Five days after Lauren's funeral the Simon brothers were summoned to Town's office. When Rick arrived alone at two o'clock that Wednesday afternoon, Town, Pellman Creek, and Jerry Reiner were waiting for him. Town hesitated a long moment after Rick entered. He looked into his outer office, and then glanced back at Rick.
Rick answered the black man's question before it was ever spoken. "A.J. isn't with me. He told me to come without him. He...he wanted to get a start on a new case we took yesterday."
Jerry and Town exchanged a look that Rick easily interpreted.
"I know, I know. It's not like A.J. to not wanna hear first-hand what the three of you have uncovered. But a lot of things A.J.'s been doing in recent days aren't like him. He...he's barely hanging on, guys, and I'm not sure how to help him anymore."
Town made no reply as he closed the door behind Rick. He indicated to the grouping of chairs he had pulled up around his desk. Pellman and Jerry sat in two of them. The two that were empty had been intended for Rick and A.J. Rick claimed one of them while Town pulled the other over to the far corner where it normally sat.
Captain Brown walked around his desk and seated himself in his high-backed green leather chair. He nodded to Jerry while looking at Rick. "I'm going to have Jerry start by telling you what his end of the investigation has wrought so he can get out of here and pick his kids up from day-care."
As hard as it was to believe, the free-spirited Jerry Reiner was now a family man. In the spring of 1991 he'd married a forensic pathologist he worked with. He was the father of a four-year-old daughter named Kara, and a six-month-old son named Collin. But marriage, fatherhood, and the responsibilities of a demanding job hadn't taken away from Jerry's quirky nature. Rick still thought of him as one of the funniest men he knew, and Jerry remained a close friend of both Simon brothers.
Today Jerry had left his sense of humor at the office. This case had been as hard on him as it was on everyone else who called A.J. Simon friend. The medical examiner got right down to business.
"Lauren was deceased before the fire started, Rick. She was shot in the middle of her forehead by a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum. I'm quite certain death was instantaneous."
Rick hated himself for thinking, Thank God for small favors, but he couldn't help it. The last thing he'd wanted to find out this afternoon was that Lauren had suffered. That she'd been conscious when the fire started and had died trying to escape the smoke and the flames.
"The carbon monoxide levels in her body were almost nonexistent," Jerry said, "which would again indicate she was dead prior to the start of the fire. However," Jerry paused there, giving the impression he dreaded telling Rick the rest of what the autopsy had revealed.
"However what, Jer?"
"Mind you Lauren was already dead when this was done to her, but--"
"Her body was doused with sulfuric acid. Within minutes it would have eaten away her skin and a good portion of her bones. That's why...why there wasn't much left of her to find."
Rick swallowed hard and wondered how much of this A.J. had been witness to when he'd entered that burning building. Had he seen how the acid had destroyed his wife's body?
After a brief pause Rick asked, "And the baby?"
"I found no remains I can conclusively say belonged to an infant. But you have to remember the bones would have been so small, and with the acid and heat of the fire it's possible nothing...nothing was left of the baby but ashes."
Rick blinked away the moisture that filled his eyes. When he was able to speak he looked from Town to Pellman.
"I've been in this business long enough to know that when a body is doused with acid there's only two reasons behind such an action. Either the perpetrator has so much hate for his victim that he wants to disfigure the corpse, or he's trying to hide something. Trying to cover up a portion of the crime that he knows will give the investigators a clue to his identity. So which is it here?"
"At this point Pellman and I are inclined to lean toward your first scenario," Town said. "Though I doubt it was Lauren the perp actually hated."
"I doubt that, too," Rick replied. "I suspect that person hated me. Or both me and A.J. And this was their way of gettin' back at us."
Pellman Creek spoke for the first time since Rick had entered the room. "You sound as if you know who this person is, Rick."
"I suspect I do."
"Would you care to fill me
"Tom Bidwell. Cord's right-hand man."
"And what brings you to that conclusion?"
"It's like I told you that day after your raid on the camp. Bidwell had just fingered me as a nark right before A.J. showed up. If A.J. hadn't arrived when he did, I sure as hell wouldn't be sittin' here talking to you guys right now, 'cause Cord had a gun against my skull and was ready to pull the trigger."
"But you told me you're one hundred percent certain Bidwell hadn't shared this news with Cord Franklin until that very moment."
"I am sure of that. Cord was taken aback by the news, there's no doubt about that. And Bidwell hated my guts from the day I walked into that camp. It woulda' been just the kinda feather in his cap he was looking for to make the announcement he did in front of the entire camp. Not only was everyone ready to lynch me, but it made Cord look like a piss-poor leader in front of the other men."
Pellman steepled his fingers in thought. "If I recall correctly, you said Bidwell made no mention of A.J. when he told Cord you were a P.I."
"No, he didn't. But it's possible he simply hadn't gotten around to it before Cord erupted, and prior to A.J.'s arrival."
"So exactly what role is it you
think Bidwell played in your sister-in-law's murder?"
"I think he had someone kill her. I don't know who, but for God’s sake the guy's got friends in the LRP. I think he had someone kill her, and I think he had that person plant the jacket that was found at the scene so the blame would get pinned on Cord."
Pellman and Town had come to that same conclusion, but until they closed this investigation for good they remained noncommittal.
"Unfortunately," Town said, "we can't ask Tom Bidwell these questions."
"Why not? Hasn't he been found?"
"Oh, he was found all right," Pellman stated. "Two days ago in the mountains outside Camp Cord."
"Well, then, what are you talkin'
about when you say you can't ask him any questions?"
Town looked across his desk at his old friend. "He was dead, Rick. He had put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The entire top of his skull was blown off."
The only reaction Rick had was to curse, "Fucking coward."
In the long silence that followed Jerry stood to leave. He laid a hand on Rick's shoulder as he passed. "Tell your brother to return one of my messages. I've tried calling him all week, but he won't pick up so I end up talking to his answering machine. I'd like to take him to a Padres game before the season ends, but it's hard to make plans for that if he won't call me back."
"I'll tell him, Jer. But to be perfectly honest with you, I don't know how much good it will do me." Rick stood and shook Jerry's hand. "Thanks for taking the time to come by. I know you coulda' just had Town hand me a copy of the autopsy report instead of showing up in person. And thanks...thanks for working on Lauren. It meant a lot to A.J., that it was you."
Jerry did his best to smile. After all these years, it was a rare case when he couldn't remove himself from the nature of his job, but autopsying a child was always difficult, and autopsying friends, or the relative of a friend, was pure hell.
With a final, "Take care of yourself, Rick," Jerry exited the room.
Rick retook his seat as Town resumed their conversation.
"The arson investigators have confirmed the conclusion we all came to a week ago - that the fire was deliberately set. It was started in Lauren's office using that old favorite, gasoline."
"Was there any evidence found at the scene that will give us clues as to who might have started it?" Rick asked.
"Other than the camouflage jacket, no. Nothing. But, by far, that doesn't mean we're going to stop looking. A good number of my officers think of you and A.J. as one of our own, Rick. You know that. And you know what it means. Every cop in this city wants to find the person who killed Lauren and torched that building."
"Thanks, Town. I appreciate everyone's concern." Rick shifted in his chair. "What about witnesses? Did anyone see anything that night that
might be of help to us?"
"No one who's come forward. All the buildings in that area house offices that hold normal Monday through Friday business hours. At that time on a Saturday night there would be little reason for anyone to be down there."
"But you started your sentence by saying, ‘No one who's come forward.’ That leads me to believe you suspect a person was in the area who witnessed something."
Town smiled while opening a desk drawer. He knew Rick Simon was too sharp to miss that seemingly innocent comment.
The black man placed a small tape recorder on his desktop. "Since you were present when A.J. gave me his statement regarding the events of that evening, I'm sure you recall him telling me that someone grabbed him by the shirt and guided him out of that burning building."
"Yeah. And I also recall that you and I talked about it later. We both came to the conclusion that after everything he'd been through his thinking was a little muddled. That somehow he got out on his own, because based on what the arson investigator told you, there was no way someone coulda' got in that building after A.J. did and survived to get them both out. He said if A.J. hadn't gotten out when he did that he woulda' died right along with Lauren."
"Which is what A.J. told us he planned to do," Town reminded.
"I know," Rick acknowledged softly. "But so what?"
"The ‘so what’ of it is this. The more thought I gave to everything A.J. told us the more credence I gave it. If he'd decided he wanted to die with his wife, if he had already laid by her side as he told us, what would have made him get up and walk out of there? Let's face it, Rick, with as bad as the fire was he would have had a window of mere seconds in which to get out of that room before he was overcome by smoke."
"So you think someone did pull
him outta there?"
Town shrugged. "Don't know for sure. But listen to this 911 call I obtained."
Even Pellman Creek, who had remained silent during this portion of the discussion, sat forward with interest.
Town pressed the play button and a man's voice filled the room. His sentences were interspersed by the same chesty cough A.J. had been plagued with for days after the fire.
"There's a fire...a fire on San Clara street. At 23251 San Clara. A man's...a man's been injured. A woman...a dead woman is still inside the building."
The dispatcher's voice came over the tape then, asking the unidentified caller questions. But before any answers were given to those questions the caller hung up.
Town hit the rewind button and played the tape through a second time. He waited for Rick to draw his own conclusions.
"That's gotta be the guy who helped A.J. out. It's obvious he was in that building. How else would he have known Lauren was dead?"
"My thought exactly," Town said.
"But who is the guy? I mean, what role did he play in all
this? If he was the one who killed
Lauren and started the fire, why the hell would he pull A.J. out of there? Wouldn't you think he would have let A.J.
"Yeah, that's what I would
think. Is there anything about the
voice you recognize, Rick? Could this
be someone you and A.J. know?"
Town played the tape again. Rick listened harder this time. With a twitch of a finger he indicated for Town to play the tape one last time. When it came to an end Rick shook his head.
"I sure can't identify the
voice. But is it just my imagination,
or does it sound like an older guy?"
"No, it's not just your imagination. Our techs in the crime lab have pinpointed the man's age at somewhere between sixty-five and eighty-five."
"Now how the hell is an eighty-five year old guy gonna fight through fire to get in a burning building and then somehow manage to get both himself and A.J. out?"
"We don't know for certain our
caller is that old, Rick. And, as of now,
we can only speculate that he's the man who helped A.J. What we need, above all else, is to find
this guy and bring him in for questioning."
"Any leads in that
"No. None. He called from a pay phone, so you know what that means."
"That there's no way to trace the call to any specific person."
Rick thought a moment. "Hey, what about fingerprints? The telephone company can trace what phone the call came from. There should be some kinda prints on the receiver."
"We already thought of that. Unfortunately, this came to light after A.J. gave me his statement. As you well know that was almost two days after the fire. The phone booth where this call originated had been used several dozen times by then."
A frustrated Rick exhaled a heavy
sigh and slumped back in his chair. For
the moment Town had no more to offer on the subject, so turned the discussion
over to Agent Creek.
Pellman filled Rick in on several other parts of the case that were still baffling its investigators, then dropped the bombshell. "Logan and Joey Franklin have seemingly disappeared."
"Yes. No one's seen a trace of them, or of my agentm since Friday night."
"By your agent, you mean Joey's nurse Casey?"
"Yes. Though her real name is Spencer St. Pierre."
"So what's all this mean?"
"You told me Logan wasn't at
the camp that last weekend because he was ill.
Is that correct?"
"Yeah. Or at least Cord told me he was ill. Said the kid had some kinda stomach upset." Rick's eyes took in both men. "So what's goin' on here? Where's the woman and the kids?"
"I wish we knew," Town said. "Pellman assures me Ms. St. Pierre is a decorated agent of outstanding character and reputation. Right now we're working under the assumption that her disappearance, and the disappearance of the Franklin boys, is a result of foul play."
"Tom Bidwell," Rick stated flatly.
Pellman nodded. "It very well could be. If he had discovered who you and A.J. were, it's quite possible he also discovered that Joey Franklin's nurse was really an undercover agent for the bureau. That would be reason enough for him to have her killed."
"But what about the kids? I don't understand why he'd harm Logan and Joey."
"As a means of revenge against Cord," Town surmised. "Tom Bidwell sounds like he was a very angry man, and that his anger was directed at the man he was forced to call General. What better way to get back at Franklin than to prove his best friend is really a private investigator working for the FBI, as well as having the sons he cherished killed?"
"I don't know." Doubt was evident in Rick's tone. "I'm not sure Bidwell had the guts to carry something like that out against Cord."
"He might have if he wasn't the one actually doing the killing. Which, because he was at that camp all day, we know is improbable."
Rick thought a long time before speaking again. "So where do we go from here?"
"This case is far from closed," Pellman told the detective. "We got Cord's strategic plan book the night of the raid. Law enforcement officials around the country are right now scrambling to put a halt to the devastation planned for December. And one way or the other I will find out what happened to my agent and the Franklin boys. At this very moment I have investigators combing our files, looking at every possible suspect we can think of who might have a connection to Cord Franklin or Tom Bidwell. If Bidwell was behind this, and behind the death of Brendan Nash as I strongly suspect, then I promise you, Rick, I will find the person or persons he hired to do his dirty work."
