Chapter 14


            Supper at Camp Cord was eaten around a bonfire while the sun slowly sank behind the mountains.  Hot dogs were roasted on long sticks, and corn on the cob was cooked on a row of grills.  Everything a person desired to dress their food with, from buns, to ketchup, to relish, to mustard, to onions, to butter and salt, was spread out on a table that had been carried from the mess hall.  Rick enjoyed every morsel of the meal and washed it down with gulps of ice cold beer.  The activities of the afternoon had left him hungry, thirsty, hot and tired.  He was looking forward to a cool shower and a comfortable bed.


            Rick thought the boys he'd observed earlier in the day might join the men for supper, but by the time the meal was ending he realized that was not to be the case.  Evidently the men and boys were kept segregated throughout their weekend stay.


            The detective sat next to Cord in one of the folding chairs that had also been carried from the mess hall.  It was after nine o'clock now, and Rick was bushed.  He'd risen at four that morning.  Between the long ride here, the hikes he'd taken, and the ‘war game’ he was ready for bed.  The other men seemed unaffected by the day.  But then, Rick supposed, they were used to the weekend routine by now.


            The beer flowed like wine as the night progressed.  Rick halted his drinking after three bottles, in part because he couldn't pack the booze away without feeling the side effects like he’d been able to when was a younger man, and in part because he wanted to keep his mind clear. That didn't seem to be a concern for the majority of his companions.  As evidenced by what Rick had observed throughout the day, they worked hard, they played hard, and now they drank hard.            


            As darkness fell over the camp an almost euphoric mood seemed to ascend, though Rick contributed this mood more to the alcohol than he did to the setting sun.  The men sat in groups around the fire, its flames soaring five feet over their heads. They talked and laughed at a volume that would have disturbed anyone within a two mile radius.  Another reason, Rick presumed, why Cord liked the isolation of this place.  When too much Miller Genuine Draft made a camper's lips loose, there was no one around to hear his indiscretions other than his friends.


            Rick sat slumped in his chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles.  The final beer he was nursing rested on his thighs.  Bidwell sat on the other side of Cord, keeping up a steady stream of conversation Rick couldn't overhear because of the noise created by the remaining seventy campers.  When a man sitting across from them yelled,  "Hey, General!  When we gonna blow up some buildings and kill us some of them damn spics who take our jobs away and refuse to learn English?"   Rick simply took another swallow of his beer.  He could feel Cord looking at him out of the corner of his eye.  The detective raised his beer bottle and toasted the distant man. 


            "Sounds like a good idea to me."  Rick tilted his beer bottle to his lips again, this time feeling Cord's smile of approval.


            By ten-thirty the gathering showed no signs of losing steam.  Rick, however, had been out of steam for quite some time now.  All he wanted to do was shower and drop into bed.  He had no idea if he was about to commit a faux pas by being the first man to call it a night, but he didn't really care.  If he stayed up any longer he'd fall asleep in his chair.


            Rick stood, his movement drawing Cord's eyes from the half-blitzed Tom Bidwell. 


            "I'm gonna take a shower and hit the sack if you don't mind.  I'm beat."


            Cord smiled, standing as well.  "Not used to all this outdoor activity, huh, Sarge?"

            "Not to this degree, no."


            Franklin patted Rick on the arm.  "That's fine.  You clean up and call it a night if you want.  Things will be winding down here in another hour or so.  I'll see you then."




            The two men walked to the table that still held remnants of dinner.  Cord bent and pulled another beer from a cooler, while Rick deposited his bottle in a barrel already teaming with amber glass.


            "Night, Rick," Cord called to the departing man's back.


            Rick half turned and gave his friend a wave.  "Night."


            The shouts and laughter coming from the bonfire's arena faded to some degree as Rick walked toward Cord's cabin.  He fumbled in the dark until he found the wall switch.  He squinted, momentarily blinded, when the bright overhead light came on.  The heels of his hiking boots scuffed against the wooden floor.  The detective pawed through his duffel bag, retrieving a clean pair of boxer shorts, socks, jeans, a bath towel, washcloth and his shaving kit.  He took off the camouflage shirt Cord had lent him and hung it over the end of one of the posts on the upper bunk bed.  He tucked his body between the upper bunk and the lower one where his sleeping bag sat.  He unrolled the bag so it would be ready to crawl into when he returned.   He fluffed the pillow he'd secured inside the sleeping bag and placed it at the head of the bed.


            Rick looked toward the bonfire as he crossed the compound from Cord's cabin to the shower room.  No one had strayed from the large circle of men, or at least not that Rick could tell.  He didn't encounter anyone else from the time he left the cabin until he entered the shower room glowing as bright as day with twenty-five naked one-hundred watt bulbs.


            The block building had a cement floor and smelled of mildew.  A concrete wall separated the shower area from the toilets and sinks.  A stainless steel shelf ran between the sinks, and the long mirror that was mounted on the wall.  Rick placed everything he was carrying on the shelf and then made use of one of the low sitting urinals on the wall.  He had to half bend at the knees to get the job done.


            These damn things are just the right height for a nine-year-old boy, but they're sure hell to use when you're six foot two.


            When his pants were zipped back up Rick crossed to the bank of sinks that numbered twenty.  He washed his hands, grabbing a piece of course brown paper toweling from the shelf to dry them on.  He tossed the towel in the garbage barrel by the door then dug through his shaving kit.  He brushed his teeth, and then shaved so he wouldn't have to deal with that job in the morning.  He put his razor, toothpaste, and toothbrush back in his case. He took out a miniature bar of soap wrapped in paper with Morning Glory Motel stamped on the front, and a tiny bottle of shampoo bearing the same logo.  Rick couldn't help but smile a bit at these two items.  Back in 1986 he and A.J. had solved a case for the elderly couple that owned the Morning Glory Motel.  Aside from the fee Rick and his brother had collected, the grateful proprietors insisted on giving them a huge box filled with soap and shampoo. Rick recalled how he'd bitched to A.J. the entire drive back to their office about this so-called bonus they'd received.  He never could have imagined how often he'd make use of these handy little items in the years to come.


            Rick unwrapped the bar of soap, throwing the paper into the barrel before bending to unlace his boots.  He stripped his clothes off and left them in a pile under the sink he'd been using.  He padded naked around the brick wall, entering the communal shower room carrying his washcloth, soap, and shampoo.  Like the sinks, the showerheads numbered twenty and had a stainless steel ledge running all around them that was set four feet off the floor.  The detective placed his shampoo and soap on the ledge.  He turned on a faucet, playing with it until he got a lukewarm stream of water.  He plunged underneath the spray, allowing the water to wash away a day's worth of dirt and sweat. 


            Over the sound of the shower's spray Rick heard someone come in and use one of the urinals.  Whoever it was didn't disturb him.  By the time Rick shut the water off he was alone again.  He wrung his washcloth out, capped his shampoo bottle and grabbed what was left of his soap.  For lack of anything better to do with it, he tossed the soap in the garbage as he passed.  He grabbed his towel off the sink and dried himself. Within five minutes he was dressed in clean clothes and slipping his feet into unlaced  boots.


            The walk back to Cord's cabin was as unhindered as the walk to the shower room had been.  If anything, the gathering was growing louder, the men's jocularity fueled by alcohol.  Rick jumped at the first explosion, his impulse being to hit the ground.  Three rapid 'pop, pop, pops' later, he realized some of the campers had fireworks and were now celebrating the holiday.


            Rick hung his damp towel and washcloth on a hook protruding from one side of the cabin's doorway.  The detective surmised the hook had been put there to hold a flower basket back when the camp was in use.  Regardless of its purpose, it made a good place for his wet articles to dry before they had to be packed in the duffel bag the next day. 


            He entered the cabin and crossed to his bunk.  Funny, now that Rick was alone his exhaustion wasn't his foremost concern.  Doing the job he was hired for took precedence.  The detective rolled his dirty clothes up into a tight ball, using the legs of his jeans to secure everything.  He laid the clothing on the top bunk next to his duffel bag so he wouldn't forget to throw the bundle inside before he went home.   He tossed his shaving kit up there, too, then went to the window and looked out.  Orange flames reflected his face back at him.  As near as Rick could tell, everyone remained occupied around the fire. 


            Amidst the sounds of firecrackers and bottle rockets, the detective rifled through his duffel bag.  He pulled out a yolk necked khaki undershirt, and then dug to the very bottom.  When his right hand encountered leather and metal he grasped the objects and brought them into view.  He slipped the thin lock pick case and the silver penlight in his back pocket before pulling his T-shirt over his head.  He sat on the edge of his bunk, his fingers racing to tie his bootlaces.


            Rick kept one eye on the bonfire gathering as he exited the cabin.  He walked with purpose toward the bathroom, being careful not to make his stride too fast lest he was being observed from afar.  The detective entered the block building, and was relieved to find it empty.  He walked past the sinks, urinals and metal stalls.  When he came to the back door he eased it open a mere crack.  Just like he suspected it might be, the mysterious building behind the bathroom was now devoid of a guard.  Either someone had been granted permission to join the fraternizing, or once again one of Cord's people was in need of disciplining.  Rick didn't dwell on which it might be.  He'd learned long ago to take advantage of whatever situations presented themselves without wasting time pondering his good fortune.


            The beam of a floodlight from behind the mess hall crawled far enough to bathe this area in shadows.  Rick used the faint light to guide him the one hundred feet that bridged the space between the back of the bathroom and the front of his destination.  Though he was now behind the activity going on in the center of the compound, he didn't let his guard down.  He crouched low and silently ran for the wooden building.  He secreted himself against its east wall and stood pressed against the boards until he reached a mental count of fifty.  When he felt certain his movements hadn't been detected, Rick eased along the green clapboard siding.  Rather than moving toward the front of the building and the door it contained, he slid toward the back of it.  He wanted to ascertain any other means of entry or exit before he continued.


            The east wall contained no windows or doors, but that was not the case with the back wall that faced north.  A window five feet long by four feet wide stood in the center of the building.  Rick estimated the drop to the ground for a man his size going in or out of the window would be no more than three feet.   Certainly not enough to present a danger to him if he was forced to make use of it as an escape route.  The detective squinted into the darkness, seeing the shadows of trees in the distance.  The open field where the target shooting took place lay between the building and the woods.  That desolate space could present a danger to Rick if he were forced to run for cover.  Nonetheless, his options were limited.  Once he was beyond the field, the woods and the dark night would offer him some protection.  Of course, Rick had to take into account that Cord and his men knew those woods far better than he did. 


            Rick worried his lower lip a moment, trying to decide if this was the best way to proceed.  Given time, Cord might reveal what types of treasures were locked up in this building that was in need of an armed guard.  But considering what Rick had seen of Camp Cord in just twelve hours, he didn't feel he had the luxury of time. If there was something stored here the FBI needed to know about.  Rick wanted to get that information to Pellman Creek as soon as possible.


            The detective's final decision made, he cupped his hands over his face and peered in through the window.  Unfortunately, the interior was pitch black, making it impossible to see what was inside.  Rick slid his penlight out of his back pocket and shone it through the glass.  Just as he suspected it would be, the light's beam was too weak to be of any help.  He returned the small light to his pocket and continued on his reconnaissance mission.  He eased around the corner of the back wall, coming to rest against the west wall that faced the mess hall.  Rick saw no door or window here, and was just about to travel back the way he'd come when someone stepped out through the double doors at the rear of the kitchen. 


            Rick pressed himself against the building.  He was well aware of how exposed he now was.  Granted, there was no moon tonight meaning the surrounding area was dark, but enough illumination came from the floodlight to cause Rick to wonder if he could be seen. 


            The detective was careful to make no movement.  The cook threw a pan of water onto the grass, then turned.   He stopped for a moment, looking right at Rick.  Years of private investigation work had gained Rick the patience he'd been lacking as a younger man.  He held his ground like a stalking wolf, waiting to see if the cook would send out a cry of alarm. 


            Rick didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until the man continued into the mess hall.  He knew then that he hadn’t needed to worry about being spotted.  The bright lights spilling out of the double doors of the mess hall had blinded the cook.


            Rick eased his lanky frame to the rear of the building once more.  He peered around the corner where the north wall met the east.  When he determined the coast was clear he made his way to the front.


            As the detective stood before the locked door he knew this was where he'd be the most vulnerable.  Though he was well-hidden within the shadows of the building, he'd easily be seen if someone stepped out the back door of the bathroom.  The sound of exploding fireworks still came from the front of the compound.  Rick hoped this meant everyone was gathered there yet. 


            Rick learned long ago not to make a black bag job harder than it was.  He tried the doorknob on the off chance it would be unlocked.  He didn't expect that to be the case, and it wasn't.  However, just with that quick turn of his hand he determined he was dealing with a simple tumbler lock, meaning gaining entrance would be child's play. 


            By feel alone the lanky man slipped the necessary pick out of his case.  He turned his penlight on and put the end of it in his mouth.  He got down on his knees and went to work.  The muffled sound of a flushing toilet almost made him fall into the dark space when he popped the lock.   He crawled inside the building, silently closing the door behind him and relocking it.  


            Rick crouched by the door, listening to the night sounds.  The noise from the party was somewhat fainter now.   He waited a few seconds longer, but when he didn't hear anyone come out the back door of the john he assumed lady luck was once again on his side.


            The detective slid his lock pick back in the case while shining the tiny penlight around the room.  He was careful to keep the light's beam away from the window.  He saw no overhead lights or light switches, leading him to believe this building was without electricity.  If it had been a garden shed like he suspected, the lack of electricity didn't surprise him. 


            Rick took five steps forward and smacked his shins against something solid and



            "Shit!  What the hell was that?"


            Not for the first time Rick wished he had a decent flashlight, as opposed to the midget one he was carrying.   He made the best of his situation, shining the light on the object that was causing pain to vibrate in his shinbones.  A wooden crate eight feet long by six feet deep sat in front of him.  The detective shined the light around the room.  Though its beam was weak and narrow, Rick could see the entire interior of the twenty by twenty shed was filled with identical crates.


            Rick crouched on his knees, ignoring the residual pain that still bit at his shins.  His light revealed a padlock on the crate's lid.  Rick popped this lock with the same ease he'd used on the door lock.  He wanted to say he was surprised at what the crate's contents revealed, but he wasn't, and for some reason a deep feeling of both sorrow and depression washed over him.


            With the aid of the penlight Rick took inventory of the automatic weapons.  They were stacked like sardines in a can, packed tightly to allow for maximum storage.  He counted as best he could, coming up with fifty.


