, like the planters filled with bright flowers. I especially liked the old watering can and the big, ceramic conk shell.

"Plants look healthy," I said, trying to catch a chunk of sweet-and-sour pork with my chopsticks.

He effortlessly maneuvered some chicken and broccoli to his mouth, chewing with pleasure as he glanced around at the planters. "I just water 'em sometimes."

"You should ask my mother for some tips." I smiled at his dubious look and finally snagged the pork and some rice.

"Yeah, that'd make her day I'm sure."

"When's the last time you cut the grass?"

"Few weeks ago."

Yes, that's what it looked like. "I think you should put that on the top of your list of things-do-to," I told him, my own ulterior motive at the root of the bossy suggestion. I was imagining the sight of him pushing a lawn mower along in the hot sun, mentally tracing the drops of sweat that would roll down his skin, and how he would have to strip off his shirt at some point, take a long drink of water before emptying the bottle over his head, the droplets sparkling in the light as they cascaded along his torso. Mmmm, yeah, I definitely liked the idea of him cutting the grass.

Less enthused with the notion, he gave me another doubtful look. "I should cut the grass, huh?" he said, strong, white teeth sinking into an egg roll, a playful sparkle in his eyes.

"Well, geez, Keller, I already get your groceries and do your laundry -- you want me to mow the lawn too?" I smiled back at him, though, because helping out with a few chores isn't a hardship. It's completely voluntary for one thing. There's no bitch in this relationship.

"You do the laundry really well."

At least I understood things like fabric softener and separating whites and colors. "Humor me?"

"Hmm," he was looking at me, smiling, "maybe just this once. Ya got a little somethin' on ya."

"Oh," I bent my head, trying to spot it, "where?" I could feel something now, warm and sticky and adhering to the ridge of my collarbone, and reached for a napkin.

"Right here," he took the napkin from me and leaned in, head lowered to lick it off. "And here," his tongue swiped again and I felt it all the way to my groin. "Maybe a little over here." His mouth brushed my skin again before he pulled back.

"You could have just wiped it off."

"Yeah," his smile was brighter than the porch light, "but that was more fun."

Well, yes, it was and I got the chopsticks around some more sweet-and-sour, not worrying too much if I happened to spill a little along the way.

"So," he scooted around with his back against an armrest, "did you and Gypsy get anywhere today?"

I shook my head. "Not very far, no. How about you?"

He sighed and shook his head, expression darkening a bit as worries about Sister Pete crept back. "Nothing. Spanky won't even let me close to the case."

I slipped my hand around to cup the nape of his neck, telling him, "She's going to be okay, Chris. I promise you that."

He nodded, wanting to believe that. If it was within my power, he wouldn't be let down.

"Did you hear about McManus joining the hunt?"

"Yeah," he made a cranky face at. "That fuckwad couldn't find his own dick in the dark."

"Well, my ex-wife might argue that point."

Chris gave me a concerned look and reached over to touch my arm. "Ah, fuck, Toby, I'm sorry. I forgot."

I shook my head, smiling to show him it was all right. "No, it's okay. He is a fuckwad."

"Well," he still looked worried, rubbing my arm comfortingly, "I wish you hadn't had to go through that, but I also can't say I'm sorry it happened."

No, really? I never would have guessed that. I smiled at the thought and said, "Yeah, because that meant I was free when you came storming back into my life." Although of all the surprises I'd had in recent years, glancing up from my desk to find him leaning in the doorway and looking like a million bucks -- that had been an amazingly good one. It had been like we'd never been apart, our eyes locking across the room and in that one instant everything sparked back to life.

"What storming?" he said reasonably. "I needed some expert legal advice -- you wouldn't want me to have anything but the best, right?"

No, I wouldn't, still... "Hmm, why do I remember some breaking and entering then?"

"Hmm," he countered, "why do I remember you not calling 911?"

I stretched my foot over to rub against his. "Hard to use the phone when someone's got his tongue in your mouth."

He rubbed back. "I guess that's true."

His hand in my pants hadn't exactly set the stage for clarity of thought either. "Chris..." I had pondered a certain a matter a lot and wondered if it had ever crossed his mind too. "What if I hadn't been free? Would you have walked away?"

He gave me a long, considering look, that told me yes, that had crossed his mind a few times. "If I had to," he said slowly, reluctant to admit the possibility. "If you were truly happy, Toby. But I knew you couldn't be, not with her."

"Oh, so you're psychic now?"

"I am about you, babe."

"Well, I could argue that point, I'm good at that, but you've had a hard day -- plus you're right." But how long would I have gone on living that lie with Katherine if hard, cold reality hadn't smacked me in the face? It was scary to realize I couldn't say for certain.

"She didn't know what she was throwing away, Toby."

"Not that I'm defending her but," I gave him a fond look, "I was never really hers in the first place. My heart always belonged to someone else."

He nodded, his eyes filled with love and regret for all the time we'd wasted apart. "Mine too," he said and leaned over to kiss me. When he pulled back, he didn't go far, leaning his forehead against mine and breathing out a soft sound of contentment. "Coulda saved a lot of heartache if we'd figured that out earlier, huh?"

"Maybe." I ran my hand over his head, kissed the corner of his mouth. "But maybe we needed all that so we'd learn to appreciate what we have."

Chris sat back, thinking that over. "Yeah, like how they say nothing really worth having ever comes cheap and easy."

"Yep." I rubbed his foot again. "And while I might be easy, baby, I think you know I'm not cheap."

He laughed, stroked his foot around my ankle. "You know what, Beech? You ain't exactly easy, either."

I grinned, taking that for a compliment.

"So," he pried the top off a bottle of beer and took a long swallow, head tilted back and throat muscles working, "not that I'm complaining, but what's behind the epiphany?"

I watched him swallow, watched those strong muscles ripple with movement, and had to lean in for a second to kiss his mouth and taste a trace of the liquid on his tongue; that's the closest I let myself get to booze these days. "I met this guy today, Nate Ginzberg," I said, "one of Sister Pete's hospice patients." I shrugged, not sure of being able to put it into words. "He gave me a lot to think about."

Chris scooted closer along the glider, rubbing my arm and shoulder as he watched me, brows drawn together. "Like...?"

"Like ... life's too damned short to waste a second of it." I slipped an arm around his shoulders and drew him even closer as I told him about Nate. "I mean, he's not dispensing words of wisdom like Dr. Phil and would probably be floored to be called inspirational, but that's the only word for it, Chris. I wish you could meet him."

"Maybe I will."

"I hope so. He'll flirt your socks off," I said, and laughed at the picture in my head. Growing serious just as quickly, I added, "It sucks that he's dying and he'd have every right in the world to be angry and bitter, there are probably days he is, but there's a real sense of peace to him too, like he's made peace with a lot of issues."

"So that's what you're doing, Toby? Making peace with some issues?" Chris cocked his head, looking at me, running that idea through his mind to see how he liked it.

"In manner of speaking." I scratched my fingers through his hair and kissed his forehead, right where his eyebrows were crawling toward each other. "You know what's at the root of all our fights, Chris?"

"You mean, besides how we don't see eye to eye on a lot of things?" He nodded. "Yeah, I do. We love each other too much." He looked away, not happy with that.

I cupped his face and turned him back to me. "No, not too much, Chris. We just let it manifest in some destructive ways."

A corner of his mouth turned up in a snarky smile. "Yeah, see, I was gonna say we get fucked up over dumb stuff."

"Well," I kissed the snark, "that too."

"Think there's hope?"

"I know there is, Chris."

"And you got all that from Nate?"

"And Flynn," I reminded him, some dog in the neighborhood choosing that moment to start barking. "I really want to try and find a home for Flynn, I think that would bring some more peace of mind to Nate." Plus, in one meeting I'd grown fairly attached myself. "You know anyone who might be interested?"

"Big dog?"

