Legal Artistry #1
Years ago, Dieter Krumpf’s grandmother died and left him everything, including a photo album containing pictures of the art collection she left behind when her family fled the Nazis. Now, Dieter is calling on the services of a lawyer, Gerald Young, to determine whether his family’s legacy might be returned to him.
Gerald doesn’t hold out much hope that the paintings will be returned, but Dieter’s earnestness speaks to him and he agrees to help. At first he concludes that while Dieter has a case, suing in Austria isn’t practical. But Gerald is a good lawyer, and as his feelings for Dieter develop, so does his determination to win the case. Together, Gerald and Dieter navigate research, hearings, and a dysfunctional family in the pursuit of fine art—and discover the art of love along the way.
Artistic Appeal #2
Brian Watson knows close friends Gerald Young and Dieter Krumpf have an ulterior motive when they invite him to their Christmas party. Brian has taken over the case to secure the return of the famous painting called The Woman in Blue to Dieter, but they don’t want Brian to be all work and no play. They intend to set him up with a friend, but he’s not who catches Brian’s eye. Instead, it’s Nicolai, the deaf art restorer caring for the works already returned to Dieter.
But pursuing Nicolai won’t be easy. A year ago Nicolai had to fight to regain his independence after a bad break-up, and he’s reluctant to give up his freedom a second time. Plus, Brian has competition in Justin, Nicolai’s ex, who wants him back badly.
Nicolai’s reluctance isn’t the only roadblock. Brian was married to a woman for almost ten years. Now he has to confess to his mother, his ex-wife, and his young daughter that he loves a man—all while conducting a potentially groundbreaking court case and trying to convince Nicolai that love isn’t about co-dependence, it’s about support.
Artistic Pursuits #3
Frank Jennings is an FBI agent looking for redemption. Leslie Carlton is an Interpol agent looking for a thief. Attraction flares from the moment they meet on a case searching for a stolen triptych of unique Tiffany windows, but after a single night of stunning passion, Leslie is called back to London to continue his search there. When the case heats up again, Leslie returns to the States-and to Frank-but their investigation is complicated by their tumultuous feelings. Is it possible for two dedicated detectives to pursue each other while they're tracking down stolen art and the unscrupulous man who steals it?
Legal Tender #4
Timothy left home when he was eighteen to get away from his reckless mother, but he never stopped visiting his grandfather, who taught him what love was all about. Now that Grampy has passed away, Timothy finds that the old man's legacy is everything Timothy has dreamed of—and more.
Inside the house Timothy loves so much is a cache of coins with historical value… and a mystery, because one of them isn’t supposed to exist. In memory of his grandfather, Timothy sets out to make sure that the mystery and the coins are given their due honor. In his quest to keep the government from confiscating his grandfather’s legacy, he meets Joiner, whose interest in Timothy is as clear and open as Timothy is guarded. There are things about Timothy's life and his past he doesn't want anyone to know, not even the kind man who is helping him with the complications of legal tender.
PrologueDIETER hurried up the stairs and down the hall as fast as his legs would carry him, not thinking that of course his grandmother could hear every footstep he made. Slowing down, he stopped in front of the linen closet that was tucked beneath the stairs to the attic. Opening the door, Dieter ducked inside. He closed the door behind him and backed into the deep closet, careful not to knock anything over. He could barely see, as a thin line of light shone from under the door. Closing his eyes tight, he waited a few seconds before opening them again. Now he could see the outline of the shelves against the one wall that held all the linens, neatly sorted and stacked. Careful not to knock anything off, he inched farther into the closet, ducking under the tablecloths and quilts that hung from fat, fancy hangers, to where the ceiling started to meet the floor. Settling on the floor with a stifled giggle, Dieter knew he had found the best hiding spot yet, and he waited for Gramma to find him.
Listening for the sound of Gramma’s footsteps kept him entertained for a while, but when he didn’t hear anything, Dieter began to inch toward the door and bumped into a box that scooted across the dusty floor. Obviously Gramma hadn’t been in here in a long time, because she hated dust of any kind anywhere. Once, he’d heard Gramma say she was looking for dust bunnies under his bed. Dieter had immediately gotten onto his knees to peer under the mattress so he could see the bunnies. Gramma had laughed before running a broom covered with a cloth under the bed to clean. Pushing the door open a little, he suddenly heard feet on the stairs, and he closed the door again, moving to the back of the closet.
“Dieter Johan Krumpf, come out of that closet this instant before you get all my linens dusty.” She’d used all three of his names—Dieter knew he was in trouble now.
“Gramma,” he said, walking forward before pushing the door open and blinking into the light. “I was hiding and you were supposed to find me.”
“I was, was I? How about you help me with the dusting, and then we’ll have milk and cookies. Katherine just took some molasses cookies out of the oven.”
“I can dust in there,” Dieter said, pointing toward the closet. “It’s really bad, see?” Dieter turned around and heard his grandma hiss before she started to dust him.
“You’re filthy,” she said as she cleaned off his pants legs before swatting his butt lightly with the cloth. “There, that’s better. Now, go get the dust mop from downstairs, and you can use it to clean the floor.”
Dieter looked up at her stern face and didn’t move until she broke into a smile. “What is it? Scoot,” she said.
“There’s a box way in the back,” Dieter told her before hurrying back into the closet, ducking under the hanging things. Finding the box, he pushed it like a train across the floor. He would have made train-engine noises, but Gramma liked it quiet, and Dieter didn’t want her to be mad. “See?” Dieter said happily as he pushed the box near her feet. He expected her to say something, but she slowly bent down and opened the box before gasping and putting her hand over her mouth.
“I haven’t seen these in twenty years,” Dieter’s grandma said softly, and he straightened up, smiling proudly that he’d found what he imagined was buried treasure.
“What is it?” Dieter asked, peering into the box.
“They’re photo albums and pictures from when I was a girl.” Dieter watched as his grandma carefully pulled out two thick books with black pages, setting each one on the floor next to the box.
“Can we look at the pich-ers?” Dieter asked.
“Yes, but only after we get our work done,” she answered, placing the albums back in the box. Dieter lifted the box off the floor, following his grandma along the hallway and down the stairs. Setting the box on the coffee table in the living room, per her instructions, Dieter hurried to the broom closet to get the dust mop and finish his chores.
Back upstairs, he used the mop to clean the floors of all the closets, and he even pushed it under the bed the way Gramma did, before taking it back downstairs, displaying all the dust for inspection before Gramma took the mop outside to shake it. Dieter sat down at Gramma’s round kitchen table. “Auntie Kate, can I have cookies?”
“Of course you can, sweetheart,” she answered, handing him a small plate with three small, brown disks covered with white icing. He immediately took a bite and then another.
“Auntie Kate, are you my real aunt?” Dieter asked as she set a glass of milk in front of him.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she replied, and Dieter took a gulp of milk before swallowing everything.
“No, honey,” Gramma answered from behind him. “Katherine isn’t related to you by blood, but she loves you like you were her own. We both do.”
Dieter sputtered as he was kissed on the cheek by Auntie Kate, but he didn’t wipe it off like he normally would. “Then how come she lives here?”
“That’s a story I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand.” That was Gramma’s standard answer whenever she didn’t want to explain something. “But Auntie Kate was the housekeeper and saw your Gramps when he was born and your mama when she was born.” Gramma had told Dieter once that Auntie Kate was eighty-two, which was really old, even older than Gramma.
“And she saw me when I was borned?”
“I sure did, sweetheart,” Auntie Kate said, giving him a hug, rocking him back and forth as she did. “I sure did.” Dieter put his arms around her, hugging Aunt Kate back before returning his attention to what was really important—the cookies.
Once the plate was empty and the dishes whisked away, Dieter and Gramma sat on the sofa in the living room with one of the photo albums on their laps. Auntie Kate sat in a nearby chair knitting a pair of mittens that Dieter knew were probably for him for Christmas. But he’d learned already not to ask if things were for him. Gramma said it was selfish. Dieter opened the album, looking at the photographs. “Where’s the colors?”
“Pictures were only in black and white then,” Gramma said, and Dieter looked at the first picture.
“Who’s that?” He reached to touch the picture. But Gramma gently stopped his hand.
“That’s my father, your great-grandfather.” Gramma pointed to the picture next to it. “And that’s your great-grandmother.” She turned the page, and Dieter saw pictures of them sitting together on a small sofa in front of a painting. “Is that her?” Dieter pointed to the painting hanging just behind them.
“Yes, it is,” Gramma said softly, and Dieter looked at her, wondering what was wrong. He’d only seen her cry once, and that was at his mama and daddy’s funeral. Before he could ask any more questions, she turned the page, and Dieter saw more pictures of people. Gramma explained who everyone was, and Dieter listened, committing what Gramma said to memory as best he could. “What happened to them?” he asked, turning back to the first page of the album.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Gramma told him, and he looked into her eyes, about two seconds from asking again, but stopped himself and turned back to the photo album. She turned to the page where they’d left off and began telling stories about what it was like growing up, and Dieter wondered what it would be like to live in these pictures. After a while, Dieter lost interest in the pictures and slid off the sofa.
“Can I go outside?” he asked, looking out the living room windows.
“Yes, you may,” Gramma answered, “but stay where we can see you, and don’t go near the street.”
“I won’t,” Dieter promised as he pulled open the front hall closet door, pulling his coat off the hook before shrugging it on.
“Come here, sweetheart,” Auntie Kate said, and he walked to her. She made sure he was all zipped up before giving him a hug. “Have fun.”
Dieter ran through the house and out the back door. Rushing into the garage, he carefully worked his bike out from next to Gramma’s car. He had to be careful of the training wheels, but as soon as it was free, he hopped on and rode down the short driveway and onto the sidewalk in front of Gramma’s East Side Milwaukee home. Auntie Kate had given him the bike for Christmas. The tag had said it was from Santa, but Dieter knew better. He’d heard Gramma and Auntie Kate fighting over it when they thought he’d gone to bed.
“It’s too dangerous for him to have a bike in this neighborhood. What if he gets hurt?” his grandmother had said, as Dieter snuck down the stairs on his butt so he wouldn’t make noise.
“What are you gonna do, Gertrude? Wrap him in cotton and wool? He’s a little boy, and he needs to act like it,” Auntie Kate had said. “So he’s getting a bike for Christmas if I have to walk to the store to get it.” A door had shut hard, and Dieter had slid back up the stairs, and a month later, he found a bike under the Christmas tree. Regardless if the card said “Santa” on it, he knew his Auntie Kate had given him his most prized possession, and he loved her for it.
Dieter rode on the grass to turn around before pedaling as fast as he could back toward Gramma’s. “Hey, baby!” He heard from behind him, and Dieter pedaled faster, but he was stopped anyway. “Nice bike, little baby.”
“Leave me alone, Billy,” Dieter said indignantly as he tried once again to pedal away.
“I want to ride your bike!” Billy said, and he began to push Dieter toward the grass.
“No. Leave me alone.” Then he was falling and Dieter found himself on the grass, and Billy was on his bike riding away. Dieter jumped up and began to chase him, but he was too slow, and his bike got farther away.
“That’s enough, Billy!” Dieter heard someone call from up ahead, and Billy stopped. Dieter saw someone approach his bike and saw Billy jump off his bike and run away. As Dieter got closer, he saw Tyler standing next to his bike, smiling at him. “Are you okay?” Tyler asked, and Dieter nodded, smiling as he touched his bike. Tyler turned it around for him and helped Dieter get back on. “You have fun, okay?”
Dieter nodded again. “Thank you, Tyler.”
“You’re welcome,” Tyler told him, and Dieter waved before riding away, back toward Gramma’s. Tyler was one of the big kids in the neighborhood. Dieter didn’t know how old he was, but Tyler stayed sometimes with Mrs. O’Connor, a friend of his grandmother’s, and Tyler was always nice to him. Dieter continued riding up and down the sidewalk, waving to Tyler whenever he passed, and Tyler waved back as he cut stuff away from the bushes in front of Mrs. O’Connor’s house, making them round instead of pointy.
Once he got tired, Dieter rode his bike back down the driveway to the garage, carefully putting his bike away, taking care not to scratch Gramma’s car. After closing the garage door, he hurried inside and took off his coat. “Don’t forget to hang that up,” Auntie Kate reminded him.
“I will,” Dieter said, walking to the closet and hanging his coat on the hook that was at his level. Closing the door, he walked into the living room. Gramma still sat on the sofa with the photo album on her lap. Dieter scooted up next to her, looking where she was at the picture of her mama and papa. “Do you miss them?” His grandmother nodded. “Like I miss my mama and papa?” Dieter said as he leaned against her side, closing his eyes to try to hold back the tears that came sometimes.
Gramma set the album on the coffee table, and Dieter found himself gathered into her arms and held tight. “I know you miss them,” she soothed him. “I miss them too.”
Dieter lifted his head off her shoulder, looking at the book. “Was your mama pretty?”
“Yes, she was. Very pretty,” Gramma told him.
“So are you, Gramma,” Dieter said, hugging her again. “Where is the painting now?”
“It’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time.”
Just like his mama and papa.
Chapter OneDIETER parked his gram’s old green Toyota in the only parking space he could find. Getting out of the car and dropping a few quarters in the meter, Dieter hurried down the sidewalk. Thankfully, the meters were free after six, so he only had to pay for a little more than an hour. Approaching the wine store, Dieter pushed open the front door, entering near pandemonium. There were customers everywhere. Dieter saw Sean helping customers, and he hurried to the office, dropping his jacket on the futon before returning to the sales floor. “Young man,” an older lady said as she approached him. “I need a case of this,” she said, pointing to the wine they’d been featuring, “but everyone’s so busy.”
“No problem. Let me check in the back to make sure we have an unopened case, and I’ll be right back.” Dieter walked to the stock area, locating the last full case of the Cabernet she’d requested. Placing it on a cart, he wheeled it up to the register area, setting it out of the way before returning to the customer. “I have your case by the register for you,” Dieter told her, and she began handing him loose bottles, which he carried to a table behind the register. Dieter continued to help her until she was ready to check out. He thanked her before moving on to help another customer find a special Chardonnay that wasn’t too oaky.
After a good hour or so, the flow of customers diminished, and Dieter was able to catch his breath. “You didn’t have to come in,” Sean said from behind him. “I understand that you’ve got a lot to do.”
The work and being busy had pushed his grief aside for a while, but now it threatened to come forward again. “I needed to get out of the house and do things that are normal.”
Sean nodded slowly. “I’m sorry about your grandmother. She was a special lady,” Sean told him seriously.
“I wanted to thank you and Sam for coming to the funeral. It meant a lot. She outlived most of her friends, but it was still sad to see so few people there.” His grandmother’s funeral had no more than a few dozen attendees. It had been small and solemn, especially for Dieter. Leaning quietly against the counter, Dieter felt the sadness and loneliness of the last week begin to catch up with him.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do?”
Dieter shivered slightly. “About some things. Gram left me everything, including the house. I haven’t decided if I’m going to sell it or not yet, but the place needs to be cleaned out, and there are things I’m not sure what to do with.”
“You know you don’t need to make these decisions now,” Sean cautioned, and Dieter nodded his head blankly.
“I know, but the entire place reminds me of her, and it needs so much work. I’d like to fix it up, but I don’t have the money to do some of the repairs that are needed.” Dieter had started making a list, and he’d been a bit overwhelmed by what he’d come up with. “Some of them I can do, but some are going to be really expensive. The attic is full of stuff, and some of it looks really old, but I’m not sure what to do with it.”
“What about school? You still have a year left, right?”
“Yeah. I have the money for tuition,” Dieter told Sean. “Gram put all the money my parents left when they died in a fund for me. All those years, she never used a cent of it for herself.” Dieter reached across the counter and grabbed a napkin, using it to wipe his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he added, embarrassed at his display.
“Like I said, your grandmother was quite a lady. You know, when she was in the store once, she told me that her greatest wish was to see you graduate from college. I thought she’d make it, too. She was a force to be reckoned with right up until the end.”
Dieter sniffed and wiped his eyes again before stuffing the napkin in his pocket. “She told me that too. Before she died, she made me promise I would finish regardless of what happened to her.” She’d had a stroke, and at the end she could barely talk, but she’d made her wishes abundantly clear to Dieter. “At least she went quickly and didn’t linger. She always said that was what she wanted.” The door to the store opened, and Dieter excused himself before going to greet the customer. He needed something to think about other than Gram’s death.
Even keeping himself plenty busy for most of the evening, Dieter still found his mind turning to his loss. Gram had been the only family he’d had left, and now she was gone. Auntie Kate had passed away a few years ago, and Dieter still felt her loss as well. Those two women had raised and cared for him for as long as he could remember. He had vague memories of his mother and father, but as far as Dieter was concerned, Gram and Auntie Kate were his parents.
“Dieter.” He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been filling that same location for ten minutes,” Sean told him without heat. “It’s slowed down now. Why don’t you finish up, and we can talk if you’d like.”
Dieter emptied the last bottles from the case into the display before breaking down the box and carrying it to the recycling area. “Giuli’s okay out front for a while,” Sean said as Dieter walked back by the office. “Come in and sit down.” Dieter sat on the futon, and Sean took the desk chair. “I know things can be a bit overwhelming right now, and if I can help, I will. You said there were things in the attic.”
