© 2003 Jess Mercer

The Companion

"Damn it!" Walt muttered. He sat at the small table placed carefully in front of the large window in his kitchen to take advantage of the view - a broad meadow that only a few weeks before had been a colorful expanse of wildflowers. Now next to the woods at the far side of the meadow sat the rusting body of an old wreck.

"I wish the county commissioners had enough guts to pass an ordinance and enforce it against dumping anywhere someone found convenient." Though the grasses lay flat and brown, the pines in the woods remained a deep green the view now spoiled for him.

He sipped at his coffee then looked at the wreck again. He jerked upward in surprise and stared keen eyed, for in the one unbroken window he would have sworn he saw the face of a young boy. He shook his head. "Impossible. What would a child be doing there?" He reasoned. Seeing no further movement, he got up to begin fixing his supper.


"I will not!" The words came so firmly and flatly spoken that except for the light baritone voice it might have been any executive or general giving orders.

"But, Ash, …"

"No!" This time bordering on a shout.

The older man shook his head. "Ashford, you've rejected every person on the list and you know the court demands you have an adult companion until you turn eighteen. What will it take to satisfy you?"

Only in his mid-teens, Ash smiled inwardly at his lawyer's distress. "I damn well will not have anyone whose eyes light up when they hear my name. Father didn't have much time to teach me, but he taught me one thing well, there are always plenty of people out there willing to pretend to love me just to rip off my trust fund."

"I know your father didn't trust a lot of people, but that doesn't solve our present problem."

Ash fixed his lawyer with a cold stare. "You and the rest butt out of my business and I'll find my own companion and it'll be someone who's never heard of me. And if you guys keep your damn mouths shut, he won't have a clue. He'll see the house, but he won't know anything else except he gets a salary for babysitting."

"And how do you plan to pull that little trick off?"

"I've got my ways, so don't sweat it. I won't be in any danger either because I won't be that far from the house. Deal?"

"What can I say? I'll give you a week, maybe two at most if you insist. Just remember that all the con artists are out at Christmas so play it safe. You have your cell phone so call if you feel uneasy at any time."

"Yeah. So go, I've got to look around then plan my strategy."

The three suited men arose and passed through the door the butler held for them. Before he even stood, Ash pulled his necktie off in one swift motion. He hated the things, but he knew a business suit and tie made him look older than his fifteen years.

After changing into lined LL Bean jeans and jacket he slipped on gloves and went to the garage, opening one of the doors and driving an ATV out. After shutting the door, he drove a service road to the rear of the property, stopping at the high chain-link fence and gazed at the small house across the meadow.

"Yeah, I'll see what kind of guy you are," he thought to himself. "I just gotta get you to notice me." At dusk he had often watched the young man, who had moved in a few weeks before, drive his old car next to the back of the house and move quickly inside as if the cold were more than he could take.

He stood in thought until his cell phone rang, the butler calling him to dinner. As he ate, a small article on the inside of the evening paper caught his eye. Reading it, he grinned. "Perfect."

The next morning he had the head gardener drive him to a small used car lot some ways out on the highway. After talking with the owner, he was shown a wrecked car body, the engine having been previously removed.

"Perfect," he said. "I want it hauled to the meadow back of my house by this afternoon. Call before you come and I will meet you at the gate to show you how to get it where I want. When I'm finished with it, I'll call you to come haul it away."

"It's your money, kid."

"It certainly is. Just remember that."

"Master Ashford, …" the gardener began.

"What?"

"You want to go someplace else?"

"Just home. I've some planning to do."

At home, Ash went to the garage and rummaged through a pile of old clothing left to be used as rags. With a look of triumph he held up a pair of jeans, so filled with holes they were barely recognizable. A few seconds later and he held up an equally ragged sweatshirt. Taking them outside, he wet a patch of bare earth with the garden hose and tossed the jeans and shirt into the mud, tromping on them to set the earth into the fabric. He hosed the mud off and hung the rags in the garage to dry.

After an early dinner the next evening, Ash put on the dry, grubby rags, streaked his face and hair with dirt and drove the ATV to the back fence. Leaving the ATV, he unlocked the small access gate and was soon inside the wreck. He watched the small house through quality binoculars until he saw the old car pull up and the young man get out. As soon as he saw the kitchen light go on and the man look out the window in his direction, he moved around in the wreck, hoping to attract the mans' attention. When he saw the man staring fixedly in his direction, he slipped out the far door, and keeping the wreck between him and the house, slipped quickly back inside the fence, and drove home.

After attending the annual staff Christmas party and passing out small personal gifts as well as bonus cheques, he surprised the entire staff by giving them the evening and Christmas Day off, explaining that he would be spending it with friends.

"There couldn't be a better night than this," he thought as he prepared to return to the wreck, for the last time, he hoped.

As darkness became complete, he saw the young man drive up to the back of the house and carry two large grocery bags into the kitchen then return to his car and open the rear door. He could see a large shaggy dog of some sort bound out and race away before the man could attach the leash he held in his hand.

Pretending not to notice, Ash gathered a handful of dry grass and a few twigs, lighting them with a pad match, seeing the tiny flame flicker. Holding his hands above, he rubbed them against the cold, shivering involuntarily.

"Woof!" The sharp bark startled him. A cream-colored chow challenged from a few steps away.

"What the hell are you doing, boy, trying to set the meadow on fire?" A harsh voice demanded.

He looked up to see the young man scowling down at him. "I'm so cold, sir. I was trying to get warm."

"Yeah? Where you supposed to be? It ain't here, for sure."

Calling on his maximum acting ability, Ash whimpered, "I ain't got no place, 'cept that old car. I'm hungry, too."

"Why not? You run away from home?"

"My folks is dead. I run away so them folks from child welfare wouldn't put me in no home."

He was surprised to see the young man wipe away a tear. "Shit, kid, this is Christmas Eve. I ain't got much use for kids, but hell, no way I can leave you out here in the cold and you being hungry and all. I ain't got much 'cept me and Dawg here, but I guess we can get you something to eat and a warm place for the night anyway."

The young man stomped out the tiny flames and embers, then held out his hand. "My name's Walt. You got one?"

"I ... Ash."

"You got anything in that old wreck you need?"

"No."

"Okay, come on then."

Walt did not stop until he pushed Ash into the bath of his small house. "Get out of those filthy rags and get a shower. There's a robe behind the door you can wear until I can wash and dry what you're wearing. When you're done, come in the kitchen and we'll eat. Like it or not the menu is soup and crackers. Tomorrow I'll fix us a decent dinner."

Despite the cramped shower stall, the water was hot and Ash luxuriated in a way he never had at home. He instinctively trusted Walt as he did few others of any age. For that reason he hoped Walt would listen to his lawyer and agree to become his companion.

"Damn, boy, you sure clean up nice! Sit down and let's get this soup under our belts." Walt said when Ash appeared in the doorway.

"This is sure good. What kind is it?" Ash asked after tasting the soup.

"Pea soup. I make it with a ham bone, some onions and carrots, and let it simmer for three or four hours. It's good, even if I did make it."

Dawg made a whining sound and put a large paw on Walt's leg. "Okay, I guess it'll keep you from pestering us," Walt said, fishing the ham bone from the pot and putting it on a large plastic plate before setting it on the floor.

"I swear, that dog's gotta eat every time I do." Walt said, resuming his seat.

"What kind is he?"

"Mostly chow. We sort of found each other when I was out walking one day. I don't need a dog, but he followed me home and stayed on the porch all night. He looked so hungry the next morning I had to feed him and he's been here ever since." He looked affectionately at the animal. "Cost me, but he's been at the vet's getting a checkup, bath, and groomed. You know you're beautiful, don't you?"

Dawg looked up and gave a gentle 'Woof.'

Walt, bowl empty, sat back and looked over Ash. "You're mighty good looking, too. For sure you ain't been roughing it very long, want to tell me about it."

"Not much to tell. My folks got killed in a wreck and I'm not letting those idiots at child protection put me in a home somewhere."

"Didn't your folks make some provision for you in just these circumstances?"

"Yeah, but I don't have any kin, so it's not working out. I don't want to talk about it, 'specially on Christmas Eve."

"Very well. I won't push you, but I know damn well there's a lot more than you've told me so far. You're well educated for a young person and you speak better than most adults, so I'm betting you've been to a private school somewhere. No," he said holding up his hand as Ash started to speak, "I said I won't push you and I won't, but when you feel like talking, I'm ready to listen. At least tell me your real name."

"Ashford McAlister," Ash responded grudgingly.

Walt held out his hand. "Walton Smythe, Ashford McAlister. And that's Smythe spelled 'ythe' which ain't nothin' but an attempt to make plain old Smith look fancy in writin'. Don't you go calling me Smythe, neither. It's Smith pure and simple."

Ash grinned. "I might call you Smythe if you piss me off."

"You do and your ass is outta here. Hell, I'll sic Dawg on you."

"You wouldn't do that, would you, Dawg?"

Dawg stood and licked Ash's cheek. "Naw, I didn't think you would," Ash said stroking the dog's soft fur.

After the dishes had been done, Ash helping Walt, they went into the living room to sit before the fire and sip the glasses of eggnog Walt had fixed.

"I guess this is our Christmas celebration, such as it is," Walt remarked, "but I didn't know I'd have company."

"You've made this a great Christmas for me. I hope maybe later on I can tell you how much," Ash replied. "What kind of work do you do?"

"None right now. I've been working construction off and on for money to finish college. This last time I got hurt, so I'm just taking any odd jobs I can find so I can get enough money to pay my tuition. My last semester starts in January."

"I'm sorry you got hurt, but you sure have a great build."

"I'm just lucky, 'cause I don't have to work out to keep it. It's my brain gets the workout. It wouldn't be so hard if I could have gone straight through without stopping to work, but that's the way it is. Some people are lucky and some gotta work to make it, but I will."

"What are you studying?"

"I'm going for financial management with a minor in psychology."

Ash frowned. "Sounds like a weird combination."

Walt smiled. "Not really. Most of the stock and financial markets are purely psychological. No one wants to admit it, but they are. Enough about me, what about you?"

Ash shrugged. "I'm a sophomore at school. The way things are, I'm not sure I'll be going back."

"You won't ever get anywhere this day and time if you don't have an education. I don't know how things are going to work out for you, but stay in school, Ash. The law will make you until you're sixteen, anyway."

"Only if they can find me." Ash looked at the small tree sitting on a table. It shone with tiny lights and a few ornaments. "Your tree's nice."

"That's all the decorating I did. Didn't figure nobody would see it but Dawg and me, so no need to do more. I like to have something to make it Christmas, that way it doesn't seem so lonely."

"Yeah. It's bad to be lonely, especially now."

Walt smiled at him. "We've got each other and it's nice to have some human company for a change. If you've finished your eggnog, let's get to bed. I know Santa ain't coming, but I had a long day."

"You worked?" Ash asked in surprise.

"Wal-Mart." Walt shook his head. "Some people are so dumb, waiting to the last minute to pick up their layaways. I spent the whole day searching the stockroom for stuff. I really feel sorry for the guy took over the next shift. He'll be there 'til midnight and get rushed to death if the amount of stuff still to be picked up was any indication."

He looked at Ash. "The sofa might be a little lumpy, but it ain't too bad. My bed's a king size if you want to share."

"Great. No need to mess up more sheets."

"No funny business either. I promise."

"Not even a cuddle?" Ash asked. "It's been a long time and sure would make me feel good.

"We'll see," Walt replied, wondering if he could trust himself with this beautiful kid.

"Merry Christmas," Walt said, sitting up and looking down at the rousing Ash.

"Gee, it is, isn't it? Merry Christmas to you and thanks for taking me in. He sat up also and hugged Walt.

"Breakfast?" Walt asked.

"Not yet. I'm going to take a pee and then come back. Would you hold me for a little while so I can pretend you're my dad?"

"Go, 'cause I'm going to be right behind you."

Relieved, they returned to the bed and Ash snuggled up to Walt's muscular body. Before long they were both sleeping lightly. About ten, Walt got up.

"I'll have coffee, juice, and a sweet roll ready in a few minutes, then I'm going to start our dinner because the turkey breast will take a while to cook. It snowed last night."

Ash looked out the window to see a light dusting of snow covering everything. He turned and hugged a surprised Walt. "I would have been out there in the cold if it hadn't been for you. Thanks."

"It will be cold in here if the fire goes out. See if you can get it going again."

After he had coaxed the embers into flame with kindling and added a couple of logs, Ash went to the kitchen. "Need some help?" He asked, seeing Walt busily preparing to cook their Christmas dinner.

"Peel those potatoes, if you don't mind. Here's the peeler," he said, handing Ash the tool.

A little later, Walt proclaimed, "We'll be having those potatoes tomorrow if you don't get a move on. Haven't you ever peeled spuds before?"

Ash shook his head.

Walt picked up a paring knife and sat down at the table. "Here's how to do it fast. I figure we'll eat about six. If you want anything before then, just ask."

Walt put on a CD of Christmas carols and helped Ash carry the food to the table. He was surprised when Walt lowered his head and asked a blessing on the food, including a petition of protection for Ash.

"Thanks, Walt. I don't guess anybody ever cared enough to pray for me before."

When dinner was done, Ash indicated that he had to leave early the next morning. As they drank their cups of hot cider, Walt said, "I wish I could convince you to stay with me and Dawg."

Ash shook his head. "Got places to go and things to do before school starts again. Thanks for being so good to me."

"Will you at least stay in touch so I'll know how you're doing? If it gets bad, you can always come back here. I mean I haven't got much, but Dawg and me are willing to stretch things a bit to include you."

Ash hugged him. "I'll be closer than you know and you'll probably see more of me than you want."

Walt shook his head. "No chance. If anyone had told me I'd care so much about a homeless kid, I'd have said they were liars. But there's something special about you, Ash. Cuddle tonight?"

"For sure. I like the way you hold me and make me feel safe and wanted, when I'm nothing."

"Don't say that ever again, Ash. You are somebody and the world will take notice some day."

The next morning Walt stood at a window in the living room stroking the soft fur of the chow and watching a figure trudging down the lane toward the road. "I wish he had stayed, don't you, Dawg."

Dawg whimpered in reply.

A few days later, Walt answered a knock at the door to see a well-dressed man with graying hair standing there.

"Mr. Smythe?"

Walt nodded.

"I'm Harold Martinson of Martinson, Reilly, and Dearborn. I have a business proposal for you. May I come in?"

"Sure." Walt said standing aside. "Have a seat. What kind of business proposition?"

"I believe you had the company of a young man over the holiday. He wishes to see you and I will explain our proposal to you in his presence. He did not mention, however, that you are handicapped."