            Rick locked this crate, then moved at random among the rest.  He soon discovered Cord was well-stocked in Uzi's, AK47's and M-16's.  Other crates held grenades, while others housed sticks of dynamite.  There was enough firepower in this one building to take over a small country.  Or a good portion of San Diego.


            Rick shook his head with despair and lifted another lid.  This crate was filled with automatic weapons, but something else was lying inside as well.  The penlight flitted across a tiny scrap of paper.  He picked it up and unfolded it.  Two words were stamped on it with black ink in a language Rick couldn't read.  He shoved the miniscule slip in the pocket of his jeans for now.  He relocked the wooden box then stood and took inventory, silently counting the rows of crates.


            With his count complete and the letters on that tiny piece of paper swirling in his head, Rick put his penlight in his back pocket and made his way to the door.  He hadn't heard any fireworks in several minutes now.  That cessation of sound lead him to believe the party might be breaking up.


            The detective planned to exit the building the same way he'd entered, then make his way to the bathroom.  From there if anyone spotted him they'd just think he'd felt the need to empty beer from his bladder.


            Rick's preoccupied mind almost prevented him from hearing the men's voices.  He dropped to his knees and crawled down the only aisle in the room.  If he'd had any girth to him at all he'd have never squeezed through the narrow space.  Just as the door opened Rick slid between the last row of crates and the back wall.  He shimmied his body to the corner before coming to lie straight and still.


            A flashlight beam considerably stronger than the one Rick had been using traversed the room.  Because he was lying on his side behind five crates in a space no wider than eighteen inches Rick was fairly certain the beam wouldn't land on him.  But if the men knew he was here and began moving among the crates in search of him, Rick was a goner.  He had no weapon, and no way to escape the area with any type of speed.  All he could do now was wait.


            Cord's voice came from the front of the building.


            "The latest shipment arrived on Wednesday."


            Rick recognized Tom Bidwell as the next speaker.


            "How many more are you planning to get?"

            "Roughly three more shipments.  Maybe four. That should be more than enough to carry out our plan."


            Rick heard boot heels scraping against wood.  The urge to make himself smaller was overwhelming, but the cramped space he was in made such a move impossible.


            "December twenty-second is still the day?"  Bidwell asked.

            "Yes, the twenty-second.  It'll be perfect.  The entire country will stand up and take notice just like they did with Kansas City."  Rick could tell Cord had turned and was headed toward the door.  "And believe me, Tom, it's about time someone took notice of us."





            When Rick heard the door shut and lock he cautiously peeked one eye over the row of crates.  He was alone again, and he breathed a heavy sigh of relief.


            I'm gettin' too damn old for this shit, were the detective's thoughts as he rose on stiff legs.  He dropped down again when he heard Cord's voice from somewhere outside.  "Randall!  Private Randall, I want you over here now!  You've got the night shift!"


            Oh great.  He's puttin' a guard back on duty.


            Rick's body begged him not to exit the building in the manner his mind suggested, but he had no choice.  He waited until he was certain Cord and Bidwell had walked away.  He had no idea if the guard had arrived yet, but he knew he had to get out of the building as quickly as possible.


            The detective eased the back window up.  The old wood caught and held a mere three inches from the sill, making Rick wonder if he was trapped in here. 


            Damn! I shoulda' checked the window when I first came in.  I shoulda' known there was a good chance it'd get stuck.


            Rick gave a mighty heave. He prayed for all he was worth that the guard wouldn't hear him.  It was a prayer that was answered.  The swollen wood slid upwards with a screech, but Rick didn't halt its movement.  He raised it enough so his body would fit through the opening, then cautiously stuck his head out.  He looked to the left and to the right,but didn't see anyone.  He slithered over the sill on his belly like a snake, using his hands to brace himself when he hit the ground.  As quietly as he could, Rick eased his legs and feet out. The last thing he needed after making it this far was to break the glass with his hiking boots.


            Rick stood and slid the window closed.  Again it screeched, but the guard didn't seem to notice.  There was still enough noise coming from the central compound to cause Rick to conclude the guard hadn't been able to hear anything he deemed unusual. 


            The detective walked straight back from the building until he came to the open field behind it.  It was dark enough now that it would be hard for anyone to spot him.   He turned and trotted toward the woods.  He felt a measure of safety when he was hidden within the trees.


            When Rick emerged from a hiking trail fifteen minutes later he was behind the mess hall where the vehicles were parked.  He could see Cord standing with Bidwell at the corner of the building.  Cord was looking to the left and right, concern etched on his furrowed brow.  Bidwell looked over and saw Rick.  He tapped Cord on the upper arm and pointed.  Even from this distance, Rick could see the relief on his friend's face.


            "Rick!"  Cord jogged to his sergeant.  "Where you been?  I was just about to send out a search party.  I went to my cabin, and when I couldn't find you there or in the bathroom, I got worried."


            "Sorry.  I dropped off to sleep the minute my head hit the pillow, but a damn nightmare woke me up a little while later.  I think the fireworks got to me, if you know what I mean.  I had to get some fresh air so I took a walk."


            There was no mistaking the doubt in Bidwell's voice.  "A nightmare?" 


            "Yeah.  I get 'em sometimes.  It's the legacy of Nam. Her ghosts still haunt me."  Rick turned to his old friend, intentionally cementing the bond between the two of them.  "Cord understands."


            Cord put his arm around Rick's shoulders.  "I sure do understand, Sarge.  We laid with her every night for twenty-six months and she was a bitch of a lover.  Still is yet today."


            Rick rubbed a hand over his eyes. Now that the adrenalin rush provided by the black bag job had passed the detective’s weariness didn't have to be faked.


            "Come on, Sarge.  Let's get you to bed."  Cord looked over Rick's head.  "Tell everyone to call it a night, Tom.  It's getting late, and our guest needs his sleep."


            "No, Cord.  No," Rick negated. "Don't spoil their fun 'cause of me."


            "No one's spoiling anyone's fun.  It's time for everyone to hit the sack anyway.   Calisthenics start at O'seven hundred."


            Cord couldn't help but laugh when Rick moaned,  "Calisthenics?  Now he tells me."


            Tom Bidwell watched the two men walk together to Cord's cabin.  There were several things he didn't like about Simon, the preferential treatment Cord was giving him being first and foremost.


            Cord's second in command signaled for the bonfire to be extinguished and the tables and chairs to be carried back to the mess hall.  When someone didn't move as fast as Tom wanted him to, he booted the man in the ass.  When Bidwell was out of earshot the soldier with the sore behind turned to one of his friends.


            "What's his problem?"


            "Haven't you noticed?"


            "Noticed what?"


            "He's pissed 'cause he's not the general's special boy any more.  I'll bet you fifty bucks that by next weekend Bidwell's third in command, and Simon's sittin' pretty in the number two spot."


            "I'm not sure that would be all bad.  This Simon guy seems really sharp."


            "Yeah, he does. And he's sure not a grouchy old bear like Tom."


            "Speaking of the grouchy bear, let's get this job done before he comes out of his cabin roaring."  The man folded four chairs and scooped them up in his arms. "Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through this weekend after weekend."


            "You know why."


            The man carrying the chairs smiled, thinking of the promise Cord had made them. 


“Yeah, I guess you're right.  I do know why."



Chapter 15



            A.J.'s household enjoyed the luxury of a lazy Sunday morning.  They hadn't returned from the fireworks held at Balboa Park until midnight, meaning no one was too eager to start the new day.  A.J. was the first to stir at eight. The pancakes and bacon he had cooking on the griddle called the rest of the family to breakfast at nine.


            After a leisurely meal, the boys did their morning chores of clearing the table, making their beds. and walking Toby.  Upon their return with the basset hound, Lauren sent her sons up to their room to do their homework.  While Shane and Tanner went about their tasks, Lauren and A.J. started tasks of their own.  Lauren separated baby clothes from blankets, sorting the items into two laundry baskets.  She carried the baskets down to the garage where she started the washer.  While the little clothes twirled round and round in the machine she sat at the dining room table writing thank you notes.


            A.J. busied himself in the nursery.  He put the mobile together and hung it over the crib, then ran the vacuum cleaner throughout the entire upper story.  He vacuumed out Lauren's van next, sucking up stray pieces of wrapping paper and ribbon.  Once the inside of the mini-van was spotless he drove it to the nearest Escobar car wash and used the automatic lane.  When he returned home he exchanged the van for the Camaro and repeated the cleaning process all over again.


            By noon everyone was done with his or her assigned chores.  The boys were sitting in the den watching one of the Disney movies Cecilia had given them when A.J. entered.  The blond man clapped his hands together.


"Who wants to go to the beach?"


            "I do!  I do!"  Shane and Tanner yelled as one.


            "All right then.  Shut the TV off and get your clothes changed.  Meet me at the van in ten minutes."


            A.J. insisted his wife take advantage of the soon-to-be quiet house and rest.  He changed into a T-shirt and his swim trunks, grabbed beach towels from the linen closet, and herded the boys to the mini-van. 


            The detective treated his stepsons to lunch at a hot dog stand, and then drove to the same beach where his father used to take A.J. and Rick when they were kids.  The trio swam and played in the waves before working together to build a sand castle.  When they arrived back home at three-thirty Lauren had just woken from a nap and was curled in the corner of the sofa reading some material she'd brought home from her office.  Her men changed out of their wet suits, and with Lauren's permission, the boys mounted their bikes and headed for the neighborhood park where they'd seen a group of their friends playing.


            This time it was Lauren who insisted her husband enjoy a quiet house.  She poured him a glass of lemonade, handed him the Sunday paper, and steered him toward the deck.  After his afternoon in the sun A.J. had to admit Lauren's suggestion was just what the doctor ordered.  He sipped his drink while reading the front page, never noticing when he dropped off to sleep.  He didn't wake up again until five, when he heard Lauren light the grill.


            The pregnant woman shared the chaise lounge with her husband for a few minutes. They lay together looking out over the canal, A.J. with his arms wrapped around his wife. 


            Lauren rested her head on A.J.'s shoulder.  "Why don't you call your mom and see if she wants to join us for dinner.  It's not going to be anything fancy.  Just barbecued chicken along with the tomatoes and sweet corn we bought at the farmer's market yesterday morning, but she might like to come over."


            "I'm sure she will."  A.J. kissed his wife on the temple as he rose.   "I'll call her right now."


            Cecilia took A.J. and Lauren up on their offer.  At six-thirty the family sat down to dinner at the table on the deck.  With so many helping hands, cleanup was quick work.  After supper Tanner and Shane led the way back to the park, Toby and the three adults following in their wake.


            The boys and Toby played for the next thirty minutes, while the grownups sat on a bench and talked.  Before it was time to leave A.J. bought everyone ice cream from a park vendor. Even Toby got a small dish of vanilla to lick from. 


            Because the following day was the beginning of another work and school week for the Simon family, Lauren told her boys to say good night to Grandma C. and then ushered them in the house for showers.  Shane claimed the bathroom in the upstairs hallway between the boys' room and the nursery, while Lauren had Tanner shower in the master bathroom.  A.J. stood in the driveway talking to his mother as the July sun set.  Cecilia knew Rick was away for the weekend on a camping trip with an old buddy from Vietnam, but for her own safety her sons hadn't divulged any details of their current case to her. 


            A.J. waved goodbye to his mother and watched her drive off toward her home in Mission Bay.  He entered the house to find Lauren setting the coffee maker for the next morning.   She pointed toward the upstairs.  "The boys are waiting for you, hon."


            The detective nodded, taking the stairs two at a time.  Tanner and Shane were in their pajamas, seated together on Tanner's bottom bunk.  Toby had already found his favorite spot in the middle of their bedroom floor and was fast asleep.


            Tanner handed his stepfather a paperback book as A.J. slipped in between the boys.  Shane snuggled into A.J.'s right side, while Tanner did the same on the left.  The blond man opened to where the bookmark indicated the beginning of a new chapter.  He had started reading The Hobbit to the boys in April.  This nightly ritual of A.J. reading to his stepsons had begun shortly after he and Lauren had married.  They'd worked their way through three of the Little House On The Prairie series before deciding they wanted a change of pace for a few months.  A.J. knew the boys would fall in love with the fantasy world created by J.R.R. Tolkien and he'd been correct. Bilbo Baggins and his friends had become fast favorites.


            A.J. glanced at his watch to see it was twenty minutes to nine.  The boys' bedtime was nine o'clock sharp.  He started reading where they'd left off the evening before. 


            The blond man was just getting ready to close the book when Lauren called from below. 


            "A.J.!  Rick's here!"


            "Tell him I'll be right down!"


            A.J. marked their page and set the book on the boys' nightstand.  He allowed them to run downstairs and say hello and good night to Rick.  When they returned, he tucked Tanner into the lower bunk while Shane climbed the ladder to the upper one.  The red headed boy reached behind him to the headboard where he plucked his stuffed Bilbo Baggins from the Hobbit's perch.  A.J. had found the toy in a bookstore and purchased it for his stepson's Easter basket.  Ever since that day Tanner had refused to go to sleep without Bilbo.


            The boy lifted his arms up and around A.J.'s neck.  "Night, A.J."


            "Good night, Tanner."  A.J. kissed the six-year-old's forehead.  "Pleasant dreams."


            "You too."


            A.J. sidled out from the bunk and stood upright.  He straightened Shane's covers and kissed a cheek.   "Good night, pal."


            "Night, A.J."


            As the detective turned to shut off the light and exit the room, Shane's voice stopped him.





            "What's the witness club?"


            "Witness club?  I'm not sure I know what you mean, Shane."


            "You know.  Like when a person is a hero and then the FBI has to hide him in a special club."


            Though this was the most unusual explanation A.J. had ever heard regarding the FBI's ‘special club’ the detective now surmised what the boy was referring to.  "You mean the witness protection program?"

            "Yeah.  Is there really such a thing?"


            "Yes, as a matter of fact there is. The witness protection program is one way our government keeps people safe who are willing to testify against a criminal."


            "But you and Rick have testified against a lot of criminals. Are you guys in the witness protection program?"


            A.J. chuckled.  "No, we're not.  And I hope we never have reason to be.  A person ends up taking part in the program when he or she has testified against a criminal who is very dangerous.  A criminal who has friends who might want to seek revenge against the witness.  In exchange for the person's testimony in court, the FBI gives him a new identity and moves hi to a different location.  What makes you ask, anyway?  Are you thinking of going into hiding on us?"