“Tons. The thing is that some of it’s really old, and I don’t know what to do with any of it.”
“Well, that’s easy. Give Tyler a call and he’ll take a look. If there are things you want to sell, he’ll give you a fair price,” Sean advised, and Dieter wondered why he hadn’t thought of that before. “Doesn’t he live just down the street from you?”
“Yeah. He lives in the house that used to be his grandmother’s. I should have thought of that. I’ve known him since I was a kid.”
“You would have. You’re tired and overwhelmed. I want you to go home and get a good night’s sleep,” Sean admonished lightly. “You’ll think better when you’re not so wiped out.”
Dieter agreed but didn’t get up yet. “I was wondering if Bobby and Kenny were coming home from school this summer.”
“Kenny’s staying at school to take some summer classes, and Bobby’s spending part of the summer on an artist’s retreat. Regardless, you have a job here if you want it, and I’m planning a number of special events this summer, so we’ll be busy.”
“You’re welcome. Now go on home and get some rest,” Sean told him with a concerned smile, and Dieter got up, taking his jacket. He hadn’t slept well since before Gram’s stroke, and he was definitely feeling it.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Dieter said before leaving the office. After hugging Katie, Sean’s longtime salesperson and second in command, good-bye, Dieter walked to his car and drove home. He called it home, but to him, the house would always be Gram’s. Parking his car, Dieter got out and closed the door, peering up at the dark house he’d lived in for as long as he could remember.
“Dieter!” He looked around and saw Tyler coming down the sidewalk. “I wanted to see how you were doing,” Tyler told him as he approached.
“Okay, I guess,” he responded with a sigh. “I was going to call you tomorrow. There’s a bunch of stuff in the attic, and I don’t know what to do with it. Sean said you might be able to look it over and give me an idea what some of it is.”
“Do you want to sell, or are you looking for an appraisal?” Tyler asked.
“I want to fix up the house,” he said, looking at the front, where some of the paint had worn off.
“I understand,” Tyler told him. “I’m booked with appointments for the next two weeks, but I can look in my book in the morning and let you know when I can come by.”
“Oh,” Dieter said. He knew he should be patient, but if he got some of the money together, he might be able to get some of the projects done during the summer while he wasn’t in class.
Tyler must have read the disappointment on his face. “Come on, then. Mark is still working, so I have an hour. Let’s go take a look.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve known you since you came to live with your grandma. I’ll help you any way I can.” Dieter’s fatigue seemed to slip away as he led Tyler up the walk. “You know, I can still remember you riding your bike with the training wheels up and down the sidewalk.”
“Thanks, I think,” Dieter replied as he unlocked the door, and he heard Tyler laugh.
“Come on, let’s go look for treasure,” Tyler told him as he turned on the lights. Dieter led the way up the stairs and then opened the attic door. Gram had always kept the door locked, and it had been the devil for Dieter to find the key.
Dust motes floated in the air as Dieter turned on the light, leading Tyler up the steep, narrow stairway. At the top of the stairs, he got out of the way and let Tyler look. “Jesus, you weren’t kidding. It looks like there’s eight lifetimes of stuff up here,” Tyler told him as he began moving through a narrow winding aisle created by breaks between all the stuff. “Where did this come from? Your grandmother never seemed like the type to collect things like this,” Tyler inquired as Dieter watched him peer around a trunk.
“Gram said Gramps kept dragging things home. She made him put anything she didn’t like up here. Until she died, I doubt anyone had been up here in years.” Dieter walked to where Tyler was kneeling next to a trunk. “Did you find something?”
“I think so, yes,” Tyler answered without looking up.
“That’s just an old trunk,” Dieter said, already moving away.
“No, it’s not,” Tyler explained as he pulled the trunk into the aisle. “Would you give me a hand?” Dieter helped him lift it. “It seems really heavy. Do you think we can get this down the stairs? I’d like to take a better look at it, and I can barely breathe up here.”
Dieter took one side and Tyler took the other. Carefully, they carried the heavy wooden box down the narrow stairs, setting it on the landing. Dieter turned off the light and shut the attic door. “Do you really think this is anything?”
Tyler nodded, smiling broadly. “You see the interlaced iron work on the top? That’s all handmade, and look at the lock.” Tyler pointed to the front of the trunk and lifted the iron cover.
“There’s no hole,” Dieter said, confused.
“That’s because the lock isn’t on the front. That’s a trick.” Tyler opened a small hidden iron flap on the top. “It’s lucky you have the key,” Tyler commented as he untied the thong that held the key on and inserted it into the hole. “There’s nothing delicate about opening this,” Tyler said as he strained to turn the key. At first, Dieter didn’t think it would work, but the key turned almost all the way around, and then Tyler lifted the lid on the box.
“It’s empty,” Dieter commented, really disappointed. He’d hoped there would be something interesting inside.
“Yes, but that doesn’t really matter,” Tyler explained. “It’s the trunk that’s important. See the lock?” he said as he lifted the lid. “That is the lock, the whole underside of the lid. It’s all hand done and between four and five hundred years old.”
Dieter’s eyes bugged out of his head. “It’s how old?”
“This is a real treasure chest. It’s continental, probably Spanish, I’d say, based on the decoration, and it could very well have been used to haul gold from the Americas back to Spain. This is an amazing find and probably worth six to eight thousand dollars. And I saw other things up there that could be interesting as well.”
Dieter felt his mouth hang open. At first he thought he’d heard Tyler wrong, but he saw Tyler’s smile. “I’m not kidding. I have to tell you that if you want me to buy the piece, I can’t give you that because that’s what I could sell it for, but if you want to sell it, let me know. But don’t make a decision right away. Think it over.”
Dieter could barely speak and simply nodded as Tyler helped him move the chest into one of the bedrooms. He led Tyler down the stairs and into the living room, feeling less worried than he had since Gram got sick. “Thank you, Tyler.”
“You’re welcome,” Tyler answered, looking at one of Gram’s photo albums on the table.
“Those were Gram’s. I was looking at them last night,” Dieter explained, picking up the one album to close the cover.
“Do you mind if I look at that?” Tyler asked, and Dieter handed him the album, moving to peer over Tyler’s shoulder.
“That’s Gram’s parents,” Dieter said, pointing, “and that’s Gram. That was taken in their house before the war.” Tyler looked at him and then back at the photograph. “The painting behind them on the wall is Gram’s mother.”
Tyler stared at the photograph for a while longer before closing the album. “I’d like to ask a favor. I’d like Mark to see this. I promise I’ll get it back to you tomorrow. Okay?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No. There are just some pictures that I know Mark would love to see. I’ll bring it back.”
“Okay, and I’ll think about the chest and let you know when I see you,” Dieter said as he walked Tyler to the door. After saying good night one more time, he closed and locked the door before walking back into the living room. Dieter sat down in one of the large chairs, the quiet of the house becoming almost oppressive. Over the past week, there were times when he’d wanted nothing more than to sell the house and move someplace that wasn’t so full of memories. Everywhere he looked he saw Gram. Her chair was right across the room from where he sat. He hadn’t had the heart to sit in it. Gram had taken care of him, and in a way she still was. He knew he couldn’t bear to sell the house, but he also knew he had to make it his or he’d never be able to move on. Reaching to the coffee table, Dieter picked up the photo album that Tyler hadn’t borrowed and began to thumb through it. He smiled at the pictures of Gram and Gramps. He didn’t really remember him, but he could see how happy he’d made Gram. There were even a few pictures of Auntie Kate. The one he liked best was a picture of her holding his mother. Even then she looked old.
Placing the album back on the coffee table, Dieter decided it was time for bed. He’d try to rest. The wine store didn’t open till noon, and he could sleep in before going to work. Dieter turned out the lights before walking up the stairs and down the hall to his bedroom, the one that had been his since he’d come to live with Gram. He passed Auntie Kate’s room, still made up as though she lived there. He passed Gram’s, too, its door closed because he couldn’t think about going in there without her, at least not yet.
Dieter went into his room, closing the door behind him. This was the one place in the house where he didn’t feel like Gram was going to walk into the room at any minute. Turning on the light, Dieter stripped off his clothes and put on his bathrobe, the one Gram had gotten him last Christmas, before padding to the bathroom to clean up.
Showered and clean, Dieter went back to his room and climbed under the covers, hoping that sleep would come. But all he did was lie there, staring at the ceiling. Gram was gone, Auntie Kate was gone, and so were his parents. Dieter was the last of his family, and he felt very much alone. Rolling onto his side, he closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep.
DIETER woke the way he always did on a Sunday morning, listening for Gram’s footsteps, but of course he heard nothing. Sighing softly, he closed his eyes once again and fell back to sleep, waking again with the sun shining through the window. Sean had been right—Dieter felt better after a good sleep. Pushing back the covers, he got dressed and checked the clock before cleaning up and preparing to go to work.
By the time he made it downstairs, it was too late for breakfast, not that he really wanted any. There were certain things he’d always miss, and Gram’s breakfast was one of them. Retrieving his jacket from where he’d thrown it over the back of one of the chairs, Dieter left the house, locking the door before strolling down the walk to his car. He felt as though a cloud had parted and everything was going to be okay. Getting into the car, Dieter started the engine and eased out of his parking space and onto the quiet street.
Dieter found a parking spot not far from Sommelier Wines. The store had a small parking lot, but Dieter tried to leave those spaces for customers, especially on weekends when the store was busiest. Walking to the front door, Dieter saw Sean inside working, and he rapped lightly on the door.
“You’re looking better,” Sean told him as he held the door open. “You must have gotten some sleep.”
“I did, and I talked to Tyler about the stuff in Gram’s attic. He came over last night and looked around. You won’t believe this, but he says that there’re some great things up there, and he already found a real treasure chest. It’s from the sixteen hundreds or something. You should come see it. The thing’s really cool.”
“Have you decided what you’re going to do with it?”
“Yeah, Gram said the things in the attic were mostly stuff Gramps dragged home, so I’m going to sell what I can so I can fix up the house.” Dieter fidgeted a little. “And I think I need to make it look less like Gram’s.”
“Good,” Sean told him as he relocked the door. “If you want to stay in the house, you need to make it your own. Otherwise it’s just a memorial to your grandmother, and you’ll never be able to move on. But like I said last night, take your time,” Sean cautioned. Dieter appreciated Sean’s concern. Walking through the store, Dieter put his jacket in the office before getting right to work.
“Dieter, I’m opening the doors,” Sean told him, and Dieter finished up his task, taking the empty boxes to the back and making sure there were no obstacles on the sales floor. A few customers trickled in and began to wander through the store. Sean greeted them and offered a tasting while Dieter continued filling shelves. As the store got busier, Dieter stopped filling and went into customer-service mode, helping people with their purchases.
Later in the afternoon, Dieter saw Sean’s partner, Sam, walk into the store, looking handsome in his police uniform. At one time, Dieter had had a bit of an infatuation with Sam, but he’d gotten over it. “Hey, Dieter, how are you holding up?” Sam asked after he’d greeted Sean with a quick kiss.
“I’m okay,” he answered. It had become his stock answer, but he was starting to feel as though he truly would be. “It’s getting easier.”
“You know if you need anything or just want to talk, either Sean or I will listen and do whatever we can.” Sam looked so serious but caring at the same time.
Sam squeezed his shoulder before returning to Sean. Dieter saw them talking quietly for a few minutes, and then Sam said good-bye and waved before leaving the store.
During a lull in the afternoon, Sean ordered sandwiches, and they took turns eating before returning to work and helping customers for the rest of the day.
Near closing time, Dieter saw Tyler and his partner, Mark, enter the store, with Mark carrying Gram’s photo album like it was a precious relic. Sean greeted them, and they talked for a few minutes before all three of them walked to where Dieter was just finishing with a customer. “Tyler and I have something we’d like to talk to you about,” Mark said very seriously. “Would you mind coming to the studio after work? It’s important.”
Dieter looked to Sean, who looked confused, and then to Tyler, who looked as serious as Mark did. “Okay,” Dieter answered slowly, wondering what was wrong. He felt just like he had the day Gram found a certain magazine under his mattress.
“It’s not bad,” Tyler clarified, “but it is important.”
“I’ll walk down after the store closes, if that’s okay,” Dieter answered, becoming curious as to what they wanted to talk about and what Gram’s photo album had to do with it. Mark and Tyler seemed pleased, and smiled. Mark continued holding the album, and after they purchased a bottle of wine, Mark and Tyler left, with Mark still carrying Gram’s album. It looked sort of like he didn’t want to let it go.
For that last half hour, Dieter kept wondering what Mark and Tyler could want with him, and by the time the store closed, Dieter was jumpy, his nerves getting the best of him. “It’s okay,” Sean told him as he closed the door. “I’ll come with you if you want.”
“Thanks, Sean, but I’ll be fine. I’m just wondering what they could want.”
“They didn’t tell me,” Sean said as he emptied the money from the register, carrying it to the back. “Go on and find out. Sam is taking me to dinner, and he’ll be here soon. He and I can drop the deposit on our way.” Sean had a rule about two people going to the bank with deposits.
“If you’re sure.”
“Go on, you look about ready to explode.”
“Thanks, Sean,” Dieter said as he grabbed his jacket. He heard Sean chuckle from behind him as they walked to the front door and Sean let him out, locking the door once he was outside. Dieter hurried down the sidewalk, walking the short distance to where Tyler had his antique store.
Tyler seemed to be watching for him and opened the door as he approached. Dieter had walked by the store a number of times before, but he’d never been inside. Tyler closed the door behind him. A small dog, curled up in a doggie bed, lifted its head and barked softly. “Jolie, be good,” Tyler scolded, and the miniature dachshund got up and padded toward Dieter to investigate him. He let her sniff his hand and gave her a few gentle strokes. Satisfied, she turned and went back to curl up in her bed again.
Tyler led the way through displays of bedrooms and living rooms, the store largely dark, but a number of things still caught Dieter’s eye as they made their way toward the back of the store. “Where are we going?”
“Mark has a studio in the back of the store, and he wants to talk to you there,” Tyler answered as he led them through a door in the back room. Tyler’s partner, Mark, was quite a famous artist. Dieter had seen a few of his pieces when he was at Sean’s. Mark had done an amazing portrait of Sean’s son, Bobby, that hung in Sean’s living room. Tyler opened a large door, and the scent of paint obliterated everything else. Mark sat on a stool behind an easel, brush in hand, his attention so riveted on what he was doing that he didn’t even look up when the door opened.
Dieter looked at Tyler, about to ask what was going on, but he stopped when he saw the warm, soft look on Tyler’s face. Dieter closed his mouth and stood silently, watching Mark work for a few minutes. “Oh, you’re here,” Mark said once he lifted his eyes from the canvas. “I get busy and don’t hear anything,” he explained as he set aside his palette. “Let me clean up a minute, and I’ll be right back.” Mark picked up his supplies, hurrying out of the studio, and Dieter stepped further into the large area. Paintings and canvases leaned against the far wall. One caught Dieter’s eye, and he stepped closer to take a look. Mark rejoined them a few minutes later, and Dieter stepped away from the painting, curiously looking toward Mark.
“Dieter,” Mark started to say as he pulled a stool up to a rudimentary table that lined the side wall, “I know we were a bit mysterious when we talked earlier, but I thought this was something we should talk about privately.” Tyler pulled up a chair as well, and Mark set Dieter’s grandmother’s photo album in front of him. “I have a few questions for you that I hope will confirm my suspicions.”
“What is this about?” Dieter asked, placing his hand on the album. “And what does this have to do with Gram’s pictures?”
“I’ll explain everything I suspect, I promise,” Mark told him, and Dieter nodded, his eyes focused on Mark.
“Did your grandmother ever tell you the names of her parents?” Mark asked him, and Dieter could tell he was quite excited.
Dieter opened the cover of the photo album, turning to the page that had the picture he wanted. “Gram said their last name was Meinauer. This is Gram’s dad, Joseph, and this is her mother, Anna. That’s Gram sitting between them.”
Mark’s excitement seemed to ramp up, and Dieter saw him glance toward Tyler. “Did she ever tell you what happened to them?”
“Gram said her mother died after she’d been sick for a while. After that she said her father wasn’t the same. She told me that when she was about twelve, her dad came to her after she had already gone to bed and told her to be very quiet. She said he led her through the house and out the servants’ door. They got into a car and made their way through the streets. She told me her father took her out of Austria just ahead of the Germans. Gram told me stories of how they survived in Switzerland during most of the war. She said they were lucky because her father managed to take some of his wealth with him, at least enough that they were able to live during the war. Her father died still in Switzerland after the war, and she came to the US where she met Gramps.”
Mark appeared to listen intently. “Do you know who this is in this painting?” Mark pointed to the one hanging on the wall above them in the picture.
“Yes. That’s Gram’s mother. Gram said she was a real socialite and spent a lot of time with artists and writers. Gram said her mother had commissioned that painting for her father. But it was lost in the war,” Dieter explained, remembering how Gram had said that everything from her family was gone except these pictures. “She told me that these photos were in the bags her father packed when they left Vienna. Why?”
