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An Invitation
 

Chapter 1: Caesar's Fall

Cover of Caesar's Fall

C H A P T E R 1

"And how's Steve?"

Elliott rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, glad his sister couldn't see through the phone. Suppressing a smile, he replied, "He's fine, Sis. He's exactly as he was yesterday when you asked."

"Well, he could have been hit by a bus and you'd never volunteer the information."

"Hardly."

"Well, I really like Steve."

Elliott resisted a bemused "Like I don't?" and said, instead, "I know you do, Sis. And he likes you, but I really wish you wouldn't be in quite such a hurry to get me married off."

"Elliott, you're thirty-nine years old. I'm just worried that you might lose Steve if you don't let him know how you feel."

The smile became a grin. "He knows how I feel, and I know how he feels, and God's in His Heaven and all's right with the world. Really. Neither of us has a train to catch, or a biological clock, so there's no great rush."

Deciding it was time for a subject change, he said, "And speaking of Steve, he's the reason I'm calling. He's thinking of getting Brad a new tackle box for his birthday and wanted to make sure he hadn't gotten a new one recently."

Brad, Cessy's police detective husband, was turning 45, and Cessy was planning a surprise party at one of his favorite restaurants.

"He doesn't need to get him anything. Just a card would be fine."

"Yeah, well, he wants to do a little more than a card. The last time he and Brad were talking about fishing, Brad was showing him some flies from an old, battered tackle box, and Steve thought he could use a new one."

"Well, I'm sure he'd love a new one—he's had that same one since before BJ was born—but Steve really doesn't have to..."

"I know. So, seven thirty at Monestero's?"

"Yes, and I really hope Brad won't be upset with me for doing this."

"You know he won't."

He knew she was referring to the expense of renting a banquet room and paying for a catered buffet. She was always very conscious of Brad's pride, and of his unspoken discomfort over his wife's having, through her wealthy parents, far more money than he would ever earn. She'd discussed the idea of the party with Elliott, who encouraged her to go ahead with it. "What's the good in having money if you don't ever spend it? It's not like you're buying a closet full of mink coats. And Brad deserves something special for his birthday."

She'd reluctantly agreed and had arranged for the party, limiting the guest list to close friends and a few of Brad's fellow detectives.

"So, we'll see you Saturday night, then," he said.

"Yes, but I'm sure we'll be talking before then."

Knowing his sister, Elliott hadn't a doubt in the world.

* * *

As he did nearly every time he talked to his sister about Steve, Elliott felt yet another wave of guilt.

He and Steve had been seeing each other for a year, and he still couldn't bring himself to share the largest secret of his life with Steve. How could he possibly explain that he had a friend named John who just happened to be dead, and with whom he conversed frequently in his sleep? Elliott had at least reached the stage where he fully accepted the situation without fearing, as he initially had, that he was insane. He knew the time must come when he told Steve about John, and he knew Steve already suspected something.

Sighing, he realized that he'd not picked up his mail on his way upstairs from the building's underground garage. He was expecting a bid on some tile work on his nearly-completed current renovation project so decided to go down to see if it had arrived. Checking the oven clock to verify he had enough time before his TV dinner would be done, he headed for the elevator.

After the usual interminably long wait, the elevator door whooshed open, and he stepped in to join the car's only other occupant, who Elliott recognized as a newcomer to the building. He and Steve had ridden the elevator up with him the previous Saturday night as they'd returned to Elliott's after a night out. The man had been with a very nice looking young guy both Steve and Elliott instinctively knew was not a relative. When the man had pressed the button for the 40th floor, Elliott had wondered if he was the one who had just bought the condo made vacant by the death of one of the building's older residents.

Living in a large condo complex was a little like living in a small town, in that everyone tended to know everyone else, at least by name.

After the obligatory exchange of greetings, Elliott said, "Are you by any chance the one who bought 40J?"

The man smiled happily and said, "Yes, I moved in about two weeks ago."

"Welcome to the building. I'm Elliott Smith, 35J."

The man extended his hand. "Bruno," he said, not indicating whether that was his first or last name, "I guess we're vertical neighbors."

Taking quick stock of his traveling companion, Elliott estimated him to be between forty-five and fifty, graying short hair, about five-foot-eight, stocky. He looked somehow familiar, though Elliott couldn't immediately make a connection.