Walt used crutches each evening while preparing for bed. He was glad that Ash never mentioned his missing leg or seemed to notice or care.

"I'm not, really. I can do everything I want with my leg. It's just that occasionally it becomes uncomfortable and I need to rest my stump."

The attorney smiled. "It certainly won't interfere with any aspect of the job." He stood, shall we go?"

"Where?"

"To Ashford's home. He will see you there. I'll take you and bring you back home if necessary. Oh, yes, he specifically asked that you bring your dog."

"Wait a minute," Walt exclaimed as the lawyer turned his BMW through the gates and started up the drive. "There's no way that kid lives here."

"But he does. This is the McAlister estate. I'll let Ashford explain his deceptive actions over Christmas."

When the butler, cautiously staying as far away from Dawg as possible, opened the door to the study, Ash yelled, "Dawg!" Instantly the chow was trying to get into Ash's lap, licking his face.

When he could get away from Dawg, Ash stood and embraced Walt. "I'm so glad to see you and Dawg again, Walt. Sit down and …"

"Sit down? I should walk straight out that door and never come back. I can't believe you live in all this luxury and had nothing better to do than play me for a fool." He indicated the three business suited men also in the room with a sweep of his hand. "You're no orphan. Which of these is your father?"

"Please sit down and let me explain if you won't listen to Ashford," Martinson said. He continued after Walt was seated and Dawg lay on the oriental rug next to Ash's chair in bliss as Ash stroked his fur. "Ashford deceived you only about his homeless state. His parents were killed in an accident in late September, so he is without acknowledged kin.

"He has had an unfortunate succession of candidates for guardianship, all of whom appeared to be more interested in money than in Ashford. He assured us, we're the trustees of the McAlister estate and guardians ad hoc of Ashford until a permanent guardian can be appointed, that he could find someone that had never heard of the McAlister name and could not care less about the fortune."

Martinson smiled at Walt. "We hesitated to let Ashford try, but it appears he has succeeded brilliantly where we failed. Our investigation into your background was most satisfactory, Mr. Smythe, therefore, I offer you the position of companion and guardian of Ashford McAlister. You will, of course, live in this house with Ashford and devote your time to him. Sims, the butler, runs the house and answers to us, so you have no responsibility in that regard.

"Ashford attends Valleycroft Academy, so as he is in school all day, you may continue your own education at the college with the provision that you are in this house when he leaves in the mornings and returns in the afternoon. Oh, yes, your salary will be thirty thousand a year plus any extraordinary expenses."

He paused waiting for Walt's reply, but Walt only stared at Ash who finally broke the silence. "Come on, Walt, say yes. I want you and Dawg here with me; I trust you."

When Walt still failed to speak, Ash smiled at him. "Remember when you said on Christmas morning you wished you had something to give me?" Walt slowly nodded. "Well, this is what I want you to give me. My tutor told me Christmas used to be the 6th of January, so it's not too late for us to have Christmas together and give each other something we each want. You and Dawg can move in here and be my guardians, and I can give you your last year of college."

"Guess I better ask you to forgive me for deceiving you, too, and I promise I'll have that old wrecked car towed away tomorrow." Ash added.

Slowly, still unbelieving his good fortune, Walt stood and held out his arms to receive an ecstatic Ash as Dawg pranced around them barking.

II

After the holidays Walt moved a few necessities from his cottage into the mansion to Ash's delight. The room Ash had designated as Walt's was a complete suite adjoining his own. "All the better to keep track of you," Walt teased when shown the connecting door. He found out later that Ash had taken what had been his father's suite, while he had been given the one Ash's mother had used. In each was an area with a desk and comfortable seating. Each of them used these as study areas.

Before school resumed, Ash took Walt to the men's clothiers his father had favored and outfitted Walt with several business suits and accessories, as well as casual clothing. "I look like Mrs. Astor's pet horse," Walt grumbled as he tried on the outfits.

"Bull!" Ash said laughing. "You may act like a jackass at times but you're no horse. You're my companion and you have to look the part at business meetings and the few social events I can't escape."

"I'm not going to anything like that," Walt declared.

"Want to bet? You're paid to be my companion and that means all the time." He hugged Walt. "Besides, you're the one I trust. With your education, you can spot anybody trying to screw me."

"Not at the business. You need an accountant for that."

"We got lots of those."

"Yeah, but you need one of your own, independent of the business, one not chosen by your guardians."

"Know one?"

Walt thought for a moment. "I just might."

"Look into it and let me know. Now let's get this stuff home. School starts again Monday."

"I want to see your grades improve, too, young man."

"Oh, Jeez, I hired myself a demon."

Walt quickly realized that Ash was forcing himself into an adult role in an attempt to do what he thought his father might have, so most weekends they spent at Walt's cottage with Walt treating Ash like a young teen. He felt vindicated on seeing the boy acting as a fifteen year-old would, including the smart mouth, but the moment they reentered the mansion Ash reverted back into an adult mode.

During the Easter break from school, Ash crawled into bed with Walt one evening as he often did when he wanted to talk. "Walt, I don't know why, but I've got a feeling that Uncle Hank and my other two guardians are screwing me and the business." He wiped a tear, "What hurts is I can't believe Uncle Hank would do it to me, but he has to know if anything funny is going on and he's supposed to be protecting me."

"He's not your real uncle is he?"

Ash shook his head. "He and dad were friends from college and when dad started the business, Uncle Hank put some money in and dad made him vice-president. I've always called him and Aunt Gertie uncle and aunt."

Walt hugged him. "You don't know anything for sure, so don't let your imagination run away with you."

Ash hugged Walt back. "I guess it's time you earned your salary as my financial advisor; go for it."

"Soon as we go back to school, I'll talk to the accountant. I know he's supposed to take his CPA exam soon, and it's a sure bet he'll pass it. He's already sending out resumés."

"Make it easy, I want him to start at the house. Sims controls an awful lot of money and Uncle Hank is the only one sees the monthly summary. That's a great place to do some skimming."

"You're a suspicious little bastard."

"Dad said if I could recognize opportunities it would be difficult for anyone to rip me off. That was the first thing he taught me. We'll give your guy an office at the house."

"No way. It's too easy for everyone to figure out what's going on. This guy's also a real computer nerd and has programs he's developed for himself. If he'll work for you, put him in the computer department at the business and make him independent, reporting only to you through me. Better yet, directly to you. Nobody would believe you can understand business accounting practice, heck, even I can't, that's why we need him. Your guardians will probably not even know he's around. He certainly won't do anything to attract attention to himself."

Walt smacked Ash on the backside. "Now get that cute butt in your own bed, it's late."


A few weeks before graduation Walt looked at the posted results of the CPA exam. As he expected Hillman's name was listed among those to receive the certification at graduation. When he later stopped at the student union for a cup of coffee he saw Hillman sitting alone and reading. Having often spoken to the unfortunate man, Walt had no hesitancy in approaching him.

He set his cup of coffee down and pulled out a chair. "How's it going, Hillman?"

Hillman shrugged in reply.

"By the way, congratulations on making CPA the first time around. I hear it doesn't happen that often."

"I suppose not."

"Having any luck with the resumés?"

"Had six interviews so far, but no offers. No way I can go into a solo practice at this point, so I'll take just about anything."

"What would you say to working for a private individual sort of undercover and reporting only to him?"

For the first time a look of interest crossed Hillman's plain features. "Figure there's somebody cooking the books or ripping him off?"

"Something like that."

Hillman smiled, the first smile Walt had ever seen cross his dour face. "That's the kind of work I've really wanted to do. Can you set up an interview for me?"

"Four o'clock this afternoon. You have a car?" When Hillman nodded, Walt continued. "You can follow me there when I finish classes. It's my employer you'll be seeing. No need to dress, what you've got on is fine."

"I thought you were babysitting some kid."

"Not exactly, and that kid is sharp as they come."

"So who is he? Or am I working for his father?"

"There is no father. You'll be working for the kid just like me."

"Don't I get a name?"

"When I introduce you. He likes to interview completely cold. See you at four in the north parking lot."

When Hillman saw Walt get into his rusting old Honda he was discouraged. "Job must not pay worth a damn if Smythe can't afford something better than that," he thought, unaware of the Jaguar sports roadster in the garage at the mansion. Walt drove it only on special occasions despite Ash's constant plea for him to junk the Honda.

"Look guy," he'd said to Ash, "if you ever want to go somewhere and not be recognized this is the car to use. Besides, I don't give a damn if this gets dented in the parking lot, but it'd sure piss me off to see a dent in my Jag."

Hillman pulled to a stop behind Walt and got out, looking at the mansion and groomed grounds. "This is it?"

"Yeah. Come on in." Walt's intended step towards the door was halted by a cream colored shape jumping up on him. "Yes, damn it, Dawg, I'm home. Go chase a rabbit or something, I got business to attend to."

It was not to the study, but Ash's bedroom suite that Walt led Hillman. A business suited Ash arose from the leather chair behind the desk as Walt introduced them. Walt was amused when Hillman's mouth dropped open as he mentioned the McAlister name.

"You will pardon me for seeing you here instead of my study," Ash began, "but it has not yet been swept for listening devices. I have no reason to think this room is bugged." He looked at Walt. "Want to lay out the requirements of the position for Mr. Hillman? I'll have Sims bring coffee," he said, picking up the phone.

When Walt finished the plans in so far as he and Ash had worked them out, Ash looked at Hillman. "Are you interested?" Ash hoped he was, for his nondescript appearance was what Ash wanted. Hillman would blend into the woodwork as Walt had implied.

"It's the very sort of thing I was hoping to find. Just handling numbers all day is boring unless there's some goal behind it."

"And you have no problem working for a," he grinned at Walt, "kid?"

"No, sir."

"Excellent. What are your salary expectations?"

Hillman studied Ash's face for a minute. "I was hoping for something around forty thousand. I am a CPA, you know."

Ash smiled. "What about fifty thousand and a ten thousand rise for each documented case of theft successfully prosecuted?"

Hillman looked stunned. "Di … did you say fifty?"

Ash nodded.

"When do you wish me to start?"

"As soon as possible. I know it's about five weeks to graduation so you will work after school hours. In a way it's good, because you can report directly to Walt at school and not be seen here where a stranger might raise questions.

"Walt will supply you with copies of the household accounts. I am interested in knowing how honestly my butler is handling the running of the house. We start there and later you will be given an office in the computer division of McAlister Industries. You will have access to the main frame for information."

"I couldn't ask for more, sir. Thank you. For bookkeeping purposes, I suggest I officially begin work on the first of next month. Of course I'll be working beginning as soon as Smythe gets the information to me."

"My kind of man," Ash said, coming around the desk and shaking Hillman's hand. "I'm glad to have someone like you on my personal team, Hillman. Now, go catch me some crooks."

"I'll do my best, sir."

"When's the man coming to check the place for bugs?" Ash asked, whipping off his suit coat and necktie.

"Tomorrow morning when there's less chance of anything going on."

"God, I must sound paranoid to you."

"Not at all, considering what you've been through. What the hell do you know about paranoia?"

"Enough. I'm just doing what you told me."

"Which is?"

"I'm in all AP classes, basic psychology is one of them."

Walt grabbed him in a hug. "Damn! I'm proud of you, kid. Keep it up."

"I plan to, now that I have somebody who cares. I love you, Walt."

"I love you, too, kid. You and Dawg."

"Damn!" Ash swore before going into his dressing room to change.

**********

The technician called Walt and Ash into the study. "Good thing you decided to have this checked out. I hope you haven't done any confidential business in there recently. I found a transmitting device in the phone; one the base of the desk lamp, when the lamp was on it was operating; another in the table between the two wing chairs; and, if you will look up here," he pointed to a small hole in the crown molding facing the door, "a video camera."

"Shit!" Ash snarled.

"This was the easy part. I found they are all connected to a small transmitter in the attic with a little dish antenna facing south-west. Do you have any idea …"

"McAlister Industries building," Ash snarled again.

"How shall I proceed with finding the receiver, then?"

"Simple. For the next however number of nights it takes, we're going to be at the office. I have a full set of master keys and security will stay away from the executive area if I tell them I want privacy there, or anywhere else for that matter."

"Are you certain of that, Ash?" Walt asked.

"Damn right. Anyone who interrupts us will be looking for a job the next morning."

"Okay. We'll meet you at the corner of Fourth and Oak tomorrow night at Nine. No one stays later than that, even for meetings." Ash said, dismissing the technician.

"Damn it, Walt, this is one time I don't want to be right."

Walt hugged him. "I know. At least Hillman found Sims has never been less than totally honest, and he had no trouble getting set up in his office at the business. No matter what we find with the bugging, we have to wait for Hillman to do his audit of everything, and that's a lot of work."

"Yeah."

**********

Despite all the undercover maneuverings and likely unpleasant end results, Ash made the most of Walt's graduation by taking him to the four star restaurant for dinner. Seated at a semi-private table at Ash's request, they laughed heartily over Walt's first attempts to eat a whole lobster.

Ash also sent Hillman a gift card from the clothier that had outfitted Walt. Stunned to be so generously remembered, it was an almost speechless Hillman that accepted Ash's and Walt's congratulations, with assurances that he would soon have sufficient data for Ash to examine.

Ash and Walt were eating lunch when Walt's cell phone rang. "Yeah? … There's a Mailboxes, Etc. just down the block. Take it there and address it with no names to box 19. And thanks. Take a break and I'll be in touch." Walt said before terminating the call.

"Hillman came through. We'll take a ride into town and pick the package up. I rented that box for just such things as this. There's no way anything can be traced to a name."

"And you said I was sneaky," Ash said, grinning.

"So you are. I'm just a bit more worldly than you, though you're catching up fast. I'm just glad you're honest instead of being a crook."

"I'm glad you are, too."

**********

It was 2 o'clock in the morning before Walt and Ash staggered out of the motel room where Hillman had met them to explain his findings after Walt found the pages of figures incomprehensible. It was the total figures that staggered Walt. Hank had taken the firm for over ten million; Baxter, the lawyer, had helped himself to the extent of seven million by billing the firm for hours over and beyond those required. Williams, the vice-president had only managed to skim off three million in bogus travel.

"Damn it, Walt, that's money belonging to the employees for all the overtime they worked without pay when dad was having liquidity problems, and probably the stockholders which means you and me." He gave a stifled sob or two, then wiped his eyes. "If Uncle Hank needed money so badly, dad would have given it to him and so would I. He said he loved me, so why did he have to steal it?"

