Long before his household was stirring on Saturday morning, A.J. was up and gone. He'd kissed the slumbering Lauren as he slipped out of bed at five a.m. She'd kissed him back, raising her tousled head off the pillow to direct in a froggy voice, "Have a good time. And don't forget to take the brownies I made. You know your brother and his sweet tooth."
The blond man didn't wake his stepsons to tell them goodbye. He'd done that the evening before when he'd seen them off to bed, while reminding Shane and Tanner they'd be together again the following week when the boys returned for their visitation with their mother.
Like A.J. had predicted, he and Rick had been busy with cases the remainder of the week and couldn't have found time to discuss Pellman Creek's proposal even if they'd wanted to. When the blond man brought up Lauren's suggestion of a weekend fishing trip so they could talk over the FBI agent's visit, the elder Simon gave a preoccupied shrug and an indifferent, "Sure. Why not?" which indicated to A.J. just how heavily Cordell Franklin was weighing on Rick's mind.
You didn't make a commitment to fish with Rick Simon without knowing he expected you to be ready to set sail at sunrise. The houseboat chugged out of the marina at six that morning. By nine, Rick was putting down anchor in the middle of the ocean far from any other boats. By fifteen minutes after nine, the brothers were casting their lines into the water.
For A.J. fishing had always been a way to relax in the sun while enjoying the vastness of the Pacific and the cool breezes she so generously provided on a hot summer day. Rick was the one who made a true sport out of angling. He knew more about what type of bait to use for what fish and what lures worked best than A.J. would ever care to know in a lifetime. Therefore, for every two fish the blond man managed to hook his brother hooked ten. But, no matter. The brothers had never made fishing a competition. Without ever voicing it, they both recognized these short excursions as times that quietly reaffirmed their bond as two men whose friendship and loyalty to one another dated back to childhood.
A.J. tried a few false starts at conversation that morning. When his attempts were met with no more of a response than an occasional, "Uh huh," he, too, fell silent. When Rick reeled his line in for the last time at four that afternoon, A.J. followed suit. He wondered what his brother was doing when Rick brought the anchor up and started the boat's engine, but didn't ask. The lanky detective piloted the vessel in the direction of a secluded cove he and A.J. had long ago stumbled across. When he killed the engine again and released the anchor A.J. realized this was where Rick planned for them to spend the night.
Rick was no more talkative while he scaled and gutted fish, and then cooked them on the Weber grill, than he had been throughout the day. Grilled potatoes and sweet corn rounded out the meal making clean up simple. Dessert was the brownies Lauren had baked the night before.
Late evening rays of sunshine streaked the sky pale pink as Rick lowered the gangplank for his dog. Rex bounded onto the narrow strip of land they were moored next to that jutted out into the ocean. The balding man stood at the railing a moment. From behind his sunglasses he watched his dog explore at the water's edge before disappearing into a thicket of shrubbery. When the detective turned around he saw A.J. walking toward him carrying two lawn chairs in one hand and two cold beers in another. Without saying a word, Rick took one chair and one beer and climbed the short set of steps to the upper patio, A.J. at his heels. The two men seated themselves, looking out over the water. They were halfway through their drinks before Rick spoke about the subject matter that had brought them here in the first place. Typical of the eldest Simon brother, even after a day of pensive silence, he came right to the point.
"I've been thinkin’ a lot about Creek's visit. About the things he said. About what he told us regarding Cord. I wanna take the job, A.J."
"For the right reasons?"
If you included the freelance jobs they used to take in Florida, the Simon brothers had worked together for over two decades now. Rick didn't have to ask A.J. what that pointed question meant.
"Yeah, for the right reasons." Rick took his sunglasses off, folded them and put them in his shirt pocket. He rubbed a hand over weary eyes before speaking again.
"I hope to God I can prove to Creek that Cord is innocent of everything the feds suspect. I wanna prove it more than I've ever wanted to prove anything in my entire life. Cord...he was one of the good guys, A.J. He probably came home the least effected by Nam of anyone I've ever known."
"But as you said yourself the other day in our office, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since you last saw him. Sometimes people change."
"You're right. Sometimes they do. But I can't imagine what woulda' happened that would turn Cord into the cold-blooded killer Creek makes him out to be. I don't believe it. Not for one minute do I believe it."
"But what if you discover it's true?"
Rick sucked in a deep breath and then let it out in a heavy sigh. "If I discover it's true, then I'll have no choice but to turn the guy in. No matter what my personal feelings are for him, no matter what memories I have of him and our friendship, I can't allow the things to happen Creek is predicting. That kinda' devastation...I've seen it, A.J. Firsthand. I know what a bomb can do to a person. The mall he targets could be the one our mom's doing her Christmas shopping at. The school he targets could be the one Lauren's boys attend. If Cordell Franklin is the person the FBI claims him to be then he has to be stopped."
Rick paused to drain the remainder
of his beer. "But what about
"What about me?"
"What are your thoughts about taking this case?"
"Similar to your own. Because Franklin's an old friend of yours I hope, for your sake, that you can prove the feds wrong. But if they're right…well, if they're right then Franklin could hurt a lot of innocent people. You and I sat in the office and watched the news reports coming in from Kansas. We saw the firemen carrying bodies of dead children from that daycare center. At that moment I couldn't believe something like that could happen in our country. I remember hoping I never lived long enough to see it happen again. Now Creek's telling us it not only could happen again, but in a much greater magnitude and right in the city we call home. In some ways it's hard to fathom, but in others, it's not. And that's what scares me."
Rick looked out over the water. His voice was low and quiet. "Yeah. It scares me, too, A.J. It scares me, too."
A.J. allowed a measurable silence to linger before speaking again. "Rick, have you thought through the dangers of this? If Franklin finds out you--"
"You can't be certain of that."
"I know I haven't seen the guy in twenty-six years, but I guarantee you he won't doubt me. He trusted me that much."
"Yes. Trusted. As in the past tense. You don't know for certain the same holds true this many years later."
"Semper Fi, A.J.," Rick reminded. "Semper Fi."
Semper Fi, the motto of the United States Marine Corps. Latin for ‘Always Faithful.’ A.J. well knew the old saying; there's no such thing as a former marine. He knew Rick was banking on Franklin's past loyalty to him as his commanding officer to override any potential suspicions the man might have.
"So I take it you have a plan?” the blond man asked.
"I do. I'm gonna tell Cord I work for Carlos. Just in case he does put a tail on me, I'll drive to one a' Carlos's garages every day, leave my truck parked there, go in the back door, only to come out the side door to a car Carlos has waiting for me. That way I can get to our office without anyone being the wiser."
A.J. nodded. It should work. If Franklin had concerns Rick wasn't who he said he was and tailed him, any suspicions should be put to rest within a few days of seeing Rick drive to one of the automobile garages Carlos owned, park his truck and go inside. Rick was too good of a detective to be followed once he slipped out the side door and made his escape in a vehicle that wasn't his own.
"I've still gotta clear it with Carlos, but I don't foresee it bein' a problem." Rick pinned his brother with a hard gaze. "But what about you?"
"What about me? Like I told Lauren the other night, the chances of my true identity being discovered by Franklin are almost nil."
"That's true. If I didn't think so, believe me, we wouldn't be takin' this job considering your wife has a baby on the way. But that's not what I meant."
When Rick didn't elaborate A.J. asked, "What did you mean then?"
"I mean this tutoring
thing. Are you okay with it?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know." The lanky man shrugged one shoulder, his eyes dropping to the deck. "I just thought maybe...you know, that given the nature of things it would bring back bad memories."
"Rick, look at me."
When Rick's eyes met his brother's A.J. continued. "First of all, from what Creek told us Joey's disabilities have been present since birth. That's quite different from suffering a head injury due to an accident like I did. And secondly, no, tutoring him won't bring back bad memories. If what I learned ten years ago at the rehab center can be of some help to the boy, then just maybe this case will have some bright, shining moments."
Rick tossed his brother a crooked smile. "Forever the optimist."
"Someone in this family has to be."
"So we're both in agreement? We're takin' this case?"
"We're both in agreement. I'll call Creek on Monday morning and tell him."
Darkness was gathering around the brothers when Rick stood to whistle for Rex. As he passed A.J.'s chair his younger brother's voice caused him to pause.
"Lauren asked me to tell you one thing."
"She wants you to make sure you've fully considered the potential dangers to yourself. She doesn't want our child growing up without an Uncle Rick...and neither do I."
Rick didn't laugh or make some flip remark like A.J. half expected him to. Instead, there was a significant silence as though he was absorbing the blond man's words. When he walked on by A.J. he gave his little brother's shoulder a reassuring pat.
"Don't worry 'bout me, kid. Ain't nothin' bad gonna happen to Uncle Rick."
Joey Franklin laid in his bed staring out the French doors to his left. He never allowed his father to close the curtains over the glass. This time of night was just made for gazing up at the constellations. When they lived in Ohio, Joey's mother would often take him out to the back yard on a night like this. A clear, cloudless night when the sky seemed so close the illusion was such that you could reach right out and hold the big dipper in your palm. But Joey's mother was dead now, and no one else in his family was interested in stargazing.
Despite the late hour, this was Joey's favorite time. He liked the quiet that settled around him like a soft blanket. In the dark, he wasn't different from anyone else. In the silence of the night he could clearly hear the thoughts in his head his disabilities didn't allow him to give voice to. He heard floorboards squeak down the hall and wondered who else was awake. When his bedroom door opened he instinctively closed his eyes. He had no idea why, but it's something he'd been doing ever since that night his mother didn't come home.
Joey felt his father's presence in the room. He could picture the man staring down at him with the same sad smile he'd worn on his face ever since Joey could remember. The same sad smile Cordell Franklin always wore whenever he looked at Joey, his firstborn. The smile was different when Joey's father gazed upon Logan. It was happy then. Full of pride. It seemed to say; This was the son I was dreaming of all along. This is the child of my heart.
Joey didn't open his eyes again until he heard his door close. He heard the front door open and close next, then the sound of his father's Ford Expedition coming to life. He could almost time to the second how long it would be before he heard Logan get up and scamper to the bedroom on the other side of the house. Five minutes. Exactly five minutes after Dad left, the creak of bedsprings sounded, then came eager feet hitting the floor. Joey smiled. They thought, because of his disabilities, he didn't know what was going on in his own household. But that was okay. In a small way it gave him a secret power over the rest of them.
Joey's respirator hissed and whirled, pushing oxygen into his lungs. He looked around the massive room that was his. The house Dad had bought here in San Diego was considerably larger and far more luxurious than the home they'd had in Ohio. The main rooms were big and open and flowed into one another without the presence of walls. The windows were long and wide, giving one an uninhibited view of the outdoors. Joey had to admit it was great to finally live in a place where nothing hindered the movement of his wheelchair. Joey knew his father had bought this house with him in mind, but still, he'd trade it all in a second if only he could have his mother back. If only he could return to that cluttered little room he and Logan had shared back when they were close.
He absorbed the silence of the night, thinking of another night a little more than two years in the past. He remembered being awakened by the soft brush of lips on his forehead. By the time Joey's eyes had opened his father was bending over the sound asleep Logan, kissing his forehead as well. Their dad silently left the room without turning back to look at them. After the door closed, Joey remembered glancing at the clock radio that sat on the nightstand between his and Logan's beds. The green numbers read eleven forty-four. He had followed the sounds of his father's footsteps to his parents’ bedroom next door. He heard their closet open, then the heavy plunk of boots being dropped on the carpeting. He could almost visualize his dad sitting in that old chair in the corner of the room, bent over lacing up his military style black boots. Quiet footsteps sounded in the hallway, then the back door that led out of the kitchen and into the garage was opened. They didn't have the thirty thousand dollar Expedition back then, nor the seventy thousand dollar conversion van custom-made for Joey's needs. Mom drove the second-hand van they used to transport Joey and his medical paraphernalia, while Dad drove an old rusted Thunderbird they could barely afford to keep running.