"Hmm," I thought about comparisons, "you've seen a Shetland pony, right?" I laughed as his eyes got wide and hastened to explain. "Okay, he's not that big, but yeah, he's not what you'd call a lap dog either." You know, unless you were the Jolly Green Giant.

"I don't know anyone offhand. I'll ask around though."

"Thank you."

He kissed me. "Don't gotta thank me, Toby -- but you're welcome." He rested back against the glider, giving it a push so it swayed gently back and forth. "Ginzberg said his sister worked at Oz?"

"Yeah." I'd visited a few clients there over the years and was always glad to leave it behind.

"Man, gotta be pretty desperate for cash."

"I guess so. Medical bills are a bitch and Nat might not have a lot of insurance."

"How's he afford his prescriptions?"

I shrugged. "Don't know. Does it matter?"

"Nah," he waved it away, "probably not." There was a flash of cop face, though, and that clued me in he was thinking about some connection to a case he was working. He must have realized that because he said, "I'm working a case that has to do with black-market prescription meds, that's all. There really aren't a lot more particulars right now."

"Chris, don't worry about it." I rubbed his arm. "I understand you have to keep sensitive information under wraps. I know that doesn't mean you don't trust me."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. I don't want you to jeopardize a case or your job. I just want to know if you're going to be involved in something dangerous." Because picking up the morning paper to find out he'd been in a shoot out in some dark alley the night before was a really lousy way to start a day.

Watching my face and maybe really having a psychic insight, he nodded. "That won't happen again, Toby. I promise."

And there might be times he couldn't quite keep that promise, tense situations have a way of developing awfully fast, but I appreciated that he knew how that had hurt me.

"Guess we should head back inside, huh?" he said.

"Not right now. It's too nice." My gaze wandered back over to the hammock waiting under the oak. "Why did you get that?"

A sheepish look on his face, he shrugged. "I just remembered how much you used to love the one your folks had."

"Uh-huh." I smiled, enjoying the same memory. "And how we used to sleep out under the stars?"

"Yeah. And how we might try that again."

"Think that would hold us both?"

"Only one way to find out."

That there was, and I led the way over, the grass tickling my toes. "Feels pretty sturdy," I said, hauling myself up and stretching out, patting the spot beside me.

Chris climbed aboard, the hammock swaying gently, but holding up nicely. "Yeah, seems okay," he said, fitting himself alongside me, his head resting on my chest.

Way more than okay, actually, I thought and stroked his head, his short, dark hair silky against my fingers. "This is nice."


I smiled, agreeing that words were superfluous in moments like this.

We rested there, looking up at the sky through the leaves of the tree, the rest of the world spinning on without us.

~Chapter Eight~

What the fuck? That was my first thought as I blinked my eyes open and stared up through leafy tree branches at a clear night sky, the moon shining bright. A few seconds ticked by and things began to pop into place, especially when Toby muttered something in his sleep and snuggled closer to me in the hammock.

The idea of sleeping outside with him was appealing, true enough, but I hadn't actually meant to doze off and now I wondered what time it was. Had to be late; the only thing stirring was some crickets chirping away, not so much as the purr of a car engine or the sound of a television going. It had turned cold too, and I didn't like the idea of Toby catching a chill. That couldn't be good for those bruises, no matter what he said, but I didn't want to start dwelling on them now, not after the amazing night we'd had. Even for us, loving like that wasn't exactly routine. The feelings he pulls out of me -- it's never been like that with anyone else. I'd never want it to be. What we've got ... that's once in a lifetime stuff. Once in a million lifetimes.

So, yeah, he wasn't the only one having epiphanies lately I thought, and smiled, getting an arm around him to hold him to me.

There was enough light for me to look at him tucked into me, his face smooshed into my shoulder, and if there was some drool involved I'd never tell him. I hated to disturb him, he looked so content right then, but ... "Toby," I shook his shoulder gently, "hey, come on, gotta wake up." Another time we would spend the whole night here. We'd bring some blankets and pillows so it would be really comfortable, and I wouldn't budge for anything in the world.

He just made a grumpy sound and tried to burrow into me some more.

"Toby." I made my voice more firm, ruffling his hair. "Come on, babe, we gotta go inside."

Voice sleepy and a little bit cranky, he said, "Comfortable here. Thought we were gonna sleep under the stars."

"Babe, I hate to break it to you, but we're not ten anymore."

That earned a grumpy/sleepy look from him. "Are you calling me old, Keller?"

"Nope," he looked about ten right now, "but if we stay out here *I'm* gonna be stiff in the morning -- and not in a good way."

"Well, when you put it that way..." He sighed and scooted over a bit, yawning massively. "We will do this again sometime?"

"Count on it," I promised. And, thinking of how secluded it was back here, I was *really* glad we weren't kids anymore because we can have a whole lot more fun nowadays.

He gave me a narrow-eyed look of suspicion. "What are you smiling about?"

"You're here," I said, that simple fact covering everything. He was here; I could touch him, share his space -- love him as much as I wanted. That one certainty was all I'd ever need.

"Yeah, I am," he said, his eyes letting me know he'd gotten all that even though I hadn't said a word. "And I'm going to be stuck in this thing all night if you don't give me a hand."

I laughed and easily rolled out, reaching for him as he followed. "Well, we wouldn't want that, would we?" I said, catching him in my arms and setting him down, the grass cold and wet under our feet. I didn't care about that, though. Both arms wrapped around him, I held him full against me. "I love you, Toby," I murmured against his ear. "As long as I live, I'll never forget tonight."

He hugged me back just as tight, kissed my neck, and said, "Me neither."

I laughed again and stepped back, just looking at him in the moonlight for a few seconds. We don't do that often enough, don't get the chance too. We were going to fix that too; this time we were going to get it right. And sure, I'd made that vow a hundred times before, so had he, but it really felt like the odds were finally turning in our favor.

Might not hurt to stop by St. Tom's again and light another candle to that, though.

~*~*~ Leftovers tucked away in the fridge and dirty dishes left in the sink until morning -- house rule -- we headed upstairs to crawl under the covers, too sleepy to even take off our sweats. His feet were cold and I warmed them up with mine, stroking his hair as he put his head on my shoulder and sighed against my neck. It sounded like a comfortable and contented sigh.

It's a king-sized bed, plenty of room for us to have our own space, but we always end up wrapped up in each other. I used to try and fight that urge so he wouldn't get it in his head I was being overly possessive, or that I didn't trust him to stay of his own free will. When he began to be the one initiating that closeness right out of the blue, it was easy enough to give up that fight. Not a lot of sense in holding out against something we both want after all. He's always had some trouble sleeping too, so it makes me feel good that being close to me helps him relax, the sound of my breathing as sweet to him as any lullaby. Have to say, he gets me the same way, the warmth of him in my arms, the feel of his heartbeat, sending me off to dreamland without a lot of trouble as a rule.

"Know what we forgot?" he murmured, already half-asleep.

"Hmm?" I was right behind him there.

"Didn't do the laundry. Won't have anything to wear tomorrow."

Christ. "I'll get up early and do a load," I said around a huge yawn.

He huffed against my shoulder and he said something like, "You hate doing laundry," but we were both already too asleep to care anymore...

...Morning light filled the room and I could feel Toby spooned against me, his cock pressed against my back, and I smiled, always glad to start the day off right like that.

His hand rubbed my belly, hiking up my wifebeater, as he kissed the nape of my neck. "Didn't you say something about doing a load of laundry this morning?"

"Nah, must've been somethin' you dreamed."

He nuzzled the back of my head and I could hear the smile in his voice. "Yeah, that's what I figured." He pushed my shirt up higher and rubbed his face against my shoulder blades, his beard scratchy against my skin. He kissed the abused flesh, strong, blunt fingers tickling along my ribs and hip as his cock poked me harder in the back. That strong, dependable hand pushed down my sweats and wrapped around my dick, encouraging it with slow, firm strokes that pulled a deep moan from me and made me roll over to face him.

