Duncan Montpelier flicked a nonexistent bit of lint from his deep rose shirt cuff and straightened the fiber
The ivory parchment envelope was addressed to his companion, Jarrett Grayling, in a fine spidery script.
Why would the past—a past so painful Jarrett seldom mentioned it—be reaching out now? Duncan could see no good coming of it. Perhaps he should discard the letter before Jarrett arrived home.
But no. It had taken five long years before Jarrett was able to trust him. Could he ever look Jarrett in the eye again if he destroyed this letter?
If this were to develop into some sort of crisis, they would face it together. That’s how committed partners faced difficulties in life.
Duncan paced restlessly to the window and peered at the street far below. Tonight was Jarrett’s night to provide dinner. They alternated. Jarrett was late. Since he knew that Duncan had to return to the gallery where he worked for an opening tonight, Jarrett must have decided to stop at a take out shop. One could only hope a gourmet take out shop.
Jarrett’s job as an auditor with the city was boring and stressful at the same time. Duncan was grateful for the trust fund that had permitted him to choose a job he enjoyed managing an art gallery. He could not have kept it if he had to depend upon the income. He had offered to cover their basic bills, but Jarrett had insisted upon paying his portion. Duncan had never revealed the extent of their bills, just asked Jarrett for a set amount each month.
The alternating dinner arrangement might be unfair. Jarrett, already unnerved by his job, had unrealistic standards for himself whenever it was his turn to fix the meal. A curdled sauce or a fallen soufflé could bring him to tears.
Perhaps Duncan could once more suggest hiring a cook for weeknights.
The elevator whirred to a stop at their private foyer. Duncan heard Jarrett’s light footsteps on the marble floor. He hurried to open the door. He was met by the familiar aroma of Givenchy Pour Homme cologne.
Looking flustered, Jarrett bundled in with his arms full of bags with the logo of “Gourmet for Everyday” emblazoned on them. He turned a clean-shaven cheek to Duncan for a quick kiss.
“I was so going to cook tonight.” He hurried into the kitchen deposited the bags on the stainless steel counter. “I had planned to stop and get a lovely piece of beef to broil! But I was running late, and I knew you had to go to an opening tonight. So I stopped and got cordon bleu. I know it’s nothing special, darling. I do hope you’ll forgive me!”
“Nothing to forgive,” Duncan replied. “A perfectly presentable dinner. Shall I fix us cocktails, or would you prefer I just open a bottle of wine?”
“Whichever you think is best. You’re the one with the deadline!” Jarrett swept into the dining room. He began assembling embroidered placements, thin porcelain plates, silver cutlery, crystal stemware and arranging it on the polished dark surface of the dining table.
Duncan took a bottle of wine from the cooler and opened it.
“I got some of those dreamy au gratin potatoes,” Jarrett said. “And the asparagus rolls; I do hope they didn’t crumble on the way home. Chocolate mousse for dessert. And, of course, a salad and a loaf of the seven grain French bread. We do have butter, don’t we?”
Duncan smiled indulgently at Jarrett. “You’re babbling,” he said. “Everything will be fine. A lovely dinner. The excellent company would have made a much less impressive dinner a charming experience. Relax!”
Jarrett stopped his frenetic motion and smiled back at Duncan. “You do see through the non-essentials and put things into perspective. You are so good for me.”
“And you for me, my dear. Here’s to us!” Duncan held his glass aloft.
After dinner, Duncan ground beans for coffee while Jarrett cleared the dishes to the kitchen. Duncan poured Navan Vanilla Cognac, and they sat on the sleek grey couches, the city spread out before their window. The chocolate mousse in the refrigerator was forgotten. Duncan gazed fondly on Jarrett’s slight form. How fortunate he was. Many people went an entire lifetime without finding a partner like Jarrett. So kind, so loving, so grateful for the care and guidance Duncan could provide. And so attractive, with his flowing brown curls, his delicate bone structure and his deep, dark eyes. Even the thin, crooked nose was charming. Duncan felt he could gather him in his arms and shield him from the world forever.
But the letter.