            "No.  I was just wondering; that's all.  A friend of mine mentioned it."


             "Oh.  Well, it sounds like your friend watches too much TV.  You don't need to worry about anyone in this family being candidates for the witness protection program."  With one hand on the door knob A.J. shut the light out. "Good night, boys."


            Shane propped himself up on one elbow.   "But my friend didn't see it on TV.  Her dad--"


            Before the eight-year-old could finish his sentence the door was closed.  Within five minutes time he joined his brother in dreamland, forgetting all about the letter he wanted to share with A.J.





            A.J. rounded the stairs into the den and saw his brother seated at the kitchen table eating a cold chicken breast and a sliced tomato.  A can of Pepsi resided at the head of his plate.


            When A.J. walked into the kitchen Lauren relinquished her seat.  "Gentlemen, this pregnant woman needs to call it a night.  I'll leave you guys to talk business."


            "Thanks for supper, Lauren."                  


            Lauren kissed her brother-in-law's cheek.  "Don't mention it.  Besides, you didn't mooch one breakfast off of us all week.  At that rate I figured I owed you a meal."          


            Rick chuckled while Lauren kissed her husband's lips. 


            "Good night, sweetheart."


            "Good night."


            Lauren shut the light off in the den as she passed, leaving just the kitchen light on for Rick and A.J.  She made her way up the stairs, A.J. tracking the progress of her footsteps.  He heard the boys' bedroom door open just long enough for Lauren to poke her head in, then heard it softly click shut.  A few seconds later he heard the door to the master bedroom close behind his wife.


            The brothers remained silent, the only noise in the room being the click of Rick's silverware against his plate.  When he was finished he pushed the plate aside and swallowed the remainder of his drink.  For whatever reason, Rick wouldn't meet A.J.'s eyes when he rose to throw his Pepsi can in the garbage and place his dirty dishes in the sink.  He opened a kitchen drawer, grabbing a pad of paper and a pen.


            "Come on."


            A.J. looked after his brother with confusion.  "Where to?"

            "Let's go out on the deck so we can talk without disturbin' Lauren and the boys."


            A.J. followed Rick outside.  He flicked the deck lights on as he passed the switch next to the French doors. Because the central air conditioning was running in the house, A.J. shut the doors over the screens and joined Rick at the round picnic table.


            Though darkness had fallen, the July evening was still warm and muggy. Lights shone from the houses across the way, but other than the occasional sound of a passing car the neighborhood was quiet.  Rick was the first to speak.


            "Well, I'm glad Lauren offered me that chicken, 'cause otherwise I woulda' been forced to eat that stuff I hate so much."


            "What stuff?"




            A.J. slowly nodded his understanding.  "I see.  So your weekend brought you to some conclusions."


            "It brought me to a lotta conclusions.  None of which I like, but all of which I have to face."


            "I'm sorry."


            Rick smiled softly.   "You don't need to be sorry for anything, A.J.  I'm the one who should be apologizing for the way I spouted off in the office on Tuesday.You were right, I was already lettin' this case get under my skin.  I was doing a good job of denying little things I was already seein' in Cord that made what Creek told us a good possibility."  Rick sat back in his chair, pushing his breath out in heavy sigh.  "But now I've seen those things for myself.  All of Creek's suspicions are true.  Cord's group is planning their own Armageddon.  True to the information Creek has, it'll happen here in San Diego on the twenty-second of December."


            "Cord told you all this?"

            "I learned it at a so-called staff meeting this morning.  I didn't expect to be included in the inner circle so quickly.  Cord acted a bit hastily in that regard in my opinion, but, of course, that only benefits us."


            A.J. didn't voice what Rick left unspoken. That Cord's hasty actions only emphasized further the enormous amount of trust and respect he had for Rick.  Regardless of what harm Cord intended to rain upon the innocent citizens of San Diego, A.J. knew it had to be difficult for Rick to justify the way he would ultimately be forced to betray the man.


            "At this point I don't know the exact targets of the bombs.  I gathered from the meeting I attended this morning that, like Creek told us, they'll go off in highly populated areas.  Schools, shopping malls, and some type of government building.  But whether that will be a post office, the VA center, the Social Security office, I don't know right now."


            "Do you think he was deliberately withholding that information from you?"

            "You mean to test the amount of trust he could place in me?"




            "No," Rick shook his head.  "Not at all.  He trusts me with his life.  His words, not mine.  Actually, I'm fairly certain very few of the men in his camp know what the ultimate targets are.  I suppose they'll eventually be filled in, but that could be months from now."


            "Makes sense.  The fewer people who know, the less chance of someone spilling the beans to the wrong person."


            "You’re right.  Which is exactly how the military runs its operations.  The guys laying their lives down in battle generally have no idea where they're going until they're dropped on some beach head in France, or in a rice paddy in Nam."


            Rick began scribbling names on the pad of paper he had laying before him.  "Give this to Casey to pass on to Creek.  These are some of the guys at Camp Cord."


            "Camp Cord?"

            "What I'm callin' the place.  It's original name when it was a summer camp was Oh-Be-Joyful.  I hardly think that's appropriate after what I've seen."


            A.J. watched as Rick's pen traveled across the paper. 


            "How many men were out there?"

            "Between seventy-five and eighty.  I know the first and last names of about twenty of ‘em.  I'll try to learn more next weekend.   I'm especially interested in a guy named Tom Bidwell.  He's Cord's number two man. I'd like to know why Cord chose him for the job.  The guy doesn't impress me as havin' a whole lotta smarts.  At least not the kinda smarts that leads me to believe he has a military background. 


            "I'm gonna write a note on here to Creek telling him to find out everything he can about Bidwell, and the rest of these guys.  Someone who's connected to Camp Cord has a helluva lot of money that goes beyond what Cord would have received from his dead wife's insurance company."


            "What makes you say that?"


            "I can accept Cord bein' able to buy the nice home, new vehicles, and starting up the business with the money he got after Patty's death.  I might even believe that money would have stretched far enough to buy the campground. But it would have had to have been one heck of a policy for him to be able to finance what I saw out there."


            "What did you see?"


            "Immaculate buildings that have been remodeled and painted, and had all the necessary repairs done."


            A.J. shrugged.  "That would have been costly, but I surmise the men who go out there on weekends did most of the work."


            "I surmise that, too.  But, A.J., there were twenty cabins, a mess hall, a shower room, and a building that I assume originally housed lawn and maintenance equipment.  And that was just at the main camp.  There was another adjoining camp that held the exact same amount of buildings."


            "An adjoining camp?"


            "Yeah.  What at one time was probably the girls’ camp.  Or at least I'd guess so since the bathrooms at the camp I was in had a row of urinals set so low on the wall I had to bend my knees to use them."


            A.J. recalled their long ago days at summer camp, and how the girls cabins had been across the lake from the boys.  "Sounds feasible."


            "So anyway, we're talking a lot of dough here in terms of remodeling this place.  Believe me, Cord and his buddies are living pretty good out there.  You'd swear there were four full-time caretakers there throughout the week."


            "Maybe there are."


            "I suppose it's possible.  I mean with seventy-five men in his little army they could certainly alternate weeks out there."  Rick thought a moment.  "As a matter of fact, they probably do.   I'll have to see if I can find that out.   There's no way Cord would leave that building unguarded."


            "What building?"


            "The one that I peg as having been used for maintenance equipment. There's nothing but crates of firearms in there now. Uzi’s, AK47's, M-16's, grenades and dynamite."


            A.J. whistled.  "Enough to start his own little war, huh?"                


            "No.  Enough to start a big war.  A really big war.  I'm not kiddin' you, A.J., you've never seen so much firepower in one place in your life.  From what I counted each crate with guns contained fifty of them." Rick scribbled down the numbers for Pellman Creek.  "There were twelve crates like that, three crates of grenades with roughly five hundred to a crate, and three crates of dynamite - I have no idea how many sticks, but the crates were full.   I suspect there's probably a building at the other camp that's housing arms as well.  I'm gonna see what I can do about snoopin' around there in the near future."


            "I think you've already found out enough.  Cord's obviously playing in the big leagues.  For your own safety, I want you to pull out, Rick.  You've got enough information for Creek."


            Rick didn't look up from the paper he was writing on.  "No, I don't.  There's still too much we don't know.  Like exactly where the bombings are supposed to take place.  I have to get more evidence than what I learned this weekend.  Right now, at the very most, all they'll be able to pin on Cord is weapons charges.  And knowing him, he'll find a way to get around that.  With owning the gun shop he may very well have come by his stock through legal means."


            "Let Creek worry about that."


            Rick glanced up.  "A.J., you know perfectly well the reason Creek came to us in the first place was because he hasn't been able to get one of his guys into Cord's camp.  I'm the best chance we've got at stoppin' what Cord has planned.  Besides, I suspect this little militia is bigger than the FBI knows."


            "How so?"


            "Like I said before, Cord has to be gettin' money from somewhere for the firearms I saw.  There was easily half a million dollars worth of guns in that building.  You add in the grenades and dynamite and you're talkin' a million.  Maybe even more.  No way Cord's got that kinda money.  Yeah, maybe he had around that after his wife died, but the home he lives in, the nurse for Joey, and the initial investment in that camp proves he spent most of it.  I'm tellin' Creek to look into the League for Racial Purity. If my suspicions are correct, they're backing Cord's rampage."


            "The LRP?  Rick, you're talking about a dangerous and powerful organization."


            "Yeah, and a wealthy one, too."


            As much as A.J. hated to acknowledge the truth to that statement, there was no denying it.  The League for Racial Purity was among a handful of hate groups that had grown so wealthy through their vast memberships that they now had lawyers, accountants, and investment bankers on their payroll.


            "What makes you think Cord has gotten himself hooked up with the LRP?  Does he really harbor the types of prejudices that would cause him to align himself with people like that?"


            "If you'd asked me that about the guy I knew back in Vietnam, I would have said no.  But, A.J, yeah, I'm afraid he does.  Cord's life has changed a lot in the past twenty-five years.  Those changes, instead of making him stronger, have turned him into a bitter man consumed with hate.  The only faces I saw this weekend were white.  The ones that hurt me the most were the boys."




            "Yeah.  I stumbled on them by chance.  They're housed at the other camp.   Boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen – or there about.  Boys being taught to wage war on their fellow citizens.  Boys being taught to hate."  Rick shook his head.  A.J. swore he could detect a faint sheen of tears in his brother's eyes.


            "That's not what I fought for, A.J.  I didn't go to Vietnam and risk my life so some wacko I used to call my friend could come back over here and endorse hatred among kids who are only a few years older than Shane."


            A.J. reached over and patted his brother's arm.  "I know you didn't, Rick."


            "So you understand why I can't quit yet?  Why I have to get more information?"


            "Yes, I understand why you can't quit.  But whatever you do, please be careful."


            The lanky man shot his brother that familiar Rick Simon grin.  "Aw, kid, you worry too much."


            "Like you told Lauren a few weeks ago, if I wasn't worrying about someone in this family I wouldn't be happy."


            "I said ‘taking care of.’  If you aren't taking care of someone you aren't happy."


            "Taking care of, worrying, they go hand in hand on some days, big brother."


            Rick nodded as he finished his note to Pellman Creek.  "That they, do, A.J.  That they do."                               


            The next morning Rick threw a load of laundry into his washing machine before leaving for work.  He had forgotten all about the little piece of paper buried deep in the pocket of his blue jeans.


Chapter 16



            The following week kept all the Simons busy.  Rob Albright was the head coach of Shane's baseball team.  At the beginning of the season he'd enlisted A.J.'s help as a first base coach.  On Monday evening Lauren, Tanner, Rick, Cecilia, Grandma and Grandpa McAllister, and Grandma and Grandpa Albright cheered Shane’s team to victory.  Tuesday evening Lauren and the boys met A.J. at the office.  From there they drove to Lullaby Land, where they picked out a high chair and dresser that would be delivered on Saturday morning.  They ate dinner out afterwards, meaning another late evening for the family whose day started at six a.m.


            By the time Wednesday rolled around Lauren was almost happy to have the opportunity to get away from her office for a couple hours, even if it was to attend her doctor's appointment.


            A.J. was still spending his mornings with Joey Franklin.  He hadn't encountered Cord since the Tuesday before, and doubted he'd see the man again.  When he and Casey took Joey for a walk on Monday morning, A.J. handed the woman a sealed envelope with Rick's notes inside. 


            "Give those to Pellman, please.  If there's anything he needs to discuss with me he can come to the office any afternoon this week, or he can call me at home."


            "I doubt he'll risk coming to your office," the woman said as she slipped the envelope in the side pocket of her Chicago Cubs jersey,  "but I'll give him the message."


            A.J.'s days with Joey moved in a relaxed fashion.  When the detective questioned the young man again about the possibility of A.J speaking to Cord regarding college, Joey got as close to angry as A.J. had ever seen him.


            "Do...not...bring...that...up...any...more...Dan.   Besides...I...told   I….mean...what...I...say."


            Uncle Sam received two messages that week. A.J. was there both times the screen beeped and the square box appeared that read You Have Mail. The detective's curiosity got the best of him.  When Joey was out of the room on Tuesday having his breathing tube cleared by Casey the blond man attempted to access the e-mail.  As he suspected, Cord had the system set up with a password.  A.J. knew he could sit at the keyboard all day and never come up with the right combinations of letters and numbers that would allow him to see the message Cord had received.  He glanced over his shoulder and listened.  He couldn't hear Casey's voice, meaning the nurse and her patient were still occupied in Joey's bedroom.


            Without intending to, A.J. had become a computer buff of sorts.  Over the years he'd upgraded the system at both the Simon and Simon office and in his home several times.  He'd been ‘surfing the net’ as the expression went, for two years now, and the business had an e-mail address and Website A.J. had designed and maintained.  Because of his knowledge, A.J. knew what commands to type in that would allow him to access the e-mail administration.  From there he could discover Cord's password if the man didn’t have further security layers in place.


            The detective sat at the terminal and typed. Files scrolled up the screen.  He was almost where he wanted to be when heard the whirl of Joey's wheelchair.      Knowing he'd never have enough time to get back to the main menu, A.J. hit control, alt/delete, causing the machine to reboot.  The blond man cringed at the noise the computer made as the hard drive brought the system back up.  It was still coughing and clunking when Joey entered from the kitchen.