We moved together, getting rid of troublesome clothing, me burying my face against one broad shoulder as our cocks rubbed together. That felt good. We got enough space between our bodies to each wrap a hand around each other's dick, though, and that ... yeah, that was better, both of us stroking the other, pumping, thumbs circling the heads. He rubbed my chest, pinching a nipple, and I cried out and came, shooting over his fingers. He flashed a smile at me, smug as a cat with cream and I wanted to make him feel even more satisfied. I scooted down just far enough to get the tip of his cock between my lips, flick my tongue around it, and feel him shudder, moaning as he came against my lips.

We both flopped back on the mattress, breathing hard, laughing as we looked at each other.

"Yeah," I said on a deep sigh, "good morning to you too." Sometimes I think we're going to fuck each other to death -- but Jesus Christ, what a way to go. And something told me we probably weren't going to get any laundry done this morning. That was fine by me for a lot of reasons, not least of which was how the idea of him wearing my clothes all day wasn't exactly a turn off.

Finding the incentive to roll on out of bed and face the world was tough, though. I could have stayed right there all day. Toby didn't have to say a word to let me know he was in the same place. The way he stayed tangled up with me, sharing easy touches, soaking up this moment for all it was worth told me everything I needed to know.

After a while, still not making moves to get up, he said, "Too bad we can't call in sick today."


He touched my face, rubbing the back of his fingers against my beard. "When this is all over, you and I are going to get away for a few days."

I smiled, turned my head to kiss the inside of his wrist. "We are, huh?"

"Umm hmm. We've earned some down time."

"You hear me arguing?"

He smiled then, a spark of mischief in his eyes. "Yes, see, I'm always telling people you're smarter than you look."

I batted it right back at him. "Funny, I tell 'em the same thing about you."

His smile grew wider, but a serious look came into his eyes then, warm and earnest as reality began to creep back in, and he curved a hand around my neck and repeated his earlier promise. "We *will* find her, Chris. She'll be fine."

When he said it I could really believe it. "No other alternative, right?" Couldn't hurt to try out some optimism. Sometimes things really do come out right. Hadn't Toby and me found each other again, after all? Had to be room left for another miracle or two.

We stayed there a few more minutes, just soaking each other up like we were recharging our batteries, before finally dragging ourselves out of bed. I stretched, over in front of the window and frowned at the sight of some dark clouds forming out on the horizon. Usually I'm not much into omens, don't even read my horoscope, but I'll admit it would have done me good to see nothing but clear blue skies out there today.

Toby surprised me as he came over to join me, not stopping to grab something to cover up with. "Looks like it might rain later," he said, propping his arm on my shoulder

"Could be." I nodded at the oak in the backyard and couldn't resist teasing him. "Aren't you afraid a squirrel'll see you naked?"

He sniffed and snarked, "I don't have the kind of nuts he'd be looking for."

"Maybe not, but they look good from where I'm standing."

He eyeballed me skeptically. "Keller, even you cannot possibly be horny again."

I just gave him a smile and, a few minutes later as the water poured down around us in the shower, showed him the error of his assumptions.

~*~*~ "Here," I shook out a couple of Advil and handed them over with a glass of water. He was trying not to let on, but I could tell he was feeling a lot more sore and achy from those bruises today.

He made a cranky face at me but swallowed them on down like a good boy. "My mother doesn't fuss this much."

I bent my head and kissed his shoulder. "She's not obsessed with you like I am."

"That's," he drew out the one syllable, "probably a really good thing. So, what am going to wear today?"

I'd been giving that some thought and opened my closet, hauling some stuff down off the shelf. "Try these." I handed him a pair of jeans that had never quite fit me right, and a dark blue, long-sleeved thermal t-shirt that had shrunk in the wash.

Inspecting them seriously, he said, "Thank you. But I'll need some underwear too."

"Here," I tossed him a pair of socks.

He gave me a huffy look. "Keller--"

I ran my hands down his perfect back and undid the white towel knotted around his hips and gave his ass a squeeze. Giving him a really serious look, I said, "Toby, I don't ask a lot from you."

Fighting a smile and shaking his head, he said, "Me going commando all day would make you happy, huh?"

"Yes, it would." We could sit down to dinner at his folk's and I'd look across the table at him and know that nothing was between him and my jeans, and that would make the whole evening a million times better. It's the little things that get you by sometimes.

"Okay, but if I wind up in the hospital and my mother wants to know why I wasn't wearing any underwear, you're the one who's going to explain."

I smiled and kissed him and watched him put on my clothes, feeling good all over. And the look of intense concentration on his face, the tip of his tongue sticking out as he took great care during the zipping up, made me fall in love with him all over. The shirt was a perfect fit, showing off his shoulders and chest, and the jeans were only a little bit loose on him. He'd be happy that it wouldn't be obvious he didn't have anything else on ... and I was already thinking of ways to enjoy that roomy fit.

"Shouldn't you be getting dressed too?"

"Yeah," there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm in my voice, "guess so." Least I didn't have to put on a suit and tie today. "Got stuff to do."

"Nuns to find."

My smile was lopsided. "Yeah, that too." Thinking of something as I located another pair of jeans, I asked him, "You remember that art house place you used to drag me to?"

Combing his hair, he paused and gave me a curious look in the mirror. "What about it? You suddenly have a hankering for subtitles?"

"Nope. Just wondered if you knew what kind of outfit took it over." I picked up my wallet from the dresser and took out the ticket I'd found at Timmy Kirk's. "That mean anything to you? Maybe a play or something?"

"Metamorphosis?" Face scrunched up, he thought about it, shook his head. "There's a book with that title."

"Yeah?" I buttoned up my shirt but left the tails hanging out. "I read one of those once," I added, flashing a smile at him. "What's it about?"

"This guy named Gregor who slowly turns into an insect as a reaction to being repressed and controlled by society."

I gave him a long look. "Uh-huh."

He sniffed and informed me, "It's an important work of literature. By Kafka."

"Yeah, I can't wait for the movie." I picked up my gun from the dresser, checked he hadn't taken the bullets out and hidden them in the sugar bowl, and clipped it on. "Somehow I don't think there's a connection."

He helped himself to my favorite leather jacket, shooting me a look like he was getting away with something as he slipped it on. "Is it important?"

"Nah, probably not. Just a loose end that's bugging me."

He nodded sagely. "Those can drive you batty all right."

"Yep." I turned up the collar of the jacket and smiled at him. "You look good in my clothes, Beech."

"Mmm, is this your way of keeping me in your pants all the time?"

"Wow," I grinned back at him, "you catch on quick." And because I was in no rush to let go of last night I tugged him in for another kiss. The way his arms went around me, one hand in my hair as his lips parted to my tongue, signaled loud and clear that I wasn't alone in that boat. If my goddamn phone hadn't gone off right then I wouldn't swear we'd have ever gotten out of that bedroom today.

I growled my frustration against his neck, checking to see who the call was from. "Fuck. I gotta take this, it's my captain."

He kissed my cheek and stepped back. "That's okay." He rubbed both hands down my chest, giving me a serious look. "We'll pick this up later," he said, like he was making a promise.

I touched his face and smiled. "I know we will." Right down to my bones in fact. That was a good feeling too.

He nodded and headed downstairs, saying he needed to call the cell phone company and get his service switched to the new phone, and I called the Captain back and got an earful about him wanting to see me in his office pronto. Apparently Spanky's boss had given Yood an earache and he wanted to pass it along to me. That didn't exactly come as a newsflash so I wasn't feeling too worked up as I grabbed a jacket and headed downstairs, slowing my step as I heard Toby on the phone:

"No, the phone wasn't in the car when it blew up," he was saying, exasperation lacing his voice and making the veins on his forehead stand out. "Yes, I do realize the insurance option doesn't cover explosions. I just broke it, okay? Why does it matter how?"

