The electronic chirping of a phone broke the silence in a most unwelcome way.
"What?" Ben asked as he startled awake.
"It must be about one of my patients. Go back to sleep." Cliff said as he turned on his bedside lamp.
"I should have married a nice mortician." Ben grumbled as he closed his eyes.
"Then you'd have to put up with the smell." Cliff said before picking up the phone and saying, "This is Dr. Grant."
When Cliff was silent for a few minutes, Ben wasn't sure if he'd fallen back to sleep or not, but came fully awake when he heard Cliff gravely ask, "How bad are we talking about?"
Ben opened his eyes and looked at Cliff with concern.
"I assume that you're not calling me just to keep me up-to-date on the situation. What do you need for me to do?"
Ben got the sense that whatever Cliff was talking about wasn't one of the run-of-the-mill emergencies that sometimes cropped up to drag tired doctors from their nice comfy beds.
"When?" Cliff asked as he stood and started walking across the room.
Ben had to fight not to interrupt Cliff to demand some answers to all the questions that were buzzing around in his mind.
"I'll be ready." Cliff said before turning off the phone.
Ben watched with concern as Cliff hurried to dress.
"What's going on?"
"I've got something that I need to take care of. Apparently time is an issue." Cliff said before hurrying into the bathroom.
Ben sat and thought while he waited for Cliff to return.
"Who was that?" Ben asked cautiously as Cliff emerged.
"I really can't say." Cliff said regretfully to his beloved partner.
"Is it going to be dangerous?"
"I don't think so. But if things go really wrong, I may need for you to post bail." Cliff said with an apologetic glance in his direction.
"What have you gotten into?"
"There really isn't time for me to explain. I'm asking you to trust me on this. No matter which way things go today, I'll tell you everything when I get home."
"Do you really have to do this? Can't you just say no?" Ben asked as he, too, got out of bed.
"Trust me when I tell you that if I said no, I'd probably regret it for the rest of my life... I've got to go now. If anyone calls asking for me, just tell them that I got called out on an emergency and that you don't know where I'm going." Cliff said as he sat down to pull on his shoes.
"I don't know where you're going."
"Yeah. Just like that. I've got to hurry." Cliff said as he finished tying his shoes.
"I love you." Ben said tentatively, not knowing what else to say.
"I love you too." Cliff responded, then pulled Ben into a firm kiss to prove that he wasn't just saying the words.
* * * * *
Ben watched from the bedroom window as Cliff hurried to the curb and climbed into the passenger side of an unfamiliar car.
He glanced back at the bed, debating the idea of trying to go back to sleep. In the end he decided against it. There was simply no way that he was going to be able to sleep while he was worrying about what Cliff was doing.
* * * * *
Although he wasn't consciously aware of any noise or anything being out of place, Junior's eyes opened and he was startled to see a silhouette standing in the doorway, just a few feet away.
"I was just checking on how the boys were doing." Ben explained in a whisper.
"Is everything alright?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Yes. There's nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep." Ben whispered, then withdrew from the living room.
* * * * *
"What are you doing?" Junior asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"Making a mess." Ben replied with a half-hearted chuckle.
"I can see that." Junior said as he looked at the floury mess spread over the majority of the kitchen island.
"To be honest, I just needed something to do to work off some nervous energy. Now that I think about it, I probably should have gone downstairs and played some video games. This is going to take forever to clean up." Ben chuckled.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Don't worry about it. It's awfully early. Why don't you try and get some more sleep?" Ben suggested with a smile.
"Why don't you?" Junior challenged.
Ben looked carefully at Junior and could see the determination in his eyes.
"Cliff got called away for some sort of an emergency. Even though I'm sure that it's nothing dangerous, it's got me on edge. That's really all there is to it."
"Maybe you'd feel better if you weren't hanging around in here, all by yourself. Even if you don't want to talk about it, just not being alone can make you feel a whole lot better."
Ben considered for a moment, then said, "Company sounds like a good idea."
"Good. Now, can you tell me what it is that you're trying to do here?" Junior asked as he looked at the mess.
"Pie crust." Ben said weakly, then added, "It sounded really simple the way the cookbook described it."
"Maybe we'll have better luck if we work on it together."
"I hope so. Since I had the time, I was wanting to make something really nice that JD and Jody would enjoy."
"I get the feeling that they'd love peanut butter on toast if you made it for them."
"Hopefully, if we put our heads together, we can come up with something a little bit better than that."
"Where do you want me to start?" Junior asked as he gave up on trying to determine what needed to be done first.
"The cookbook is over there by the stove. Would you take a look at the pie crust recipe? I'm sure that I must have missed something." Ben said as he started gathering bowls and canisters.
* * * * *
"Where's Junior?" JD asked in a sleepy voice as he walked into the kitchen.
"I'm right here, helping your dad make breakfast." Junior answered.
"Did I sleep too late? If you were going to cook, why didn't you wake me up?"
"We didn't wake you up because we wanted to treat you to a nice breakfast, the way that you've done for us so many times." Ben said frankly.
"But I'd rather cook than eat."
"I realize that, but you know how good it makes you feel when you cook something and everyone enjoys it? Well, give someone else a chance and don't hog all the glory. I want to feel like that too. And maybe so does Junior."
JD considered that for a moment before reluctantly saying, "Yeah. I guess that was kind of selfish of me."
"You are absolutely not selfish. Just about everything you do is for someone else, and you enjoy doing it. I'm just saying that it's important to keep a balance. Let us do things for you every now and then so that we can show you how much we appreciate you."