            Joey stopped his wheelchair in the center of the sunroom.  He tilted his head, listening to the noise his computer was making.  A.J. was sitting in the same spot he normally did, off to the computer's left side.  The blond man had one leg crossed over his knee and was leafing through an  astronomy book.  Joey looked from A.J. to his computer and back again, but his tutor appeared engrossed in the book he held.  Whatever explanation there was for the computer going through a reboot was not forthcoming.  Joey thought about asking, then just as quickly changed his mind.  He and ‘Dan’ finished out their last hour together without Joey ever communicating by way of his voice synthesizer. After A.J. left for the day, Joey turned to the keyboard. His computer skills were above average, too.  By not using the computer since its reboot he knew there was a chance he might be able to discover what his tutor had been doing. 


            Joey sat in deep thought when the e-mail administration software appeared on the screen.  He wondered what reason Dan would have to be nosing around in this file.


More importantly, he wondered just exactly who Dan Williams was.       




            A.J. met Lauren at two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon in the parking lot of the large clinic where Joel Lankey worked.  This would be Lauren's last monthly appointment.  From now until the baby was born they'd be making this trip once a week.


            Although Joel had delivered a few babies in his days as a physician, he normally referred his pregnant patients to one of the clinic's obstetricians.  The obstetrician Lauren had used when her boys were born had relocated to another area, leaving her in need when she discovered she was expecting.  Joel recommended his colleague Rachel Hazlet, whom Lauren immediately felt a kinship with.  The two women were the same age and both had two boys about the same ages.  If nothing else, those factors gave them enough common ground for Lauren to immediately feel comfortable and confident with her new doctor.


             Regardless of his schedule, A.J. had yet to miss one of Lauren's appointments.  This was another way he differed from Rob Albright.  Rob attended just one of Lauren's appointments when she was pregnant with Shane, and none when she was carrying Tanner.  It was such a pleasure for Lauren to have a husband who was so involved in the life he'd help create.


            After a thirty minute delay in the crowded waiting room, Lauren and A.J. were led to an examination room. A nurse weighed Lauren, and then had her sit on an examining table.  She took Lauren's blood pressure, pulse, and listened to the baby's heartbeat.  When the nurse was finished she offered her stethoscope to A.J. who listened as well.  The sound of his baby's beating heart never failed to bring a smile to his face.  Today was no different. He grinned up at Lauren and said, "Sounds like you're carrying a race horse in there, Mrs. Simon."


            "I hope not.  I don't look forward to pushing those hooves out if I am."


            A.J. handed the stethoscope back to the nurse.  The woman then had Lauren lie on her back.  She held one end of a tape measure against Lauren's pelvic bone and ran it all the way up her ballooning abdomen.  When she was finished A.J. helped his wife sit up while the nurse charted how many centimeters Lauren had expanded since her previous visit. Once Lauren's records were updated the nurse hung the plastic clipboard from a hook on the wall and said,  "Doctor Hazlet will be with you in a moment."


            Ten minutes later the doctor arrived.  Regardless of her busy schedule, Rachel Hazlet never rushed her patient visits.  The woman with the dark hair that fell to her waist loved her chosen career.  She enjoyed every minute of all her patients' pregnancies from the earliest months right up to the first squall in the delivery room.  She enjoyed her profession even more when she was working with a couple like Lauren and A.J. Simon.   A husband and wife who so obviously loved each other, and would in turn love and provide for their new child in the way all children should be loved and provided for. 


            The doctor read over the notes her nurse had made in Lauren's file. "Once again everything looks great.  Your weight gain is right on target, Lauren, and judging by the change in girth the baby's weight gain is on target as well."  The doctor eyed her patient, then touched Lauren's abdomen in several places.  "If I had to take an educated guess I'd say this little Simon already weighs in at five pounds.  If you recall from your earlier pregnancies, the next four weeks will be when both you and the baby will gain weight at the most rapid rate.  How big were your boys?"


            "Shane was seven pounds. Tanner seven and a half." 


            The doctor nodded.  "Nice sized babies, but not so big that they caused you delivery problems I assume?"


            "No, not really.  I labored for nine hours with Shane, but only five with Tanner.  While neither one was a picnic, I realize that compared to a lot of women, I had an easy time of it."


            Doctor Hazlet leafed through Lauren's records.  "According to the notes made by your previous doctor you did.  Although you're six years older now, you're in excellent condition.  I certainly don't foresee any complications."  The doctor wrote a note of her own in Lauren's file.  "As we discussed last month, from now on you'll see me once a week until the baby's born.  I'd say we're still on schedule for an August tenth due date, but two weeks before or after that wouldn't be unusual.  Based on the baby's size right now, you could deliver a healthy little one as early as next week."


            "Next week!"  A.J. exclaimed.  "But we're not ready!  We haven't finished Lamaze classes, the dresser and high chair haven't been delivered yet, we still haven't decided on a boy's name, we still need to-"


            Lauren and Doctor Hazlet laughed at the expression of terror on A.J.'s face that matched the terror in his voice. 


            "I said Lauren could safely deliver this baby next week, A.J.  Based on her past two pregnancies and the fact that she's had no problems throughout this one, I doubt that will happen.  I'm simply assuring both of you that given another week in the womb the baby will be large enough and mature enough to face the outside world.  However, I don't foresee this bundle of joy making his or her premiere before August first.  Therefore, you've got at least another three weeks to get that dresser and high chair delivered, and to get a boy's name chosen."


            The two women were still laughing at A.J. when Lauren traveled down the hall to the bathroom to give a urine sample.  When she was finished they were sent on their way.


            Lauren and A.J. reentered the waiting room.  It was just as crowded and chaotic has it had been when they'd arrived an hour earlier.  They walked over to the receptionist's window and got in line so Lauren could make her next appointment. 


            Casey and Joey sat together in a distant semi-alcove.  It was Joey who spotted his tutor first.   He grunted and pointed until Casey followed his finger.


            "Hey, you're right," Casey smiled, recognizing the blond head of the man who stood in line at the receptionist's counter with his back to the room.  "There's Dan.  Do you want me to go over and say hi to him?"


            Joey grunted and nodded his head.


            Casey rose, but stopped in mid-stride when a stocky doctor poked his head out the waiting room door and hailed ‘Dan.’ 


            "Hey, A.J.!"


            A.J. pivoted. "Hi, Joel!"


            "So I hear the baby can't be born until the dresser is delivered."


            A.J. blushed.  "News travels fast around here, doesn't it?"


            Lauren turned, waving to the doctor.  "Hi, Joel!"


            "Lauren, you're looking as beautiful as ever."


            Lauren patted her protruding stomach.  "I don't feel beautiful these days, but my husband flatters me as much as you do.   You guys really know how to make a woman's day."


            "Have you two given into temptation yet and asked Doctor Hazlet whether baby Simon is a boy or a girl?"


            "No," A.J. said.  "And we don't want to know either, so don't you go looking it up and telling my brother.  You know Rick, he can't keep a secret to save his soul."


            "I won't."  The doctor raised two fingers.  "Scout's honor."  Joel waved a hand at his next patient.  "Lauren, A.J., take care."


            "Bye, Joel."


            Lauren turned from where she was talking to the receptionist.  "Bye, Joel!"


            The young receptionist finished filling out Lauren's appointment card.  "There you go, Mrs. Simon.  We'll see you next Wednesday at two o'clock.  And I see by the note Doctor Hazlet has written you're to start weekly visits now.  Would you like me to pencil you in for the three Wednesday's after that, also at two?"


            Lauren turned to A.J., who nodded his agreement.  "That would be fine," she smiled at the receptionist.  "Wednesday's work for both me and my husband."


             Lauren and A.J. exited the office without Casey ever approaching them.  Because the room was crowded, and because A.J. was engrossed in conversation with his wife, he never noticed the nurse or his student.


            Casey moved back to her seat.  If she had any thoughts regarding what she'd just overheard she kept them to herself.


            Joey kept his thoughts inside as well.  Without his voice synthesizer, he didn't have much choice.  Regardless, he wouldn't have shared his reflections with Casey anyway.  


            A.J. Simon, the young man pondered.  That's interesting.  The old war buddy Dad's hooked himself up with again is named Rick Simon.  How intriguing.


            When Joey was called in for his monthly checkup he couldn't help but smile to himself.  Once again it was odd to find himself the weakest wolf in the pack physically speaking, but the one who was, by far, the wisest.         





            Lauren kissed her husband goodbye in the clinic's parking lot.  She climbed in the mini-van and glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard.  She picked up her cell phone and dialed her office.  Her secretary answered on the second ring.


            "City of San Diego Promotions Department.  Lauren Simon's office.  How may I help you this afternoon?"


            "Hi, Sue.  It's Lauren."


            "Hi, Lauren.  How'd the doctor's appointment go?"


            "Fine.  Doctor Hazlet says everything looks good, and we're on target for August tenth.  You should have seen A.J.'s face when she said the baby could come as early as next week."


            Sue laughed.  "Knowing A.J., I can just picture it.  He probably turned as white as the doctor's coat, then stammered and stuttered about not having the baby's college picked out."


            "Something like that.  Once the doctor assured us it would be unlikely that the baby will arrive before August first, he calmed down considerably.  How are things going there?"


            "Fine. I took half a dozen phone messages for you, but otherwise the afternoon's been fairly quiet."


            "Good, I can use quiet.  Listen, Sue, it took me longer in the clinic than I thought it would.  I'm still sitting in the parking lot.  I have an appointment with an Allison Baker at three-thirty.  Would you please let her know I'll be there by quarter to four and offer her some coffee or soda while she waits?"


            "Sure, no problem.  See you then."


            "See you then, Sue.  And thanks a lot."


            Lauren broke the connection and put the phone back in its cradle.  She started the van and backed out of her parking space.  Five minutes later she was on the expressway that led to her office.


Chapter 17


            For the second Wednesday in a row Rick brought lunch to Cord's office. The two men sat at Cord's desk eating sandwiches and potato chips from a local deli.  Cord sipped Pepsi through a straw, then set his container down.


            "So what'd you think of my place?"


            During the three hour ride home from Camp Cord on Sunday evening, neither Rick nor Cord had discussed the weekend.  Rick hadn't been sure if that was because Logan was in the vehicle, or if Cord wanted to give Rick some time to ponder all he'd been a part of.


            "It's gorgeous.  I can see why you love it up there so much."


            "Yeah, it is beautiful, isn't it?  But aside from that, what do you think about the things you saw and heard?"


            Rick sat in silence as though he was giving Cord's question deep thought.  Rather than elaborate with opinions, he said the one thing he knew Cord wanted to hear.


            "I'm with you, if that's what you're asking."


            Cord's grin was as bright as it had been the day Logan was born.          "That's terrific, Sarge!  Terrific!  You don't know how happy it makes me to hear you say that.  It's not very often someone is invited into our fold as quickly as you have been.  But all the guys like you and think you'll be a big asset to our causes."


            "Glad to hear it."  Rick took a bite out of his sandwich. "Though I don't think Tom likes me all that much."


            "Don't worry about Tom.  He's got no right to be angry with you just because of his own incompetence.  I told him on Sunday afternoon he's going to have to buckle down and prove he's got better leadership skills than he's been showing me lately, or you'll replace him as my second in command."


            "Oh no."  Rick waved a hand back and forth while using the other to wipe mustard from his mouth with a napkin.  "No, Cord.  Like I told you on Saturday, I don't wanna come between you and Tom."


            "It's not a matter of coming between us, Rick.  Yes, Tom and I share a friendship of sorts, but friendship has nothing to do with what we're fighting for.  He has to prove that he can pull his weight in a military style operation.  If he can't, I won't have him helping me direct things in December.  One screw up could blow the whole plan apart."  Cord smiled.  "Besides, wouldn't you like to be my lieutenant?"


            "I'm just as happy being Sergeant Simon to tell ya’ the truth."


            "Ah, Rick, you always were modest.  Never have seen your accomplishments for what they really are.  If you'd have stayed in the Corps and gone to officers' training school like they wanted you to, I bet you'd be living the high life of a general on some tropical island paradise right now."


            Rick laughed.  "I can't quite picture me as an officer in the Corps all these years after Nam, but thanks for the vote of confidence."


            "Hey, speaking of careers and such, what about your job working for that guy Carlos?"


            "What about it?"


            "Well, he is a spic, after all.  Does he treat you right?  ‘Cause if he doesn't, we could do something about that."


            Rick had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep his temper under control.  The wrong words or attitude could give his entire undercover operation away.  "Carlos treats me just fine.  I told you the day I met you he pays me a topnotch wage, and provides me with good benefits.  He's a fair man."


            "But a spic nonetheless."


            "I don't think of him that way."


            Cord jutted the end of his sandwich at Rick like a pointer.  "You have to think of all of them that way, Rick.  Every stinkin' one of 'em."


            "It'll take some gettin' used to." Rick gave a slow nod.  "But I guess I could do that."


            Cord smiled his approval.


            "You never let me down, Sarge.  Never."





            Lauren rushed into her office as fast as a woman eight months pregnant can rush. Traffic had delayed her longer than she'd anticipated and it was now five minutes to four.


            The red headed beauty was fresh out of college when she'd started working for the city's marketing department eighteen years earlier.  Now she was in charge of it and had a staff of twelve.  The bureaucracy of the position sometimes caused her headaches, but they were no different from what anyone experienced who was on a big city payroll.  Nonetheless, she loved what she did, was well compensated for it, and couldn't be more pleased than she was with the people who worked for her. 


            Lauren had actually been happy when, five years earlier, her department had been moved out of the modern high-rise office building downtown where a variety of city funded departments were housed.  Because of space constraints the marketing area had relocated to the fourth story of an old five story building on the waterfront.  The department of public works, the department of fair housing, the comptroller's office, and the industrial development department had all been relocated as well, meaning every floor of the building was occupied.  It had taken a year of renovations to get the city-owned building ready, but when it was finished its quaint beauty couldn't compare to the forty stories of steel Lauren had left behind.


            Wide moldings and archways made of oak had been stripped, restained, and sealed.  Crown moldings with ornamental designs topped every doorway, and the mural depicting a Spanish mission that had been painted on the lobby ceiling ninety years earlier had been sandblasted and repainted by a local artist.  No neutral colored carpeting lined these hallways. The hardwood floors had also been stripped and restained.  It took three men six months to do the same to the wide staircase and banisters that led from the lobby all the up to the top floor.  Two elevator cars like the one in Rick and A.J.'s building had also been repaired and refurbished.