"How do you like it so far?" he asked.

"I love it! I've never lived in a building this big…or so high. As a matter of fact, I've never lived above the third floor before. I really don't like heights, but when I saw the view...."

Elliot smiled. "I know what you mean. It was one of the main factors for me, too. I think it's one of the best in the city. "

"I agree," Bruno—again, Elliott wondered if that was a first or last name—said enthusiastically. "I don't think I'll ever get used to it! I hope I don't."

The elevator reached the lobby.

"After you," Bruno said with a sweeping gesture with one hand.

Bruno followed him through the inner lobby, where they both said hello to Marco, the doorman, and into the outer lobby, where Elliott turned left toward the mail alcove. Bruno did the same, echoing Elliott's reaching into his pocket for his keys.

"Forgot to get my mail earlier," Elliott said, as they went to their respective boxes.

"Me, too," Bruno said, "though I haven't really been here long enough to get any mail, thank God."

Elliott found that a rather strange thing to say, but let it pass as he extracted his mail and went quickly through it for the bid. Finding it—or at least an envelope from the company making the bid—he put it on top and turned back toward the elevators. He was a little surprised to see that Bruno was still pulling mail out of what seemed to be a full box. Seeing Elliott's look, Bruno grinned.

"Well, they found me."

Elliott had no idea what he was talking about, but didn't want to appear nosy, so said nothing.

Bruno caught up to him in the outer lobby, and waited while Marco pressed the buzzer to open the door, then went to the elevators. One was waiting, and they got on, this time Elliott gesturing for Bruno to get on first.

"Was that your…partner…I saw with you Saturday?" Bruno asked.

"We're getting there," Elliott said with a smile. "Not living together though." He deliberately avoided adding "yet" and wondered why. "And you? That was a really nice looking guy you were with."

"He was, wasn't he?" Bruno said in a way that reminded Elliott of a proud little boy who'd just received an A on his spelling test. When he didn't volunteer any other information as to the young man's identity, Elliott let it go.

When the elevator reached his floor, Elliott got out, turning to say "It was nice to meet you…Bruno. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again."

"I hope so," Bruno replied, smiling broadly as the door closed.

* * *

He'd just finished dinner and looking over the tiling bid when the phone rang.

"Elliott Smith," he said, picking it up. He'd never cared much for "Hello."

"Hi, Ell, how was your day?" Even if he hadn't immediately recognized the voice, Steve was the only person Elliott allowed to call him "Ell." To everyone else, he was "Elliott." He didn't look on his insistence on being called by his proper name to be an affectation; he simply preferred it, and made his preference known politely but firmly if there was ever any doubt.

"Coming right along. I should be ready to start looking for another project before too long."

"So did you get a chance to ask Cessy about the tackle box?"

"Yeah. She says you don't have to get him anything, but that he'd be happy to have it."

"Good. I'll stop by and pick it up on my lunch hour tomorrow. So nothing else new?"

"I met the guy we ran into on the elevator last Saturday. The one with the hot 'friend.' I was right, he is the one who bought 40J. Seems like a nice guy, but there's something a little…different?…about him."

"That's cryptic. Different how?"

"Hard to say. Sort of like he's a kid in a candy store, somehow. He's all excited about living here, like it was out of his element."

"Well, it's sure out of my element You rich kids live in a different world from us working folk."

"Yeah, yeah, you're breaking my heart. So, dinner Friday? Maybe a movie?"

"How about I cook and you bring some videos?"

"That'll work. I'll give you a buzz tomorrow."

* * *

Elliott's current work project was a relatively small one, and a definite departure from his usual pattern. It was the first time since he'd gotten into the business of renovation that he was, in effect, doing a project for someone else. He had always before done everything himself, finding and buying a property, renovating it exactly the way he wanted it with the help of his crew, then selling it. But when two of his friends, Jesse Lambert and Adam Burton, bought an early nineteen-hundreds frame two-flat and asked if Elliott would be willing to renovate it for them, he'd hesitated only briefly before agreeing.

The building had originally been a private home but had been converted to a two-flat probably sometime after WWII, Elliott estimated. Jesse and Adam had bought it with the intention of restoring it to a single-family home for themselves. They'd originally planned to do the work themselves but quickly realized that, having had no real experience in home renovation, they might be in far over their heads, and called on Elliott. He and his crew had taken a look at it, recognized its potential, and reviewed and largely approved of the sketches Jesse and Adam had made of what they wanted.