"And if I always do it myself, it stops being special." JD said as he nodded his agreement with Ben's words.
"That's true. And besides all that, if you do all the cooking, when are you ever going to get to try anything new or different?"
"Okay." JD said happily, then started looking around the kitchen as he asked, "What are you making for breakfast?"
"You'll have to wait for it to be served to find out." Ben said with a teasing grin.
"Aww, man!" JD whined.
"If you want to find out what Junior and I made for you, then you'd better go wake Jody and see that both of you are dressed and ready to start the day. We'll probably have breakfast on the table before you're done." Ben said with a smile.
JD seemed to be about to argue, but instead turned and dashed out of the kitchen.
"Now I see it." Junior said distantly as he stared at the door that JD had just passed through.
"What's that?" Ben asked curiously.
"What you get out of being here with the boys. At first it looked to me like it was all give and no take on your part. But I think I'm starting to understand."
"I'm just starting to understand it myself, Junior. But all I can tell you is that it feels right."
* * * * *
"Is it ready?" JD asked hopefully as he raced into the room.
Before Ben could answer, Jody rushed into the kitchen and thrust his arms into the air.
"Good morning to you, too, my angel." Ben said as he picked Jody up and gave him a firm hug.
When Ben looked back toward JD, he noticed that he was impatiently waiting for an answer.
"If you're ready to eat, go ahead and take a seat at the table." Ben said happily.
JD hurried to take his place, then waited impatiently as Ben carried Jody to a chair and sat him down.
"Do I need to wake up Pappa?" JD asked suddenly.
"No. Your pappa got called out this morning. He'll be back later." Ben said as he turned to walk to the stove.
"It's Sunday. Isn't it his day off?" JD asked, obviously wanting to understand.
"Your pappa's a doctor. Every now and then one of his patients needs him outside of business hours. When that happens, he does his best to be there for them so that he can help them. Not every doctor does that. It's one of the things that shows what a special person your pappa really is." Ben explained while taking a pan out of the oven and carrying it back to the table.
After placing the pan in the center of the table, Ben looked around, waiting for a reaction.
"We're having pie for breakfast?" Jody asked uncertainly.
"It's a quiche." JD informed him, then added, "I usually think of quiche as being more of a 'brunch' thing. But that's probably just because it takes so long to cook."
Ben cut the quiche into wedges, then slowly began to give portions to everyone at the table.
"Don't eat it just yet, Jody. Give it a minute to cool off. I wouldn't want for you to burn your mouth." Ben warned as he put a slice on Jody's plate.
"You made the pie crust yourself, didn't you?" JD asked as he carefully examined the food placed before him.
"Yes. Well, Junior and I did. How can you tell?" Ben asked curiously as he took his seat.
"Store bought pie crust is either paper thin or already formed in the pan with fancy crinkled ridges." JD said honestly.
"I think we were pushing our luck getting it that thin." Junior said frankly.
"I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with it. Lock used to say that when you get something that's not exactly perfect, you know that someone took the time and trouble to make something special for you with their own two hands, rather than open a can or defrost something from the freezer." JD said with a slight wistful smile.
"I think it's had enough of a chance to cool. Go ahead and give it a try, just remember to go slow and be careful." Ben said, mostly to Jody, then added, "Blow on it if it's still too hot."
Jody looked around the table to see which utensils everyone else was using then picked up a fork.
He still tended to hold the fork like he was going to use it to stab someone, but beyond that little idiosyncrasy he seemed to have figured out how to make it work reasonably well.
JD carefully took a bite, then after a moment of chewing, he closed his eyes and slowly said, "Spinach, onion... I taste some swiss, but there's another cheese. I don't know what that is."
"Muenster." Ben said with a smile.
JD slowly nodded.
"I'm glad with all the work that we did that it turned out this good." Junior said happily.
"Quiches can be very forgiving. You can modify them a dozen different ways and they'll usually turn out alright. Of course, if you start out with a bad crust, there's very little you can do to salvage it." Ben said honestly.
"This is the kind of pie crust that Lock always liked. He said that it tastes 'real'." JD said seriously.
Ben looked around the table to see how everyone was doing. When his gaze stopped on Jody, the boy cheerfully announced, "This is good!"
* * * * *
When breakfast was over, Ben automatically went to start doing the dishes. Although JD tried to convince him that since he had cooked, he shouldn't have to, Ben finally got him to go into the living room with Jody and Junior.
The earlier flour fiasco notwithstanding, Ben and Junior had 'worked clean' throughout most of their breakfast preparation and there really wasn't that much to do.
Once everything was cleaned up, he walked to the living room and stopped in the doorway. JD was studiously typing on his little laptop, using his typing lessons for all they were worth.
Jody and Junior were sitting beside the coffee table and seemed to have exactly recreated the scene from the front of the Lego box in every putrid pink princessy detail.
A sudden thought assaulted Ben and he hurried away from the living room.
* * * * *
"I don't know if you guys are interested, but I thought Jody's princess might like a new house or a car. Do you think you can do anything with this?" Ben asked as he placed a large blue tub of Legos between Junior and Jody on the floor.
Ben had expected Jody to be excited and to react joyfully.
Nothing prepared him for the silent boy, frozen in place.
"Do you want some help with it?" Junior asked cautiously, as mystified as Ben at Jody's lack of reaction.
Tears started welling in Jody's eyes, then proceeded to fall down his cheeks.
"What's wrong, Jody?" Ben asked in a whisper as he knelt at the boy's side.