It took some willpower, but I shoved any urge to smile way down deep and stepped up behind him, squeezing his shoulder and kissing the back of his neck. I could hear the officious asshole on the other end of the line giving him a tough time and gave him props for keeping cool and collected. Helping out, I massaged his back as he icily thanked the jackass and hung up with a loud and grumpy huff. "Fuckers," I murmured in support, nuzzling his ear.

"You got that right," he grumbled, turning to face me.

I kissed the furrow between his eyebrows, and the downturned corner of his mouth, hands still rubbing along his back, under the jacket. "Feel any better?"

"Can't tell for sure." He slipped his hands around my waist. "Try again."

Happy to help, I kissed his mouth, starting slow. "How about now?"

"Yes, I think you're onto something."

Oh, yeah, we sure were. My tongue pushed against his lips, encouraging them to open up again so it could slip on inside. That monster he keeps tucked away in his mouth slipped into my mouth to say howdy just as I put my hands down the back of those roomy jeans and gave his bare ass a squeeze. He moaned and pushed into me, his dick twitching against mine, and getting interrupted this time *really* hurt.

"Motherfucker," Toby groaned, face buried against my neck as the bass thump, window-rattling racket of Adebisi's car stereo blasted through the morning air -- and he was probably still a block away.

Indulging one more squeeze of his firm, warm ass, I slipped my hands out of the jeans and around his waist, kissing his frown away again. "It's okay. We'll remember where we were."

"We will," he agreed and hugged me tight. As a car horn sounded over the thump thump thump, he rolled his eyes. "He would pick today to actually show up on time."

"Yeah, life sucks -- and you gotta get your own set of wheels."

He nodded and stepped back with a regretful look. "I'm working on it."

"You looked into Army surplus? Because I'm thinking a tank might be just the ticket."

He narrowed his eyes at me. "Ha, ha, very funny."

"Yeah, I thought so."

Adebisi honked again and we shared a look that mutually agreed we might as well give into the inevitable. We would find our place again tonight, not a doubt in the world. Having that to look forward to at the end of the day, whatever rolled down the pike, would make it a fuck of a lot easier to face.

"Guess we better hit the road," Toby said, opening the door and waving at Adebisi.

"Yep." I locked up and followed him down to the pimpmobile, Adebisi lounging against it and keeping time with the music. In dark red cargo pants and a leopard print vest, he was dressed to blend in as usual.

I reached in and turned off the stereo, getting an injured look from him.

"You don't like my music, hey?"

Opting for a diplomatic reply, I said, "I like my eardrums better."

He gave me a skeptical look and addressed Toby, "You spend the whole night with him and he still cranky in the morning?"

Toby shot me an amused look and told Adebisi, "Simon, trust me, you haven't seen him cranky."

I smiled back at him and wished Adebisi wasn't standing there. Could have done without the mailman pausing to fix us all with a cold-eyed look too. "You'll call me if you find out anything about Pete?" That wasn't what I really wanted to say, but it would do.

"You know I will."

"Where you look for a nun anyway?" Adebisi asked. "Maybe she go to a convent?"

"Checked there," I said. "If they've seen her, the Mother Superior's got her lip zipped."

"Maybe they cover up for her, like that Julie Andrew movie?"

Toby and I locked eyes and I'd bet we were both trying to picture Adebisi watching The Sound of Music. That did make for a unique mental picture all right. "Yeah, kinda like that, but without any singing."

Adebisi nodded thoughtfully. "That make it better, hey?"

"It'd be different." And see, now I was getting this picture in my head of Adebisi in an old-fashioned nun's habit, and I needed to get rid of that -- fast. Lucky thing Toby was right in front of me. "Guess I'll see you later, huh?"

"I guess you will."

Adebisi looked on and shook his head. "Why you don't kiss him? We are already making a spectacle."

Whatever cranky response I might have made was destined to remain a mystery, because Toby slipped a hand around the nape of my neck and drew me to him for a kiss. It was short and sweet and he pressed his cheek to mine and whispered, "I love you."

I whispered it back, kissed his cheek, and tried not to let my reluctance show too much as I let him go. "Later?"

"Later." He walked around to the passenger side and looked over at me as Adebisi got behind the wheel. "And I promise not to blow anything up."

"Now you say that," Adebisi commented, clearly skeptical.

My confidence in Toby was made of sterner stuff. "Well, it's not like I think that's on your things-to-do list. Just try not to roll around with anymore assholes?"

He nodded. "I'll do my best."

I could live with that, although part of me was still holding out for a better set of options. The idea of that Laundromat looked better every day.

I got in my Jeep and backed her out of the driveway, tailing the pimpmobile for two blocks before Adebisi made a left and headed for the office. I waved to Toby and tried to get focused on business. That took some effort and my thoughts kept straying back to him and how good last night had been. The morning hadn't exactly been a nightmare. A tiny voice in my head kept trying to remind me things had been this good before only to come crashing down, and I should be careful about getting my hopes up. Things had never been *this* right between us, though, so I growled at that voice to shut the fuck up and give it a rest.

Have faith. That had been Sister Pete's mantra for as long as I could remember. It wouldn't be the worst thing if I adopted it as my own. She hadn't steered me wrong so far.

Stopped for a light, I turned on the radio just as the announcer was saying the hunt for Sister Peter Marie was heating up -- and switched over to a classic rock station and felt better, listening to "Free Bird" for the next ten minutes.

~*~*~ My mood dipped like a bad tango dancer soon as I stepped out of the elevator and spotted Taylor and the Colonel just coming out of my squad room.

Spanky on his own is usually enough to make my teeth grind, and I won't be starting a fan club for him any time soon, but I will give him this: he's not an autocratic bag of hot air like Galson. Taylor's actually got a life away from the department, a wife and kids, and maybe even a dog named Buster. The Colonel -- he probably goes home and spends the evening polishing his medals. It sticks in his craw that around here he's only a captain and he never misses a chance to bring up his Marine Corps rank and how he was a hero back in 'Nam. Maybe so, maybe not; my old man was in the service too but that didn't keep him from being a sonofabitch.

Although I have to admit my own stint in the Corps may have changed my whole life. Christ knows I was on a road straight to nowhere before I landed at Parris Island for basic training. All through high school I'd been banking on landing a football scholarship to Notre Dame, Oklahoma, somewhere like that. Senior year I tore up my shoulder, though, and watched the rest of the season from the sidelines and collected my diploma in the spring without a clue as to where I went now. Truth? For a while the odds were looking good for me to fulfill every low expectation and I actually owe my old man one, because it was from wanting to prove him wrong, wanting to earn some respect from him and show him I was a man, that I joined up with the Corps.

I don't know if he was born mean or life had made him that way. When he passed away a few years ago, it really hit me how little I knew about him, and none of it was anything you'd put in a eulogy. What would I say? Hey, thanks, Dad, for never missing an opportunity to let me know what a fucking disappointment I turned out to be, and for teaching me early on how much a fist can hurt as it smacks into my face. Thanks for trying to make me hate myself. Thanks for never having one single good word for me no matter what I did, what I accomplished. Yeah, that wouldn't have gone over too well. It was pretty much a moot point by that anyway, ancient history, and the bruises healed a long time ago.

The Corps was part of that, giving me a real sense of purpose and achievement, letting me see that Sister Pete wasn't just trying to put one over on me when she said I had the potential to do something worthwhile with my life. Wasn't what you'd call an overnight change, not by a long shot. Didn't keep me from fucking things up with Toby, for instance, like that time at the drive-in. I was home on furlough and not sure where I fit in anymore. Still hadn't earned an ounce of respect from the old man, and most of the gang from high school had either moved on or looked like morons to me now -- except for Toby. He never looked like anything but the tastiest cannoli on the rack.