Walt reached over and pulled Ash as close to him as the car seat would allow. "It's money, babe. Some people just can't be around it without some of it sticking to their fingers. I guess it's sort of like alcoholism, they just can't help it even when they know it's wrong. They don't think of who else they're hurting."

"So what do we do now?"

"I'm going to ask my law professor for some names of honest corporate lawyers and a judge and put it all in their hands. I'll demand full recovery of all misappropriated funds in so far as possible, even if it takes everything they own."

A few days later, Walt lay the papers before the law partners his professor had recommended. They had just begun practice and wanted clients badly. He also mentioned that the professor said they should seek a hearing before Judge Ammons who had a reputation for straightforward rules of evidence with no nonsense allowed.

"Hell, your guy has done all the work. We just need to arrange it in separate files and we're ready for the hearing. Our work'll be done in a couple of days. We'll call you regarding the court date, but he moves quickly."

"Good enough. Mr. McAlister wants this all kept as quiet as possible."

"No problem up to the court hearing. If there's a business reporter in the judge's courtroom then it becomes public knowledge. I'll warn you now, there usually is a reporter hanging around Judge Ammons' court, because his cases are always news.

"Once the defendants are served, they will probably try to contact Mr. McAlister. He should refuse any and all contact with the defendants or their family members before the trial. Oh, yes, as they are officers of the corporation, I am certain Mr. McAlister will wish to terminate them immediately. I suggest he have security accompany them to their offices tomorrow morning to gather their personal possessions and nothing more, then escort them from the building.

"One final thing, Mr. Smythe. Notify your present company attorneys of termination of contract today and notify anyone concerned that Arnold and Peterson are the new legal consultants to McAlister Industries so that we have access to all pertinent data."

"I will see to that the moment I'm in my office. It is very difficult for Mr. McAlister to make this move against a long time family friend, but I'll try to make sure there is no contact. Thank you." Walt left the lawyers' office with a broad grin as he imagined the looks of shock when he and Ash informed the men of their termination and had security escort them within the building and to the doors with instructions to never let them return for any reason.

Walt immediately hired an outside security firm and placed their men throughout the building, knowing that some of the company's security people were loyal to Henry Dearborn. Deciding to protect Ash as much as possible, he had Ash sit out of sight in the receptionists' office.

The cries of outrage and shock were all that Walt expected. However, the hired security guards calmly and professionally discharged their duties as outlined by Walt, though numerous threats were hurled at Walt as the former executives were escorted from the building carrying boxes of personal possessions. Not one had been allowed near a computer terminal.

The company security force were gathered in the lobby and told to report to the office of the hired security firm for vetting, the outcome of which would determine their remaining employed at McAlister Industries.

An uneasy month passed for both Walt and Ash, until their attorney called to inform them that the case would be heard before Judge Ammons the following Monday. Impeccably dressed, Ash, Walt beside him for moral support, sat at the table with their attorneys.

Rich Peterson, having researched the judge thoroughly and knowing that he had worked his way from poverty through law school, was well prepared to stress in his summation that the stolen funds belonged to the workers as overtime pay. This would be a strong factor in the judge's decision. Too, the defendants were defending themselves, bringing to mind the old saying that a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. He knew they were relying heavily on the fact that they played golf and socialized with the judge, not to mention their public prominence.

Having greeted Arnold and Peterson and recognized their client, the judge turned to the others. "It comes as quite an unpleasant surprise to find the senior members of such a prominent law firm appearing in my court as defendants. Henry Dearborn, you are the guardian of Ashford McAlister and, if I am not mistaken, his godfather. I find it difficult to believe that you could be accused in such a matter considering your long relationship with the McAlister family. However, it is I who shall have to make such a decision based on the evidence presented. Let us begin. Mr. Peterson."

Peterson called Earl Hillman to the stand to explain each of his findings to the judge. To his pleasant surprise, the judge appeared fascinated with Hillman's explanations, asking deeply relevant questions as to how he had used computer programs to reveal the thefts. The evidence of Hillman took an entire day and most of the next before the judge thanked Hillman for his patient explanations and dismissed him.

Next was the technician who had uncovered the bugging methods and traced the receiver directly to equipment hidden in the bottom of an antique armoire in Hank Dearborn's office in the McAlister building.

Surprising to all were the judge's questions to Ash, primarily concerned with his guardianship. With the explanation that it was Walt who had guided him through the investigation because of discrepancies he had found in Ash's personal accounts, and Walt's credentials as a financial planner, his living in the mansion and demanding the best from Ash in his schoolwork, the judge, after one question of Walt, declared Walt to be Ashford's legal guardian, much to Ash's joy.

Turning back to the case at hand, the judge called on the defense to present their case. Having convinced themselves that the judge would not let longtime pals and members of the most prestigious firm in the city down, their defense was perfunctory at best.

Once more the judge had a surprise for all of them. When the trial was over, he called Ash back to the stand. "Young man, I know your opinions have no legal bearing on my decision, but you have apparently been most grievously wronged, therefore I would like to hear your opinion of proper punishment for each of the defendants, for I find them guilty as charged."

Without hesitation, Ash looked at the judge. "Those two lawyers deserve prison time for betraying the trust of a client, your honor."

"And your godfather?"

Ash broke down into sobs. When Walt stood, the judge nodded and Walt walked over to hold Ash in his arms until he recovered. Finally Ash was able to stammer, "I loved my Uncle Hank and my Aunt Gert, your honor. I … I can't bear to think of Uncle Hank in prison and Aunt Gert alone. Could you give him community service for a long time?"

"You may stand down. I must say that your loyalty to long time friends is commendable, but Mr. Dearborn apparently masterminded the entire scam and benefited the most. As such, community service is not a viable option. I will have to consider sentencing for these men, however they are no longer on bail. The bailiff will take them in custody until I determine sentence."

A few days later they were back in court to hear the judge pronounce what to all were unusually harsh sentences. He demanded immediate accounting and forfeiture of all personal assets to the amount stolen from McAlister Industries and a three year prison term for each.

"But your honor," Dearborn objected, "that will wipe out everything my wife and I possess, and we have a son about to finish medical school."

"You should have thought of that before you stooped to dishonesty. You also know your licenses to practice law will be revoked permanently by the bar association."

Pulling away from the bailiff, Dearborn hugged and kissed his sobbing wife.

Ash raised his hand. "Yes, young man?" The judge asked.

"May I speak with my aunt and uncle, sir?"

The judge nodded.

"Uncle Hank, don't worry about Aunt Gert, if they take your house I'll see she has an apartment somewhere nice and an allowance. I'll also pay Robert's tuition for this last year of school. He'll make a good doctor."

Hank sank into a nearby chair, wracked with sobs, as Gert embraced Ash tightly. "God bless you, Ash. You've been treated so badly and yet you can be so generous and kind. How?"

"Walt has taught me a lot of things dad never did."

"And done a damn fine job of it, too," said a wavering voice. They looked up in time to see the judge wipe away a tear of his own. "Mr. Smythe, take this young man home and continue to do what you seem to do best. I expect great things of him in the future."

"Thank you, sir."

Within six months full restitution had been made to McAlister Industries. Ash and Walt spent a morning with the company treasurer determining the full amount of money and the amount owed each worker for the unpaid overtime. With a handful of paper covered with names and figures, Ash and Walt paged the president of the company union to Walt's office.

"Who the hell are you two," the union boss demanded.

Walt stood. "Walton Smythe. I'm financial advisor to Mr. Ashford McAlister here."

The man looked at Ash. "Shit, you're just a kid. You mean I work for you?"

"Unless I fire your ass. Now sit down and listen for a change."

The man sat grudgingly then a slow smile of delight and admiration spread across his features. "You mean it?" He asked unbelievingly.

"Watch me," Ash said, picking up the phone and dialing a single digit. There was a click overhead and then Ash's voice spread throughout the entire building and plant. "There will be a meeting of all weekly wage employees in the courtyard behind the office building. Employees will shut down all equipment before attending this meeting because a paid half day holiday will begin immediately after my announcement."

"Mr. McAlister, you may be a kid, but you're a damn fine man. I'm ready to put our new contract to the members right now."

"You still have six months, so that would be premature," Walt said. "Let's go join the troops."

Ash stood on a box behind the hastily constructed podium and cleared his throat. When there was silence, he said, "I wish to make an announcement regarding the overtime pay all of you waged employees are owed."

"Yeah! Like we'll ever see it!"

"More company bullshit," another yelled.

Suddenly the union president was pushing Ash gently aside, then he grabbed the mike and yelled, "You buttheads shut the fuck up and listen to this man. I know what he's gonna say and it's gonna make you all happy."

"Fat day you'll trust a McAlister, Frank," someone yelled.

"I damn well trust this one, so shut up." He backed away saying, "Mr. McAlister."

With silence more or less insured, Ash delivered his talk until the end when he said, "The overtime cheques will be with your regular pay next week. I'm sorry it took so long and I'm sorrier to say company officers were guilty." There was a sudden collective shout of joy from the assembled and repeated, "McAlister, McAlister."

**********

When Walt and Ash looked over Ash's personal financial statement at the end of the summer quarter, Walt noted that Ash had three million from the restitution, despite the monies paid as overtime and into the retirement fund for those salaried employees not receiving overtime.

"What do you want to do with this?" Walt asked.

"Put it in something making a little interest, but keep it liquid. I may have a use for some of it. I'll tell you tonight."

*********

Walt knew that Ash loved him dearly, but gently discouraged his tentative sexual advances until the boy came of age. This did not preclude their nightly cuddle nor often sleeping in each other's arms. That evening, Ash said, "Walt, it's about time for it to turn cold. Last night I dreamed of Rusty. I want to see if I can find him and maybe give him some help, cause he took me in when I ran away."

"That's good of you, Ash, but who's Rusty, and what's this stuff about you running away? It's the first I've heard of it"

"Just after the folks died, the damn lawyers like to drove me crazy. I didn't have any privacy or time to grieve because they were always demanding something, half of which I didn't understand, so one night I grabbed my backpack and took off after the servants were all asleep. I wound up sleeping in a park. That wasn't too bad because it was fairly warm. The next night was chilly and was looking for someplace warm. I didn't have more than about twenty bucks in my pocket and I'd already spent over half of that on food. Anyway, I got propositioned four times before I got out of the park. Scared hell out of me. I stopped at a Quick Stop for a cup of coffee when this red headed kid with one hand came in and got coffee, too. We sat down and started talking and he told me he had a place was safe for kids not on drugs or selling their ass. When we got there, it was this shack built on top of a steam line which kept it fairly warm. There were three other guys there. Rusty told me he made the rules and I'd get kicked out if I didn't go along. It was share and share alike, so we pooled our money for food. It wasn't much, but at least it was something to eat. I stayed about a week and a half until the private detective the company hired found me when I was out with Rusty buying food for us."

Walt hugged him. "I'm sorry it was so bad for you."

"Now I'm kind of glad it happened. It showed me what a lot of kids go through. Rusty was so kind to me because he knew I wasn't used to that kind of life that I'd like to help him if I can. It might not work, though; he's awful independent."

"Do you have any idea where he might be?"

"I expect he'll be down at the point. There's a steam pipe there they build their shacks over so it's warm, but since they closed the power station I bet there isn't any steam, that's why I'm worried."

"I'll be glad to help you find him, babe."

"Good, cause we'll need your old car. If he saw the limo or your Jag he'd hide for sure."

**********

A few days later Walt's old car rattled over the rough paving at the end of the road at the point. There was a crude shelter partially constructed over some exposed piping, but no sign of people.

"Rusty?" Ash called. "It's me, Ash."

Walt was startled to see a head of curly flaming red hair poke around the corner of the shack. "That really you, Ash?"

Ash walked slowly over to the shack as Rusty eased into full view. Ash hugged him.

"Man, I didn't think I'd ever see you again after what I saw in the papers. What's a rich kid like you want with trash like me?"

"You're not trash, Rusty. You just need a chance to make something of yourself."

"Shit, now you sound like one of them welfare creeps."

"You got anybody else with ya?"

"Yeah. There's Tommy and Mike, you remember them, and a new kid, Nate. He's too young to hang with us, but he ain't got nowhere else to go, he says, so I ain't turning him out."

"Would you guys like to come home with me? You can get hot showers, clean good beds and decent food like you all need. You can stay if you'll go to school. We'll get you new clothes and anything you need." Seeing Rusty's sneer, he added, "I know you help a lot of runaway kids, Rusty, but you need to help yourself. With an education you could run a home for homeless kids the way it oughta be run cause you got practical experience like the others will never have."

"I don't know."

"Try it for a few days. If you wanna leave, neither Walt nor I will try to stop you."

"Let me talk to the kids. You and him," he pointed to Walt standing by his car, "take a hike and come back in 'bout a half hour."

Walt drove them to a small café and ordered coffee. They drank silently, lost in thought. Finally, Walt indicated it was time to return.

"Rusty?" Ash called again.

"Shit, guy, I figured you done took off fer good. Tony's got a little radio and they say it's gonna get mighty cold tonight. There ain't no heat in the pipe no more and we ain't got much to eat, so we'll go with you, if we can up and leave any time like you said." He pointed to Walt. "You sure that guy ain't no welfare dude?"

"No way. He's a good guy. Call the guys and let's go, my ass is freezing."

Rusty grinned. "Okay, guys, let's live it up fer one night anyway."

***********

Ash greeted Tommy and Mike with hugs. It was Nate stopped Ash midstride. Walt's mouth fell open. The diminutive child's long blond locks all but hid his face, his tiny body fragile looking. His general grubbiness almost revolting.

"Come on, guys," Ash said, and with no hesitation put his arm around Nate's thin shoulders urging him along.

All three were so skinny they fit in the backseat of Walt's Honda with room to spare, however the odor almost gagged him. Despite the cold he put the window down slightly for relief. No one spoke until Walt turned into the drive of the mansion.

"Shit, man, what's this, Buckingham Palace?" Rusty asked Ash.

"You know damn well it's no palace. It's where I live and where you're gonna live if you want to. When we get inside, I'm gonna show you where the showers are and I'll put out some things you guys can wear. I ain't sure 'bout Nate, but maybe I can find something."

Sims opened the front door before Ash reached it. "Sir!" He said with solemn dignity as Ash pushed the guys past and into the hall.

"Come on, up the stairs," Ash called, then replied to the butler, "Have the maid make up four rooms across the hall from mine, and tell cook to get her ass in gear."

"I shall inform cook that you have guests, but not in those terms. I do not care to contemplate her favorite carving knife sticking out of my chest."

**********

An hour later four scrubbed boys in clothing Ash had rummaged up, including some just slightly large on Nate, sat at the table looking with awe at the huge platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and green beans.