Jody didn't answer verbally, but threw himself at Ben, nearly knocking him over, and hugged him with every ounce of strength at his command.
"You're welcome." Ben said softly as he gently returned the hug.
Jody didn't give any indication that he was going to let go anytime soon and Ben couldn't think of one good reason why he should have to.
* * * * *
After long minutes of hugging, Jody finally let loose of Ben enough to stretch up and kiss him on the cheek.
"So, does this mean that you like your new toy?" Ben asked warmly.
"I like you." Jody answered sincerely.
Ben was taken aback by the response, but it only took him a moment to say, "I like you, too."
Jody hugged him firmly again, but this time just for a moment before he turned his head to look at the blue tub of Legos.
"If you're ready, we can see what we can build with this." Junior offered quietly.
"JD, do you want to help us?" Jody asked hopefully.
Ben glanced at JD and was surprised to find that he wasn't typing and had been paying attention to what Jody was doing.
"Maybe for a little bit." JD said before scooting away from his laptop.
"Do you want to help us, too, Daddy?" Jody asked with an angelic smile.
"I can't think of anything that I'd rather do." Ben said as he shifted around to sit next to Junior.
* * * * *
The Lego session continued on and Ben noticed that JD and Junior seemed to be having nearly as much fun as Jody as they played.
They might have continued on playing into the afternoon if not for an unexpected knock at the door.
Ben's heart raced as he remembered what Cliff had said about 'posting bail'. On his trip from the living room to the front door, a hundred different horrific scenarios played out in his mind.
"Wil? It's not even noon! What are you doing up?" Ben asked with surprise.
"We had a visitor this morning and I needed to talk to someone. I hope you don't mind." Wil said anxiously.
"Not at all. The boys are in the living room, please come in." Ben said as he stood aside to allow Wil and Todd entry.
"Could I talk to you, I mean, in private for a minute? I don't want to talk about this in front of the kids." Wil said nervously.
"Sure, come on into the kitchen. Can I get you anything to drink?" Ben asked as he led the way.
"Do you have any beer?" Todd asked immediately.
Ben looked at him with surprise.
"Wil's been freaking out for the past two hours. I need something to take the edge off." Todd explained.
"I don't think we have any upstairs, but there's probably some in the mini-fridge in the basement." Ben said uncertainly.
"I'll find it." Todd said before breaking away from the pack and heading toward the basement door.
"What's got you so upset?" Ben asked as they walked into the kitchen.
"This guy, I think he said that his name was Hammerstein. He woke us up this morning to deliver a letter." Wil said uncomfortably.
"A summons?" Ben guessed.
"Worse." Wil said gravely, then continued, "It was an invitation to the 'Stone Family Christmas Celebration'."
Ben looked at him with surprise, then cautiously asked, "What's wrong with that?"
"They found me... or maybe they knew where I was all along. They shut me out of their lives for a whole year and then all of a sudden they want to reel me back in." Wil said grimly.
"Then don't go." Ben said simply.
"Yeah." Wil said, then let out a long sigh before continuing, "The thing is that I really do want to go. I want to know how Kirsten is doing and all the rest of the family. I hate myself for even caring, but I do!"
"Then go." Ben said reasonably.
"It's in Orlando." Wil said in defeat.
"And Todd doesn't want to drive you that far?" Ben guessed.
"He probably would if I asked him to, but I wouldn't do that to him. My family is mean and nasty to the people they like. I hate to think about how bad they'd treat someone who wasn't related to them at all." Wil said frankly.
"I'm your cousin, remember? I know very well what kind of toxic people we have in our family." Ben said simply.
"Yeah. I didn't forget..." Wil said uncomfortably, then continued, "Actually, if I decide to go, I was wondering if you'd want to go too."
"When is it?" Ben asked cautiously.
"This Thursday." Wil answered immediately.
"Oh, damn. I'm having my eyelids scraped that day. There's no possible way I could reschedule." Ben said with mock aggravation.
Wil blinked with surprise at his answer.
Ben smiled at his expression, then explained, "I can think of several painful and humiliating things that I'd much rather do than spend an evening with our relatives."
"Don't you miss them?"
"Of course I do, but they chose to exile me from the family for being gay. I'll be damned if I'll go back to them asking them to take me back."
"Your family and mine don't get along anymore. So the people who kicked you out won't be there. You won't be asking them for anything."
Ben thought about that for a moment, then said, "I honestly don't have any desire to reconnect with my family. There's a lot of bitterness there... on both sides. The drive to Orlando is miserable and I'm not a lot of fun on a road trip. But if you decide that you really want to go, I'll drive you."
"I don't give a damn about them but you're my family. I'd do anything for you."
"I'm still not sure if I want to go or not. One minute I'm like 'yeah' and the next I'm all like, 'Oh HELL no'."
"I understand. Just be sure to call me when you come to a decision so I can arrange for a babysitter." Ben said with a gentle smile at his cousin.
"Maybe you should think about bringing the boys along, too. I mean, if you think it'd help. It might do them some good to know that they have more family than just us."
"My first impulse is to keep the boys as far away from that pit of vipers as humanly possible, but since JD has taken the name Stone, I suppose it might be good for him to meet a few of the other members of the family." Ben said thoughtfully, then added more firmly, "I'll have to think about it."
"I'll be sure and call you when I've made a decision either way."
"Why don't you come into the living room and visit with the boys for a few minutes. That way, even if you decide not to go, you'll know that you actually do have family."
"Yeah. But first I need to go down and get Todd before he drinks your mini-fridge dry."