He still did, and that got under my skin. I didn't want to feel that way about him; Catholic guilt plus my dad's disapproval had made me hate that part of myself and try so goddamn hard to deny it. I'd been feeling pretty good about that too. I mean, if I was gay, how come I wasn't getting a hard on every time I showered with the guys in my platoon? Yet all it took was running into Toby coming out of Angela Schibetta's bakery with a box of cupcakes and all the blood rushed straight to my dick.

We hadn't seen each other in a year or better but it didn't matter, it never does. Whether it's just been five minutes or five years, we lay eyes on each other and wham, the circuits are open and overloading. We couldn't take our eyes off each other then, trying to see if either one of us had changed, gotten older, maybe a little wiser. Nothing awkward or uncomfortable, though, neither of us fumbling around for things to say, and it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world to make plans to go to the drive-in that night.

It wasn't a date or anything, it was just two guys hanging out together -- right up to the moment I leaned over and kissed him. That wasn't exactly a first, not technically. We'd goofed around a lot over the years, that's how we thought of it anyway. Sure, maybe we were wrestling around and got kinda hot and bothered in the process, but that didn't mean anything. Just because I always felt a million times better when Toby was around didn't have to mean I was in love with him, right? I'd even done a good job convincing myself that was true. And then we were there at the drive-in, parked way in the back and nobody around us, and I couldn't tell you what the hell Indiana Jones was doing up on the big screen because all I was watching was Toby, all I was doing was soaking up how good it felt to be around him again. It slammed right into me, how bad I'd been missing him and how I wanted him to know that, and the only way I knew to tell him was with a kiss.

He could have hauled off and smacked me, he could have shoved me out of the car and driven off, left me standing there with my dick at attention. For a split second there, that's exactly what I thought he would do as he pulled back and looked at me in the dark, face all scrunched up and serious. Instead, he reached around to cup the nape of my neck and pull me back for another kiss, slipping his tongue into my mouth like we'd been making out like that all our lives.

And then I had to fuck it up by writing that stupid poem, knowing he'd see it ... knowing it was going to hurt him. That's something I'd change if I could go back in time. Right at that moment, though, I was too scared to know better. It was more important to maintain an appearance. Doesn't make a lot of sense now, and deep down I never could blame Toby for trying to run me down the next time he saw me. I had it coming -- and then some.

I couldn't get him out of my mind, though, out of my heart. Didn't matter if I was fucking some chick who knew every trick from the Kama Sutra, or a guy with a gold medal in blow jobs, the excitement was never close to that nervous, clumsy fumbling in the backseat at the drive-in. I was in love with Toby, I had always been in love with Toby, but it took almost losing him to that McClain bitch to realize once and for all.

And no, being in the Corps wasn't exactly about learning to get in touch with my deepest feelings and accepting my love for another man, but I did discover I was a fuck of a lot tougher than I thought. Stronger than I knew, and how there's more to that than all the physical stuff. 'Cause, fuck, the outside don't matter if you're scared and alone deep inside. That's why I got my tat, wanting a permanent reminder to myself about what can be endured, what it means to stick with something you believe in ... and how sometimes all you got to keep going is faith.

Funny thing too, but I think Spanky might actually understand some of that. With the Colonel, though, it's all appearance, like a spit and polish gloss on the outside makes up for a hollow interior. When he found out I'd been in the Marines too he was all set up to take me under his wing, semper fi all the way -- until he found out I didn't look at the world the same way he did. If the Colonel ran the world, he'd order me to show up in uniform at dawn to be formally cashiered, like you see in those old movies.

He looked me over now as I went on over, not liking the way I was dressed or how I didn't snap to attention and salute him. "My squad, we have a dress code," he informed me.

I shot a wink at Taylor, said, "Yeah, that right, Spanky? You gotta line up for inspection every morning?"

"Cut the wiseass, Keller," Taylor growled right back. "Your Captain's going to want to speak with you," he added, throwing it over his shoulder as he and Galson started to leave.

"Hey, Spanky," I called after them, "ya ever think about doing less tattlin' behind my back and more looking for goddamn clues?"

He did a one-eighty and came back, getting up in my face. "You telling me how to do my job, Keller?"

I wasn't about to back down and snarked back, "Wow, look at you catch on quick."

"You keep your nose out of my cases from now on. You hear me?"

"Oh, I hear you. I hear you not looking for the real murderer loud and clear."

"You goddamn punk--"

"Keller," the Colonel held up a hand, thumb and index finger a hairbreadth apart, "you're this close to getting written up for insubordination. You step any further over the line, I'll see you get busted so far down you'll have to salute the meter maids."

"Galson," Captain Yood had come up during this discussion and was standing in the squad room doorway, looking equally pissed off at us all, "did I just hear you threaten one of my detectives?"

"You need to put him on a short leash, Al."

"I'll do that, Ed -- and while I'm there I'll pick up a muzzle for you. Now if you're done insulting my officer how about getting the hell out of my squad room so we can get back to work?"

The Colonel wanted to huff and puff some more but backed off with a curt nod at Yood and a hard-eyed stare at me. "You keep away from Det. Taylor, that's all I'm saying, Keller."

"Yes, sir, Captain," I said, snapping him a mock salute, clicking my heels together for good measure, and earning another glare from him and an exasperated eyeroll from Yood.

"You -- in my office, pronto," Yood told me as the Colonel and Spanky got in the elevator.

"Look, Captain," I started up as we went into his office, pausing just long enough for him to tell Kenny Wangler to get us some coffee, "whatever Taylor's been whining to you about--"

"Save it, cowboy." He shut the door and waved me to the chair in front of his desk. "I know this one's personal, but getting your ass in a sling isn't going to help your aunt now, is it? What would she do if she found out you were kicking up a fuss like this?"

Smarting with some resentment but trying to keep any trace of it out of my voice, I shrugged and slouched down in the chair. "Probably smack me with a ruler."

"Hmm, I'll keep that in mind the next time you get out of line." He sat down, folded hands resting on a fat stack of folders as he looked at me. "There's this thing called interdepartmental cooperation, maybe you could get to know it."

"And if that door don't swing both ways?"

His shrug was philosophical. "Life's a bitch -- and Galson's a dick, which we all know. Walked in here like Doug MacArthur returning to the Philippines and asked me since when did nuns have anything to do with vice? I told him I guessed he didn't know the nuns I did and the dipshit just gives me this stony-eyed look like he wouldn't know a joke if it bit his ass. Pierce almost cracked a smile for a second, though."

I gave him my own stony-eyed look across the desk. "Yeah, and...?" If I was supposed to get something from that story it had just whooshed over my head.

"Honey catches more flies than vinegar -- so try and play nice with Pierce."

I let out a deep breath and sat up a little straighter as Kenny knocked and came in, handing us the coffee. I waited till the rookie left before I said, not exactly sounding gracious, "Yeah, that's great. My aunt didn't kill Father Calhoun, but Spanky won't even look at other suspects and I'm supposed to send him flowers?"

Yood stirred his coffee, took a sip. "Answer me this, cowboy: how would you like it if Pierce was horning in on one your cases?"

"Okay, yeah, I'd be pissed -- but I wouldn't drag you along to fight my battles for me."

"Maybe not but you'd like knowing I was in your corner. And for the record, it was the Colonel who dragged Pierce. He didn't like it anymore than you would." He dug one file out of the stack and pushed the others to the side. "Look, sure, Pierce can be a dolt sometimes and he's worse than a dog with a bone once he's got his teeth in something, but he's a good cop and he's not going to pin Father Calhoun's murder on Sister Peter Marie just to spite you. And you don't know what all he's been looking at."

It burned me to admit that might be true but I nodded and took a drink of coffee. "So if you think *I* was being a dolt, how come you stood up for me out there?"

"Because the Colonel's a pain in my ass -- and nobody gets to insult my detectives but me."

"Yeah, I'll have to remember that when I make captain."

"And God help us all when that day comes. Now," he pushed on before I could find a comeback, "what's the latest on Timmy Kirk?"