That, too, was a departure for Elliott, since he normally worked from his own ideas. But after pointing out a few impracticalities in their plans and receiving their assurance that they would not second-guess him, he gave them an estimate, which they readily accepted. He then drew up a new set of plans with the agreed-upon changes, which they in turn approved.

While he couldn't foresee doing this kind of thing on a regular basis, he convinced himself that he was not only doing a favor for friends, but would be saving himself the expense of buying the property, and the time, trouble, and expense of selling it when he was finished.

The job was now about 2/3 complete, and Elliott was ready to start looking for his next project.

Friday night, coming home from a particularly labor-intensive day at work and badly in need of a shower, he opted to avoid going through the lobby by walking the stairs from the garage to the second floor to catch the elevator. He was in a hurry to get home, get cleaned up, and head out again for Steve's. When the elevator doors opened, he was surprised to see Bruno and a tall, almost skeletal redheaded man Elliott had never seen before. The man looked at him with mild curiosity and gave him just the hint of a calmly beatific smile.

Bruno indicated the man beside him. "Elliott, I'd like you to meet my sensei, Dr. Clifford Blanton. Sensei, this is my downstairs neighbor Elliott Smith."

"Nice to meet you," Elliott said, extending his hand, and wondering what kind of a doctorate would be required to be a sensei. But he tried not to let his curiosity show.

"My pleasure," the man responded, taking it.

"We're just going up for our session," Bruno said, and Elliott felt his eyebrow rising involuntarily.

Noticing it, Bruno grinned broadly. "Meditation," he said.

"Ah," Elliott replied, unable to think of anything better to say. "Sounds interesting."

"Oh, it is. I can't tell you how much it's changed my life. I'm sure I'd be a basket case without it." There was only a slight pause before he added, "I'm glad I ran into you. I'm having a party tomorrow night and wondered if you and your friend would like to come."

"That's really nice of you to ask, but we're going to a surprise birthday party for my brother-in-law. A rain check, maybe?"

Bruno smiled. "Sure. I'll probably be having another next Saturday, too. We'll see."

"That'd be great. Thanks for asking."

The elevator reached 35, and Elliott got out after exchanging goodbyes.

He didn't know quite what to make of the encounter and brief conversation. Sensei? He understood it to mean "teacher," and associated the term with kung-fu films. He'd never thought of it in terms of meditation. Well, he acknowledged, there was a lot he didn't know.

And while it was nice of Bruno to invite him and Steve to the party, the fact that he said he was having another the next week struck Elliott as perhaps a bit excessive. Two parties in two weeks? Well, he had said "probably," not "definitely." Still, Bruno hadn't struck him as the "party boy" type, and it did seem a bit unusual.

* * *

Elliott spent the night at Steve's, and if he hadn't been tired before he got there, he was totally exhausted—although very pleasantly so—by the time they finally got to sleep.

Since Steve wanted to spend Saturday afternoon working on a painting, Elliott returned home shortly after they'd had breakfast, with the agreement that Steve would pick him up and drive to Brad's party. Elliott spent the afternoon doing cost analysis paperwork on his current renovation project and was happy to determine that he was running slightly under his projected estimates.

As he passed through the lobby to wait for Steve, he noticed three men—one in his sixties and two cover-model types in their twenties, standing at the desk as Marco picked up the residents' phone and said "Mr. Thorne, Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Greenway to see you, Mr. Caesar." He then put the phone back on its cradle and said, "40J, gentlemen."

One of the should-be-models gave Elliott a definite and none-too-subtle once-over as they passed.

So Bruno's last name was Caesar, Elliott mused. Interesting name. And he suddenly smiled to realize why he'd thought Bruno looked familiar: he was a dead-ringer for a bust of the Roman emperor Tiberius in his father's study in Lake Forest.

* * *

The birthday party was a big success, and Brad professed total surprise, though Elliott knew not much got by him—he was a homicide detective, after all—and chances were that he either knew about it or suspected long before they'd arrived. But even if he had, he also knew Cessy had to have gone to a lot of trouble, and he played along perfectly, if for no other reason than to please her.