As Wil started walking toward the basement door, Ben quickly said, "By the way, good call about not having this talk in front of the boys."
"Yeah." Wil said with a grin at him, before opening the basement door.
* * * * *
"Is this a cop thing or is there a reason why you won't tell me what we're doing?" Cliff asked as Gerry continued to drive.
"There's a reason."
Cliff waited for more, but before he could ask another question, Gerry pulled to a stop at a wrought iron gate.
"This is private property. Please leave." A uniformed security officer said firmly.
"I understand, but I have some urgent business to discuss with Senator Montague. Time is an issue." Gerry stated firmly, yet respectfully.
"Everyone has urgent business. Call his secretary and make an appointment."
"Please just give this message to the senator right away and ask him if he'll give me five minutes of his time." Gerry said as he handed the security officer a sealed envelope.
"Keep an eye on them." The officer said to his partner before walking out of their little guard shack and getting into a golf cart.
"Senator?" Cliff asked in a whisper.
Gerry flashed him a warning glance, then turned his attention back to the security officer who was watching their every move.
* * * * *
Some minutes later the security officer that was watching them received a call on his radio.
After listening for a moment, he released the gate and motioned for Gerry to pull through.
Cliff was impressed with the immaculately kept grounds that led to a sprawling mansion.
"You still haven't told me about what I'm supposed to do." Cliff said informatively.
As they pulled up in front of the massive porch, they recognized the security officer that they had first spoken with.
Gerry led the way to the door with Cliff following a step behind.
* * * * *
Not a word was spoken as the group walked through an enormous entry hall and past a curved marble staircase.
To Cliff it seemed like they were just going to keep walking and walking through the seemingly endless mansion, but eventually they arrived at an open door and their escort stood aside and motioned for them to enter.
Without having to be told, Gerry closed the door behind them once they were both inside.
"Senator Montague, before we begin, please allow me to say what an honor it is to meet you in person. I'm sure that when future generations look back on us, you'll be held up as an example for your unwavering stance on 'traditional family values'." Gerry said as he and Cliff approached the senator's desk.
"Thank you for saying so, but since this is Sunday morning, do you think that we could dispense with the niceties and cut to the chase?" The senator asked hopefully.
"Yes, sir. Of course. I'm a police detective, Detective Booker from the Tallahassee PD. During the course of an investigation I happened to come into possession of some rather damaging video evidence regarding a certain notable elected official caught in an indiscreet moment.
"I have no desire to damage the official's career, but I'm uncertain how I should proceed with this matter. Since you're a long serving and well respected politician, I was hoping that you might be able to help me do the right thing." Gerry finished hopefully.
"Well, I suppose I'd have to know what type of evidence you were talking about if I'm to know what to do about it." Senator Montague said frankly.
"I thought of that. I brought you a sample of some of what we recovered." Gerry said as he took an unmarked DVD in a plain white paper sleeve out of his pocket and handed it to the senator.
Cliff watched as the senator opened the tray, then inserted the DVD into his computer.
It took a few seconds for the computer to figure out what to do with the DVD, but it eventually started to play.
The video was of poor quality, but it was good enough that Cliff could make out that it was an empty motel room.
A young girl walked into the frame with her back toward the camera.
Although Cliff couldn't see her face, from his experience as a pediatrician, he estimated from the shape of her body that she was probably twelve or thirteen years old.
The senator tapped the keyboard and the video suddenly stopped. "Yes. I am regrettably aware of this. Since you're asking for my advice of what to do with this 'evidence' that you've collected, I will advise you to give it to me and allow me to deal with the matter personally."
"I couldn't trouble you with that. I'll see that it's appropriately disposed of. What I wanted your help with is about the girl that was in the video. She was thirteen at the time the video was made. She gave birth to a child, a son, just a few days after her fourteenth birthday. Unfortunately, there were complications, most likely due to her young age, and she died shortly thereafter." Gerry said carefully.
"How tragic. But what is it that you were wanting my help with?" The senator asked, sounding to be increasingly impatient.
"As you can see from the video, her pimp was in the habit of recording her time with her clients and considered the baby to be a living piece of DNA evidence that he could use to blackmail the child's biological father to keep the entire story quiet."
"Yes. Yes. That's unfortunate, but could we, perhaps, cut to the chase? What do you want from me?"
"All I want is for that girl's illegitimate child to be granted an adoption and have his name legally changed with no questions asked. Not only will that provide the child the possibility of a decent future, but it will also end the long term blackmail that has been paid to the pimp who, until yesterday, had possession of the videos." Gerry said carefully.
"I still don't see what part you expect me to play in all of this." Senator Montague said warily.
"I just thought, with all the political connections that you have, that you might know someone who could expedite an adoption to a gay couple, then permanently seal the records."
"A gay adoption? In Florida!? Are you serious?" Senator Montague asked in astonishment.
"If you can make this happen, there will be no public notice given, no attention drawn to it. It's just a simple little family court matter that can be dispensed with in a matter of minutes." Gerry said in a wheedling tone.
"And if I were to find such a 'progressive' judge and encourage him to do as you say, then the rest of the evidence..." The senator let the rest of his question trail off.
"...would go away. No further mention would be made of it and, of course, no further financial obligations would be expected from the official."
"What about the pimp? You didn't say, but do you have him in custody?" The senator asked cautiously.
"Yes. His name is John Davis, but on the street he goes by the name Night. He's been put in with the general population in the county lockup and it seems that word has gotten out that he's been responsible for pimping out a four year old boy to child molesters. I doubt that he's thinking too much about blackmail at the moment and chances are that shortly he won't be in any condition to reveal anything that he knows. But the fact of the matter is, that even if he did talk and someone did listen, there wouldn't be any evidence to back up his story." Gerry said confidently.