"Well, boys," Walt said and passed the platter of chicken to Rusty. It was then he noticed that Rusty's right arm ended at the wrist, not that it appeared to hinder the boy in any way. Rusty passed the platter to Tommy who held it for him to grab a large breast. And so it went, Tommy waiting until Rusty had served himself.

After second helpings of most things, Rusty pushed back from the table, "I'm 'bout to bust. Man that was sure good, and plenty of it, too. Thanks, Ash."

"Yeah," came echoes from around the table.

"Don't get up," Walt cautioned as Rusty started to rise. "There's dessert to come. I know it's cold but I think everyone would like a chocolate nut sundae."

"Oooh," squealed Nate, clapping his little hands in delight.

After the sundae dishes had been licked clean, Ash ushered his guests into the playroom/den where a fire flickered on the hearth and two video games awaited players. After the boys had teamed up and chosen the game they wished to play, Ash sat beside Walt on the sofa and watched their pleasure until bedtime.

There was quite a discussion over the sleeping arrangements until Rusty agreed to let the pleading Nate sleep with him. Out of the presence of Walt, Tommy and Mike let Ash know they were partners, and took a bedroom for themselves.

During the night Walt heard two resounding thumps then nothing more, so he went back to sleep. At breakfast, Mike commented, "Man that bed was too fuckin' soft. I didn't sleep 'til I hit the floor, then I slept good."

"Me, too," Tommy added.

"There's a much firmer mattress in the room next to the one Rusty is in. Try that one tonight. How did you sleep, Rusty?"

"Oh, man, like I done died. I could get used to this real fast."

"And, you, Nate?"

With a bound Nate was out of his chair and in Walt's lap, staring up at his surprised expression. "I love it here. It's nice and warm, and you got good food, and I ain't dirty no more. You're a nice man, mister."

Walt's heart melted. He hugged the tiny frame gently. "Thank you, Nate. Ash and I hope you will stay with us and make this your home."

"Oh, yes!" Squealed Nate, climbing down and going back to his own chair as Sims brought in breakfast.

Though the rest chatted, Mike and Tommy remained quiet, looking from Walt to Ash and back. Finally Walt asked, "What is it, boys?"

"Ash said he wanted us to stay here and go to school. I ain't saying much for the school business, but didn't you guys notice Tommy and me sharing a bed, and we kissed in front of you. That don't make no difference?"

"Not to Ash or me."

"Yeah. I'm in love with Walt, but he won't do nothing until I turn eighteen and that's another year and a half."

"Bummer man!"

Ash smiled. "Yeah, but he's worth the wait. He's got a lot to teach me between now and then. I meant it when I said you guys could stay, but you have to go to school."

"I ain't been in two years, they'll put me back with the little kids," Rusty growled.

Walt shook his head. "There are special classes for students like you to attend. You move ahead as fast as possible and when you're up to grade level you're placed in a regular class with people your own age."

"Yeah? That might be okay, but I ain't made up my mind yet."

"No rush. Rusty, I need to ask you a question or two in private. Would you go in Ash's study with me?"

"Sure, but I ain't promising no answers."

When the door was closed, Walt asked quietly, "How old is Nate?"

"He said he's eight. I don't believe it, but he didn't have nowhere to go. I got a look at his back and somebody done beat the shit out of the poor kid. He needs a lot of love, more than I got to give."

"Where'd you find him?"

"Back of a school out near the point. He was still bleedin' and could hardly move. I got a clean rag and some water and washed him off, but that's all I could do for 'im."

"You do realize I'll have to notify Child Protection as young as he is?"

"I hear ya. Long as it's you not me. If they come here, we're all gonna split so they can't find us."

"No need. Tell Nate not to say your names to anyone but Ash and me. We'll let you guys hide out in the attic in case the worker wants to see the bedroooms. I've got to call my lawyer because I want full custody of Nate. No body needs to be treated like you say he's been."

"I guess that'll be okay."

"Thank you, Rusty. I hope you stay, too. It took someone quite mature to have kept these kids together, sheltered, and somewhat fed. I'm proud of you."

Rusty's face turned as red as his hair. "Ain't nothin' special."

That night at dinner, Ash sat next to Rusty. "You know any other gangs like yours? I don't mean kids doing drugs or selling their ass or that shit, I mean just to stay alive and have a little protection."

"I know maybe two, but they move around more than we do. I might find them if I looked real hard. Why?"

"Do you think they would be glad to have a place to stay and go to school?"

"You mean like here? You ain't got the room."

"I could have if someone needed it. Can you find out for me?"

"I guess. You got a bike or something?"

"I got a motorbike you can use. It's not real fast, but it'll get you there."

"Show me tomorrow morning. I gonna go put Nate to bed."

Rusty gently picked up the sleeping child and carried him up the stairs with no effort. A few minutes later Walt went to his room for something and stopped by Nate's door. Rusty's voice came softly in a story. "Damn he's a good kid, a natural leader. I hope he stays, he's got so much potential."

While they cuddled, Ash said softly, "I know what I want to do with the extra money, Walt. I want to start a home for homeless gay boys. Think I can do it?"

"It's going to take a hell of a lot of work and our private lives will be laid open in court for everyone to see. There are all sorts of investigations to see if we're fit to be around kids, whether they're gay or not. You're young enough they won't amount to much, I shouldn't think, but they'll be hell on me and the staff. I'll call a lawyer specializes in that sort of law and have him talk to us before we get into something we wish we hadn't."

"I'll always want this. If I can't get it now, I'll get it when I turn twenty-one."

"It's a grand idea and something that's needed. I hope you succeed."

Rusty had found no trace of the gangs he searched for. "I think I'll find 'em tomorrow. If I don't, I quit." He said as he came in.

"It's turning unseasonably cold, Rusty. Please keep looking for them," Walt begged.

"I'm cold, too. Soon as we eat I'm going up to bed. That bike damn near whipped my ass."

"You don't ride it wide open, dunce. Take it slow and easy. I'll give you a cell phone so if you find them you can call so I can send the car. You can come home in it, too, the bike fits in the trunk." Ash told him.

Walt aroused to the sound of footsteps in the hall. He glanced at the clock - six-thirty. The sky had barely begun to lighten. He tiptoed to the door to see Rusty walking down the stairs. "Guess he thinks he might find them if they're still sleeping." Walt thought, going back to bed.

They were eating breakfast when Ash's cell phone rang. He listened then put the phone away. "Get your car, Walt. He found one group. They say the others got picked up by Child Services and put in a shelter."

"How many?"

"Six. Rusty makes seven. Damn, I guess we'd better take the limo. I hope Rusty can talk sense to 'em."

"What's the big deal with a limo?"

Mike looked at Walt as if he were completely ignorant. "Man, that's what the slavers use to pick up kids. Any kid with street smarts ain't gonna get in no limo."

"Oh. Say, Ash, who does the old station wagon I see sometimes belong to?"

"I don't know. Sims will. I'll ring for him."

"Ah, Sims. Who owns the station wagon I sometimes see parked out back of the garage?"

"It belongs to the gardener, sir. He's here today, shall I ask him to come to the back door?"

"Please, before he gets too dirty. Ash and I want him to take us to pick up the kids Rusty found. We'll buy him a full tank of gas."

"Of course, sir. I'll have his response momentarily."

"Mr. McAlister, sir, I don't know why you want to ride in my old car. It's purely filthy from where I haul stuff, but I threw some clean ragged towels on the seat, sir."

"Excellent, Bobby. The kids we're looking for would scatter like chickens if they saw the limo, and we can't get them all in Walt's old car. Before we find the kids, fill up your tank with whatever brand you use."

"No need, sir. It does need some oil, though." He smiled ruefully. "Burns more oil than gas. Maybe I'll get a newer one some day. Which way, sir?"

"Out by the cotton mill at the county line."

The truck stop where Bobby stopped for gas and oil was having a sale. When Bobby had taken care of his car's needs, Ash told the clerk, "Give him a case of oil," then paid the bill.

"I sure thank you, sir."

"No thanks necessary. You never said a word, just offered to take us where we wanted to go. I like that, Bobby. I think you're due a raise in the new year."

When they stopped in front of the old mill, Ash got out and called through the partially open door, "It's us, Rusty."

Here was the sound of shuffling footsteps and six grubby boys lined up in front of Ash. "I've seen a couple of you before," he said. "Any druggies in the bunch?"

"I don't want none of them around," an older boy snarled. "What cha want with us?"

"To give you a clean place to sleep, good food, and hot showers. I guess Rusty told ya, but ya gotta behave and go to school if ya wanna stay. Long as it's so cold you can crash anyway."

He saw the boys look at one another and nod. "Okay, we'll give it a try."

"Good. Come on."

With many misgivings, the streetwise boys allowed themselves to be herded into the old station wagon, the mansion, and up to the showers. Walt and Ash searched for clean clothing to fit each boy. A row of slippers awaited their feet.

After breakfast two morning's later, Walt said to the assembly surrounding the dining table. "I want you all to meet me in the study when you finish eating. We've got something serious to discuss."

"Boys, there're three things we've got to settle now. First, if you want to stay, we want you, but you'll have to be registered with Child Protective Services. Ash and I are working to be foster parents and the judge is friendly toward us. Two, we'll buy you good but minimum clothing because you can't travel heavy. Three, if you stay we'll buy you ample clothing and provide some Santa for you as well. You guys can help Ash and me decorate the tree. Okay, go think about what I said and come back to tell me your decision. I don't want anyone trying to influence anyone else."

The others filed out leaving Nate seated alone on the sofa. When Walt looked at him, he flung himself into Walt's arms, thin legs wrapped around his waist. "I wanna stay. I want you to be my daddy."

Holding the precious child, Walt sat down. "I want that, too, Nate, my son, but it's not up to me. The decision is the court's."

"If they don't I'll runaway again and come here."

"Oh, Nate, this is the first place they'll look for you. Be calm and let's see how it works out. If we're approved, you can be our foster child."

"Yeah."

By noon only Spike, the leader of the second group, had not indicated he wanted to stay. Finally, Spike wandered in and faced Walt. "Guess I gotta stay. You done took my gang from me."

"I'm glad you're staying with the others, Spike, but I will tell you we have no gangs here. I admire examples of positive leadership and we'll help you develop your potential, Spike. So do your work well and set a positive example for the younger ones. Oh, yes, we're going to the mall shopping after lunch. I'll be depending on you and Rusty to keep the younger boys together."

"That I can do," Spike said proudly.

The shopping went without a hitch and the boys returned home in the limo, each burdened with many bags of clothing. Walt carried Nate's clothing for Nate clutched a large teddy bear.

At the dinner table that evening, their hair neatly cut, each boy was dressed in new cargo pants and a polo shirt, covered by a soft woolen sweater. To Walt they looked as preppy as the boys at Ash's prestigious school.

"I want you guys to dress like this tomorrow when the Child Services people show up. The judge we know is coming also to help us if he can, so be nice to him."

With Walt constantly being asked questions by the Child Services people while trying to keep an eye on Rusty and Spike, Ash and the judge had disappeared into the formal drawing room with a Child Services staff member and closed the doors for privacy. By the time it was over the people were barely out the door before Walt was at the bar pouring himself a stiff bourbon and coke.

"Fix me one and give me your opinion," the judge said. The boys had scattered throughout the house.

"How can I have one? Hell, I don't even know what we talked about. She asked me a hundred questions on different subjects all at the same time"

Ash walked over and hugged Walt, then kissed him. "Thanks to the judge, we're approved for foster care. I sent the paperwork in from the study."

"And I've started your adoption procedure for Nate, Walt. I know the juvenile court judge and he'll accept my recommendation. We have all the pictures we need to prove the hell he's been subjected to."

Tears streamed down Walt's cheeks. "Nate, my little Nate." Then he kissed Ash. "I've got my Christmas already, but tomorrow we better go get the tree and put the boys to work.

Even the most unbelieving and jaded entered into the festivities readily. Christmas morning dawned with the family room filled with gifts of love for boys who had had none until a young man used his gifts wisely.

III
****************
Despite disrupted schedules and the attendant hubbub, Walt hated to see the holidays over, for the happy expressions and shouts of joy from the boys on Christmas morning warmed his heart in a way he had not known before. However, he was glad to see things began to settle back into a more or less even routine. The boys had completed entrance examinations and entered regular classes at the Academy, eased by Ash as their mentor. Even Rusty and Spike began to enjoy their classes in directed study at the local community college. After dinner one evening, when the other boys were all busy with homework assignments, Ash called Walt into his study.

"What's up, Ash?"

"Take a look at this." He held out the evening paper and pointed to an article in an inner page. It was about a kid that had run away from the foster home in which he was placed by social services and had frozen to death in the bitter cold of the previous night.

After reading it, Walt shook his head. "So?"

"I want to know what was so horrible about the foster home he was in."

"There's no telling but, much as you might wish to, you can't save every kid in the city, babe, nor do you have the power to change the system."

"Look, I'm betting social services or whoever screwed up. If that bitch that came here is any indication of their people, it's no wonder the kids run. You know what a couple of the guys said when they saw her leaving. If it hadn't been for the judge, we wouldn't have the guys living here now."

"I know, but with ten kids here now you're out of bedrooms. They're two to a room as it is."

Ash gazed at Walt thoughtfully. "I kind of want to keep the main rooms of the house like they are even if we don't use them much, but I've still got money from the settlement. No reason we can't add on to this place."

"Where?"

"There's that courtyard between the house and the stables which Dad made into garages after Grandad died 'cause he never got riding horses. He liked cars instead. He was going to build a brick wall on the open side where the garages were intended to be so the courtyard would be closed in on the north side." Ash ducked his head and wiped a tear, before he looked back up and continued. "He never got that far along with his plans."

Walt frowned in thought then asked, "Were the plans drawn?"

"Yeah. Blueprints. It was all planned by Grandad when the house was built."

"Can you find them so I can have a look?"

"They're right here." Ash got up and crossed to a large armoire, opened the doors and took out a thick folded stack of blue paper. He spread them open on a nearby library table.

Despite their age, the prints remained clear and legible. Walt had no trouble locating the space Ash had mentioned. He frowned at the hundred foot distance allotted for the garages.

"A hundred feet is a lot of space and you sure don't want to build anything that big. That'll cost a bundle. Besides, how many kids are you planning on and who is going to manage 'em?"

"Sit down and talk to me. What I want to see is a two-story addition with a center hall. That way we can get twelve bedrooms on each floor with baths in between each two bedrooms. I figure we can get two kids in each room and leaving one set of two rooms on the ground floor for a counselor, so that'll be forty kids or so. We won't find them all at once, but I guess maybe there's that many gay kids around needing a home."