Joey recalled thinking his father leaving the house was odd. Their mother was gone on a rare evening out. She had met some old high school friends for dinner in the next town and was due back within the hour. Because of Joey's problems, the boys normally weren't left alone. Especially not without their father telling them where he was going. Joey drifted off to sleep, assuming his dad had gone to the all-night mini-mart for milk or bread, or something else they'd run out of that they'd need for breakfast in the morning. He woke up when he heard his father return at one o'clock that morning. He listened to see if he heard his mother's voice. If perhaps she'd returned while he was sleeping. But no murmur of conversation came from his parents’ room, only silence. When he woke again the police were at the front door telling his father that Mom was dead.
His father came in their room sobbing. He woke up Logan and gathered him in his arms. He bridged the space between the beds by placing a hand on Joey's shoulder. Tears streamed down his face as he told them that Mom had been found murdered along the road just a few miles from home. The van's fan belt was snapped in two, leading the police to believe the vehicle had broken down and the woman had decided to walk home, only to meet with foul play.
Grandma and Grandpa Franklin showed up a few minutes later and took charge of the boys. While Grandpa dressed him, Joey heard the police talking to his father out in the living room. When one officer asked Cord Franklin if he had been home all night he answered, "Yes, I was here with my boys. My oldest son is severely disabled. One of us – my wife or me – one of us always has to be here with him."
When the officer asked if there was anyone who could confirm the fact that Cord had been home throughout the evening, the man nodded and called for Logan. Because Logan had never woken up after going to bed, he had no reason not to tell the policeman what their father had already stated.
The disabled boy listened to all this from his bedroom while Grandpa put his diaper on him. Though he had plenty to offer, it hadn’t come as a surprise to Joey when no one asked him any questions.
Two weeks had passed since Doctor David's house call, and little Brooks was still sick. Summer vacation was supposed to be the best time of the year as far as Troya was concerned. It wasn't fair that Brooks had an illness Doctor David couldn't treat.
Troya and Tiffany still went to the beach almost every day, but not with Mommy or Daddy. They were too worried about Brooks. Sometimes they went with Grandpa Dalton, but more often than not Aziah took them, which was no fun at all. Not that Aziah wasn't nice, but she was afraid of the water. Troya tried to teach her how to swim once, but she sunk like a stone and said it was because she was too fat that she went right to the bottom. Aziah's fear of the water meant she hardly allowed Troya and Tiffany any freedoms. There were all kinds of rules you had to follow when you went to the beach with their maid. The girls had to wait a half hour after eating to enter the water, they weren't allowed to splash each other, they couldn't play hide and seek beneath the surface of the rolling waves, and they couldn't go in any deeper than their knees. They never had to follow rules like that when Daddy took them to the beach. Troya prayed every night that Brooks would get better soon so things could go back to the way they used to be.
Mommy and Daddy were fighting a lot now, too. Grandpa said it was because they were tired and concerned over Brooks. Troya thought there was more to it than that, but didn't know how to put into words what she had overheard several nights in a row long after her parents thought she was asleep.
"For God's sake, Hillary, can't you at least attempt to make yourself look presentable? I haven't spent thousands of dollars with Victoria's Secret to have you come to bed looking like an old scrub woman!"
"And just what do you expect after I've spent the day rocking a sick child, not to mention tending to the needs of two other children?"
"Oh right. Tending to their needs by sending them to the beach with the maid! No wonder you're worn out."
"Don't get sarcastic with me, Troy. You're not helping matters. Why won't you listen to David? Why won't you let us take Brooks to a children's hospital in the States?"
"Look, I told you when we first met that I was an old-fashioned type of guy. A woman has her place in the household, and a man has his. Mine is to make decisions for this family. Whether or not you like those decisions is of little consequence to me."
"But what about your son? Are those decisions of little consequence to
Troya heard a smacking sound, then Mommy started to cry. She opened her bedroom door a tiny crack and peered out just as Daddy charged by. After she heard the front door slam shut, Troya scurried down the hall to her parents’ room and knocked on the closed door.
"Mommy? Mommy, are you okay?"
She could tell her mother was crying
when she replied, "Yes,
Troya. Yes...Mommy's fine. Go back...go back to bed, sweetie. I'll be in to kiss...to kiss you goodnight
in a little while."
"Mommy? Mommy...are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, Troya. Now do...do as I say, please."
When her mother finally came in to say goodnight she didn't turn any lights on, but Troya felt the warm spot on her mother's cheek against her own when the woman bent to kiss her. The next day she thought that spot looked red like it was sunburned, even though her mother had tried to cover it with makeup.
Troya wandered the house alone now as she often did these days. Mommy was busy trying to get Brooks to take some water. Though he'd taken his first drink from a cup when he was nine months old, Troya's mother was using a bottle with the child again. He'd grown too weak in recent days to maneuver a cup or glass to his mouth. Troya watched from the doorway of Brooks’ room as he turned his head away from the bottle's nipple and whimpered.
Aziah had Tiffany in the kitchen with her baking cookies, and Daddy was on the phone in the living room, talking business with Grandpa Dalton. Troya wandered into her father's study without him seeing her. She paused for a minute at the long, open windows that jutted out over a cliff, her eyes tracking the movement of the ocean far below. The vast blue body of water seemed to go on forever with no end, making an odd feeling of loneliness ache in the little girl's heart.
Troya's bare feet sunk into plush carpet the color of sun-bleached sand as she idly made her way around the room. She loved to come in this room with its tall bookshelves and big oak desk. The paddles of the overhead ceiling fan turned in slow circles, creating a permanent breeze in the large room.
The girl sat down at her father's desk, enjoying the way it felt when his big leather chair engulfed her tiny body. It was like being wrapped in his arms all safe and warm and happy. Before Brooks got so sick, Daddy used to let her play on his computer. Sometimes she'd write pretend letters for him. At those times he always said she was the best secretary he ever had. But lately Daddy was too preoccupied for even that bit of fun.
The eight-year-old's eyes scanned the screen in front of her. She could tell her father had been in the middle of typing an e-mail message to someone when her grandfather phoned.
"Dear Uncle Sam," the little girl read aloud. "The package you requested is on its way. It will arrive in San Diego on the fifteenth via the usual route. When you are in need of more, let me know."
When Troya heard her father hang up the phone she slid out of his chair. He picked her up as he passed and plunked her in his lap. It seemed like forever since he'd given her any attention. She snuggled into his chest, grateful for these few minutes they could have alone.
"Do you want to send my e-mail for me, Lady Troya?"
Troya didn't let on as though she'd just been sitting there reading her father's e-mail. She knew that was wrong. Like violating someone's privacy. Instead, she simply nodded her head and pivoted in his lap to face the keyboard. Without any guidance from her father Troya used the proper commands to send the message on its way. The quiet time the little girl was hoping to steal with her father came to an abrupt end when the telephone jangled and Aziah appeared in the doorway wiping her flour-covered hands with a dishcloth.
"Mr. Andrews, the phone is for you. A Ms. Baker."
"Thank you, Aziah. I'll take it in here. You can hang up the kitchen phone when you get back there."
Troya was lifted off her father's lap and deposited on the floor. He gave her bottom a light swat. "Go on now, princess. Go play with your sister."
The girl lingered in the room, hoping the conversation would be a short one. She wanted to ask Daddy if he'd take her and Tiffany to the beach today. When he picked up the phone on his desk and greeted his caller, Troya saw the big grin on his face. The grin that only Mommy used to get.
"Allison? Hi! It's great to hear from you, love." The man's eyes fell to Troya. "Hold on a moment, please."
Troy put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Troya, run along now. Daddy's taking a business call."
Troya did as her father told her, but not without throwing a dark glare at the phone that he didn't see. She didn't know who this Allison Baker lady was, but Troya resented the fact that the woman made her daddy smile. He hadn't smiled in weeks now. Not since Brooks had gotten so sick again. It didn't seem fair that this stranger could do what Troya and her mother couldn't - make Daddy happy.
Later that evening Troya's household was once again occupied with other concerns, leaving her to her own devices. She disappeared into her room and pulled out her writing tablet. Since school was over until September she didn't really have to write to that boy, Shane, anymore. But though she was loath to admit it, they had grown to be friends. Writing to Shane gave an outlet to her fears and concerns. The island she lived on was small, and gossip thrived here. For just that reason, from a very early age she and Tiffany had been told to be careful not to repeat things they heard at home. She hadn't even shared with Neesha all the things that were going on in her household. But Shane was safe to talk to. After all, who was he going to tell?
My brother Brooks is still very sick. I'm reely worried about him. Mommy and Daddy are worried too. They fite a lot. I wish they wood stop yelling. I want things to be the way they used to be when we were happy.
I helped my daddy send an e-mail to his Uncle Sam today in San Diego. I didn't know Daddy had an Uncle Sam. He never talks about his family. I'll try to find out Uncle Sam's last name. Maybe you know him. I think Uncle Sam is going to help Brooks.
P.S. You're so lucky that your stepfather and your Uncle Rick (yes, I think it's okay to call him that even if he is reely your step uncle. Step uncle sounds funny, don't you think?) Anyway, you're lucky that they took you and Tanner to SeaWorld. I don't know what SeaWorld is, but it sounds like fun. I wish Brooks wood get better so we could go back to having fun at my house.
A.J. Simon rang the doorbell of the sprawling single-story home that belonged to Cordell Franklin. It had been two weeks since Pellman Creek's first visit to the Simon brothers' office. Now that the job was accepted, it was time to get to work.
A.J. half turned on the wide concrete wheelchair ramp as he stood waiting for someone to answer the front door. He briefly wondered how a man with a disabled child, who had spent most of his adult life working in a factory, could afford such a sumptuous home in this upper middle-class neighborhood.
It was nine o'clock on a Monday morning and the area appeared desolate. A.J. supposed anyone who had to be to work or school was gone by now, leaving the surrounding homes empty or attended to by stay-at-home-moms.
An automatic sprinkler system kicked in next door. A.J. watched droplets of water shoot from the ground, and could faintly hear the hiss of the mechanism as it went about its work.
"A waste of water, wouldn't you say?"
The blond man swiveled, smiling. "That's just what I was thinking."
"It drives me crazy, you know? You can hardly sit down and watch the news without being bombarded by stories on the importance of our environmental resources. Yet these hoity-toity suburbanites plead ignorance to such a cause and go right on running their sprinklers, filling their swimming pools, cranking up their air conditioners, and driving their cars two blocks when it would have done their fat behinds good to walk the distance in the first place."
Before A.J. could make a reply the woman blushed and brought a fine-boned hand to her mouth. Her accent was faint, and only a trained ear would have picked up on it, but A.J. immediately pegged her as a Texas native. Her voice had a slight gravel quality to it that the blond man would later discover was quite prominent when she laughed.
"I'm sorry. I have a tendency to shoot my mouth off without thinking first. It's a problem my mother's been warning me about since I was a kid. And here I don't even know you from Adam."
"Well, I'm not Adam," A.J.
teased with a grin. "I'm Dan
Williams, Joey's new tutor. This is the
Franklin residence, isn't it?"
When picking the name he was going to use for this job, A.J. kept in mind what Agent Creek had said about Cord Franklin being smart and having a sixth sense where law enforcement officials were concerned. Therefore, he didn't choose any of the aliases he'd used throughout his years in the P.I. business, and made sure to avoid, as well, any combination that was a part of his own name, such as Andrew or Jackson.
The woman smiled up at A.J. and held out her hand. "Dan, nice to meet you. Joey's been anxiously awaiting your arrival. I'm Cassandra Kenner, his nurse. But call me Casey. Everyone does."
After his long ago experiences with the fictitious Dagmar Finster, the woman standing before him was definitely not what A.J. had pictured when he'd tried to form a mental picture of Joey Franklin's nurse. Missing was the starched white uniform, prim nurse's cap, white hosiery, and cat eye glasses. Instead, with her laughing blue eyes and the sprig of freckles that dotted her nose, she looked more like a bubbly teenager hired to keep Joey entertained for the day as opposed to the thirty-something FBI agent she was.
A.J. subtly studied the slight woman. Her black jeans couldn't have been bigger than a size four. She wore a baggy baseball jersey in neon green that proclaimed her loyalty to the Anaheim Angels, and had her tawny curls pulled up in a ponytail. Neon green high top tennis shoes completed her outfit and were laced with bright yellow strings.