Mark seemed to get more excited and pulled out a heavy book from the stack on the table. “Does this look familiar?” Mark turned to a page with a piece of paper in it, letting the book fall open.
“That’s…,” Dieter stammered as he looked at the full color plate and then back at the photograph in Gram’s album. “That’s her. That’s Gram’s mother.” Dieter could hardly believe it. “But Gram said it was gone.”
“Maybe gone to her, but the painting survived,” Mark explained. “This painting is entitled Portrait of Anna and is by a very famous Austrian artist named August Pirktl. I looked through your photo album, and I was able to identify four other paintings by Pirktl in the backgrounds. All of these paintings are in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.” Mark closed the book. “Dieter, you need to know that Portrait of Anna is also known as The Lady in Blue and is world famous. This painting,” he said, pointing to the photograph in Gram’s album, “is one of the most important paintings of the early twentieth century and is considered an Austrian national treasure. I had a poster of the painting on my dorm room wall when I was at art school.”
“Oh.” Dieter didn’t know what else to say.
“I did some more research online, and there are a number of sources that say that the painting was confiscated during the war and that it was given by the Nazis to the Belvedere. These other four paintings I was able to identify by Pirktl are also hanging in the Belvedere.”
“What are you saying?” Dieter asked, as Mark looked like he was about to bounce off the chair.
“I’m saying that these paintings may not belong to the Belvedere. If the Nazis confiscated them and gave them to the museum, then the museum may not own them.”
“Then who does?” Dieter asked.
Artistic Appeal #2
BRIAN arrived home from the office later than usual, thankful that day was behind him. “Zoe,” he called, and he heard footsteps scurry along the upstairs hallway before clambering down the stairs, the sound reverberating through the small, old house.
“Daddy,” she squealed as she jumped into his arms, and Brian twirled her around as he hugged his daughter to peals of laughter. “I got an A in math today, and I learned how to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” She sang as she spelled, and Brian smiled as he listened before twirling her again.
“Where’s Aunt Georgia?” Brian asked.
“She’s upstairs playing Mario Kart. You can play too,” Zoe told him, and Brian set her down, following her upstairs as she dragged him by the hand. As he got closer to Zoe’s playroom, he heard the sounds of engines and crashes followed by quiet swearing.
“Georgia, please don’t swear around Zoe,” Brian said as he entered the room where his younger sister was holding a plastic steering wheel, frantically turning it and pushing buttons while she swore under her breath.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” Zoe cried as she jumped onto the sofa, “I know I shouldn’t say words like shit, fuck, and ass.” Brian watched as it took Zoe a second before she realized those words had crossed her lips, and then her hands clamped over her mouth and she stared at Brian.
Brian glared at his daughter and then at his sister, who at least had the grace to put down the game controller and look appalled. “I’ll deal with both of you later,” he growled before walking into the bathroom and closing the door, and then bursting into laughter. Brian held his sides as he tried not to make too much noise and give himself away, but he just couldn’t help it. It took him a few minutes to get himself under control. After using the facilities, he washed his hands and opened the bathroom door. The house seemed quiet, the whirr of the game silent. Walking into the playroom, he saw Zoe sitting on the sofa with his Georgia next to her. They were reading together, looking angelic. Brian wasn’t fooled for a second. “Zoe.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said, running into his arms. “I didn’t mean to really say those words.”
“I know,” he said, glaring at his sister, “and if someone didn’t swear like a sailor, you wouldn’t have heard them.”
Georgia rolled her eyes, but had the decency to at least look contrite. “Gerald from your office called just before you got home to remind you about the party tomorrow night, and he said to tell you to stop by early.”
“Kimmy called too,” Zoe told him, squirming to get down. “She asked if I could stay the night tomorrow. Can I pleeease?” She jumped up and down to show her extra-special excitement.
“Do you want to go to Kimmy’s or to see Uncle Gerald and Uncle Dieter? Remember that tomorrow is their Christmas party. This year they even sent you your own invitation in the mail,” Brian reminded her and waited for her answer.
“Can I go to Kimmy’s on Sunday?”
“If her mother says it’s all right,” Brian answered, pleased with his daughter’s choice.
“I’ll call and find out.” Zoe was gone and down the stairs before Brian could tell her to wait until after dinner. Giving up on that front, he turned to Georgia.
“I know, I know,” she said, trying to diffuse the situation. “You don’t have to lecture me. Mom does that plenty.”
“Then stop acting like you need to be lectured. Zoe adores you and hangs on every word you say. When you’re not here it’s ‘Aunt Georgia’ this and ‘Aunt Georgia says’ that. She listens and she watches everything. For example, she told me about seeing you kissing another girl after you left last night.” Brian sat on the sofa next to her and watched as Georgia bristled like a porcupine. “Now, before you get all bent out of shape, I explained to her that some girls like boys and some girls like other girls, just like some boys like other boys. Do you know what she asked me?” Georgia shook her head. “She asked, ‘Is Aunt Georgia a lesbian?’”
“What did you say?” she asked, her arms folded defiantly over her chest.
“I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know. Are you?”
“Mom will freak,” Georgia answered. “Are you gonna freak too?”
Brian wouldn’t be put off and used his lawyerly court voice. “Just answer my question.”
“Good God,” Georgia responded, rolling her eyes. “Yes, okay, I’m a lesbian. That’s enough of the third degree. I’m going home so Mom can give me grief about the fact that I’m not engaged yet.” Georgia stomped toward the door.
“Hey,” Brian said, a little more sharply than he meant, and then he softened his tone. “You need to be who you are, not what Mom wants you to be.”
“You mean you’re not going to give me shit, I mean crap, about it?” She actually seemed shocked.
“Hardly.” Brian looked around, listening for Zoe, but heard nothing. “Glass houses and all that,” he responded.
“What does that mean? Mom doesn’t blame you for the divorce. Barbara the bitch was the one who cheated.”
“This has nothing to do with her,” Brian said, wondering why he was defending his ex-wife. He could simply let Georgia think that was it. “I married her because she was pregnant with Zoe. I was young and thought it was the right thing to do.” Brian was interrupted by Zoe’s footsteps banging on the stairs. For a little girl, she made more noise than anyone Brian had ever heard.
“Kimmy’s mom said Sunday was okay,” Zoe pronounced happily, and Brian made a mental note to call her as Zoe jumped on the sofa.
“We don’t put our feet on the furniture,” Brian reminded her, and she slid down.
“Uncle Dieter called, and I asked him if he was going to have the candy-cane tree this year, and he said yes.” She jumped off the sofa before throwing herself into his arms. “He also said to tell you that they have someone they would like you to meet.” Zoe gave him a hug and then got down, powering up her Wii. Brian tried to shake off Dieter’s message, but he could still feel a flutter of excitement inside. When he looked at Georgia, she had an “Oh my God” look on her face, and then she smiled and nodded slowly.
“I have to go,” she told him before hugging him tightly. “Have fun tomorrow,” she said and then whispered in his ear, “I get the feeling this isn’t a girl they want you to meet.” Georgia looked him in the eye for a second before she smiled and hugged him again. “Mom is going to shit a cow.”
Georgia jumped back and laughed as she hurried downstairs, and Brian heard her call her good-byes, then the front door closed. “I’m hungry,” Zoe pronounced without looking up from her game.
“Then put everything away, put your shoes on, and shut down your game, and we’ll go out for dinner,” Brian told her, and she nodded, but continued playing. “Zoe, I could always cook.”
Zoe looked at him like he’d just scratched the needle over a record. The game was turned off and the controller put away, and she suddenly became a tornado, cleaning up her toys. Then she bounded into her room to put on her shoes and socks. Brian walked to his bedroom to change his clothes. By the time he walked down the stairs, Zoe was waiting for him—they both knew his cooking was terrible. Turning off the lights, Brian locked the house and they headed for the car.
“ZOE, are you ready to go to the party?” Brian asked as he pulled on what he hoped was a nice sweater. The one thing that Barbara had always had was good taste in clothes, and she’d always made sure he looked appropriate for every occasion. But since their divorce, he’d sort of been winging it, and sometimes not very successfully.
“Yes,” Zoe said from the door to his bedroom. He looked at her and she began to giggle. “You look funny, Daddy.”
“Why?” He looked down at himself. Plain shirt, dark dress slacks, nice sweater that didn’t look out of place.
“Your socks,” she said, giggling, and he lifted his pant legs, realizing he’d left on the white socks from earlier in the day. Hurrying, he toed off his shoes and replaced the white with black socks.
Zoe nodded her head, and Brian held out his hand. After turning out the light, they headed downstairs together as the phone began to ring. Brian debated answering it, but did so anyway. He regretted it as soon as he did.
“Brian.” She sounded rushed.
“Hello, Barbara.” She had wonderful timing, if nothing else.
“I’ll be picking Zoe up tomorrow morning first thing,” his ex-wife commanded.
“No, you won’t. She’s going to Kimmy’s tomorrow, and we have plans in the evening,” Brian explained levelly.
“But it’s my weekend, and I want to see her.” Barbara only ever wanted to see Zoe when it was convenient for her.
“Last weekend was your weekend, but you asked me to take her because you were going out of town with what’s-his-name. This is my weekend, and you will have her again next weekend,” Brian responded firmly as he watched the excitement flow out of Zoe, his daughter moving closer to one of the walls for support. “She’s made plans for tomorrow, and I’m not disappointing her.”
“I’ll get my lawyer to call the judge,” she threatened, and Brian stifled a laugh.
“Please do,” he retorted before placing his hand over the phone. “Zoe, go upstairs while I talk to your mother for a few minutes. And don’t worry, I’m not letting her change your plans for tomorrow.” He tried to be pleasant to Zoe even as he seethed at her mother. Slowly, Zoe climbed the stairs, and Brian returned to Barbara. “Now you listen,” he said once Zoe was out of earshot. “I have kept track of every changed visitation, every time you’ve complained that you couldn’t take Zoe for whatever reason, and I will use that plus your whoring around against you. Remember, you already lost joint custody. Keep it up, and next I’ll request supervised visitation.”
The scream he got through the phone would peel wallpaper. “You wouldn’t!”
“As I said, you have Zoe next weekend. I’ll call you during the week to make arrangements. Now, we have a party this evening, and she’s going to Kimmy’s tomorrow. Good-bye, Barbara.” Brian hung up the phone, wondering, not for the first time, how he’d managed to stay married to her for so long and why he hadn’t realized what a harpy she was.
“Zoe, honey,” Brian called, “let’s go to the party.” He kept his voice happy, even though he wanted to wring Barbara’s neck.
“Am I still going to Kimmy’s, or do I have to go with Mommy?”
“You’re going to Kimmy’s tomorrow, and next weekend you’re with Mommy.” Brian walked over to where she stood on the third step, and she jumped into his arms. “Now let’s go see Uncle Dieter and Uncle Gerald.” Brian laughed as he whisked her off her feet and out the door, Barbara’s drama soon forgotten as they climbed into the car.
The drive from the northern Milwaukee suburbs to the East Side, where Dieter and Gerald lived, took awhile. As they rode, Zoe watched for Christmas lights, her face nearly plastered to the glass of the backseat window. “Look,” she said, pointing just down the street as they pulled up to Gerald and Dieter’s house.
“That’s their neighbors. They will be at the party, and I bet you could get Uncle Dieter to take you over there if you ask nicely.” Brian turned off the engine, and he heard Zoe unfasten her seat belt. Brian got out and opened her door, letting her walk in front of him as they navigated their way to the front door and rang the bell.
“Uncle Dieter,” Zoe cried as the door swung open, and she rushed forward to get a hug. Gerald was right behind and he got a hug as well before their coats were taken upstairs. “Where’s the candy tree?” she asked excitedly, and Dieter took her hand and led her into the living room where Brian heard a gasp. “There’s lollipops too!”
“Yes, and you can have a candy cane now, and when you go home, I promise you can have some lollipops. I have a special bag all set aside for you.”
Brian joined them in the living room in time to see Zoe take a candy cane off the enormously tall tree that seemed to have more lights on it than Brian thought humanly possible.
“Brian, would you like a drink?” Gerald asked from behind him.
“Please,” Brian answered as he followed him into the kitchen. “So, did you enjoy your day off yesterday?” Brian asked after Gerald handed him a glass of red wine.
“Yes. But we spent most of the day getting ready for the party,” Gerald answered with a grin. Technically, Brian was Gerald’s managing partner at the law firm, but over the past year, since he’d had the courage to tell Gerald he was gay, Gerald and his partner Dieter had become very good friends with Brian.
“So, Brian,” Dieter said from behind him, “have you heard anything about the appeal?”
“Yes, just yesterday, as a matter of fact. The hearing is scheduled for early February.” Dieter’s great-grandfather and his daughter had escaped from Austria just ahead of the Nazis. His great-grandfather had had a sizable art collection, including four landscapes as well as a portrait of his wife, Anna, painted by August Pirktl, a well-known Austrian painter. Those five paintings were the subject of a lawsuit against the Austrians that Gerald won for Dieter. The decision was now being appealed, as they had known it would be, and both Gerald and Dieter had asked Brian to handle the appeal. Gerald felt he was too close to the situation to handle it properly. Brian had been honored, and with Gerald’s initial success had come a string of art-recovery cases that had kept Gerald and Brian busy enough that they had both become top producers at the firm. There was even talk of making Gerald a partner already.
“That’s really good.” Dieter was pleased but cautious. They’d already spent a year waiting for the appeal hearing. “I’m trying not to get too excited because I know even if we win, it’ll be appealed again.”
“It’s all a step in the process.”
“I know,” Dieter answered, and Brian wished all his clients could be as understanding and patient as Dieter. “Gerald and I are planning a trip back to Vienna this summer, and we wanted to ask if you and Zoe here would like to go along.” The doorbell rang, and Dieter excused himself, taking Zoe with him.
“Dieter has been corresponding with the family that owns the house his great-grandparents lived in. It’s now a small hotel, and we’re planning to stay there. They said in one of their letters that they found some things in the attic that might belong to his family, so he’s really excited,” Gerald explained. “And we thought if you wanted to go, we could see the city, take Zoe to a real palace, and you could see The Woman in Blue as well as the four landscapes that we’ve been fighting to get returned.”
“I’d like that,” Brian said before sipping from the glass. He hadn’t had a real vacation in years, and it would be good to take Zoe away.
Dieter returned with Zoe and another man. “Brian, this is Reed. He and I work together.” Dieter looked pleased with himself, and Reed smiled at him, extending his hand, and Brian shook it. “Why don’t you two go on into the living room while Zoe and I finish putting out the food,” Dieter said, scooting them out of the kitchen, and Brian knew he was truly being set up.
Following Reed, he walked into the living room. “Dieter has tried to set me up with you for the last three months,” Reed said with a laugh. “He’s so sweet.” Reed sipped from his glass. “He tells me you’re a lawyer.”
“Yes. I work with Gerald.” He left out the part about being his boss; that really wasn’t important. “He and I now handle cases that involve the return of stolen and looted art. It keeps us very busy.” Brian indicated the paintings on the walls. “These are some of the works we’ve recovered. So what do you do?”
“I’m a computer programmer,” Reed answered as he looked around the room. It was fairly obvious to Brian that Reed wasn’t particularly interested. Not that Brian had much experience, but there didn’t seem to be much of a connection. The doorbell rang, and since no one was nearby, Brian answered it, and Mark and Tyler from up the street walked inside. Brian had been to parties at Gerald and Dieter’s a few times, so he knew some of their friends. Brian said hello, and the doorbell rang again. More people arrived, and Dieter walked into the hall to greet them, and soon the house was filled with people. Brian had lost track of Reed, which seemed okay, since after awhile, he saw him speaking to another of Dieter and Gerald’s friends, and the two men seemed quite cozy.
“Hi, Daddy,” Zoe said from beside him.
“Are you having fun?” he asked his daughter, whose eyes seemed wide and her smile huge.
“Yes. They have great computer games, but I didn’t want you to be lonely.”
Brian lifted Zoe into his arms. “Thank you, honey. Did you want to show me the food you helped Uncle Dieter put out?” Brian put her down, and she led him into the dining room.
“Are you enjoying the party?” a voice said from behind Brian as he reached to get a plate. Brian turned and saw Reed smiling at him.
“Yes, very much,” Brian answered. “You?” From the smile on the man’s face standing next to him, Reed was definitely having a good time, or would be soon.
“Yes. Dieter and I have worked together for a few years, but this is the first time I’ve been able to attend one of his parties,” Reed answered getting a plate and handing it to his companion before taking one for himself. “This is Jonathon,” Reed said, introducing him before turning to his companion, “and this is Brian. He works with Gerald.” The two of them shook hands, and Jonathon smiled a little and said hello before following Reed around the table as he filled his plate. It looked like Jonathon was staying close in case Reed tried to get away.
Brian felt a twinge of disappointment for a few seconds as he watched them. Granted, Dieter had tried to fix up him and Reed, but Brian wasn’t really sure he was ready for anything, relationship or otherwise. He had Zoe, and she needed to come first. The divorce had been hard on her, especially with the way Barbara had gone off like she was free and really didn’t seem to take much interest in her own daughter except when it suited her. Brian knew Zoe had been hurt, and he’d done his best to try to make up for it.