Surprised at the thought Ash had put into this, Walt's interest became great enough to explore the possibility with Ash. "Okay. Assuming we can get the judge to get social services to agree to let us have more kids, this isn't gonna be done overnight."

"I know that," Ash snapped. "I'm not asking you to take on anything more, but I want your help in getting this off the ground."

Walt got up and walked over to squeeze Ash's shoulder. "I'm not knocking your plans because I admire you for wanting to help other kids, but we have to plan and work steadily to do this."

Ash smiled. "Okay, smart guy, what first?"

"An accounting to determine how much money you have to put into this, getting an architect to design the building as bedrooms and baths, getting it built, then having it approved for children to live in, and then you'll need more staff, especially a counselor and dorm parents. Kitchen help, too."

"Tomorrow morning, get an accounting from Hillman and set up an appointment with an architect for the afternoon after I get home from school."

Walt smiled. "You're the boss."

Ash came over and hugged him. "And don't you forget it. Don't let Hillman forget to figure in a tax break for the business on this. That way we can get a little more money for operations and such."

Walt hugged Ash back. "You're a cagey little bastard even if you are still in high school."

"Let's go to bed and dream, Old Man."

"I'll show you old." Walt began to tickle Ash who writhed in laughter until he was free of Walt's grasp.

As soon as Ash and the other boys were off to the Academy the next morning, Walt sat at the office desk and picked up the phone. He was pleased that Matt Arnold took his call immediately.

"Matt, Walt here. McAlister has a small job for you." … "No, no trouble, just informational at the moment, but it could get big. You know Ash and I have a registered foster home. We want you to supply us with the legal information about how we go about getting approved to house as many as forty boys." … "Thanks. When you have it all together could you come out for dinner and talk with us privately?" … "Good enough."

Walt looked at the legend on the blueprints to get the name of the architect then checked the yellow pages. To his surprise, the firm that had designed the original house was still active. A phone call reached the senior partner, the grandson of the architect who had drawn the plans. Intrigued because he had seen the house only from the highway, he readily agreed to meet with Ash and Walt at the house that afternoon.

'One left to go,' Walt thought as he picked up the phone to call Hillman. After several pointed questions, Hillman assured Walt that he would call back with an accurate figure within an hour.

The chauffeur had barely brought the van to a halt at the back of the house when the doors flew open and the boys began their afternoon stampede for the breakfast nook and the treats they knew they would find waiting for them. The new assistant chef had quickly become a favorite of the boys.

Once he had a Pepsi in hand, Ash sought out Walt in the study. "Any luck?"

"About time you got around to attending to business instead of playing schoolboy," Walt teased.

Ash's eyes sparkled with excitement as he closed the study door. "Glad the playboy found time to do some work. So what's on?"

"My job is babysitting you. If I get any work done when you're not around it's a bonus, so don't push it." Walt fired back, then grinned. "Grab a seat."

As soon as Ash was comfortable in the deep leather desk chair, Walt sat in another chair in front of the desk, a sheaf of notes in his hand to which he referred.

"First of all, you have a little over five million in the fund for special projects. That's what Hillman says is available immediately without anyone other than the three of us knowing about it." Walt looked at Ash solemnly. "I hope you aren't going to spend anywhere near all of this just on a gamble."

"We're not going to get anywhere without spending a little of it. I'm not planning on throwing it to the winds. I've got more sense than that."

"I know you have, Ash, but you do tend to get overly enthusiastic at times. I'm just trying to protect you as best I know how." Walt smiled broadly. "I do love you, you know."

"I love you, too. So what's next?"

"The grandson of the architect for this pile is running the firm now. He's eager to see the house and discuss the addition with us. He'll be here in half an hour, so as soon as you finish your drink, you best get washed up and ready to meet him. Matt is getting all the legal stuff together and will give us a call when he's ready to talk to us. That's it."

Ash sat his drink down and jumped up to hug Walt. "Thanks, love. I'll be back quick as I can."

Ash was just back in the study when the door chimes rang out. He leaned back in the chair and waited for Sims to answer. A moment later Sims opened the study door and stepped aside so that a well dressed man with graying hair could enter. "Mr. Colby, sir," Sims said solemnly.

Ash walked around the desk his hand outstretched. "Thank you for coming, Mr. Colby. I am Ashford McAlister, then this is Walton Smythe my guardian and business manager."

After shaking hands with Walt, Colby took a seat in the offered chair and gazed around the room before speaking. "You don't know how many times I've been tempted to stop and ask to see this house. This was my grandfather's crowning achievement and reflects the best of his time. "From the little I saw, I detected no changes other than decoration."

"My father had the plumbing and electrical work all redone a few years ago and the kitchen equipped with modern appliances, but there haven't been any structural changes that I know of," Ash replied. "I'll be glad to give you a tour when we've finished talking, in fact I'd like to show you the area we'll be discussing. Let me get the blueprints."

Colby opened the prints with near reverence. "I can't believe how well these have held up."

"I guess it's because they've always been kept in that armoire and out of the light." Ash says then points to the courtyard. "This is where I want a change. It isn't much of one as the building is already shown here as garages, but I want it in bedrooms and baths." He reached over to the desk for a sheet of paper he'd been drawing on. "This is a rough idea of what I want, but from the outside it has to look like it was built when the rest of the house was."

After glancing at the sketch, Colby looked up. "This is certainly doable, though I won't be able to follow what you have here precisely. There are a number of things the code will require." A look of alarm crosses his face. "With this many bedrooms, you aren't planning a bed and breakfast, I hope."

Ash grinned. "Not like you think."

"Ash, I think you owe Mr. Colby a full explanation because the building code and perhaps the court will require things not found in a normal home, like a sprinkler system, fire alarms, and I think a security alarm system will be a necessity."

"I guess so, Walt. You'll probably see a bunch of boys when I give you the tour, Mr. Colby. They were homeless guys who helped me out when I needed some help. Now I can give them a home and a chance to complete school when nobody else would. I want to do that for some more guys, that's why I need the extra rooms."

"Extraordinary! I'm amazed that someone of your age and social station would be actively concerned with the fate of others near your age."

"I believe Mr. McAlister is choosing to take those young people who would have a difficult time in foster or group homes." Walt added quietly. "In any event, all of this expansion will be dependent upon the approval of Social Services and the court. For the moment we wish finished plans and cost estimates."

"Quite. May I see the actual site for the building?"

"Of course. I'll give you a tour of the house afterward." Ash said, getting up.

After examining the proposed site for the new addition, Colby nodded. "The addition you want is practical. In fact, the companies that supplied the original stone and the slate shingles are still in business. I'm afraid you will no longer be able to get the quality of interior woodwork like that in the rest of the house."

"Great! I don't want all that ornate woodwork in the addition anyway. It's to be bedrooms for the guys."

"Your idea of central halls is good because the service hall of the main house ends approximately where the hall in the addition will be. I will suggest that we plan on only eight bedrooms per floor and make them larger. These will be where the boys will be studying so they'll need room for desks and relaxation as well. It won't hurt to have baths of ample size, either. I'm quite certain you aren't expecting them to be all together at any given time except for meals."

"Good idea," Walt responded. "It will leave more room for the counselors' flats as well. I know if one set is a couple they will want plenty of room."

"I guess." Ash looked at Colby. "Let me give you a tour before dinner. Don't let the guys panic you."

The architect smiled. "I have three teen-age sons of my own. I doubt a few more will be a surprise."

Sims announced dinner before the tour was completed.

"You will stay?" Ash asks Colby.

"Thank you, but no. I've taken far too much of your time as it is but this has been fascinating. I could feel my grandfather's influence everywhere we went. I shall have to be quite diligent in drawing the prints for the addition or he might just come back to haunt me." Colby said with a grin.

"This has been one of the most interesting afternoons I have ever spent with a client. I will look up our file copies of the prints and work from the plan for the garages. I may make provision for a full basement in case I feel one is needed for mechanical equipment. I'm certain your present equipment is inadequate for an addition of the size you propose."

"Excellent thinking. Thank you." Walt replied.

"Will the basement be half above ground like the rest of the house?" Ash asked.

"Yes. It will have to be to match the house, though that wouldn't have been important for garages. Why?"

"There'll be lots of room, so tentatively plan for a large swimming pool and showers and all. Plan windows for light. That'll give the guys something to do in the winter for exercise. Maybe a workout room as well."

Walt shook his head, wondering what Ash would think of next. The architect took his leave with a promise of an immediate beginning on the prints. Walt and Ash walked swiftly to the dining room where the boys waited.

**********

A week later Colby called Walt and made an appointment to see him and Ash when Ash returned from school that afternoon.

"I believe I have gotten your wishes worked into a practical arrangement which will work nicely, Mr. McAlister," Colby said as Ash leaned over the drawings. "You will notice that I included a swimming pool and an exercise room in the cellar as you wished, along with six showers which I feel will be adequate to serve up to fifty people. In addition to the mechanical and electrical rooms which have masonry walls and metal doors with deadbolts for safety purposes, I included commercial laundry equipment at the end nearest the main house."

"Good thinking," Walt said. "With the additional linens and all, there will be most of the boys clothing as well. It looks as though you'll be adding someone to the staff part-time to do laundry, Ash."

"I guess. What are your cost estimates, Mr. Colby?"

"Until we put it up for bids, I can only estimate, but I calculate the building including the pool will run approximately three hundred thousand. Mind you, this does not include any equipment except roughed in plumbing and electrical."

Ash merely nodded. "I want an elevator. It looks like those two service closets above each other will be enough space."

"One would certainly be useful in a building this size if an occupant were handicapped. It should go to the basement as well for access to the pool."

"I like it," Ash said. "Walt?"

"Couldn't be any better for what you want, Ash."

"Good. Prepare everything you will need so that you can begin construction as soon as I am able to proceed with this, Mr. Colby, and thank you for giving me what I asked for."

"My pleasure, Mr. McAlister, Mr. Smythe. Let me know as soon as possible whether this is a go. I know of only two contractors I'd trust to do this right and both stay booked."

"Okay, bud," Walt said after Colby had taken his leave. "you know how much you have to spend and you have an idea of the basic cost. Now all you need is the permission."

"I know. I hope we hear from Arnold before too long."

"When do you plan on telling the boys what you're planning to do?"

"I hadn't thought. I guess maybe I ought to 'cause they're gonna be curious. Yeah, 'cause I'll be depending on Rusty and Spike to help find other kids. They'll know better than anyone else where the kids are likely to hang."

"Wait until we hear from Arnold to see if this will fly or not."

"I hope it's soon. I have another little project too."

"Like what?"

Ash grinned at Walt. "Private one. I'll tell you about it when it's done."

The next afternoon while Walt was in town with some of the boys, Ash closed the study door and picked up the phone. When he was connected to Matt Arnold he said, "I need the name of an honest private detective and I don't want Walt knowing anything about it." …. "If you use him then I know he's okay. Thank you."

Ash dialed the number he had jotted on a slip of paper. When his call was answered he gave explicit instructions and, after hanging up, opened a hidden panel in the large desk and removed a personal chequebook. He wrote the cheque and slipped it into an envelope which he addressed and stamped, slipping it into his pocket just as Walt knocked on the door then opened it.

"What's up?"

"Nothing. I was just looking over some stuff I brought home from school. I've finished though. You get the guys all happy?"

"Yeah. It was mostly clothes for Nate. That little guy is beginning to grow like a weed."

"The joy of fatherhood."

Walt grinned. "Tell me about it. One little kid I can hardly keep clothed and a teenage delinquent to try to keep on the straight and narrow."

"Who? I don't see any delinquents around here."

Walt grabbed Ash and began to tickle him.

"Child abuse! Child abuse!" Ash yelled, squirming to get away.

"Daddy, are you being mean to Ash?" Nate stood in the doorway.

"Just playing with him, honey."

"Oh."

**********

A few days later Ash's cell phone vibrated while he was in class. When the break came, he looked at the message and, sought a quiet corner of the schoolyard from which to make his call. In a few moments he was smiling broadly. "Give your report to me this afternoon in the office of Matt Arnold and send a copy to me in care of Matt at Arnold and Peterson. I'll have your cheque with me this afternoon and thank you."

Having cut his last class claiming business demands and having called the chauffeur to pick him up at school early, Ash dressed with care in his business suit and went down.

Bobby was working just outside the study. Ash called to him. "Bobby, do you think you could drive the van to the Academy to pick up the guys?"

"No, sir. No way I want to drive something that big. I don't even know where the Academy is."

"Then we'll let Roy drive as usual. I need you to drive me downtown for a meeting and wait for me."

"I'd be glad to, sir, but you can't go in my old heap dressed like that."

"I don't intend to. You will drive the Mercedes. Go get cleaned up a bit. I want to leave in about ten minutes."

When Bobby returned he had changed into clean chinos and a dark blue pull-over shirt.

"Very good. Since this is business, I want you to wear this black jacket and cap. I hope the jacket fits."

The jacket was snug on Bobby's broad shoulders, but the cap fit perfectly. "You look the part now," Ash commented. "I hate this crap but it's expected when I'm out on business. I hope you don't mind too much, Bobby."

"No, sir." Bobby grinned broadly. "This gives me a chance to drive the Mercedes. I've been wanting to look it over ever since I saw it one day when your father drove it."

"Good. Then enjoy. I'll be glad when I get my full license so I can drive without an adult with me."

Ash settled back and listened to Bobby happily describe his feelings on driving the sports car. When they stopped in front of the Westwood building, Ash got out. "You can park the car in the garage in back. I'll call you on the car phone when I want you to meet me out front. I've got another place or two I want to go."

A few moments later Ash was seated in Matt Arnold's office listening to the detective's detailed report. When Matt had finished reading Ash grinned broadly at him. "Now we'll see real justice done."

"I hope you're not planning to do something illegal or stupid, Mr. McAlister. This already violates the right to privacy laws."

"I assure you it is perfectly legal. See if you don't agree." He said and outlined his plan.

Arnold soon grinned also. "Smythe was right, you are devious beyond your years. I see nothing at all illegal if you can get the bank to agree."

Ash's grin grew wider. "Oh, they'll agree. I happen to use that bank completely as well as owning a large number of shares of their stock. I'm certain they would hate to see all of the McAlister money, both personal and business moved to some other banking institution. Just dumping the amount of stock I own would hurt them."