"Besides how he's dead?" I shook my head and propped an ankle on a knee. "I don't know, Captain. Something about it just doesn't set well with me."

"You're thinking foul play?"

I nodded. "That's what my gut says, but I won't know for sure until the M.E. report comes in. I had a meeting set up with him, today actually, and he was all fired up about how he'd be able to hand me something big."

Yood opened the file. "On our friend Morales?"

"Wouldn't say on the phone." I knew what was in the file: every tidbit of information we've been able to compile on one Enrique Morales, local businessman with a taste for the finer things in life -- Armani suits, good cigars, imported cars, and all the other tasty perks that make the good life sweet, up to and including politicians in his pocket. I mean, sure -- wink, wink -- it could simply be an amazingly wild coincidence that Morales is a substantial contributor to Mayor Devlin's campaign and that his office supply outfit has an exclusive contract with the city. From the paper clips on Captain Yood's desk to the Post-It notes plastered to the file, from our computers and notepads, the chairs we were sitting in and the coffee we were drinking, to the soap and toilet paper in the johns, Office Zone supplies it all.

Back in the '80s, Morales came to town and bought up a mom-and-pop stationary shop downtown and started building it up into something a fuck more ambitious. Couple years later, he bought the drugstore next to it and the bookshop by that so he could expand the business even more. Today Office Zone prominently occupies a three-story building in the newly renovated downtown area, he owns a string of warehouses by the riverfront, and is regularly touted as a bright and shining example of what an individual can achieve with just a dream and the willingness to roll up his sleeves and work hard.

And, you know, including a little crack or heroin with every delivery of copy paper is just Morales's way of giving his customers an extra bang for their buck.

It's a fairly ingenious operation actually and we've spent years trying to shut him down. All we ever catch are the small fry, though, the big fish -- so far he's got scales made outta Teflon. The odds that Timmy Kirk was going to give me something to hook Morales once and for all, yeah, they weren't good, but I couldn't shake that feeling down in my bones that there was more to the story than we knew right now.

"So," Yood's fingers tapped restlessly on the file, "the kid's got some humdinger lowdown for you but turns up stiff before he can tell you what?"

"That's about it, yeah."

He pulled his phone over and punched up a number, handed me the receiver as it started to ring. "Better see what Gloria's got for you."

It took a minute, but then Gloria was telling me to buy her lunch and she'd have something for me by then. I agreed, told her I'd meet her down at McSwaggins, and handed the receiver back to Yood. "Guess I gotta cool my heels a while longer yet," I said, like some other options weren't already running through my mind.

"That'd be a new experience for you. What is your next move?"

I shrugged. "Shake some trees and see what falls out."

Yood gave me a look that mixed suspicion and resignation. "One of these trees go by the name Ryan O'Reily? No, on second thought," he held up a hand, "don't tell me. We'll both be happier that way."

Funny, I was thinking the same thing.

~*~*~ "Timmy Kirk died of a heroin overdose," Gloria told me as she dug into her salad.

I took a bite of my cheeseburger, chewed and swallowed and waited for her to drop the other shoe. "You didn't wangle a lunchdate out've me just for that. There signs somebody held him down and shot him up with the stuff?"

"No." She snuck a french fry off my plate. "No signs of restraint, nothing to indicate there was any kind of struggle. He just sat down, rolled up his sleeve and shot himself up with 500 milligrams of ninety-five percent pure heroin."

I let out a low whistle. "No wonder he looked surprised."

She nodded back at me and swiped another fry. "You knew him -- would that high a purity have been usual for him?"

I thought back to that dump on Apple Street, how he was always just scraping by and waiting for his ship to come in, and shook my head. "I don't think so. You're sure he couldn't have been restrained while someone administered a fatal overdose?" I asked her, snagging a couple of fries for myself before she cleaned my plate.

"No marks, Chris, I'm sorry."

"Nah, don't be. Can't find what isn't there." An elbow leaned on the table to prop up my head, I thought about Timmy always trying to play every side of a deal and wondered if he'd finally ratted on the wrong person and had it come back to bite him big time. Maybe he'd helped himself to a shipment, decided to treat himself to an extra special kick and was dumb enough to believe he could get away with it? Wouldn't be the first time a small time dealer got stars in his eyes. "Anything else turn up?"

"Just the usual health problems you would expect in a long-term junkie -- there were enough traces of laxatives in his system to unblock an elephant, so I'd say he suffered from chronic constipation." She gave me a broad smile as I made a cranky face at her over my cheeseburger.

"Gee, thanks for sharing that." In defiance I went ahead and took a big bite and swallowed it on down without a problem, watching her expression take a professional turn. "What?"

"He was going to need a major dosage of antibiotics soon," Gloria said, sucking up some ice tea through a straw. "He was in the early stages of endocarditis -- that's an inflammation of the inner layers of the heart, usually effecting the heart valves. It's caused by bacteria that gets into your system through a wound; in the case of an IV drug user, they inject it right into their veins."

I took a swig of my root beer, remembering how Timmy had been complaining of not feeling so hot the last time I saw him. "Fatal?"

"If it goes untreated, yes." She shook her head. "Other than that... No hepatitis, no HIV. Get him treated for the endocarditis and off the heroin and he could have lived a long and healthy life."

Well, I didn't want to rain on her pretty parade there. And, hell, maybe if Timmy'd had incentive to turn his life around in a really big way that really could have happened. The way he'd been going, though, sooner or later someone was gonna whack him.

She stole one more french fry and gave me a serious and thoughtful look, the kind where I can see exactly why Gypsy would fall for her. "Is there a reason you don't want it to be an accidental overdose?"

"It's out of character for him, that's all."

"Well, even the people we know best can turn out to have some secrets."

"That is true," I said, suspecting she had more than Timmy Kirk in mind. The way she rubbed her ring finger, a paler band of skin showing where her wedding ring had been, confirmed that. "How's life treating you these days?"

She gave me a rueful look, dark eyes guarded for a moment. "Is it that obvious?"

"Only to a highly trained detective," I told her with a grin.

Her cautious look gave way to amused exasperation. "I'm all right. The divorce was amicable." The bitter twist of irony in her voice was barely noticeable. "Everything with Preston always was."

Head cocked, I said, "Probably wouldn't ever be amicable with O'Reily."

She gave me a look that warned to be careful where I stepped now. "That's probably a safe bet."

And that would be the only thing safe in a relationship with Gypsy -- I could see her thinking that, and couldn't think of much to say in that Irishman's favor. Not if Gloria was after something safe and sound. Not to mention I ain't in the matchmaking line. The one and only thing I know for sure is that even if something's meant to happen, you still gotta do your part and be there, ready and willing, when your chance comes along.

Hmm, and speak of the devil... "I gotta take this," I told her as my phone went off and I saw it was Gypsy returning my call.

Since hers went off a second later she was okay with that and thanked me for lunch, and apologized again for not having found anything more definitive for me on Timmy Kirk's death. Really, though, she'd given me plenty, I just had to figure out how it all fitted together.

I walked Gloria out to her car and waited until she'd driven off before I called Gypsy back. Given he'd taken his sweet time getting back to me, it only seemed to fair to keep him stewing for a couple of minutes.

"You got something to say, K-boy? Because I've got better things to do than play phone tag all day." That was his way of saying hi, how are you.

I climbed in my Jeep and asked him, "Hey, Gypsy, you got room on your dance card for a little fandango? There's money in it."

"Yeah, I'm listening."

Yep -- works hook, line, and sinker every time. I smiled to myself and started up the Jeep. "Can't say on the phone. Meet me at Winthrop's?" A department store is always a good, inconspicuous spot for a clandestine meeting.

"Okay, give me half an hour."

I told him I would, dropped the phone back in my pocket and pulled away from the curb as I checked my watch. Almost 1:30 and not a single call on the police radio about any spontaneous explosions anywhere around town. Of course it was early yet. I passed Murphy and Ortolanti going the other way in their squad car and had to laugh as Murphy flashed me an OK sign. Although in support of Toby probably I should have flashed Murphy a whole different sign in return.