There were several of Brad and Cessy's friends, most of whom Elliott knew, and several of Brad's friends from the force, all with their wives. The only one of Brad's policemen contingent Elliott knew was Brad's partner, Ken Brown.

Brad did his best to deflect attention away from himself by offering a toast and congratulations to one of his fellow detectives—his first partner—who was retiring from the force to move to New York.

Elliott and Steve were the only male couple there, a fact which did not escape the attention of one of the officers, who appeared uncomfortable when Brad introduced them. Noticing that the man had his arm firmly around his wife's waist, Elliott was strongly tempted to slide his around Steve's, but resisted it for Brad's sake.

The food more than lived up to the Monestero's reputation, and Elliott found himself eating far more than he intended.

"Hey, slow down," Steve teased as Elliott got up from the table to head back to the buffet for another slice of ham. "The warden isn't coming to get you at midnight." Grinning, he added, "But grab me another roll while you're there."

Brad seemed truly pleased by the tackle box, and the tickets Elliott had gotten him for the next Blackhawks game. Brad was a huge hockey fan, and Elliott had been tempted to get him season tickets but, like Cessy, didn't want to flaunt the Smith family wealth.

* * *

They left the party around ten and returned to Elliott's to spend the night. As they entered the lobby, two men, one impeccably dressed in a very expensive suit and tie, had just been cleared by the doorman and directed to 40J. Somewhat to his surprise, Elliott recognized the men as Button and Paul, regulars at the Anvil, a nearby gay bar. He'd met them there some time before, but couldn't recall when he'd last seen them.

Spotting him, Button said "Elliott!" in a tone usually reserved for greeting long-lost friends."What a surprise! Going to the party?"

"No," Elliott said. "I live here." They converged on the way to the elevators, and Elliott introduced Steve.

"Well," Button said, "We'd wondered why we hadn't seen you in a while." Giving Steve an exaggerated head to toe scan, he added, "Now I see why. Why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?"

Steve grinned as the elevator door opened and they all got on.

"So how do you know Bruno?" Elliott asked.

"Everyone knows Bruno," Paul volunteered. "He's like a shooting star, suddenly appearing out of nowhere to streaking across the firmament of the Chicago gay scene."

Elliott and Steve exchanged quick bemused glances, and Button said, "Once a publicist, always a publicist. And he's hardly a shooting star. I've known Bruno for centuries."

"Maybe so," Paul said firmly, "but that's before he won the lottery."

"He won the lottery?" Steve asked, obviously impressed.

"And not just any lottery," Paul said: "The MegaBucks, no less! Fifty-nine million!"

"Wow!" Steve said.

The elevator stopped at 35 and the door opened.

"Why don't you come up with us?" Button asked. "I'm sure you'd be welcome."

Elliott, standing in the doorway to prevent its closing, said: "Bruno did invite us, but we had a birthday party and had to decline."

"It's not too late," Paul suggested.

Since Steve had already stepped out of the elevator, Elliott looked quickly to him for confirmation, then said, "Not tonight, I don't think. Maybe next time."

They all exchanged smiles and waves as the door closed, and Button said, "Don't be a stranger!"

* * *

"Button?" Steve asked as they walked to Elliott's unit.

Elliott grinned, taking his keys out of his pocket. "No, I have no idea where he got the name. But I like it. It fits him."

Steve just shook his head.

Feeling Steve might be curious as to how he knew them, Elliott unlocked and opened the door as he said: "They're regulars at the Anvil up on Granville. I met them there a while back. Nice guys. Button manages a men's clothing store on Michigan Avenue. I hadn't known that Paul was a publicist."

"And you didn't know this Caesar guy had won the lottery?"

"I didn't have a clue. But that might explain why I said he seemed a little out of his element when I first talked to him on the elevator."

Going into the living room, Elliott turned on a small light and the stereo system. The overture to The Man of La Mancha subtly filled the room.

"Want a drink?" Elliott asked.

"In a minute," Steve replied. They sat on the sofa facing the sliding glass doors to the balcony and looking out over the galaxy of lights of the city spread out in front of them. It was a sight, as Elliott had told Bruno, he never tired of.

Steve reached over and took Elliott's hand. "I don't know whether to envy Caesar or to pity him. From what I've heard, winning the lottery isn't all it's cracked up to be."