"I can see that as your attorney, I'm not going to get bored. Your plan is brilliant, but let me suggest a more subtle plan of revenge. The Bunches appear to have gotten away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Your man turned up a lot of information I am willing to bet the courts and social services children's division never saw. I have a friend who is well up in the child services bureaucracy. He started out as a case worker and became too emotionally involved to continue, so he got into administration. He really cared for his kids and if I hand him this information you can bet it will hit the fan but good. I suspect the Bunches will be hit for a large part of the money they were paid for Brian's benefit. The report shows they live hand to mouth as it is so they'll probably need to take a second mortgage on their house. I'm almost certain the bank will not give them one. That's the one you will give them through the bank, but make it callable at your pleasure. When they miss a payment you demand payment which will make the bank foreclose on their mortgage and they're out. If they want to know why, then you can do as you wish. This way what you want to do is legal all the way. Oh, yes, always come to me before you act on an idea to check the legality."

"Yeah. I like it. Let's do it your way. Let me know when the fun begins."

"It won't be fast, but it will definitely be legal."

Ash pulled out his cell phone and dialed the car phone. "Meet me out front," he said and closed the phone.

"Where the hell have you been?" Walt yelled when Ash entered the study.

"I had some business in town. Bobby drove me in. Why?"

"Because I was worried about you. Would it have killed you to tell Sims or leave me a note?"

Ash hugged Walt. "I'm sorry. But I'm going to fix those people who threw that kid out. Matt is helping me do it perfectly legal."

"I'm glad you had sense enough to go to Matt. Now I don't have to worry about you being the one to wind up in jail. So tell me, how are you going to do that?"

As Ash outlined the plan, Walt couldn't help but admire the way Ash gathered and used knowledge one would think far beyond his years.

"I think it's great the way you learned so much from your father," he said when Ash finished.

"Yeah. I just wish he were still around. I learned more from him than I will in college."

"I'm inclined to agree when it comes to the practical. Go get ready for dinner, it's almost time."

When the boys came in from school Friday afternoon, Walt called them all into the study for a meeting. These were rare occasions and the boys all took them seriously. Ash took about twenty minutes explaining his plan to enlarge the house to take in more guys who had been thrown out or mistreated because they were gay.

"An' we're still gonna be like one big family?" Rusty asked.

Ash nodded. "I'm counting on you and Spike to find the guys who need to come here the worst and ride herd on the new guys. If this is approved, then I'll be hiring at least one counselor to help. The judge who fixed it so you guys could stay is coming to dinner tonight with somebody from children's services, so I hope you guys will show him he made the right decision in letting you stay."

"Dress up a little, too," Walt added.

The dinner went better than Walt had expected. The boys were quiet and charming, polite to their guests. All appeared to enjoy the meal though some of the dishes were quite different from their usual fare,

When the boys were dismissed and Walt, Ash, and their guests adjourned to the study for coffee, Ash discussed his plans in detail and showed the blueprints for the new addition. The judge exhibited great interest but the woman from children's services seemed suddenly intent when Ash mentioned hiring a full time counselor to act as house parent.

"Mr. McAlister, since your plans include hiring a counselor if this addition is approved, I would like to suggest a young man for that position. He is one of the best caseworkers I've ever had, but he's extremely unhappy. He wants to counsel and interact with the children instead of doing his job. As you intend this facility to be primarily for gays, I think he would be very happy here and fit in well. I happen to know he has gay tendencies though he's very disciplined and would never touch a child."

Ash took a card from the desk and handed it to her. "Please have him call for an interview. We'll be delighted to talk with him."

"Do tell him that this job opens only if we're granted permission to expand." Walt added, looking at the judge.

"I'm certainly impressed and see no good reason why you shouldn't go ahead with your plans," the Judge remarked. "I will strongly advocate this expansion when the board has it's hearing. The facility you plan is far better than any the state operates and there's absolutely no comparison in the food if tonight's dinner is any example."

"You'll certainly be doing us a favor because we have no accepting place for gay boys," the senior supervisor from children's services added.

"We certainly appreciate your interest and kindness," Walt said as the guests stood to go.

"Looks like your idea was better than I thought," Walt said to Ash as they went up to bed.

A call from the judge a few days later, followed immediately by a call from Matt, informed Walt that the increase in the number of boys in their foster care had been approved, the board expressing gratitude for a new facility at no cost to them beyond the usual state payment for foster care. Elated, Walt called Colby to let contracts for construction.

Ash immediately had a conversation with Sims, telling him to start interviewing such household staff as he thought they would need, particularly another maid and a part-time worker who would do the laundry and ironing for the expanded household.

When he received a hesitant phone call from Bryan Bowen, Ash immediately invited him to dinner after which they would discuss the job opening.

The young man whom Sims ushered into the study looked scarcely old enough to have finished high school, yet Bryan's resume included a Masters in psychology and counseling. His calm reticent manner impressed Walt though Ash wondered if he could keep discipline among a group of boys who had run free.

To Ash's surprise during dinner, the boys were more rowdy than usual. Walt did not call them down, waiting to see the effect on Bryan. When things got a bit out of hand, Bryan calmly, quietly called them down without appearing to cause any resentment. Walt smiled at Ash.

When they looked at Bryan, his face was red with embarrassment as he stammered, "I'm sorry, Mr. McAlister and Mr. Smythe, it was not my place to correct the young men seated at this table before we discussed my employment, but I strongly believe that good manners are required at a formal meal and in general."

Walt's smile continued. "It really wasn't planned, but I was interested to see how you would react. Normally, I would have called them down immediately. You certainly have no need to apologize for what will be expected of you if you are hired."

After dinner, Walt and Bryan returned to the study for coffee. Ash remained at the table with the boys for long enough to ask how they liked Bryan. Spike shrugged while Rusty voiced approval. The other boys looked at Ash. One finally asked, "You mean we get to choose who's gonna be the counselor for the new guys?

Ash nodded. "Maybe not final say, but if he's going to live and work with us, you certainly should have someone you think you will like since he will work with all of you."

Most of the boys nodded at Ash. "He's okay. Gotta be better than most of those jerks at welfare," Mike said.

"He was my caseworker the few times they caught my ass," Ben, one of the guys from Spike's group, said. "He's an okay guy."

"Thanks, guys."

In the meantime, Walt had questioned Bryan. "You saw the guys at about their worst. I liked the way you handled them, but you think you can ride herd on them day in and out?"

"If they're no worse than that. One of them was one of my clients whenever we could keep him in the shelter. Mike's not a bad kid, but he always ran away as soon as he could. I notice he seems to fit right in here."

"Mike does. He was hesitant at first until he found the guys are all gay, then he related to them. As far as their general behavior is concerned, you may have to settle petty arguments between the guys occasionally, but normally they're like all kids in a family." Walt looked at Bryan seriously. "A family atmosphere is what we try to have for each of these guys since most of them apparently haven't had much if any family life."

"I noticed that. It's for that reason I really hope I'm offered this job. I want to help the guys solve their problems and move on to better things, not be a corrections officer."

Ash nodded at Walt as he entered the study, then asked Bryan to wander around the second floor to see if the boys were doing their homework, while he and Walt had a few moments.

"I doubt you could do much better, Ash. I say hire him," Walt said as soon as Bryan left the study. "He said he knew Mike."

Ash nodded. "Mike told me he did. He also said he was okay with all of them."

"His experience with social services will be a help in getting us approved, too."

Ash picked up the phone and rang Rusty's room asking if Bryan were near and to have him return to the study. With in a few minutes Bryan knocked at the door and entered.

"Were the hooligans behaving?" Walt asked.

"Most of them were doing homework or helping another. You've found a great bunch of kids I'd enjoy working with and getting to know." Bryan answered.

"You'll have your chance. Let's discuss the details."

Half an hour later a happy Bryan left to prepare his resignation at social services and prepare for the job he'd always wanted.

The boys had left for school and Walt was enjoying a second cup of coffee and the newspaper when Sims interrupted him. "There are several large trucks unloading all sorts of machinery, sir."

With a frown Walt got up and went out the backdoor to the courtyard just as a car pulled up and Colby greeted him. "We're getting a start on the excavation for the addition. Please ask the boys to stay away from the construction area as much as possible. I wouldn't want anyone getting injured."

"I'll certainly tell them. I'm glad you could start so quickly. I know Ash will be thrilled."

"Gee, it sure doesn't look very big," Ash commented later as he and Walt looked at the staked off area.

"They never do. Once they start framing you'll see how big it is."

With the excavation begun, Walt had the contractor string lights in the area to warn the boys to stay well away from the area. He realized that he needed help in keeping track of the boys so asked Ash if there were some place Bryan could live until his rooms in the new building were completed.

"Roy lives in one of the apartments over the garage, but there's another that's not been used for a while. I could have it cleaned and he can stay there if he wants."

"Good. I can sure use his help. The guys can't resist sneaking into the construction area once the workers are gone for the day."

"His notice was given several weeks ago. He can leave his job any time. Give him a call tomorrow and see if he's okay with temporary quarters."

"There's one more thing, Ash. Doesn't anyone ever use the old music room?"

"Not much. I took piano until about a year ago, but I don't have time now. Why?"

"Mike asked me if he could try the piano. He plays better than I thought he would. He would like to take lessons again and Nate needs an outlet like piano even if it's only for a short time."

"Get the piano tuned, the tuner's name is in the Rolodex on the desk, and find a teacher for them. It's no big deal."

Walt grinned. "We already have a teacher on payroll."

"Who?"

"Bowen. He listed it on his resume. I'll ask him if he wants to teach them. I'd like to see more of the guys take an interest in music."

"Go for it. The piano needs playing."

Ash was talking with Colby a few afternoons later. Faintly, the repetitious sound of one piano key over and over indicated the tuner was hard at work.

"Having the piano tuned, I hear," Colby remarked.

"One of the boys plays and Walt wants his son to have lessons."

The architect frowned in thought. "Smythe has a son? I thought he was single."

"He is," Ash grinned. "He adopted one of the kids that live here."

"That's a wonderful thing for him to do. I hope it didn't rouse any jealousy in the other boys."

"Not at all. Nate is way younger than the other guys. Rusty took him in to keep him from freezing and gave him food."

"I don't know how you do it. They all seem so happy and are so courteous no one would ever think they were kids off the street."

"They just needed some love and security."

"Does anyone ever use the organ in the music room?" Colby asked.

"There's not one!"

"There was when this place was built. Grandfather was delighted to be asked to design space for it. He had one in his home, too."

Ash scratched his head. "Father never mentioned it. I know he didn't take music. Mother did play the piano. She made me take lessons, too. If you're not in a hurry, would you show me on the blueprints so we can see if it's still here?"

Colby spread open the blueprints on the library table and pointed to a space next to the music room's inner wall. "Did you ever notice that the dining room is not directly behind this music room? That's because this smaller room between them contains the organ pipes."

"But where's the keyboards and all?"

Colby pointed to a footnote in tiny lettering. "Your grandfather thought a console was too big and unwieldy to see sitting out, so it's on a base that rolls into a space behind the paneling when not in use."

Curiosity aroused, Ash said, "Maybe you can find it. I think the piano tuner has finished." He led the way across the hall to the now deserted music room.

"It would have been along here," Colby stated, running his hand over the cherry paneling. He backed off and looked at the baseboard. "Ah …"

"What?"

"See how the base board is just barely above the floor instead of touching it like it does everywhere else? This has to be the door."

"Where's the knob?"

"There wouldn't be one. It would spoil the raised paneling. You would push against it in a certain spot and the latch would release."

Colby stepped closer to the right and leaned heavily against the paneling. With a dull click and grinding of rusty hinges the door opened about a half inch and stopped. Colby pulled it open. Before them was a massive console with three keyboards and an opening behind the music rack.

"See if you can find a can of WD-40, Ashford. I'll spray the wheels under the platform and the hinges so it moves more easily."

Ash picked up the phone and pressed one button. "Sims, see if you can find a can of WD-40 and bring it to the music room."

A few minutes later, Sims handed the spray can to Colby with a look of amazement. "I had quite forgotten the organ was here. After Mr. McAlister senior passed away, no one else ever touched it. It will be nice to hear it again, sir." He bent and wiped away the excess WD-40 spray with a clean cloth. Colby and Ash, with Sims directing, pulled the console out into the room.

Sims wiped the bench and keyboards free of dust. "Do you play, sir?" He asked Colby.

"I'm the associate organist at Saint Luke's. Do you remember where the switch is?"

Sims leaned into the opening in the paneling, fumbled around for a few seconds, then pressed a switch. With a low rumble and loud hiss of air the instrument was ready. "This will be way out of tune and you've got some bad air leaks, but let's see what it will do." Colby said, slipping on the bench.

It took only a few notes before all of the boys were standing in the room staring at the organ and listening. When Colby finished the piece, they all applauded.

"Nice. What was that?" Ash asked.

"Toccata from Widor's 5th Organ Symphony," Colby replied. "The instrument is in better tune than I thought it would be after all this time. I suppose it's because it is in an inner space and being closed in the temperature remains fairly constant. I hope you'll have this worked on, because there aren't many of these original installations left. I don't think I've ever heard one as loud as this one. Most are fairly soft even wide open."

"Is your grandfather's still working?" Ash asked.

Colby shook his head sadly. "Dad didn't want the house because that area of town was going down and the house was simply too big. It was torn down some years ago and a bank built on the property. I guess the organ got thrown out. I have an electronic at home.

"Like I say, I hope you'll have it restored. I'll give you the name of the firm that specializes in these Æolians."

"Thanks. I'll think about it. Let's put it back so the guys won't be messing with it until it's worked on."

"Man, I'd sure love to learn to play something like that," Mike said after Ash had closed the paneling over the organ.

"Give me a chance to have this repaired then maybe we can both take lessons."

Once the foundation masonry had dried the framing of the addition went swiftly. Colby made an appointment for Ash and Walt to meet him at plumbing supply house to pick out fixtures. Ash surprised him by choosing large multi-head shower stalls for each bathroom except one stand-alone bath on the first floor where he chose a large Jacuzzi tub. The shock came when he indicated he wanted a urinal in each bath except the counselor's private bath.

"For what?"

Ash grinned. "You think guys are always careful with their aim at night when they're half asleep? These will save a lot of cleaning and complaints from the maids."

Walt shrugged, it made sense and it was Ash's money.

A week later a nicely dressed man appeared one afternoon to assess the condition of the organ. Sims and Walt helped him pull the console out and listened while he played a short piece, then walked back into the chambers where the pipes were located for a look. He finally appeared as Ash rushed into the room.

"What you think?" He asked excitedly.

"In the best condition of any I've seen in some years. I suggest we remove it, ship it to our workshops and completely rebuild it so it will be as new. I hope you or someone will play it frequently. It's lack of use makes an organ go down."

"Can you give us an estimate?" Walt asked.