Casey beckoned with a wave of her hand. "Come on in. Joey's been so bored since the state pulled his tutor, Miss Rathers, last week. I'll tell you, it makes me so mad. Those dudes in Washington fly all over the country on the taxpayers' dollar, and you can bet most of those trips aren't strictly for business. Yet the minute we need to use some of that money we've thrown their way all these years do you think we can get our hands on it? Hell no. Pardon my French, but it really pisses me off. For every child like Joey who's finally getting assistance, there's fifty going without any type of help at all."
A.J. had to admit the woman was good as he trailed her through the large home with its open rooms, high ceilings, and smooth, level floors. She rattled on with a vehemence aimed at the government that would never lead a person to believe she was employed by that very government to begin with. She literally bounced from the foyer, through the wide living room, and then through the airy kitchen, forcing A.J. to take long strides in order to keep up with her.
"How much do you know about
Casey pivoted, walking backwards
while talking. "Joey? How much do you know about his
"To be honest with you, very little. Just that he has disabilities that have been with him since birth, and that he hasn't had much in the way of education."
"That last part's true, but don't let it fool you. He'd not stupid."
"I never assumed he was."
The woman smiled. "You're okay, teach. It's so rare to run across a person who hasn't formed preconceived notions about the handicapped."
A.J. thought back to the time in his life when he was considered handicapped by most people who knew him. "I learned a long time ago that only a fool forms preconceived notions about anyone they haven't met. As the old saying goes, there's more to most of us than meets the eye."
Casey gave the blond man a thumbs up and a wink. "You got it, teach."
A.J. could only shake his head in amusement when the woman jumped, twirled in mid-air, and turned. She was like an energetic Peter Pan. No wonder she was so well suited for her undercover role as a nurse for a young, disabled child. A.J. imagined her to be fun and spontaneous, a bright spot in a little boy's otherwise dismal existence.
As A.J. had just said, only a fool formed preconceived notions about anyone. And yet he found himself feeling like the biggest fool of the day when he was introduced to Joey Franklin.
The detective trailed Casey from the kitchen through the expansive dining area with its French doors that opened onto a patio. They crossed a seamless threshold. emerging into a huge round room made up of nothing but windows. A ‘California Room,’ as the locals would refer to it. A sunroom as it might be referred to in other parts of the United States.
Joey was seated with his back to the doorway, facing a computer terminal.
"Joey really likes it in
here," Casey explained. She spread
her arms, seeming to take in the outdoors with that one gesture. "Of course, you can probably see
"Yes." A.J.'s gaze out the windows gleaned nothing but lush grass, trees, and flowers. "It's a beautiful room with a beautiful view."
The detective looked around. One end of the room held two easy chairs, a coffee table, and a futon sofa. The cushions on the furniture were dark red with deep blue stripes, lending to the masculine feeling that had prevailed throughout the house. Again, A.J. wondered where Cordell Franklin had gotten his money. Considering there was no longer a Mrs. Franklin, the blond detective had little doubt the home had been professionally decorated. There was too much of a feel of organization to color and style in the layout of the furniture and the pictures on the walls for A.J. to believe Cord had done it himself. Based on what Creek had told him and Rick about the man, the detective couldn't picture Franklin arranging the silk flowers that sat in the vase on the coffee table, or buying the expensive watercolor prints that hung on the living room walls.
On the opposite side of the sunroom was a round table with four chairs, leading A.J. to believe the family took their meals out here on occasion. The far end seemed to be set up as Joey's domain. His computer sat on a desk that branched out in two directions. Both ends of the desk contained shelves that held books, paper, games, watercolors, paste, and other school-like supplies.
"There's actually a study on the other end of the house that Mr. Franklin had in mind for Joey, but since he prefers to be out here, this has more or less become his classroom. I hope that's okay with you."
"Why wouldn't it be?" A.J.'s eyes rose to the twenty foot high ceiling and right through the wide sky lights that showed off a glorious square of baby blue. "This is great. No tutor in his or her right mind would complain about a setup like this."
A voice as mechanical and flat as a robot's sounded from behind A.J. and Casey.
"Miss Rathers," Casey supplied in a whisper. "Joey didn't like her."
The words came slow and were spaced far apart, as though it took Joey a long time to give the computer's keyboard the necessary commands, but they were easy for A.J. to put together.
Casey bounded over to Joey as the electric wheelchair began to turn. She rubbed a hand through his dark hair. "Oh you. You know all my secrets, don't you?"
Whether or not the sly smile on Joey's face was genuine, A.J. didn't know. Nor was he certain if the nod of Joey's head was in response to Casey's question, or if it, too, was beyond his control. His body sat sideways in the motorized wheelchair, slumped forward to the left and held in place by a sturdy plastic tray not that dissimilar to a highchair's tray. Even from this far away A.J. could tell his spine was crooked. The deformity prevented Joey from sitting straight. His bird-like arms seemed to be permanently bent at the elbows, his hands were bent at the wrists. Every few seconds his arms would jerk as though a puppeteer was pulling hidden strings. He appeared to have more control of his legs. Though they were covered with blue jeans, A.J. could tell they were stick-thin. His tennis shoes rested on a tray like the one that held his upper body in place. Glasses as thick as Coke bottles resided on his nose, and a permanent hole had been surgically cut into his throat. The end of a respirator hose was taped to the hole, the respirator itself hung from the side of Joey's chair. Around his head he wore a black band with electrodes and a silver pointer.
Though Joey's back had been to them when he'd ‘spoken’ A.J. knew this pointer was the instrument that gave him the ability to communicate. He'd seen something similar at the rehab center ten years earlier. The computer Joey was using was not only made up of alphabet and number keys, but of keys with common images on them such as a dog and a cat, and keys with common words like 'the', 'and' 'for' and 'to.' By moving his head, the only part of his body Joey seemed to have some control over, a sensor in the pointer would register what key had been indicated to and then translate the message into words. The process was arduous and time consuming, but A.J. could only imagine what freedom it brought to those disabled people who had for so long been without a voice.
Casey dropped her hand from Joey's head to instead put it around his shoulders. She rubbed a gentle circle in-between his bony shoulder blades as though he was a child. Only he wasn't a child. The beard stubble on his chin made that obvious to A.J. Because of his atrophied body his age was hard to guess, but the blond man estimated him to be anywhere from eighteen to twenty-one years old. A far cry from the little boy A.J. had been expecting, whom he'd mentally pictured to be about nine.
is Joey," Casey introduced.
"Joey, this is your new tutor, Mr. Williams."
Without any hesitation, A.J. crossed the room. "Joe, it's nice to meet you." He held out his hand. "And call me Dan, please."
It took Joey a long time to grasp A.J.'s hand. When he did it was more by chance than by any direction his brain had given the appendage. Nonetheless, he felt a sense of pride when his hand was firmly grasped in his tutor's. A.J. gave the hand a light squeeze and shook it twice. Whatever vocalization Joey was trying to make came out in unintelligible grunts. When his teacher released his hand Joey used his elbow to flick the switch on the arm of his wheelchair that would make it turn. When he was facing the computer again he began searching out the necessary keys. It took a minute for the message to be spoken.
"Joe. I...like...that. I...am...Joe."
Joey smiled up at A.J. Again, the blond man didn't know if the smile was genuine or an involuntary movement, but he took it at face value and smiled back. Casey glanced from her patient to her new co-worker.
"It looks like you two are off to a good start so I'll leave you alone."
After the woman had made her exit, A.J. grabbed a chair from the table. He placed it next to Joey's wheelchair and sat down.
"Okay, Joe, let's get our day together started. Why don't you tell me about yourself. What kinds of things are you interested in? Do you have a favorite sports team? A musical artist you like? How about books? Do you like to read?"
Again, the young man smiled. No one had ever asked him anything about himself. No one other than his mother had ever looked beyond his disabilities and seen him as a person with thoughts, interests, opinions, feelings, likes, and dislikes.
No one had ever shaken his hand before.
But, most importantly, he was twenty years old, and no one had ever called him Joe.
Rick waited until three days after A.J. started employment as Joey Franklin's tutor before attempting to make contact with Cord. The man had started his own business shortly after relocating to San Diego. He was renting a storefront in one of the older sections of the city that Rick rarely had reason to visit. The detective waited at a red light three blocks from Cord's store. When it changed to green he proceeded through the intersection and kept an eye out for an empty parking space. It was five fifteen in the afternoon, and other than passing traffic the area was fairly desolate of shoppers.
Two blocks later Rick wheeled his Dodge Durango up to the curb. A year earlier the hunter green sports utility vehicle had replaced the Ram pickup Rick had bought shortly after A.J.'s accident in 1988. It had taken a lot of consideration on Rick's part before he finally decided to make a change from the pickup trucks he'd been driving for more than twenty years now. Within two days of owning the four wheel drive Durango it was a change he didn't regret. Not only could the vehicle comfortably seat six adults, the cargo space in the back still gave Rick all the room he needed for hauling whatever was necessary to various jobs he and A.J. might take on, or to the weekend camping trips they still indulged themselves in every now and then.
The lanky man ran a hand over the polished shine of his ‘truck,’ as he still thought of his vehicle, rounded the front and stopped at a meter. He dug into a pocket of his jeans until he came up with enough change to give him an hour's worth of parking. He deposited the coins into the appropriate slots, turned the meter's handle, stooped to make sure the red arrow was on the number one, then strolled down the sidewalk.
The smell of oil and metal assaulted Rick's senses when he pushed open the glass door of Franklin's Gun Shop. A U-shaped glass display case like those found in jewelry stores dominated the square room. The case contained two glass shelves, each lined with a dark green velvet cloth. Lying on top of the cloths were handguns of every make and model Rick had ever heard of, and many that he hadn't. Hanging on the walls behind the counter were more locked glass-fronted display units. These were filled with rifles that had fought in every war since Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill. The American flag stood proudly in a pole right next to the door. On the opposite side stood another flag in a pole. A black one with the POW/MIA inscription on it that had been designed for those servicemen left behind in Vietnam. Underneath the logo were the words, Gone But Not Forgotten.
Rick crossed the white tile floor, taking note of the sparkling glass shining all around him. Not one fingerprint or smudge marred the glass, which gave a potential customer an uninhibited view of the wares. Pushed off to the side was a bottle of Windex and roll of paper towels. With all this glass Rick assumed someone was kept busy making use of the cleaning utensils throughout the day. Despite all the locked cabinets, two rifles sat out in the open on one counter top. Rick wasn't sure if that was to give a potential buyer a hands-on-feel, or if they had been taken out to show a customer at some point during the day and had not yet been put away.
There was only one other customer in the store, a fleshy, pale man of about forty-five. A teenager without a speck of hair on his scalp was helping the man. Rick shook his head in wonder at today's youth. For so many years he'd mourned the passing of each of his own hair follicles, now kids shaved their heads on purpose.
Just wait 'til you're about forty, kid. You'll regret the years you didn't enjoy a full head a’ hair.
Rick slowly navigated the room, looking at the guns with an interest that wasn't entirely phony. He half-listened as the boy answered his customer's many questions about a possible handgun purchase. The kid couldn't have been more than sixteen, but there was no doubt he had a vast knowledge of firearms.
"And you think this is a good gun for the average homeowner who just wants something in the house for protection?" the heavy-set man asked.
"Yes, sir," the boy answered with a respect one didn't often hear teenagers use in 1998. "She's light, she's accurate, she's easy to load, easy to unload, and easy to clean. However, I would strongly advise that you and your wife take instructions in gun safety. Courses are offered at all the local firing ranges. And regardless of whether or not you have children in the house, you should always keep any firearms locked up."
The boy paused in his dissertation. "Excuse me just a moment, sir." He half peeked in a back office. "Dad! Dad, we've got another customer out here!"
Rick didn't hear any response to the teen's call, but evidently the boy did. To Rick he said, "My dad will be right with you, sir."
The detective looked over from the rifle he'd just picked up, giving the impression he was only half paying attention to what was going in the room. "Sure, kid. Thanks."
Rick checked the chamber to make sure the rifle wasn't loaded, then held it up to one eye and sighted it. The feel of the butt resting against his shoulder shouldn't have been nearly as familiar as it was. After all, it had been close to thirty years since he'd cradled one of these models. Rick allowed the nose of the rifle to fall toward the floor. He bent his head, studying the intricacies of the firearm.
