***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 5,154

"I have nothing until that appointment at two o'clock, right?"

"That would be correct."

"I'm going to do some things then this morning and then go have lunch with Claire, her dad, and brother downtown."

"All right. We had a good time on Saturday, by the way."

"Yeah? I'm glad. I feel like I hardly saw you at all."

"That was kind of a good thing."

"You were hiding from me?"

"Not hiding, no, but you needed to meet the people she and her family thought it was important for you to meet."

"I guess. As if I'll ever see any of them again."

"Oh, I imagine you will. You know, they have kids who will get married and so on."

"Right. Great. Just what I want to do is go to more parties like that."

"It was a nice time. The food was great. I was pleasantly surprised."

"For what I'm sure her dad spent it had better have been the best thing you've had."

"It was pretty good."

"It was," John agreed.

"I was surprised her brother was alone."

"Why?" John frowned.

"I don't know. Weddings are a great place to bring dates."

"It wasn't a real wedding, it was a reception, and I get the impression he's not involved with anyone right now."


"Yeah. I mean, I haven't asked him, but that's the impression I get."

"He'd be quite the catch with that business set to fall to him whenever Claire's dad decides to retire."

"Her dad's barely in his fifties," John said.

"I know, but it will happen one day."

"You in the market for a new husband, Ronda?"


"You have any sisters I don't know about?"


"That's probably good anyway," he said with a soft chuckle. "Anyway," he said, grabbing his coat. "I'll be back by two o'clock."

"Doing anything good?"

"Nope," he said simply.


"I'm doing something probably pretty stupid, but it needs to get done. I'll see you later."

"You sure?"

"Yup. I've got my pager on me if anything comes up."


"Don't get into any trouble while I'm gone."

"I'll try not to break anything."

"Thank you."

John pulled onto the street he swore he'd never drive on again. He hadn't either in years. He wouldn't deny he'd been curious what the house looked like, but about the occupants of the house he had no interest in. He drove past the house, spotting the cars in question on the driveway. So why had she taken the bus?

He drove around the corner and turned around, pulling up in front of Mr. Fitzgerald's old house. He had no idea who lived there now. He could still remember the smell of the chemicals the first time he'd gone into the darkroom with the man. John couldn't be sure where he'd be today without what little guidance the old man was able to give him, an interest he was able to give John.

He popped open the can of Coke he brought with him as he regarded the house. He had absolutely no fond memories of living here. Maybe as a real small kid, but he couldn't remember those and they were weighted down by so many bad ones that they were irrelevant.

He tried to remember what his parents were like back then, but he couldn't anymore. His mom had been real pretty, he remembered that much. It wasn't until he started school she started letting herself go. She was still pretty, he supposed, but the years of drinking and drug use had taken their toll on her. Looking at his parents was one of the reasons he swore off anything harder than the occasional joint. He didn't need to get much closer than real-life proof of what those bad habits did to someone.

He supposed his dad had been a good looking guy back then, too. John liked to think he was a good looking guy and he'd been told more than once he was the spitting image of his old man. So, he could understand how he'd managed to get his mom's attention. She'd been fifteen and he'd been seventeen when they met. She was sixteen and he was eighteen when she got pregnant with him. The rest, as they say, was history.

He saw the mailman deliver the mail to the houses in the area, including his parents'. Shortly after, the front door opened and he was expecting to see his mom again. He was not expecting to see a kid, a small one at that, come out the door with her. They walked to the mailbox by the street together and went back inside. His mom had no coat on, but the child did.

He rubbed his eyes, certain he was seeing things. No way in hell was it possible.

He got out of the car then, walking to the front door of one of the houses he'd parked in front of. The couple who lived here were nice people. The woman, Mrs. Henderson, never worked. She let John in her house a couple of times when he'd been locked out of his house.