            The heels of Lauren's white shoes clicked against the wood of the floors as she hurried toward her office.  Even eight months pregnant the woman looked nothing but professional.  Just like she'd given away most of the baby things her boys had used, she'd also given away the maternity wardrobe she'd acquired during those two pregnancies.  When she'd restocked she'd purchased mostly business suits, something that had been hard to find even six years earlier when she'd been carrying Tanner.  With more and more women in the work force the clothing manufacturers had finally figured out there was a large need for a more professional look than they'd previously made for mothers-to-be.  Today Lauren wore a yellow suit that complemented her complexion and hair.  The skirt fell just below her knees, the oversized jacket buttoned up the front with white buttons and hung two inches above the skirt's hemline.  Because of the jacket's styling she didn't need to wear a blouse underneath it, but instead a string of white beads circled her throat. 


            Sue looked up when she heard her boss enter.  She took the purse Lauren passed off to her and pointed to the closed door of the inner office.


            "Ms. Baker is waiting in there for you."

            "Was she upset because of the delay?"


            "No, not at all.  She's really sweet, and quite chatty."


            "Okay, great."  Lauren looked at her watch to see it was four o'clock.  "I would think Ms. Baker and I would be done by five.  If we're not, please call A.J. for me and ask him if he can pick up the boys from after-school club."


            Sue wrote herself a note and put it by her phone.  "I'll do that."


            Lauren's office was as cozy as the rest of the building.  Walnut wainscoting paneled the lower half of the walls; the upper half was wallpapered with roses on a dark green background offset by swirls of antique gold and cream.


            A woman with shoulder-length curls the color of an amber wheat field sat with her back to the door.  When she heard Lauren enter the room she stood and smiled. 


            The first thing Lauren noticed about Allison Baker was how pretty she was.  The second thing she noticed was her warm smile and the hand she held out.


            "Mrs. Simon, we spoke on the phone.  I'm Allison Baker."  


            "Yes, Ms. Baker."  Lauren shook the delicate hand.  "It's nice to meet you.  I apologize for the delay."


            "No need to apologize.  I understand from your secretary that you had an appointment with your obstetrician.  I hope everything went well."


            "It did. Thank you for asking."  Lauren indicated for her visitor to reseat herself.  She walked around her desk and sat in her chair.   "Can I get you something to drink?  Coffee or a soda perhaps?"

            "No, thank you.  Your secretary got me a 7-UP while I waited.  I don't need anything else.  But if you want something go right ahead."


            "No, that's not necessary.  Though before I leave I'll have to remember to drink the pint of milk my husband sent along this morning.  If I bring it home he'll be upset with me.  He's constantly reminding me that I need to increase my calcium intake."


            "He sounds like a sweetheart any woman would be lucky to have."


            "He is, and I am."


            Allison pointed to the three pictures on the credenza behind Lauren's desk.   "I assume those are of your family?"

            "Yes, they are."  Lauren leaned back in her chair so Allison had an unhindered view of the photos.  "They were taken on our wedding day a year ago in June."  She pointed to the photo that contained just her sons.  "Those are my boys, Shane and Tanner."  The next photo Lauren indicated to was the one of herself and A.J.  "And this is my husband A.J."


            "I hope you're not offended if I say this, Mrs. Simon, but your husband's quite a handsome man."


            Lauren smiled with pride.  "I'm not offended, Ms. Baker, though A.J. would be horribly embarrassed to hear such a thing.  And please, call me Lauren."


            "Only if you'll call me Allison."  Allison shifted the subject back to Lauren's family.  Her eyes fell to the third wedding photo that contained Lauren, A.J., Shane, and Tanner.  "I assume this baby is the first for you and your husband then?"


            "Yes.  Our first together.  The boys are mine from my previous marriage.  A.J. doesn't have any other children."


            "Oh, then I bet he's excited over the prospect of a child of his own."


            "Believe me when I say there aren't enough words in the English language to convey  how excited A.J. is.  He's going to make a wonderful daddy."


            For the first time since Lauren entered the room Allison's smile dimmed.  "I'm sure he is."

            "And what about you, Allison?  Do you have children?"

            "No.  No...I...I had hoped to have a child with a man who was very special to me, but I was unable to conceive."


            "Oh," Lauren mentally kicked herself for asking.  "I'm sorry to hear that."


            "Yes, well, that's long in the past."  Allison's bright smile returned.   "Life goes on, as they say.  Now, shall we get down to business?"


            Lauren pulled a pad of paper and a pen out of her middle drawer.  "Yes, let's do that."


            "As I told you on the phone, I represent the man who owns the Island Paradise cruise line."


            "I'm familiar with it.   A.J. and I honeymooned on the Island Queen."

            "Wonderful!  Then you know first-hand what a top-notch organization Troy Andrews runs.  Aside from being a major investor in Troy's company, I'm also unofficially on his payroll as his PR person.  He'd like to expand his line of luxury ships coming into San Diego harbor.  He already has the Pacific Princess up and running.  By year's end he'll be adding another ship to his fleet as well."


            "He sounds like quite the entrepreneur."


            "You have no idea.  And the smartest man you could ever hope to meet.  We've grown very...close in recent months.  I think highly of him."


            "Based on the good reputation and popularity of the Island Queen cruises I can see why.  Though it will take me a few months of work to get all the proper permits in order for Mr. Andrews, I'm sure the city of San Diego will welcome his expansion into our harbor."


            Allison smiled, her eyes flicking from Lauren's pregnant middle to A.J.'s face in one of the wedding photos. "And I'm sure Mr. Andrews and I are going to enjoy doing business with you, too, Mrs. Simon."


            For the next fifteen minutes the two women went over a variety of details regarding Allison's proposal.  When they'd discussed all they could at the present time they stood and shook hands. Allison promised to be in touch in the coming weeks.  As she was walking out the door she stopped and turned.


            "Oh, and by the way, Lauren.  Do you know if your baby is going to a boy or a girl?"


            Lauren thought the question was a little odd considering they'd left the subject of her family behind twenty minutes earlier, but she willingly answered it.  "No, I don't.  The ultrasound tech was able to tell, but A.J. and I chose not to know."


            "I see.  Well, then, I guess I'll just have to wait until it’s born to buy a gift."


            "Allison, you don't have to do that."


            "But I want to," Allison smiled.  "After all, I love babies and have none of my own to spend my money on."  The woman headed out the door.  "Goodbye, Lauren.   If I don't hear from you before, you call me the minute that baby arrives."

            "I'll do that."


            Lauren shook her head after the departing woman.  There was no doubt Allison Baker was on the eccentric side, but then the rich usually were.  If nothing else, she was friendly and pleasant to work with.  Lauren had certainly met enough people in her eighteen years in this position who weren't.  


            The pregnant woman returned the phone messages Sue had left on her desk, then at five o'clock packed her briefcase with paperwork she'd shuffle through at home.  She walked into the outer office and took the purse Sue handed her.  She grabbed the cold milk carton from the small refrigerator sitting on the wall opposite Sue's desk and followed her secretary out the door. 


            Lauren and Sue exited the building together, Lauren sipping on her milk while she walked.  The two women were being watched as they made their way to the parking lot adjacent to their office building, but they never noticed.



            Allison leaned back against the pillows in her luxury hotel suite sipping vintage wine.  Her vast fortune could afford her the best of everything.  The best travel accommodations, the best food and drink, chauffeur driven automobiles, the biggest and most beautiful homes in locations all over the globe.  But the one thing she wanted most her money couldn't buy.  Someone else already had him.


            The woman took a long swallow of the bitter liquid and smiled.   This was the exact wine she'd encouraged A.J. to drink the first night he'd spent at her house.  She knew perfectly well she was trying to loosen him up just enough so he'd agree to occupy her king sized bed.  In the end, she'd accomplished that feat.


            Though she'd told A.J. differently, she hadn't been using any birth control the three times they'd slept together during their short acquaintance.  She allowed him her body as often as he'd wanted each of those nights because she'd loved him so much and desired so strongly to have his baby.


            But, in the end, she'd gotten neither A.J. nor his child.  She'd spent twelve months in a psychiatric hospital because of what she'd done to him.  Later, after years worth of liaisons with other men who were just as handsome as A.J., and whom she'd grown to love just as much, she discovered her inability to conceive.  So she wasn't fooling herself with Troy.  She knew she'd never be able to replace the son he so recently lost with one of their own.  But, then, there were lots of ways to give a man a child without birthing it yourself.


            She smiled while thinking of her visit with Lauren.  An idea was forming in Alison’s mind and maybe, just maybe, it would prove to be a good one.                                    



Chapter 18


            The drive out to Camp Cord on Saturday mirrored the trip of the previous weekend.  Cord picked Rick up at the marina as the first rays of sunlight were beginning to streak the sky pink.  Like the previous weekend as well, Rex had been dropped off at Nancy's home on Friday night.  Though Rick hadn't divulged a lot of details to his girlfriend about this present case, Nancy was aware these sudden camping trips resulted from a job Rick and A.J. had been hired to do.


            Unlike the previous Saturday, Rick wouldn't have to borrow guns or camouflage wear from Cord.  He'd brought along a rifle and handgun of his own that resided in their cases in the cargo hold of Cord's vehicle.  Thanks to the variety of jobs he and A.J. had done over the years, Rick hadn't needn't to visit a military surplus store to outfit himself in camouflage garb.  He wore a pair of loose fitting trousers with three pockets running up and down each leg that closed with Velcro fasteners.  Over his khaki T-shirt he sported a baggy camouflage shirt with a squared off hem that made it look more like a jacket.  A camouflage hat, and the black boots he’d worn in the Marine Corps rounded out his attire.


            Cord smiled and nodded his approval while he helped Rick stow his gear in the back of the Expedition.  "You're dressed for the part."


            "I figured if I was gonna hang with you guys on weekends I'd better look like I fit in."


            "That's true.  But that's not what I meant."


            As one, the men lifted the cooler filled with beer, soda, and cold cuts Rick was bringing.


            "What did you mean then?"


            "I gotta call from Vic Vickers last night.  Get this.  He had an emergency appendectomy on Thursday.  He won't be able to join us for at least a couple of weekends."


            "Geez, that's rough."


            "Yeah, I guess it wasn't any picnic."


            Cord and Rick walked to the front of the Expedition and climbed in.  Rick's eyes traveled to the back seat where Logan was already sound asleep.  


            Cord started the vehicle and talked over the sound of the engine.  "His appendix had burst by the time they got it out of him.  So anyway, since he's going to be out of commission for a while, I was thinking you could take over his post."

            "His post?"


            "Yeah.  He's the hat at the boys' camp."


            By ‘hat,’ Rick knew Cord was using Marine lingo for drill sergeant.

He grimaced.  "Aw, I don't know, Cord.  It's been a long time since I've been in charge of much of anyone, let alone a platoon of teenage boys."


            Cord backed the Ford out of its parking space and headed for the highway.  "Rick, I wouldn't have picked you for this job if I wasn't confident you could do it."  The man took his eyes off the road long enough to cast a sympathetic glance at his old sergeant.  "Your brother has really done a number on you, hasn't he?"

            "My brother?"              


            "You can't let him and your mom take away your self-esteem, Rick.  You were the best guy I ever served under.  The best.  Bar none.  I'm willing to bet you were a natural born leader.  The kinda guy the other kids in the neighborhood looked up to.  The kinda guy they tagged along after while waiting for you to decide how the day was gonna be spent.  I bet if you think real hard, you'll even remember a time in your life when A.J. looked up to you like that."


            Rick had to hand it to his friend.  Even after all the years they'd spent apart, Cord was perceptive.  Though Rick might not have excelled in school the way his mother and father would have liked, he had been the kind of boy his schoolmates, playmates, and most especially his little brother, looked up to.


            "I guess you're right," Rick admitted with a good dose of reluctance to his tone.  "The other guys did look up to me, I suppose.  And at one time A.J. did, too.  But that's been a long time ago, Cord.  What you're asking me to do now is a lot different.  I don't know if I can take sixty some young men and mold them into who or what you want them to be."


            Cord winked and said exactly what Rick knew he would.  "You can, Sarge.  I know you can because never, never have you ever let me down."    


Rick mentally sighed and turned to look out the window. 


            I hate to tell you this, Cord ole' buddy, but that line of undying faith is startin' to wear on me.      





            While Rick and Cord unloaded the gear from the Expedition, Logan was sent to the boys' camp to tell his companions about Sergeant Vickers.  Tom Bidwell appeared seconds after their arrival just like he had the previous weekend.  Rick thought the guy was working hard to be overly helpful, as though he was worried Rick's presence jeopardized his position as Cord's second in command.


            Rick was relieved when Cord indicated he should carry his sleeping and duffel bags to Cord's cabin. The last thing he needed was to be isolated at the boy's camp all weekend long.  Pellman Creek had been in direct contact with A.J. after being given Rick's letter.  He stressed it was of the utmost importance for Rick to find some type of concrete evidence to smuggle out of the camp. 


            "I don't care if it's a map with the locations circled where the bombs are going to be set, if it's a list with names of the buildings where the bombs are going to be set, or if this crap is written on a chalk board that Rick has to carry out on his back," Creek told A.J. over the phone.  "Tell him since it's too risky to wire him, we've got to have something in Franklin's handwriting if we can get it.  Otherwise, some fancy lawyer paid for by the LRP will get him off scot-free."


            So far Rick had yet to see Cord's plans of destruction written down anywhere. But knowing every good general carefully maps out his battle strategy long before D-Day, Rick was certain sooner or later he'd run across the evidence Creek so badly wanted.


            Rick tossed his duffel bag on the upper bunk and sleeping bag on the lower.  Cord clapped him on the back.


            "I'll drive you over to the boys' camp and introduce you, then pick you up again around five o'clock.  I'm sure as hell gonna miss you when it's target shooting time, old buddy, but I know the boys will benefit greatly from your influence."


            Rick smiled.  "Thanks for the vote of confidence."


            The detective followed Cord out of the cabin and back to the Expedition.  They bumped up and down the same road they'd traveled into the camp on, taking a fork in it that led them to the area where the boys were housed.         


            Not a soul was in sight when the Expedition came to a halt.  Rick and Cord climbed out of the vehicle, Cord leading the way to the mess hall. 


            "They're in class right now."


            "Yeah.  Come on."