"It's nice to have money," Elliott agreed, "as long as you know how to handle it. But to have…what did Paul say it was?…fifty-nine million?…dumped in your lap out of the blue, that can't be easy; I just hope he's smart enough to deal with it. Somehow I suspect that an endless string of parties isn't exactly a practical way to do it. Maybe having a guru might help him."

"A guru?"

"Guru, sensei…a long story. I'll tell you about it if you're interested; but how about that drink first?"

* * *

Steve left for home at around two o'clock Sunday afternoon, wanting to get back to his painting, and Elliott decided to do a load of laundry. His cleaning lady, Ida, normally did it, but when Steve stayed over, the sheets and towels sometimes got a little extra workout, and he did them separately, leaving the rest for Ida.

He'd just started the washer and was heading for the elevator when a man came in with a laundry basket piled so high Elliott couldn't see who was carrying it until, when the basket was set down on a folding table, Elliott saw it was Bruno Caesar, looking more than a little tired.

"Elliott! Hello!" he said when he spotted him.

"How was the party?" Elliott asked with a grin, indicating the towering pile of laundry.

"Wonderful!" Bruno replied as he started tossing laundry into a machine. When it was full, he moved on to the next. "I'm so sorry you couldn't make it. I love parties, meeting new people, making new friends. I've always been something of a recluse, and now…well, I'm learning how to really live."

Not knowing how to respond, Elliott said nothing.

"Well, you'll just have to come next Saturday," Bruno continued, filling a third machine, then retrieving a large bottle of laundry detergent from the bottom of the basket to begin measuring and pouring into each machine.

Elliott wasn't quite sure why the invitation had caught him by surprise, but it did. "Uh, that would be nice," he said. "I'll have to check with Steve, but it sounds like fun."

Bruno smiled, reflexively. "Yes, they are fun. They aren't wild or extravagant: no naked go-go boys or couples dragging one another off to the bedroom for sex. That's not me. They're just…well, nice."

As Bruno took out his laundry card and went from machine to machine turning them on, he said: "Are you busy right now?"

"Not until the washer's done," Elliott replied.

"Can I invite you and Steve up for a cup of coffee? I just made a pot before coming down here, and I could use a cup right about now."

"Steve left for his place a while ago but, sure, I could go for a quick cup." He knew his acceptance had more to do with his curiosity to see what Bruno had done with his unit—which he knew had a floor plan identical to his own—than his desire for coffee.

"So tell me about your work," Bruno said as they got on the elevator. Elliott detected the scent of Old Spice, his own favorite after-shave, though his mother was horrified that he would choose something so…"common," as she called it.

"There's not much to tell," Elliott said. "I renovate older, small apartment buildings with a lot of character and sense of history, and bring them back to their original glory. Chicago's losing its architectural heritage at a really alarming rate, and I'm just trying to preserve some of it."

"That sounds like a most worthy endeavor," Bruno said. "You'd love the building I left to move here. I'd been there twelve years and really loved it…I don't think I realized how much until I'd moved. Of course I love it here, but I still don't really think of it as 'home' yet…not like my last place."

"Then why did you move, if you don't mind my asking," Elliott said, though he was pretty sure winning the lottery had a lot to do with it.

"The owner's been talking of selling it," Bruno replied, "and I didn't want to risk being evicted if it he did. Besides, I guess I thought it was time for a change."

They reached the 40th floor and went down the hall to Bruno's unit.

In the years that Elliott had lived in the building, he'd only been to one other unit which was a duplicate of his own, and it had been an almost surreal experience to see what was in effect his own unit with someone else's furniture and decor. As Elliott always did, Bruno used the door to the kitchen rather than the main door to the entry hall. Both kitchens were identical except for the small appliances and a number of empty liquor and champagne bottles, glasses, and bowls lining the counters. The dishwasher door was partly open to reveal apparently-freshly-washed dishes. One sink was filled with soapy water, and a dish rack on the counter held a large number of washed glasses.

"Sorry for the mess," Bruno said, "but my…overnight guest…didn't leave until after noon, and I haven't gotten everything back together yet. Why don't you go into the living room and have a seat while I pour the coffee?"

Setting his laundry basket against the kitchen door, Elliott strolled into the living room, trying to take in as much of it as he could without being obvious. Going to the balcony doors, he was intrigued by the fact that the view was subtly different from his own. Approximately fifty feet in additional height did, he rationalized, make a difference, if only a minor one.