Between his bent head and the brim of his Panama cowboy hat, Rick's face was hidden when Cordell Franklin approached him.
"Interested in that rifle,
Rick remained engrossed in the gun. "I don't know if I'm interested, but I sure haven't seen one of these babies in a good many years. It's an Ithaca 37, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir, it is."
"Yeah, I'd have known her anywhere. Used one just like it in Nam."
"Yep." Rick carefully laid the rifle back on the counter without meeting Cord Franklin's eye. He ran his right index finger over the smooth metal. "I doubt there was a Marine over there who didn't fire one at some point in time. They were specifically designed for jungle warfare. Supposed to give the ammunition greater penetration into the thick undergrowth. But hell, don't ask me if they really worked or not. All I know is I was bein' shot at, so I shot back. That's pretty much the extent of what Ole' Uncle Sam taught me to do."
"What unit were you with?"
Rick fingered the other rifle lying in the open. "23rd. From '68 to '71 in 'Nam, then spent a year stateside before mustering out."
Cord flexed his knees to get a better look under the brim of that hat.
Rick finally looked the man full in the face. Puzzlement was etched on his features and came through in his tone. "Yeah. I was a sergeant in the Corps."
"I know. Sergeant Simon! Rick! Don't you know who I am?"
Rick studied the man's face, but not a spark of recognition dawned. "Sorry, fella, but I was called Sarge by a lotta guys. Too many years have passed for me to remember 'em all."
"But, Rick, it's me!" Franklin scooted around the display case so he could get out on the open floor. "It's me!" He drummed his fingers against his chest. "Cord! Cord Franklin!"
Rick's mouth dropped open in
shock. "Well I'll...Cord?"
"Yeah, Cord." Cordell Franklin threw his arms around Rick like an exuberant younger brother who hadn't seen his beloved idol in years. "I can't believe it, Rick. I can't believe it's you!"
Rick reciprocated the hug, pounding the younger man on the back. "Well, despite the gray in my moustache, and the gray in what hair I've got left underneath this hat, yeah, Gumby, it's me."
Cord laughed at the old nickname. "No one's called me Gumby in years."
Rick moved out of the man's embrace, to instead hold him at arm's length. "I can see why. It no longer suits you."
The last time Rick had seen Cord Franklin the man had been twenty-five pounds lighter. A scrawny, skinny twenty-two year old who looked like he was in a need of several home-cooked meals. But time had transformed that boy into a man. He was still lean and trim, but in a hard-muscled way that spoke of frequent workouts. His waist had thickened with time, as had his shoulders and chest. The dark hair that had reached to the middle of Cord's back the last time Rick had seen him was now worn in a military cut, shaved close to his head on the sides and in the back, with an inch or so left long on top. Rick recalled their 1973 road trip together, and remembered that the ladies had found Cord quite attractive. He imagined that still held true today. The man's features had only sharpened with time, his chiseled jaw rising to high cheekbones that gave way to deep set, dark blue eyes.
Rick patted the flat stomach beneath the man's red shirt. "Looks like you've been working hard over the years."
"Oh yeah. Hard work's been a necessity throughout most of my life, Sarge."
The customer who had been in the store when Rick arrived made his purchase while the reunion was going on and exited. Cord called his teenage helper over.
"Logan, come here. There's someone I want you to meet."
The boy, wearing blue jeans and a camouflage jacket with a patch over the left breast that read Franklin, walked out from behind the counter. Cord approached the five foot nine inch youth and put an arm around his shoulders. "Sarge, this is my son Logan. Logan, I know you've heard me talk about this man many times over the years. This is Rick Simon, son, the man I served under in Vietnam."
Logan held out his right hand. "Nice to meet you, Sergeant. My dad's told me all about you."
Rick shook the boy's hand. "Nice to meet you, Logan. And it's Rick, not Sergeant. It's been a good many years since I've led a platoon of men into battle."
"But that doesn't mean you're not deserving of the title," Cord stated with open admiration. He turned to Logan. "Does it, son?"
Like an eager puppy, Logan echoed his father's thoughts. "No, sir, it doesn't, Sergeant."
Rick smiled. "Despite all that, Logan, why don't you just call me Rick. All my friends do."
The teenager looked at the detective as though Rick had just offered him the chance to play lead guitar in his favorite band. "Thank you, sir. I'll do that, sir."
The teen moved off to put away the rifles that were still setting on the counter.
"You've got yourself a heck of a boy there."
No one could have missed the pride beaming from Cord's eyes. "Thank you. He's been a special blessing to me in every way that phrase can imply."
Rick thought he could detect moisture in the man's eyes, but if so it was quickly concealed by his smile.
"And how about you, Rick? You got any kids?"
"Me?" Rick gave his familiar high-pitched laugh. "No, no. At least none that I'm aware of. Though I suppose I left the possibility of that in one or two places."
Cord laughed. "More like five or six, if I remember correctly. You did have a way with the ladies, Sarge."
"Yeah, I did. But believe it or not, I've kinda toned that down in recent years."
Cord glanced at his son. The boy was putting away the rifle Rick had just been looking at.
"Logan, I'm taking Rick into my office so we can catch up on old times. If you get busy out here give me a shout."
"Okay, Dad." The boy nodded to Rick. "It was nice meeting you, Serg...Rick."
"Nice meeting you, too, Logan."
Cord led Rick through the doorway where Logan had originally hailed him from. The office was an eighteen by eighteen room with a door that led to the alley behind the building where Cord had his Expedition parked. The room held an old metal desk and three brown filing cabinets. A chair on wheels sat behind the desk and another one, this one devoid of rollers on the bottom, sat across from it. A bulletin board hung next to the desk filled with business cards advertising firearms, and flyers advertising upcoming gun shows within a three hundred mile radius. Despite the age of the building and the second hand nature of the office furnishings, Cord kept everything orderly. The only item lying on his desk was a ledger filled with numbers he'd been working on prior to Rick's arrival. He shut the ledger and pushed it aside. With a nod of his head he indicated to the coffee maker sitting on top of one of the file cabinets.
"Wanna cup, Sarge?"
"Sure. If it's no trouble."
"No trouble at all. This is usually the time of day when I need a surge of caffeine to get me through until we close."
"What time is that?"
"Seven." Cord poured steaming coffee into Styrofoam cups. "I'm open from nine in the morning until seven at night Monday through Fridays."
"And on the weekends?"
"Not open on weekends. I've got other commitments. You want cream or sugar?"
"No. Neither." Rick wasn't able to avoid thinking it was odd that a business of this nature wasn't open on the weekends, when one would assume you'd draw a fair number of people in.
Cord crossed the room with two cups in his hand and gave one to Rick.
"Hey, for my old Sarge, anything."
The man seated himself behind his desk. "So, Rick, fill me in on all the years gone by. You said you didn't have any kids." Cord glanced to Rick's left hand and his naked ring finger. "And I take it you're not married either."
"Nope, haven't tied the knot. Or had it tied around my neck, might be a better way of puttin' it."
Cord lifted his cup in the gesture of a toast. "Same old Sarge. Love 'em and leave 'em with no strings attached. So there's never been a special lady who's made you want to settle down?"
"Oh, there's been one or two over the years, I guess." When Troya Yeager's face tried to appear in his mind, Rick firmly pushed it away. "Things just never...worked out. I've been seein' a gal pretty steady the last few years though. We have a lotta fun together."
"Think the two of you will get hitched?"
"Aw, I don't know," Rick shrugged, thinking of Nancy. "She's been that route once before. Married right outta high school, had two kids, a girl and a boy who are both grown now, played the part of the up and coming executive's wife and the car pool mom. She said it was a real drag. Brought her a lot of unhappiness. She said she lost her own identity somewhere while she was living what was supposed to be the American dream. While she was living her life for her husband's wants and needs." Rick took a sip of his coffee. "So, after the kids were grown and gone she left her old man. Struck out on her own and has done pretty well. Has a full-time job, goes to college part-time, owns a little two bedroom bungalow on the north side of the city, and seems to be really content with her independence. I don't think she's gonna give that up to marry me, and to tell ya’ the truth, after all these years I'm not too keen on giving up my independence either."
With a nod of his head, Rick indicated to the gold wedding band on Cord's hand. "But I see things are different for you."
"Were." Cord drained his coffee and set the empty cup on his desk.
Cord worried the ring with the fingers of his right hand. "My wife..." There was a significant pause. When the man spoke again he had to clear his throat. "My wife is no longer with us. She...she passed away a little over two years ago. She was...she was murdered."
"Oh wow." Rick melted into his chair. "Man. Geez, Cord...geez, I'm so sorry." He reached across the desk and grasped his old friend's hand in his. "I'm sorry, buddy."
Cord shut his eyes to keep his tears from spilling. He squeezed Rick's hand. "Thanks, Sarge...thanks."
The man seemed to draw strength from Rick's contact. When he finally released Rick's hand he swiped at his eyes, then leaned back in his chair. He swallowed hard, staring at his desktop.
"Patty...my wife, Patty had gone out to dinner with some old girlfriends from high school. She hardly ever went out, hardly ever got away from our...situation. I wanted her to go. Told her she needed to have a few hours of fun. She was supposed to be home by twelve-thirty. It wasn't like her to be late. I waited up until one, then laid down on the bed and told myself if she didn't come home by one-thirty I'd go out and look for her. I...I fell asleep, Rick, and never woke back up until five-thirty that morning when I heard the doorbell ring. I thought it was her. That she must have forgotten her house key, yet deep in my gut I knew something was wrong. There's no way she would have stayed out all night without calling me. Patty wasn't that kind of a woman. The kind who hangs out in bars until all hours of the morning whoring around. Patty wasn't like that at all. She wanted nothing more than to make a loving home for me and our boys."
"Boys? You have other kids beside Logan?"
"Just one. Joey."
Before Rick could ask any further questions, Cord continued.
"When I answered the door two police officers were standing on my front steps. They told me...told me that Patty had been found five miles from our house." Cord met Rick's gaze with tears streaming down his cheeks. "She'd been strangled. Strangled with such violence that all the blood vessels in her face were broken and her windpipe was crushed. They...they suspected that she'd had car trouble. The fan belt was snapped in two. The police theorized that since she was so close to home she decided to walk the rest of the way. Or maybe she was trying to get to a house to call me. Whether she accepted a ride from a passing car, or was accosted by someone who was driving by, the police don't know. There was never...there just wasn't enough evidence left at the crime scene for them to make any arrests."
Cord bowed his head, resting his forehead in his hand. His sobs were harsh and full of heartache. "So I was left...was left with the job of waking our boys and telling them...telling them that their mother was dead. God, Rick, nothing...not even Nam...has ever been so hard."
Rick leaned forward and laid a hand on Cord's arm. "I know," he sympathized softly, feeling the man's pain as if it were his own. "I know."
It took Cord a few minutes to pull himself together. He blew his nose with his handkerchief, avoiding Rick's eyes as he did so. He lifted a hip to return the hankie to the back pocket of his jeans.
"I'm sorry. I...I don't usually talk about Patty for just this reason."
"Hey, there's nothing to be sorry about. I understand grief."
Cord smiled, remembering all they'd been through together in Vietnam. "I know you do, Rick." He collected his emotions, shifted in his chair, and changed the subject. "So, Sarge, what brought you back here to San Diego? Last time I saw you, you were living like some hippy fisherman in that house your grandpa left you on Pirate's Key."
"What brought me back to San Diego was Hurricane Gloria."
"Yep. Strongest tropical storm Florida had seen in years. That was in 1978. She took Grandpa's house out to sea along with most of my stuff. But you know me, I never was one to put down too deep a' roots, so me and my motorcycle headed west. It took me a year to get here. I stopped along the way workin' this odd job and that odd job, not even really sure I was comin' back to California. Then one day I was just...here. Without any real planning on my part."
Of course, that wasn't what had really brought Rick back to San Diego all those years ago. It was A.J. who had convinced him to return so they could open Simon and Simon Investigations. There had been a tropical storm Gloria back in '78, but Grandpa Simon's house was still standing. Or at least it had been the previous year when Rick and Nancy had vacationed there for a week in October.