"For my brother's sake, is that a promise I can take you up on?"
"Yes. For your brother's sake, that's a promise I more than intend to keep."
Creek rose to make his leave. "Gentlemen, I need to get going. I have a lot of work to do before I can sleep again at night." The man reached into the right front pocket of his shirt and pulled out a check. He handed it to Rick. "This is the payment we agreed upon when I hired you and A.J. I'm sorry...it seems so inadequate now in the face of A.J.'s loss. Perhaps, well perhaps if we prove Lauren's death was tied to Franklin's activities the government will see fit to compensate A.J. in some way."
Rick's private thought of, I wouldn't bet on it, was heavily laced with sarcasm. But he knew none of the events that had transpired were the fault of Pellman Creek, and could see genuine sorrow reflected in the man's eyes over the fate that had befallen Lauren and her baby. Therefore, Rick shook the man's hand and said a quiet "Thanks," as he took the check.
After Pellman exited the room Town indicated for Rick to reseat himself once more.
"I know it's only been a little
more than a week since Lauren's death, but how's A.J. really doing, Rick?"
Rick rubbed a hand over weary eyes. "I can sum up the answer to that question in a few short sentences for you, Towner. He works until he collapses. He rides his bike until he collapses. He runs until he collapses. He beats on that damn punching bag of his until he collapses. And he...he's started drinking. Drinking until he passes out for the night."
"I know," Town acknowledged quietly. "I stopped by his house on Monday evening to see if I could take him to dinner. Needless to say, I immediately scratched that plan. He was in no condition to go anywhere."
"That seems to be the case with him every night since the funeral. And during the day at work...well, during the day he's sober, but I'm sure hung over as hell. You know as well as I do A.J. never has been much of a drinker. I can think of three times in his entire adult life when I've seen him drunk. He's always had too much common sense to drink himself into a stupor. Until now, that is. Now...well, now he's trying to hide from the pain in any way he can find. Everything he does, from working, to running, to drinking, he's doing at full speed. It's like he's been injected with some kind of frantic energy he has to release within a twenty-four hour time period or he'll explode."
"So he wouldn't take any time away from the office like you wanted him to?"
"No. As a matter of fact, he insisted on going back to work the day after the funeral. That was a Saturday, and there hasn't been a day since that he hasn't been in that office."
"You're not staying at his house any longer I take it?"
"He won't let me. Pretty much kicked me out the same day he went back to work." Once again tears filled Rick Simon's eyes. "God, Towner, I hate what I see my brother doin' to himself. I hate it. But I'll be damned if I know how to stop it."
"You can't stop it, Rick," Town stated. "I'm sorry to say this, but only A.J. has the power to do that."
"I know, but I can't help but wonder if he ever will."
Having no more wisdom to offer, Town changed the subject. "Although Pellman and Jerry know what I'm going to discuss with you next, I asked them to allow me to talk to you in private about this particular matter."
Rick didn't try to hide the confusion Town's words evoked.
"Bear with me a moment and allow me to start from the beginning," the black man said. "As you well know, I talked to A.J. about the note Lauren left him the night she was killed when I collected it for evidence."
"At that time A.J. told me he couldn't imagine Lauren agreeing to meet with someone she didn't know - a new client - alone on a Saturday night. Especially not on a night when they had previously scheduled plans. I've also talked at length with Lauren's secretary, Sue Havenbrow. She confirms what A.J. said almost word for word."
"Which means whoever called Lauren was someone she knew."
"Yes, someone she knew. Or a person posing as someone Lauren knew. Not knew well, mind you, but someone Lauren was acquainted with to the extent that she thought she recognized the voice on the other end of the line."
"What are you gettin' at here, Town?"
"That this client who wanted to see Lauren was someone she was familiar with, but maybe not so familiar with that a voice couldn't have been disguised in a way that would have fooled Lauren into thinking she was talking to her client."
"I see what you mean. Yeah, it would make sense. I agree wholeheartedly with A.J. Lauren wasn't a foolish woman, or lacking when it came to common sense. She never would have agreed to meet someone she didn't know alone at night in a deserted building."
"My thoughts exactly. So my first conclusion, as of late last week, was to assume that someone who was a hell of a pro at this sort of thing disguised his or her voice, convinced Lauren they were someone she didn't feel she could refuse to meet with, and thus lured her to the office."
Rick raised a questioning eyebrow. "I don't like the you said ‘my first conclusion as of late last week.’ I've known you too long not to known that tone of voice.
Something has come up since you came to that first conclusion, hasn't it?"
"Yes, it has. And you're not going to like hearing it anymore than I'm going to like telling you about it."
"There's nothing about this situation I've liked so far, Towner, so you might as well lay it on me."
Town hesitated before continuing the conversation. "Another body was found at the scene, Rick. Unlike Lauren, it was smoke inhalation and the fire itself that killed this person. But despite the fact that the body was badly charred it was recognizable. At least to me it was."
"Whatta ya' talkin' about, it was recognizable to you?" Rick sat forward in his chair. "Who was it?"
Town's eyes never left Rick's. "Allison Baker, Rick. The body was Allison Baker."
"Oh shit." For a brief moment Rick squeezed his eyes shut. "You're kiddin' me right? You gotta be kiddin' me."
"No, I'm not kidding you. Jerry got a positive ID from some old records that were still on file with the dentist Allison used when she lived in San Diego."
"It's her, Town. It had to have been her," Rick declared with all the conviction in his soul. "Somehow she had to have been in kahootz with Bidwell."
"We don't know that for certain."
"Well I know it for certain! The fire alone proves she's the guilty one. And somehow she got trapped in her own web. That had to be it. 'Cause if it wasn't, why wasn't she shot, too, like Lauren was? Was she found bound, or gagged, or locked in a closet?"
"See. She lured Lauren there, killed her or had her killed, then set the fire, and for whatever reason couldn't get out. Maybe she wasn't even workin' with Bidwell. Maybe we're all off-base on this Bidwell idea. For all we know the woman could have plotted this all by herself. She hated A.J. for what he did to her. You know that! Twelve years ago she was obsessed with him, Town. Obsessed with him to the point that she was going to kill him, rather than allow him to break off the relationship she perceived them to have in that twisted mind of hers."
"I know all that, Rick. And I'm not discounting what you're saying. I sure as hell don't have an explanation as to why Allison Baker was in that building that night. I will, however, say that my gut instinct tells me she wasn't acting alone."
"The one thing I don't understand is how she got Lauren there."
"She was the client, Rick," Town confessed. "She was the important client Lauren mentioned in her note."
"What! Are you sure about that?"
"Yes. Sue Havenbrow confirmed that Allison Baker was a new client of Lauren's. The first time they met was several weeks ago. They had another meeting the Monday prior to Lauren's death."
"A client how? What type of business did Allison claim to be a part of that would involve her wanting to see Lauren?"
"That's the frustrating part of all this. We don't know. Sue was working on several big projects with Lauren at that time, therefore Lauren didn't turn any of the paperwork over to her regarding Allison Baker. The woman's in the dark as to what it was Allison and Lauren discussed. I've talked to Lauren's boss as well. He'd never even heard of Allison, said Lauren hadn't mentioned her to him."
"Wouldn't that be odd?"
"I thought so, but Mr. Colson claims not. Considering Lauren had eighteen years experience under her belt he gave her free rein with her clients. On a bi-monthly basis they discussed what she was currently working on. But he'd been away on a business trip the first week in July, and then was on vacation the following two weeks. He said he and Lauren were supposed to get together the Monday after her death. If she'd lived that long, then it's a safe bet to say he'd be able to tell us just what it was Lauren was supposedly doing for Allison. Unfortunately, because of the way the fire destroyed every piece of paper in that building, we quite likely will never know."
Rick kneaded his forehead with his fingertips. "Geez, Town, how am I ever gonna tell A.J. this? Things are bad enough as it is. He's already blaming himself for the loss of his wife and baby. He hasn't said so, but he doesn't have to for me to know those are the hard, cold facts. When he finds out Allison Baker was somehow involved...well, I'm afraid that just might be the final straw."
"Then maybe right now isn't the time to tell him."
"I'm considering that possibility, believe me. But if I keep it from him and he finds out later...hell, I don't which will be worse. For me to tell him now, or run the risk of him turning on the TV someday when he's all by himself and hearing it broadcast over the six o'clock news."
"I understand your plight, Rick, believe me. And if our places were reversed, I honestly don't know what I'd do either. But if you want me to talk to him I will. I'll tell him the same exact things I've just told you."
"No," Rick shook his head. "No. I'll do it."
The lanky man stood and made his way to the door. "As much as I wish just the opposite were true, this isn't the kinda news A.J. should hear from a friend. It's the kinda news he needs to hear from his brother."
A.J. was nowhere to be found when Rick returned to the office later that afternoon. He waited around until five, then headed to his boat so he could let Rex out. If A.J. was true to what had become his current habits, he'd return to the office from whatever case he was doing leg work on, stay there until almost dark, then go home and pulverize his punching bag before retreating to the deck with a bottle of Black Bush Irish whiskey. Rick hoped to catch up with his brother sometime prior to that last event.
Unfortunately, Rick's timing was off that night. Darkness had fallen when he arrived at the house on the Grand Canal. He let himself in the kitchen without knocking. The house was completely black, as though clothed in mourning for its mistress and her child. Rick followed the yellow glow of the porch light out to the deck.
A.J. was leaning against the cushioned back of the chaise lounge while Toby slumbering underneath it. A fine sheen of sweat covered the blond man's bare chest and plastered his hair to his forehead. Between that and the gray sweatpants he was wearing, Rick concluded his brother had already gone a few rounds with the punching bag.
"A.J.," Rick stated in greeting. He pulled a chair over from the opposite corner of the deck. "Don't you think it's a little chilly to be sittin' out here tonight without a shirt on?"
A.J.'s lopsided grin was a reflection of the half empty bottle in his hand. "You are the bess big brother a guy could have, you know dat, Rick? Worry, worry, worry. All you ever do iz worry 'bout me." A.J. poked two clumsy fingers against his heart. "It really touches me."
"I'm glad to hear that. But to tell ya’ the truth, I wish you'd quit givin' me reason to worry."
A.J. shot his brother a dark scowl. He poured more whiskey into his glass and took a long swallow. Aside from being slurred, his speech was slow and halting. "You and Mom are cut from the same cloth."
"Lecture...lecture...lecture. She waz here a while ago. She said all the same things you're gonna say. ‘A.J., have you eaten? A.J., you need to slow down, you're pushing yourself too hard. A.J., pleeeease, promise me you won't drink tonight. A.J., come to my house. Stay with me for a few days.’ Nag, nag, nag. That's all the two of you do. As if I'm not forty-nine years old and perf...perf...perf...perfectly," A.J. giggled, "That's a helluva hard word to say when you're drunk. Perfectly. Perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Yep, that's what I wanted to tell you and Mom. That I'm purrrrfectly capable of takin' care of myself."
"You'd be hard-pressed to prove that by me right now."
"Give me a break, Rick. Geez, who pissed in your Wheaties this morning? I don't need your holier-than thou attitude." A.J. snorted. "As if you've never been drunk a day in your life."
"I'm not denying that I have been. But I'm also not gonna tell you that's the way to solve your problems. You know perfectly well it's not, 'cause in the morning all your problems will still be there."
"Perfectly. See, you like that word too." As quickly as A.J.'s goofy smile came, it left him. "And as far as my problems go, big brother, you bet your skinny-ass they're still with me in the morning. They're with me morning, noon, and night, as a matter of fact. They're with me because my wife...my wife and baby are dead. They're dead, Rick! Yep, that's my little problem all right. Lauren was murdered. My baby was murdered. And you think I should juz get over it."
"A.J., I didn't say that and you know it."
This time A.J. took his drink straight from the bottle. The amber colored liquor dribbled down his chin to his bare chest. "What the hell difference does it make what you say anyway, Ricky. I told you the day of the funeral you couldn't make this better, so why the hell are you even here?"
"I'm here because I care about you."
A.J. reached out a hand and laid it on Rick's arm. "I know you do, Ricky. Thaz why you're such a good big brother."
Rick patted A.J.'s hand. "And despite the fact you smell like a Milwaukee distillery, you're a good little brother, Andy."
A.J. giggled. "Ricky and Andy. We should call each other by those names more often. That would be purrrrrfect for our undercover roles. No one would know who we are then."
Oh geez, is he sloshed. I should video tape him when he's like this. The brother I used to know would be mortified if he heard himself sounding like such a jackass. Trouble is, the brother I know now probably won't give a shit.
"A.J., I wanna talk to you about what I found out when I went to see Town today."
In mere seconds sobriety seemed to overcome A.J. He sat up straight and stared out at the canal. "If I wanted to know what transpired between you and Town, I would have come with you."