“Daddy.” He heard Zoe’s voice cut through his thoughts, and he bent down so he could hear her over the other conversations. “What’s that man doing?”
Brian followed her gaze, looking toward the corner of the room, and saw two men standing together, motioning to each other with their hands. “They’re using sign language,” Brian explained without looking away. Their hand motions were so fluid, and the way they looked at each other made their connection seem so deep. Brian sighed softly, wishing he had that connection with someone else. Lord knew he’d never had it with Barbara. Not that he was surprised about that.
“Daddy,” Zoe said impatiently, and he looked away from the two men.
“Sorry, honey.” He turned to her and saw her huge blue eyes looking up at him. “They’re talking with one another using their hands.”
“Because at least one of them is deaf and can’t hear,” Brian explained to her, and she continued watching them, her plate dipping forward as her attention on it waned. Brian took the plate from her hand. “You shouldn’t stare, honey. It’s not nice. Let’s get something to eat and find a place to sit down.” Brian helped her with her food and placed two napkins in his pocket before finding a quiet place to sit.
In one corner of the living room, Brian found two chairs and helped Zoe get settled on the floor. She folded her legs beneath her pink dress, using the seat of the chair as a table once Brian had put down a napkin first. Zoe ate quietly, and Brian looked around the room, seeing Harold, the senior partner at the law firm, and his wife, Christine, talking with another couple.
“Is there anything I can get for you?” Dieter asked as he passed through the room.
“No, thank you, we’re good,” Brian answered with a smile after swallowing his bite of hummus. “Everything is delicious. Did you make it all yourself?” Brian knew that Dieter was a good cook, and Brian was a bit jealous because he burned water on a regular basis.
“Yes,” Dieter said with a pleased smile, looking at the fireplace. “Gram would roll over in her grave if I served store-bought food at a party.” Dieter chuckled, and Brian did as well, having heard the stories of the old-fashioned grandmother who had raised Dieter from the time his parents had died when he was four. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Daddy, I’m full,” Zoe pronounced before handing Brian her plate.
“You can take a lollipop off the tree,” Dieter told her, and Brian saw Zoe’s eyes go wide. “And I believe there’s a present under the tree for you.”
Brian watched as Dieter took Zoe to the tree. She chose one of the brightly colored lollipops, and then Dieter handed her a wrapped present. Brian saw her sit on the floor before tearing open the present, letting loose a squeal of delight that cut though every conversation in the house. “I love it. Thank you,” she said before hugging Dieter. Then Brian saw Zoe tear by him, carrying what looked like a DVD in her hand, and Brian followed her with his eyes. He heard Gerald’s voice and another, “Thank you, I love it.” Deciding his daughter was in good hands, Brian sat back and relaxed, talking to the people around him like an adult.
Over the past year, his main companion outside of work had been Zoe, and Brian hadn’t realized how much he missed adult company and conversation until he was deep in a conversation with Harold about his upcoming deep-sea fishing trip to Florida. God, it had been a long time since he’d simply talked to another adult.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Dieter said, and Brian and Harold paused their conversation. “I’m taking Zoe up to the television room so she can watch her video.”
“Thank you,” Brian said, grateful to his friend. Dieter left, and Brian and Harold continued their conversation. After a while, Harold excused himself and got up. Brian, deciding he wanted another glass of wine, walked through the house to the kitchen. The room was full of people, and Brian poured a glass of wine and was about to leave when he lightly bumped into another man. Pausing to excuse himself, Brian stopped and the tall man turned around. Bright blue eyes stared into Brian’s, and for one of the few times in his life, Brian stared open-mouthed, completely at a loss for words. This man was stunning, rather than beautiful, with piercing eyes that nearly made him flinch and deep black hair that shone in the light against his olive-toned skin. “I’m sorry,” Brian said, for bumping him, and the man smiled slightly, nodding his head before turning away.
People shifted in the kitchen as glasses were filled and new faces moved to the bar for refills. Brian made his way back into the living room and nearly bumped into Gerald, thankfully not spilling any of his wine. “Who’s the man over there with the dark hair?” Brian indicated the man he’d seen in the kitchen.
Gerald smiled at him. “That’s Nicolai Romanov. He’s an art restorer, and he’s been helping Dieter with the paintings. He’s a really sweet man,” Gerald said, lowering his voice, “and very handsome. He’s also available, or so I understand.”
“What about the man with him?” Brian asked, his eyes following Nicolai and the other man around the room. They looked rather cozy to him.
“That’s Peter, and they’re not a couple. He’s a friend and sort of acts as Nicolai’s interpreter because he’s deaf. Besides, Peter’s as straight as an arrow, and if there were a lot of women here, Nicolai wouldn’t be getting as much interpreting time. Peter’s a bit of a ladies’ man. Come on, I’ll introduce you. Nicolai reads lips, so speak clearly and look at him, and you’ll be fine.” Before Brian could stop him, Gerald was leading him into the hallway where Nicolai was looking closely at one of the paintings. Gerald lightly touched him on the shoulder and stepped back.
“Nicolai,” Gerald said once he’d turned around, “this is Brian.” He noticed that Gerald made eye contact and spoke clearly, but not loudly, to Nicolai, who held out his hand.
“Very pleased to meet you,” Nicolai said slowly, his consonants very smooth, and it took some concentration, but Brian was able to understand him. Brian shook his hand and wondered what to say. Thankfully Gerald started things off.
“I work with Brian. He and I try to get art works returned to their proper owners. Brian is handling The Woman in Blue case for Dieter and me,” Gerald explained, and Brian saw Nicolai’s eyes light up.
“That must be exciting,” Nicolai said. “Dieter has told me about his great-grandmother. It is a very exciting story.” Brian saw Nicolai’s fingers and hands moving, presumably out of habit.
“Daddy.” Zoe barreled into him laughing before turning to her Uncle Dieter. “I turned off the player.”
“Zoe,” Brian said, still looking at Nicolai, “this is Mr. Romanov.”
“Hello.” She suddenly seemed shy, and Brian hugged her to his side.
“Nicolai, this is my daughter Zoe.” Brian made sure to face Nicolai so he could read his lips.
“Hello, Zoe,” Nicolai said as he signed, and Brian heard Zoe inhale in surprise as she watched Nicolai’s hands. “Zoe,” Nicolai said rather clearly as he slowly signed her name. Zoe brought up her hands and began to move them, mimicking the movements. Nicolai gently corrected her fingers, and soon Zoe could sign her name. “Nic,” Nicolai said and then performed the signs for his name. Brian found himself watching every movement of Nic’s graceful hands, trying to make the signs himself along with his daughter.
“Like this,” Nicolai told him, and Brian nearly jumped when the handsome man touched his fingers, lightly caressing his skin as he coached him through the signs. Brian repeated the movements for the three letters, and Nicolai smiled his encouragement. Brian wanted to ask Nicolai to teach him more signs, if only to get the other man to touch his hands again.
“Zoe,” Tyler, who lived up the street, called as he approached. “A little bird tells me that you want to see the lights at our house.”
Zoe turned to him, her eyes lighting up. “Can I, Daddy?”
“Sure, just get your coat from upstairs and be careful. It’s slippery outside,” Brian cautioned, regardless of the fact that it was falling on deaf ears. Zoe was already halfway up the stairs before he’d finished speaking. Tyler headed upstairs as well, and Brian concentrated his attention on Nicolai. “Do you only restore paintings?”
Nicolai shook his head before saying, “Glass windows too.” Brian initially had trouble understanding, but the words made sense just as Nicolai pointed to the stained-glass window in the stairwell.
“Do you work for the art museum?”
“Yes,” Nicolai answered. “I worked on their Monet.” The look on his face told Brian that Nicolai was very proud of that, as he should be. Brian could only imagine being a restorer and being good enough to work on an important and valuable work like that.
“Gerald and I often have clients who need to have their art restored or repaired after we get it back. Would it be okay if I had them contact you?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized what a dumb question that was. He was at Gerald’s party, and Gerald certainly knew how to get in touch with Nicolai. But he simply smiled and fished into his pockets before handing Brian a card.
“Best way is instant message or e-mail. If I am home, it is always on, except when I am working,” Nicolai said.
“Would you like some wine?”
“Please,” Nicolai said, and Brian nodded before making his way to the kitchen. Grabbing a bottle of water for himself, he wished he’d asked what kind Nicolai wanted, but guessed at a red and walked back into the hallway. Nicolai and another man, who Brian assumed was Peter, appeared to be having a conversation. Actually, they looked as though they were having a silent argument, with both of them signing frantically back and forth. Brian walked to Nicolai to offer him the glass, but he realized that it would limit Nicolai’s ability to communicate, and it appeared from the near-manic signing that Nicolai would not appreciate that right now.
“Why did you drive me, then?” Nicolai asked and signed, his words very slurred and barely understandable.
“I didn’t know I would meet someone,” Peter said softly as he signed.
“Can I help?” Brian asked, and Peter turned to him, followed by Nicolai. “Zoe and I can give Nicolai a ride home if he needs one.”
“Thank you,” Nicolai said before turning to glare at his friend, signing something Brian figured was most likely obscene because Peter rolled his eyes and said good-bye before hurrying upstairs. “That was very nice.”
Brian smiled and nodded before handing Nicolai the glass of wine. Peter came back down the stairs, carrying his coat and another one that obviously belonged to a woman. A bleached-blonde woman, apparently the only single woman at the party, walked over to Peter, and he helped her into her coat before the two of them waved good night and left. Nicolai raised his glass and made a rude gesture to his friend after the door had closed.
It opened again almost immediately, and Zoe rushed inside, her lavender coat fluttering as she moved. “Tyler showed me the lights and let me pet their dog. Her name’s Jolie, and she likes to have her belly scratched.” Zoe unzipped her coat and handed it to Brian.
“Why are you handing this to me? Do I look like a coat closet? Besides, we’ll be going home in a little while. So you need to gather your things together and say good-bye and thank you to everyone,” Brian told her as he handed back the coat, which Zoe immediately set in a corner before hurrying toward the kitchen. She returned shortly with Dieter and Gerald, and after saying good night and getting all of their coats, along with Zoe’s gift and a bag with enough candy to send her into a sugar coma, they said their last good-nights and left the house.
Brian led them to the car, chirping it unlocked before making sure Zoe was buckled in as well as letting Nicolai get into the passenger seat. After walking around to the driver’s side, Brian started the car and pulled away from the curb. “I live in Whitefish Bay,” Nicolai explained rather clearly, and Brian drove through the city streets, heading toward the near northern suburbs. Nicolai’s home was right on the way, and it didn’t take long for them to reach his home. “Thank you for the ride,” Nicolai said before opening his door and getting out of the car.
“You’re welcome,” Brian said, making sure Nicolai could see him. Then the door closed, and Brian pulled away and down the street. As he approached the corner, he thought he could still see Nicolai standing on the sidewalk watching them, but he wasn’t sure, and after he’d stopped, the figure he’d seen was gone.
Brian drove the rest of the way home, Zoe already dozing by the time they pulled into the driveway. Brian carried her inside, setting her on the sofa. “Go upstairs and get ready for bed. I’ll be up soon.” Without saying anything, Zoe began climbing the stairs, and Brian returned to the car, carrying in everything and putting it away before locking up the house and climbing the stairs. Zoe was already in her nightgown and in the bathroom brushing her teeth. When she was done, Brian joined her in her room, holding up the covers so she could climb into bed. “Good night, sweetheart,” Brian said, kissing her on the forehead.
“Daddy, are you going to get married again?” Sometimes he wondered at the questions she came up with at the weirdest times. “’Cause if you do, will I have an evil stepmother like Cinderella?”
“Go to sleep, honey. I don’t plan to get married, and I would never give you an evil stepmother. I promise.” He kissed her once more before turning off the light and leaving the room. He quietly descended the stairs and picked things up as he made a sweep of the house before ending up in the family room in front of the television. God, he was tired, but not quite sleepy. The phone rang and he grabbed for it. “Hello.”
“Brian, what’s with this check?”
Barbara, just what he needed at this hour!
“What check are you talking about? Are you drunk?”
“No,” she replied quickly and too indignantly, leading Brian to believe he was spot-on with his assessment. “I’m talking about my alimony check. It’s too small. Where’s the rest of the money?”
“Did you even bother to read our agreement? It states that after a year, the amount is reduced by a quarter for six months, and then another quarter for six months.” It had felt really good to write the lower amount on the check. “You need to get a job and make sure you can support yourself, because in five months, the amount goes down again and then stops after six months, and you’re on your own.” God help us all.
“I didn’t understand what all that meant,” she sputtered, and Brian knew she’d at least had too much to drink.
“Ignorance will get you nowhere, and I’m not sending you a dime more, so you’d better start looking for a job so you can support yourself. You have a degree—you need to put it to use.” He so did not need this now. Brian was tired and worn out. “I put you in touch with a career counselor. He should have been able to help you.” Brian sighed from sheer tiredness. “I know you think I’m being mean to you, but you need to get on with your life, and getting a job will help you. You’ll be in charge of your own money and your own destiny instead of dependent on someone else,” Brian said, figuring he’d try reasoning with her. “Look, it’s late and I’m really tired. Think about it, okay?”
“I don’t care. I’m not getting off this phone until you send me more money,” she harped, and Brian seriously wondered what had happened to the woman he’d married. Sure, they hadn’t been in love, but they’d been civil, and Brian had cared for her, but those feelings were just memories as he listened to what she’d become.
“Good night, Barbara.” She continued talking and Brian quietly hung up the phone, turning off the ringer so it wouldn’t wake Zoe. Turning on the television, he curled under a blanket, watching whatever was on, or at least pretending to watch television.
Nicolai. Brian had never felt such an attraction to anyone in his life, and when Nicolai had touched his hands, Brian had had to stop himself from moaning out loud. He’d touched Barbara and been touched by her. She was the only person who’d ever laid a hand on him in an intimate way, but with one touch from Nicolai, Brian realized everything that he’d been missing for the past nine or so years. Not that he’d have given up having Zoe for anything, but with a simple touch Nicolai had shown him, whether he meant to or not, that there was something more than what he’d experienced.
Yawning widely, Brian turned off the television and quietly went upstairs, peering in on Zoe, asleep like an angel, before undressing, cleaning up, and climbing into his own bed.
Artistic Pursuits #3
Prologue“MORNING, Mr. Temple,” a child on the sidewalk called and waved, and he waved back through the open car window before turning off Prospect Avenue and into the parking lot of the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Parking in his reserved spot with its small sign that the faculty had gotten him for Christmas, Jerry smiled and turned off the local classical music station before rolling up his car windows and turning off the engine. Once out of the car, Jerry walked across the lot and around to the front of what he considered to be one of the most amazing buildings in town. Still carrying his briefcase and coffee, but no longer really paying much attention to either, Jerry walked around the side of the building and stood looking at what had once been the round conservatory of the grand mansion that served as the music school’s home, and now served as their performance space.
“It’s a wonderful thing you did.”
Jerry turned and saw an old, elegantly dressed woman standing behind him. “Excuse me?” he said politely.
She turned and pointed to one of the high-rise buildings that surrounded them. “I live up there. Damned retirement community full of—” She paused and shuddered slightly. “—old people who do nothing but sit around and fart their lives away. My apartment has a view of your building, and I watched as you did all those wonderful restorations. It’s a good thing you did, to save this building. I remember coming here once as a child.”
“Were you here when the Marsons owned it?” Jerry asked, and he saw her nod before smiling at him and continuing on her morning walk. “Have a good day, ma’am.”
She turned and gave him another smile. “You too, young man,” she answered before continuing down the sidewalk. Jerry turned his attention back to the building. He’d never thought that a building could become so important to him, but this one certainly had. Built at a time when the Milwaukee lakefront had been lined with grand homes like this for miles, this was one of few that remained in all of downtown, and the only one right on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. When he’d been offered the post of executive director four years before, he almost hadn’t taken the job because the facilities at the school were in such bad shape. The mansion had fallen into disrepair from years of use and too little maintenance. Jerry’s first order of business, after reviewing the curriculum, had been to put together detailed architectural and decorative plans to renovate and restore the building. That had turned out to be the easy part. The hard part had been how to pay the multimillion-dollar price tag.
Jerry cringed as he remembered standing in front of the board to present his plan. “We all agree,” the board chairman had said, “something must be done, but how do we pay for it?” He’d looked to the other board members, and they all had the same look of resignation. “I suppose we’ll have to sell the windows.” Heads bobbed, and a look of sadness came over each and every board member. One of the highlights of the once-grand mansion was a set of three large Tiffany “dogwood” windows that decorated the landing of the main staircase. They were stunning, and it had nearly broken Jerry’s heart, as well as the board’s, to think of selling.
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Jerry had answered. “I took the liberty of calling the Milwaukee Journal, and they have agreed to do an article on our plans for the renovations. With your permission, I’d like to share our plans with them as well as our plight. I’m hoping that somehow we can raise the money we need without selling the windows. I’d like to ask that we hold off on a decision for a few months.”