"Cream and sugar?" Bruno asked from the kitchen.

"Yes, please."

Turning back toward the kitchen gave him a chance to take in the whole living/dining area, and again he experienced an oddly surreal sensation. The carpet was a different color than his, and the hallway to the bedrooms was carpeted rather than the hardwood flooring in his unit. The furniture was a strange mix of obviously brand new—and expensive—and older pieces apparently brought with him from his former apartment. The paintings tended toward the modern, and he wondered what Steve would think of them. A large baker's rack beside the sliding glass doors to the balcony held a number of African violets and spider plants and some varieties Elliott couldn't identify

"Here we go," Bruno said, coming across the room with two mugs of coffee.

"Do you use your balcony much?" Elliott asked. "It's still a bit cool out there, but I use mine constantly when the weather allows."

Bruno smiled. "I'm afraid I never use it. I love the view—from inside looking out—but to actually go out and stand at the railing…. It sounds strange, I know. I've got three balconies and I've never even set foot on any of them. I tried stepping out onto this one once, but couldn't do it."

They moved to matching leather wing-back chairs with the distinctive smell of new leather, which creaked as they sat.

Elliott found it interesting that Bruno had never mentioned the lottery, and while he was curious, he did not want to mention it. They talked, instead, of general things. Bruno had left his job as an actuary at a large insurance company in the Loop three months previously, and while he did not give a reason, Elliott assumed it had coincided with the winning of the lottery. He did make frequent references to how much his life had changed "recently," and Elliott could clearly sense an aura of confusion and vague disquiet.

When Bruno asked about his family, Elliott gave the basics without mentioning their wealth. Only his reference to having grown up in Lake Forest gave an indication of money.

Bruno, he learned, had been born and raised in nearby Rockford and had gone to Northern Illinois University, then returned home to care for his ailing parents. He had an older brother with whom he was apparently not close, though he seemed very fond of his sister-in-law, and had moved to Chicago shortly after his parents died within a year of one another. Elliott got the impression Bruno had not had much of a chance to have a life of his own, which may be why he'd mentioned being somewhat reclusive, and that he apparently didn't have many—if any—real friends.

"So tell me how you came about getting a sensei," Elliott asked. "I gather you're into Eastern philosophy?"

Bruno smiled. "Not really. I mean, not until recently. I met Sensei quite by accident—at a stamp show, of all places. I had just cashed in my lottery ticket the week before, and I was still pretty wound up, trying to come to grips with it all. We got to talking, and he gave me his card. He believes stamp collecting is an excellent form of meditation and calming the mind. I called him, and we try to get together two or three times a week for our sessions. I really can't describe how grateful I am to him for helping me cope with all this. I don't know what I'd do without him."

"Exactly what kind of doctor is he, if I can ask?"

"He has his Ph.D. in metaphysics."

Elliott had no idea there was such a thing, but let it pass with a simple "Ah."

"You really should consider attending one of his seminars. They're very popular. You can find a schedule on his website."

Before either of them could say anything else on the subject, the grandmother clock on the curio-filled etagere struck the quarter-hour and Bruno said, "Ah, time does fly when you're having fun. We'd better go check on the laundry. Yours must be done by now."

As they passed the etagere, Bruno paused and picked up a framed photo. "By the way, here's a picture of my old building."

He handed Elliott the picture…Bruno standing in front of a seen-better-times-but-still-striking old Victorian. The first floor had obviously originally been a storefront, but what caught his attention was the fact that what little could be seen of the second floor showed it had an ornate turreted corner, also typical of many buildings of the period. There was some sort of bas-relief writing at the bottom of the turret which he could not make out because of the curve and the angle of the photograph, though he could see the number 96.

"Where is this place?" Elliott asked.

"On Armitage, not too far from the Brown Line."

"How many units?" He handed the picture back to Bruno who replaced it on the etagere.

"It's basically a two-flat, not counting the ground floor," he said as they moved through the kitchen, where Elliott picked up his laundry basket. "It was originally the neighborhood grocery. It was converted to an apartment and the owner lives there now. Why? Do you think you might be interested in it? I can give you his number, if you'd like."

They'd reached the elevator and pressed the button when Elliott said, "Well, I don't know. I hate to just call people and ask if they're planning to sell. That can send the wrong message and make them think I'm anxious to buy…which, in turn, tempts them to raise the price if they were thinking of selling."