"Only in the broadest sense. For one this size and condition I should say in the neighborhood of forty thousand. It could be higher depending on what we find when we open the chests and see the condition."

"You will do the player mechanism too?"

"Of course. Do you have any rolls?"

"Quite a few, sir," Sims replied. "Shall I get one for you?"

"Please. I might as well check the condition of the player while I'm at it."

He took the roll of paper from Sims and inserted it into the mechanism behind the music rack and switched the instrument back on. Ash and Walt watched in amazement as the perforated paper moved over a smooth metal bar with holes in it and the music poured forth. Walt paid close attention to a portion being played. "What were those little bells things I heard?"

"Actually, it should not have rung so long. It was the harp. The felt dampers have probably been eaten by moths. You are fortunate to have one. Not many of these organs did." The organ company representative shut the organ down. "My associates will be down next week to remove this and take it to our shops if that is convenient."

"The sooner the better," Ash replied. "A couple of the guys want to start lessons and they can't until it is back."

"We shall try to expedite the repair then."

"You're committing yourself to quite a bit of expense, Ash. Are you sure you want to do this all at once?"

"If it makes life happier for the guys that's all I want. Let's go get ready for dinner."

**********

With construction well underway and the removal of the organ in progress, neither Walt nor Ash had the time or energy to keep up with more than basic concerns. At home the boys seemed to disappear into their rooms after dinner to follow their own pursuits. Near bedtime most evenings Nate would climb into Walt's lap and snuggle down comfortably with his thumb in his mouth.

One evening in May Ash asked Walt, "Have you noticed anything different about Spike?"

"Not really. Why?"

"I think he's been sneaking out at night and getting in just before anyone wakes up."

"How does he get in?"

"We gave the guys the alarm code and Spike could have taken a key from the board in the pantry or maybe had it copied."

Walt frowned. "I hope he's not getting back into the streets and something illegal."

"Me, too, but I don't like this going on. I think we should talk with him."

"You are more likely to understand him than I am, do you want to do it alone?"

Ash shook his head. "I want you in on this. Maybe let me do most of the questions, but you can ask some, too."

"When?"

"How about after dinner tomorrow? It's Friday so most of the guys will be doing homework so they have all weekend free."

**********

The next evening at dinner, Ash quietly asked Spike to meet him in the study after we had finished eating.

"Not a chance! I got other plans," came Spike's terse reply.

"Spike, Ash seldom asks anything of you guys. Considering all you enjoy here, you at least owe him the courtesy of a few minutes of your time when he asks." Walt said.

The other guys looked at Spike in shock as he snarled, "I suppose you're gonna make me."

"If I have to," Walt snapped.

"I guess I can spare a few minutes if it's so damned important," Spike snarled again.

Visibly upset, Nate quickly sought the comfort of Walt's lap and settled down, thumb in mouth. The other guys, not knowing where to look, finished eating quickly then raced off to their rooms.

Walt made Nate giggle when he popped him lightly on the backside to send him to his room.

Once Walt and Ash had coffee, Spike had refused with a discourteous answer to Sims when he asked, Ash began. "Spike, we know you've been sneaking out at night without telling anyone and your attitude has been getting poorer. Is there a problem we can help you with?"

"Yeah, there's a problem!" Spike snaps. "I'm sick and tired of a snotty little rich bastard like you trying to force us guys to do everything like he wants. I got along before I ever saw you and I still can. Don't think all your money is gonna make me kiss your ass."

Walt sees Ash pale and struggle to say something. He asks quickly, "What have we done to make you so unhappy, Spike? Ash only wanted to give you guys a comfortable place to live, good food to eat, and a chance at an education. The only things he's asked in return is to let me know where you are and whom you are with when you're not here or in school. I can't think of a thing that you need that isn't supplied."

"Yeah, I know that one, make us all totally dependent on you so we ain't got a chance out there, just like the last foster home they stuck me in. If you don't throw my ass out the door I'm sticking around for another week 'till school is out then I'm gone. Maybe some of the guys I found will let me join up with 'em."

Ash sits there looking crushed. Walt shakes his head and looks sternly at Spike. "If that is your attitude, Spike, then perhaps you should go pack and leave now. We have a large suitcase you can use to pack your clothing and other things. At least have the courtesy to come say goodbye to Ash."

Spike jumps up. "Suits the shit out of me. What a bunch of pussies ya turned out to be."

"What are you doing?" Walt asks Ash who had gotten up and was now spinning the dial on the wall safe.

When Ash turned, Walt could see the tears. "I gonna give Spike some money to get by on for a while." He turned and laid his head on Walt's shoulder crying. "Why does he hate me, Walt?"

"I wish I had an answer for you, babe, but I don't. I guess some guys just have to feel they are always in complete control of their lives. Wipe your face and don't let Spike see you've been crying."

A few minutes later and Spike came back in the study. In one hand was the large suitcase, in the other his back-pack. Ash got up from the desk and walked over to Spike, his hand extended.

"I wish you would stay and try to work your feelings out, Spike, but if you're determined to leave, here's a few bucks to help out while you're getting wherever you're going. If you want, I'll ask Roy to drive you into town."

Spike slaps Ash's hand so hard the bills scatter on the floor. "Take your fuckin' money and fancy car and stick 'em up your ass, Pussy. I'm outta here."

"Know this, Walt snaps, "if you leave there's no coming back. I want your key, too."

Spike reached into his pocket and flung the key at Walt then jerked the study door open so hard it crashed against bookcase flanking it. The open door revealed all of the boys standing in the hall gazing at the door.

"Come on, Spike, what'cha acting like an asshole for?" Ben asked.

Spike gave him a disdainful glance. "Backstabber," was all he said before stomping out.

Rusty joined them as the exterior door slammed. He was holding a washcloth against his left eye. "Is he gone?"

Walt nodded. "For good. What happened to you?"

"I tried to talk to him, but he started to bust up stuff in our room and when I tried to stop him, he busted me one."

"Let's see," Walt said.

Rusty lowered the wet cloth revealing an eye already beginning to discolor.

Walt pressed the pull asking Sims to bring a cold pack.

"Thanks," Rusty said, wincing as he put the cold pack against his face.

"Okay, guys, before I reprogram the security code, does anyone else want to leave like Spike?" He gazed at the boys all shaking their heads no. "Good enough. I'm going to change the code to 4,5,6,0. It's the same as the last four numbers of the phone. Remember it."

After the other boys had scattered, Walt asked Rusty, "Have Ash or I done anything to make you guys unhappy here?"

"Man, this is heaven. I mean all the guys keep thinking this is a dream and they're gonna wake up back in that shack we was in."

"Then what about Spike?"

Rusty shakes his head. "Beats the hell outta me. He started actin' funny right after Christmas and it's been gettin' worse. He did tell me Christmas night that when he was a little kid the man his mother lived with would take him to the big stores where they lived to see the decorations and stuff. He'd tell Spike to look good 'cause Santa wouldn't bring a little shit like him nothin'."

He looked at Ash sadly. "I gotta tell ya Spike busted up everything in our room. I'm sorry, Ash, I hope you know I wouldn't never do nothing like that, 'specially since you done been so good to us."

Ash hugs Rusty. "Just make a list of the stuff that needs replacing and we'll go to town tomorrow."

"Thanks, Ash. You're okay."

As they cuddled together in bed that night, Walt said, "Don't let this get to you, Ash, nine happy guys out of ten's not bad. Spike never did relax like the other guys. I guess it comes partially from being tantalized so cruelly as a little kid and having all his dreams trampled. I'm so glad I could spare Nate a fate like that."

"I'll be glad when we can help some other guys."

"Just don't expect all of them to be happy. Be glad for the ones are happy to be off the streets."

With the exception of one or two, the year-end grade reports the boys brought home exceeded Walt's expectations. The first grades he saw were those of Rusty. When Rusty picked up the envelope from the college he didn't open it, but tapped on the study door. Answering Walt's 'come in,' he extended the envelope to him.

"This is your mail," Walt said.

Rusty shook his head. "You open it. I know I screwed up the exams so I'm scared to see how much."

Walt took the envelope and carefully tore the end open, removing the slip of paper. Careful to keep his face expressionless, he read the grades then held the slip out to Rusty. "Yeah, guy, you really screwed up. Take a look."

With a trembling hand Rusty took the slip. "Oh, shit!" He screamed. "All A's! I can't believe it!"

Walt put his arm around Rusty's shoulders and squeezed. "I'm so proud of you I can hardly stand it."

"Oh, man! I did it; I did it!" Rusty cried, dancing around.

"You realize that these courses were all senior level. Next semester you will be taking college courses."

Rusty stopped dancing and stared at Walt. "But I'm just seventeen."

"That makes no difference. You've proven you can do the work so I'll check to see what you need to do to enroll as a first semester freshman."

Tears start to stream down Rusty's face. "Thanks so much Walt. If it hadn't been for you and Ash I don't know where I'd be now."

"You deserve something special because this is like graduating from high school. Is there something you would like special for dinner?"

"You mean it?" Rusty asks.

Walt nods.

"Would it be too much to ask for a steak, maybe?"

Instead of answering, Walt picks up the phone and tells the cook that steaks, baked potatoes, and a salad are desired for dinner; and to fix cherries jubilee as dessert.

**********

Walt is greatly relieved when the next week Bryan moves into the vacant apartment over the garage.

"I'm sure glad to see Bryan move in," Walt told Ash. "We sure need him to ride herd on the guys now school's over, especially with all the construction going on."

"Did Rusty tell you he is going to summer school so he'll be ahead when regular session begins on August?"

Walt nods. "Yeah, but it had slipped my mind. I wonder what's happened to Spike. Rusty hasn't said anything about seeing him at school."

"If he had stayed here, he would have been a trouble maker and a bad influence on the other guys. Even so, I sure hated to give up on him."

"I know. But let's concentrate on guys who really need and want your help."

**********

With the addition rising grandly, stone masons working diligently, Bryan and Walt had all they could do to keep the boys out, for the guys loved to wander the half finished halls and try to determine if the new accommodations were preferable to their own in the old mansion and which room they would choose if given an opportunity.

Three of the older boys had been given jobs helping Bobby keep the flowerbeds free of weeds. Walt was surprised to see them work with a will and earn the money they were paid. The swimming pool was also popular with all the boys, especially as it was partially shaded much of the day by the new addition.

Ash was delighted when one morning in late July Sims tapped on the study door then opened it to announce the arrival of two large tractor-trailers. Ash rushed outside as the men from the organ shop climbed out of the cabs and broke the seals on the trailer doors.

Ash watched open mouthed as the men carried the parts of the organ into the music room, for every piece gleamed like new. Bryan, Mike, and Nate often joined Ash in watching the re-installation of the instrument. The constant repetition of each note as it was voiced and tuned often drove them outside to escape.

"You will have to have a musical evening and invite Colby to play, maybe when the company rep comes to give it a final check," Walt said one evening. "No reason you can't try something you learned on piano, Mike, too."

Ash beamed. "Yeah. It'll be fun."

**********

A phone call a few days later left Ash yelling, "Now they get it! I can't wait."

"What's got you so excited?" Walt asked.

"The Bunches missed a payment on their mortgage which means they'll miss the one on their second mortgage so I can throw them out." Ash rubbed his hands together briskly. "Man, I've been waiting for this! I want you with me tomorrow morning when I have them thrown out."

At a few minutes before ten the next morning, Ash and Walt waited in the Mercedes limousine until a sheriff's car drew up behind them and a husky deputy got out. Ash got out and met him on the sidewalk.

"You're McAlister?" The deputy inquired.

Ash nodded. "And this is my guardian Walter Smythe. You have the papers?"

"Yes, sir, but I sure hate this kind of duty."

"No matter. Serve them."

"Can I ask why a kid like you has got such a hard-on for these folks? Don't look like they got a lot and you sure ain't poor."

"You don't know what they did?"

The deputy shook his head. "I haven't been a deputy here for very long."

"Very well. They were so kind and loving as to throw the kid they were fostering out on the coldest night of last winter and he froze to death."

"You gotta be kidding?"

"If I were, you wouldn't be holding those papers. The only thing the kid did was being gay. That's why I want those Bible thumpers out on their asses now."

With a look of respect at Ash, the deputy strode to the house and banged on the door.

"What ya want?" A heavy set man growled at the deputy.

The deputy handed the man the papers. "What're these?" Bunch asked.

"The holder of your mortgage is serving you with this dispossession for missing your last mortgage payment."

"Aw, come on. I'll have the money by the end of the week. The bank can wait that long."

"What is it, George?" A worn looking woman had come up beside the man.

"Damn bank's trying to throw us out 'cause I ain't made the mortgage payment. Well, we ain't goin'. What'cha think of that?" He asked the deputy.

Seeing an old car pull up and four large men get out, the deputy replied. "I'd say if you don't start moving those men'll do it for you."

"They got no right …"

"Those papers you're holding say otherwise."

"Can't we work somethin' out?" The tone was now wheedling instead of belligerent.

The deputy motioned for Ash to come to the porch. "You need to talk to this young man. He holds your mortgage, not the bank."

"That kid?" Bunch's astonishment was plain.

The deputy nodded. "This is Mr. McAlister. He owns about half the town I guess."

"Now look here, kid, what we ever done to you to make you act like this?" Bunch asked.

"To me personally, nothing. Do you both happen to remember a young man by the name of Jimmy Drew?"

"What the hell's that little fag got to do with anything? Besides, he's gone."

"He's gone to a far better place than you gave him, that's for sure, but he didn't get even a tiny chance at a decent life. You damn near starved him then threw him out to die on the coldest night of the year."

"The Bible says queers are evil," Bunch said.

"It does not. The words queer and homosexual aren't even mentioned. It does say, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Jimmy can't get back at you and I can't do to you exactly what you did to him, but I can do this much. Make damn sure you remember that poor kid."

Ash turned to the four husky men. "Start hauling their shit out and dump it in the yard." He looked at the deputy. "You're staying until everything is removed from the house?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. When it's empty, padlock the doors and leave the keys with my lawyer Matt Arnold."

With a final disdainful look at the now defeated couple, Ash nodded at Walt and they got back in the limo and Roy drove them back home, stopping long enough at a cemetery for Ash to whisper a few words over the grave of Jimmy Drew.

**********

To celebrate the return of the organ, Ash threw a small dinner party for any of the boys who were interested, the others ate earlier, and several invited guests, including Colby. After, Sims having served coffee in the music room, there was silence as Colby took his place on the bench.

"You certain this is on?" He asked Sims.

"Of course, sir."