The board had agreed, the newspaper article had led to a television interview, and the money began to flow in. What had surprised everyone, including Jerry, was that while they got some large contributions, they also got many, many small donations from ordinary people throughout town, people who had never had a connection to the school, but who wanted to help save the windows. Within a few months, they had the money to begin work, and within a year, they’d reached their goal. And Jerry had remained front and center in their campaign to “Save the Tiffanys.” At the completion of the renovations, the newspaper had done a long article on the entire saga, as well as some of the things they’d found while doing the work, such as an incredible hand-blown chandelier inside a boarded-up fireplace.
At the unveiling, the conservatory had invited all the donors, big and small, to an open house, and thousands of people had shown up. Jerry and his staff had spent the entire day proudly giving tours of the building that concluded with a trip up the staircase to see the windows that they’d not only helped to save, but had given enough money that the conservatory had been able to have the windows themselves restored and strengthened as part of the renovation. That day had been one of the most amazing and incredible days of Jerry’s life.
Turning away from the building, Jerry’s thoughts turned back to the day’s work. Walking back around to the front of the building, Jerry listened to the birds for a second before setting down his case and unlocking the front door. He deactivated the alarm before pushing the door open. Students were already arriving behind him, and Jerry said good morning as he picked up his leather case of papers and led the way inside.
As he did every morning, Jerry walked to the base of the stairs and gazed upward. But this morning, instead of light blues, rich whites tinged with pink, and long brown and black branches with delicate dogwood blossoms clinging to them, all he saw was the sky outside. Jerry stood stock still as first his case and then his cup of coffee hit the shining parquet floor.
Chapter OneA FILE whacked harder than necessary on his desk, and Franklin looked up from where he was filling out a report. “Try not to screw up this one too badly,” his supervisor said without a hint of his usual humor, and Franklin knew exactly why. His last assignment hadn’t gone exactly according to plan, and one of the men on the team had been shot. Franklin took a deep breath and stopped himself from lashing out at the man the way every fiber in his being urged him to. What happened hadn’t been his fault, and Franklin knew it, as did everyone else, but that didn’t seem to matter—they needed someone to blame, and he was it.
“Nice show of support,” Franklin muttered under his breath. As the junior member of the team, he knew he was going to take crap for everything that happened, but he didn’t have to like it.
“Hey!” Harvey, his supervisor, snapped, leaning close to him. “We all know you got bad information, but you messed up because you didn’t double-check the address on your way over. You could have and should have. Because you went to the wrong house first, you lost the element of surprise, and Stevens got shot. You were in charge of the operation because you asked to be, so you take the lumps.” Harvey’s expression softened a little. “Everyone messes up; it’ll pass.”
“Yeah, but not everyone messes up and gets someone shot,” Frank retorted, and that was the heart of the issue. Frank knew he’d made a mistake, one that could have cost someone their life. Stevens didn’t blame him, but everyone else did, and more importantly, he blamed himself.
“So make up for it with this one,” Harvey told him before turning and walking into his glass-walled office near the corner. Frank opened the folder and began to read. As he did, he wondered why Milwaukee PD had turned this case over to the FBI. It seemed like a simple theft. Persons unknown had stolen a set of valuable windows from the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Sure, the items stolen had been valuable, but that didn’t warrant an investigation by federal agents.
“Don’t go to the wrong house this time,” Martinson taunted as he passed Frank’s desk.
“Thanks, Martinson. Don’t trip over your own feet,” Frank retorted with little humor. He’d be damned if he was taking flak from the department geek. Yes, he’d made a mistake, but Martinson was a total fool, and Frank couldn’t figure out why he was still around except that the man was great with numbers and computers, just not people. Martinson continued on his way, completely unfazed, and Frank watched as Martinson nearly fell into his chair, then looked at the floor, probably trying to figure out what he’d tripped over.
“Frank,” Harvey called from his office, “you finish reading that case file?”
“Yes.” Frank got up and walked into Harvey’s office. “Why’d this get bumped to us? Looks like a straightforward theft.” Frank stood in front of Harvey’s desk. He hadn’t been invited to sit, and no one sat in Harvey’s office unless invited.
“If it were, we wouldn’t have the case,” Harvey said, staring at Frank, waiting for him to continue. “So….”
Frank fidgeted slightly, knowing there was something he was missing, and it pissed him off. “There must be more to it. I saw the reports about this theft a few days ago. These windows are worth millions, but shit… who’s going to buy them? They have to be nearly impossible to sell. You think they were stolen to order?”
“That’s what you need to find out. I need you to get down there right away. The reason we’ve been called in is because this is bigger than a simple theft, or at least MPD and Interpol think so. Interpol is sending some agent of theirs, her name’s Leslie something, and she’ll meet you at the scene in half an hour. The school’s director is still pretty upset about this whole thing, so do your best not to piss the guy off.” That was Harvey’s idea of a dismissal, and Frank turned toward the door and stopped.
“Can I ask why you assigned this to me?”
“You can ask anything you want. Doesn’t mean I’m going to answer,” Harvey said before turning his attention to his computer screen, beginning to swear under his breath. Frank made a hasty retreat. Everyone knew to get the hell out when Harvey tried to do anything with computers. E-mail alone was a challenge, and more than one keyboard had been thrown through his doorway.
Frank grabbed his keys off his desk along with the file and headed out of the office building, driving through the heavy downtown traffic to the lakeshore. He pulled into the conservatory parking lot and got out of his blue sedan that just screamed “Federal Agent.” Walking around toward the front door, he saw what had to be a student carrying a violin and bow, and said, “I’m looking for Mr. Temple.”
“He’s in his office.” She pointed the way with the bow and then hurried up the stairs. Frank couldn’t help looking around the room before walking in the direction she’d pointed and knocking quietly on a closed door.
“Mr. Temple,” Frank said when the door opened, “I’m Agent Frank Jennings from the FBI. We’ve been called in to help investigate the theft of your windows.”
“Thank God,” the man responded, and he opened the door fully, indicating for Frank to come into the office. “I’ve been frantic for two days, and I’m wondering when we’ll get our windows back.” Mr. Temple motioned Frank to a chair and sat in the one opposite.
“That’s what I’m here to help with. Can you answer a few questions for me?”
“Of course. Anything to help get them returned. They were the source of inspiration for many of our students, and it seems wrong for them to be gone,” Mr. Temple said, and Frank could see he seemed genuinely upset.
“Do you have pictures of the windows? The ones in the file I received weren’t very clear. And I was wondering when you saw the windows last.”
“They were still in place Monday night, and when I came in Tuesday morning, they were gone,” he answered easily, and Frank continued to watch him for any hint of deception, but saw none.
“Are there lights on that side of the building?” Frank pulled out a pad and began taking notes. Mr. Temple got out of his chair, and Frank noticed that he was a strikingly handsome man, even if he was somewhat older than Frank usually liked. Keep your attention on the case, Frank reminded himself as he stood up as well, but he couldn’t help noticing the trim cut of Temple’s suit and his large, bright eyes. Blinking a few times, Frank cleared the lascivious thoughts and got his mind back on work.
“There are,” Temple added a little sheepishly, leading him out of the office and down a hallway before opening what looked like a closet door. “When we did the renovations to the building, we had lights installed on that side of the building to illuminate the windows in the evening.” Mr. Temple pointed to a timer mounted near the electrical box. “The lights come on when it gets dark and go off at 11:00 p.m., when we close the building.” He looked dejected. “To think if we wouldn’t have tried to cut costs on the lighting, we might still have our windows.” Frank wanted to reassure him, but he couldn’t, at least not yet, so he stayed quiet and kept his eyes open.
“Mr. Temple, there’s someone asking for you at the front door,” a young man said from behind them.
“Thank you, Jimmy. Tell them we’ll be right out.”
“That could be the person I’m supposed to meet. My supervisor said a woman was going to meet me here.” Frank wasn’t sure how much he should tell Mr. Temple about who he was meeting, so he kept quiet and followed Mr. Temple back down the hallway and toward the front door.
Frank saw a tall man standing near the front door, and since this wasn’t who he was waiting for, he figured he’d go around the building before Leslie arrived. He was about to head outside when the man stopped him. “Are you Frank Jennings?” he asked in a pronounced British accent with a half smile, and when Frank nodded, the man continued, “I’m Leslie Carlton. I believe you’re expecting me.”
Frank stared. When Harvey had said Leslie, Frank had expected a woman, and Harvey obviously had as well, but instead, Frank was looking into the deepest blue eyes of the most amazingly attractive man he’d seen in a long time. Remembering where he was and what he should be doing, Frank extended his hand. “Sorry. I’m Frank Jennings, and this is Mr. Temple, the director of the conservatory.” Leslie shook both their hands.
“If it’s okay, we’d like to have a look ’round,” Leslie said.
“Of course,” Mr. Temple said before giving Frank a confused look and then walking back toward his office.
“I take it I’m not what you were expecting,” Leslie stated as they walked around the outside of the building, as though he knew exactly what Frank had been thinking.
“No, I guess not,” Frank answered honestly as he nervously rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.
“Happens sometimes,” Leslie said, but he added nothing more.
“What’s your interest in this, anyway?” Frank asked after some extended silence. “Isn’t this a bit off from your usual area?”
“Yes and no,” Leslie answered as they reached the area outside below where the windows had been. “I heard about the theft on the telly when I was attending a class in forensic analysis in Chicago and thought this might be related to a case I’ve been working on for years.” Leslie looked up at the building and then down at the ground. Frank did the same, but wasn’t sure what they were going to see. The theft had been two days earlier, and the local police officers had been all through this area already.
“I could always send you the reports. You didn’t need to come all this way,” Frank said a little more tersely than he intended, but Leslie didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Frank figured the last thing he needed was some Brit on his tail the entire time he was trying to work.
“That may not help,” Leslie finally answered before kneeling down in the grass. “Looks like at least two men, maybe three,” Leslie said as he stood up, wiping the dirt off his hands. “See those indentations in the grass?” Leslie said, pointing at marks Frank could barely see. “That’s where they placed one of the stepladders, and here’s where they placed the other. Probably strung a plank between them, and that’s what they stood on to remove the windows. Lucky thing they didn’t fall apart, which probably means they knew how to handle the windows.” Leslie looked back up toward the vacant space where the windows had been.
“How do you know?” Frank asked.
“Hundred-year-old windows like that will fall apart if they aren’t handled with a lot of care, and since there aren’t bits of glass all over the turf, it’s a good guess they got the windows down in one piece. Probably had frames made so they could carry them.” Without further comment, Leslie walked toward the parking lot. “Probably parked about here,” Leslie added, looking back toward the building, and Frank felt a bit like the newbie he was as he trailed behind the other man like some sort of puppy dog. “With the lights behind here off, and the tree here, this area would be dark and perfect for loading the windows.”
“How do you know all this?” Frank finally got up the courage to ask. He wasn’t particularly interested in showing his own inexperience with things like this.
“I’ve been working cat burglar and art-theft cases for close to ten years. I’ve seen all kinds of thefts, some definitely more clever than others. This one took some logistical prowess, but as long as they had cover, the street traffic masked any noise they made. Shall we have a look inside to see what that can tell us?” Frank nodded, and they walked back toward the front door of the music school. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m surprised they don’t have a more senior man on a case like this.”
Frank’s hackles raised, and then he looked at Leslie’s face and saw no malice, only curiosity. “I guess you usually handle bigger things than this. Sorry you’re stuck with me,” Frank added sarcastically.
Leslie stopped walking. “Don’t get your bollocks in a wad, I wasn’t being disparaging.”
Frank didn’t know what the hell Leslie was saying. “Let’s go inside.” Frank wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. Leslie could look at whatever he wanted, and then Frank could get to work hunting down the people who’d taken the windows, and Leslie could get back on a plane to jolly old England. Frank led the way into the building and up the stairs to the landing. The opening where the windows had been had glass on the inside, and Frank could see where the leaded windows had once been, as well as where the outer protective layer of glass had been. “It looks like they took the outer glass as well as the leaded windows,” Frank commented, and Leslie gave him a quizzical look.
“What makes you say that?” Leslie asked.
“Because, as you said, there was no broken glass outside. They must have taken off both the outer glass and the windows themselves, along with part of the casing. There’s an alarm in the building, and the police report said that Mr. Temple deactivated the alarm normally that morning.”
Leslie nodded and continued looking at the window casing. “Good thinking. They were careful and knew what in bloody hell they were doing, that’s for sure.”
“I’d say so. They left no prints, and other than the windows being gone and the indentations in the grass that you saw, it looks like they left no other indication that they were here.”
“True,” Leslie said as he stood back up. “But that alone tells us something. These people were professionals. They had been here to look over the building at least once, and probably more than that. My guess is that they were even inside the building at one point. Then they would have seen the way the windows were mounted and realized that taking them out from the outside was easier than from the inside.”
“The police checked out the students,” Frank offered. “Wait a minute, if they were inside, they could have attended some kind of performance.” Frank hurried down the stairs and along the hallway to Mr. Temple’s office, knocking quickly before entering. “Have you had any performances lately?”
“Yes. We have recitals quite regularly,” Mr. Temple answered, standing up to open a file drawer. He searched for a few moments and then handed Frank a few pamphlets. “These are the programs from the recitals we’ve held in the last six months.”
“Can I keep these for now?” Frank wasn’t sure what good they would do, but in his gut, he felt like he was onto something.
“Of course,” Mr. Temple said, and Frank thanked him and retraced his steps, finding Leslie standing in the entry area of the building.
“I don’t think we’re going to find much more up there,” he said, indicating where the windows had been. “Would it be okay if I catch a ride with you back to your office?”
“Of course,” Frank answered, and he led the way to his car, unlocking the doors. Once they were both inside, Frank started the engine and made his way back through traffic to the office. In the lobby, he helped Leslie procure a visitor’s badge, and they rode in the “lift,” as Leslie called it, to his floor.
Leslie followed him to Harvey’s office, and Frank made introductions before providing a verbal report of what they’d found. “Can we speak privately?” Leslie asked Harvey, and Frank stepped out of the office, closing the door behind him. Walking to his desk, Frank watched Leslie and Harvey talking inside the office. Frank knew what they were talking about, and once they were done, Frank expected that Leslie would have requested—how had he put it?—a more senior man on this case. Placing the programs in the file with the other materials, Frank settled in his chair and began typing his notes into a report to add to the file. But as he worked, he found his attention drawn to the glass walls of Harvey’s office. Frank had seen how attractive Leslie was, but he’d had his mind on the case. Now, watching him as he spoke, what he saw was mostly from the back, but what a back it was. Even in the suit he was wearing, Frank could see the man’s broad shoulders. At one point, Leslie slipped off his coat, and Frank got a glimpse of a nice butt encased in suit pants.
“What’s got you so captivated?” Martinson asked as he stopped by Frank’s desk. “Who’s the guy with Harvey?” Frank breathed a sigh of relief that Martinson thought he was just curious as opposed to lusting over the other man. The bureau itself was tolerant, but the other guys were a completely different matter. Frank had heard enough derogatory remarks over the year he’d been in the office to know to keep his personal life to himself and not let on that he was interested in guys. He wouldn’t lie outright, but he wasn’t going to volunteer anything, either.
“Leslie Carlton, he’s with Interpol.” Frank did not elaborate on his suspicions about what they were talking about. He’d get the news soon enough, and Martinson would probably stop by to rub it in again. Besides, while he might be attracted to the guy, and Leslie pushed all Frank’s buttons, that didn’t mean Leslie was even interested, or that Frank would actually be seeing him again after today. Frank continued watching Leslie, and eventually Martinson went on his way. Frank found he was fascinated with the way Leslie’s body moved, gracefully, like the way he thought a dancer or gymnast might move. When he saw Harvey’s attention shift outside the windows of his office, Frank lowered his eyes, pulled himself out of his momentary daydream, and got back to his report.
“Jennings,” Harvey bellowed over the noise in the room, and while Frank didn’t look, he knew every head in the room had just shifted to look at him. And he knew they were wondering what he’d done now. One mistake, and you were branded a screw-up for life. Well, maybe not, but there were times it felt that way. Frank stood up, grabbed the case file off his desk, and walked to Harvey’s office, where he was ushered inside and the door closed behind him. This time Frank was motioned toward a chair, and he sat opposite Leslie while Harvey sat at his desk. “It seems we may have more than just a simple theft here, and Leslie has asked and I’ve agreed….”
Here it comes, Frank thought. Leslie had thought him inexperienced and green and had asked to work with someone else, not that he could blame the guy.
“Frank, are you listening?” Harvey said, and he realized both men were looking directly at him. “Like I said, Leslie has asked to be a part of your case, and I’ve agreed to let him work with you for the duration. He has a number of insights that will be invaluable in returning the stolen windows to their rightful owners.” Harvey’s expression softened a little, and Frank wondered why. “Leslie tells me that you have some interesting insights about the case.”
“Well, yes. I think the thieves had to have scoped out the inside as well as the outside of the building.” Frank opened the case file and pulled out the programs. “These are the recitals they’ve held over the last six months, and I think those would be a great place to start. If I was a thief and I wanted to scope out a place like that without being noticed, I’d blend into a crowd. And what would be better than a recital for getting into the building largely unnoticed?” Frank felt pretty proud of himself. Leslie might have figured out what had happened, at least in part, but Frank at least had an idea for going forward.
“How does this help us?” Leslie asked levelly, and Frank turned to look at him, seeing him nod slightly.