Her eyes widened in surprise and shock at seeing him. He hadn't seen her really in years, long before he'd moved out. He'd outgrown his need for being let into her house and so hadn't come around much after that. He felt kind of bad for that now because he sort of got the impression she liked his visits. They didn't do anything, but she was alone all day and he was a break from the monotony of being a housewife with no kids in the house any longer.

"John!" she said.

"Hi, Mrs. Henderson. How are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?"

"I'm doing all right."

"I know you're not locked out today."

He chuckled softly at that. "No, ma'am, I'm not, but I do have a question or two for you."

"Sure," she said. She opened her front door further, letting him enter. "Do you want some coffee?"

"No, thanks, I'm all right. I can't stay long. I'm meeting my wife and in-laws for lunch downtown in a bit."

"You're married?"


"You're so young."

"My parents were younger."

Her lips tightened a bit at that.

"Do I know her?"

"You might. Claire Standish."

"Oh! Of course I know of her. Who doesn't?"

"Right?" he said with a bit of a chuckle.

"How's Mr. Henderson?"

"He's well, John. We both are. Getting older, you know. Aches and pains that weren't there before, but we get by."

"Your kids come by and check on you?"


"Good," he said. Her kids had been a little older than John so he hadn't ever known them well.

"You didn't come here to ask after us, though, I'm sure."

"Well, no," he said. He didn't want to be rude, though. "My mom came by to see me the other day, some of my mail got delivered to their house by mistake I guess."

"I can see how that could happen, you having the same name as your father."

"Right. I figured that's what happened. It's only been recent mail would've come to me as Mr. and Mrs. John Bender. She came on the bus, though."

"Oh, yes. Neither of her cars are working. Haven't been for months."

"Both of them?"


"Huh," he said, glancing out the window. He could see his house from here. It was why he'd come to her house the few times he'd been locked out, he was able to see when his mom or dad came home from here.

"My dad is in prison she said?"

"Yes, terrible situation."

"What happened?"

"He killed someone."

"Oh," he said, not at all surprised by that. "Bar fight?"

"I'm really not sure. If Al was here he'd know more." Al was her husband.

"It's all right. I can find out on my own."

"I don't like to gossip."

"I know you don't," he said. It was one of the reasons he'd come to her house. He knew she wouldn't tell the neighbors. There'd been more than one instance where he'd been locked out not because his mom wasn't home but because she was passed out drunk and didn't hear him knocking on the door. So, he'd had to sit here until his dad came home from work. As far as John knew, none of his neighbors knew these things. "I just know that I haven't been around, and I know I won't get an honest answer out of her."

"No, I guess not."

"And the kid I just saw?"

"John," she said cautiously.

"You can't be serious. It's hers? Theirs?"


"Boy or girl?"

"His name is Billy."

"How old?"

"Three, I think."

He stood then, walking to the front door.

"John," she said again.

"It's all right, Mrs. Henderson. I appreciate your time."

"You can't…"

"I know. I won't do anything stupid. Thanks for seeing me."

He got back in his car and stared at the house some more. He had a brother. Fuck. How did that even fucking happen? Three would mean a nineteen year difference. His mom would have been thirty-five when she got knocked up again, not out of the realm of possibilities. Insane, though, especially considering his parents didn't have a string of kids after John to suggest they wanted more. He'd just always assumed they realized their mistake and one of them got fixed or something.

He glanced at the clock in his car and knew he had to leave if he was going to make it to lunch on time with Claire, her dad, and her brother. They adjusted their lunch time around his work schedule, so being late would not look good. God it was tempting to say fuck it, though, go knock on the door and see what the fuck the situation was. Was the little guy, Billy, all right? He seemed okay. She'd put a coat on him to come outside to get the mail. That was at least a good sign.

He drove out of the area, passing the house one last time. He went by slowly, glancing at the house and sorely tempted to pull onto the driveway. He didn't, though. He wasn't going to choose his mother over Claire anytime soon.

