We had to visit three toy stores before we found one that had a teddy bear identical to the one that little Rosa had lost to the fire. I stuck to Vin like glue, wondering when he'd realize that all his possessions were gone. But as the morning wore on, I listened to him joke about his favorite t-shirt from the U2 concert he'd attended in 1989 and an old wooden spoon that had been seasoned with a hundred stews.
And I gradually came to understand that we had very different ideas about the possessions in our lives. His had stories behind the mostly found items while mine had monetary value that was either increasing or might someday. More than anything else, that brought out our very different upbringings. He told me once that he was in fourteen different foster homes between the death of his mother and the day he turned sixteen.
I was most often with Grandmother Eugenia, in between visits with Maude and her current husband. But for me, home was the small house in Tarboro, Georgia. I'd been luckier than I knew and I blessed the memory of the white-haired woman who'd taught me so many of life's simpler lessons. Stand up straight. Be polite. Always say thank you. And don't gobble your food.
"What has you smiling, Ez'?" Vin's voice interrupted my thoughts and I reached a hand over to his leg.
"Just thinking about Grandmother Eugenia and all the things she taught me. I never had a teddy bear growing up but I'm glad that little Rosa will have hers." I parked the Jag beside the Mission.
"Never?" He was looking at me with sad eyes and I hastened to disabuse him of the notion that I'd been abused.
"Maude wasn't a stuffed animal kind of person. But Grandmother had a big old tomcat named Clancy and when I went to stay with her, he'd always come to my room and sleep with me. She'd harrumph every morning when she came to wake me up but Clancy would just stalk regally from the room with his tail high and she'd laugh at my guilty look." I could see that old yellow tomcat so clearly.
"That's a good memory, Ez'. Maybe we'll find a cat who looks like him."
"For our guard-cat?" I teased him and he just grinned at me before getting out of the car.
"Of course." He'd already removed the tags from the small white bear with the red knitted muffler and I saw the little girl race to him from just inside the door. Vin got down to one knee and I rolled down the window in time to hear him tell her that this was her bear's sister who needed a good home.
She almost strangled him with her hug and I sighed at the beautiful picture they made together. I'd always thought that he would make an excellent father and for one very scary month, I'd been afraid that Charlotte would take him away from the team so they could start a family.
Frankly, children rather scared me. I never knew what to say or do around them, afraid to speak down to them or worse, baffle them with too erudite language. I was hoping to keep that little foible from Vin but knowing my luck, it was bound to come out sooner rather than later. But not today, today he was checking with the good Sister on the welfare of the others before striding back to me.
I have never seen anyone who moves more gracefully than he. He was made for the wide-open spaces, not the closed in milieu of concrete and tall buildings. I've often fancied that he could have been a cowboy of the Old West magically transported to the modern day. Something in the way he moves makes me want to abandon the city and move to the country where I can watch him stride the land, free at last.
But I am a man of the city and I doubted that I could adapt to such a life. It was just one of the many fears that I harbored about this relationship. However, I had promised him to try and be more open about my feelings so I would do my best. And I fervently hoped that my best would be good enough.
"Deep thoughts, Ez'." He slid in beside me and his hand reached for mine.
"Are you sure that you want to try living in the city? You came from the open spaces and that's where your heart lies." I had promised him my honesty.
He grasped my cold hand in his warm grip. "Home is wherever you are, Ezra."
I will never get used to hearing that. "I love you, Vin."
That beautiful smile lit up his whole face. "Love you, too. Now, are we going to go looking for a new place for both of us?"
"Your wish is my command." I let go of him reluctantly. "The warehouses are eight blocks from here. The property manager is on site overseeing the workmen. There are six buildings all together but four front on a small abandoned lot that could be landscaped into a common green space."
"Sounds interesting. Why do you know about them, Ez'?" He watched me the way I'd watched him while he was driving.
"I dislike renting when I can buy. If there's one thing that Mother taught me, it's to create assets for the future. I bought a small apartment building in Atlanta while I was with the FBI. Still own it actually. The rents pay for a manager and upkeep." I risked a glance at him and immediately saw the little frown line between his eyes. "Vin, you have to remember that I've been undercover for most of my career. When would I get to spend any of my salary? It made more sense to invest it then to just let it sit in the bank."
"But what about when you weren't? Meals, shows, stuff like that." He had turned as far towards me as the seatbelt would let him.