Guess it's another sign of how I'm obsessed over Toby that I was wondering where he was right now and what he was doing. Since that was only going to make me antsy, I let myself think back to last night and how good it had been. Wasn't what you'd call a hardship, either, and I was especially glad of the impulse buy of that hammock. It was too late in the summer for us to get a lot of use out of it this year, but there were going to be other summers. I felt as sure of that as anything in life. And see, a guy starts to get the hang of this optimism deal and it can really take off. For instance I also wasn't having a rough time anticipating later today -- tonight, when Toby and me would be home safe and sound together and could lock out the rest of the world.

Although first we would have to get through dinner with his folks but that wouldn't be so bad. I like his dad, and if Victoria and Grandpa Rebadow started getting on my nerves all I'd have to do was think about Toby sitting there wearing my jeans. And especially how he wasn't wearing anything else, and I had this feeling that would go a long ways to keeping my ... spirits up.

I was so caught up thinking about that I almost drove right past Metamorphosis.

The name registered just in time and all I had to do was wait for a big blonde in a silver PT Cruiser to get a move on so I could grab her parking space. She wasn't in any rush to head out, though, taking some time to fix her hair and apply a fresh layer of make-up -- and the glimpse I'd caught of her face, it looked like she'd already put it on with a trowel. I leaned on my horn after a few more seconds and she looked over and flipped me off, but after one more coat of red lipstick she got her ass in gear and took off.

I parked and got out, looking the place over as I approached. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the place had started out as one of those over the top art deco movie palaces and a lot of that had been kept in tact down through the decades. It's three storeys and sits catty-cornered at the end of the block, its marquee following the curve of the facade, sandstone-colored with a lighter trim for contrast. Used to be this picture in the lobby, showing it off back in the day, people dressed up in snazzy clothes and even walking up a red carpet to get inside.

No carpet now, and no uniformed flunkey was around to hold the door for me as I went inside. For a second I imagined I could smell fresh hot popcorn in the air. The old concession stand was long gone, though, removed to enlarge the lobby, but that picture was still up on the wall. Funny maybe, but that made me feel good. I hoped they'd left the balcony in tact too. Maybe I couldn't remember a damn thing about any of those movies Toby'd hauled me down here to see, but I had some good memories of that balcony.

"Hey! Anybody here?" I called out as I looked around. There was a coat check room off to the right -- empty at the moment. That was new. So were the couches up against the wall, upholstered in red leather, a fancy chandelier lighting up the framed posters that decorated the walls. Old-time movies stars, that's what it looked like at first glance, all those glamour gals you see on TCM. Marlene Dietrich, in top hat, white tie-and-tails, loomed over everything in black-and-white, and I guess that should have clued me in right then. But I needed to take a second, closer look at the other posters, all of these in color but with that same retro look. For a second they reminded me of Timmy Kirk's pin-ups, although the most any of these gals was showing was a little leg or cleavage.

It was a set of legs that tipped me off, the calf muscles and the shape of the hips making me think guy, not gal, and reminding me of the big blonde outside and how she'd been made up way too heavily for the middle of the day. So when a voice spoke up behind me and I turned to see a blond guy there, medium build -- with his hair in pigtails and wearing a cropped shirt that was filled out by an impressive set of tits and tied around his belly -- it wasn't a big surprise.

"What can I do you for, pal?" he said, giving me a slow once over and then taking it slower the second time. "We're not taking auditions right now, but," he gave me another long look, lingering on my chest, "there's an exception to every rule. What are you, a 44 D cup?"

I flashed him my badge. "Wouldn't know. You got a name?"

"Cindy Lamour."

"You got a real name?"

He blinked first. "Yeah, I do. Franklin Winthrop -- and yeah, my granddad owns the department store."

"I'm sure he's very proud," I said, deadpan as possible and getting a suspicious look for him. Before he could say anything though, I went on, "I'm Det. Keller. You up here?" I nodded back at the glossy posters.

"I wish." Winthrop looked at the display with a glint of envy in his eyes. "Those are the big stars. I'm still working up from cigarette girl."

Yeah, everybody needs a dream. "Cigarette girl?"

"You know, I get dolled up and carry around this tray. Customer wants some smokes or chewing gum, whatever, they give me a whistle. 'Course," he smiled at me like he really thought he'd get somewhere, "that's not all they whistle for."

I nodded, getting the picture. "Yeah, I've seen it in old movies. Thought that died out fifty years ago."

"Well, we like our retro here. There a reason for these questions, Detective?"

Fuck if I knew. Now I was here and adding up two plus two, it wasn't looking like an answer I could use. "You know a guy named Timmy Kirk?" If this club had been one Timmy's aspirations I'd never seen a sign of it. Of course I hadn't been looking for any. "Skinny, average height, red hair, might have been making deliveries from Office Zone?"

Winthrop shook his head. "Doesn't ring a bell. I wouldn't usually handle deliveries, though. Hang on a sec." He went over to part the curtains that used to lead into the theater and called out for someone named Jason to come here for a minute.

While he was doing that I went back to studying the pictures because something I'd caught a glimpse of earlier kept scratching the back of my mind.

I admit it, I don't get drag. Frankly it's a mystery to me why women go through all that. Yeah, sure, you gotta wear clothes, and for the average person on the street that's probably a good thing, but my own motto is the less the better. But whatever floats your boat, and I had to admit a lot of these guys had it down good. Even up close a few of them would pass inspection for a while.

Winthrop hadn't been kidding about the retro deal. There was a Jean Harlowe up there and a Bette Davis, a Fred and Ginger duo, Judy Garland of course and a Marilyn Monroe getting ready to sing Happy Birthday. My gaze slid past another one, a redhead in a low-cut blue gown and with those long white gloves up over the elbow that women used to wear ... and I got that prickle again. I moved in for an even closer look, pulling the police artist sketch out and unfolding it, comparing facial structure and features, and warning myself not to go jumping too any wild conclusions -- not just yet anyway.

"Who is this?" I asked Winthrop as he returned with two other guys, both of them about my size and neither of them wearing make-up or fake tits -- although the darker one had his eyebrows plucked.

"That's Natalie, Natalie Bouvier," Winthrop said, and got an elbow in the ribs from the other one, like he'd already said too much.

"I gotta make waves to get a real name?"

"Franklin said you wanted to know about the delivery kid. Didn't say anything about Natalie." That was the one with the sharp elbow, carrying himself like he was the one in charge around here. He confirmed that with his next words, telling Winthrop to go answer the telephone as he offered me a handshake and said, "I'm Jason Cramer, the manager. How can I help you, Detective?"

He was trying to be cute with the handshake, rubbing his thumb along my hand. I just smiled back and clamped down harder until he grimaced just a fraction and indicated he was ready to concede the round.

"Quite a grip there," he said, backing off with an okay, let's be friends smile. "You must work out a lot. Have you ever thought about drag, Detective?" he said, looking me over some more. "With your rack and slim waist you'd be a natural. We'd have to camouflage those legs, but with the right outfit you could be the star of the show."

"You got that right, boss. Just the thought of this ass" the other one chimed in now, giving my butt a squeeze, Cramer helping himself too, "in sequins would make me die a happy girl."

I had to admire their bravado. I got the drill: I was supposed to be feeling uncomfortable and distracted -- so I'd forget all about why I'd come here. Might have even worked on somebody else. But let's face it, this wasn't the first time some guy had grabbed my ass. There was a time I might not have minded a whole lot either. That time wasn't now, however. "Sorry to disappoint you fellas but my ass is gonna remain sequin free, so if you two are done checking the merchandise, how about you answer my questions?"

Cramer had backed off some, but the other one was still hovering close, licking his lips as he looked at me. I gave him a look back and probably enjoyed it too much when a flicker of hesitation crossed his face. "You got a name?"