Lunch was all right. He knew Claire could tell he wasn't in the greatest of moods, but he managed to push his way through without being rude or a jackass. Her dad had suggested lunch when he'd overheard Ronda telling him he didn't have anything booked until so late Monday afternoon. John had accepted the offer of lunch because that's what people did when they wanted to get along with their fathers-in-law.

Ronda noticed his mood, too. For whatever reason she didn't push him, perhaps assuming the lunch with his in-laws hadn't gone well. Who knew?

"There's a Lieutenant Bentley here to see you," she said over the phone.


"Yes," she said.

"Uh, okay. Show him to my office I guess," he said. "Tell him I'll be like five minutes, just waiting for a picture."

"Okay," she said. He hung up the phone then. He hadn't always had a phone in his dark room. Before Ronda came he hadn't needed it, just relying on an answering machine to take any calls he might miss. He usually developed his pictures early or late so that wasn't much of an issue. He didn't right after he'd hired her either, but eventually he had and it'd paid off more than once.

Knowing a police officer was here to see him, though, made him regret having the phone. She would never have walked into his work area, knowing what he was doing. She probably wouldn't have lied, though, and told the guy he wasn't around. So, either way he'd be seeing the guy.

The picture developed he headed up front, glad he was on the last one of the bunch he'd been working on. He'd work on more later, though. The work distracted him from thinking about what he'd discovered earlier today and trying to figure out what, if anything, he should do about that information. Could this day get any weirder though? First he finds out he's got a little brother and now the police were here to talk to him.

"Can I help you?" he asked, surprised when Lieutenant Bentley turned out to be a woman not a man.

"Mr. Bender?"

"Yes," he said cautiously. She extended her hand, which he took presuming it meant it was a friendly visit. He wasn't wanted for anything, so he was a bit confused why she might be here.

"Sorry if I interrupted."

"It's all right. What can I do for you?"

Had his mom seen him around the house and called the cops on him? He didn't think she'd do that. As far as he knew she didn't know what his Jeep even looked like. He doubted they'd send a lieutenant out for something like that anyway.

"You're familiar with Peter Cragen?"

"I'm sorry, who? I've never heard that name before in my life. You aren't looking for my dad, are you?"

"No, Alistair McMillan said you would possibly have information for us."

"Oh," he said. That was certainly not involving his old man then. "Pete? The guy with the photographs? I guess I never knew his last name."

"We've been building a case against him."

"Over some pictures he tried to sell me? That seems a little extreme. I mean, they never showed up."

"Those weren't the only ones. Your wife said you told her yourself he must have had access to equipment."

"Well, yeah," he said. "You've talked to Claire?"

"Not yet, but we have the information Mr. McMillan passed onto us initially."

"That was like months ago."

"Cases like this don't always move swiftly. It depends on how quickly the subject moves. It seems your wife was someone he was out to make a quick score off. He and his partners usually invest more time in their subjects."

"I suppose," he said. They probably weren't high priority cases either.

"Anyway, as we move to take down the operation he has going we need to know if you're in a position to testify."

"Sure," he said with a shrug. "I can't testify about much. I mean, he tried to sell me the pictures. I told him I wouldn't buy them and we got into a bit of a scuffle, ending up in both of us being arrested. I really don't know much else. I honestly hadn't even really thought on him for a while."

"You're a photographer, though. He's never tried to sell pictures before that we've been able to find anyway. We don't know what made Claire different than the others."

"I don't know the answer to that. Unless he planned on making more of her and blackmailing her parents for money to prevent the rest from being released. I mean, only two of the half dozen pictures he gave me showed anything and they weren't hugely explicit."

"Well, we're still getting things together, but we're certainly closer now than we were six months ago."

Huh. And here he thought Claire's dad and the lawyer had paid ol' Pete off. Looks like instead they went after him and were able to find some dirt on him. Good.

"Sure. Whatever you need. If he's done this to other people then he should be stopped."