"I ate out occasionally and I do enjoy new clothes but until I moved here, I never had ... friends with whom I could do things. Shows and 'stuff like that' aren't much fun when you're there alone. Usually I'd just curl up with a good book and enjoy being myself again instead of whatever character I'd been playing for months on end." I pulled up by the site with the most contractor trucks.
"Damn, Ezra, I knew that they used you hard while you were with them but we haven't been much better, have we?" Vin can still amaze me. Just like that he was all right with my money but instead worried about my time undercover.
"It's what I do best, Vin. I wouldn't be of much use to the Team if I didn't go undercover." I tried not to let my weariness show but he knows me too well.
"No, Ez'. It's not what you're best at." He took my hand in his. "Loving me is what you're best at."
What an astonishing thing to say. The love in his beautiful blue eyes shone at me like a beacon. I raised his hand to my lips and nestled a kiss in his palm. "I do love you, Vin."
"I know you do, Ezra, and I love you, too. Now, let's go in and see what they're doing." He let me go and got out while I was still savoring those lovely words. We really don't say 'I love you' enough.
But I soon joined him at the entrance and the manager was more than glad to show us around. Several of the lofts were already sold in the first two buildings so I asked him to take us around the building that had sold none. The northern warehouse was empty and derelict. The few openings were boarded up with weather beaten plywood. No heat only underscored the cold dank smells of neglect and abuse.
But ... there was something mournful about the space revealed by our echoing footsteps. The manager was smart enough to give us the facts about the structural supports and power supply before letting us explore. There was an old freight elevator and after ascertaining the safety of using it, he let us take it up alone. It was four stories high, the same as the others. The elevator groaned and clanked but moved us upward. We headed for the top floor, intent on working our way down one floor at a time.
"It's kind of eerie up here, Ez'." Vin was prowling through the vast expanse of grimy floor. Kneeling, he rubbed a spot clean and looked up at me with the first hint of excitement he'd shown since we walked into the building. "It's oak, Ez'. Why would they use good wood like that in a warehouse?"
"It was built in 1903, Vin, which explains some of the anomalies I can see. They hadn't yet started cutting corners on a wholesale level in construction." I opened a door and found a small bathroom with a toilet and old sink that hung on the wall. "Plus, I think this may have been the office floor. The Boystand Company imported spices and tea from the Orient. The spices would have been worth a lot of money at the turn of the century and storing them on the top floor would have been a sensible security move."
"Yeah, I knew there was something different in the air up here that I didn't smell downstairs. Would it cost a lot to put more windows in these brick walls?" He looked at the only source of light high on the south wall, a set of six clerestory windows.
"Not really but the higher windows provide light and privacy at the same time." I was pacing the floor to get an accurate measure of the size. "Check the ceiling for signs of leaking, would you, Vin? I'm not seeing any damage on the floor. Staining can be sanded out but I'd just as soon not have the roof fall in on us when we're in the middle of something important."
He laughed out loud. "Be a real interesting excuse for why we were late for work, wouldn't it? Hey, there's a spiral staircase behind this door."
I looked up and crossed to him. "Probably roof access. I wonder how sturdy it is?"
"Only one way to find out." He put his foot on the dusty black iron and gingerly shifted all his weight onto it. Another step then he was moving slowly but surely up the black steps that curved so gracefully above us. At the top, he rattled the door handle before putting his shoulder against it and giving a forceful push.
My heart was in my mouth but the door popped open and he disappeared onto the roof.
"This is great, Ezra, come up and see." His voice beckoned me up and I trod lightly up the two-foot wide treads of twisted iron. Except for a slight vibration, it proved to be as sturdily built as the rest of this old building.
Not really surprising for turn of the century construction and one of the reasons I'd had my eye on the area. But when I stepped out onto the roof and saw Vin silhouetted against the cold gray sky, I knew that we'd found a place where we could both be happy. A vision of what a rooftop garden would look like in summer with trellis-trained flowers and dwarf fruit trees blossoming.
"Ez'?" Vin had moved up beside me and his voice was worried. I gave him my vision and he took another look around with a smile. "Yeah, I can see it, too. Guess we should have someone come in and do a structural survey to see if it could take the weight of pots and dirt. Maybe we could have a gazebo with privacy screens so we could make love in the open air without shocking anybody?"
I laughed out loud and hugged him close. "I love the way you think, Vin. Let's go back in and see the other floors. I don't want any surprises."