"Who is this you brought with you?" Senator Montague asked as he looked at Cliff uncertainly.
"I asked Cliff to be present so that he would be aware of everything that was said, and everything that was promised. He hasn't seen the evidence, he's simply a person of good character that I brought here to witness this meeting." Gerry said frankly.
"I suppose that you have to take such precautions these days. Regardless, I may know of someone who owes me a favor to help mitigate the situation with the child. But when it's done, can I be assured that this will be the end of it?"
"Yes, Senator. We have no interest in blackmail, politics or stirring up a media frenzy. We simply want to see this ended once and for all, for the child's sake."
The senator pressed a button on his desk and a moment later, a well-dressed man entered the room from a discreet side door.
"Hawkins, would you show these gentlemen to the breakfast room?"
"I'll join you in there, after I've made a few calls." Senator Montague called after them.
* * * * *
Cliff and Gerry were silent as they followed the suited man down hallways through the enormous house.
When they arrived at their destination, both were surprised to see an elegantly dressed woman sitting and sipping coffee.
"This is a surprise. I was expecting Beauregard."
"The senator will be joining you shortly." The man, Hawkins, said formally.
"Honey, you always say that and more often than not I'm left here to sip my coffee on my own."
Hawkins didn't dignify her statement with a response. In fact, from the way that he turned and left the room, it was as though she hadn't spoken at all.
"Please forgive Hawkins. The poor dear was born without a personality. I'm Penelope Montague. Please have a seat and join me for some coffee."
"Thank you, ma'am. I'm Gerald Booker and this is Clifton Grant. Please call us Gerry and Cliff." Gerry said as he took the lead and took a seat at the table.
Cliff followed his example, then waited as Penelope moved a little cart to the table side with a complete coffee service.
"I know better than to ask my husband's business associates what they're doing here. But I'd be interested to know a little something about you. You'd think that a senator's wife would have the opportunity to meet new people all the time, but the fact of the matter is that I usually end up getting shuffled off to some dusty back room to gossip with the same six or eight other senators' wives." Penelope said as she poured the coffee.
"Well, there's not much that I can say. I'm a police detective, so the most interesting stories I have to tell are usually about things that I'm forbidden to talk about." Gerry said regretfully.
"I'm a pediatrician, so I have doctor patient confidentiality preventing me from saying very much either." Cliff added.
Penelope looked back and forth between them for a moment, then broke into a smile before saying, "Although I enjoy a good puzzle, I don't think I'm up to the challenge of figuring out what business you might have with my husband."
Cliff looked away, hoping that he wouldn't inadvertently divulge anything with his expression. As he was looking around, something unusual caught his eye.
He glanced at Gerry just in time to catch his attention. As unobtrusively as he could, he pointed at one particular framed picture on the wall.
Penelope noticed and said, "That's our youngest son, Douglas. He was five when that was taken. He's away at college now."
"You must be very proud." Cliff said as he continued staring at the picture.
"We certainly are. Douglas is currently attending Harvard Law. We're hoping that one day he'll be able to step into his father's shoes." Penelope said proudly.
Cliff noticed darkness in Gerry's expression, but decided that he didn't know enough about the man to make any assumptions.
"Do you have any children, Detective Booker?" Penelope asked curiously.
"Not yet. But my wife and I are certainly having fun trying." Gerry answered with a rakish grin.
"What about you, doctor? Any children?" Penelope asked as she picked up a plate of pastries and offered them to Gerry and Cliff.
"Yes. We have two sons..." Cliff started to say, then quickly amended, "..or three, depending on how you look at it."
Penelope looked at him strangely for a moment, then cautiously asked, "How does that work?"
"My sons are five and seven years old. They've sort of adopted a teenager to be their older brother. Fortunately, he's a really good boy and I think that he's going to be a good example for them."
* * * * *
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting." Senator Montague said as he walked into the room. Cliff was struck by just how insincere Senator Montague sounded in his apology.
"I bent a few ears and twisted a few arms. Tomorrow at one pm you're going to have a hearing before Judge Steven Hawkes at the Alachua County Courthouse in Gainesville. When you arrive, just mention my name to the bailiff and Judge Hawkes has assured me that they'll work you into their docket." Senator Montague said professionally.
"Thank you, Senator. Thank you for seeing us at such an inconvenient time. We'll get out of your way now." Gerry said to the senator, then turned to his wife and continued. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Montague. Thank you for the coffee and the pleasant conversation. Hopefully we'll be able to talk again soon."
"Yes. That would be nice." Penelope said with a smile.
Without further adieu, Gerry led the way out of the breakfast room, where the uniformed security officer that had escorted them in was waiting for them.
* * * * *
They walked with the officer through the house in silence, their footsteps echoing in the expansive hallways emphasizing the lack of conversation.
When they reached their car, the officer stood and watched them leave.
As they approached the gate, it opened before them. Gerry gave a courteous nod to the officer in the guard shack as they passed.
Once Cliff was assured that the greatest potential for excitement was past, he decided to confirm a few of his suspicions.
"Did you notice how much Jody looked like that picture of Douglas? They could be brothers." Cliff said in what he hoped sounded like a casual inquiring tone.
"Half-brothers, actually." Gerry said simply.
Cliff waited for more, but Gerry didn't seem to be inclined to talk about it.