“Jarrett,” he said, rolling the snifter in his palms to warm the cognac. “You have a letter. I left in on the hall table. It’s from Middle Falls.”
Jarrett’s slender hands rose in an alarmed flutter. “I hope nothing has happened to my Aunt Agnes!” he exclaimed.
“Your Aunt Agnes?” Duncan frowned. He had not heard much about Middle Falls, and he certainly hadn’t heard about an Aunt Agnes.
“Yes. My Aunt Agnes. She’s my only living relative!” Jarrett’s nervous hands trembled, suspended in the air. “Unless something’s happened…”
Duncan arose and got the letter. He handed it to his partner.
“This is Aunt Agnes’s stationery.” Jarrett stroked the parchment. “She always said a lady should keep a good supply of quality stationery.”
“I have to go to work soon,” Duncan reminded him. “Would you rather wait to open it until I am gone?”
“No!” Jarrett loosened the flap of the envelope. “I wonder why she is writing after all these years.”
“How did she get the address?” Duncan asked.
“I get a lovely birthday card for her every year,” Jarrett said. “And a Christmas card. I used one of those wonderful winter scene ones you had made up last year. I don’t imagine she gets much mail these days.”
Duncan raised his bushy eyebrows. He felt his world spinning. What else did he not know about Jarrett? “I didn’t know you kept in touch with any of your family.”
Jarrett looked stricken. “I never tried to hide it from you. It just never came up.”
“I thought your family had disowned you.” Duncan moved stiffly across the room.
“Mostly.” Jarrett paused before he took the folded sheets from the envelope. “I don’t know if Aunt Agnes had much choice. She’s a spinster lady. She was always dependent upon my grandfather, who was very strict. She’s my father’s sister, much older than him. When I was a child, Aunt Agnes often took care of me. She’s the one who convinced my father to send me away to boarding school. She said I was too ‘delicate’ to go to the local public school.” Tears formed in Jarrett’s eyes. “I don’t know that I would have ever survived Middle Falls High.”
Duncan placed a comforting hand on Jarrett’s shoulder. “Let’s see what she wants.”
Jarrett skimmed the pages. “She is inviting us for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Us?” Duncan asked.
“Yes. She definitely says ‘you and your companion.’”
“You’re sure she knows our situation?”
“Of course.” Jarrett turned the page over. “She regrets not having made contact previously. She always felt my father and grandfather were harsh. She thanks me for the cards.”
“You’re not considering actually going, are you?” Duncan asked.
“I’m not sure.” Jarrett looked thoughtful. “I will have to think it over. But she is my aunt, and I have no other family.”
Duncan wanted to shout, “You have me!” but that would just upset Jarrett further. Instead he said, “I have to go. We can discuss it tomorrow.”
By the next day, Jarrett had made up his mind. “I would very much like to go, Duncan,” he said. “And I would very much like to have you come with me. But I will understand if you don’t want to.”
Duncan sighed. A recipe for disaster. Still, Jarrett’s desire to see his aunt was understandable.
He would probably fret for the rest of his life if he turned down this invitation. Much worse than having a disaster of a holiday weekend. He was so vulnerable; Duncan couldn’t let him go alone. “Shall we rent a car?” Duncan asked.
“We could take the train. I looked up Amtrak; it still stops in Middle River. Get there Wednesday night, leave Friday morning. The old hotel across the street is still operating; we can stay there. It was quite elegant in its day.”
“Good idea.” No point in having any awkwardness about whether they would share a room or not. “Will you call to tell her?”
“She says her phone isn’t working, so I will write. I’ll suggest that we take her out to Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel; I appreciate her invitation, but she must be nearing ninety. I don’t think we should expect her to cook.”
Duncan knew she would insist upon cooking.
Two weeks later the impatient passenger train paused just long enough at the Middle Falls station for Duncan
Wind whistled across the platform. Duncan tapped his fedora more firmly onto his head. He should have opted for a more practical hat; tomorrow they would have to walk to the ancestral Grayling home. He looked around for a porter. There were none. The only other person was a disheveled man—he looked like a bum—huddled against the wall of the now-closed station.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Jarrett said, drawing black kid gloves over his delicate white hands. “I enjoy a train trip, although around holiday time it can be crowded! Infinitely beats traveling to an airport, going through security, waiting, finding transportation from the airport….”