            The sixty young soldiers were so well trained they didn't turn around when the screen door opened.  Their eyes remained front and center, glued on their instructor.  Rick estimated the man with the blond buzz cut to be somewhere in his late twenties.  His size alone would intimidate most teenage boys into good behavior.  At six foot four he had a chest as broad and solid as cinder blocks, upper arms the size of tree limbs, and a washboard solid stomach that tapered to a narrow waist.


            Cord and Rick stood at the back of the room.  Cord leaned into Rick, whispering,  "That's Sergeant Ward Konroy.  He's doing an excellent job with the boys as you'll see."


            Rick readily acknowledged the brawny young man was doing an excellent job.  An excellent job if you wanted your sixteen-year-old to be brainwashed all weekend by someone who was screaming racial epitaphs.


            The baritone voiced boomed in the confined space.  "And why do we hate the Jews?"

            As one; sixty voices answered.  "Because they're dishonest thieving bastards, sir!"


            "And why will we kill that nigger Jerome Edwards?"

            "Because he controls our government, sir!"


            "And why must the spics be eliminated?"

            "Because they take our jobs, sir!"


             Rick had heard all he could stand.  He knew how vulnerable kids were during their teen years.  How easily they could be led down the wrong path.  It sickened him to be in this room, to be witness to the destruction of these bright young minds.


            The detective stepped outside into the warm sunshine.  He walked far enough away from the mess hall until Konroy's voice and the voices that answered him were nothing but distant rumbles.  He jumped when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

            The concern in Cord's voice was plain to hear.  "Rick, you okay?"

            "Yeah...yeah, Cord, I'm fine.  I was gettin' hot standing in there, that's all.  For a second I thought I was gonna pass out, so figured I'd better get some air."  Rick finally managed to toss a smile his friend's way.  "After all, it won't do for the boys to see their drill sergeant faint, now will it?"

            Cord laughed.  "No, it won't.  Especially after I just got done telling them that the new man in charge will make Sergeant Vickers look like their grandmothers."


            "Oh, thanks a lot.  Now I'm really gonna have to prove myself by whippin' ass."


            "I couldn't think of a better man for the job." 


            Cord fished his keys out of his pocket and indicated for Rick to walk with him toward the Ford.  "You have a good day.  I already told Logan to fill you in on the routine.  It's not much different from our camp other than the classroom instruction the boys have going on right now, and then again for an hour after lunch.  Otherwise they target shoot after drill instruction, take a five mile hike, eat lunch, and later in the afternoon play the same war game we do with paint guns.  Like I said, I'll be back here to get you at five.  Konroy will stay the night with the boys."


            "Okay.  I'll see you at five."


            "See you then."  As Cord was climbing in his vehicle he turned and made eye contact with Rick.  "And Sarge, don't worry.  You'll do great."


            Rick thought the only way he'd do ‘great’ was if he could undo the damage of prejudice already inflicted on the young men he was being left in charge of.  Unfortunately, that wasn't his job.


            At least not today.





            Ward Konroy dismissed his charges with a shouted instruction. "Run two laps around the camp, then front and center for Sergeant Simon, men!"


            "Yes, sir!"


            Sixty pairs of booted feet exploded against the wood floor of the mess hall.  The boys spilled out the screen door, Logan leading the first lap around the camp.


            Konroy walked over and saluted Rick.  "Sergeant, they're all yours.  I'll be in my cabin preparing this afternoon's lesson if you need me."


            Though he was long out of practice in the saluting department, Rick managed to peel off a crisp one in return.  "Thank you, Sergeant Konroy."


            The man headed for one of the cabins.  Rick wondered exactly what types of books a person made use of to teach the lessons he'd just been privy to, but just as quickly decided he didn't want to know.


            Logan led the platoon of boys who came to a halt in the center of the compound.  They lined up six across and ten deep.  Their feet marched in place causing clouds of dirt to swirl around their legs.


            Rick paced back and forth in front of the boys. His mouth was pursed in displeasure as though he was sucking on a sour ball. A dissatisfied glare shone from his eyes.  He let his platoon sweat in the hot sun a long moment before turning to face them.  At the top of his lungs he barked,  "Company halt!"


            Sixty feet stomped to a halt.




            Sixty pairs of hands slapped against sixty legs.  Chests jutted forward and stomachs were sucked in.  This pose was held as once again Rick began to pace.


            "I don't know what kinda games you baby boys have been playing with Sergeant Vickers, but I'm here now and nursery school has come to an end!   You'll do what I say, when I say, and you'll say, ‘Thank you, Sergeant Simon!’ after each directive!  You got that?"


            "Yes, sir!"


            The vocal cords in Rick's neck bulged.  "What was that?"

            The boys looked at one another in confusion.  ‘Yes, sir’ was the proper response given when anyone of higher rank asked you a question.


            "What was that?"  Rick repeated, his fury increasing.

            The platoon tried again, shouting louder this time as if to appease an angry god.  "Yes, sir!”


            Rick knocked two fingers against Logan's head.  "See, all ready you guys aren't thinking for yourselves!  You're acting like a buncha automated robots!  How did I tell you to respond to me?"

            Light dawned in Logan's eyes.  "Thank you, Sergeant Simon!"


            "That's right, Franklin!  Thank you, Sergeant Simon!  Now come on, kiddies, say it together!"


            "Thank you, Sergeant Simon!"


            "That's better!"  Rick began weaving in and out of the boys.  He pointed to the little one he'd seen Vickers scream at the week before.  "You!"


            The kid looked so terrified Rick thought he might wet his pants.             "Me, sir?"


            "Yes, you!  You gotta name, kid?"

            The boy stood at attention staring straight ahead.  "Private Bidwell, sir!"


            Oh geez, I can't get away from these Bidwells no matter where I go.


            "You think you can lead this group of misfits in morning calisthenics, Bidwell?"


            The boy looked up at Rick awe-struck.  Because he was the youngest and smallest he was often made the butt of the older boys' practical jokes.  No one had ever singled him out for a leadership position before.


            The twelve-year-old kept the grin off his face, but couldn't keep it out of his voice.


            "Yes, sir!  Thank you, Sergeant Simon, sir!"


            "Okay then.  Move your ass, Bidwell, and let's get this show on the road!"


            Justin Bidwell ran to the front of the platoon.  Just like he'd heard the older boys do week after week, he called off the first round of exercises.


            "Jumping Jacks!  Seventy-five in place!  Count out loud starting now!"


            Arms and legs scissored in and out in synchronized rhythm. The boys shouted out the count as they progressed.  Rick resumed his patrol, pretending he was looking for slackers.  He walked in front of the last row of boys.  His eyes traveled to the young man at the far end who seemed intent on keeping his head bowed.


            Rick tilted his own head, trying to see the face that was half-hidden by the bill of the kid's camouflage hat.  When he came abreast of the boy, Rick put two fingers under his chin and lifted. 


            Sergeant Simon's mouth tightened into a thin line.  Finding Brendan Nash here did not make him a happy man. 



Chapter 19


            Brendan strained to do push-up number fifty in the hot sun.  If the other boys had any hopes that Sergeant Simon was going to be easier on them than Sergeant Vickers had been, the man was quickly putting those thoughts to rest.  They didn't know what Brendan had done to make their drill instructor so angry, but within two minutes of meeting the man they knew they didn't want to get on his bad side.


            At the commencement of morning exercises Rick sent Justin Bidwell back to his place within the platoon.  The Sergeant inspected his troops as they stood at attention.  The July day was heating up fast.  Their faces were red and sweat trickled from their temples.


            "When I dismiss you boys I want everyone to take a five minute break and get a cold drink.  After that, you can follow Private Franklin to the shooting range."  Rick looked through his ranks.  "Everyone except you that is, Private Nash.  You'll stay here and satisfy my masochistic tendencies a while longer."


             Brendan glanced up from his prone position just inches above the ground.  Because of the row of legs in front of him, Brendan couldn't see Rick's face, but he didn't have to see it to easily envision the expression residing there.


            Rick barked out his final order.  "Compaaany!  Diiiismissed!"


            The boys ran toward the dozen water faucets that dotted the outsides of various buildings around the compound.  They took turns bending down to gulp the cold liquid.  Rick ignored the splashing and cavorting he saw going on.  Possibly Sergeant Vickers would have put an end to it, but with as hot as the day was Rick knew the boys needed to cool off in whatever manner they could.  Regardless of what Cord expected of him, Rick certainly wasn't going to drive these kids until they dropped from a heat stroke.


            Rick stood over Brendan with his arms crossed.  The young man craned his neck to look into his cousin's face.


            "Can I get up now?"


            "I should make you stay down there all day," Rick growled.  "Better yet, I should grind your head into the dirt until some of your common sense comes back.  But yeah, you can get up."  Rick gave Brendan a hard toe to the ribs and pointed to the water faucets.  "Go get yourself a drink and then get your ass back here."


            Brendan stood, brushing grains of gravel and sand from his hands.  "But I'm supposed to be at the shooting range."


            Rick grabbed his cousin by the upper arm and reeled him in until they were nose to nose.  "You're supposed to get your ass back here because that's what I said, Brendan.  Now move it!"


             If Brendan hadn't been so certain Rick would punch him in the jaw, he would have burst out laughing.  Here he was twenty-three years old and Rick was talking to him like he was twelve. But that was Rick, the man whose temper often ruled him.  Brendan's mother had once told him Rick had been like that all his life.


            The young man jogged over to one of the faucets.  The five minute time limit Rick had given his platoon was almost up.  They other boys were following Logan, headed toward the shooting range behind the mess hall.  Brendan wished he could avoid the inevitable confrontation with Rick and join them.  It would be safer for both of them if Rick would just let things drop.  But Brendan knew his cousin better than that.  Rick would simply chase him down and cause a scene in front of the boys.


            Brendan gulped at the cold water like a race horse who'd just won the Kentucky Derby, all the while feeling Rick's eyes on his back.  When he'd quenched his thirst he took off his hat and tossed it on the ground.  He cupped his hands, filling them with cold water.  He poured the water over his shaved skull and repeated the action until his burning face was cooled.  He shut the faucet off and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of shirt.  He bent down and picked up his hat, knowing there was no use to prolong the discussion Rick was determined to have with him.


            Birds sang from the woods as Brendan walked toward the deserted compound where Rick was waiting for him.  The young man knew the singing would stop when the first rifle was fired at the shooting range. 


            When Brendan came abreast of Rick the private detective grabbed him by the arm and pulled him behind one of the cabins.  The anger that had been present earlier was back in full force.  Rick jabbed two fingers into his young cousin's chest, not letting Brendan get a word in edgewise.

            "Just what the hell do you think you're doing here?  How the hell could you have gotten yourself mixed up with people like this?   Are you crazy or what?  You'll lose your job over this, Brendan!  You'll lose everything you've worked so hard for!  And what do you think you're mother will say when she hears you spouting your new asinine philosophies?  You'll break her heart, you idiot!"  Rick turned his head away and finished in a tone hoarse with emotion.  "Damn you, you fool kid, you'll break her heart."


            Though Rick's temper could no longer frighten and intimidate Brendan the way it did that night ten years earlier when he and A.J. had black bagged Tad Brooks' office, the young man had an enormous amount of respect for his cousin.  Brendan could live with Rick's anger. It was Rick's disappointment in him that was impossible to come to terms with.


            Brendan looked around to make certain no one was within hearing range.  A burst of gunfire indicated target shooting was under way.  He knew by now Ward Konroy would have joined the platoon.  The only boys left behind would be those assigned to K.P. duty, and they'd be busy in the mess hall getting lunch ready.


            "Look, Rick, I know you're pissed, but right now I can't give you any explanations."  Brendan's eyes scanned the area.  "For one thing, it's too risky to talk here.  For another, we shouldn't be seen together."


            "Seen together?  Why not?"


            "Because it's too dangerous, that's why not.  If anyone connects us, it'll mean trouble for both of us."


            "Connects us how?  As relatives, you mean?"


            "That's exactly what I mean."


            "Brendan, I don't get it.  You're not making any sense."

            "Rick, just trust me.  Okay?"




            "Look, how about if you and A.J. meet me for dinner on Monday night?  There's a restaurant called The Hillman House two streets east of my apartment.   I'll be there at seven-thirty.  Will that work for you guys?"


            "What if I don't wanna wait until Monday night?"


            The young man ignored Rick's question and repeated his own. "Will that work for you guys?" 


            Rick sighed with defeat when he realized he wasn't going to be able to bully his cousin into having this discussion here and now. 


            "Yeah, I guess.  Unless A.J. tells me differently it should."


            "Fine.  Give me a call if we need to change our plans."


            "Call you at work?"


            "Yes, at work.  I probably won't be there, but leave a message.  I'll get it sooner or later."




            "Rick, I already told you I can't offer any explanations.  At least not right now." 


            Brendan turned away from Rick, trotting toward the firing range.  When he'd traveled twenty feet he swiveled and pointed a finger at his cousin while jogging backwards.  "Hey, Rick?"



            "I'll give you this much of a hint.  Why do you think I didn't ask you what you're doing here?"


            Brendan grinned, shooting a wink and a thumbs-up in Rick's direction.  Before Rick could reply, the young man was out of sight.




            Cord handed the binoculars back to Tom Bidwell.  They were crouched down in the same spot Rick had been a week earlier when he'd observed the boys' camp for the first time.


            "So?"  Cord said to Bidwell.


            "So, don't you think that exchange was a bit odd?"

            "What do you mean, odd?  To begin with, we couldn't hear a word of it."


            "We didn't have to hear a word of it to interpret what was going on."


            "And just what was that?"  Cord snapped.  "First of all, I don't appreciate finding you camped out here spying on Rick.  And secondly, he has the right to discipline any of the boys in any way he sees fit."


            "Yeah, he does.  But it didn't look like he was disciplining that boy in the way a drill instructor disciplines one of his troops.  If you ask me, it looked more like a father disciplining his son."


            "Well, I didn't ask you.  And besides, that's just how Rick is."


            "Just how he is?"


            "If you stopped being jealous of him for five minutes you'd see Rick for the man he really is.  He may have been in this camp for only an hour, but he already cares about every one of those boys.  That's how Rick operates.  You saw how he took your boy under his wing."


            "Yeah, and I also saw how he gave them a break before they went to the shooting range.  That's not going to make fighting men out of them, Cord."


            Anger flashed from Cord's eyes.  "Rick Simon knows more about turning boys into fighting men than you'll ever hope to know.  It's obvious to me those boys are already willing to follow Rick to hell and back.  That's what a good leader's all about, Tom.  Maybe I should have you spend a few weekends at the boys' camp.  You just might learn a thing or two from Rick."