Just as Cliff was about to prod him for a little more information, Gerry unexpectedly added, "I hope his looks are all he inherited from that family."
Cliff decided that since Gerry had said that much that he might as well go ahead and ask, "Senator Montague is Jody's biological father, isn't he?"
"So the senator had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl?"
"Is that what was on that video?"
"On that one, yes. There were other videos chronicling him in multiple encounters with various girls."
"And you're just going to let him get away with it?"
"That man has a lot more influence than you can imagine. He has some dark and powerful friends in low places, if you know what I mean. You don't want him as your enemy."
"But what's to stop him from raping even more little girls?"
"Nothing at all."
"Shouldn't we do something or tell someone?"
"If you're suggesting what I think you are, you'd be taking on a battle that you can't possibly win. Is it a perfect solution? No. Not at all. But I think it's the best possible thing that we can do for Jody."
"So we go to this judge friend of the senator's and he lets us adopt Jody and then... what?"
"You go forward with your lives like none of this ever happened."
"It just seems so wrong..."
"If you want justice, you're welcome to try. Go get your cape and tights and do what you feel you have to. Just leave me out of it."
"So Jody has to overcome what was done to him while everyone who hurt him and his mother just gets off scot-free?"
"The doctors haven't had enough time to cross their t's and dot their i's, but I'd lay good money that Ruby is nearly eaten up with cancer. Now that she's in lockup and can't 'self-medicate' I expect that she'll probably be suffering for every single minute for the remainder of her miserable waste of a life. Night will be lucky if he survives long enough to stand before a judge. As for the senator... well, sometimes you just have to hope that there is such a thing as karma."
"Why did you bring me along?"
"Just like I told the senator, I brought you so that you'd know what was said and what promises were made. It's not only so that I'll have a witness to back me up if the senator says that I threatened him. It's also because you and Ben may decide to move to the other side of the country or even the other side of the world. I think it's important for Jody's sake, that he have someone with him who knows the whole story."
"What are you going to do with the evidence?"
"Me? Nothing. My partner is taking care of that while we're doing this. If all goes to plan, she and I will never speak of it again. Basically, we're going to do our best to act like it never happened."
"I still feel like justice isn't being served in all of this."
"It's time to put on your big boy pants and accept the fact that sometimes life isn't fair. If everything had proceeded as per standard operating procedures, the evidence would have been catalogued, the senator would have found out about it, everything would have been suppressed and no one would have been better off. Doing it this way, at least Jody might have a chance at a decent future with a stable loving family."
After a long thoughtful moment, Cliff quietly said, "I can't decide if you're a hero or a villain in all of this."
"I'm just a guy who found a kid in trouble and gave a damn about what was going to happen to him. My motivation in this begins and ends with Jody."
"If that's true, then why were you willing to take the chance of putting him in danger by doing this at all?"
"You don't understand. Jody has been in danger since the moment he was rescued. If we'd followed procedure and taken Jody to CPS, he'd probably either be dead or permanently missing right now. Not only did I know that Ron would do what's best to help Jody, but also that Night wouldn't know to look for him there."
"Does Ron know about what you're doing?"
"Ron knows what he needs to know to help Jody. He understands that there's more going on than I'm telling him and he knows better than to ask about it."
"I had the feeling that something was going on that I wasn't being told about, but I didn't have any clue that it was this serious."
"Even with Ron's help, there was still a chance that Night would have found you. If Night had been able to find out where Jody had been placed, he and his goons could have shown up on your doorstep at any time. What we just did will hopefully get Jody out of danger, once and for all."
"Is there anything else that we can do to protect him?"
"If I think of anything, I'll do it. I think you've seen enough by now to know that. The best thing you can do right now is to help Jody build up so many good memories that his earlier life will just fade away and be forgotten."
"I think that we're well on our way to making that happen. JD should be excellent in helping us with that."
"From what I've seen of him, I'd have to agree."
* * * * *
Wil and Todd had originally intended to stop in just long enough to get Ben's advice, but once they went into the living room with the boys, any plans that they might have had were forgotten.
Jody and Junior were proudly demonstrating their Lego building prowess while JD occasionally interjected some interesting point about the story he was writing.
Ben didn't even bother asking if Wil and Todd were going to stay for lunch. When the time came, he automatically went into the kitchen to prepare something quick and easy.
Of course, as soon as JD was aware of what he was doing, he immediately went to the kitchen and volunteered to make a salad to go with lunch.
In the end, everyone enjoyed a long and relaxing meal with good food and good company.
None of the others present had any idea of the amount of anxiety that was welled within Ben, seeking an outlet.
* * * * *
After finally seeing Wil and Todd to the door, Ben remembered what else they had planned to do on Sunday.
JD had already gone back to his writing, although he had just started, so interrupting him wasn't quite as much of an issue.
Jody and Junior seemed to be discussing different plans for future Lego construction.
From what Ben could see, there probably wouldn't be a better time to enlist their aid.
"Boys, we've got a job to do and I'm going to need your help." Ben said loudly enough to gain their attention.
All three of them looked up with matching inquisitive looks.
"If you guys can shift the Legos out of the way and put what you're not using back in the tub, I'm going to get you to help me carry things down from the attic." Ben said seriously.
"Jody's little. He can't carry stuff." JD immediately protested.
"There's a lot of things to carry and some of them are little, like Jody. Don't worry. Everyone will have a chance to do their part." Ben assured him.
JD seemed dubious, but closed his laptop before going over to help Jody and Junior clear away their unused Legos.