Jarrett’s voice trailed off as he looked past Duncan’s shoulder.
Duncan turned to see the bum approaching them. “Shall we go, Jarrett?” he said briskly, turning to leave.
Jarrett didn’t move. Duncan reached over and took Jarrett by the elbow.
“Well, if it ain’t my old school pal, Jarrett Grayling,” the bum said. “You’re not gonna leave before you say hello to your buddy Benjamin, are you?”
Duncan could smell the unwashed body, the cheap alcohol, the clothes that had not been changed in weeks.
“How do you do, Benjamin,” Jarrett said, his shoulders rigid and his neck stiff.
“Fine, thank you, Jarrett. And this is your—what’s the word—fancy man? Life partner? ‘Scuse me if I don’t know the proper term.” Benjamin swayed slightly on his feet.
“We must be going,” Duncan said. Darkness was gathering; the well lit hotel was right across the street.
“Ain’t you gonna give your old buddy a couple of bucks, Jarrett? For old time’s sake?”
Jarrett fumbled with the buttons on his overcoat, taking out his wallet. “Here, Benjamin,” he said. “Here’s five dollars. Have a hamburger on me.”
A grimy hand with ragged fingernails reached out and snagged the proffered bill.
“Good start, Jerkhead.” Benjamin’s voice turned menacing. “But know how you used to give me all your lunch money? ‘Member what happened if you didn’t? I’d get it anyhow. Let’s cough it all up.” He held out his hand.
To his immense relief, Duncan saw a uniformed policeman approaching them. He hoped gay bashing was not an unofficially sanctioned pastime in this town. “Take what you’ve been given,” he said “and leave us alone. You’ll only buy cheap wine with it anyhow.”
The cop had switched on his flashlight, drawing Benjamin’s gaze. Benjamin laughed and dropped his hand. “You always was a kidder, Jerkhead,” he said, his rank breath reaching them. “Imagine your fellow faggot here’s the same way.”
“Not panhandling, I hope, Benjamin?” the cop asked.
“No, officer,” Benjamin said. “Just recognized an old classmate from school. Had to say ‘hi.’ Won’t say ‘old friend,’ since I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about me and old Jerkhead back in the day. Don’t swing that way. Never did.”
“We were just heading to the hotel, officer,” Duncan said, giving Jarrett’s elbow a nudge. Jarrett’s face was an unmoving mask, but unshed tears glistened in his eyes.
“Don’t want no trouble here tonight,” the officer warned.
“You won’t get any from us,” Duncan assured him. “We plan to eat in the hotel and stay in tonight.”
“Good plan.” The officer nodded, tapping his long, heavy flashlight on his palm. “Never know what might happen at night.”
Duncan grabbed the handle of his suitcase with one hand and used the other to propel Jarrett down the platform.
“Oh, Jerkhead,” Benjamin called after them. “Tell your queer buddy there that I ain’t gonna buy no cheap wine. Gonna buy bourbon. A man’s drink!” He laughed. “See you around!”
Duncan steered Jarrett toward the brightly lit entrance to the hotel. As they paused for traffic to clear, he noticed an elderly lady standing by the end of the station platform. She was bundled up against the cold in a green tweed overcoat and her hand clutched a two-wheeled wire shopping cart. She watched them closely.
Jarrett glanced in her direction.
“Oh, no! I think it’s my Aunt Agnes!” He ducked his head and turned panicked eyes toward Duncan. “I can’t let her see me like this!”
“Just keep going and pretend we didn’t notice her,” Duncan urged. To his relief, the woman did not approach them.
Duncan got them into the hotel, registered, and into their room. Jarrett collapsed on the bed without removing his overcoat or shoes.
“Shall we get room service?” Duncan asked. “Or would you rather go down to the dining room?”
“The dining room,” Jarrett said from his prone position facing the wall. “Just give me a few minutes.”
“Certainly.” Duncan had been afraid of something like this.
“I can’t hole up here forever and not face the world.”