Colby's hands lifted for a moment then came down on the keys. A torrent of sound encompassed the attentive group as he began the opening measures of the Widor Fifth Organ Symphony. Loud applause ensued as he played the last notes of the toccata.

"Bryan, it's your turn. Have to see if you're good enough to teach Mike and me," Ash said with a broad smile.

"An' me," Nate added loudly.

"Sorry, Punkin' but you have to learn piano first," Walt whispered in his ear.

"Let's see if I remember the Tuba Tune by Lang," Bryan said.

When he finished, Colby was all smiles. "You are going to have a first class teacher, Ash. That was beautifully done, Mr. Bowen. These instruments were built for the romantic popular music of their age. Do you know anything of that period?"

Bryan grinned broadly. "I've got just the thing if I can remember it." As he began to play, Colby's smile turned into a broad grin. He also stifled several snickers when Bryan changed the registration to the Vox Humana accompanied by the Harp with a few notes on the Chimes. Bryan's normally crisp playing had become mushy enough to evoke all the emotion possible.

"What was that?" Walt asked over Colby's laughter.

"Ketelby's In A Monastery Garden. It used to be very popular."

Colby walked over and slapped Bryan on the back. "Well done. You couldn't have found anything better to fit this instrument. But I could hardly keep a straight face. I hope you don't plan to teach the boys any of that stuff."

"Hardly, though it's of the few things I learned that I can milk for all the schmaltz."

"You certainly did that. If you will permit, I'll finish this off in proper form." Colby played The Old Refrain and ended his impromptu recital with A Perfect Day.

"Thank you for a delicious dinner and a fun evening," he said to Ash when he slid off the bench.

"Thanks for telling me about this. It won't be forgotten by me nor the guys."

"You may wish it had remained undiscovered when Bowen makes you practice."

**********

Within a week, Bowen had both Ash and Mike started in beginning organ books. He also had Nate working on the piano though the little guy often looked longingly at the organ console.

A week before school started, Colby met with Ash and Walt in the study. "The addition is finished. All that remains is decoration and furnishings and, of course, boys to occupy it."

Instead of the expected exclamation of joy from Ash, Ash immediately asked, "Are you free for dinner Friday evening?"

"I believe so. Why?"

"I want the judge and the nice supervisor from children's services to come for a tour of the building and dinner. I know there's gotta be guys out there who need a home and to be in school, so I want final approval quick as possible."

"Why the hurry, Ash? Guys needing what you have to offer will be easier to find once it turns cold." Walt said.

Ash grinned. "I think I might have two or three already lined up. There're always homeless kids around beach areas in the summer."

"But …"

"Never mind. I have my own ways of finding out things." Ash said with a smug look.

He didn't wish to tell Walt that he and Spike had run into each other at the mall and Spike regretted leaving, but had found two gay guys who wanted to be off the streets. He had given Ash a way to contact him when the addition was completed. This time he did permit Ash to buy him a good meal at a reputable restaurant.

The next week, Ash and Walt consulted the guys as to what they would have chosen for their bedroom furnishing had they been given a choice. With this information they shopped for furnishings for the addition and, to Walt's surprise, Ash bargained vigorously for the best price. Sims was sent to purchase needed linens.

Ash left an electronics dealer in a state of shock and clutching an order for computers, televisions, and sound equipment beyond his wildest dreams. Though Walt had argued that each room did not need complete entertainment equipment, Ash remained adamant that each boy should not be forced to acquiesce to another boy's tastes.

In spite of Walt's doubts, the new rooms were completely furnished. While they were admired by the guys, none of them asked to change, for they had come to feel at home in their rooms and had received the same electronic equipment.

Those invited to the celebratory dinner, remembering the previous dinner, were quick to accept the invitation Ash extended. On Friday evening, the judge was congratulatory, but the supervisor of children's services collapsed into a nearby chair and wept.

"Mr. McAlister, this is beyond belief! If only all our children could find such wonderful accommodations. The boys already here are happier than any of our other fostered children. You couldn't do anything where the need in our community is greater than this."

"It is my pleasure. The guys are making good grades and Bryan is teaching Mike and me organ and Nate piano."

"I had no idea he was so talented. I hope some of the other boys will be interested in music."

"We have a gym with all kinds of stuff to work out on and now we've got an indoor swimming pool, too," Tommy added. "Take a look." He flexed his arm so his admirable biceps was fully visible.

"Most impressive, young man. I hope you are doing that to develop a healthy body and not muscle to fight others." The judge said.

"Yes, sir. Rusty works out with me, cause he's older and Ash is goin' to need help when we get new guys. He's gonna be sort of an assistant to Bryan."

"I think you have things well thought out, Mr. Smythe. Mr. Colby has already shown us the safety features in the new building and I'm most impressed. I'm giving you tentative approval to begin taking in boys. Once the social services inspector gives me a positive report your approval will be complete."

"There's no need, your Honor," the supervisor said. "I inspect most foster homes and none I've seen come anywhere near this one. I'll sign off on it Monday morning as soon as the office opens."

"Excellent. It appears you're in business, Mr. McAlister."

**********

The next morning Ash picked up his cell phone and dialed. It rang a number of times before a youthful voice answered it warily. When Ash asked for Spike, the voice yelled and Spike soon answered.

The custodian unlocked the main doors to the mall and Ash walked confidently in. He quickly found the third bench by the fountain outside the food court and sat down after a quick look around. Only a few seconds passed before he felt a hand squeeze his shoulder.

"Spike."

The rough looking boy stood there with two boys looking to be about thirteen behind him, looks of relief on their identical faces. Ash's mouth opened again, but nothing came out. Finally he stammered, "T …Twins?"

"Yeah. It's hard waitin' fer you to call cause they're used to a lot better than the street. They're still virgins, too." He looked straight at Ash. "You gonna take 'em or not?"

"You think they'll fit in?"

"I know it. They need somebody tellin' 'em what to do. Man, I ain't been that dumb 'bout things since I was five er six."

Ash looked at the boys. "Why are you on the street?"

The boys looked at each other, tears welling up in their eyes. One finally spoke. "Papa threw us out."

"For?"

"We were sleeping in the same bed without nothing on," one answered.

"He said we were such sinners God would never forgive us and we weren't his sons no longer," the other added.

Ash turned to Spike. "Did you tell them anything about my place?"

"A little. They don't even know what a queer is. They just said their old man yelled about it all the time when he was preaching on Sundays."

"This'll give Bryan a challenge. Guys, I hope you won't panic when we get to the house because most of the guys are gay. One thing I will not stand for is name calling, so be friendly and you'll have a lot of friends who want to help you like Spike has."

"'Cept things is real nice at Ash's place. Go on with him now. Maybe I'll see you around some time."

"Ain't you comin', Spike?"

"Nah. I can't go back cause I fucked up. You guys go on and do what's right. Ash don't have a lot of rules like most foster homes."

Ash hugged Spike. "Thanks, buddy. I wish you could come with us."

"You got your rules an' I got mine," Spike said roughly. "Besides, if I weren't out here, how would you find guys needin' a place?"

"If you need any money or other help, you know how to reach me. I mean it, Spike."

"I know you do, but I'm makin' it. Take care of them boys."

"I will."

Bobby was leaning against the limousine when Ash emerged from the mall, the twins in tow. He shook his head and got in the driver's seat as Ash opened the rear door and waved the boys in, before taking a seat beside Bobby. "Let's go home."

"Did Bryan get moved into his new rooms, okay?" Ash asked Bobby during the drive.

"Didn't take too long with the two of us. That sure is a nice apartment he's got."

"I hope he'll like it. These guys will be some company for him."

"Don't they have any clothes or anything?"

Ash shook his head. "They said their old man put them out with just what they had on."

"You don't want to stop and get 'em something to wear?"

"Not until they've had baths and their clothes have been washed and dried. Maybe this afternoon so we can take Bryan with us. He needs to learn how to shop for the guys."

"You gonna want me to drive this thing?"

"Roy should be back by lunch time, so he can do it."

"Good, cause I don't feel easy 'bout drivin' anything this big."

"We really need another driver for the big vehicles. If you'd like to do it I'll send you to the professional driving school. It'll mean more pay than you get now and you can live in the apartment next to Roy's that Bryan was using."

"I can't give you an answer right now, but I'd like to think about it some."

"Just let me know when you decide. I feel safe when you're driving."

The others would have swept the new arrivals along with them had Bryan and Ash not stopped them long enough to tell the twins to bathe and put on robes and slippers while their clothes were being washed and dried.

"I'd better go ride herd on the guys. I'll see you at lunch," Bryan told Ash.

That evening Ash hardly knew the twins when they appeared with the others for dinner. In their new clothes and with haircuts they were handsome to the point of beauty.

"Where we gonna go to church tomorrow?" One of them asked.

Ash looked at Walt for a moment then said, "I guess we can if you want to. Usually we just sleep in and have brunch when we get up."

"Papa will tan our backsides if he finds out we didn't go."

"You don't want to go to his church, do you?" Ash asked in astonishment.

"If he sees us he may lets us go back home."

"Whatever. Bryan and I'll go with you."

"You sure this is it?" Bryan asked as he parked in front of the storefront emblazoned True Word of God Church.

The twins nodded and opened the car door. Bryan and Ash followed. The boys were welcomed with hugs and compliments on their bringing two strangers with them. They found seats mid-way the small room.

Ash and Bryan looked at one another not knowing the songs being enthusiastically sung from the memory of the members. The pastor stood behind the pulpit. "That's papa," one of the twins turned and whispered to Ash.

Apparently that was all it took for the preacher to recognize his sons. His sermon turned into a ranting harangue on queers being consigned to hell. The twins squirmed when their father called their names screaming at them to repent. Ash noted Walt was as angry as he. Suddenly Ash stood up and yelled, "It's ignorant bastards like you who are going to hell for throwing your sons out. My God preaches love, not hate like yours!"

The outburst silenced the man for a moment during which Bryan had also arisen and pulled the twins up. "Let's get the hell out of here."

"But we wanted to pray," one of the twins murmured.

"It's early enough to make Mass at St. Luke's. We'll be welcome there."

"Isn't that where Colby said he played?" Asked Ash.

"I believe he did say that. It's a Lutheran church, but it's high. I'll sit between you and the guys so you won't get lost in the prayer book."

Ash grinned. "Not much chance of that. My folks always went to St. Anne's Episcopal."

"Then you'll be okay. It's just that all of our Mass is chanted."

The twins were too awed by the ceremony to do more than watch. Bryan was especially glad that the pastor's homily was on love. It seemed to surprise the twins by the quiet manner in which it was delivered and the lack of mention of sin. Bryan had the twins go to the altar rail for a blessing instead of partaking of the Eucharist as he and Ash did.

"That sure is different from our church," one of the twins said.

"I liked it," said the other. "It was good to hear the preacher talk about love 'stead of yelling 'bout sin like papa does."

"I hope we can go back there sometime."

"I'll be happy to take you any Sunday," Bryan said. "I usually go."

**********

Because the McAlister Home, as it was now commonly known, took only gay boys, new boys were few. It took over six months for the first floor rooms of the new addition to fill as Ash allowed the boys to room alone unless they requested a roommate. He would do so as long as there were empty rooms.

One evening in late summer, the bell from the gate rang. Sims answered than found Ash in the study with Walt and Nate.

"There is someone named Spike at the gate, sir. Shall I let him enter?"

"No," Walt answered quickly.

"Tell him to wait. I'll go down," Ash replied.

Spike straightened up as Ash looked through the gate. "I ain't beggin' you to let me come back, Ash, but I sure hope you got room for this guy, cause he's really got it bad."

Ash pressed a button and the gate swung open. In the dim light from the fixture on the gate post he saw a thin boy dressed in rags. By him lay a pair of battered crutches.

"I don't think he can walk no more, Ash. I had to like carry him most of the way here."

"Why didn't you call me?"

"I weren't nowhere near a pay phone."

Ash stepped to the intercom and pressed the buzzer. "Sims, tell Walt and Bryan I need them at the gate."

When he turned back, Spike had disappeared. "Thanks, Spike." Ash yelled.

Bryan jumped out of the Jeep and bent over the boy. "He's out of it. Help me get him in the Jeep, Walt."

As soon as they had the boy stretched out on the back seat of the Jeep, they started toward the house, Ash closed the gate and followed on the small motor bike he had ridden down.

Ash found Walt and Bryan in the room next to Bryan's flat. Bryan had sponge bathed the boy and bandaged a few cuts. Ash was shocked to see that like Walt, the boy had one leg. "He said anything?"

Bryan shook his head. "Exhausted more than hurt. I'll listen out for him tonight and see how he is tomorrow."

"He doesn't need a doctor?"

"I don't think so." Bryan grinned. "I'm also a qualified EMT. If he needs a doctor, I'll know it."

"What can't you do?" Walt asked.

Bryan grinned. "I guess I wasn't much of a case worker for children's services."

"I'm glad of that, cause that's why you're here. You care about the guys."

Slowly, the rooms filled to capacity. Walt and Ash hired another counselor, this time a teacher who had been outed and fired though he had made no sexual advances toward any student. He fit in well as he proctored the guys homework and tutored those needing help.

There was a large party to celebrate Ash's and Rusty's graduations from the Academy. They both immediately began work at the nearby university, Ash preparing for a MBA while Rusty majored in counseling, Walt and Ash having promised him that he would always have a home with the boys.

After their college graduation, Rusty worked with Walt to understand the specifics of running a home for boys. Ash spent a good deal of time in his office in the McAlister building first learning then administering the large company he had inherited. His interest in every boy in his home never flagged.

At last it became apparent that as Rusty took over more and more of the day to day administration of the home and Bryan, with Ted the teacher they had hired, Walt could take time to relax and enjoy his avocations. With highly competent company officers in place, Ash could join him, but they found little time to be alone in the crowded mansion.

After having Walt's small cottage restored and modernized, they gradually moved their personal possessions and then themselves into residence there. Nearly every evening meal was taken with the boys at the home where rule number one was love.

To this day there is a lengthy list of gay boys waiting to get into the McAlister home, where every need is provided for abundantly. The campus now houses a complete medical facility administered by Doctor Nate, as he is called by all the boys.

On rare occasions and always on Christmas Day, two elderly men, holding hands and smiling at one another walk through the grounds admiring the boys as much as the landscaping. After dinner with the boys they quietly leave after a kiss from Nate. The boys stare, not knowing who they are for the director never said. He'd just point at the questioner with his handless arm. "You don't need to know. Just be glad they're here."

Later in their tiny cottage across the meadow from the old McAlister mansion, the two men go to bed with a kiss and the final words of the night spoken by the elder to the slightly younger as they cuddle. "You done good, Ash my love."


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