"Great," she stood then, offering John a business card, which he took. "We'll be in touch. We have some tech guys, but they may want your input on what you know about his equipment."

"Sure," he said. "Some notice might be nice. I'm just a one-man operation here. If I'm going to be turning customers away I kind of need to know that."

"We'll try not to be too disruptive, and I can't imagine your testimony would last longer than a day or two."

"All right."

He showed her out of his office and to the door, sliding her business card into his wallet.

"Everything okay?" Ronda asked.

"Yeah," he said. He headed to the back, deciding to close everything up for the night and go home. He wasn't going to get much more done today anyway.

"You're leaving?" Ronda said when she saw him leaving his office wearing his coat.

"Yup. You can, too. Just turn the machine on before you go."

"I always do."

"I know," he said.

"You sure everything's all right?"

"I'm fine," he said. "Just one of those days, you know?"

"Okay. If you needed to talk…"

"I'm fine. Really. Thanks. Have a good night," he said.

He got home and headed to the couch with a beer. What a weird day. He almost would've rather been drowning in business because at least he wouldn't have had to spend all day thinking on his mom.

"Fuck," he muttered, flipping the TV on in an effort to find something to distract him. He really didn't want the police in his life, regardless of the reason. How could he refuse, though? He was, he supposed, a witness. If he said no, they'd subpoena him or Pete's lawyer would think he had something to hide and look into his background. He supposed he should call Mr. McMillan tomorrow and talk to him about his role in all of this if he even knew. Maybe the lawyer wouldn't know either.

"Long day?" he heard Claire ask him from in front of him.

He murmured something that wasn't really an answer. He'd evidently drifted off to sleep on the couch because he hadn't heard her come in.

"Are you going to tell me what's wrong now?"

"No," he muttered.

"Okay," she said cautiously. "Did you eat?"

"Not since lunch, no."

"Do you want to?"

"Not right now."


"I'm fine," he murmured.

"You don't look fine. You weren't fine at lunch."

"I had a bad day. Okay?"


"Jesus, Claire, just leave it alone. All right? I had a bad day. That's it. It has nothing to do with you."

"Well, then why won't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Because I don't want to talk about it yet!"


"Claire," he said, opening his eyes finally to look at her.

"If you're mad…"

"Princess," he said, sliding a hand to her leg, touching her at her thigh. "I just said it has nothing to do with you. Cut a guy some slack, okay."

She left the living room then and he closed his eyes again. He'd apologize later. He was allowed to have a bad day once in a while. He certainly didn't get pissed off or judge her when she had her bad moments. She wasn't insanely crazy at her time of the month as he'd heard some women got, but she definitely got … moody. He just stayed out of her way. And made extra sure to put the toilet seat down when he was done using it those mornings. He only had experience with his mother to go by when it came to living with women and she was pretty crazy and out of control every day so John never had any clue about such things where she was concerned.

He heard her walk through the house, going to their room first and then stopping in the kitchen. She came back to the living room a few minutes later, covering him with a blanket before grabbing the remote control for the TV. She sat on the couch at his feet. She must have poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen because he heard the soft sound of glass against the end table there. She didn't drink beer. Well, she did but not often and very rarely at the house. Evidently, she found what she wanted to watch on TV because she kept the channel where it was and settled her hand against his thigh.

"Thank you, Princess," he murmured a few minutes later when she made no attempt to engage him in conversation again.

"I brought you a beer, too," she whispered.

"I'm sure I'll get around to it when the game starts."

"That's fine."

He dozed on and off while she watched the news and some show that came on before the football game. She got up once, coming back with a sandwich he noticed when he opened his eyes to see what she had made for herself to eat.

"So, a police lieutenant came to see me today," he said finally, figuring he'd start with the part of his day he could at least make sense of.


"Pete. Did you know they've been investigating him? Evidently what he did to you wasn't the first time he'd pulled something like that."