"Yeah, I want to see what they look like." He squeezed me once and started down the stairs at break-neck speed. He never did like waiting around. There were days when I wished I could share in that energy.
The other two floors were more cluttered up with plywood partitions but they'd be easily removed. The oak flooring continued throughout the building and the lighting was totally inadequate for modern living. After finding only one outlet on the entire third floor, I mentally made a note to check the electrical service and added another $100,000 to the restoration bill.
The nice thing about that note was all the energy efficient appliances and solar advances that would help in keeping the price of electricity down to an affordable level. I really didn't mind paying a little more up front because the payback time was getting shorter and shorter with the rise of energy costs. When we got back to the first level, I spoke with the manager while Vin did a through survey of that floor.
The $1.3 million price tag wasn't bad for Denver and I asked him to send me a prospectus listing the history of the building and all the pertinent legal documents. Luckily, Vin didn't hear that and I wondered if I'd be able to keep it from him. I knew that all that money would definitely spook him. He liked paying cash for things instead of buying on time and I agreed with that philosophy. If I sold the apartment building in Georgia, I'd have enough to buy this building with hopefully enough left over for restoration. Otherwise, I could cash in some securities.
Once we were back in the Jag, Vin took a last look at the square building. "I can see us there, Ezra. Making a home and living real contented lives."
And just like that, I made a mental note to call my lawyer and sell the Atlanta property. If Vin liked this building then here is where we would live. And perhaps we could sell one of the floors to Buck and J.D., after we got the two of them together. Smiling, I directed Pegasus to Miss Daisy's for lunch. The next few months were going to be very exciting.
My lawyer, Mr. Kennedy, had a buyer for the Atlanta property within the space of a day. I was a little shocked at the sale price but it seemed that a corporation had plans for that area. Even so, $3.8 million seemed excessive for thirty-two apartments. I called the holding company and told them to call him for the buying arrangements. While I was settling back in at work, the lawyers arranged everything between themselves and within the week, I was the owner of 221 Adams St.
At the moment of that phone call, however, we were in the middle of the Munson investigation at work and I could only sigh in satisfaction before hanging up and getting back to work. Vernon was proving to be a gold mine of depravity, especially when the Mafia connection turned up. There seemed to be nothing too dirty for him to be involved in. But it was the two bodies that turned up that were going to hopefully send him down for the rest of his natural life.
Vin and I went down to the library floor to see Miss Clover about the old files covering the disappearance of the young men. She hugged me hard when I walked in and I returned it with a smile.
"You had me scared to death, young man. I'm so glad that you survived intact." She let me go and sniffed just a little. "And Vin, I was so sorry to hear about your loss. Do you have a place to stay?"
"He does, indeed." I placed an arm around her shoulders. "Your plot worked very well, ma'am. My love wasn't hopeless at all and we both owe you our thanks for helping to get us together."
She glanced up at me with a quirk of her lips. "Sussed me out, did you? What gave me away?"
"What! Ezra, what are you talking about?" Vin looked back and forth between us with a bewildered look on his face.
"Miss Clover is the person who left me the rose and did such a fine job embroidering my scarf." I bent down just a bit and kissed her cheek. "The old fashioned rose came from your window garden, didn't it? The scent was a dead giveaway that it was homegrown and not commercially produced."
"Darn, I was afraid that might give it away." She patted my hand and looked at Vin with a smile. "The two of you were just so right together but I had to wake you up first, young man. My matchmaking skills were a little rusty but I thought a hint of danger might just do the trick."
"You disabled Betsy, too?" Vin was starting to catch on and his look of disbelief was changing to delight.
"I always knew that class in automotive maintenance would come in handy someday." Her grin was nothing short of impish and I watched my lover lose the battle to stay sober. Taking her free hand in his, he bent and kissed it in between laughing.
"Ma'am, you are an angel in disguise." He looked at me and his whole heart was there in his eyes. I melted under that undisguised look of love. "Thanks to you, I have everything I ever wanted, someone who loves me and who I love more than life itself."
My eyes misted and I held out my other hand, meeting his warm grasp. "And I can finally hold the man I love and know that I am loved in return."
She sniffed again. "You are very lucky men and I want you to promise me that you won't let anything come between you. Talk to each other about everything, good or bad, and hold each other close. Real love takes some work but it's worth all the effort."
"We will, ma'am." Vin leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Thank you."
"You're most decidedly welcome. Now, why did you come down to see this old lady?" She patted his hand and let it go.