The elevator arrived, and they got on, pressing the button for the laundry room on the 4th floor. "Would you like me to call him and see if he's still thinking of it? I won't tell him I'd talked to you."

Elliott shrugged "Tell you what…why don't I take a drive by and get a look at the place first? Then we can take it from there."

"Sure," Bruno replied as the elevator came to a stop on 30 to admit a red-haired woman with a Russian wolfhound. They all exchanged greetings and rode the rest of the way to 4 in silence.

* * *

The week passed quickly with the usual number of minor crises at work, phone calls to suppliers and subcontractors, evening calls to and from Cessy and Steve and various friends. Because both Jesse and Adam worked during the day, his personal contacts with them were limited to occasional after-work meetings to consult on details about plumbing and electrical fixtures, siding, doors, windows, and appliances. Luckily, they deferred to him in most of his recommendations. He didn't have to worry about either carpeting or painting, which Jesse and Adam said they'd decide on and take care of themselves just before they moved in.

He'd mentioned Bruno's former building to Steve and suggested they might drive past it on Saturday, on the way to an art store Steve wanted to check out. He heard nothing further from Bruno, but when Steve asked Thursday night if the party was still on for Saturday, he said he had no reason to think otherwise.

"Even if it's canceled," he said, "I'm sure we can find something to keep us entertained."

''Yeah," Steve said. "Maybe something involving latex, a sling, and whipped cream."

They both laughed, and Steve said, "Well, thank God you and I are normal."

The minute Steve said that, Elliott felt a quick rush of guilt and wondered for the hundredth time why he'd not told Steve about John.

It certainly wasn't as though he didn't think Steve wouldn't understand—Steve had often expressed his belief in the paranormal. It was just that coming right out and telling someone—anyone—that he had frequent visits and dream-chats with someone who had died a year or so before was something Elliott simply couldn't bring himself to do just yet. He'd convinced himself it was similar to what he'd told Cessy whenever she tried to push him into taking his relationship with Steve to the next level; there was no rush. He'd have to tell him about John sometime…just not now.

While they'd fallen into a comfortable routine of spending most Friday and Saturday nights together, each seemed to be careful not to want to give the other the feeling of being pressured, or of getting into too much of a pattern. So when Steve said he wanted to spend Friday evening finishing his current painting, Elliott took it in stride, and the conversation ended with the agreement that he would pick Steve up Saturday afternoon around four so they'd have ample time to go to the art store, drive by the building on Amitage, and have dinner at Elliott's before going to Bruno's party.

* * *

--You're not ashamed of me, are you, Elliott?

Elliott's body jerked involuntarily, almost waking him up. Despite the countless times he had had these sleep visits from the spirit who he first encountered sitting beside him in the hospital following a traumatic head injury, every now and then he was caught by surprise.

--John! You scared me!

--Isn't that what ghosts do? Scare people?

Elliott knew John was teasing. He never referred to himself as being a ghost, and Elliott certainly didn't think of him as one.

--Yeah, well don't quit your day job. Where have you been? I haven't heard from you in…how long?

--I'm not sure. I've told you, my time is different than your time. But it can't have been that long, can it?

--Well over a month.

--You're kidding! Time sure does fly when you're having fun…and being dead helps, I suppose.

--So where have you been?

--Well, I kind of hesitate to say.

--Why?

--I don't want you to think I'm bragging, or for you to ever think that where I'm at is better than where you are. Let's just say that when you don't have to worry about breathing or feeling any pain or discomfort, you can do a lot.

--Like?

--Well, I went back to Africa, to the lake where the ferry I was on capsized, and I walked around under water among the crocodiles and the hippos just to see what it would be like. I didn't stay long. The hippos were kind of interesting, but incredibly messy, and I found the crocodiles every bit as nasty now as when I…before. Not everything's fun, even for me.

--You're serious?

--Would I lie?

--So are you going to be around for awhile?

--I'm not sure. There are a couple of things I'd like to do around town, so maybe. Now you really should get back to sleep. You have to work tomorrow.

--Yeah, you're right.

--Oh, and don't worry about Steve. He's not dumb.