Composure back, he shrugged and blew a puff of air against my cheek as he said, "Alonzo Torquemada -- offstage. You want my phone number too? Because, sweetheart, you can frisk me anytime."

"Yeah, that would make my day. And no, that won't be necessary."

"But it would be a lot of fun," he said, giving me a wink.

"You ought to see him when he's dressed up like Sophia Loren, Detective," that was Cramer again. "He's good."

"I'll bet."

Still close, Torquemada shot me another smile and treated himself to one more grab at my ass before backing up. "Can't blame a guy for trying, Detective."

"Depends what he's trying. So," I had both them in view again, "you do a lot of business with Office Zone?"

Cramer shrugged. "A fair amount."

"Same guy making the deliveries every time?"

"The red head kid?" Cramer shrugged again. "Can't say I really noticed. Who does with delivery people? Anyway what's the deal? Maybe we exceeded our quota of paperclips?" Torquemada smiled at that.

"Might be you got a little something extra."

"Wow," Cramer snapped his fingers, "you know, now you mention it, Detective, there was a free calendar tucked in with the Post-Its last January."

We locked eyes for a few seconds, both aware we could go around and around like this all afternoon. It was easy to let that part go since I could take it as given that Timmy Kirk had made some special deliveries here. I didn't care about that right now. "So, Natalie Bouvier. What's his real name, and where can I find him?"

"I'm afraid that's confidential information, Detective."

"I can find out other ways."

"Then I guess you'll have to."

And the hell of it was, I wasn't in any position to push this. It wasn't my case. By rights I should give Spanky a call and drop this in his lap -- and cross my fingers he pursued it.

Well ... there was one other alternative open to me, and it would be worth it just to see the look on his face.

Torquemada was close again, giving me the come hither look again. "We'd be happy to cooperate with you in other ways, Detective," he said, brushing a hand along my shoulder.

"You ever give it a rest?"

"Not when I've got this kind of incentive."

"Yeah, I'm real flattered, and I'm also off the market."

He winked again. "Maybe he'd like to share?"

I had to laugh at that. "That would be no -- you don't even wanna go there."

And maybe Toby's ears were burning about then, because my cell went off and it was him calling me. "Want to give me some room?" I told Torquemada as I answered.

"Who are you talking to?" Toby asked.

"Just a guy," I said, hedging for the moment because I wasn't sure if he'd buy ass-groping as an in the line of duty routine event. "What's up?"

"Well, nothing ... right now," he said, the suggestive hint in his voice doing more for me than any hard sell come on. I could hear Adebisi grumbling about something in the background, though, so I figured that was about as sexy as the call would get. "Actually we've had a productive morning. Just bagged our third skip of the day, Omar White."

I groaned. "Oh man. Do I want to hear the rest of it?" It wasn't that I thought Omar was the most dangerous outlaw on the planet. It's that I know he's the walking definition of an idiot.

Toby's cackle in my ear sounded pleased, though. "Went off without a hitch, Keller. No rolling around in the mud, no losing my handcuffs."

"But you blew up Adebisi's car? Or at least his stereo? Come on, Toby, tell me you blew up his stereo."

"No, I did not blow up his stereo."

"Did ya try?"

He laughed again. "I thought you didn't want me blowing things ... up?"

"Yeah, but this is a special case, I'd make an exception." I took a seat on one of the red couches, discovering it was even more comfortable than it looked. "So you're having a good day?" I was still keeping an eye on Torquemada and Cramer, over by the coat room having a talk with Winthrop.

"Pretty good. How about you?"

"Oh, you know, the usual," I said, deciding to break it to him casually. "Talking to the M.E., getting my ass groped by drag queens--"

"Excuse me? You want to run that by me again?"

I smiled, picturing how his face would be scrunched up as he thought about what I'd said, maybe the veins starting to pop out on his forehead. "Which part? Gloria, the M.E., the apple of Gypsy's eye?"

The grumpy huff was loud and clear in my ear. "No, you fuck. The part about the drag queens."

"Beech," I couldn't resist yanking his chain a little bit, "you know I do what I have to."

"Uh-huh," skepticism ran deep in his voice now, "so long as you know I might have to remind you how nobody gropes your ass but me."

"Yeah? You might have to punish me?"

"You keep it up and you'll find out."

"Aww, Beech, don't you know I'll always keep it up?"

That got a laugh out of him. "Will you be serious?"

"Yeah," I could imagine him now too, getting that earnest look on his face. "What's up?" He hadn't called just to tell me about Omar.

"Guess where I am."

I frowned at the phone, not having a clue. "Wanna give me a hint?"

"It makes me think of poetry."

"Poet-- Oh. The drive-in?"

"Our drive-in, yes."

And yeah, it made me feel good that he liked that memory too. "What are you doing out there?"

"It's where we found Omar. He was hanging out at a pool hall down the road. I don't think I've been out by here in ages, Chris." There was a wistful note in his voice now, the stroll down memory lane turning up a couple of potholes for him.

I could understand that. I've been out that way a few times and while it does bring back fond memories there is a melancholy feel to the place now, the whole place left lonely and unattended, weeds filling the lot where we used to park. "I keep hearing talk about some outfit wanting to do it up again."

"That would be nice. It wouldn't be the same though."

No, it wouldn't, and Christ I wished he was right in front me at that moment so I could wrap my arms around him and kiss him. He sounded like he needed it. So did I. "We got our memories, Toby, no matter what."

"We do, and we're making more all the time."

"Might make some tonight in fact."

"Oh? You have plans?"

"Baby, you bet your sweet ass I got plans," I told him and heard him laugh again.

"I'll look forward to it. So, everything's okay?

"Yeah, pretty much. Only got my ass chewed a little bit."

He hmphed again and said, "And I guess I'm not supposed to mind that either?"

"I can take it, and it wasn't that bad," I said, giving him a quick recap of my run-in with Spanky and the Colonel. It hadn't been eating me, not really, but I have to admit talking about it made me feel better. "Anyway," I finished up, "aren't you always telling me I need to work on my tact?"

"Yes, but not where assholes are concerned."

"Ain't no shortage of those, babe." I could hear Adebisi again, and probably Omar, and then a sound I couldn't quite identify followed by a distinct thud. "What's goin' on?"

"Uhhhh, somebody might have used a stun-gun."

"Oh Christ. What the hell's Adebisi doing with a stun-gun?"

"Hey, I already took his machete away from him."

I shook my head and counted to twenty. "Yeah, I guess that's a step on the road to disarmament. Maybe you oughta hit the road, though?"

"That would probably be a good idea, yes. So you're not going to tell me about the drag queens?"

I smiled. "I'll tell you later. And, actually, it's good news." At least it could be, I had to hang onto that possibility.

"Okay, I'll want a full report later."

"You'll get one."

"Okay. I'll see you later then."

I promised he would and dropped the phone back in my pocket, feeling ready to face the rest of the day. I hated to give up on getting an ID on Natalie Bouvier, but was just going to have to leave that in another set of capable hands.

There are occasions in life, after all, where the only approach was some good old-fashioned Irish blarney.

"Leaving so soon, Detective?" Torquemada was back.

"No hard feelings I hope?" Cramer added.

Torquemada smirked. "Maybe a few, huh? You ever change your mind, Detective, you know where to find me."

Yeah, too bad for him I've got a one-track mind and it's permanently stuck on Toby.

I got out of there and climbed in my Jeep, checking the time. I'd be cutting it close to make the department store on time, but I had a feeling Gypsy would hang around as long as he knew I'd make it worth his while. Of course when I told him about the extra work I had in mind, he was probably going to double his price. It would be worth it, though, on a whole bunch of levels.

And it had to be a good omen that I hit nothing but green lights all the way over.

...to be continued in Chapter Nine...
Please send feedback to Riley Cannon.