"Not so old, Emma." A deep voice from the doorway brought us all three around to face him.
And there was Michael Munson, grayer than he was in the videotape but still whipcord thin with a barely leashed energy that seemed to fill the room. His face looked a little tired as if he'd been traveling nonstop for several days and if I wasn't mistaken, that's exactly what he'd been doing.
"Michael." Miss Clover leaned into me just a little and I held her up until she could get over the shock of seeing her long lost lover. "How did you hear?"
"A Mr. Larabee contacted the mission where I was staying and asked me to come back." He couldn't take his eyes off of her although he'd checked us both out with lightning looks of assessment. "It was time that I stopped running away and came back to face the truth."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Munson. My name is Ezra Standish and this is Vin Tanner." I squeezed Miss Clover's shoulder and let my arm drop. "Mr. Larabee is our team leader and when you're ready to speak with him, please come up to the seventh floor."
"How do you know I haven't already done so?" The little grin was pure Munson and I found myself responding to it.
Holding out my hand, I shook his with a smile of my own. "After twenty years away, seeing Miss Clover would definitely be your first priority."
Vin chuckled and followed me in shaking hands with the man who looked like an older edition of himself. "We'll put out the gone-to-lunch sign."
Taking a last peek over my shoulder, I saw Michael hold out his hand and Emma take it hesitantly. Vin and I locked the outer door behind us before grinning at each other like a pair of idiots. I don't pray often but I sent up a quick petition to Kwan Yin for mercy and compassion for the pair we'd just left.
We had too much energy to wait for the elevator so we took the stairs, all the while wondering out loud what they might be talking about. I held out the possibility that he'd been in love with her all the time but too ashamed to tell her after he'd run away from Vernon. Vin agreed that might be true but the ten years might have been a factor to such a young man.
Still speculating, we entered our offices to find the others waiting for us. A quick look told me that it wasn't business but definitely pleasure that had them grinning. Buck was perched on the edge of his desk and he was the one who told us what had them all so chipper.
"Well boys, it looks like the prosecutor is going to go for three counts of murder one and racketeering charges. He won't be coming out any time soon."
And that was good news in more ways than one. It meant the pair of older lovers two floors down had the chance at a future without fear. I accepted Mr. Larabee's handshake and quiet commendation while Vin allowed himself to be hugged by Buck. Even Josiah was exuberant and I came in for one of his famous bearhugs. Plans were made to meet at Inez' that evening then we broke up to finish our paperwork.
Every time the door opened, I looked up expecting to see Michael Munson but it was two hours later that he finally arrived. The look of peace on his face was just what I was hoping to see. I ushered him into Mr. Larabee's office and stayed to go over the case with the pair of them.
When Judge Travis called down that he wanted to see Mr. Munson, I volunteered to take him to his offices. Once on the elevator, I found my gaze caught by his. "Just don't hurt her, Mr. Munson. She's one of our favorite people and the entire team would be most upset if anything happened to make her unhappy."
He chuckled. "I wasted twenty years, Mr. Standish. I'm not about to waste the next forty. She's the reason that I never married. I just moved from one crisis to another, trying to help where I could and all the time wishing she was with me. But it wouldn't have been fair to her so I convinced myself that it was better this way. That was the coward in me talking. If I hurt my dearest love again, you have my permission to come after me."
I smiled and ushered him into the Judge's waiting room. It looked like my favorite librarian had finally won the jackpot. Excusing myself, I headed back downstairs. This matchmaking was addictive and I had the urge to practice it on an unsuspecting Buck. With Vin's help, I thought we could open his eyes to the love of his life who was just waiting for him. This could be fun, I thought, catching Vin's eye and tilting my head towards the conference room.
Sauntering past the others, I went in and waited for my own dearest love to join me. It had been exactly two hours since I last kissed him and I needed to feed my addiction. My blue-eyed love shut the door behind him before coming into my arms and leaning in for our first kiss that afternoon. His taste and scent filled my senses and I held him hard against me.
If we locked the door, I could fulfill a fantasy that I'd often had about having him on top of the gleaming conference table. I thought that maybe he would indulge me unless he had a fantasy or two of his own we could fulfill. Our matching bulges portended a fast but satisfying afternoon quickie.
I wondered if I could find a recording of 'Afternoon Delight' to play on Pegasus' stereo, but Vin was backing me up towards the table and I concentrated instead on
... driving him
... and totally
End part fifteen