"No, I didn't know that."


"No. Why would I?"

"I don't know. She said that Mr. McMillan knew I'd said he'd had decent equipment and stuff."

"Oh, well, sure. I told him what you'd told me about that back in February."

"Not since then?"

"No, no one's said anything to me. I didn't know."

"I guess they didn't pay him off after all."

"That makes you feel better or worse?"

"About your dad offering me money you mean?"


"Better, I guess. I was kind of wondering, at the time I mean, if I got that kind of check for doing the right, decent thing what kind did Pete get for starting the whole thing."


"I'm glad, though. I guess I never thought real hard about the fact that the quality of the pictures might mean he'd done it before you. I should've, I mean I realized he probably had done it before. I think I even said that to you at the time, but I wasn't concerned about someone I didn't know."

"Sure, why would you have? He only came to you with the pictures of me."

"They weren't you," he said, sliding his hand over hers. "He failed miserably at coming even close to knowing what you look like without your clothes on."


"I assure you, miserably."

"Thank you."

"I wasn't saying it to be flattering, not entirely. It's the truth."

"So, what did the lieutenant say to you?"

"Basically asked me if I'd be willing to testify and talk to her tech guys about the equipment he'd need to make those pictures."

"Oh. And?"

"Of course I said yes. I mean, who knows what would have happened with those pictures if he hadn't tried to sell them to me. She made it sound like you were an exception with how he normally operates, trying to release them publicly like that. I don't know. I mean, that's just wrong on so many levels. You know? Embarrassing for you, or whoever, even if the pictures aren't you."

"Right. I would've been absolutely mortified and humiliated!"

"I'm going to have to call him tomorrow."


"Mr. McMillan. I want to find out what he's told them exactly. I also want to ask him if he'd do a favor for me. Or knows an attorney who could if he can't. I don't know any really. Some clients, but I really don't want to involve people who know me professionally in this."

"What? Pictures of me?"

"No. The favor I need him to do for me."

"Which is?"

He sighed softly.

"First of all, I want to know what my father is in prison for. I stopped in the old neighborhood today."

"You did what?"

"I was curious, you know. I wanted to see if she even had the cars she and Dad had before."

"Did she?"

"Yes, they're still there."

"You talked to her?"

"No! I talked to a neighbor for a little bit. She says Dad killed someone, but I don't know the details and I'd like to know how long he's going to be in prison."


"Because it turns out Mom and Dad have another kid."


"He's three Mrs. Henderson said. Billy."

"You have a brother?"

"It would appear so. I admit I have my doubts on whether it's my old man's."


"Well, if they were going to have more than me, why wait nineteen years to do it?"

"I suppose. Did she?"

"I know at least one friend of mine she was with."

"One of your friends? Like someone our age?"

"Yes," he said. "Remember, she's only thirty-nine herself."

"Yeah, but still!"

"I didn't find out about it until after I'd moved out, but if my old man found out about it."

"Are any of your friends dead?"

"No, but that doesn't mean there weren't others I don't know about."

"John," she said cautiously.

"So, I just want to know. I also would like to know what Mom's doing. It's Monday and she was home. I saw her and him getting the mail. Is she working? Why wasn't Billy with her when she came to drop that present off?"

"Well, that would've been completely uncomfortable."

"I thought of that, too. She tried to talk to me, you know, but I didn't want to have anything to do with her."

"John, you can't blame yourself for not listening to her."

"I think I'm going to go over there and look at the cars."

"If you think you have to."

"I think I should. If it was just her I don't think I'd care, but it's November. She's got a three-year-old kid to haul around. I should be able to get at least one of them running."


"You don't think I should?"

"I think you should be careful."

"I don't want to, but I kind of feel like I owe it to him."

"Is he okay?"