"You had a brother who lived
here, didn't you? You guys used to be
real close." Cord's eyes rolled to
the ceiling and he snapped his fingers.
"For the life of me I can't remember his name."
"A.J.," Rick supplied. His eyes shaded. "Yeah. Yeah...we used to be real close. But things have changed over the years. I'm the loony Vietnam vet who's an embarrassment to Mr. Straight-As-An-Arrow little brother.” Rick expelled a heavy sigh that seemed full of both sorrow and anger. “Yeah, Cord, we used to be close. But we ain't anymore. Haven't been for a long time."
"Does he still live here in the city?"
"Hell no. This city ain't big enough for the both of us. He lives about nine hours north a' here. Up in the Sacramento area. He's a big shit lawyer now. Makes loads of money and lives the good life."
"And your mother?"
"She lives two miles from her favorite son. 'Course A.J.'s the one who's given her grandchildren, so maybe it stands to reason." Rick gave a bitter snort. "What the hell have I ever given her over the years except trouble? Or so she tells me."
Cord easily detected the anger and resentment oozing from Rick's soul. He decided a shift of subject was in order. "Whatta ya' do to keep yourself busy these days, Sarge?"
"Work as mechanic for my buddy Carlos. Been with him since 1980. We go all the way back to grade school. You might a' heard of his places. Escobar Garages?"
"Yeah, I hear his ads on the radio all the time. You always were good with an engine and a wrench."
Rick finished off his coffee, and then threw the cup in the small metal garbage can that sat beside Cord's desk. "I can't complain. The pay's good, the benefits are good, and the job's enabled me to buy my own place. I gotta houseboat moored at one of the marinas."
"A houseboat?" Cord cocked an eyebrow. "I'm impressed."
Rick gave a humble smile. "Don't be. At least not too much. It's pretty modest by the standards of most houseboats. Doesn't even come close to comparing to the monster of a boat my brother has. But what the hell else is new? Nothing I do compares favorably when stacked next to A.J.'s achievements. But anyway, she's all I need. I like her, my dog likes her, she's home, so that's all that counts."
"You're right. As long as you're happy that is all that counts." Cord rose to refill his coffee cup. Before the conversation could proceed, Logan poked his head in the doorway. "Dad, I've got three customers out here. Can you give me a hand?"
"Sure, son. Be right there."
Rick stood. "I'd better get going. Let you get back to your work."
Regret marred Cord's handsome face. "Listen, Rick, I'd really like for us to get together again. You know, catch up on old times and all."
"Yeah. I'd like that, too." Rick paused in thought. "How about Saturday night? You can come to my boat and I'll--"
"Sorry. Saturdays aren't good for me."
"Okay, then Friday night."
"That would work."
"I'll cook us dinner on the grill. Bring your boys if you'd like."
"Thanks, but that won't be necessary. Logan's usually busy on Friday nights. You know teenagers. And Joey...well, Joey won't be able to make it either. But I'll sure be there. I'll even bring the beer."
"Great." Rick looked around for a piece of paper and a pen. "Do you have something I can write my address on?"
Cord pulled a pen and a business
card out of his shirt pocket. He
flipped the card over to the backside.
Rick quickly scrawled out the address of the marina and his slip number. Underneath that he wrote his phone
number. "Will eight work for
Rick slipped both the pen and card back into Cord's pocket. "Super. I'll see ya' then."
Cord put an arm around Rick's shoulders and led him out of the office. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Sarge."
At eight-fifteen on Friday night Cord Franklin trotted down the dock toward Rick's boat. The detective stood at the grill turning T-bone steaks and checking on the progress of the big baking potatoes he had wrapped in foil. He lifted his free hand in a wave when he saw his old friend coming.
"Sorry I’m late." Cord came up the gangplank in four long strides. "I had to help with Jo...some things at home. It took longer than I thought it would."
"No problem." Rick put the lid down on the grill, took the six pack of cold beer from his friend's hand, and led the way into the houseboat's living area. He deposited the beer in the refrigerator while Cord bent on one knee to meet Rex. The man eyed his surroundings.
"Nice place you've got here, Sarge."
"Like I said the other day, she's humble by a lotta standards, but I like her. Have a look around if you want."
Cord rose to do just that. Through his conversations with A.J., Rick knew Cord had yet to meet Joey's new tutor, ‘Dan.’ Nonetheless, prior to the man's arrival, Rick had removed any family photos that had formerly resided on the shelf behind the couch. Gone was the picture of Rick and A.J. taken thirty years earlier on the eve of Rick’s departure for Vietnam. Gone, as well, was the picture of Rick and A.J. that had been taken outside the Simon and Simon office by Cecilia when they'd reopened the business after A.J.'s return from Seattle in 1995. Also missing were the pictures taken on A.J. and Lauren's wedding day the previous June. There had been one of Rick, A.J., and Cecilia posed together on the upper deck of Rick's boat, then another with A.J., Lauren, Shane, and Tanner, taken in the same spot.
Rick had also walked through the boat twice when he'd arrived home from work to make certain there was nothing else lurking about that would lead Cordell Franklin to tie him to Joey's new tutor, or to conclude the story Rick had given him about strained relations with A.J. wasn't true. Rick was glad he'd taken the time to be so meticulous. He'd found an X-men action figure between the sofa cushions that Tanner had left behind at some point in the past, a picture of Rex he had taped on the refrigerator that Shane had drawn, and the shirt and pair of jeans that A.J. kept hanging in Rick's bedroom closet for those times when their work caused him to need a change of clothes and Rick's boat was the closest place available.
Tanner's toy had been put in the glove compartment of the Durgano so Rick could give it to A.J. on Monday. Everything else Rick removed had been put in a box and secreted in the boat's locked cargo hold. Not that he imagined Cord would be going through his closets to begin with, nor look closely enough to wonder why Rick had a pair of jeans that weren't his size hanging within, but the detective in Rick Simon had learned long ago not to take chances.
Cord drifted from room to room, returning outside just as Rick was removing the steaks from the grill.
"You've made yourself a comfortable home here, Rick. My boys would love a weekend place like this."
"Like I said the other day, bring 'em on by sometime."
"Maybe I'll do that."
Rick set the food on the nearby wrought-iron table. Cord trailed him back into the galley where they pulled the necessary condiments and drinks from the refrigerator. When they were seated at the table with their plates piled high Rick lifted his beer bottle.
"To old friends."
Cord gently clinked his bottle against Rick's. "To old friends."
The men didn't stop talking about old times while they ate. Most of their conversation revolved around the twenty-six months they'd spent together in Vietnam. They avoided speaking of the carnage they lived through every day back then, but instead dwelled only on the good memories of friends they hadn't seen in years, practical jokes played, the time their platoon was entertained by Bob Hope, the time they took R&R together in Thailand, and then of the trip they made on motorcycles from Arizona to Pirate's Key.
The sun had set when the men rose to clean up. With Cord's help it didn't take long to put things back in their rightful place. Rick started the dishwasher cycling, then reached in the fridge for two more beers. The night air was cool, so the men retired to the boat’s living area. Cord sat on the couch, Rick in the easy chair with Rex at his feet.
Cord took a long swallow of foamy liquid. "This has been a great evening, Sarge. Thanks for having me over."
"Thanks for coming. I don't do much entertaining. It's been fun."
"For me, too. Because of Joey, I don't get out much."
"Because of Joey?"
Cord didn't answer the question he heard in Rick's voice. Instead, he tipped his head back, resting it on the sofa for a moment with his eyes close.
"Do you ever feel like this
country let you down?"
Rick's laugh was harsh and mirthless. "All the time, my friend."
Cord lifted his head and looked Rick in the eyes with an intensity Rick had yet to see in his old buddy. "How so?"
"Yeah. How do you think this country has let you
"I think that's pretty obvious. Our fellow citizens have kicked every Nam vet right in the ass. They have been for years. My brother included."
"Oh yeah. Sometimes I think he's the worst of the lot. He...some years back I was having some problems. Flashbacks and such. Havin' some trouble copin' with the memories of Nam."
"I hear ya', Sarge."
"So my brother flies down here and has me committed. Has me put in a funny farm so I wouldn't be an embarrassment to the family name. Heaven forbid ole' Ricky should freak out in public. What would poor straight-assed A.J. Simon do in that event? But he didn't give a damn, man." Rick's hand tightened around the neck of his bottle. "He just left me there. Didn't come to one counseling session. Didn't try to understand what got me to that point in the first place. Didn't want to hear it when I tried to talk to 'im about the memories. The bad times. Just...just practically patted me on the head like some goddamn puppy who'd pissed on the floor and told me to get better. Told me not to worry about how much this therapy was costing him, 'cause after all, I was his brother and he'd do anything for me. Well bullshit he'd do anything for me! While I was hanging on to my sanity by no more than my fingernails he was out in the hallway in his eight hundred dollar suits calling his secretary from his cell phone. Telling her he hoped I didn't take up too much of his time 'cause he really did need to get back to business. Telling her he hoped my little public incident didn't make the papers all the way up in Sacramento, because it would be quite an embarrassment to him and his firm. Telling her he hoped he could soon put all of this behind him and return home to his beautiful wife and gold-star children. Well, goddammit, I'm his family, too, and he doesn't even give a rat's ass!" Rick drummed two fingers into his chest. "I'm the one who fought in Vietnam! I volunteered to go! I coulda' gone to Canada, Cord. I even thought about it. I was there once, you know, but I came back. I came back and enlisted in the Corps so my snot nose little brother wouldn't get drafted. I went so he wouldn't have to. And just once, just once do you ever think he's told me thank you? Do you think anyone in this country has ever told me thank you? Hell no, they're all like A.J. Just too busy hopin' I don't embarrass 'em to ever say, "Hey, Rick, thanks. Thanks for risking your life every day for two years. Thanks for watching your buddies get blown apart in the name of God and country. Thanks for fighting over there so I wouldn't have to. Thanks, Rick." Rick turned his head away. "Yeah, Rick. Thanks for nothing."
A tense silence filled the room. Cord stood after a minute, leaning over Rick to work the beer bottle out of his hands. "Sarge? Sarge, loosin' up here a minute. Sarge, loosin' up or you're gonna break the bottle."
Rick blinked as though surfacing from a daze. "Huh? What?"
"The bottle, Sarge. Let go of it."
Rick allowed Cord to pry his fingers from around the amber glass. Cord set the bottle on the coffee table, then laid a hand on Rick's knee. "You okay?"
Rick let his breath out in a shaky sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay." He wiped a shirtsleeve across the beads of perspiration dotting his forehead. "Sorry. I don't usually spout off like that. But with you..."
Cord nodded. "With me you knew you could. Because I understand. Because we're brothers in a way you and A.J. can never be."
"Yeah," Rick acknowledged thoughtfully. "Yeah, I guess that's it."
Cord sank back onto the sofa. He drained his beer bottle dry before resting it on the table next to Rick's. Both men fell silent, Cord listening to the unfamiliar night sounds of the marina, Rick patiently waiting to see where the conversation would go next.
Five minutes later Cord began to speak without any preamble. "When I left you on Pirate's Key I traveled for a while. Headed up the East coast, worked when I needed money, moved on to the next town when I didn't. Ten months later I had made my way back to Ohio. I took up with Patty, my high school sweetheart. We got married a year after that, in August of '74. We were both working at the Ford plant, one of the biggest employers around our small town of Marion. We were union, made good money to do nothing all day but tighten lug nuts on wheels before the next car came down the assembly line. Patty and me, we had it all planned. We'd both work full-time for Ford until we saved enough to buy a house, then she'd get pregnant and stay home as long as the company's maternity leave policy would allow before returning to work. And that's just what happened. We bought a small house three years after we'd married. It wasn't much. Just two bedrooms, a kitchen, one bathroom, and a living room. Not much bigger than the living space on your boat really. But it sure beat renting an apartment, and it was ours. We planned to live in it five years, then sell it and buy something bigger and newer.