"No. I don't want to talk about. Lauren was murdered by Cord Franklin, or by one of his friends, or by someone he paid off. What the hell does it matter now? Franklin's dead. The only piece of satisfaction left me would have been if I could have pulled the trigger on the gun that blew the fucker's brains out. But some damn FBI agent did it for me. So now it's over. Done. Finished. And according to you and Mom, I'm supposed to live happily ever after."
"A.J., quit being such a pain in the ass here. Mom and I never said that to you. We know what you're going through. We feel your pain, kid, 'cause we've been there. Don't be so self-centered that you allow yourself to forget that our mother lost her husband when she was only thirty-four-years old. Don't be so self-centered that you forget that I once loved a woman named Troya, who was killed by her twin brother."
Anger flashed from A.J.'s eyes. "I'm not self-centered, and I do remember those things! Okay? I do remember those things! But I don't want to remember them. Any of them. Daddy, Troya, Lauren, my baby - I want to forget them all! And this," A.J. lifted his liquor bottle, "this helps me forget until you and Mom come around yacking, yacking, yacking. I get so sick of hearing you two yack that I could puke."
"Well I'm sorry about that, but you're gonna have to put up with my yackin' for a few more minutes tonight because I have something to tell you that I'm not gonna let you hear from anyone else."
A.J. took a healthy belt of whiskey. "What?"
"Could you put that bottle down
and turn and face me please?"
"No, I can't put this bottle down and turn and face you. Just fucking tell me, Rick. Just tell me so I can go back to sitting out here by myself like I wanted to be sitting in the first place."
"Okay, fine. If that's the way you want it, then that's the way I'll give it to you." Without any preamble Rick said, "There was another body found in Lauren's office building. Jerry and Town have positively identified it as that of Allison Baker."
A.J.'s eyes were wide with shock as he turned to look at his brother. "Allison?" he whispered.
"Yes, A.J. Allison."
A deflated A.J. sunk back against his cushion. Fat, drunken tears rolled down his cheeks. "Why?" he asked the night sky. "Why does this juz keep getting worse? What have I done to deserve this kind of pain?"
Rick knew his brother wasn't talking to him, but rather was questioning a higher deity. The lanky man laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "A.J.--"
A.J. jerked himself away from Rick's touch. He stumbled over the chaise lounge, righted himself, and headed for the French doors. He paused with one hand on a knob.
"Why?" He asked his brother. "Why did you have to tell me? I told you if I wanted to know I would have gone and seen Town myself. Quit deciding what's good for me and what's not good for me, Rick! I can decide those things for my own self. You used to be Ricky, but you're not anymore. Ricky was always my big brother. Ricky always understood. But you don't. You're bossy, and you've got an ego the size of the Grand Canyon…no make that an ego the size of Alaska…no make that an ego the size of all of Canada, and, and, and...and you don't listen to me when I tell you stuff. You just go ahead and do what you think is good for me. Well, now I'm telling you to stop. I don't want to hear anymore about Lauren, or my baby, or, or, or..." A.J.'s tears almost prevented him from completing his sentence, "or who killed them. It doesn't matter, because they're dead. No one can ever bring them back. Not even Rick Simon The Great. Because you're not my hero Ricky, you're just my brother Rick, and believe me there's a big difference between those two things."
A.J. stumbled up the stairs to his bedroom while cradling his precious bottle against his chest. Rick sat on the deck scratching Toby behind the ears long after he heard the door slam. When his body told him it was time to call it a night he stretched out on the sofa in A.J.'s den. After what A.J. had said to Rick, he probably didn't deserve such generosity born from brotherly concern, but Rick well remembered when a bottle of Jack Daniels had made him say some pretty nasty things to A.J. one time twenty some years ago on Pirate’s Key, and how A.J. didn't let those harsh words drive him away during that time when Rick needed him most.
Rick Simon woke to the smell of frying bacon. He swung his legs over the couch and looked through the opening of the breakfast bar into the kitchen. A.J. was dressed for the working day in a wrinkle free white shirt, navy blue tie, and navy trousers. A tweed sport coat with a navy, gray, and fuchsia weave was hanging over one of the bar stools. His bloodshot eyes were the only sign of the hangover he was undoubtedly nursing.
Rick stood and walked into the kitchen. Two places had been set at the table and six pancakes were cooking on the griddle leading Rick to conclude he was invited to stay for breakfast. Without asking he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a gallon of cold milk. He poured the liquid into the glasses A.J. had setting on the table, returned the container to the fridge, then reached for two mugs from the tree by the sink and filled them with coffee.
A.J. carried a platter bearing the bacon and pancakes to the table. He sat in the chair by the window while Rick took the one across from him. As Rick squeezed syrup over his pancakes A.J. spoke in a quiet voice.
"I'm sorry about the things I said last night. I...I don't remember all of them, but the ones I can weren't very nice. You didn't deserve that. I know you and Mom are only trying to help."
"No. Let me finish. You need to hear this and I need you to know I mean it. I might have been wasted last night when I told you that I didn't want to talk about...about Lauren and the circumstances surrounding her murd...her death. But I meant every word I said, Rick. I don't want to discuss it. I don't want to know what Town told you, nor do I want to know what he might tell you in weeks to come. When they arrest someone, then I want to know. Until that time, I don't care whom...whom they might have found in that building with my wife. I don't care what Town is speculating or what he's not. I can't think about it. I don't want to think about it. So I'm asking you to please let the subject drop. I just want to concentrate on running our business."
"And what about your nights? What are you planning to do after the working day ends, A.J.?"
"That's my business, not yours. Nor is it Mother's. This is my home. If I want either one of you here I'll issue an invitation. But I don't need to be babysat."
Rick studied his brother until the intense scrutiny forced A.J. to drop his eyes to his plate.
"You told me I'm not Ricky to you anymore, and that's okay. I can live with that. To tell you the truth, I haven't thought of myself as Ricky in a good many years. So no, A.J., I'm no one's hero. But I am your big brother, and I always will be. Being your brother gives me the right to worry about you, and it gives me the right to love you. Sometimes, like now, those two things go hand in hand. I'm not sure how I can stop doing either one of them." Rick stood without having touched his breakfast. "But all right, if you want me here by invitation only then I'll leave. I'm goin' home to let Rex out and to take a shower. I'll see you at the office at nine. If you need me before then, remember that I'm only a phone call away."
Rick headed for the door. Right before he walked out of it he said, "I'll always be just a phone call away, Andy, but I won't bother you here again unless you invite me."
A.J. sat alone at the table long after Rick left. When he stood it was to dump untouched food into the garbage can, save for a lone pancake that was tossed into Toby's dish. Two different times that morning A.J. almost picked up the phone and called his brother. But when he tried, he found he couldn't. It was easier to bury his pain in a bottle of liquor than it was to talk openly of it with the brother, who up until now, A.J. had always talked so freely with.
The blond man slipped into his suit coat and locked his house. He walked out to the white Grand Am he was renting from Carlos. It would have cost more than it was worth to have the crunched Camaro fixed, so A.J. had Carlos sell it to a salvage yard. As of yet, the detective had lacked the ambition to go out and buy himself a new vehicle. For now, the Grand Am served the purpose of getting him where he wanted to go.
A.J. arrived at the Simon and Simon office at eight-thirty. Like Rick had promised, he arrived at nine. Nothing was said between the brothers about what had transpired in A.J.'s kitchen that morning. Rick left at five, A.J. stayed until almost eight.
Rick Simon sat by his phone that night waiting for it to ring, but it never did.
A.J. Simon sat on his deck trying to drink his pain way, but even when he was so drunk he could barely stand, the pain never left him.
Joey's respirator whirled and whooshed, pumping air in and out of his lungs. Despite the circumstances that brought him to this place, he was growing fond of the ocean view a person could obtain from one side of the house, and the lush foliage a person could get lost in on the other. He'd never seen colors so brilliant. The greens, yellows, oranges, and reds of home paled in comparison to this tropical paradise. He loved to sit at the open window after the sun set and listen to the parrots squawk in the jungle. During the early morning hours he could be found on the other side of the guest bungalow watching the sun rise over the Pacific.
Logan's bare feet shuffled across the wood floors. He plopped his lanky frame on the couch, slouching until his head was almost hidden by the back of the cushions. For what seemed like the fiftieth time that day he declared, "This place sucks. You'd think something that's called a guest bungalow would at least have a frickin' TV. I feel like a member of The Swiss Family Robinson. Remember Mom reading that book to us when we were kids? Except they even had it better than this."
Without his computer, Joey was unable to respond to his brother. If he could have responded, Joey would have reminded Logan that he was the one who got them both into this mess. If Logan hadn't allowed Casey to lead him around like a faithful puppy dog on a leash, then none of the events preceding their arrival on this island would have happened.
While Logan grumbled about his boredom and isolation, Joey looked out the window at the ocean, thinking back on the night that was the catalyst for their journey here.
Why Casey hadn't killed him, Joey didn't know. She'd caught him red-handed trying to get a hold of A.J. Simon. Possibly she'd let him live because she thought of her brother, Tim, when she looked at him, and therefore had a soft spot in her heart for him. Or perhaps it was simply because, without his computer, he couldn't tell anyone what he knew or what he was to witness.
Joey was left in the van that night. The big GMC was specially equipped with a hydraulic ramp and metal holders on the floor that allowed the wheels of Joey's chair to be locked in place. Casey parked the van four blocks from Lauren Simon's office building. She and Logan had pulled that unconscious woman from the back that they'd carried out of the hotel in a garment bag. He wasn't sure what they'd given her that caused her to sleep so heavily, but he'd seen Casey slip a needle in the crook of the woman's elbow when she began thrashing and moaning. Casey had turned to Logan then and said, "What I'm giving her won't show up in any toxicology tests. To all outward appearances it will look as though she was a victim of the fire, too."
Casey and Logan were gone a long time. Joey rocked back and forth in his wheelchair, trying to break the wheels free from their holders. But even if he'd succeeded, he doubted he could have summoned help. In the first place, he wouldn't have been able to get the sliding door open and operate the lift that would get him to the street.
Joey anxiously watched out the window that night. He prayed for someone to walk by the van and notice his distress, but the streets in this part of town were deserted. Joey kept hoping Logan's common sense would come back to him. He kept hoping that at any moment he'd see his little brother running for the van. Logan didn't have his license yet, but he’d just completed driver’s training and had his learner’s permit. He could have gotten them both out of there if he'd really wanted to.
But the promise of Casey's bed had overruled any shreds of decency and honestly Patty Franklin had instilled in her youngest son. Joey knew with heart-wrenching certainty that Casey and Logan had carried out their plan when he saw the first wisps of black smoke reach for the starlit sky. A few minutes later the pair came running for the van, Casey clutching a squalling bundle wrapped in blankets against her chest.
The van had been abandoned just before dawn at a private airstrip in the middle of the dessert. A plane was waiting to pick them up. Joey saw Casey hand some man a stack of one hundred dollar bills right before he began changing the license plates on the GMC. As the plane was sailing down the runway, Joey saw the man climb in the van and drive away.
The plane that carried them out over the ocean was sumptuous and loaded with amenities. Whoever sent it had evidently been expecting a newborn child to be aboard. For the first time since she'd entered the van with the baby, Casey had a chance to clean it up. When she unwrapped the blankets Joey saw it was a boy. Casey carefully washed away blood and the gooey, sticky traces of its first bowel movement. Joey had never seen a baby so young, but once Casey had him diapered and dressed in what looked like a brand new miniature baseball uniform, Joey thought he was beautiful. He wasn't red or wrinkly like Joey had heard newborns often were. Instead, this little guy's skin was clear, his eyes bright and blue, his ears small and close to his little round head, his nose no bigger than the tip of a woman's thumb. A fringe of white hair lay smoothly on top of the baby's head, and when Joey studied him closely he could see that the boy was indeed, the son of his tutor.
Before Casey dressed the baby she weighed him on a scale that was setting on a counter top at the back of the plane. She cooed in the infant's face. "You weigh six pounds two ounces, Tad. Not bad. Not bad at all for a little boy who came into the world the way you did."
Joey contemplated that comment for a long time, wondering just how this child Casey was calling Tad had come into the world. But then he saw Logan cleaning the surgical knives at the sink and returning them to the leather case that belonged to Casey. The nurse hadn't somehow induced labor on Tad's dead mother like Joey had guessed might be the situation, but rather, she'd performed a cesarian section.
The young man listened as Casey continued to talk to the baby. She warmed a bottle of formula she'd pulled from the small refrigerator, and then sat in one of the big, padded captain's chairs. She cradled the baby in the crook of her elbow and guided the bottle to his mouth. It took the infant a few seconds to figure out what to do with the nipple, but when he did he sucked hungrily. This was the first bit of nourishment he'd been given since he'd been ripped from his mother seven hours earlier.
"Logan," Casey instructed. "There's a book sitting on the counter. I need you to record some things for me."
"What things?" Logan asked from where he sat slumped in a chair drinking a Coke.