"That's the other reason I'd like to find out what Dad's in prison for. I'd like to know how long he's going to be in there. Mom by herself," he shrugged, sitting up finally and grabbing the beer she'd brought for him a while ago. It was a bit warm, but it was beer just the same. "She wasn't physical, you know. I think he'd be okay."

"Are you going to, like, talk to him?"

"I don't know! What do you say to a brother you didn't know you had? I don't know if he even knows I exist! Never mind he's three. I have no idea how to talk to a three year old."

"I don't either."

"I just want to check out the cars, and I guess make sure he has, you know, food."


"What? Wouldn't you?"

"Well, yes, but do you really want to start doing that? Fixing her car is one thing, but if you start doing things like buying groceries she's going to think you will all of the time."

"I know. I just want to see for myself. Is that so wrong?"

"No," she said. "Would you like me to come with you?"

"I don't know."


"I mean, I don't know. I'm not sure what I'll be walking into. You know? If she's drunk or on something she could be a handful."

"Well, I'll go with you if you want me to. If not, that's fine."

"You're pretty calm and rational about this."

"What can I say?"

"I don't know, but your parents wouldn't be too thrilled to know what I'm doing."

"You're going to fix her car not invite her to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner."


"I don't think they could fault you for being sure your little brother has a ride places."

"I hope not. Would you be mad if I tried to hang out with him sometimes?"

"Mad? No. I think I'd hope you knew what you were doing."

"Yeah, I'm not sure I'm going to go down that road, but then again Dad's in prison and Mom's Mom, I kind of feel like I should, you know. I'm not sure what it says that I'm the normal one."

"It says that you beat the odds."

"You helped."

"I didn't."

"You did, too. You and Mr. Fitzgerald are the only people who ever gave a shit about me. That meant something."

"Not enough to date me."

"I didn't know you really liked me! I really didn't. I wasn't sure what to do with you. You stopped us from having sex that day at school and I wasn't sure what that meant."

"You'd never been told no before?"


She laughed softly at that. "That must have been awful for you."

"It was a bit mystifying. And then you wanted to, like, talk to me. I didn't know how to handle that at all."

"I know."

"Yeah, well, it's probably better anyway."

"Probably. I wonder if I'm going to have to testify."

"I don't see why you would."

"How about the fact that those pictures are not of me!"

"Oh, well, maybe then. I don't know. The lieutenant didn't say. Maybe they talked to me first because of the technical stuff. I don't know."

"Maybe they have to go through Mr. McMillan to get to me."

"That could be, too. Maybe he knows already and is just biding his time until it's a certainty. The guy may plea to something, you never know."


"I'm sorry I was an ass."

"You weren't. I just wasn't sure what to do for you."

"You did it. Just you here was cool."

"I wasn't sure you wanted me to leave."

"I don't think there'll be a time I ever want you to leave."



"You're going to go there this weekend?"

"Friday probably, yeah."


"You don't want me to?"

"I just want you to be very careful. I worry about you getting hurt."

"She can't…"

"Not that way."

"I don't really care about her."

"I know, but you can't see him without seeing her, which could set you up for getting hurt."

"I see your point," he said. "I'm just curious, I guess. Does he look like her or him? You know?"

"Yes, I can see that."

"How was your day?"

"Not nearly as eventful as yours."


"Thank you for having lunch with us."

"You don't have to thank me for eating with you."

"Well, with everything that happened I can see why you maybe wouldn't have wanted to, and having lunch with Christopher and Dad isn't the same as me."

"No, but they're not bad. I take it as a sign he's adjusting to us being a matching set."

"Is that what we are?"

"Something like that anyway."

"Do you really want to watch the football game?"

"I don't know. What are my other options?"

"Want to help me take a bath?"

"With bubbles?"

"You don't like the bubbles."

"I like you in the bubbles."


"They get flirty with your parts so then I have to find them."

"I like when you find my parts."

"Me, too, Princess."


"I don't need to watch football."

"Really? My offer is more appealing?"

"Your offers are always more appealing."

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