“Of course.” As if Middle Falls were the entire world.
But for his early life, it had been Jarrett’s entire world.
The old family house, a white frame Victorian, was a short walk from the hotel, at the edge of the town’s struggling business district.
They presented a bottle of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau and a box of Godiva chocolates. Aunt Agnes accepted them gracefully, placing the wine on the table and finding a corkscrew after a bit of rummaging in
Her eyes lit up at the box of chocolates. She started to open them, but Jarrett said, “No, Aunt Agnes. We’ll
Duncan had been dreading the Thanksgiving dinner, but was pleasantly surprised. The food itself was mediocre—the turkey was dry, the cranberry sauce a glistening cylinder shaped by its can, the soup unremarkable. But Aunt Agnes tried her best to be welcoming, and Jarrett positively glowed.
After dinner, Jarrett removed the dishes to the old stone sink in the kitchen. Aunt Agnes brought out distinctly inferior coffee and a homemade pumpkin pie. Delicate pie crusts took a practiced hand. Aunt Agnes was out of practice.
Aunt Agnes reached out her frail, withered hand and placed it over Jarrett’s equally frail but vibrant one. “It’s been so many years, Jarrett,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t want to come see me…”
“I’m glad you wrote.” Jarrett smiled shyly.
A touching scene. Aunt Agnes was elderly and eccentric, but Duncan had expected nothing different. He should give them some time alone.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, rising carefully from the fragile dining room chair, “I will go out back and smoke.” He pulled a Cuban cigar from inside his jacket and brandished it.
“Certainly,” Aunt Agnes said. “The sun should be pleasant on the back porch this time of day. I’m afraid there is nowhere to sit, though.”
“I would prefer to stretch my legs, thank you.” Duncan let himself out and stood in the brisk November air, debating if he really needed to light the cigar.
Although the house had been painted recently, Duncan wondered if anything had been updated since Jarrett had lived here as a boy. He looked around the porch. It was well swept. A wire shopping cart stood by the door to the kitchen. A damp green overcoat hung on a hook. Perhaps it had been Aunt Agnes they had seen the night before. Duncan fingered the rough tweed fabric.
He frowned. The coat was not merely damp, it was soaked. After the weak winter sun set, it would freeze. How could it have gotten so wet, and why would Aunt Agnes leave it outside?
Duncan looked around the porch with new interest. A pair of wading boots, the waist-high kind used for fishing, was draped over the porch railing. A shovel leaned against the wall. He spied a garden hose coiled on the porch floor. Very late in the year to be gardening. He hoped Aunt Agnes’s eccentricities were not running to senility.
After a decent amount of time, Duncan reentered the dining room. Aunt Agnes and Jarrett were seated side by side, their coffee and pie untouched. Jarrett bestirred himself.
“Aunt Agnes and I were just talking about the house and all the memories it holds.” Jarrett’s face flickered between pain and pleasure. “I am to inherit it.”
“The town wanted to tear it down and make room for a commercial expansion,” Aunt Agnes said, “but I have managed to head that off so Jarrett can have it one day.”
“I appreciate that,” Jarrett said. “But I don’t think I could ever live here! Middle Falls isn’t a comfortable place for people like Duncan and me. And our jobs.”
“You don’t have to make a decision now.” Aunt Agnes’s face grew grim. “And if I have learned anything as I have grown older, it’s that the world is not a comfortable place for anyone. I have had to take affairs into my own hands more than once recently. You may need to do the same.”
“We should be going soon,” Duncan said. “I would prefer if we were not out walking after dark.”
Reluctantly, Jarrett got to his feet. “Let us clean up for you, Aunt Agnes,” he said.
“No, no. My pleasure. And your friend is right. You want to be back at the hotel before dark.”
“Perhaps your aunt will join us at the hotel for breakfast?” Duncan suggested.
“Thank you, no,” Aunt Agnes said. “I will always treasure this afternoon. I do hope you will come back. Perhaps for Christmas?”
Duncan looked at the hope in Aunt Agnes’s face and tried to keep the dismay from his own. “Christmas is a very busy time. The gallery where I work will be hosting numerous events. And Jarrett, of course, will have all the year-end accounting to handle. Perhaps later in the spring?”