* * * * *
"Don't tell Ben." Gerry said, breaking the long silence that had fallen between them.
"I'm not in the habit of lying to him. And he's going to want to know about what happened today."
"Just keep in mind that anything you tell him could potentially come back to bite us in the ass. The fewer people brought in on this, the better."
"The minute you brought me in, you brought Ben in, too."
"You're a smart man. I'm going to have to trust you to only say what needs to be said. Remember that if any of this gets out, it will come back to haunt Jody."
"I won't lie to Ben." Cliff said firmly, then continued more quietly, "But there's no reason for me to burden him with every detail."
"Do what you feel that you have to, then do your best to let it go and move on."
"I understand what you're saying. Us obsessing over any part of this will only lead to trouble."
* * * * *
"What are we doing?" JD finally asked when he was handed boxes to carry.
"We're getting the Christmas decorations out so that we can set up our Christmas tree. Take those to the living room." Ben answered simply.
"I don't think I've ever done that before." JD said uncertainly as Ben went up the folding stairs back into the attic.
"It's not hard. I helped trim the trees at a few of the different foster homes I was at and it was kinda nice." Junior assured him.
"Here Junior, you get the tree." Ben said as he emerged from the attic carrying a long narrow box that seemed to be in less than pristine condition.
"What am I going to carry?" Jody asked in a small voice.
"I have some very important boxes for you. They're small and light, but they're very special. You get to carry the ornaments." Ben said as he handed the long box to Junior.
"I'll wait for you, Squid." JD assured him, then added, "In case you need any help."
Ben smiled as he went back up the stairs.
* * * * *
After about a dozen trips each, the boys were looking at the collection of boxes in the living room.
"What do we do now?" JD asked, feeling that they should be doing something more.
"Well, trimming the Christmas tree is a family tradition, so I want for us to wait until your pappa gets home before we do that. Right now, I'm going to shift the furniture around a little bit and get the tree set up. I thought that while I'm doing that, someone might like to make us some Christmas cookies to enjoy."
"Can Junior help us?" JD asked hopefully.
"Well, if he doesn't, then we'll all be snacking on cookie dough." Ben chuckled.
"I like cookie dough." Jody interjected.
"Well then, I bet if you help JD and Junior make the Christmas cookies, that you might get the chance to taste some." Ben said with a warm smile at him.
"Come on!" JD said happily as he led his troops toward the kitchen.
Ben watched them go, then looked toward the door and quietly asked, "Cliff, where are you?"
* * * * *
The sound of the front door opening had Ben on his feet in a heartbeat.
Before Cliff could get the door closed behind him, he was engulfed in a hug and kissed within an inch of his life.
"Everything's fine. I'm alright." Cliff tried to assure his distraught partner.
"What happened? Where did you go?" Ben was finally able to ask.
Before Cliff could answer, he noticed that JD, Jody and Junior were all lined up in the entry hall, and Jody had his arms thrust into the air.
"There's quite a bit to it. I'll tell you all about it once the boys are in bed." Cliff said quietly, then released Ben from the hug so that he could pick up his youngest.
Ben wasn't happy with the answer, but understood that whatever Cliff had to tell him was probably something that the boys would be better off not knowing about.
"We waited until you got home to do the Christmas tree." JD proudly announced.
"Really?" Cliff said with a smile at him as he tried to put Jody down.
Jody was having none of that, so despite what his back might have to say on the matter, Cliff valiantly managed to pick JD up and cuddle him while continuing to hold Jody.
"Do you still have cookies in the oven?" Ben thought to ask.
"Oh crap! I'll get them!" Junior said suddenly as he dashed out of the room.
"Are you hungry?" Ben asked Cliff with concern.
"Ravenous. We drove straight through." Cliff said wearily as he finally gave in to his body's demands and set the boys down.
"From where?" Ben asked cautiously, knowing that Cliff didn't want to talk about what he'd been doing in front of the boys.
"Tampa." Cliff answered simply, then slowly stood back up, massaging his lower back as he did so.
Although Ben wanted to ask more, he knew that it wasn't the right place or time to do so.
"Give me a few minutes and I'll fix something for you." Ben finally said.
"We'll get it!" JD immediately volunteered.
"Okay, Spider. But just remember that you're only cooking for one. Don't start cooking a rack of lamb or anything like that." Ben warned.
"I was actually thinking of beef wellington, but how about a ham and cheese sandwich with salad, instead?" JD asked with a playful smile.
"That sounds incredible, JD. I can't wait." Cliff said warmly, then on impulse leaned down to give the boy a quick kiss on the cheek.
JD had a beaming smile as he raced away to the kitchen with Jody following a step behind.
Finding that they were alone for a moment, Ben cautiously asked, "Is there anything that you can tell me right now?"
"Yes. We're going to have a court hearing in Gainesville tomorrow, so we're going to need to get the boys proper clothes for that." Cliff said seriously.
"Court? For what?" Ben asked in confusion.
"I'll give you the details later. Right now, I need to call Raj and see if he's going to be able to cover my appointments for tomorrow." Cliff said regretfully.
"I missed you." Ben said quietly.
"I missed you, too. But when this is all said and done, I think that you'll agree that it was worth it." Cliff said assuringly.
"I'll just have to trust you on that." Ben said with a weak smile, then added more firmly, "Go make your calls."
* * * * *
Cliff thoroughly enjoyed his sandwich and honestly could have eaten another. However, he knew that the boys had prepared an abundance of Christmas cookies and were waiting for him to join them in the living room before they had any.