"The baby's name, weight, length, and time and date of birth. Go on now, move it and get that book or you'll have no more of Casey's special treats."
Logan pushed himself to his feet. He had no desire to play nursemaid to this baby they were lugging along, it was bad enough that Casey had brought his brother. The original plan had been to leave Joey at the house. Via his computer, Joey could have contacted a number of people when he realized Logan wasn't coming back home. But Joey had blown that by overhearing a conversation he wasn't supposed to be privy to, and then trying to contact A.J. Simon. So now, in essence, Logan was going to have to deal with two infants on this trip.
"You said we were going to an island," Logan pouted as he grabbed the book Casey requested. "You said it was a pleasure paradise where you and I could live together for the rest of our lives."
"It is a pleasure paradise, and we will live together. But we have to make a delivery first. Now quit your bellyaching and write down what I tell you to. And neatly." Casey emphasized. "This is for the baby's daddy."
Logan raised an eyebrow. "Baby's daddy? I thought we were in the process of taking the kid away from his daddy."
"By daddy, I mean his adoptive daddy. But this little guy will never know that, because Troy Andrews has no intention of telling him he's adopted."
Joey didn't know who Troy Andrews was, but assumed he must be the man who owned this fancy plane.
Casey put the baby over her shoulder and burped him. The infant cried for the bottle until it was put back in his mouth. Casey lightly rocked back and forth with him while she gave instructions to Logan.
"Print this in the appropriate spots. You'll see what I mean when you open the book. Start with the line for name. Lowell Thaddeus Andrews. Nickname, Tad. Weight, six pounds two ounces. Length, twenty and a half inches. Date of birth, July 26th, 1998. Time of birth, eight-seventeen p.m. Father, Troy Andrews. Mother..." A tiny smile touched Casey's face. "Leave that blank. Mr. Andrews will fill it in later. After the wedding."
Logan looked up from his task. "What wedding?"
"Never mind. It doesn't concern you." Casey ran a gentle hand over the baby's head. The huge diamond ring she was now wearing on her left hand glittered underneath the plane's artificial lights. She took the bottle away from Tad and nuzzled him against the breast of the White Sox jersey she was wearing. Because Logan was sitting over one of the plane's engines he didn't hear her say softly, "I wish I could nurse you, Tad. That would make you seem even more like mine. But, no matter. You know I'm your mommy, don't you."
The woman slipped the bottle back in the hungry baby's mouth. Joey watched from behind her, having picked up each word she said. He hadn't missed the silly smile on her face when she'd told Logan Mr. Andrews would fill in the baby's mother's name at a later date. Logan might be too stupid to figure out that he'd been used, but Joey sure knew what was transpiring.
Logan was asleep when the plane landed on an island airstrip cut right through the jungle. Joey watched out the window as Casey disembarked with the baby in her arms. A blond man was waiting for her when she got to the bottom of the stairs. Tears ran down his cheeks when he took the baby from her. He kissed the sleeping infant again and again, then pulled Casey to him.
Joey could tell the man, who he presumed was Troy Andrews, was trying to convince Casey to get in a waiting car with him. What excuse she used to keep from leaving with the man, Joey never knew. But, very quickly he deduced that Mr. Andrews had no idea that either he or Logan were on the plane.
After Mr. Andrews reluctantly left, a van came for Casey, Logan, Joey, and the luggage that had been brought along. The driver took them to this sumptuous home that Casey called the ‘guest bungalow.’ An island woman was in attendance as a cook, and three times a day another woman came to tend to Joey's needs. Other than that, he and Logan were left on their own.
Logan had been happy the first few weeks here. He'd swum in the ocean each day and cavorted in town every evening. But the isolation of this small place was starting to get to him. At first, Casey came every afternoon. She and Logan would disappear behind a closed bedroom door then, but now the woman's visits were becoming fewer and farther between, which Joey surmised accounted for a fair amount of Logan's unrest.
"We've been here a month now," Logan lamented from the couch. "Four weeks and three days to be exact. This is getting boring. I'm ready to go back to school."
Joey didn't think he'd ever hear his brother say he wanted to go back to school. He realized then to just what extent Casey had corrupted Logan. The sixteen-year-old was talking like he could simply rejoin his friends in algebra class as though nothing had happened. As if he hadn't helped kill two women and kidnap A.J. Simon's newborn son.
Logan's voice interrupted Joey's thoughts. "Man, I bet Dad's out of his mind with worry. I wonder if he's looking for us?"
Joey supposed their father was, in fact, looking for them. If nothing else, he'd be frantic over the disappearance of his favorite son, Logan.
"I wanna call him. Just to let him know we're all right and all. But this damn house doesn't have a phone, and I don't have any money to make a call from that shit hole they call a town."
Logan pushed himself to his feet. "I've sat around this joint long enough. I'm going to find Casey. I'm getting sick of her always telling me she's away on business. I think she's on this island somewhere, and when I find her she's going to marry me like she promised, or she's going to take us back home."
Joey heard the open-air Jeep that was parked outside come to life. He watched Logan bump over uneven terrain until he was out of sight. For lack of anything better to do, Joey returned to staring at the ocean.
Troya and Tiffany bounced up and down in the surf. Though warm weather never left this south Pacific island, the carefree days of summer would soon be over. The school year was set to resume in early September when Troya would enter fourth grade, and Tiffany second.
Very few parts of this long summer had brought little Troya Andrews happiness until recently. The arrival of baby Tad had at least healed some of the ache in her heart caused by Brooks' death. Things had been confusing though. Papa Lowell never came to visit anymore, and a woman named Spencer suddenly lived in their house that Troya liked no better than she'd liked Allison Baker. Daddy had told Troya and Tiffany they should call Spencer, ‘Mommy.’ Tiffany had begun doing so simply because she longed for someone to fill the void caused by the departure of Hillary. But Troya vowed she'd run a million needles through her eyes before she'd call anyone other than her own mother by that term of endearment.
Troya had seen the disapproval on Aziah's face when it became evident Spencer was staying for good. The island woman was barely civil to their guest, though neither Troya's father or his lover seemed to notice. And Troya had overheard Doctor David question her father quite sternly about baby Tad. The man had been summoned to the house within a few hours of Tad's arrival. Troya had been sitting on the couch holding the fussy baby, who had just had his first medical exam and been circumcised, when Doctor David steered her father into his study.
"Troy," Doctor David said, "that baby's barely twenty-four hours old. if that. Now what gives here?"
"It was an arranged adoption, David. It's quite common in the States now days. A fifteen-year-old girl got herself in trouble. Her parents would have no part of her keeping the child. They're personal friends of my lawyer. He put me in contact with them shortly after Brooks passed away. I paid for the girl's prenatal care, and I'll be paying for her hospital stay."
"Still, I can hardly believe any doctor would release a child that young to fly thousands of miles. My god, he couldn't have been more than a couple of hours old when he was sent on his way."
"You're right,"Troya's daddy had placated, "few doctors would have allowed such a thing. But I sent my private plane and hired a nurse to bring him here. And besides, he's my son. Which means he's hale and hearty, right?"
"Well, yes," Doctor David reluctantly agreed, "he's quite hale and hearty."
"Wonderful." Troya leaned sideways on the couch and saw the huge grin of joy that threatened to split her father's face in two. "I'll need you to fill out the birth certificate and include Tad in your patient roster. He'll need his first series of shots when?"
"In eight weeks. But bring him in for a checkup in two."
"Will do. Now fill out this birth certificate please. I want to file it as soon as possible."
Troya saw Doctor David raise a skeptical eyebrow, but he sat at her father's desk. He filled in the information her daddy rattled off about the child's birth weight and length, as well as the date and time of his arrival. When it came to listing the parents, Troya's father simply had him write, Troy Thaddeus Andrews. No mother's name was listed.
"You do have a birth
certificate from the States, I assume?"
Doctor David looked up.
"One that lists the name of the child's mother?"
"Oh yeah. The nurse brought it. But I won't be filing it here on the island."
"Because my son will never know he's adopted, David."
"Troy...come on. That's a pretty old-fashioned notion. It's best if you're honest with the boy. After all, Kono is a small place. People are going to know you adopted Tad whether you tell them or not. And your girls are certainly old enough to know you're not the boy's birth father. Besides, you'll be the man who raised him. By virtue of that alone, the child will always think of you as his father."
Troya saw the anger in her father's eyes and could hear it in his sharp tone. "What I tell my son or don't tell him is no one else's business. And everyone on this damn island better figure that out right now. That child will never know he's adopted. He's mine, David! He's mine just as sure as if my own sperm had fertilized the egg he grew from."
Doctor David seemed mad when he left the house that night. But, then, Troya's daddy was mad, too, until he took little Tad from his daughter and rocked him in the upholstered easy chair. That act seemed to chase Daddy’s anger away as he smiled down into Tad’s face and then talked softly into his tiny right ear.
Despite being put in Brooks' room with all its wonderful toys and the white canopied crib Troya's daddy had gotten out of storage and set up, little Tad had been fussy on and off ever since that night. At first Daddy said it was because of the circumcision. But when it continued, Aziah said he must have the colic. Troya worried that the colic was some mysterious disease that would kill Tad just like a mysterious disease had killed Brooks. But then Daddy explained that colic was nothing more than a tummy ache that plagues many newborn babies, so Troya wasn't quite so concerned. Nonetheless, she thought Tad seemed awfully crabby at times. As if he didn't think he belonged with them. As if he didn't like living at their house.
Today while Troya and her sister played in the ocean her father and Spencer sat on the beach with baby Tad. The infant was dressed in nothing but a diaper, T-shirt, and a cap to protect his fair head from the sun. Spencer rubbed sunscreen over his chubby legs and arms. She raised his T-shirt and kissed his belly, then tickled the bottom of a little foot.
Troya watched as her father took Tad from Spencer and gently bounced him up and down in the sand. The baby was barely a month old and hadn't started to be much fun yet. Between that fact, and his frequent bouts of crying, Tiffany didn't have much use for him. But Troya had fallen in love with him the first time she'd held him, and could forgive her new baby brother the minor transgressions her father assured her Tad would grow out of in time.
Troya ran from the water, Tiffany at her heels. The girls came to a sudden stop when a dusty red Jeep wheeled recklessly through the sand. Its young driver jammed on the brakes and hopped over the side. With narrowed eyes he marched directly for Spencer.
"So this is where you are! While I sit in that damn house going out of my mind with boredom you're here on the beach with this stupid baby!"
Spencer jumped to her feet. She pushed her hands against the strange boy's chest, propelling him back toward the Jeep. Troya's father stood as well. He passed the baby sideways without taking his eyes off Spencer.
"Here, Troya. Take your brother for me, please."
Troya held little Tad against her wet swimming suit. He fussed as the cold water from the ocean touched his warm skin. She bounced him up and down on her hip, careful to support his neck and head with one hand. She watched as her father whirled Spencer around.
"Who the hell is this?"
"He's...he's the young man who helped me take care of Brendan Nash, and Lauren and A.J. Simon. He...I had no choice but to bring him here."
"What do you mean you had no choice, Spencer? There's always choices."
"Spencer?" the boy questioned. "Casey, why is he calling you Spencer?"
The woman turned to face the teen. "Look, Logan, now isn't really a good time, okay? I'll talk to you later this evening. You go back to the bungalow and wait there for me and I'll--"
"Wait there for you! You mean like I've been waiting for you for the last week! You mean like I've been waiting every time you go out of town on business! Well now I know what kind of business you've been up to!" Logan's hate-filled eyes traveled from Spencer, to Troya's father, to Troya and Tad, and finally to the frightened Tiffany who was half hiding behind her big sister. The boy pointed an accusing finger at Spencer as tears ran down his cheeks. "You used me! You used me just so we could get that dumb baby here! You were never going to marry me!"
"Marry you?" Troya's father threw back his head and laughed. The eight-year- old didn't understand why her father's eyes traveled to the crotch of the teenager's blue jeans, nor what he meant when he said, "Little boy, you couldn't satisfy a goat, let alone a woman like this. And if anyone's going to marry her, it will be me. Now go on with you, child. Get off my island."
Logan launched himself at Troya's daddy. Tiffany screamed, but the fight was over before it began. With one strong, well-aimed fist Troy Andrews landed Logan Franklin on his backside. The humiliated teenager stumbled blindly for his vehicle. To the sound of Troy's laughter he roared out of sight.
Just as quickly as Troy's laughter came, it left him. He scowled at Spencer and jerked her to his chest. His daughters couldn't see the bruising grip he had on the woman's arm. He growled in her face, "Get rid of him. And I think you know what I mean by that. He can't leave this island. If he tells anyone what he knows there'll be big trouble." Troy crushed his lips to Spencer's mouth and forced his tongue inside. When the brutal kiss ended he smiled. "You're lucky I love you enough to forgive you for this little mistake. However, don't think you won't pay for it."
Spencer knew how she'd pay for it. A round of violent sex was sure to come after the children were asleep for the night. Sex more violent than even she liked it.