“Well, if you’ve ever been to a recital,” Frank began—he’d been to plenty of his sister’s when they were kids—“every father takes a video of the performance for posterity. I thought I’d ask the director for some of the parents who habitually make videos, and maybe we might see something unusual. If we do, we can run it through facial recognition and see if we get a hit. I know it’s a bit of a longshot….” Frank wasn’t sure it would pan out, but it was the only idea he could come up with. There was remarkably little evidence to go on, and much of it had been compromised by the local police and normal operation of the school, at least as far as the actual crime scene went, but that was to be expected after a few days.
“Go ahead and get on it. I’ll let Leslie, here, fill you in on the other aspects of the case,” Harvey explained, and Frank took that as a dismissal. Standing up, he opened the office door and stepped outside, with Leslie right behind him.
“So, where to?” Leslie asked with a pleased smile on his face.
Frank didn’t know what that meant, but he did his best to keep his attention on the case, as opposed to the way Leslie’s smile sent a fluttery feeling through his gut. “Back to the conservatory. I hope Mr. Temple can give us a few leads on where to start with recital videos.”
“I hope so. It would be a real cock-up if we had to run down the parents of every student,” Leslie said in his heavy accent. It made everything Leslie said sound sexy as hell. Frank reminded himself that he had no idea if Leslie liked guys, and he certainly had no intention of ever getting involved with anyone he worked with, even marginally. After making their way back to the elevators, they rode down to the parking level and got into Frank’s car, then headed back out in traffic.
Thankfully, Mr. Temple was able to give them the names of a number of “videophile” parents, along with their addresses. Frank and Leslie spent much of the rest of the morning and afternoon running all over town, and by the end of the day, they had almost a dozen different tapes of various recitals. One of the parents had taken video at almost every one, while most had taken only some of them. “There has to be a solid week’s worth of video here,” Frank said as they headed back toward the office in the early evening. “This is going to take longer than I thought.”
“Do we have to watch all this at the office?” Leslie asked, and Frank saw him yawn.
“No. I have a good player at my place,” Frank offered. “We could get some dinner and go there. I don’t have the enhancement capabilities that we have at the office, but if we see something, we can note it and look at it in more depth here at the office tomorrow. Where are you staying while you’re in town?”
“I hadn’t arranged for a hotel. I wasn’t expecting to be here until I saw the spot on the telly. I was supposed to go back to London after the conference tomorrow, but this could be the break I’ve been looking for. Could we pick up my bag at the train station? I’ll arrange for a hotel.”
“You can stay at my place, if you like,” Frank offered. He knew he was probably going to regret it, but the man was already tired, and they still had work to do.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” Leslie said, though Frank was already guiding the car toward the train station. Out in front, Frank pulled up to the curb, and Leslie walked into the station, returning a few minutes later pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. Frank popped the trunk, and Leslie put the bag inside.
“How did you get them to hold the bag for you?” In the post-9/11 world, luggage without an owner was usually treated as though it carried a bomb.
“I asked the attendant at the counter and showed him my badge. I think he took pity on me because of my accent and let me put the bag in his office. I’m surprised you don’t have lockers at the stations like we do in Europe,” Leslie said once he’d gotten back in the car. Frank shrugged, not really wanting to explain the post-terrorist overreactions that the entire country had gone through for the last decade.
“So why don’t you tell me what you think is going on,” Frank said as he put the car in gear.
“Over the past ten years,” Leslie began, “there have been a number of thefts of Tiffany windows, mostly from mausoleums in New York, but some in London, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe. On the surface, they don’t seem related, and the thefts themselves probably aren’t. Except that more often than not, when we do catch the thieves, we find that the goods are already out of the country and have been sold.”
“I suppose that’s to be expected—it’s harder to trace the goods internationally,” Frank supplied, and Leslie nodded.
“But one name keeps coming up again and again: Koshigawa. Most of the trails of these stolen windows lead to him in some roundabout way. The problem is that Japan has property laws that he hides behind. We call it the two-year rule. In Japan, if you purchased property and you’ve had it for two years, and it turns out to be stolen, you get to keep it regardless. Koshigawa hides behind this rule, and has amassed a huge collection of art, including Tiffany windows. The bastard has a house built of glass outside Osaka so he can display them. He calls it his museum. I’ve personally tracked more than a dozen windows stolen from collections in Europe back to him, but each and every time, the Japanese authorities claim the two-year rule, and we can’t get near him.” Leslie got more and more excited as he talked. “Last year, I investigated the theft of a huge, three-meter-tall waterfall window that came out of a family collection in Vienna. I tracked it as far as an antique dealer outside Paris who has a history of selling suspect items. I missed recovering the window by less than a week.” Frustration filled Leslie’s voice.
“Let me guess—he’d shipped it to Japan,” Frank said.
“Exactly. The address turned out to be a front company that received the shipment and then promptly closed up shop and completely disappeared. There has been nothing since, and how much do you want to bet that in a little more than a year, it will show up in someone’s collection, probably Koshigawa’s, and there’ll be bollocks we can do about it.”
Frank navigated the streets through the northern Milwaukee suburb where he lived and let Leslie continue talking.
“I’ve never heard of him actually contracting a specific theft. He’s usually just a buyer,” Leslie continued, “but I have no doubt that he would love to get his hands on the windows that were stolen. A triptych of windows that are intact and have never been on the market could be too much for him to resist. It’s like the Holy Grail to him.” Leslie shifted in the passenger seat. “I want this bastard bad. He’s a thief just as much as the people who steal the windows in the first place, because he and those like him help provide the market that drives this type of theft.”
Frank pulled up in front of his house and parked his car, turning off the engine. “Then we need to catch the thieves before the windows can be sold and shipped out of the country, because as you said, once they leave, they’re beyond us to recover.” Frank got out of the car and walked around to the trunk. After pulling out Leslie’s suitcase, he lifted out the box of videotapes and DVDs before closing the trunk and leading Leslie up the walk to his small house.
“This is really nice,” Leslie commented once they were inside. Frank opened the windows throughout the house to let the lake breeze flow through. Then he led Leslie upstairs and showed him the guest room.
“You can stay here until you decide what you want to do,” Frank suggested, and Leslie set his suitcase on the floor near the foot of the bed before following Frank back downstairs. Frank grabbed the box of videos off the hallway table as he led them into the media room. “I can order a pizza, if you like,” Frank offered.
“That would be good. Thank you,” Leslie replied, and Frank picked up the phone, pressing the speed dial for the local delivery.
“Is there anything you especially like?” Frank asked as he heard the pizza place answer, and Leslie shook his head. Frank placed his usual order but made it a large, and hung up. “They’ll be here in half an hour. Would you like a beer?” Frank opened the refrigerator door and pulled out two bottles of Samuel Adams, carrying them to where Leslie was sitting on the sofa. When he handed the bottle to him, Leslie took it and stared back at Frank like he’d broken some sort of protocol. “If you don’t want a beer, I have something else,” Frank offered, wondering what he’d done to offend him.
“No. I apologize, I forgot you Yanks serve your beer practically frozen.” Leslie set the bottle on a coaster. “I’ll let it come up to temperature.”
Frank had no idea what to say or do. “I have one that’s in the case,” Frank offered.
“This is fine, thank you,” Leslie said, but Frank could tell it wasn’t fine, so he went and retrieved one of the bottles from the basement and gave that one to Leslie. That was obviously much better, because the smile he got this time bordered on radiant. “Perfect.” Leslie opened the bottle, and Frank put the first video in the player and grabbed the remote. “We need to pay attention to the crowds and try to ignore the actual performers,” Leslie explained, and Frank swallowed the smartass reply that threatened to bubble up as he took his place on the sofa. “But you probably already knew that, didn’t you, mate?”
Frank sipped his beer as cover and nodded as the video began to play. It took him about five minutes before he muted the volume, and both men looked at each other and laughed. “If they were truly casing the place during one of these recitals, they’ve already been punished enough,” Frank quipped, and Leslie laughed a deep rich laugh that Frank found incredibly attractive, and he could not help watching him out of the corner of his eye before returning his attention to the screen. Most of the video was centered on the performers during the performance, but afterward, this one continued rolling as their daughter joined them, and even out through the building to the outside. The two men continued talking, and Frank mentioned they should have that portion of the video copied out and enhanced. After making a note, he ejected the disk, placing it in the case, and put another one in the player. “Rather than trying to memorize faces, let’s note crowd-type scenes that we can review tomorrow.”
“Good idea. You might see if they could remove the scenes and string them together. That way we could see if any faces jump out at us,” Leslie suggested.
The video began, and Frank saw another performance, keeping the volume muted. He was already starting to think this was a futile effort. This video was only the performance and showed no one else. By the time the video ended, the doorbell rang, and Frank walked to the door, paid for the delivery and returned to the media room.
Leslie had made himself comfortable, and Frank nearly tripped when he entered the room. Leslie’s legs were spread enticingly, his jacket and tie neatly laid over the back of a chair, his collar loosened, shirt clinging seductively to his chest. Leslie’s long, shining, auburn hair, which must have been gathered and hidden in the collar of his jacket, now flowed loosely and hung below his shoulders like long strands of silk. Frank prided himself on having good powers of observation and he wondered just how he’d missed that. The man looked like sex on wheels, and the casual look on his face made Frank think that he had no idea how attractive he appeared. Frank only hoped that the effect Leslie was having on him wasn’t noticeable. Regaining his balance, Frank set the pizza on the table. “Would you like another beer? I have plenty.”
“Thanks, mate.” Leslie tipped the bottle to his mouth, and Frank watched his throat, stifling a groan as Leslie finished the beer and then handed him the bottle. For a few seconds, Frank thought he might have been enticing him on purpose, but that had to be his imagination. Taking the bottle, Frank hurried out of the room, breathing deeply as he tried to clear his mind of the filthy thoughts that kept moving front and center whenever he got a good look at the stunning Brit.
Frank took his time getting another round, standing in the cool basement, hoping the temperatures would cool off his libido, which seemed to be running a little rampant. While he was out of Leslie’s sight, Frank adjusted his pants to make things more comfortable, grabbed a beer for Leslie, and climbed the stairs. On his way through, he grabbed another beer for himself from the fridge.
The video had ended, and Leslie was removing the disk. “This one had nothing,” he explained as he put the next disk in the player. Frank had to force himself to look away from where Leslie knelt in front of the television, pants clinging to a perfect rear end and what looked like strong thighs, straining the legs of his pants. He had to get hold of himself. Leslie had given him no indication that he was interested, and Frank was not about to find out the hard way. Leslie was a colleague, at least for now, and Frank was not particularly willing to be rejected or to get involved with someone he worked with, even if he had an indication Leslie might be so inclined. Frank could not allow that to happen. Rumors of his orientation would spread through the office faster than the news of him and his team raiding the wrong house.
Frank waited for Leslie to finish with the video before he handed him the beer and then turned away before sitting on the sofa and concentrating on the movie. Reaching for the pizza box, Frank stopped when he realized his lust-infused mind had completely forgotten the plates. Jumping up, he went and grabbed two from the cupboard, handing a plate to Leslie without really looking at him, and took his seat once again before reaching for his slice.
Hour after mind-numbing hour, they watched home video after home video. They’d gotten a number of crowd scenes, in addition to multitudes of hours of performance after performance. “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” Leslie said with a yawn. “My body’s still a bit on London time.”
“Thankfully, there’s only one more. Go on upstairs, and I’ll check this one out before coming up myself.” Frank checked the clock on the player and realized it was well after midnight. He put in the last video and started it, feeling the sofa cushions shift as Leslie got up. Frank tried to force himself not to look, but the temptation was too great. Frank shifted his eyes upward as Leslie stretched his arms over his head, and he caught a glimpse of pale skin just above the handsome man’s belt. Frank stared as long as he dared, looking back to the television as Leslie’s arms lowered and he sat back on the sofa without saying a word. As they watched, Leslie began to shift slightly on the sofa. Frank looked over and saw Leslie’s eyes drift closed as Leslie tilted toward him. Leslie caught himself and sat back upright, but not before Frank felt his warmth and the slight touch of his arm.
Frank forced himself to watch the video and keep his mind off the man sitting next to him. This infatuation was ridiculous. Yes, Leslie was attractive, and yes, he seemed to press all Frank’s buttons from a physical perspective, but Frank had already had enough of the type of relationship where he relied strictly on how someone looked. He’d learned that lesson big-time already, and didn’t really want to remember the details. Watching the video, he fast-forwarded through the actual performance and looked over the people behind the person doing the speaking, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and no one did something as obvious as trying to hide their face. Marking that portion of the video, Frank packed up all the videos, making sure to segregate the ones with pictures of the crowd before standing up. “Come on, Les, let’s go on up to bed.”
“Leslie, my name’s Leslie,” he corrected haughtily, and Frank stopped himself from rolling his eyes.
“Okay, Les, let’s go.” Frank wasn’t going to rise to the bait, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to push it a little, either, and he saw Leslie roll his eyes, but he didn’t correct him a second time. Instead, he stood up, stretching and yawning again as Frank threw away the remains of dinner and began turning out the lights before they headed up the stairs.
Frank let Leslie use the bathroom first, waiting until he heard the door open and footsteps pad across the small hallway before opening his door. In the bathroom, it looked as though a toiletries bomb had gone off. The towels Leslie had used had been thrown on the floor, and his things sat everywhere around the sink. “What—you think I’m the maid who’s supposed to clean up after you?” Frank muttered, and he began picking things up, shoving Leslie’s stuff into his kit and placing it on the shelf over the sink. He picked up the towels and hung them up before getting cleaned up himself and heading back to his room, muttering under his breath.
As he stepped across the hall, he saw Leslie’s door open and a startled expression from his guest. “Oh, I was about to shower before bed.” Frank saw Leslie look toward the bathroom and color. “Sorry about the mess. I forgot some things, and I didn’t realize you were using the same bathroom.” Leslie seemed genuinely contrite, and Frank felt his anger melt away, replaced by the thrill of seeing Leslie wearing nothing but a towel.
“No problem. Do you need me to get you up in the morning?”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Leslie replied. “Just knock me up when you get up.” Leslie walked into the bathroom and closed the door as Frank gaped after him, wondering if he’d heard him right. Figuring it must be a British saying, Frank walked into his bedroom, shaking his head, and closed the door. Pulling back the covers, he dropped the towel and turned off the light before climbing into bed.
Feeling dead tired, Frank figured he’d go right to sleep, but he heard the water running and knew what Leslie was doing. Frank’s eyes closed, and in his mind he saw Leslie standing in the hallway not two feet from him, wearing nothing but a towel. The thing that had surprised Frank was how pale Leslie’s skin was, and yet in the few glances he’d seen, Frank couldn’t see a blemish on the alabaster expanse. And the way his towel had clung to Leslie’s small hips…. Frank kept his eyes clamped closed as if that would somehow make the images go away. He was not going to lust after a man he couldn’t have, or shouldn’t touch, no matter what. Frank tried to will himself to sleep, but that didn’t work, not when certain parts of his anatomy definitely had other ideas. Rolling over, Frank closed his eyes and did his best to ignore the images of Leslie and go to sleep. He had many things he needed to get done tomorrow, and he needed to be awake and on top of his game, but he was not going to be able to do that if he spent the entire night thinking about Leslie—handsome, frustrating, probably straight Leslie.
Legal Tender #4
PrologueTIMOTHY BESCH pulled his old clunker of a car into the parking lot of the nursing home on Milwaukee’s East Side, hoping the old thing would make it for just a few more months. Every now and then it made a sound like gunfire, and it chose that moment to do it. Letting off the gas, he glided into a parking space and turned the key. The engine ran for a few seconds before finally dying. Every time that happened, Timothy wondered if that would be the end and the old thing would give up the ghost. Not that he could blame it.
His car door groaned, metal scraping metal as he opened the driver’s door and stepped out of what he knew was probably a death trap, but for now he had no choice. Another car was not a priority. He had less than six months to go and he would actually graduate from college—with a mountain of debt, but he would graduate. Timothy closed the door, getting an even louder than normal screech of protest, walked toward the front door, and went inside.
The place was depressing; it always had been. And it wasn’t just because it was a nursing home, but one of those that took people who had nowhere else to go. Timothy hated it and wanted so badly to move Grampy to another place, but his grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. Walking down the hallway, he passed old men and women sitting in wheelchairs, moving slowly down the halls like they were pulling the entire weight of their own lives behind them. Wrinkled faces looked up at him like puppy dogs begging for a little attention. As he walked, Timothy said good morning to everyone who met his eyes. Some he knew by name, some he didn’t, but it didn’t matter to them or him. One lady reached to him, taking Timothy’s hand in hers. Rose was always a breath of fresh air in this dreary place. Eyes bright, sharp as a tack, hands curled with arthritis, and nearly deaf, she put her skinny arms around his neck, pulling him into a hug the way she always did. Timothy relished this simple gesture every time he visited, probably because they both needed the simple contact and comfort. “I’ll come to visit with you once I see Grampy,” Timothy promised, as he always did. After visiting Grampy, he always stopped to see Rose for a few minutes. She nodded, knowing the routine, and Timothy continued down the hall.