Once he was in the living room, the entire family enjoyed cookies and milk, or coffee, for the adults. Once that was done, Ben took charge, enlisting everyone's aid in trimming the Christmas tree.
He delegated duties by height, which seemed to work well.
Both JD and Jody needed a little instruction on how to hang Christmas ornaments without clustering them too tightly together, but Ben was happy to see that Junior had stepped up to help the boys.
In some sense, decorating the tree only seemed to take a matter of minutes. The entire family were working together toward a single goal. But in actuality, time was passing by and there were still a number of things that needed to be done.
Regretfully, Cliff finally announced that everyone needed to get ready to go to the store. Before Junior could go to put on his shoes, Cliff quietly told him that he needed to gather his things so that they could drop him off at the home on the way back from the store.
The devastated look in Junior's eyes was impossible to miss. If Junior had broken down into tears, Cliff would have only been a moment behind him.
Fortunately, Junior was able to keep his emotions in check and went to get his overnight bag.
* * * * *
Although shopping at Target wasn't an unusual thing for the family, each trip seemed to bring its own unique adventure.
The boys were bored out of their minds in the boys clothing department, not the least bit interested about what their parents wanted to buy. Junior, however, drifted away to the men's department and seemed to be enthralled by the selections before him.
Once Cliff and Ben had gathered the essential items that they would need for the court hearing, Cliff casually walked over to Junior and asked, "Do you see anything that you like?"
"Yeah! Everything on this rack is discounted and they've got some really nice stuff!" Junior said in amazement.
Cliff looked at one of the items that Junior had been inspecting and was surprised to see that it was reduced by well over fifty percent.
"Well, since they're such a bargain, why don't you pick out a few things?" Cliff asked reasonably.
"I couldn't let you buy me stuff. It wouldn't be right." Junior said in a conflicted voice.
"Think of it as an early Christmas gift. Go on. We're probably not going to find deals like this very often. It'd be stupid to pass them up." Cliff encouraged.
"Anything I want?" Junior asked in a wavering tone.
"Within reason. Go ahead, Michael. I'll leave you to decide what you want and you can catch up with us in the toy department." Cliff said warmly before walking away.
* * * * *
The visit to the toy department was unlike any of the trips before. Now that Jody better understood what Legos were and what he could do with them, he wanted to inspect every single set that was available.
Ben and Cliff both knew that there was no way that they would be getting out of the store without at least one Lego set in their basket.
* * * * *
After leaving the store, Cliff drove them to a fairly nice chain restaurant where they were able to sit as a family and enjoy a nice, satisfying meal.
Although JD was a bit antsy, since there were women around. He was well insulated from them by his family and was able to get through the meal with minimal discomfort.
As they pulled up in front of the home, any joy that any of them might have been feeling was now absent.
Cliff's original plan had been to pull up out front and let Junior out, then watch to make sure that he was safely inside before pulling away.
However, once the car stopped, the boys got out and gave Junior long, heartfelt hugs. Ben and Cliff also got out of the car, and once the boys were done, they also took their turns hugging Junior.
As Cliff was releasing Junior from their hug, Jody stepped forward and asked, "Junior, can I call you Bubba?"
"Why do you want to call me that?" Junior asked cautiously.
"Because you're not my brother, like JD is, but you're almost my brother... you're my bubba." Jody explained reasonably.
"That makes perfect sense." Ben chuckled affectionately.
"Okay, Jody. You can call me Bubba if you want to." Junior said warmly to the boy.
"Now you've got a love name, just like me and Spider." Jody happily announced.
Junior looked at Cliff and Ben with surprise at the announcement.
"It looks like you do." Cliff confirmed with a smile.
* * * * *
"So, can you tell me now?" Ben asked as soon as he and Cliff were alone in their room.
"We went to Tampa..." Cliff began to say, but was interrupted.
"Who is 'we'?" Ben asked seriously.
"Detective Booker." Cliff answered.
"Okay, you and Gerry went to Tampa. Go on."
"We had a meeting with someone who could arrange for a judge to allow us to adopt Jody, then change his name and permanently seal the records." Cliff said carefully.
"Someone? Who is 'someone'?" Ben asked firmly.
"Gerry learned some more details about Jody's history and came up with a plan for us to be able to leave all of that in the past. Me telling you about it will just make it that much more likely that it will continue to haunt us." Cliff quietly explained.
"So, you're not going to tell me?" Ben asked cautiously.
"If there's something that you really want to know, I'll tell you about it. But unless you feel really strongly about it, I'd rather that we just move forward." Cliff said honestly.
"Okay. I guess that I don't need to know everything. But I'd really like to know more about Jody's past. Is there anything you can tell me about that?" Ben asked hopefully.
"Jody's mother was a thirteen-year-old prostitute. She died in childbirth. The woman who held Jody captive apparently had the same pimp." Cliff said carefully, then waited to see if Ben wanted to know more.
Ben thought about that for a moment, then quietly said, "You're right. Let's move forward."
"I love you."
"I love you, too. Goodnight."
As is always the case when I read one of MM's stories, my eyes seem to be leaking.
Junior is a really good person. I know he cares very much about his little brothers. He loves the whole family, but he adores JD and Jody.
I do hope that Junior will be able to move in with them, and become part of the family. He really is a big help to Ben and Cliff. He gives the adults a little extra time to be able to be together.
Being able to adopt Jody is really wonderful, but I hope it doesn't cause JD to feel left out. We'll just have to wait till it comes around in rotation again to see what will happen next.
Thank you, MM, for another wonderful chapter.
Darryl AKA Radio Rancher