Troy turned to his daughters, his entire demeanor changing in a heartbeat. "Come on, sweet girls, let's take your brother home." The man reached out and took his son from Troya. He placed a kiss on the baby's apple-round cheek. "Daddy's little man needs his nap. Gather up the towels and toys. Hurry up now. And say goodbye to Mommy. She has some business to take care of."
Troy looked over his shoulder at his lover. "She won't be joining us again until she accomplishes it."
Logan liked to walk the beach at night. The waterfront was three hundred yards from the bungalow's patio. There was no moon tonight, meaning he could barely see two feet in front of his face. It was weird to be in a place where no lights from cars, or the street, or other homes interfered with the darkness. He never realized what the phrase pitch black really meant until he came here.
The teenager's mind was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to get himself and his brother off this island. He hated that woman. He hated her. He might even go to the police and tell them what she'd made him do all in the name of love. But first off he had to get back to California, and to do that he had to earn enough money to make a phone call to his dad.
Logan knew that last feat wouldn't be too difficult to accomplish. There were a lot of businesses in the so-called town that employed teenagers. Granted, all of them were kids native to this island, and very few of them white, but Logan figured he could get hired somewhere. If anyone started asking questions he'd simply say he stowed away on one of the big cruise ships that pulled into port every week and needed to earn enough money to make his way back home. Though Logan didn't know how much it would cost to call San Diego from one of the pay phones he'd seen in town, he assumed it would only take about one day of working to earn what he needed. Two at the most. From there, he knew his father would somehow get him and Joey home.
Because of the blackness all around him, and because of his busy mind and the sound of the water lapping at the beach, the teenager wasn't aware of the person who slipped up behind him. A rope was wrapped around his neck and he was bent back so far he thought his spine would snap. His hands flew up to clutch at the garrote, but to no avail. He struggled and kicked and fought like a fish on a line until his bladder released and his lifeless body sank to the sand.
Logan Franklin was rolled into the ocean. By mid-morning of the following day the tide was carrying him right where he'd wanted to go, toward the coast of California. Long before he'd make it that far his bloated body would be a feast for a hungry shark.
Things are very confuzing. For a few days in July a lady named Allison was staying here. She said she wanted to be my mommy, but then Daddy got mad at her and sent her away. I was glad. I didn't like her. She tried too hard to be nice. She was very phony if you ask me. Now there's another lady living in our house that my daddy is making us call Mommy. Only she's not my mommy either. Her name is Spencer. That's another thing that confuzes me. Daddy calls her Spencer, but some boy named Logan came to our beach the other day and called her Casey. Don't you think that's weird? Why wood someone go by two different names? I never saw that boy Logan before, but he sure was mad at Spencer, or Casey, or whatever her name is. This seems like a mystery. Maybe you can ask your stepfather about it. You said he's good at solving mysteries.
Me and Tiffany go back to school soon. Did you go to Arizona with your Dad and stepmom on your vacation? Did you go camping with A.J. and your Uncle Rick? Has your mommy had her baby yet?
Please write to me, Shane. I know you are buzy, but I miss getting your letters. The last one you sent was right after the 4th of July. Do you think one might have gotten lost in the mail?
Your friend, Troya
P.S. Baby Tad cries a lot. I don't think he likes us.
A.J. scowled as he swung the Grand Am he was still renting into his driveway. It was seven o'clock on a Thursday night in mid-September, and he didn't appreciate finding his mother's Mercedes here. Despite the fact that he'd told her he didn't want her popping in on him, she continued to do so at least twice a week. But, then, Rick had ignored that directive as well a few days after it had been issued back in early August. A.J. just wished they'd leave him the hell alone.
The blond man grabbed the mail out of the holder by the kitchen door. He leafed through it as he walked in, seeing the odd foreign postmark on an envelope addressed to Shane in a child's hand. This was the second letter that had come for the boy since Lauren's death. A.J. knew he should get Shane's mail to him, but he hadn't seen either of his former stepsons since the funeral. Both boys had left messages on A.J.'s answering machine, but it hurt too much to even consider calling them back. He couldn't look into Shane's eyes without seeing Lauren, any more than he could take in Tanner's red hair and sunny smile without seeing the woman he had cherished.
A.J. tossed the envelopes on the counter where they joined the rest of the mail he hadn't opened in weeks. He supposed he should at least be grateful to his mother for sorting out the bills and forcing him to write some checks. If not for that, he wouldn't have any electricity, gas, or water.
The blond man tossed his jacket over the back of the couch where it joined the rest of the clothing he'd removed during the week. Something was warming in the oven. Something that his mother no doubt had cooked and that should make his stomach rumble, but like every other night since Lauren's murder the detective had no appetite. Well, no appetite save for the three bottles of beer he grabbed from the fridge.
A.J. uncapped all those bottles, draining one without seeming to pause to take a breath. He finished his second one, then picked up the third and headed for the garage. He could hear the vacuum cleaner running upstairs. He didn't want his mother cleaning for him any more than he wanted her cooking for him, but, again, she'd ignored the directives he repeatedly issued.
The detective stepped over Toby, who was slumbering on the den floor, without stopping to pet him. He slipped off his polo shirt and threw it on his tool bench. He took a healthy slug of beer and placed the bottle beside his shirt. Clad in nothing but faded jeans and a pair of tennis shoes he slipped on his boxing gloves and began pounding his punching bag. He thought about his day at Simon and Simon. The business was making a lot of money lately. More than it had ever made. There was no question that was due to the twelve hour days A.J. was putting in seven days a week, but he didn't care. He had no one to come home to, and little to do with his spare time but mourn for his wife and child. At least working at Simon and Simon kept him from being an all-out drunk. It was only at night, when he arrived home to an empty house devoid of Lauren's warmth and his stepsons' laughter, that A.J. felt the need to drown in alcohol.
Cecilia stood in the doorway that led from the den to the garage, watching A.J. She was well aware he knew she was there, but he went on ignoring her in the hopes she'd go away. They'd been through this routine many nights since Lauren's death. She just wished she knew how to get through to this son who was so rapidly becoming a stranger to her.
The petite woman walked across the concrete. "A.J.!" She shouted over smacking fists. "A.J., would you stop punching that damn bag for a minute and talk to your mother!"
A.J. gave the bag five more hits out
of pure defiance to the woman he'd rarely defied before in his life. His face was set in stone when he
"What," Cecilia said in
the same belligerent tone her son was using, "is that supper is ready and
I'd like you to come in and eat with me."
"I don't wanna eat supper." A.J. swiveled toward his bag.
"A.J...please. Let's not argue tonight."
"I'm not arguing, Mother. I'm simply telling you what I tell you every time you show up here without an invitation."
"If I waited around for an invitation I'd never be here."
A.J. turned his head and threw his mother a glare. "My point exactly."
Cecilia kept the tears at bay those hurtful words caused to well up inside her. Like Rick, she wished she knew how to help her son, but until he decided to help himself, there wasn't much either she nor her oldest son could do but let A.J. know he would always have their love and support, no matter what nasty things he might say to them.
A.J.'s fists started swinging again. Over the sound of leather hitting leather Cecilia said, "Don't you think it's time you let the McAllisters and me help you clean out...clean out Lauren's things and pack up the furniture in the nurs...spare room? Or if you're not up to it, we can do it one day when you're not here. I realize it sounds harsh, honey, but I...I think it will help you move on. It was very difficult for me to go through your dad's things after he died. I put it off for a long time. But, in the end, that act allowed me to heal a little bit. I was able to--"
A.J. ripped off a glove and reached for his beer. He drained the bottle dry, then tossed it in the garbage can. "I don't give a damn! Do what you want! Just quit talking to me and go home, okay? I get so sick of you and Rick telling me what's good for me and what's not good for me! Just clean out Lauren's stuff, Mother, and leave me the hell alone while you're at it!"
Cecilia turned and fled the garage with tears streaming down her face. She grabbed her purse off the counter and ran out the kitchen door. When she got to her car she could hear A.J.'s fists once again flailing his bag. She sat in her Mercedes a long time that night and cried for her son and the horrid tragedy that had changed a loving, gentle man into a bitter, angry person his own wife wouldn't have recognized.
A.J. entered his home at seven-thirty one week later on Friday night. He tossed the mail on the counter and crossed to the refrigerator. He grabbed two beers and reached for the bottle opener. When he looked into the living room he could tell his mother had been there at some point during the day. The clothes that had been left lying around since her last visit the previous Thursday were gone. He turned, and saw the dishes that had been left in the sink since that time were missing as well. No doubt he'd find them sparkling clean and stacked in his cabinets. For the hundredth time he wished she'd just stay away. He didn't care if his house was dirty or his mail unopened. He didn't care about anything anymore, and he doubted he ever would again.
The blond man let Toby out and then headed up the stairs. He ran a hand through the shaggy hair that hadn't been cut since Lauren's death. A three day growth of beard sprouted on his face. He'd shave tomorrow morning, or the morning after. He was no longer meticulous about his appearance, and really didn't care if he was beginning to look like a wino who had slept out in the rain one too many nights. Though A.J. didn't know it, long time clients and friends were starting to express their concern over his appearance to Rick. He never wore a suit coat and tie to work any longer as had always been his custom when meeting with a new client, or seeing a current customer in their office environment. More often than not his shirts looked they'd been slept in, and he never paid attention to what jeans he put on. Ragged, holes at the knees, or stained with paint, to all intents and purposes it was like A.J. Simon hadn't looked at himself in a mirror since his wife had died.
The blond man walked in his bedroom with the intention of changing his clothes. He wanted to ride his bike as many miles as his legs would take him. It had become a habit of his in recent weeks; riding his twelve speed after dark. Rick told him he was a stupid fool to be out riding around San Diego like that, especially since he had no light on the bike, but A.J. didn't give a shit. Those rides in the cool night air reminded him of all the rides he and Lauren had taken on the tandem bike they'd given to each other as a wedding present. That bike still sat in A.J.'s garage, and he could never look at it without thinking of how much fun he and his wife had when riding it. The weeks the boys were with him and Lauren, the four of them rode bikes nearly every evening. On Sundays they often took look rides through Balboa Park, stopping at one of the many food stands for lunch before heading off again down well groomed paths.
The minute A.J. opened his closet he knew something was different. He clawed through the clothes whispering a hoarse, "No. No! Dammit no!"
The blond dived into the enclosed space. His wife's things were gone. Not a dress, or a suit, a pair of slacks, or a blouse, was anywhere to be found. He dropped to his knees and tossed out his shoes. Lauren's shoes were missing. The high heels were gone, and the dress shoes she'd referred to as flats that she'd worn as her pregnancy advanced. Her black bicycle shoes were missing, and the running shoes she jogged in prior to her pregnancy. The sturdy walking shoes she'd used in recent months were gone, as were the pearl colored dress shoes she'd worn at their wedding that matched the lace tea-length dress that was also absent.
A.J. crawled out of the closet, scrambling over his shoes. He yanked open dresser drawers. Her sweaters and T-shirts had been taken, her jeans and shorts were gone. Even the drawer that held her undergarments was empty.
The detective raced for the room down the hall. He flung the door open and flicked on the light. He gave an anguished cry and sank to his knees. The crib and changing table had been removed. The swing that had sat in one corner was gone as was the dresser. He didn't even bother to open the closet. He knew everything he and Lauren had stored in there on the Fourth of July would be missing. The room looked absurd now devoid of baby furniture, what with its pale peach walls and the carousel border.
A.J.'s heartbroken sobs echoed off the walls of the bare room. He rocked back and forth on his knees, crying, "Why? Why? Why?"
When A.J. stumbled from the room ten minutes later he headed straight for the liquor cabinet.
A.J. sat on his couch and drained another tumbler of whiskey. If he heard the knock on the kitchen door he chose to ignore it. It sounded two more times, then the door was opened a crack.
"A.J.?" Shane Albright peeked his head inside the familiar room. "A.J., are you home!"
Though A.J. didn't answer him, Shane caught sight of the man he still thought of as his stepfather sitting on the couch. The boy entered the house, allowing Toby to enter with him. The little dog had been waiting outside the kitchen door with a mournful look on his face, as though he'd been forgotten about hours earlier. He snubbed the master he was angry with and trotted up the stairs to the master bedroom.
A.J.'s visitor closed the door and walked through the kitchen. The detective barely blinked when Shane came to stand in front of him. He bestowed a drunken smile on the child.
"Well now, looky here. Izz my little buddy Shane." A.J. leaned forward and patted the boy's shoulder with an uncoordinated hand. "How ya' doin', kidlet?"
Shane took a step backwards, frightened by this man he almost didn't recognize. He'd never seen A.J. with long hair except in old pictures Grandma C. had shown him. And even at that, the blond locks hadn't been this shaggy and unkempt. And the beard stubble. Shane had only seen his stepfather with that when they went on their annual guys-only camping trip with Rick. The boy remembered that when they'd come home last summer A.J. had rubbed his rough face against Shane's mother's cheek. She'd laughed while pushing A.J. away and calling him an old mountain man. Then she'd ordered him to get upstairs and shave it off. When A.J. had playfully protested and said he just might keep it, Shane's mother had told A.J. that if he did he'd never be allowed to kiss her again. A.J. had winked at Shane and Tanner, then stole a kiss from their protesting mother. But after the fun was over he had willingly gone upstairs to shave. He told the boys later on that he didn't like the feel of a beard any better than their mother did.