"The first part of our plans materialized. We hadn't been in the house more than six months and Patty was pregnant. Our oldest son was born in 1978. We named him Joseph Cordell, after my dad. When Joey was six weeks old Patty returned to work at the plant and my mom babysat for him. I honest to God thought we were living the American dream, Sarge. Here I was, just a few years out of Vietnam and my life had changed for nothing but the better. I was making twelve bucks an hour, owned my own home, had a loving wife and a new baby boy. What more could a guy ask for? Patty felt the same way. Joey was just a few weeks old and she was already talking of having another kid and moving into a bigger home. Our dream home. I can't say I discouraged her. I couldn't imagine anything coming along to derail our train.
"The first signs that our train wasn't going to be traveling a smooth track came when Joey was three months old. My mom thought it was odd that he couldn't seem to focus on any of us. That he didn't reach for us when he was laying on his back in his crib, or coo and gurgle and smile when he saw someone who was familiar to him. Patty and I didn't think too much about it. Hell, what did we know? He was our first kid. We just thought Mom was in ‘Grandma mode,’ as Patty used to call it. She was always was a worrier. Even when me and my sister were kids. But by the time Joey was nine months old, Patty and I began to have concerns, too. He couldn't sit up, wasn't reaching for any of his toys, and wasn't crawling like my sister's son was doing who was just three weeks older than him. Patty mentioned it to our doctor when she had Joey in for his next checkup, but the man said there was nothing to worry about. That all children develop at their own pace, and that we shouldn't compare Joey to his cousin. We bought into that for a while, but deep inside I think we both knew something was wrong. When Joey's first birthday arrived he still wasn't sitting up on his own, let alone crawling or walking or talking. I watched my nephew toddle around our living room the day of Joey's birthday party. Jason was getting into everything, had the natural curiosity all kids that age possess. If he wasn't messing with the discarded wrapping paper, then he was carrying around the shoes that had been lined up by the front door, or trying to dip his hands in the fish tank. He was giggling, laughing, pointing at things, saying words, trying to repeat new words he heard, and there sat Joey in his high chair like a rag doll someone forgot to wind up. I found Patty crying in the bathroom after everyone left. All I could do was hold her as she sobbed, ‘Something's wrong with him, Cord. Something terrible is wrong with our little boy.’
"That's when the real hell began, Rick. Over the next two years I swear we traveled to every doctor and children's hospital from Ohio to Boston. We saw more specialists of pediatric medicine and more pediatric neurologists than I can remember. It drained us emotionally, and just about killed us financially. Patty was no longer working at this point. Joey was three years old and still in a diaper. In every way still an infant. That was way too much to ask my mother, or any babysitter, to handle. We had no choice but to have Patty quit work and stay home with him, though God knows that was the last thing we could afford. And to make matters worse, every doctor we saw had a different opinion. Or so it seemed. Some said Joey had cerebral palsy, others said muscular dystrophy, still others felt he'd suffered some sort of brain damage that had occurred during the birthing process, while others had no answers at all.
"Joey was three and half when we got an appointment at Mayo Clinic. Finally...finally we discovered what was wrong. Though what that doctor told us...what that doctor told us changed me forever."
Rick's question was asked in a quiet
voice. "What'd he tell you?"
"He looked me right in the eye and asked me if I'd served in Vietnam. Of course, I had no idea where he was coming from with that question, but I said yes, that I had. Then he asked me if I had ever been sprayed with Agent Orange. I'll never forget the answer I gave him. I said, ‘Sprayed with it? Doctor, I was practically given a bath in the stuff.’
"The man just sat there shaking his head, Rick. When I asked him what he meant by that question, he looked at me with nothing but the deepest sympathy and said, ‘Mr. Franklin, it's my belief your son's problems are neurological in nature, and a direct result of the chemical you were exposed to during your years in Vietnam. I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do to improve Joey's condition. More than likely his health will only deteriorate in the coming years’
"I sat there with tears rolling down my face. Who the hell would have thought it? My child was never going to advance beyond the stages of an infant, and it was all because our government had used a buncha goddamn chemicals to kill jungle foliage. How many times did they tell us what they were spraying over us was harmless to humans, Rick? Huh? How many times did we hear there was nothing to worry about? And how many times have I continued to hear that over the years as I've tried to get financial aid for Joey from our government?"
"They never came through for
"No," Cord's hand clenched in a trembling fist. "Not one goddamn time. After the doctor told us what he suspected was the cause of Joey's problems, I started doing research on my own. This was right around the time the first stories about Agent Orange and its effects on not only the soldiers who were exposed to it, but as well as its effects on their offspring, began to appear in the news. I contacted every veteran's group I could track down and got whatever information they could give me. I even sat in on some senate hearings regarding it. I sat there, Rick, while they refused to acknowledge Agent Orange was the source behind multiple catastrophic health problems suffered by vast numbers of veterans and their children. I was refused help of any kind. Not one red cent has come our way to defray medical expenses, or the cost of the motorized wheelchair, or the cost of the special computer Joey uses now so he can communicate with us." Cord gave a bitter laugh. "No, our government couldn't do those things for Joey. My wife had to die in order for them to happen."
"Whatta ya' mean?"
"When Joey was two, Patty and I took out large life insurance policies on ourselves. The monthly premiums almost prevented me from putting food on the table sometimes. If it hadn't been for the help my parents gave us, I swear there would have been nights when we wouldn't have eaten. But we felt we had no choice. We knew if one of us died, the surviving spouse would need the money from those policies to care for Joey. At least I know, because of that insurance money, Patty's truly resting in peace."
Rick cocked a questioning eyebrow but didn't say anything.
"Her boy finally has everything she wanted for him, Rick. A big house where every doorway is wide enough for his wheelchair to fit through. A motorized wheelchair so he has a degree of independence. A voice synthesizer that allows him to communicate. Oh God, how I wish Patty had lived long enough to hear him talk. To hear him say, ‘Hi, Mom.’ Plus, he's finally getting the education she had always dreamed of for him."
"He goes to school?"
"No. That's next to impossible given his ailments. We tried it for a while in Ohio when he was nine. By law, the public school system has to provide some sort of classroom instruction for every child in the country. Unfortunately, Joey's health problems are just too vast for a teacher in a classroom setting to handle. He's been on a respirator since he was seven. His lungs are shot from the multiple times he's suffered pneumonia. Plus he wears diapers and is fed through a stomach tube. We knew for years he really needed a private tutor, but there was no funding for it, or so I was often told by the state. Patty ended up teaching Joey as best she could. If nothing else he knows his colors, numbers, and enough of the alphabet to construct simple sentences on his computer. I also dreamed of giving my wife a well-deserved break by providing Joey with a full-time nurse. Unfortunately, Patty didn't live to see either of those things materialize."
"So he's got a nurse now? And a tutor as well?"
"Yes. The nurse, Casey, has been with us four months. Joey really likes her. So do Logan and I. She's been a big help with not only Joey, but just around the house in general. She really isn't hired to do any cooking or cleaning, but she pitches right in and does whatever needs doing. She was a Godsend. The tutor situation has been a whole different story though."
"Part of the reason I relocated us to California after Patty's death was because your laws regarding aid to the handicapped are much more lenient than Ohio's. I knew I could get a tutor for Joey without having to pay the person's salary. That's all taken care of by the state. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Joey's been through six tutors in the past two years. He just gets used to one, when that person leaves for greener pastures. A new guy, Dan somebody-or-the-other, started on Monday. Because of my business I haven't had a chance to meet him yet, though Casey speaks highly of him. Joey seems to like him, too, or at least I think he does. When I asked him on Monday evening how his first day with his new tutor went he told me, ‘He called me Joe.’ Cord laughed. "I'm not really sure what that means, but if Joey's happy with the guy, then I'm happy with the guy."
"And Logan? He's shown no signs of any health problems all these years?"
"No, thank heavens. Patty was three months pregnant with him when the doctor at Mayo gave us the news about Joey. I agonized through the rest of that pregnancy, Rick. If Logan had been born like Joey...well I don't know what I would have done. I just...we, Patty and me, we just couldn't take anymore."
"No, Cord. I don't imagine you could."
"I was working twelve hour days, plus all the overtime the factory would throw my way, yet I had to file bankruptcy twice just to get the hospitals and doctors off our backs. I had medical insurance through work, but we maxed out the life-time allotment before Joey was six. It seemed like every place I turned to for help only slammed the door in my face."
Cord's eyes met Rick's. The detective could see the tears swimming within as the man struggled to sum up twenty years worth of heartache.
"And that's the thanks I got for serving our country. That's how our government has repaid me for being one of the few, one of the proud, one of the Marines."
Cord started to cry then. A silent cry that caused him to bite down on his lower lip while his shoulders shook with the sobs he couldn't contain.
Rick slid from his chair to the sofa. He laid a hand on his friend's arm, and then wrapped the man in a hug of support when Cord leaned into his chest.
"Why, Rick?" Cord asked between the tears that spilled over to trickle down his cheeks. "Why the hell don't they care? What will it take to make them see how much we gave for them? How much we sacrificed. How much we lost. God, Rick, we lost so much. What will it take to make them see that?"
"I don't know, Cord." Rick rubbed a hand over the man's back while he stared out the patio doors in reflective thought. "I just don't know."
Joey heard them thundering through the house like a pack of stampeding elephants. Those stupid combat boots they wore pounded against the hardwood floors. If his mother were alive she never would have tolerated them in her home. But she wasn't alive, and no one cared what he thought.
He heard them in the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. He could only imagine the mess they'd leave behind. They had no respect for anyone else's property.
Now they were coming in his direction. Cellophane bags of potato chips rattled as they were torn open and fizzing sounds came from the tops of aluminum cans. He didn't have to turn around to know they were drinking beer, even though none of them were legally old enough to yet.
They invaded the sunroom like a wild mob. Logan flipped on the lights, in total disrespect of the fact that Joey was sitting in the dark trying to find Orion.
Logan brushed past him, running a hand through his hair as though he, Joey, was the younger brother instead of the other way around.
Joey moved his head, directing his pointer at the letters on the computer. When he was finished the robotic voice announced, "Joe."
But his effort was for nothing. Logan wasn't listening to him. He'd joined his friends on the other side of the room on the sofa and chairs as though Joey didn't exist.
Like Logan, all the boys had shaved skulls and wore cast off military garb of some type. Joey turned his chair around, seeing the skull and cross bones earring dangling from one kid's lobe, while another had a swastika tattooed on his forearm. Someone had carried in a boom box and they started playing their music so loud the windows rattled. Joey hated this the most of all. From what few words he could pick out over screaming guitars he knew the messages these young men were saturating themselves with were full of violence and hatred. He picked out the word ‘nigger,’ and ‘spic,’ then something about a revolution and bloody death. Logan and his six friends just sat there absorbing it all, rocking their bodies back and forth in time to the music while they passed around the chips and beer.
Casey entered the room, her fingers marking the page of a book she'd been reading in another part of the house. She had to shout to be heard.
"Hey, what's going on in here?"
Thank, God, Joey thought. She'll put an end to this crap.
But the woman didn't do as Joey expected. Instead, she set her book on the table and started gyrating toward the boys in time to the music. Her slim hips did a bump and grind all the way across the room, making it obvious she wasn't wearing a bra. The boys never took their eyes off the nurse. She danced around them in a perverse circle, grinding her bottom into each of their laps. They hooted and hollered and tried to grab her breasts through her T-shirt. At least that, she didn't allow, though Joey didn't think she minded their questing fingers. It was more like a game to her. She'd jut her chest out just far enough so they couldn't reach it from their seated positions, then throw her head back and laugh before she went on to tease the next boy. Only one of the boys didn't seem to appreciate the woman rubbing her backside against his crotch, but you had to be a good observer like Joey to notice it. Joey could tell the guy was trying to be a good sport and go along with it for the sake of fitting in with his friends, but he could read the disapproval in the young man's blue eyes.
When Casey's dance was finished she remained seated in Logan's lap, sipping from his beer can. The sixteen-year-old wrapped his arms around her tiny waist and pulled her against him. This time when hands came up to squeeze her breasts she didn't pull away. Joey watched as his brother's hands traveled underneath her top. She threw her head back and gave a moan that was drowned out by the music when his fingers brushed over her nipples. Her right hand fell to the front of Logan's pants where she fondled and squeezed until he was panting like a bear.