A light sleet fell on the platform as Duncan and Jarrett awaited the Friday morning train to take them back home. Duncan huddled deeper into his overcoat, but Jarrett was so animated he seemed not to notice the tiny crystals of ice that cut into his face.
“Aunt Agnes says the will is all set up!” he said. “Back to the way it was before my grandfather disowned me. The income goes to Aunt Agnes as long as she needs it. And she has a life estate in the house. But I will eventually inherit.”
“I’m surprised your aunt could arrange for that,” Duncan said. “I would have thought your grandfather would have established a very tight trust that excluded you completely.”
“He did,” Jarrett said. “But Aunt Agnes said he always hoped I’d go straight and they left a clause in it I would be reinstated if I established a ‘suitable family unit.’ Aunt Agnes told the lawyer that she considered you to be a ‘suitable family unit.’ Besides, who would challenge it?”
“Interesting. But you wouldn’t want to actually move back into the house here, would you?”
“No. But Aunt Agnes would be pleased if I were to donate it to the local historical society. They could use it for offices; they might even be able to make part of it into a museum. Or I guess I could sell it.”
“I wonder what it’s worth,” Duncan mused aloud. He eyed a newspaper vending machine. “Perhaps the local paper’s real estate ads would give us some idea.” He took a few coins from his pocket and opened the box.
The approaching train whistled. Duncan grabbed a paper and shoved it in his overcoat pocket.
The passenger car was near empty. Neither commuters nor holiday travelers favored the Friday after Thanksgiving. They stowed their luggage and sat across from each other.
“Duncan, thank you so much for coming with me.” Jarrett said, unbuttoning his coat and removing his hat. “I know the food wasn’t wonderful. But it meant so much to see Aunt Agnes.”
Duncan smiled indulgently. “We didn’t come for the food. I’m glad we came. And I’m very glad you had a good trip.”
“I do hope she’s all right living there by herself.”
“She’s been living by herself for years. She would be offended if you were to question the arrangement
“I suppose you’re right. Still, I hope she isn’t turning to alcohol.”
“What would make you think that? She had only one glass of that excellent wine with dinner.”
“True. But when I took the dishes out to the kitchen, I saw half a bottle of Wild Turkey on the shelf. And another empty one in the trash.”
Duncan frowned. “If your aunt turned to drinking, I doubt she’d drink Wild Turkey. Perhaps she bought it thinking it was an appropriate for Thanksgiving. Or perhaps she used it to baste the turkey. I wouldn’t worry.”
“You’re right,” Jarrett agreed. “I didn’t sleep well last night, with all the thoughts churning in my head. Do you mind if I try to take a little nap?”
“You do that,” Duncan said.
Jarrett leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. In a few minutes, his breathing became slow and regular.
Duncan pulled the newspaper from his pocket and unfolded it. He stared at the headline.
“Homeless Man Beaten to Death” it said.
The newspaper shook in his hands as he read the article.
At 9 PM on Wednesday night, Benjamin Baker, 42. Of no fixed address,
was found beaten to death in the alley behind City Hall.
Officer James Igman found the body and called for an ambulance, but Baker was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.’
“An official cause of death will not be released until we have the results
of an autopsy,” a spokesperson for the police department stated.
“Baker had been reported drinking in public less than two hours
before he was found. He may have been unconscious
at the time of the attack. It appears that he had been struck repeatedly
with a broad, flat object. This was a violent crime, and the perpetrator
could not have avoided being splattered with blood.
The investigation is continuing.
Duncan closed his eyes. Thank goodness he and Jarrett had decided on a leisurely dinner in the hotel restaurant. They had been seated in the restaurant by seven and had lingered with coffee and brandy before a fire in the elegant lobby until after nine thirty, in sight of hotel staff the entire time.
Perhaps Jarrett did need to be shielded from some truths. Aunt Agnes, who was also very fond of him, apparently felt that way. Duncan shoved the paper back into his pocket. He would discard it at the earliest opportunity.
He wondered how Aunt Agnes knew to offer Wild Turkey to Benjamin.