The boy watched as A.J. refilled his glass with whiskey. That was another thing that was different. A.J. was drunk. Shane had never seen him this way. A.J. rarely drank alcohol other than a glass of wine when Shane's mother had made her mouth-watering lasagna.
"So, lille buddy," A.J. slurred, "what brings you here? Did you come to get the stuff you left behind? If you want it you better take it now, 'cause I'm tellin' you the gremlins were here today and they practically cleaned me out of house and home." A.J. peered out the French doors into the darkness. "How'd you get here anyway? Wait, don't tell me, let me guess. You drove."
"A.J., I just turned nine years
old last Friday," the practical Shane stated. "I don't have a driver's license yet."
A.J. giggled. "He juz...he juz turned nine years old last Friday. Nope, he doesn't have a driver's license unless they're passin' 'em out in the fourth grade now."
"To answer your question, I rode my bike."
The thought of Shane riding his bike eight miles in the dark didn't appear to alarm A.J. like it normally would have. "Okay. Thaz cool. Juz don't park it in my spot, kid."
"I didn't." Shane sat down on the coffee table. "How come you haven't returned my phone calls? Or Tanner's either? I thought we were going to join the father-son basketball team at my school. And Tanner wanted you to take him to karate like you used to. And I invited you to my birthday party, but you didn't call me to tell me if you were coming or not. Me and Tanner waited for you. We even made Kathy hold off on serving the cake until Grandpa Mac said we might as well eat it. That you weren't gonna show up."
"Well, iz like this, Tanner, I--"
A.J. stretched his neck forward and studied the boy with drunken intensity. "Oh, yeah. Shawn. See, Shawn, iz like this. I get invited to lots and lots of parties lately. So many I can't make it to all of 'em. Hell, kid, I'm the life a' the party these days. Everybody wanz to see ole' A.J. Uncle Towner wanz to take A.J. to supper, and Jerry wanz to take A.J. to baseball games, and Lindy wants A.J. to come to her house for coffee and dessert, and Grandma C. wants A.J. to go with her to dinner and a movie, and Rick...well, Ricky wants to take A.J. everywhere he goes. So see. A.J. juz doesn't have a lot of free time on his hands."
The boy placed his hands on his hips. That gesture, and the anger that radiated from his young face, poignantly reminded A.J. of his dead wife. He took a belt straight from his bottle.
Shane came right to the heart of his visit. "What are you doing to find the man who killed my mother?"
"Your mother? Who's your mother?"
At those words, tears began to stream down the child's face. "My mother Lauren! She was your wife, you stupid old drunk! You married her on Rick's boat! Me and Tanner were your best men along with Rick. You said...you said you loved us like we were your own sons, and now you can't even remember my name!"
The boy jumped to his feet. "I hate you, A.J. Simon! I hate you! I'm glad your father's dead, do you hear me! I'm glad he's dead, and I hope that hurts you as much my mother being dead hurts me! You told me you were going to find her killer. You promised! But instead you just sit around here and drink like a fish! I hate you, and if my mother was here she'd hate you too!" Shane ran for the door. Right before he slammed it he screamed at the back of A.J.'s head, "I don't ever wanna see you again!"
A.J. stood on wobbly legs and weaved to the kitchen. To no one in particular he mumbled, "I need a drink."
The letters with the foreign postmark were in plain view, but he forgot all about giving them to the little boy who'd just fled in tears.
Rick Simon turned down the residential street that would take him to A.J.'s house. No doubt he'd find A.J. drunk, if his brother was even home from the office yet, but on the off chance he found A.J. sober he was going to try to convince the blond to spend the night on the boat. If he could just get A.J. away on a weekend fishing trip, Rick had a feeling they could talk, really talk for the first time since Lauren and the baby had died. Rick knew he could make A.J. see he was slowly killing himself, and killing those who loved him, if he could just get his brother away from the distractions of every day living, and that stupid Black Bush Irish whiskey he was always shnockered on after eight o'clock on any given night.
The scratched paint and bullet holes that had marred the Durango's surface had been fixed weeks earlier at A.J.'s insistence, and with his money. Rick slammed on the big vehicle's brakes when blur of motion shot in front of it.
"Damn kid! What the hell is a kid that age doing out on a bike after dark anyway?" He caught a fleeting glimpse of the child as he passed under a streetlight. He looked again, seeing the back of the boy's head as he pedaled toward the intersection.
Rick threw the vehicle in reverse, did a Y turn, and pressed on the gas. He beeped when he got alongside the youngster. He flicked the switch that would bring down the passenger side window and shouted into the night. "Shane! Shane, wait up! Shane, it's me, Rick!"
Rick pulled the Durango to the curb, switched on the hazard lights, and jumped out. "Shane! Shane, stop! It's Rick!"
The distraught nine-year-old turned at the familiar voice. He stopped his bike, dropped it to the sidewalk, and ran toward Rick with open arms. The detective knelt and allowed the boy to fall into his chest. He put his arms around Shane's back and held him close while the child sobbed into his field jacket.
"There, there," Rick soothed while patting Shane on the back. "What's wrong, pardner?"
Between hiccupped sobs Shane pushed
out, "I hate...hate him. He's an old drunk now. He...he's not even...not even trying to
find...to find the man who took my mom...my mom from me. He...he didn't even know who I was. He called...called me Shawn. I hate him, Rick. I hate him."
Rick didn't have to ask who the ‘he’ was who'd dominated each of Shane's sentences. He let the boy cry until there was no tears left, then took out his handkerchief and handed it to the youngster. Shane wiped his eyes and blew his nose, then handed the soiled hankie back to Rick who stuffed it in a pocket of his jacket.
Rick rose and offered the boy his hand. "Come on, kiddo, let's put your bike in
the back of my truck and get you home.
Does your dad or Kathy know where you are?"
"No. They went out for supper. Erin was left in charge of me and Tanner. I snuck out while she was on the phone and Tanner was watching TV."
"Well, I imagine someone knows you're missing by now and is worried sick." Using one hand Rick lifted the bike. He carried it to his truck, turned the latch on the cargo hold, and placed the bike on its side within the cargo hold’s berth. He slammed the door and then led Shane to the passenger side of the vehicle.
"Go on. Climb in and put your seat belt on."
Rick walked in front of the vehicle, stepped up on the running board and retook his seat. As the detective was putting his own seat belt on Shane spoke.
"Are you mad at me?"
Rick gave the boy a smile. "No, Shane, I'm not mad at you. I'm not real pleased to find out you left your dad's house without telling Erin where you were going, and I'm especially not pleased to find you this far from home on your bike after dark, but no, I'm not mad."
"I had to see him, Rick. I had to.
I've called him six times since Mom...since Mom's been gone, but he
never calls me back. And Tanner's
called, too. Lots of times." The boy looked down at his hands. "We...we miss him, Rick."
"I know, buddy. And A.J. misses you and Tanner, too."
Anger flashed in Shane's eyes when he looked up. "No he doesn't! I already told you that he doesn't even remember my name."
"Shane, A.J. remembers your
name. But he was drunk tonight when you
went to his house, wasn't he?"
"Yeah. Really drunk. I've never seen him like that before, Rick. He..he's different now. He's not A.J. anymore."
"Yeah, kiddo, he's still A.J. It's just that he's having a real hard time dealing with the death of your mother and the baby."
"I know that. But so are me and Tanner, and we sure aren't drunks."
Rick chuckled. "I'm glad to hear that. It sounds like you and Tanner have more common sense than my little brother right now." Rick sobered. "Shane, I know you're angry with A.J., and I don't blame you. I get angry with him, too, on a lotta days lately. But he's hurting so much inside that he just doesn't know where to turn for help, so he turns to alcohol. I'm not saying that's right. It's not right at all. But sometimes, well sometimes that's what grownups do when life deals them a bum hand." Rick looked out the truck's windshield. "A.J...A.J. loved your mom very much, Shane. So much that the hurt he feels over her passing is like one big raw wound that won't heal."
"Will it ever heal? Will A.J. ever stop being a drunk?"
"I don't know, kiddo," Rick exhaled a heavy sigh. "I just don't know."
Shane sat back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, until he does I don't wanna see him again. And you can tell him that for me, too."
Rick shook his head and put the truck in gear. He switched off the hazard lights and pulled back onto the street.
Whether you know it or not, Shane, you are as stubborn as your stepfather.
The detective had never been to Rob Albright's home before, but he had a good idea as to where the man lived. When he arrived in the general vicinity he followed Shane's directions the rest of the way. Rob and Kathy came running out the front door as soon as the Durango swung into the drive. They didn't immediately recognize the vehicle, but they certainly knew the boy who hopped out of it.
"Shane!" Rob cried as his son ran into his arms. "Where in the world have you been?"
Kathy took her turn at hugging her stepson. "You scared the daylights out of us, and had poor Erin in a tither, young man. We were just about to call the police."
Rick walked around from the back of the vehicle, carrying Shane's bike. Though she had no idea what was going on, Kathy took charge of the situation so her husband and Rick could talk in private.
"Come on, Shaner, let's put
your bike in the garage and get you in the house. Your brother and sister will be happy to see you. Say good night and thank you to Rick."
Shane wrapped his arms around Rick's waist. "Thanks for bringing me home."
Rick bent and gave the boy a final hug. "No problem, pardner. Tell Tanner I said hello."
The two men waited until Shane and Kathy entered the garage before either of them spoke.
"What's going on,
Rick?" The upset Rob Albright
asked. "Where'd you find
"I damn near ran him over a couple blocks from A.J.'s house. He shot right out in front of me. When I realized it was Shane, I chased him down."
"I don't understand why he'd do such a thing. I know the boys want to see A.J., but he never returns their calls, so I didn't want to intrude by popping in on him. Mac told me...well, Mac told me A.J.'s been drinking pretty heavily."
"He has been. Shane found him drunk tonight. I don't know for certain what transpired between the two of them, but when I caught up to Shane he was crying so hard he could hardly see straight. He told me he hated A.J. and never wanted to see him again."
Rob heaved a heavy sigh. "He's been counting on A.J. finding Lauren's killer. When Tanner questioned him the other day as to why A.J. hasn't returned their calls or invited them over, Shane told him it was probably because A.J. was busy trying to find the man who murdered their mother."
"To tell you the truth, Rob, A.J. hasn't been busy doing much of anything but driving himself to an early grave."
"Mac and Annette said he's
having a hard time of it."
"Yeah, he is. He just can't seem to get past the initial onslaught of grief and allow himself to move on a little bit. Not that I can blame him. He loved Lauren a lot, and was more excited about that baby than any expectant father I've ever seen."
"I know. He was on cloud nine the day of the boys' soccer tournament what with Lauren's due date being so close." Rob shoved his hands in his back pockets and looked up at the night sky before speaking again. "A.J. was the right man for Lauren, Rick, just like Kathy is the right woman for me. Over the years Lauren and I learned to put our differences aside and actually grew to be friends. She was a terrific mother to our sons, and I always appreciated the fact that A.J. was a terrific stepfather to them. I was glad the day Lauren and A.J. got married. I thought they were perfect for each other. I wanted Lauren to have the same happiness with A.J. I had found with Kath."
"She had that happiness," Rick confirmed. "Only thing is, is that it didn't last long enough."
"No, it sure didn’t." Rob held out his hand to Rick. "Thanks for bringing Shane home."
"You're welcome. And don't be too hard him. He's had enough upsets for one night."
"Don't worry, I'll go easy on him. I think he'll be grounded from that bike for the weekend, however."
Rick smiled. "Now that might not be a bad idea." The detective turned toward his vehicle. Rob's voice stopped him.
"When A.J....well, when A.J.'s doing better, give me a call. I know the boys will want to see him."
"Yeah, Rob, I'll be sure to do that." As Rick started the Durango he thought with sorrow, if A.J.'s ever doing better, that is.
Rick slammed the kitchen door when he entered the house on the Grand Canal an hour later. A.J. was sitting in the same spot where Shane had encountered him. Rick stomped around the couch.
"Do you know what you did
"Lezz see," A.J. laid a finger on the side of his head as if in deep thought. "I think I came home from work and had a drink. Yep, thaz what I did. I came home and had me a drink."
Rick snatched the glass and bottle from A.J.'s hand. He ignored the indignant protest of, "Hey, gimme that back!"
"I think you had more than a drink, A.J. I think you've had several drinks. So many drinks that you scared the shit out of a nine-year-old kid, then let him run outta here in tears and hop on his bike. What the hell is wrong with you? Shane coulda' been hit by a car or picked up by some pervert! You hurt a boy you love, A.J.! You hurt him a lot, and I don't know if he'll ever be willing to forgive you for that."