            Tom turned away and spat.  Whether that action was just a bad habit, or whether it was a sign of disrespect, Cord chose not to question. "Well, I'll tell you this, General.  I don't like the exchange I just saw.  Something about it makes alarm bells go off in my head.  What do you know about this Nash kid?"


            "What's there to know?  He's one of Logan's schoolmates.  A senior, I think.  He's been over to the house a few times.  Seems to be a decent kid.  Polite, smart, and has a maturity about him the other boys are lacking.  Vickers has always spoken highly of him.  Says he's a quick study."


            "What about his home life?"

            "His folks are divorced.  He's an only child and lives with his mother.  I get the impression he never sees his old man, and his mom works two jobs so isn't around much. The kid's on his own most of the time.  You know, the kind we like.  The kind who are looking for a family to belong to."


            "Maybe he already does belong to a family."


            "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

            Bidwell's eyes followed Rick's movements across the compound.  It was evident Cord wasn't going to be receptive to his suspicions, so he'd just have to do a little investigating of his own.


            "Never mind, General."  Bidwell stood and headed down the trail toward the men's camp.  "It doesn't mean anything."





            Rick reclined on top of his sleeping bag at eleven o'clock on Saturday night with his head cradled in his hands.  He'd just returned from the shower room and was luxuriating in the feel of being cool and clean for the first time since arriving at Camp Cord at eight o'clock that morning.  His boots sat on the floor by his bunk.  He was bare chested and bare footed, wearing nothing but a clean pair of boxer shorts and baggy camouflage trousers over them.


            Like the previous week at this time, the majority of the men were still gathered outside around the bonfire.  Their shouts and laughter drifted in through the open windows of Cord's cabin.  Despite the noise, the exhausted detective was almost asleep when the cabin's screen door banged against its frame.  Cord apologized when he caught sight of his bunkmate.


            "Sorry, Sarge.  Since the light was still on, I assumed you were awake.”


            Rick rolled over on his side and hiked himself up on one elbow.  "Don't worry about it."


            Cord sat down on the edge of his bed.  He lifted one foot and began unlacing his boots.  "So how'd your day go with the boys?"


            "Good.  Don't tell them I said this, but they're a dandy buncha' kids.  To tell ya’ the truth, I was a little skeptical at first about the thought of boys that age being turned into soldiers, but you’ve got yourself quite a platoon of young men there, Cord."


            "Thanks.  As far as I'm concerned you can't start them too early.  These liberal teachers get a hold of them and it's hell to turn them around.  You know, make them see things our way."


            By ‘our way,’ Rick knew exactly what his friend meant.  He'd sat in on the boys' afternoon lesson as given by Ward Konroy.   The kids actually had so-called history books in which the true facts of history had been rewritten.  Slavery had never existed, it was something fabricated by radicals like Martin Luther King Junior and Jesse Jackson.  The extermination of six million Jews by Adolph Hitler had never occurred, that had been fabricated as well by those of Jewish origin looking to control world politics with their money.  Groups like the League for Racial Purity had actually been formed out of necessity to protect the white citizens of the South from marauding black men who raped white women and killed innocent white children.


            A boot being dropped to the floor focused Rick's mind back on Cord.  The man lifted his other foot and began unlacing that boot.  "Logan tells me the boys have a lot of respect for you.  That they like you better than they like Vickers."


            Rick snorted.  "Then maybe I ain't doin' such a great job after all."

            "Whatta ya' mean?"

            "I'm their drill instructor, Cord.  They're not supposed to like me."

            Cord laughed.  "No, I guess not.  But the key word here is respect.  They respect you.  You know as well as I do that a respected commander can get his troops to follow him straight to hell without ever asking any questions."


            Cord placed his boot on the floor, then stood in his sock feet and crossed to his desk.  He took a key ring out of his pocket, picked out the smallest key on it and opened the desk's middle drawer.  "Logan said you had some problems with Brendan Nash."


            Rick studied his friend a brief second, trying to see if there was anything behind what seemed like an innocent comment.  "None that I couldn't handle."


            Cord shot Rick a grin while pulling a spiral notebook from the drawer.  "I have no

doubt about that.  But what'd the kid do?  Vickers has always spoken highly of him."


            "It wasn't what he did per se, it was his attitude.  Seemed a bit on the cocky side to me.  Needed to be knocked down a peg or two before the rest of the kids adopted his same know-it-all mannerisms."


            "Do you think we'll have future challenges with the boy?"  Cord sat down in his chair and placed his notebook in the center of his desk. 


            "Nah.  He's a helluva a smart kid all right.  Probably one of your best trained young soldiers.  I can see why Vickers speaks well of him."  Rick swung his feet over the edge of his bunk and sat up.  "I talked to the kid in private for a few minutes.  Let him know he was a quick study, but his pissy attitude would get his ass kicked right outta camp as long as I'm in charge.  Never had another problem with him for the rest of the day.  Don't anticipate having any tomorrow either."


            Cord nodded.  He'd have to remember to relay this information to Bidwell.  He knew all along there was a logical explanation for what he and Tom had witnessed from afar that morning.


            "Come over here a second, Rick.  I wanna show you something."


            Rick scooted out from under his bunk.  He stopped beside Cord's desk and looked down at the open notebook. 


            "This is my strategic plan book.  Everything we've discussed at staff meetings, our entire future, is recorded in here.  I'd like you to take a look at it."


            "You sure?"

            "Yes, I'm sure.  No one else knows it exists.  Not even Tom.  As you can imagine, it would be extremely detrimental if it fell into the wrong hands."


            Rick's thoughts were laced with heavy irony.  Yeah, I can imagine.


            Cord held the book up to Rick.  "But I want you to review it.  Up until now I've never trusted anyone enough to allow them to check my strategies.  You know, to make certain I haven't overlooked something in regards to my master plan."


            "And what exactly is your master plan?"

            "To make all who have wronged us stand up and take notice.  To be the leader of the movement that empowers our Anglo-Saxon brothers the way the Bill of Rights meant for us to be empowered."  


            Cord looked up at Rick and smiled.  "To be the man who brings our government to its knees."


Chapter 20

            Lauren Simon guided her mini-van through the unfamiliar area.  Ever since she and A.J. had begun discussing the purchase of a new house she often scouted out the neighborhoods that bordered her boys' school.  Lauren and her husband had agreed it would be easier for them if they could find a home they liked near Oceanview Elementary.  Such a move would eliminate the need to drive the boys to school in favor of them walking or riding their bikes. 


            Lauren glanced at her watch.  She'd just dropped the boys off at Oceanview, and had some time available before she needed to be at work.   Though this was her sons’ week to reside at their father's home, Kathy and Rob had gone away over the weekend to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. Lauren and A.J. had willingly kept the boys on Saturday and Sunday, rather than leaving them in the care of their seventeen-year-old stepsister for two days and nights.  Kathy would pick them up from after-school club on her way home from work so they could resume their visitation schedule with Rob. 


            The pregnant woman cruised the residential streets at fifteen miles an hour.  Children dressed in shorts and T-shirts and wearing backpacks over their shoulders flooded the sidewalks like one big tidal wave headed for the school.  Lauren kept a cautious eye out for kids on bikes as she turned a corner.  With one eye on the children, and one attentive to For Sale signs jutting from front yards, she drove block after block.  When Lauren began to notice the number of children dissipate she knew it was almost eight-thirty, the time school started.  


            Soon Lauren had the streets to herself.  Other than an occasional passing car the area was quiet.  She supposed most people who had to be at work were already gone for the day. 


            Without realizing it, Lauren had passed from a middle class neighborhood full of houses in her price range to a quaint, older neighborhood filled with homes that spoke of wealth and privilege.  Towering trees that had matured years earlier graced the sidewalks like welcoming doormen.  Old maples with gnarled branches grew from neatly manicured lawns.  Lauren could easily picture her boys climbing one of these maples.  She recalled the tree swing she and her sister had shared as children.  That piece of wood suspended by two ropes had provided hours of amusement.  And she'd often heard A.J. talk of the fun he and Rick had as kids playing in the tree house that used to be in their mother's back yard.  It was hard to find yards like these now days.  Most new homes were built on lots devoid of trees like her ex-husband's was, or like A.J.'s home on the Grand Canal.


            Lauren Simon was not an impractical woman.  She knew fully well she and A.J. couldn't afford a home in this neighborhood so didn't pay too much attention to any realty signs she spotted.   She was just about to turn at the next block and head back the way she'd come when she saw a sign in a front yard that advertised the home as being For Sale By Owner.  On impulse she drove by the house.  It rose into the air, while at the same time sprawling out to both the left and right.  Yet she still caught a glimpse of a large lawn behind it available for play.


            Lauren ogled the home as she passed.


            "It's certainly been well taken care of, but A.J. and I could never afford it.  I'd better stick to neighborhoods that are in our price range."


            The woman drove past four more houses and pulled into a driveway with the intention of turning around.  An older lady dressed in walking shoes, red wind pants, and a white T-shirt came up to the mini-van's open driver's window.  A startled Lauren jumped when she heard a voice.


            "May I help you, dear?"  The woman bent down and picked the newspaper up from the lawn leading Lauren to conclude she lived here.


            "Thank you, no.  I was just in the process of turning around.  I dropped my boys off at school and was taking a little time to house hunt.  You have a beautiful neighborhood here."

            "Yes, we do.  Beautiful and quiet.  There are a few homes for sale on this block.  Did you see anything you like?"


            Lauren laughed.  "All of them."  She pointed to the home four doors down.  "For some reason I'm especially drawn to that one.  The one that's for sale by owner.  Though I highly doubt my husband and I can afford it."


            "You might be surprised.  I don't know what the man's asking, but rumor has it he really wants to sell.  Why don't you stop in and talk to him?"

            "Oh, I hate to disturb someone if I'm not a serious buyer."

            "I'm sure you won't be disturbing him.  After all, if he didn't want interruptions he wouldn't be selling it himself, now would he?"

            Lauren smiled at this practical woman who reminded her of her mother-in-law.  "No, I guess he wouldn't.  Thank you."

            "Is it too early for me to welcome you and your little one to the neighborhood?"

            Lauren glanced down at the stomach that protruded above her seat belt.  "It might be a bit premature.  But if by some twist of fate my little one and I end up taking residence in that beautiful home, we'll be sure to come down and say hello."

            The woman waved to Lauren and headed for her front door.  Lauren backed the Dodge onto the street, pointing it in the direction from which she'd come. She pulled in the circular drive of the house that had caught her eye.  She put the vehicle in park and shut it off. 


            Not a soul was moving about outside, and the house appeared desolate and sad, as if its family had long ago grown and moved away.  Lauren wondered if anyone was home as she approached the double front doors.


            The red headed woman pressed the bell.  She looked up, marveling at the beveled glass rising two stories above her.  When one of the doors opened she found herself being greeted by a gray-headed gentleman she guessed to be on the high side of seventy.


            "May I help you, young lady?"

            "Yes, I saw the sign out in front of your home.  The one that advertises it for sale."


            "Well, bully for you."  Lowell Brooks opened the door wide enough to allow Lauren to pass.  "Please do come inside, Mrs--?"


            Lauren held out her hand.  "Simon.  Lauren Simon."


            "Ah, yes."  Lowell smiled as though he knew some kind of secret Lauren wasn't privy to.  "Mrs. Simon.  Yes.  How nice to meet you."





            Joey Franklin's day-to-day routine hadn't altered since the discovery he'd made the previous Wednesday at the doctor's office.  He was still respectful of his tutor and looked forward to ‘Dan's’ arrival each morning.  If Casey thought it was odd the man was apparently leading a double life she didn't show outward signs of it.  That fact puzzled Joey to a large degree.  Casey was normally so outspoken and free with her thoughts.  Joey half-expected her to accost Dan at the front door on Thursday morning and demand to know just who he really was.  


            But Casey never said a word about their visit to the doctor's office, or what they'd inadvertently overheard.  At least not to Joey.  And when Dan arrived at nine on Thursday morning she greeted him with the same bright smile she always wore while handing him a cup of coffee.


            Regardless of whether or not Casey was puzzled by Dan's true identity, Joey spent many a night pondering his feelings towards his tutor.  Despite what outsiders might think, Joseph Cordell Franklin was no fool.  He knew perfectly well his mother had died because of the suspicions she had regarding his father.  He strongly suspected the meeting that took place the night she was murdered hadn't been with a group of old girlfriends, but instead, had been with FBI agents.  For months prior to her death, Joey's mother had seemed upset and indecisive.  She tried to hide her demeanor from her husband and sons, and for the most part succeeded when it came to Cord and Logan.  But Joey had been with her too much throughout his life not to detect even the smallest personality change.  Between that, and muffled phone conversations he'd overheard when his father was at work, Joey had a fairly good idea what was going on.  He recalled the day of the bombing in Kansas City, and how his mother sat on the couch watching the news broadcasts on television.  Tears rolled down her cheeks that quickly turned to almost hysterical sobs.  Maybe she didn't think Joey could hear her pleading, "Why, Cord?  Why?" through the Kleenex she had covering her mouth.  Or maybe she no longer cared.


            Perhaps if Joey didn't know all these things he would have felt as though his tutor was betraying his trust. After all, no one wants to form a friendship with another person only to discover that new friend is really using you for his own personal gain.  But any loyalty Joey had to his father died with his mother two years earlier.  And somehow, despite the motives of his tutor in regards to being in the Franklin home in the first place, Joey knew Dan genuinely cared about him.  Certainly Dan had done far more for him in three weeks time than his father and Logan had done their entire lives.  Dan listened to him.  Dan talked to him man to man, like one intelligent adult to another.  Dan didn't get impatient when Joey ‘talked’ using his computer like his father did.  Before the young man could finish his thoughts, Cord often left the room.  But not Dan.  He didn't leave the room, he didn't talk over Joey like Casey did, and he didn't turn a boom box on like Logan did in an effort to drown out the computer's mechanical voice.


            And despite Joey's protests, Dan was still talking to him about college.  On Friday Dan had even insisted the three of them - Dan, Casey, and Joey, make a trip to the university campus in the family van that Casey had free use of.  Once there, they walked the grounds for an hour, then Dan took Joey to one of the science buildings and introduced him to two professors.  Suddenly dreams of college attendance were being reawakened within the twenty-year-old.  All he wanted was the chance to earn his own way, to be a productive member of society, and some day move out of his father's home.  That's what his mother had wanted for him, and after the visit to UCSD, that's what Joey once again wanted for himself.  Stephen Hawking, who was just as disabled as Joey, lived a productive life.  So why not?  Why couldn't Joe Franklin have that same opportunity?