The other boys looked on with envy, while Joey looked on with nothing but disgust. When Casey finally rose from Logan's lap the boys shouted and whistled like they were trying to call back a favorite stripper. She picked up her book and exited the room with a coy wave and a jiggle of her fanny.
"Toodle loo, boys. It's been fun."
The music played a few minutes longer before someone finally leaned over and switched it off. The boys slumped in their seats, their legs sprawled over chair and sofa arms, or propped up on the coffee table.
Todd, the boy with the skull and cross bones in his ear said, "Man, that's one hot chick, Logan. What'd you say her name was?"
"Casey." Logan took a long swallow of beer. "She's my brother's nurse."
Todd looked over at Joey. "Oh, yeah. The retard."
Logan bit his lower lip with anger, but he didn't say anything in his brother's defense.
Another young man wearing a fatigue shirt and trousers named, Ian, piped in with, "You know, Franklin, sixty years ago in Germany a guy like your brother woulda' been gassed. Kaput. Hitler woulda' done away with him like tonto pronto, man."
The rest of the group, save for one, contributed their thoughts.
"Yeah, Franklin, Hitler didn't put up with no retards, how come your dad does?"
"Look at 'im. He don't even know what we're saying. He just sits there making those jerky
movements like he's havin' some kinda spaz attack or something. Does he even have a brain?"
"Hell, no. He's like the scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz. If he only had a brain, dude."
Todd stood and crossed the room, swaying a little bit from the effects of the beer. He bent down and came nose to nose with Joey. He knocked on the young man's skull.
"Hello? Hello? Is anybody in here? Hello?"
He turned around and laughed with his audience. "Nope. It's empty. No one's in there." He started hitting Joey's head again, hard enough this time to cause it to be thrown backwards.
A strong hand grabbed Todd's arm and whipped him around.
"Knock it off, Todd! Leave him alone!"
Todd stared into the scowling face. "What's up your ass? It's no big deal, he's just a retard. Look at him. He's drooling for chrissake. He doesn't even know what's going on."
"I said, leave him alone."
Todd was pushed all the way back to his seat. He rubbed a hand over his sore arm while shooting his friend a dirty look. "Geez, Brendan, what the fuck is your problem tonight?"
"I don't have a problem." Brendan pushed the button on the boom box and music filled the room again. He tilted his beer can back and drained it dry. "Come on, did we come here to party, or to sit around and stare at each other?"
The only person who did any staring that night was Joey. There was something about Logan's friend Brendan that made him different from the other boys. Joey wasn't quite sure what it was, but he knew if he observed long enough he'd figure it out.
The week that followed found both Rick and A.J. making progress in their undercover assignments. A.J.'s role was simply to get comfortable with Joey, while becoming a four hour daily fixture in the Franklin home who blended in with the surroundings.
It was on Tuesday, A.J.'s seventh day of tutoring, that he finally met Cord Franklin. Because Cord's business opened at nine, and because A.J.'s day with Joey started at nine, they had yet to cross paths. But as A.J. made his way up the Franklins' sidewalk on Tuesday morning, a dark headed man opened the front door. A.J. had no
doubt the man had been watching for him through the window.
Cord held out his hand. "I'm Cord Franklin. Joey's father. You must be Dan."
"Yes. Dan Williams." A.J. shook the man's hand. "It's nice to finally get to meet you, Mr. Franklin."
"Call me Cord. And it's nice to meet you, too."
Cord glanced at his watch as he allowed A.J. to step past him into the living room. The detective got the impression this rushed, spur-of-the-moment get together was for Cord's benefit, to see if he liked the new tutor as much as his son did. Joey sat in his wheelchair a few feet away from the two men, which didn't surprise A.J. It had already become the twenty-year-old's habit to be waiting for his teacher by the front door each morning.
A.J. held out his hand to Joey, who possessed the same dark hair and intense blue eyes that Cord had. Instead of engaging in a traditional handshake, Joey struggled to clasp A.J.'s hand by the palm in an upraised position like he often saw Logan do with his friends. A.J. patiently waited until the young man had accomplished the feat, and then greeted, "Hi, Joe. How are you this morning?"
Cord paid no attention to the exchange. Or if he, did he didn't recognize the significance of it. "So, Dan, what brings you to our home as Joey's tutor?"
A.J. turned from Joey, but stepped off to the side so his back wasn't to his student, thereby blocking the young man's view of the room. He ad-libbed the story given him by Pellman Creek.
"I put in twenty-five years with the public system teaching junior high, and simply got burnt out. Needed a change. I have a friend who works at the state education office who spoke with me about tutoring opportunities. Joe's my first student, and to tell you the truth, Cord, I couldn't have asked for a better one."
Cord smiled at his wheelchair bound son. He took Joey's hand and swung it back and forth in his like a person would do with a six year old. "Yes, Joey's a fine boy." The man leaned close to A.J.'s ear. "I know, given his limitations, that learning much of anything is next to impossible for him. But I really appreciate your efforts. And, if nothing else, the four hours you spend here help make his day go by faster."
A.J. was shocked at the man's shortsightedness. Didn't he know his son had been reading at an adult level since he was ten, and with the help of the voice synthesizer constructing sentences at an adult level? Didn't he know his son had knowledge of the solar system that would give an astronomer a run for his money? Didn't he realize Joey had every feasible statistic memorized on every current Major League baseball player? Or that Joey had an unquenchable thirst for United States history? Did the man not know Joey had taught himself Morse Code when he was eight, simply because he was fascinated with this form of communication that didn't require a little boy be able to talk? Or that Joey knew every concerto Mozart had ever composed?
Before A.J. could say all these things, Cord was making his leave. He bent and kissed Joey on the right temple. "You be a good boy today. Don't give Casey or Dan any problems. Daddy will see you tonight when he gets home from work."
Joey's arms flailed in the air and an "Ug, ug, ug," was pushed out between his lips. A sad smile turned the corners of Cord's mouth downward. He stared at his son a moment, gave his head a slight shake, and then turned for the front door. He patted A.J. on the arm as he passed. "Thanks again, Dan." Seconds later the blond man heard the sound of a Ford's engine coming to life.
A.J. followed Joey to the sunroom. Casey handed the detective a cup of coffee as he passed her in the kitchen. Her smile was beaming at one hundred watts and her cheerful, "Morning, Dan!" reminded A.J. of the happy-go-lucky purple dinosaur Barney, that Tanner liked to watch on TV. A.J. had yet to see the woman in any other mood regardless of whether she was running the vacuum, changing Joey's diaper, or carrying out the garbage. He had to admit her personality was infectious, and could see why she was believable in her role as Joey's nurse. She seemed to have a natural love for her job as care taker, and a genuine affection for the young man she spent so much time with.
"Good morning, Casey." A.J. smiled at the woman's outfit. He'd quickly discovered she had a penchant for shirts that advertised sports teams, and for bright colored high-tops that matched. Today she wore a flaming red jersey with the Kansas City Chiefs logo on it, white jeans, and a pair of fire engine red sneakers with periwinkle blue laces.
When Joey got in front of his computer A.J. put the electronic headband on for him. The young man moved the pointer back and forth until the computer's voice spoke for him.
"What doesn't he understand, Joe?"
Joey stared out the windows a long time before he answered.
When no more communication was forthcoming, A.J. let the subject drop. He bent over at the waist and retrieved a United States history version of Trivial Pursuit he'd purchased at K-mart the previous week. By the second day he'd been with Joey it was apparent to A.J. that there was little in the way of tutoring the young man needed. Whether or not Cord knew it, Patty Franklin had done an excellent job of home schooling her son throughout the years. Especially considering the limited resources available to her. So rather than try to teach Joey anything specific, A.J. settled for allowing the twenty-year-old to plot his own educational program. It didn't surprise A.J. when Joey's itinerary was filled with suggestions that would stimulate his interests in history, astronomy, and classical music.
A.J. set the game board up on the flat service of the computer desk that sprawled in two directions. Because of the cumbersome way Joey had to communicate it took them a long time to work their way around the board, but A.J.'s patience was limitless. He recalled all too well what it was like to have your mind racing with answers that your disabled brain couldn't direct down the right pathways so they could be spoken.
An hour and a half later Joey was declared victor of the game. It had been a closely fought battle; A.J.'s game piece was only two squares behind his opponent's. The blond put the cards that contained the questions back in their box, then returned the plastic game pieces to their storage container. He folded the game board, stacked everything together in the Trivial Pursuit box like it belonged, then slid the box onto the shelf by his knee. He straightened and held his hand out to Joey.
"Way to go, Joe. Your knowledge of the most obscure facts and dates never ceases to amaze me."
Joey grasped A.J.'s hand like he had that morning. He turned his head to his computer, bobbing his pointer back and forth over the letters and symbols.
"And she did a great job," A.J. praised with genuine sincerity. "Have you ever thought about going to college?"
A.J. waited while the young man spelled out his reply.
"Have you talked about it with your father?"
Despite the brief response, A.J. understand what his student was saying. That his father thought of him as a child with limitations so severe he would spend the rest of his existence in this sunroom with a nurse.
"Perhaps I could talk to him for you. Together, you and I could show him all you've learned during the years your mother spent teaching you."
A.J. watched the young man's head bob as he once again used the computer to formulate his response. "I...do...not...want...you...to...do...that."
The investigator in A.J. couldn't leave that last comment alone. "What do you mean by that?"
"He's not like me how?"
"He seemed nice enough when I met him this morning. It's obvious to me that your well being is his utmost concern. He loves you a lot, Joe."
A.J. had to hide his smile. Granted, there might have been some validity to the statement Joey had just made, though A.J. couldn't form an opinion on it since he'd never met Logan, nor had the opportunity to see Cord Franklin interact with both his sons. Nonetheless, the feelings of resentment Joey presented in that one short sentence dated back to the dawn of time. To Cain and Abel. The Smothers Brothers had made the phrase, "Mom likes you best," popular on national TV during the early 70s. And A.J. had to admit that even he and Rick still engaged in that senseless barb every so often.
"I don't think your dad loves Logan more. He simply loves each of you in individual ways for the different gifts and joys you bring to him."
Joey's last comment on the subject came out sounding more like a warning than a command.
Before the conversation could progress, Casey bounced into the room. "Hey, guys! How about playing hooky for a while and taking a walk? It's a beautiful day outside."
"Sure. I promised Joe we'd make a trip to the library one of these days soon to get him some astronomy books. We could take the walk you're suggesting in that direction and kill two birds with one stone."
Casey landed a light punch to A.J.'s shoulder. "Oh, teach, I meant a walk to have fun. Not a walk to the dull old library." She turned to her patient. "How about it, Joey? Do you really wanna go to the library?"
The young man nodded his head. "Uhh. Uhh."
The woman heaved a dramatic sigh. "Oh, okay, you guys win. To the library it is. But, boy, if this is your idea of fun, remind not to invite either one of you out on a Friday night."
A.J. laughed at the bubbly woman, while Joey sat in his wheelchair thinking he had no desire to go out with Casey on a Friday night if what he saw in this room the previous Friday evening was an indication of her normal behavior.
A branch of the San Diego library was five blocks from the Franklin home. Casey sat at a table reading an issue of Cosmopolitan while A.J. helped Joey pick out the books he wanted. The blond man then spent ten minutes arguing with a librarian who refused to issue Joey a library card.
"If he can't sign his name, Mr. Williams, I don't know how I'm to issue him card."
"Your books have magnetic strips on the covers that are scanned when they're checked out." A.J. said in a voice tight with tenuous control. "You don't make people sign their names on a card any longer. You haven't for several years now."
"That's true. But we need him to sign his name on the library card."
"I'll sign his name for him."
"That's not good enough,
sir. If he can't sign his--"
That's when A.J. lost his temper. Patrons turned toward the front counter as the detective's voice echoed throughout the building.
"Look, lady, I will not hesitate to report you and this library to the Civil Liberties Union for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act! You have a concrete wheelchair ramp outside and bathrooms for the handicapped inside, but now you have the audacity to tell me the very people those features are designed to bring into this building can't get a library card! I think you'd better speak with your superior before I call the investigative news team at Channel 3. If you think Mr. Franklin can't talk to the press about these indignities you'd better think again. And I'll see to it that the interviews Temple Hill Brown conducts are done right on your front steps!"