A.J. shook his head with drunken intensity. "I don't love anybody. Nosireebob, not one single solitary person."
Rick sat down on the coffee table, placing the glass and bottle he still held out of his brother's reach. "A.J., come on. You don't mean that."
"I do too. If you don't love anybody, you can't be hurt
when they go away. When they die. When someone burns them up in a fire. Nope, you can't be hurt at all. So see, I don't love no one, and no one
loves me, and that's juz fine and dandy with ole' A.J."
"A.J., please." Rick couldn't bear the words he was hearing. "Please. I think you need to see someone."
"Really?" A.J. brightened. "You gotta woman for me, Rick? Thaz great. Yep, thaz a right good idea if I do say so myself, big brother. Thaz juz what the doctor ordered, a bimbo picked out for A.J. by Ricky Simon. Does she got big tits? I hope so 'cauze you know, thaz the way I like 'em. The bigger the tits the better, thaz what I always say.
"If you were sober enough to realize how stupid you sound you'd pour this booze down the sink, instead of down your throat."
A.J. reached over and patted his brother on the knee. "But that's the wonerful thing...wonerful...geez I sound like Lawrence Welch, don't I?"
"Welk. You mean you sound like Lawrence Welk."
"Yep, thaz what I said. I sound like Larry Elk. Wonerful, wonerful, wonerful. And a one-a and a two-a. Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah. You were tellin' me how stupid I sound. See, the wonerful thing about being drunk is come tomorrow morning I won't remember how stupid I sounded tonight." A.J. giggled. "Ain't that cool, Rick?"
Rick heaved a sigh of disgust. He stood and headed for the door. "There's no use in me trying to talk to you tonight. If you want to give me a call when you sober up feel free. But you know, A.J., you can only push people away so many times before they quit coming back."
"Huh uh. No no. Thaz not true." It took three tries, but A.J. finally got to his feet. He toppled sideways, then righted himself and held onto the couch as he staggered around it. He lurched for the kitchen counter top, grabbing hold so he could stay upright.
"People keep coming back. They come all the time. You keep coming back even though I've told you not to. And Mom and the McAllisters keep coming back, even though I've told them not to. Hell, everybody's having a party at ole' A.J.'s house these days." A.J. waved a hand toward the stairs. "Yep, a party. They had a party and they took them away from me."
"Who took what away from you? Whatta' ya' mean?"
"Mom, and the McAllisters, and Lisa and Jeff. They came while I was at work today. They took her clothes, and her jewelry, and her books, and her records. They took her Barry Manilow records, Ricky. Those stupid, sappy Barry Manilow songs that she used to play over and over while she cleaned the house that I teased her about so much, they took them. They took Barry. They took everything. Everything that was hers right down to her shampoo. Just like that damn Grinch who stole Christmas." Tears started to trickle down A.J.'s face. "And my baby. They took my baby's crib, and my baby's swing, and the dresser with my baby's clothes, and, and, and....and where's my baby gonna sleep now, Rick? Huh? You tell me, just where is my baby gonna sleep?"
A.J. laid his head on the counter top and started to sob in earnest. "I didn't want them to come. But Mom nagged and nagged and nagged. I got so damn sick of hearing it that I told her to go ahead. ‘Go ahead and take Lauren's stuff,’ I said!" A.J. looked up through wet lashes. "But I didn't mean it! Didn't she know I didn't mean it? I want my wife's clothes! I want my baby's furniture! But it's all gone. They took everything away from me, and now Lauren and my baby are gone forever."
"They're gone forever." The blond man sank to the floor. "They're gone forever and I can't stand it. I can't stand it, and I wish I were dead. Oh, God, why didn't You let me die that night with my wife and baby? That's all I wanted. It's all I ever asked for."
Rick crossed to his brother. The sobs that were shaking A.J.'s body cut Rick to the core. He was so scared. So scared A.J. had reached the end of his rope.
Rick took A.J. in his arms and rocked him back and forth. In an almost frantic movement he ran his hand through A.J.'s hair as the blond man kept murmuring, "I want to die. I just want to die. Please just let me die."
"No, A.J., no," Rick whispered. "That's not the way. That's not the way at all. No, that's not the way."
But Rick knew A.J. hadn't heard him. The alcohol and his distress had caused the blond man to pass out in Rick's arms.
Rick sat on the floor a long time that night with his younger brother cradled against his chest. He wondered what it would take to make A.J. want to live again. What it would take to give A.J. a purpose again.
Trouble was, Rick Simon couldn't come up with one damn thing.
It had been over a month since Joey Franklin had seen his brother. Logan had come home upset and crying from wherever it had been he'd driven off to that afternoon in late August. He'd paced the house muttering and swearing, while calling someone a “stupid bitch.” Logan didn't have to fill in the gaps for Joey to piece together what had occurred. The sixteen-year-old had finally figured out Casey had used him for her own personal gain. Joey suspected she was holed up somewhere with that man, Troy Andrews, who had taken the baby from her that July day their plane landed on this island. Maybe she was even married to him. Maybe she had been all along. Exactly why she wanted to hurt A.J. Simon by killing his wife and kidnapping his child Joey hadn't figured out, but then it could have simply been a crime of convenience. Mrs. Simon was pregnant, and Casey and Troy Andrews had a strong desire for a child. Joey thought murder seemed to be a rather drastic step when adoption was a more viable alternative, which is why he was certain there were pieces of this puzzle that had not been revealed to him yet.
Logan hadn't touched his supper that night, and as soon as it grew dark he left the house to walk on the beach. That was the last Joey ever saw of him. He wondered if Logan had somehow gotten off the island. He could have stowed away on one of the cruise ships Joey supposed, but he didn't think his younger brother would leave without him. Or at least not leave without telling Joey what his plans were. Granted, he and Logan hadn't been close in years, but they were still brothers, and out of that bond came a large degree of loyalty no one could ever completely interfere with.
For the most part now, Joey Franklin spent his days alone. Oh, there was the housekeeper/cook who was always in residence, but with Logan gone she didn't have anyone to cook for, or anyone to pick up after. Being confined to a wheelchair meant Joey didn't exactly leave dirty socks or empty soda bottles lying around.
The nurse Casey had hired still came three times a day, but she didn't speak English, meaning even that form of human contact had been taken from the young man. Casey came on occasion, her smile still as bright, and her wit still as sharp, as they had been the day Joey met her. The woman had an advantage over her patient since he couldn't ask her any questions about Logan and she knew it. She knew it quite well, and never brought Logan's name up, which cemented Joey’s suspicions that his brother had fallen victim to foul play instigated by Casey herself. It pained the young man to acknowledge such thoughts, but he had to face the facts. He wondered what Logan had done to put himself in such a position, and he also wondered why he, Joe, was still alive.
Because Joey had so much time on his hands he'd been able to do some well-orchestrated plotting. His wheelchair would roll right out the patio doors off the kitchen. From there the ground looked smooth enough to maneuver all the way to the beach. He thought the tires on his motorized chair would tread sand, but he wasn't certain. Nonetheless, that just might be a risk he was going to have to take. He knew there was a doctor in town. He'd heard his nurse and the housekeeper converse in their native language. The name ‘Doctor David’ was one of the few phrases he could understand. Maybe if Joey could find this Doctor David he'd have a chance at getting off this island. Granted, he couldn't communicate with the man, but if nothing else the physician's suspicions should be raised by Joey's sudden appearance. If the man asked him the right questions, Joey could at least nod his head yes or shake it no in response. And years ago, before he had his voice synthesizer, Joey and his mother had learned American Sign Language from a book Patty Franklin had checked out of the library. Because of his spastic hands Joey wasn't proficient at this form of communication, but he could get by if someone else who was familiar with it picked up on his signals.
Joey maneuvered his wheelchair to the patio doors. When the housekeeper noticed he was sitting there she slid them open and waited until the chair had traveled through the doorway and onto the concrete. Joey sat outside all afternoon watching the ocean sway in the gentle breeze. He eyed the terrain all around him, still concluding that the beach was his only means of escape. The overgrowth of the nearby jungle would be impossible for his chair to traverse.
Patience, the young man cautioned himself. Have patience. You need to think this through some more. See if this is the best way, or if some other opportunity will arise. And besides, you'd have to leave after it got dark. You can't risk running into Casey. Regardless of the reason she's let you live, it doesn't negate the fact that she's committed murder. Probably several murders. If she can take a life that easily, she'll surely do it again if given a good reason.
Joey made sure he sat out on the patio until long after the sun melted down the western sky. He wanted the housekeeper to get used to what was going to become a new habit.
Troya and Tiffany walked home from school with their backpacks resting snuggly over their thin shoulders. They parted ways with their last friend, and then headed up the winding path that would take them to their father's mansion.
It was early October, and school had been in session a month. Troya was glad to return to the clapboard schoolhouse that had been built by missionaries almost a century ago. Other than the fact it was two stories high, it looked like the schoolhouse Troya saw every day on her favorite TV program, Little House On The Prairie.
The first through fourth graders resided on the main floor of Troya's school, and were all taught by the same teacher, Miss Senters, a young vivacious blond from North Carolina who was adored by her little pupils. The fifth through eight graders were housed on the upper floor and taught by two teachers in their early thirties, Mr. and Mrs. Dalski, a married couple originally from Massachusetts.
The island had no kindergarten program, nor did it have a high school. When it came time for secondary education, those students whose parents chose to let them advance boarded at a larger island forty miles to the south that had a high school. Troya didn't know what would happen when she got that old. Her mother had wanted her to attend a private high school in New York City, but her father had always said he'd never allow it. That he couldn't bear to have his children so far from him. He'd promised Hillary that before Troya reached the age of fourteen he would fund the construction of a high school building right here on this island, and even hire the teachers needed to hold classes. Until recently, Troya had still hoped her daddy planned to do that. But now that her mother was living in New York, she hoped he'd send her to high school there. At least then she could be with her mommy for part of the year. But Troya didn't think that would ever happen. She'd overheard her father talking to his lawyer. Grandpa Dalton had hired a lawyer for Mommy who was threatening to take Troya and Tiffany from their father. Troya's daddy had been furious when he'd shouted into the phone, "Over my dead body will anyone take my baby girls from me! If I have to spend every penny I've ever made to fight Emery on this then you can damn well believe I will!"
Troya stopped as she climbed the long, concrete stairway to the house. Tiffany bumped past her, running on by. "Come on, Troya! Let's change our clothes and see if Aziah will let us play with Lilly and Meeka before supper!"
Troya lagged behind her sister. She squinted into the sun when she looked up at the patio high above her head. Spencer was standing there holding Tad. Troya saw Tiffany race out to join them. She gave Spencer a hug and planted kisses all over the baby's face. Troya scowled. She didn't like to see Tiffany hugging that woman, but it was happening on a more frequent basis. The breeze carried Tiffany's squeaky, high-pitched voice down to her big sister.
"Mommy, can me and Troya meet
Lilly and Meeka halfway between their house and ours? We want to play until it's time for supper."
"Sure, sweetheart, whatever you'd like." Spencer looked down and waved to Troya. "Hi, hon. Come on up and get the snack Aziah has waiting for you. Then you and Tiffany can go meet your friends for a little while."
Troya dropped her head and trudged for the house. In perfect imitation she mimicked, “ ‘Hi, hon. Come on up and get the snack Aziah has waiting for you.’”
The girl made sure she couldn't be overheard when she said, "I'm not your hon, and I don't like you holding our baby. And I most especially don't like you living in our house. I wish you'd go away, Spencer St. Pierre. I wish you'd go far, far, away."
Much later that evening, the Troy Andrews' household was quiet and settled in for the night. Troya and Tiffany had been asleep for hours, and Aziah had retired to her suite of rooms in a back section of the mansion's first floor where she sat in her recliner watching the Home Shopping Channel.
The master of the household and his mistress lay naked on his huge bed. Baby Tad, wearing a diaper and light weight one-piece sleeper, lay between them. Spencer kept nuzzling the boy to her breasts, but the bottle fed infant with the full stomach had no idea what he was supposed to do with the offerings. When the woman returned the baby to the mattress he flailed his arms and legs in the air, getting his exercise for the night.
Troy smiled down at this son. He ran gentle fingers from the tip of child's tiny toes to the top of his head. The adoration and love he felt for this little boy was plain to see on his face and hear in his voice. "He's beautiful, isn't he? Absolutely beautiful."
"Yes, he is," Spencer
said, and she honestly meant it. Tad
was a gorgeous baby. The kind you see
modeling infant wear in children's catalogs, or cooing in a commercial
advertising baby shampoo. "He
looks just like you."
Troy beamed at his lover. "You think so?"
"Oh yes. Definitely." If there was one thing Spencer was good at, it was stroking the male ego. While the baby's coloring was identical to Troy's, the infant actually didn't look anything like him. He looked like his father. His biological father, A.J. Simon. Each day as he grew and changed Spencer could see the resemblance more and more, but she knew better than to ever comment on that fact.