            Because my father won't let me, Joey would think to himself as he lay in bed at night.  Because he won't believe I can do it.  Because he won't put any effort into helping me do it.  But Dan would.  Dan would help me. 


            Because of the loyalty and friendship of a man who called himself Dan, Joey Franklin didn't tell anyone about his latest discovery.  After Dan left on Monday afternoon the young man sat alone in the sunroom.  He knew Casey was engrossed in deep conversation on her bedroom phone like she seemed to be a lot lately.  Logan was still in school, and Joey's father at his gun shop, meaning it was easy to surf the Internet without the worry of unwanted interruptions.


            The San Diego phone directory was available under a search mode.  Joey let his pointer do the walking through the yellow pages.  He smiled when he found the ad.


            Simon and Simon Investigations.   Richard L. Simon and Andrew J. Simon.  Fully bonded, fully insured licensed private investigators serving the greater San Diego area since 1979.


             If anyone had heard the gurgling sound that came from Joey's throat they would have thought he was choking.  Only his mother would have recognized the sound as laughter.  Joey couldn't help himself.  He had yet to meet Rick Simon, but as a child he'd heard all about the man.  His father had often told him and Logan stories of Rick's bravery when he put them to bed at night.  Even as a young boy, Joey had recognized his dad's hero-worship for the man, and sensed his father looked upon Simon as the brother he'd never had.


            Joey sat staring at the yellow pages with a lopsided grin on his face.


Well, Dad, I hate to tell you this, but I think Rick Simon already has a brother.  And I have a feeling before this is all over, the joke's going to be on you for a change.


            If Joey felt any guilt over keeping this newfound secret from his father, it evaporated when he thought of Logan.


            Maybe, just maybe Logan will still have a chance.  Maybe without you around to influence him, he'll grow into the man Mom wanted him to be.




            Lauren sat at the dining room table that night putting pen to paper.  A.J. was having dinner with Rick and Brendan, leaving the woman to a quiet evening alone.


            Before she'd gotten past the luxurious foyer, Lauren had fallen in love with Lowell Brooks' home.  The elderly man had been so sweet to her.  He'd even taken her elbow when they'd climbed the stairs to tour the second the floor, cautioning her to watch her step. 


            "We can't have any harm coming to your unborn child, Mrs. Simon, now can we?"


            For a man, and especially one eighty-years-old, as he admitted to being during their tour, he'd been so interested in the baby.  As they looked in closets and bathrooms and bedrooms he asked her when she was due, if she knew the sex of the child, what names she had picked out, and how many other children she had.   When her eyes caught a large grouping of photos in the upstairs hallway she paused to study them.  Some were quite dated while others more recent.  She turned and smiled.


            "Your family?"

            Mr. Brooks nodded.  "My children and grandchildren."


            "How many children do you have, Mr. Brooks?"


            "I had three.  My youngest daughter was kil...she passed away ten years ago."


            "I'm sorry to hear that.  You have my sympathies, sir."


            For a brief moment the old man's denim colored eyes were shadowed with unspeakable pain.  When he found his voice again he said,  "Yes.  Yes, thank you.  She's with her mother now, and I know together they've made Heaven a beautiful place for the rest of us."


            Lauren cocked a questioning eyebrow.


            "Gardening.  They both loved to garden." 


            The man put a light hand on Lauren's back and guided her away from the photos.  It wasn't lost on Lauren that he immediately changed the subject.  She didn't think too much of that fact, however.  She realized anyone who'd lived eighty years was bound to have laid a few loved ones to rest.  Lauren knew with great certainty she never wanted to outlive any of her own children, and could only imagine the pain Mr. Brooks must still feel over the passing of his daughter.


            There was no doubt the Brooks' home was far more spacious than what Lauren and A.J. were looking for.  Aside from the three bedrooms, one bathroom, and masterbed and bath that resided on the second floor; the first floor contained a study, guest room, family room, living room, formal dining room, kitchen, laundry room, and maid's quarters complete with its own bathroom and living area.  Lauren shook her head when the tour was completed. 


            "My husband and I would have to be expecting triplets in order to fill all the rooms in your home, Mr. Brooks."


            "Maybe you are.  My youngest children were twins.  A surprise to not only me and my late wife, but to our doctor as well."


            "That must have been quite a shock.  But no, I don't think I'm having twins, or triplets for that matter.  The ultrasound indicated just one healthy baby."


            "Ah, modern technology.  It rather takes the fun out of things, don't you think, Mrs. Simon?"

            "Sometimes," Lauren agreed.  "Though truthfully, Mr. Brooks, I'd want to know ahead of time if I was having triplets.  My poor husband would faint dead away if that happened without advance warning."


            "I'm sure he would.  It's difficult enough for a man to fully reconcile within himself the awesome responsibilities of raising a child without having curves thrown in from left field."


            "You sound like the voice of experience."


            "Believe me, dear, I am."


            After some prodding from Mr. Brooks, Lauren had agreed to sit a few minutes at the kitchen table that was snuggled in a cozy breakfast nook.  Loneliness radiated from the old man, and he didn't seem to want her to leave.  He offered her coffee, milk, or orange juice.  Though Lauren really didn't have the time to linger, she didn't want to hurt the elderly man's feelings after the effort he'd taken to show her a house she was well aware she and A.J. could never afford.  Therefore, she agreed to a glass of orange juice, and even picked out a small banana muffin from the plate he sat in the middle of the table. 


            Lauren enjoyed the view while they ate.  The nook's bay window overlooked the backyard where colorful gardens bloomed and sunlight reflected off the pristine water of the swimming pool. 


            "Do you take care of all those flowers yourself?"


            "Oh no.  I don't have the green thumb my Aubrey did.  Carmina, our maid, took care of them after Aubrey died.  But I've been out of the country for many years now, so with my encouragement Carmina finally retired.  I hired a gardener who comes once a week to take care of things.  I don't even know the man's name.  Nor the name of the woman a maid service sends here every Wednesday to dust and vacuum the house.  Nor the name of the man who cleans the swimming pool that hasn't been used since the last time Noelle and Colette came to visit."

            "Noelle and Colette?"


            "Two of my granddaughters.  As hard as it is for me to believe, they're grown

women now.  Noelle has a little girl of her own, and Colette has a baby on the way."


            "They don't live in the area?"

            "No.  They grew up in France.  Like their mother, my oldest daughter Ashton, they both married Frenchmen. Paris is their home and always will be.  Unfortunately, none of my grandchildren live close by.   Therefore, you can see why this big house is of no use to me any longer."


              Lauren looked around the kitchen with its warm cherry cabinets and granite counter tops.  "It's a shame, too.  Your home is quite beautiful."

            Lowell laid a weathered hand atop one of Lauren's.  "Perhaps it's fate, Mrs. Simon, that we've come together like this today.  This house has been crying for a family to fill her rooms for many years now.  Perhaps yours is the family she's looking for."


            "Oh, Mr. Brooks, A.J. and I could never afford what you must be asking for her."

            "What can you afford?"

            "Pardon me?"


            "What can you afford?  Name your price, Mrs. Simon."


            Lauren chuckled, but when she saw the man was serious she gave in and told him the price range she and A.J. had agreed would be feasible for them.  She almost fell out of her chair when Lowell nodded his head. 


            "That sounds reasonable."


            "But, Mr. Brooks--."


            Before Lauren could finish her sentence the man stood.  "You talk it over with your husband and get back to me."


            Lauren stood as well.  "Mr. Brooks, in all honesty, the price I've quoted you is far less than what this house is worth."


            "Believe me, young lady, I know the value of houses." 


            If any other man besides A.J. had reached over and patted her pregnant stomach Lauren would have slapped him.  But, for some reason, when Mr. Brooks took the liberty of doing just that it didn't offend her or make her feel uncomfortable.  The tiny smile on his face made her think of a loving grandfather.


            "Like I said, Mrs. Simon, it was fate that brought us together."  He reached out and took her hand in his, giving it a squeeze.  "I look forward to seeing you again in the near future."


            Because Lauren was in the process of turning away from the man she didn't notice his eyes on her round belly.  "The very near future."


            After Lauren made her leave of Mr. Brooks, she went straight to her office.  Since the boys were with Rob, and since A.J. wasn't coming home from the Simon and Simon office, but instead going with Rick to meet Brendan at The Hillman House, Lauren chose to work late that evening.  She left at six o'clock, arriving home at six-thirty.  She'd changed her clothes and taken Toby for a walk, then fixed herself an easy dinner.  In between bites of a salad she scribbled on her paper.


            Despite the fact that Lowell Brooks indicated he would sell Lauren his home for the price she quoted him, there were still budget concerns on the woman's mind.  First and foremost she'd have to find out what his annual property taxes were.  That would be easy enough to discover, however.  Such information wasn't considered private, and would be readily available at the county assessor's office.  Lauren made a note to look into that.  She scanned the financial section of the morning paper next and studied the mortgage rates being offered by various banks.  They all fell within half a percentage point of each other so she chose a rate that was being advertised by the bank she and A.J. did the majority of their business with.  She plugged some figures into the small calculator that sat at her elbow and came up with an approximate monthly mortgage payment based on what she thought they'd have to put down on Mr. Brooks' home once their current one was sold.  From there, she estimated what the cost would be to maintain the swimming pool.  Though she and A.J. hadn't discussed purchasing a house with a pool, they were a dime a dozen in Southern California.  No doubt her family would make good use of it, but they couldn't afford the expense of a pool company to maintain it.  Therefore, Lauren and A.J. would have to add the necessary chemicals themselves, plus buy the necessary equipment needed to keep it clean such as a vacuum and bug net.  A quick phone call to one of the pool supply companies listed in the yellow pages gleaned Lauren a rough estimate of that expense. 


            The woman reviewed the home in her mind, adding other potential expenses as she thought of them.  Of course A.J. would have to inspect the house himself, but Lauren hadn't seen anything that indicated major repairs were necessary.  Based on what Mr. Brooks had said about being out of the country, Lauren assumed the house had sat empty for a number of years.  Despite that, it was obvious he'd had someone keeping it in excellent condition.  But then Lauren got the impression he was quite wealthy, so she imagined he could afford to hire whatever services he was in need of.


            Using their current budget as a starting point Lauren wrote down the cash flow in and out of their house on a monthly basis.  That wasn't an easy task since A.J.'s job as a self-employed private investigator meant their weekly income fluctuated.  But her husband had made some wise investments for himself and his brother over the years that were now paying off in lucrative stock dividends.  And buying the office building that Simon and Simon was housed in during the fall of 1988 had been a smart move on the part of Rick and A.J. as well.  Though Lauren could only imagine what a financial drain that had been on the two men at first, it was now beginning to pad their bank accounts.  The monthly rent they collected from their tenants made the mortgage payment on the building, and paid for any necessary maintenance while at the same time leaving a nice-sized portion for Rick and A.J. to divide equally between themselves.  As A.J. had told Lauren, self-employed P.I.'s have no pension program, so purchasing that building had been his way of insuring himself and his brother a comfortable retirement.  In ten more years it would be paid for.  No doubt they could sell it any time after that for at least twice what they had purchased it for. 


            Unlike A.J.'s salary, Lauren's was steady and dependable.  That wouldn't change after the baby was born.  Lauren was scheduled to take twelve weeks of maternity leave as allowed her by the Family Medical Leave Act.  Six weeks of that would be paid for by the city, the other six weeks would be paid by Lauren's accrued vacation time.  After that, she would be returning to work full-time, though she and her boss had agreed to Lauren working out of her home as much as possible.  With computers, e-mail, and fax machines, that shouldn't present a problem. 


            Lauren and A.J. had engaged in a long discussion prior to their marriage about their expectations of each other should they have children.  The last thing A.J. wanted was go through the kind of misunderstanding he and Janet had suffered when it came to the issue of having a family.  Therefore, Lauren knew her husband didn't want their child raised by a babysitter or in a day-care center.  But, at the same time, he respected Lauren's love of her career and her need to feel that she was more than someone's wife and mother.  Lauren working out of their home satisfied both their wants and desires.  And on days when she had no choice but to go into the office for meetings with clients or other unavoidable reasons, A.J. would work his schedule out at Simon and Simon so he could be home with the baby, or Lauren could drop it off at his office for a few hours.  At times when that wasn't feasible, Cecilia and Lauren's mother were already waiting in line to get their opportunity to take care of their new grandchild, and Lisa, who was a stay-at-home mom, had also volunteered to babysit when need be. 


            Lauren had to admit she was looking forward to this arrangement.  She remembered how she'd cried the day she dropped Shane off at day-care when he was six weeks old.  She'd done better when it was Tanner's turn, but still it was hard to leave a baby so young in a stranger's care.  It would be wonderful to be home with her child on most days, and wonderful that she would finally be getting the opportunity to be home with Shane and Tanner more than she ever had before.  She was already thinking of what a great office/nursery the maid's quarters in Mr. Brooks' home would make.  Everything she needed would be within her reach.  The living area could house a second-hand crib and changing table, the bedroom could be her office, and the kitchen was just around the corner when she needed to run for a bottle.  When the baby got older, the living area would make a great playroom, again allowing her to work out of the bedroom while keeping an eye on her child.  Or children, she thought with a smile, since she and A.J. wanted to add one more addition to their family about the time this baby was two years old.


            Lauren looked over her figures, and then set her paper aside for the time being.  There was no use to get her hopes up until she talked to A.J.  And who knew, when Mr. Brooks consulted with his lawyer or his children they might tell him he was crazy to sell his home for the price Lauren quoted him, causing him to change his mind.  But still, he did seem awfully eager to hear from her again, so that gave Lauren some hope.


            The woman stood and headed up the stairs.  There were things that needed doing that had nothing to do with new houses or swimming pools. As long as she had the house to herself, she wanted to finish putting the baby's clothes in the drawers of the dresser that had arrived Saturday and pack the diaper bag for the upcoming trip to the hospital.  When those two tasks were completed she'd run the vacuum in the nursery and then have nothing to do but sit in a rocking chair and wait for the baby to arrive.


            Lauren laughed at that last thought.  With two active boys, and a husband who alternated between being excited and nervous over the pending visit of the stork, the last thing she was going to have time for prior to the tenth of August was sitting in a rocking chair.


Part 5