“Hi, Grampy,” Timothy said with as much of a smile as he could muster as he walked into the small room. At least Grampy had his own room instead of sharing with someone else. Timothy saw Grampy’s eyes open, and the elderly man smiled a little bit. He was so weak lately, but Grampy tried to sit up, and Timothy helped by propping pillows behind him.
“How are you feeling?” Timothy sat in the chair next to the bed, holding Grampy’s hand. He used to hug him, but Grampy had become so fragile, and his skin so sensitive, that additional stimulation hurt. So Timothy contented both of them by holding his hand.
“My legs itch,” Grampy said, and Timothy looked down at the bedding, to where Grampy’s legs would have been if he still had them. His circulation had stopped, and they’d had to amputate over a year ago. He’d gotten better at first and was more alert after the surgery, but since then, he’d slowly returned to what he was like before his legs were taken. Timothy often wondered if they simply should have let Grampy die, but he hadn’t been able to bear that thought, so he’d made the toughest decision of his young life and let the doctors take Grampy’s legs. Now he wondered constantly if he’d made the right decision.
“I know,” Timothy said. “Close your eyes, and I’ll scratch them for you.” Timothy had been told that these were phantoms. Timothy made scratching sounds on the bed, and Grampy sighed softly, like he was feeling better. It was all in Grampy’s mind, so Timothy played along, and Grampy felt better. “Has anyone been up to see you?”
“Your mother was here yesterday,” Grampy said softly. “She wanted money, and I told her to get a job.” Grampy smiled and laughed a little. “She always was a lazy thing.” Timothy agreed with him but kept quiet. There was no need to upset him, and at least Grampy hadn’t given her any money. “I saved it all for you, Timmy,” Grampy added. “All I had I saved for you.”
“Grampy, you don’t need to save anything for me. You need it for you,” Timothy said, but Grampy had his eyes closed, and he was no longer with him. Their visits often went like this. When Grampy got tired, his mind would wander and he wouldn’t make much sense.
“I saved it for you, Timmy. I put it where you always played.” Grampy muttered something else and sat back in the bed, holding his hand like he had before. “The nurse came in here yesterday, and she had a banana on her head.” Grampy’s eyes shot open, and he turned his head toward Timothy. “Who are you?”
“I’m Timothy, Grampy. Remember?” Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. The moments of lucidity were unfortunately becoming fewer and fewer. “Go to sleep. I’ll sit with you for a while.”
He shook his head on the pillow. “Remember the stories, Timmy. I can’t give you much, but it’s all in the stories. Tell me you remember the stories.”
Timothy smiled. “I remember every one you ever told me.” Timothy settled back in the chair. “You used to tell me all kinds of stories. We’d sit on the porch swing, and you would hold me on your lap and tell me about the things you and your dad did. Do you remember?” Grampy closed his eyes, and Timothy sat with him until he fell asleep.
“Remember the stories, Timmy,” Grampy mumbled when Timothy got up to leave. “They’re where you used to play.”
“I will; I promise.” Timothy patted Grampy’s hand and left the room. He stopped at the nurse’s station on his way out to make sure they checked on Grampy. Then he made his way to Rose’s room and found her sitting in her chair in front of her small television with a pair of huge headphones on. She was watching the news, and as he entered, he heard her make a very unladylike noise.
He walked around the bed and touched her shoulder. She jumped a little before pulling off the headphones. “There you are. I thought you forgot me.” She smiled, as if to say she really hadn’t, and rolled back from the television after turning it off.
“I just stopped by to say hello. You don’t have to stop watching because of me,” Timothy explained.
She made the same sound as she had earlier. “The president was making a speech. That Bush kid is as dumb as a box of rocks.” She actually made a hand gesture at the television before turning back to Timothy with a smile on her face. “I have some cookies here somewhere,” she said, and Timothy smiled. She was always trying to feed him.
“So how are you doing today?”
“As good as I can be,” she answered. “They have me making baby quilts.” She rolled her old eyes as best she could. “There isn’t a baby within ten miles of this place, and if there were, all these old folks would suck the life out of it. But I spend my days making baby quilts.”
“It keeps you busy,” Timothy said, sitting in the chair in the corner.
“Yes, I suppose they figure if they keep us busy, the inmates won’t try to take over the asylum.” They both laughed. Rose was a sharp cookie. She’d told him once that she was ninety-seven, and Timothy supposed at that age, she was entitled to say whatever she wanted. “How’s your Grampy?”
“Not good,” Timothy answered, and Rose nodded.
“This place isn’t good for anybody. It’s where they put us out of sight to die.” She said it so matter-of-factly it seemed sort of shocking to Timothy, and he looked at his shoes, feeling lower than dirt that he couldn’t find a better place for Grampy. “Hey, I didn’t mean you. Your Grampy and I are the lucky ones.” Her hand touched his leg reassuringly. “The kids visit me all the time, and you see your Grampy plenty. We aren’t forgotten, but most of them are.”
“But if I could find him a better place…,” Timothy began, and Rose clucked her teeth.
“It isn’t the place, because they’re all the same. No matter how much you pay, it’s still a home where you can be forgotten,” Rose explained. “Sometimes the depression here is enough to suck the life out of you.”
Timothy got up as two teenagers walked into the room, smiling and filled with energy. He said goodbye and left the room so Rose could visit with the kids. As he reached for the door, he heard all three of them laughing. Walking back down the hall, Timothy looked in on Grampy, who looked sound asleep. But he was playing possum, and as soon as he realized Timothy was there, he opened his eyes and tried to sit up. Timothy went back into the room and proceeded to have nearly the exact same visit he’d had less than an hour earlier, Grampy not remembering a thing. When he left a second time, Grampy said in a raised voice, “Remember the stories, Timmy.”
Timothy hurried back into the room and hugged his Grampy. He knew he shouldn’t, but he needed him so badly, and he felt Grampy’s arms around him and heard him whispering nonsense into his ears. “I love you, Grampy.”
“I love you too, Timmy,” he said, barely above a whisper. When Timothy let go, Grampy closed his eyes once again but looked happier, and Timothy’s spirit felt much lighter as he left the nursing home.
Chapter OneTIMOTHY pulled his new car, the first he’d ever had, in front of what in his own mind he referred to as the house of horrors. Parking the car, Timothy tried to decide if he actually wanted to stop at all. He could simply pull away again and tell the lawyer to sell it, or better yet, bulldoze the place to the ground. But he knew he wouldn’t do that. There were good memories here, too, but bad ones had been laid down on top of those, and they were the ones that were hard to forget, the ones he saw again and again in his dreams. The house had been Grampy’s, and for that reason alone it held a place in his heart, but Grampy hadn’t actually lived there for quite a while. And even when Grampy had, he couldn’t stop the hurt. Getting out of the car, Timothy stared at the front door but didn’t move.
“Timmy!” A familiar voice rang out, and he turned to see Dieter running toward him. They’d met when Timothy and his mother had first moved in with Grampy. Dieter nearly tackled him with his energetic hug. “Are you okay? I saw people evicting your mom, and I figured I wouldn’t see you again.” Dieter seemed so happy, and his energy dispelled some of the gloom Timothy was feeling.
“Well,” Timothy began, wondering if Dieter would understand, “I was the one who tossed the deadbeats out on their sorry asses.”
“You evicted your own mother?” Dieter stared at him openmouthed.
“Yup, and I would have done it years ago if I’d known Grampy had put the house in my name.” Timothy felt the hate and rage swell inside him. “She’s an addict who couldn’t even show up for Grampy’s funeral. I always thought Grampy had given her the house, that’s what she said, but it was deeded to me years ago because he knew how my mother was.” Dieter still stared at him with his mouth hanging open. “I know it sounds harsh, but the bitch hit Grampy before we got him in the nursing home,” Timothy said. He didn’t tell Dieter that she and sometimes her “boyfriends” had hit him too.
“Then good for you,” Dieter said, and he put his arm around Timothy’s shoulder like he’d done when they were kids. “I loved your Grampy. Do you remember the stories he used to tell?”
“All the time,” Timothy said. “Do you still live in the same house?”
“Yeah. Gram died a while ago, and my partner Gerald and I live there now. Do you remember Tyler?” Dieter asked as they walked across the yard, and Timothy nodded. Tyler was older, so they weren’t close friends. “He and his partner Mark bought his grandmother’s house a while ago. It’s like when we were kids, except the kids have taken over.” Dieter snickered, the way Timothy remembered from when they were young, familiar and comforting in its way. “Are you going to keep the house?”
“I haven’t decided. Mom didn’t take good care of the place. But it was Grampy’s house, and he’d hate to see it the way it looks now.” Actually, the peeling paint and jungle yard would have broken Grampy’s heart; Timothy knew it.
“Come on, let’s take a look inside,” Dieter said, and Timothy agreed. After all, that was why he was here, and at least he wouldn’t have to see the mess on his own.
The inside wasn’t as bad as he feared. It was mostly dirty and old. His mother, the old bitch, hadn’t done anything, but at least she hadn’t really damaged the place, either. “It needs a good cleaning and some paint,” Timothy said as he walked from room to room. There was stuff piled in some of the corners and some old furniture. As he wandered around, he remembered these rooms when Grampy was still living here. The wallpaper in the living room was the same he remembered, faded with time, but still there.
“This is a great house. You could clean up the inside and have the outside painted. The yard needs some work, but you can do that yourself. This could be a really wonderful house, and I’m sure Gerald and I could help you. I bet Mark and Tyler would too. They helped me with mine, and they know everybody.” Dieter sounded so excited. “I’d love to have you as my neighbor again. I missed you after you left.”
Timothy stopped moving through the room and turned to Dieter. “I missed you too, but I couldn’t stay here anymore.” Timothy felt his knees threaten to buckle, and he forced himself to remain standing. He was not going to give in to the fear, not now, with Dieter here. He could do that when he was alone, but not now.
Dieter nodded before heading toward the stairs. “I still missed you.”
Timothy forced his legs to move and followed Dieter to the second floor. It looked much like the first floor, except for a few rooms, one of which had been his. There were still some of the things he hadn’t taken with him in there: some old pictures, the bed and dresser, the detritus of a life left behind. Timothy didn’t look too hard; he really wasn’t ready for that.
Leaving the room, they continued down the hall. The other two bedrooms were largely empty, but the fourth small bedroom looked as though it had been used as storage for everything his mother had no use for. “She could never throw a single thing away, the pig!” Timothy shut the door and added a dumpster to the list of things he was going to have to get.
“I bet if you pull up these old carpets….” Dieter knelt in one of the corners, pulling at the edge. “Look, there’s oak under here. If you get rid of these, I bet the floors will be beautiful. You’ve got great woodwork, and mostly it just needs cleaning and touchups. This could be a really great house, and think how happy Grampy would be to see you here fixing the place up.”
Timothy laughed, throwing his arms around Dieter’s neck. “You just want the neighborhood eyesore cleaned up.”
Dieter looked mortified for about two seconds before grinning. “Actually, I want my best friend back. It felt like you got ripped away when you left.” Dieter returned his hug. “I know why you did it, and I don’t blame you one bit, but it still hurt.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” Timothy said, wishing more than anything that things had been different.
“Gerald will be home from work soon. Why don’t you come back to the house? We can talk, and you can stay for dinner.” Dieter grinned, and Timothy remembered what he’d been missing all this time. Growing up, Dieter had always acted like the big brother he’d never had, actually better than a big brother, because he was also his best friend.
“Are you sure Gerald won’t mind?”
“Of course not,” Dieter said, as they descended the stairs. They left the house, and Timothy locked the front door. Following Dieter across the yards, he watched as his friend bounded up his front stairs and held the door open for him. Inside, the house was a showplace, and Timothy stopped, almost in shock. He’d been expecting the house to look the same as it had when he and Dieter were kids, but it was so different, in a rather spectacular way. “Go on into the living room. I’ll get something for us to eat and be right in.” Dieter left, and Timothy wandered a little through the house, admiring everything.
“This is really nice,” Timothy said as he stopped in front of the fireplace. The portrait above it looked familiar.
Timothy stared at the image. “Why does this look familiar?” Timothy had seen this somewhere, but he wasn’t sure why.
“That’s Gram when she was a girl,” Dieter said from behind him. “Sometimes I find it hard to believe she was ever that young because I only knew her when she was old. It was hanging in the museum for a while. The Woman in Blue was Gram’s mother. The portrait of Gram was part of the opening exhibit at the museum, along with the other works we were able to recover. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. The story was all over the news and stuff.” Dieter looked hurt, and Timothy sighed.
“I’ve been really out of it for a while. Between school, working, and taking care of Grampy, I missed a whole chunk of what went on in the outside world.” Timothy didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. “I’m glad you got the paintings back; they’re really amazing,” Timothy said, feeling uncomfortable and sort of figuring he should just leave.
Timothy turned to say goodbye, and Dieter’s hand touched his shoulder. “I just missed you,” Dieter said, and Timothy placed a hand on Dieter’s. “It was like you ran away from me too.” That was Dieter—sensitive as they came. He remembered the one time they’d fought as children: Dieter had looked as though his world was coming to an end.
“I didn’t run away, Dieter, I got out,” Timothy said softly as he tried to hold it together. After six years, the hurt was still close to the surface sometimes. “I worked after I graduated high school and went to college. It was a freaking miracle that I got this scholarship through the school so I didn’t have to borrow all the money for my degree.” He still had a mountain of debt, but he was working hard to pay it down.
“Where are you working now?”
Timothy smiled wide. “I got a job in the design department at Harley Davidson. I help design the motorcycles. I’m the junior associate in my department, but it’s the coolest job ever.” Timothy loved going into work every morning. The other guys who’d been there for a while thought Timothy a bit too enthusiastic, but this was his dream job. “I’m saving up to get a cycle, but I have bills to pay down, so that will have to wait for a little while.”
“I’m glad you’re doing well,” Dieter said before bear-hugging him again. “I’m not letting you get away again. Even if you sell the house, I’ll stalk you if you don’t stay in touch.”
Timothy laughed and returned Dieter’s hug. It was good to have close human contact again. For a long time, he hadn’t been touched like this, except for careful hugs with Grampy and Rose, but he had to be careful not to hurt either of them. Dieter, on the other hand, threw himself into the hug, and Timothy figured he must be feeling like his prodigal brother had returned, because that was a bit how Timothy was feeling right now. He hadn’t even realized just how much he’d missed his friend until he saw him again.
“The house looks amazing,” Timothy commented once Dieter released him from the hug.
“This house didn’t look much better than yours when I got it. Gram did her best, but the house needed a lot of work. Initially, I did a lot of it myself, but Gerald has helped as well, and we’ve been able to make the house our own. Would you like to see the rest?” Dieter asked excitedly, taking Timothy on a tour of the entire place. It looked so very different from the way the house had looked when Dieter’s grandmother had lived there. “I didn’t want the house to look like a memorial to Gram, so we updated a lot of the rooms. Her bedroom was one of the last we did, but I had to bite the bullet and let it go.”
“Do you think my house could look like this?” Timothy asked as he ran his hand over the fireplace mantel in Dieter’s master bedroom.
“I don’t see why not,” Dieter answered. “These old houses have amazing character, and with a little care and some elbow grease, they shine right up.” Timothy heard what he thought was the front door opening and closing. “That’s Gerald,” Dieter said, already heading for the stairs. Timothy followed more slowly, and when he reached the lower landing, he saw Dieter in the arms of another man, both of them obviously very happy to see each other. The wave of longing that came over Timothy nearly knocked him back onto the stairs. He wanted that kind of unabashed happiness more than he could say, and he hadn’t even known it until that second. The realization made him understand why he felt so hollow inside sometimes. Timothy pulled himself together and headed the rest of the way down to where the other two men were standing. “Gerald, this is Timothy. He and I have been friends for years, and he owns the house two doors down. I’m trying to convince him to stay and fix it up.” Dieter kept an arm around Gerald’s waist as he made introductions.
Gerald extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Dieter has told me about some of the things you two did growing up.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, and I hope you won’t hold those stories against me.”
“Timothy is going to join us for dinner,” Dieter explained, and Gerald nodded.
“I figured that part out,” he said with a smile before turning to Timothy. “I was about to open a bottle of wine—would you like a glass?”
“That would be nice, thank you,” Timothy answered, and he followed the couple back into the kitchen. It had obviously been recently remodeled, and every surface gleamed, from the granite countertops to the new cabinets that went beautifully with the rest of the house. His mind was already turning about what he wanted to do with his own house. Gerald opened a bottle of white wine and handed Timothy a glass before passing one to Dieter as well. He motioned toward a stool, and Timothy sat while Gerald and Dieter began pulling things out of the refrigerator.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Timothy asked, feeling a bit useless watching them work.
Dieter returned to the refrigerator and began pulling out veggies. “You can make the salad, if you like.” Dieter placed a bowl and cutting board near him, and Timothy began cutting vegetables.
“Do you remember the story Grampy always told about his mother during the Depression?” Dieter asked as he put a pot of water on the stove to boil and began shucking sweet corn.
“What was it?” Gerald prompted.