* * *

Elliott always considered himself lucky in being able to throw himself so completely into his work that he seldom noticed the time, with the result that every day passed quickly. It seemed as though he had hardly gotten to work Friday morning when it was time to go home. As he approached the door to the inner lobby after picking up his mail, he couldn't help but notice a nice-looking young kid around twenty standing at the window beside the entry door, asking Marco to tell "Mr. Caesar" that Perry was there. Buzzing Elliott in with one hand, Marco picked up the phone with the other. As Elliott stood waiting for the elevator, the young man…Perry…joined him. They exchanged nods, and Elliott, curious but not wanting to appear too much so, fixed his eyes on the digital display indicating the assscent of the elevators. He could feel the kid's eyes on him. Turning to him, Elliott smiled and said, "So you're a friend of Bruno's," making it a statement rather than a question. The kid gave him a small smile. "You could say that."

On closer look, Elliott saw that Perry was probably older than he'd first thought, and his good looks had that indefinable hardness Elliott associated with hustlers. The young man who had been with Bruno the first night Elliott saw him had the same look. It wasn't the same type of hardness of a street hustler, but both projected a certain self-confident awareness. Elliott pegged him as being a mid-level escort and wondered how Bruno had come across him…on the internet, or through a newspaper classified. While Elliott had no idea what Bruno's predilections had been before winning the lottery, it was clear he was indulging them freely now. He wondered, again, about the effect of sudden wealth on those who had never had it before, and hoped Bruno would not follow the path of so many others in his same situation. He'd heard that seventy-five percent of all lottery winners went through every penny of the money they won within five years. But aside from his parties and his indulgence in hustlers, Bruno didn't seem to be just throwing his money away.

The elevator's stopping at 4 to let on a woman with a wheeled cart of laundry precluded any further conversation, and they rode to 33, where the woman got off, in silence. As Elliott got off on 35, he and Perry exchanged nods, and Perry said, "See 'ya." Elliott rather doubted it.

* * *

Sleeping in was a luxury Elliott rarely allowed himself, so he was surprised to awaken to see his bedside clock indicating it was 7:20. He threw on his robe and made his way into the kitchen to make coffee, then wandered into the living room for his ritual checking of the city, which swept out before him to the towers of the Loop and beyond to the horizon, which lay somewhere off to the left below the scoop of the lake, in Indiana. The sun was shining brightly and, to the east over the grey-green, whitecap-flecked lake, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. However, to the west, a line of dark and quickly-moving cumulous clouds advanced on the city like a phalanx of Hannibal's elephants.

By the time he'd had a glass of V-8 juice, poured his coffee, cut and toasted a bagel and slathered it with cream cheese, the light level in the living room had been reduced by half, and a few minutes after that a gray veil of rain and low clouds obscured his view of the loop.

He went into the den to try to catch the news while he ate, but he'd missed the headlines, so turned the TV back off. On a whim, he went to the bookcase and pulled out a dog-eared copy of his favorite book, Chesspiece, by Morgan Butler, a writer he'd discovered while still in high school. He'd read all of Butler's books and two biographies of the closeted writer who had killed himself in 1953 at the age of 31. Though Elliott didn't think of himself as a romantic, Butler's life story—his inability to break the bonds of a domineering father and an unforgiving society doomed his relationship with the man he loved deeply—had for some reason resonated deeply in Elliott, though he could never understand why.

He was still reading at noon, when Cessy called to invite him ("and Steve") to Brad, Jr.'s regional high school swim meet the following Saturday afternoon.

"I'll have to check with Steve to see if he can make it, but you can tell BJ I'll be there in either case."

"I hope you both can make it," she said. "It's really important to BJ for the men of the family to be there, and with Brad's job being what it is, there's never a guarantee that he won't be called out on some case or other. He hates to miss any of BJ's activities, but he doesn't have a choice."

"I understand," Elliott said, her implication that she considered Steve one of the "men of the family" not lost on him.

"So is Steve there now?"

"No, I'm picking him up around 4. We're going to a party later here in the building."

"Well it's too bad you have to go out in this weather."

"Hey, it's Chicago. By the time I'm ready to leave the sun will probably be out again. Either that, or we'll have four feet of snow."

Cessy filled him in on everything that had happened with the family since last they'd talked—an awful lot of activity, Elliott decided, in the space of two days. They hung up with Elliott's promise to check with Steve about the swim meet and let her know.


Cover of Caesar's Fall

 

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