The chastised woman scurried away, only too happy to go in search of her superior. A.J. could feel the eyes of every patron in the place on his back, but he didn't care. He was rarely the type of man to make a scene, that was more Rick’s style, but there were enough limitations in Joey's world. He'd be damned if something as simple as obtaining a library card would be another.
A.J. received nothing but cooperation from the head librarian. She profusely apologized for her colleague's ignorance of proper procedure, and soon had Joey set up on the system with his own card. She didn't ask him to sign it, but instead printed his name on the signature line for him. She held the blue plastic card out to him.
"Here you go, Mr. Franklin. Now may I check those books out for you?"
Joey looked up at A.J. and smiled. His head bobbed at the woman, and with A.J.'s help the books were transferred from the wheelchair's tray to the counter.
Joey clutched the books to his tray as they made their way out of the building a few minutes later. He maneuvered his wheelchair down the concrete ramp without any assistance from Casey or A.J. When he came to the spouting fountain that sat in front of the building he stopped. He struggled to open one of the books by himself. By using his bent wrists he was finally able to accomplish the task.
Casey looked at A.J. "Guess he's telling us he wants to sit
here for a while. Is that okay with
"Fine by me. Like you said, it's a beautiful day."
The nurse tapped her charge on the shoulder. She pointed to a row of benches fifteen feet behind him. "Dan and I will be sitting back there."
Joey nodded his head and returned to his reading.
A.J. followed Casey to the wooden bench. The nurse smiled up at him. "That was quite a show you gave everyone in there."
The detective blushed. "I shouldn't have lost my temper, but that woman really ticked me off. After all the publicity given the Americans With Disabilities Act, I can't believe she was so ignorant. Joe's got enough struggles just getting through each day. Obtaining a library card shouldn't be one of them."
"You say that as though you know."
"What it's like to struggle to overcome physical adversity."
"I've faced a few challenges in my life," was all A.J. would offer the woman.
The pair sat down, A.J. leaning against the bench's back. He thrust his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. The sun was warm against his blue jeans, but not so warm as to be uncomfortable. He watched the fountain spout water. Every so often a refreshing droplet would land on his bare arms.
In total contrast to her normal demeanor, or at least to what A.J. thought of as normal for her, Casey began talking in a low, earnest voice.
"Has your partner learned
As Pellman Creek had promised that day three weeks ago in the Simon and Simon office, what Casey Kenner knew of the tutor, Dan Williams, was limited. She was aware he was a private investigator, and that he and one of his partners had been hired by the bureau to help with the Franklin case. She didn't know A.J.'s true identity; however, nor that his partner was his brother, nor even how large his business was or how many people he might employ. An educated guess told her Dan's partner must have some past connection to Franklin in order to gain the man's trust so quickly, but what that connection was she had no idea.
A.J. shook his head now in answer to the woman's question. "No. Not really. He's having lunch with Franklin tomorrow. We're hopeful he'll soon glean an invitation to Franklin's weekend retreat."
"Has Cord said anything about the place to him?"
"No. Though on several occasions he has alluded to having weekend commitments."
"That's true enough. He and Logan are up before the sun every Saturday morning. Joey and I don't see them again until sometime after eight on Sunday night."
"So he never takes Joe along on
these little camping trips?"
"No. Never. The one time I suggested just that, he told me Joey wasn't up to roughing it in the wilderness. Of course, I expected him to say that. I wanted him to say it, so I could make my next suggestion."
"That I come along, too. I thought just maybe he'd bite if he thought Joey's care would be in the hands of someone else. The ploy would have been great had it worked. I probably could have observed everything we need to know firsthand, which would have saved the bureau a lot of time and money."
"So I take it Cord said no?"
"Yes. And with a scathing look thrown in to boot. Without him voicing it, I got the distinct impression that neither women, nor handicapped boys, are welcome at his sanctuary."
Casey and A.J. exchanged a few more sentences about the case. Though Casey had assured the blond man there were no bugs in the Franklin home, they still had to be careful not to say anything Joey might overhear. Therefore, they'd already fallen into the habit of taking a daily walk with Joey prior to A.J.'s tutoring sessions coming to an end at one p.m. It was easy enough for the two of them to lag behind the wheelchair as it made its way down a sidewalk, or to sit on a bench at the local park while Joey sought shade under a nearby tree.
The woman used a hand to brush her wind-swept curls out of her face. She nodded toward the young man still engrossed in his book. "He's the hardest thing about this case."
"He's disabilities are
heartbreaking," A.J. agreed.
"And time consuming for you, I'm sure."
"Oh, that doesn't bother me. For years I helped my mother take care of my younger brother. He has C.P....cerebral palsy. A lot of what I do for Joey on a daily basis I was doing for Timmy ever since I was eight years old."
By the sincerity in the woman's voice, A.J. knew this wasn't a fictional story told as part of her undercover role. He had no doubt that the woman he knew as Casey Kenner did have a brother afflicted with cerebral palsy.
"My brother's why I went into nursing to begin with."
"What brought you to the FBI?"
Casey laughed, that gravely vocal tone she possessed coming out in a shriek A.J. always found amusing. "Believe it or not, an ex-boyfriend. He was an agent. I thought his career sounded exciting and noble. Of course, he terminated our relationship the day I showed up as a rookie at Quantico. Evidently it wasn't in his long range plans to be married to a woman who could hold her own in a gun battle." Casey shrugged her shoulders. "But, no matter. I've made my way in the world quite fine without him, thank you very much."
A.J. smiled at the woman's spunk. "Yes, I quite imagine you have."
Casey looked up into A.J.'s eyes. "How about you, Dan? What's your story?"
A.J. almost told the woman about his family. About Lauren and her boys, and the excitement the impending birth of his child was bringing him. About how lucky he knew he was to be awaiting the arrival of a healthy baby, as opposed to a child with the types of disabilities Joey suffered. But then he recalled Pellman Creek's words of caution, and though he had no reason not to trust Casey, decided for the safety of his family it was best to stick with the same story he'd told Joey the first day he'd met him.
"I'm divorced. Have been for a number of years now."
"Two daughters. Both grown and on their own. They live near my ex-wife in Phoenix. Unfortunately, I don't see them very often."
"No? How come?"
"Ah, you know how it goes when a man leaves his wife. Regardless of the reasons, within two days she's turned his children against him. The girls were ten and twelve when the marriage came to an end, therefore very susceptible to their mother's manipulations of them. I've tried to reestablish contact over the years, especially since my grandson was born, but to no avail."
"Grandson!" Casey shrieked. She bumped A.J.'s arm with an elbow. "Get out! You're not old enough to be a grandfather."
"Believe me, Casey, that's the nicest compliment you could have paid me. But, yes, I am."
"Oh, come on. You're not that much older than me."
"How old are you? If you don't mind me asking, that is."
"I don't mind. I'm thirty-five."
"Well, you young whipper
snapper you," A.J. mugged as if he had no teeth in his mouth, "believe it or not, but Gramps here is
soon to be fourteen years your senior."
"You don't look it."
"Thank you. Unfortunately, on some days I feel it."
"P.I. work's a little hard on
the old joints, huh?"
A.J. nodded his head. "It's been known to be a time or
two." The blond man looked at Joey
and changed the subject. "Casey,
what did you mean when you said Joe was the hardest part of this job?"
"I meant that if we prove his father is involved in subversive activities, that ultimately it's Joey who will pay the price. With his mother dead, what do you think will happen to him?"
A.J.'s reply was tinged with sadness. "I don't know. Hopefully there are other relatives who will step in and take care of him and Logan."
"Logan's almost grown. He doesn't need much taking care of," Casey pointed out. "It's Joey who worries me. Someone with his disabilities is a burden most people won't want to take on."
"You care a lot, don't
"I try not to. I'm well aware this is part of my job. But, sometimes it's hard to detach yourself, know what I mean?"
A.J. was thinking of all the cases
where he'd had trouble detaching himself, when he replied quietly,
"Yes. I know what you mean."
Before he could say anymore the woman grabbed his left hand. "Come on, Gloomy Gus. Enough of this talk. Let's take our shoes off, and take Joey's shoes off, and splash in the fountain."
"Are you kidding? There's a sign right over there that
specifically forbids it. We'll likely
get arrested if we get caught."
Casey leaned close, whispering in the blond man's ear. "I'll just show 'em my badge if we do."
A.J. couldn't help but get wrapped up in the woman's fun. Her devil-may-care attitude reminded him of Rick. He allowed her to pull him to his feet and drag him toward the shimmering water.
Casey looked down at the hand she had encased in hers. She might have believed the man's story about being divorced if it hadn't been for one thing. The pale circle of untanned skin on his left ring finger that indicated a wedding band normally resided there.
The agent gave a mental shrug. The truth behind Dan's personal life was of little concern to her. He seemed like a nice guy. She hoped he was happy. Besides, she had a ring she didn't wear on this job either. A diamond engagement ring. Well, maybe it wasn't an engagement ring exactly, because the man she was seeing hadn't asked her to marry him yet. There were a few details that still had to be worked out, but eventually a marriage between them would happen. Of that she was certain.
Because, before it was all over, her lover would owe her too much not to marry her.
The trio returned to the Franklin home at twelve-thirty. A.J. and Joey spent the remainder of their time together pouring over the astronomy books. Though A.J. had no particular interest in this field of science, talking about it with Joey was intriguing simply because the young man's knowledge was so vast.
A.J. leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thoughtful silence. He watched his student study the open books. The only visible emotion on the young man's face was pure and utter joy. Joey tore himself from the text when A.J. spoke.
"Joe, have you ever heard of a man named Stephen Hawking?"
The dark head wobbled back and forth.
"Despite the physical challenges he has, which are similar to yours as a result of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he's currently one of the most renowned physicists in the United States."
Joey raised a questioning eyebrow that A.J. interpreted to mean, "Really?"
"He gets around using a motorized wheelchair just like you do. And, like you as well, he can only communicate with the help of a computerized voice synthesizer. Which brings me to my next question. Have you ever thought of becoming an astronomer?"
Joey turned to his computer. "Yes. A...long...time...ago. My...mom...and...I...discussed...it. That...dream...died...with...her."
"Would you like me to mention it to your dad? I know for a fact the local university here in San Diego has an excellent science program. Maybe your father would be willing to let you take some classes."
Again, the warning came.
A.J. sighed with frustration, but respected Joey's wishes and let the subject drop there. They filled what little time was left to their day by discussing what Joey would like to do when they reconvened on Wednesday morning. The detective then voiced his own plans for Wednesday.
"Aside from what you've suggested for tomorrow, I think we should also visit Stephen Hawking's web site."
A.J. got the impression that if Joey could heave a sigh of frustration he'd be the recipient of it. The computer spoke the young man's thoughts.
A.J. laughed. "You're by far not the first person
who's accused me of that particular personality flaw. So what do you say? You want
to do a little Internet surfing with me on your computer tomorrow?"
"I...should…say...no. It...is…an...old...dream…Dan....that...will...never...be. But...yes. I...would...like... to...learn...more...about...Stephen...Hawking."
"Good. And keep in mind that sometimes old dreams are meant to be resurrected."
The blond man glanced at his watch and rose to leave. "It's a few minutes after one. I'd better get going so you and Casey can have lunch."
"Thanks...Dan....for...taking...me...to...the...library. I...have...not...been...to...one...since...my...mother...died. Since...we...lived...in...Ohio."
A.J. patted Joey's shoulder. "You're welcome. Now that you've got your own card
you'll have to get Logan to walk down
there with you every so often."
Joey's face contorted into what A.J. had come to recognize as amusement. He turned to the computer. "That...is...funny. Logan...at...a...library. If...I...could...laugh...I...would.
The voice synthesizer had just finished with Joey's thought when the computer beeped and a small square box appeared on the screen.
"I see you've got an e-mail," A.J. said. "I'll get out of here and leave you to your correspondence."
Joey looked at the message box with disinterest. His silver pointer sought out the necessary keys for one last communication with his tutor.