Timothy laughed at the memory. “Grampy said that his father had bought a brand-new car in early 1933. They must have had it for about a week when Grampy’s dad was asked to travel from Philadelphia, where they were living, to Milwaukee. He went by train, and Grampy said that his mother became obsessed that someone was going to steal the car.” Timothy took a sip of his wine when he finished cutting the lettuce, and then started on the tomatoes. “Grampy must have been about ten, and he told her to lock up the car. So his mother got a length of chain from the garage and padlocked the car to one of the trees planted by the curb. She stopped obsessing about the car and was happy until Grampy’s dad got home and wanted to use the car.” Timothy took another sip of wine.
“It seems there was no key to the lock she’d used to secure the car to the tree.” Timothy began to chuckle, saying, “And Grampy’s dad spent an hour with a hacksaw, trying to cut through the chain so he could get his car loose.”
“That’s good,” Gerald said with a chuckle.
“It gets better,” Dieter added. “Because once he got the car free, he then asked his wife….” Dieter paused, and they answered together, “Why didn’t you just park the car in the garage?” Both he and Dieter laughed, carrying Gerald along with them.
“Grampy used to tell me stories all the time,” Timothy continued. “According to Grampy, it was when his dad was on that trip that he got the job offer to move to Milwaukee, and it was way too good to pass up. It was Grampy’s parents who originally purchased the house just down the block.”
“They must have had money, then,” Gerald said, and Timothy nodded.
“They weren’t rich, but even during the Depression, they lived pretty well. Grampy’s dad was a talented executive, and he worked for one of the breweries in town after Prohibition, so he did very well,” Timothy explained. “In fact, Grampy used to tell me about him and his dad visiting the Philadelphia Mint just before they left town. Grampy used to say that his dad knew that tough times were coming, so he drew a lot of his money out of the banks and converted it to gold in the late twenties. Before they left Philadelphia, they were supposed to turn in the gold coins for paper money, and Grampy’s dad took him along when he did it.”
“The government was nearly insolvent,” Gerald explained, “so they made people trade in their gold for paper. It was good for the government, but it screwed a lot of individuals over later on, when times got tough again.”
Timothy finished cutting the tomatoes and began working to clean the yellow peppers. “Grampy said that when they got to the mint, it was chaos. There was a huge line, and they had to wait a long time. He said a person in line was robbed, but the other people in the line caught the guy as he was trying to get away and nearly beat him to death.
“They waited in line for most of the afternoon in the blazing sun.” Timothy tried to imagine how that must have been. Heavy clothes, loads of sweaty people, no shade or relief at all as everyone stood in line on the sidewalk. “The first thing they had to do was take the raw gold to the bullion window, where they got, of all things, gold coin for it. Then they had to take the coin to exchange it for cash. Grampy told me that by the time they got to the window, his dad was so fed up that he hid coins in his inner pockets and only turned in some of them. Grampy said that when they got to Milwaukee, his dad hid the coins somewhere in the house as a safeguard.”
“Are they still there?” Dieter asked.
“I doubt it, after all these years,” Timothy answered. “Grampy said there used to be a safe in the one corner of the basement, but it’s gone now. You can still see the indentation in the concrete where it had once sat, and I suppose that’s where anything would have been kept.” Timothy finished up the salad as Dieter placed the corn in the boiling water.
“I’ll light the grill,” Gerald said, picking up the plate of steaks and heading toward the back door.
“Grampy used to tell me that story all the time.” Timothy stood up and wandered to the island, leaning against the counter as Dieter finished cooking. “When I was a kid, I could almost hear the sound of the cars as they passed on the street and feel the sweat as well as the concern and panic that everyone had to be feeling at the time. Grampy told me everything seemed so uncertain, and everyone kept wondering what was going to happen next.”
“I always loved listening to your Grampy’s stories.” Dieter stirred the corn in the huge pot. “What happened to him?”
Timothy sighed softly as he thought of his Grampy. “Mom put him into a home just before I left, and he did okay for a couple of years, but then he started to have circulation problems, and he lost his legs. He was better for a while then, but eventually the circulation problems spread to the rest of him, and his mind really started to go. He’d forget who I was sometimes, and toward the end, he didn’t know anyone. He died a few weeks ago, and that’s when I found out about the house.” Timothy let the words taper off. The rest was still too painful to talk about. “It was a blessing, I know that, but I still miss him so much.”
“I wish I’d have known,” Dieter said softly, and Timothy nodded slowly.
“Mom put him in the cheapest place she could find. I tried to find a better place for him, but I couldn’t afford it.” Timothy swallowed as the guilt he’d mulled over so many times reared its head once again. “Towards the end, I used to just sit with him and hold his hand. I knew he didn’t know me anymore, but every time I visited, I thought it might be the last time.”
Dieter turned off the burner and set his large spoon aside. “Were you there when he died?”
Timothy shook his head quickly. “One night he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Thankfully, the home called me, because my mother didn’t do anything for Grampy’s funeral, including show up.” Timothy could forgive a lot of things, but her treatment of Grampy…. Timothy could never forgive her for what she’d done to him.
“What was wrong with her?” Dieter asked. “She never looked very good when I saw her.” He began removing the corn from the pot and set each ear on a plate.
“She was an addict.” Timothy sighed. “My mother the crackwhore.” At first, Timothy could see that Dieter thought he was kidding, but when Timothy nodded slowly, Dieter’s mouth hung open. “She used drugs of some sort for a long time. Mostly pot when I was growing up, but about a year before I left, she started using harder stuff. She tried to hide it at first, but after I figured it out and confronted her, she stopped hiding it altogether. I probably should have called the police, but she was my mom and I wanted to help her. As soon as I finished high school, I left.”
“So that’s why,” Dieter said almost to himself.
“That’s most of it, yeah. Like I said, she was mean to Grampy when he wouldn’t give her money. She was mean to everyone. When she needed a fix, she would do anything.” Timothy had found that out firsthand, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about that with anyone. “So I left.”
“I always thought you left because you were treated badly,” Dieter whispered.
“That’s part of it too. Living on the street was better than living there, and by then she’d put Grampy in the home. Since I didn’t have to look after him anymore, it was time to leave. I should have kept in touch, but Mom didn’t know where I was, and I never wanted to see her again. So I cut all ties with everything here and stayed away.” Timothy felt terrible that he’d run out on his friend, but at the time, he really hadn’t seen how he’d had any other choice. “Can you forgive me?”
Dieter walked around the island, pulling Timothy into another hug. “I already have.”
The back door opened, and Gerald came back into the kitchen, setting the platter on the table. Dieter brought over the corn, and Timothy carried the salad. Dieter got plates and utensils, and they all brought their wine glasses to the table. Gerald opened a bottle of red, and they all sat down. The three of them talked and laughed, dispelling Timothy’s gloom. Gerald was a great guy, and he seemed to love Dieter deeply, which his friend really deserved. They talked about general topics, and when all the food had been devoured, they lingered at the table for a long time, drinking a little more wine and simply talking and laughing together. Timothy was careful about what he drank because he had to drive back to his apartment, and as the evening wore on, he got up to say good night.
Dieter walked him back to what was now his house, and Timothy decided to go directly home. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Timothy told Dieter. “I’m going to start cleaning out the house and see what’s there.” Timothy wondered how he would feel being back in the house. Once he saw how he felt, he could decide what he wanted to do.
“It’s Sunday, so both Gerald and I will be around. I forbid Gerald from working on Sundays because that’s our time, so we’re usually here doing projects and things around the house. So stop by when you get here, okay?” Dieter grinned, and Timothy walked toward his car with a much lighter heart than when he’d pulled into the parking space hours before.
Starting the engine, he waved and then pulled out, driving to his small apartment in Glendale. When he arrived, Timothy parked and went inside. Closing the door, he looked to see if anything was out of place. He always checked; it was an old habit. Everything was as he left it, but he did notice how sterile, almost clinical, it felt. He didn’t have many things—he’d never needed them. But he’d felt a warmth at Dieter and Gerald’s that he hadn’t felt since he was a child with Grampy and Grammy.
Getting undressed, Timothy cleaned up and got into bed. Turning out the lights, he settled between the crisp sheets and tried to sleep. But it wasn’t to be. Being back at the house had stirred up memories he thought he’d been able to bury.
THE next day, Timothy returned to the house and looked over at Dieter and Gerald’s. Their place, like every other house on the block, was closed up tight at this hour of the morning. Since he hadn’t been able to sleep, he’d decided he might as well get to work. On the way, he’d stopped at an all-night grocery and gotten trash bags. He’d also grabbed a bunch of cleaning supplies and had even stuffed the vacuum cleaner into the trunk. He had no idea what he was about to walk into, especially once he scratched the surface, and he wanted to be ready.
Opening the front door, he hauled in all the supplies and decided he might as well go room by room. He started in the easiest ones, throwing away the trash in the living and dining rooms before closing up his first trash bag and hauling it to the curb. He knew trash day was Monday, so he figured it wouldn’t hurt for the bags to sit out overnight. Once that easy chore was done, he vacuumed the stained carpets in those rooms as well as the hall and then moved on to the kitchen.
That was a huge chore. Food had been left in the refrigerator, and he emptied it as quickly as he could, trying not to breathe, before shutting the door with a slam. He knew his mother had purposely unplugged it to make sure everything inside smelled as bad as possible. He’d brought some bleach, so he made a mild solution and wiped out the inside before giving up and closing the door for the last time. He’d just throw the whole thing away. Timothy cleaned out everything in the cupboards, making no decisions about whether it was good or not. Opening one of the drawers, Timothy gasped at the pile of needles and other bits of used drug crap he found. He dumped the entire drawer into the trash before moving on to the next. He spent hours in the kitchen and hauled bag after bag to the curb, but by the time he was done, the room smelled like Pine-Sol instead of musty death. Afterward, he looked at the basement door, but frankly he was afraid of what he might find and decided to put off that adventure for another day.
“Timothy,” Gerald called as he made his way to the curb with the last of the trash from the main floor.
“Morning, Gerald,” he called before dumping the bags on the growing pile.
“You’ve been busy,” Gerald commented as he made his way over.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I got an early start.” Timothy looked at the pile of full, black trash bags. “I bought one of the huge boxes of bags, and that’s only the main floor. I’m probably not going to have enough.” Timothy smiled. At least he was going to have as much crap out of his house as possible. “I better get back at it if I ever want to get finished.” Timothy headed back inside, waving to Gerald.
Timothy knew the upstairs was going to be worse, but he used the same strategy as downstairs. Most of the rooms didn’t take too long, but the bathrooms were filthy and took a long time to clean and undisgustify. Timothy hauled load after load of bags to the curb, getting every room cleaned except for the one he knew was piled full. Standing in the hallway, he looked around and was deciding if it was time to get lunch when he heard a loud knock on the front door. Grabbing a load of trash, he descended the stairs and pulled open the door. He expected it to be Dieter or Gerald. He was not expecting to see his mother.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “You can’t throw away my stuff!” Timothy stepped back and tried to close the door, but she bustled inside the house. “All that is mine!” Her eyes looked glazed, and Timothy wondered what she was on now.
“I can throw away anything I like. I found all your drug crap, and I’ll call the police and have you arrested right now if you don’t leave. I bet they can find your prints on the syringes and other stuff. That, combined with the fact that you’re high as a kite, should be enough to land you in jail.”
“Is there a problem?” Gerald said from the doorway. “You need to leave. This house and everything in it are Timothy’s to do with what he likes.” Gerald sounded so confident that Timothy saw his mother waver, her head bobbing back and forth between them like some sort of demented bobblehead. “You are not to set foot on this property again.”
“Or what?” she asked, folding her hands over her deflated-looking chest.
“You’ll be arrested, and I bet if they do, they could find plenty on you.” Gerald stared back at her, and Timothy stepped to the door.
“Get out now!” Timothy reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell. “All it takes is three buttons and your crackwhore ass is in jail!” Timothy was barely holding himself together.
“I’m still your mother,” she said, stepping toward Timothy with her hand raised. Timothy braced for her attack but saw her stumble over the threshold, and she went flying, landing half in and half out of the door. When she got up, her nose was bleeding and her face was all scraped. She wavered and stumbled down the stairs.
“You stopped being my mother a long time ago, bitch!” Timothy cried before slamming the door. He looked out the window and saw his mother turn to look back, blood running down her face. She wiped it onto her blouse, barely noticing what it was. Timothy saw her get into a car, and after a few moments, it sped off. He didn’t know if she was driving, but he heard Gerald on the phone.
“My name is Gerald Young, and I want to report a possible incidence of driving under the influence. I suspect both drugs and alcohol. A dark sedan, license number BRH-1208. The vehicle is probably heading west on Newberry toward Capital.” Gerald explained Timothy’s mother’s behavior and provided additional information before disconnecting the call. “That should take care of them,” Gerald said with a smile, shoving his phone into his pants pocket.
“Thank you,” Timothy said.
“No problem. Dieter and I were about to get some lunch, and we were wondering if you’d like to go along. From the size of the pile of bags, you could use a break.”
“I’d love one.” Timothy didn’t want to tell Gerald that he also really didn’t want to be alone right now. “Let me wash up.”
“We’ll meet you at the house,” Gerald said with a smile before leaving. Timothy locked the door and washed his hands in the kitchen sink before leaving the house. He met Dieter and Gerald at their place and rode with them to a small Middle Eastern restaurant. Once they were done, Timothy rode back and headed over to his house, with Dieter and Gerald right behind. They had insisted on helping, and together they tackled the room full of junk. There wasn’t much in the room that was worth anything. Not that Timothy had thought there would be, but he had to look at everything before throwing it away. Finally, that room was done, and Timothy thanked Gerald and Dieter for their help. They had an appointment and had to go. “You call if your mother shows up again,” Gerald told him at the front door.
“I will, and thank you both for the help,” Timothy said at the front door before closing it behind them. He really wanted to go himself, but there was still more to do. He hadn’t been in the attic yet, and he wanted to know if there was anything up there. His mother never went up there. When he was a child, he’d found out his mother had a fear of the attic and refused to climb the steps, so he’d often played amid all the stuff that Grampy and Grammy had put up there. After carrying out the last of the trash bags, he climbed to the attic door and opened it, slowly ascending the dark stairs.
When he reached the top, he located the light chain and pulled it. The light bulb came on, and dust motes floated in the air. Timothy saw that all the stuff was still there. Boxes and trunks lined the edges of the floor. The space wasn’t full, but it never had been. He was simply amazed that Grampy and Grammy’s old things were still there. Timothy walked around the room, which spanned the entire top of the house. Everything looked the same. Timothy bent down and opened the lid on one of the trunks filled with old clothes. He could hear Grampy’s voice telling him how Grammy had once worn the dresses inside. Timothy picked one up carefully as he listened to Grampy’s voice in his head telling him about the first time he’s seen Grammy. He’d said it was love at first sight.
Setting the dress back in the trunk, he closed the lid and looked around some more. He smiled and moved one of the trunks aside. The small doorway was still there. When Timothy was young, he and Grampy had built a play place in the attic. No one knew it was there except the two of them. It was their special place. Remember the stories, Timmy. I put it where you always played. Grampy’s voice played in his head. He had told Timothy that over and over again, and as Timothy stared at the door, he wondered if there could be something to Grampy’s words.
He suddenly knew what Grampy had meant. I saved it all for you, Timmy. Whatever “all” meant. Kneeling on the floor, Timothy unlatched the door and opened it, peering inside. Of course he could see nothing, because he and Grampy had always used flashlights. But he didn’t have one. Opening the door further, Timothy closed his eyes and remembered what the room looked like inside. He stuck his head inside again, and a small amount of light shone in through the open doorway, just enough that he could see the room was empty. Leaning further inside, Timothy ran his hand along the angled wall that formed the underside of the roof. Grampy had lined it for him before putting up the wall, and it felt smooth. Then his hand touched a ridge near the limit of his reach. He couldn’t tell anything more, so he backed out of the doorway and stood back up. There was something there, or at least something was different.
Heart pounding, Timothy hurried down the stairs and out the front door, locking it behind him. He needed a flashlight if he was going to find out what was there. “It’s probably nothing,” he told himself more than once as he climbed into his car and sped off to the nearest drugstore. He told himself to calm down even as he entered the store and bought a cheap flashlight and some batteries. Then he hurried back to the house, his heart racing, and rushed back up to the attic, carrying the bag. Putting the batteries in the light, Timothy turned it on and climbed into the small door. There was definitely a spot in the ceiling where it looked like a hole had been cut and patched over. Pressing on the spot caused it to move slightly, and Timothy pressed harder, but it did nothing more than give a little. Backing out once again, Timothy looked around for something he could use as a pry bar and found Grampy’s old toolbox. Inside, he found a handmade screwdriver and carried that back into the little hideout with him.
Wedging it into the edge, Timothy worked the piece of wood free until it fell onto the floor, but nothing followed. “This is stupid,” he told himself even as he reached into the hole, feeling around the edge until his hand brushed against cloth. Timothy worked it free and pulled it out of the hole before backing out of the door for what he hoped was a final time.
The bag jingled as he carried it to the light, and it was heavy too. Opening it under the bulb, Timothy reached inside. Sure enough, they felt like coins, and with his heart racing, he grabbed a few and brought them into the light. They shone as bright and new as the day they were minted. Gold.
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.
Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing) He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.