Troy leaned over his son and took the end of one of Spencer's breasts into his mouth. He sucked and murmured and licked while she cupped his head to her chest with a moan. When the man had his fill he leaned back on one elbow. "My son may not know what to do with those treasures, but I'm not at a loss in that department."
Spencer reached down and squeezed the man's erect penis. "No, you're not. That's for certain."
Troy chuckled as he rose. He scooped up Tad and walked him over to the bassinet that sat on the opposite side of the room. He kissed the baby's forehead before placing him in the covered bed. "Good night, sweet boy. Sleep tight."
The baby fussed a little while, but Troy stood by the bassinet and gently rocked it back and forth until Tad settled down for the night. He knew the child would be terribly spoiled, but he didn't care. He planned to give Tad anything and everything he asked for.
Troy padded back to the bed, sank to the mattress, and pulled Spencer on top of him. Once again he sucked on her breasts as though he was extracting milk from them.
"Troy," she moaned. "Troy?"
The man let his head fall to the pillows. "Yes?"
"I'd love it if we had a son of our own one day soon. A playmate for your beautiful Tad."
For a long time Troy had known this was her desire. Every time she pretended to nurse Tad that thought had been reinforced. Unlike the situation with Allison Baker, Troy really did love Spencer St. Pierre. Had even begun imagining them making a life together as husband and wife. She was good to his girls, and crazy over Tad. And yes, another little boy would be nice, too. And then maybe another. After all, a man could never have too many sons.
Troy thrust his hips up, shoving himself inside Spencer. She let out a muffled cry at the pain of his unexpected entry, but soon picked up and took over the rhythm he'd established.
"Yes," Troy confirmed, his eyes clenched tight at the pleasant sensations. "Yes. Let's start working on that little boy right now."
Spencer sped up her movements, excited by his words. Her long hair cascaded forward to tickle Troy's chest. She knew this would not be an easy man to love, but then she'd known that for several years now. Yes, she'd paid dearly for her mistake regarding Logan. When she'd returned to the house that night Troy had flung her to the bed and assaulted her so many times that she was begging for mercy. She could hardly walk the next morning, and she'd been forced to wear a long sleeve shirt in order to cover up the bruises on her arms. And yet she'd loved every minute of her ‘punishment.’ This brutal sex life they shared only ignited further passion between them. She'd never found quite the same level of satisfaction with any other man, and she'd venture to guess Troy had never found it with another woman.
When they reached orgasm, Troy flipped his lover down and under him. Now he was on top and in control. Spencer let her mind drift away for a moment. Before she and Troy married she had to do something about Joey. She had to get rid of him, but the thought of killing him, like she'd killed Logan, was almost unbearable. The woman knew that was foolish. She'd killed plenty of people in recent days with very little reason, but Joey reminded her so much of her brother Timmy. She could never harm Tim, just like she knew she could never harm Joey. Scare him, like she did that morning of Lauren Simon's murder by cutting off his air supply, yes, but harm him, no. Regardless of that fact, Spencer knew she had to get him off this island. She couldn't risk Troy finding out he was here. But she couldn't send him back to San Diego either. As soon as he got near his computer he'd tell everything he knew.
Spencer thought a long time while the grunting Troy thrust in and out of her. She'd have to start making some phone calls. Surely there was some type of care facility for people like Joey on some island nearby here. Some island where voice synthesizers were still obsolete, but where Joey could live out the rest of his life amongst people like himself.
The woman felt Troy's sperm scald her insides. She hoped this time she got pregnant. It hadn't worked last month, but maybe this month would be different. She knew Troy hoped so too, by the way he tenderly kissed her belly when he withdrew from her, then laid by her side petting her breasts.
He was so rarely gentle like this that Spencer was lulled into a false sense of security. She ran a hand through his shaggy curls. "Troy, can I ask you a question?"
The man's mouth nuzzled a nipple, his beard scratching the sensitive bud. "Sure, love."
"What did A.J. Simon do to you
that caused you to hate him so?"
Troy looked up, his eyes growing
dark and hot. "The bastard killed
my sister. My twin sister Troya. Is that answer enough for you?"
"Oh, my darling. Oh, my darling, no."
Troy leaned into the woman's breasts and began to cry. He hadn't sobbed like this for his sister since her namesake had been born almost nine years ago now.
"Shhh, shhh," Spencer soothed, so happy to be able to comfort this man. She'd never seen him like this, vulnerable and dependant on her for relief from his pain. "Shhh. We'll take care of A.J. Simon together. I promise we will. We'll take care of him together."
Troy's head shot up. All traces of vulnerability and tears were gone, to be replaced by hard, cold fury. "What the hell do you mean ‘we'll take care of him together?’ You told me you and that kid Logan had taken care of him the day you brought me Tad."
Spencer immediately realized her mistake. Her orders from Troy had been to kill both Simon and his wife, and to cut the baby from the woman's belly. Because Spencer knew better than to cross her lover, she'd never told him that luring Simon to that office building had proven to be impossible. Now, in a moment of reckless foolishness, she'd let her secret slip out.
The woman scooted up against her pillows. "I...well I--"
"You didn't do the job the way
I told you to, did you, bitch?"
"Troy, please. Simon wasn't home. He was at some sports tournament with his
stepsons. We couldn't wait any longer
or the whole plan would have fallen through.
So I made due with what I could.
Besides, I thought it was the baby you wanted."
"It was. But I also wanted Simon dead." Troy jumped to his feet and ran an angry hand through his hair. "You stupid bitch! Do you know what you've done! If there's any chance of someone discovering who Tad really is, that person will be Andrew Simon."
"Oh, come on," Spencer scoffed, "you make him sound like God. He's just a man. Just a man who can be killed as easily as any other--"
The woman was yanked off the bed before she could finish her sentence.
"Get out! Get out of my house!"
"Go! I mean it! Get the hell out!"
Troy booted Spencer in the rear end, sending her flying into the closed door. The woman was a trained FBI agent, but right now she was terrified. Without a gun or weapon of any kind she was hard pressed to defend herself against this man. She scrambled around trying to pick up her clothes.
"No! Leave them here and get out!"
"But, Troy, I can't go--"
"Oh, yes, you can. You walk that naked ass of yours right out of my house! Where you go from here I don't care, but just get out!"
The man's shouts woke Tad. The baby started to wail at the sounds that had disturbed his peaceful slumber.
"Now see what you've done, woman! You've woken my son! Go on with you!" Troy flung the bedroom door open and tossed the naked Spencer out into the hall. He kicked her in the butt again, sending her sailing for the stairs. She scrambled to her feet, but not before she was kicked once more. She toppled down the remaining stairs and was yanked upright when she landed in the living room. She cried and pleaded, but to no avail. Troy threw her out into the darkness without a stitch of clothing on.
The man hurried upstairs to his crying baby. He picked Tad up and walked the floor with him until once again the infant was sleeping soundly. He laid the baby back in the bassinet, then rummaged through his closet. He didn't bother with underwear when he pulled on a pair of jeans. He slipped into a polo shirt next and shoved his feet into a pair of moccasins that had sturdy rubber soles. He reached into the far corner of the shelf and pulled out a gun that had a silencer fit over its muzzle. He checked on his son one last time and then quietly exited the room.
Troy made his way down the stairs and out the front door. He didn't realize his oldest daughter was watching him from her open bedroom window. The fight between her daddy and Spencer had awakened Troya. She'd seen the end of it when she'd peered through the crack of her open door. There was a part of Troya that was glad her father was throwing Spencer out of the house, but also a part that felt sorry for the woman. Her father hadn't allowed Spencer to put on any clothes. Troya thought that was cruel. And her daddy was naked, too, when he passed by her room kicking Spencer. Troya had shut her eyes, knowing it wasn't right to see her father like that.
But now he was dressed and leaving the house. Troya wondered where he was going. She waited by her window a long time that night. When her father returned, he was whistling.
Tad Brooks washed the blood off his hands in his bathroom sink. He returned the gun to his closet shelf and stripped himself of his clothes. He'd have to throw them away in the morning, or better yet burn them. Blood and bone and brain matter had splattered him from chest to thighs.
Tad had never killed anyone before. Years ago his friend Kit had always done his dirty work for him. More recently, his dirty work had been done by Spencer. But finally Tad was beginning to understand that old saying his father used to be so fond of, ‘If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself.’
Tad thought of how he'd snuck up behind the fleeing Spencer and put a bullet in her brain. Her body had been easy enough to dispose of. He'd simply carried her to the boat he used for recreation, wrapped her in a tarp he weighted with an old anchor, and took her out to sea. After all, this had long been a favorite means of disposal for Tad, dating all the way back to the murder of his brother-in-law Graham Yeager.
Without disturbing the baby's sleep, Tad plucked his son from the bassinet. He brought the infant to bed with him, cradling him against his naked chest.
"Well, kid, it looks like it's just you, me, and your sisters now. But that's okay. Life is better this way. We don't need any outsiders intruding on our little corner of the world, do we?"
Tad Brooks thought back over the evening. He was surprised to find killing came so easily for him. As a matter of fact, he'd rather enjoyed it. Perhaps one day very soon, he'd have to pay A.J. Simon a visit.
Yes, the man thought as he snuggled his baby close. One day soon I'll have to do that. One day very soon.
It's hurricane season on our island. Tiffany is scared even though there hasn't been a storm yet. I'm not scared at all. Well, maybe a little, but not too much. Daddy says I'm his brave girl.
Tad is growing and getting very cute. He's a beutiful baby with lots and lots of white hair and huge blue eyes, but I don't think you're supposed to call a boy beutiful. Anyway, even Tiffany likes him now.
That lady Spencer is gone. Daddy kicked her out of the house. And I mean that. He kicked her right in her butt. I saw him do it. I'm glad she's gone, but I felt sorry for her when Daddy did that to her. She was naked, Shane. It was a strange night. Now it's just me, and Tiffany, and Tad, and Daddy, and Aziah. I like it better this way, but I wish Mommy were here, too. I heard Daddy talking to his loyer. He's mad because Grandpa Dalton hired a loyer too, and they're going to fight it out. I'm not sure who's going to fight who, but I hope Daddy doesn't get hurt. But I do wish he'd be nicer to Mommy and let me and Tiffany see her. He makes me really angry sometimes.
I'll be nine on November 3rd. That's only a month away and Aziah is helping me plan a party. She's going to bake cupcakes and bring them for the whole school. Then my four best girl friends are coming here for a sleepover. Daddy says he'll take us to a movie the next day, and then host a hot dog roast on the beach for everyone in my fourth grade class. If you lived here I'd invite you to the hot dog roast. There will be five other boys there so you woodn't feel out of place.
Shane, I haven't heard from you in a reely reely long time now. Please don't tell me you don't want to be my friend anymore. I would miss you terribly. Please write me soon. I know your mommy must have had her baby by now. Please tell me about your little sister or brother. Maybe you could send me a picture of him or her. I'm sending you a picture of Tad. That's me holding him.
Love, Your Friend,
P.S. Tad can roll over, but he never smiles. Aziah said that's not right. That he should be smiling by now. I told her maybe he was waiting to smile until he had something to smile about. Aziah said, "Oh child, you have too many grown-up thoughts in your head," then went back to changing Tad's diaper.
Rick Simon wasn't sure if things were changing for the better or for the worse as they moved from September into October. A.J. wasn't drinking as much as he had been during previous months, or at least not that Rick or his mother could detect when they dropped in on him. And in recent weeks he'd even gone out to supper with Town one night, and had attended a Padres game with Jerry. But there was an aura of sorrow surrounding the blond man that never seemed to leave him. He still put in twelve hour days at the office seven days a week. When he wasn't doing that, he was pushing his body beyond its limits by biking, or running, or boxing. He still only shaved every three or four days, and overall didn't seem to care about his appearance. His house was a mess save for the day Cecilia came and cleaned it for him, something she'd never had to do in all his years as a bachelor. A.J. had been neat by nature since he was a small child. His mother never even had to harp on him to clean his side of the bedroom he shared with his brother. If he took a toy off a shelf he always put it back when he was done playing with it. When he changed his clothes he promptly hung them up or deposited them in the hamper. But now those old habits seemed to have left A.J., and he no longer cared what state his house was in, any more than he seemed to have the desire to cook a meal for himself.
A.J. appeared to be his happiest when he was at work, if you could call him happy at all. He sat across from Rick's desk on a Thursday afternoon in mid-October, reviewing a case with his brother.
The shaggy headed blond man sat back
in the chair. "That's what I know
for now. We can discuss it further when
you get back on Wednesday. I'll have
the leg work wrapped up by then."
"When I get back on
Wednesday?" Rick questioned. "Where am I goin'?"
"To Vegas with Nancy, Carlos,
and Eva. You marked the next five days
as vacation time months ago."
"Oh, yeah...well, there's been a change in plans."
"What kind of a change?"
"Me and Nancy canceled with Carlos and Eva. We'll do Vegas with 'em another time."
"Why'd you cancel?"
"Don't, well huh, me. I know why you canceled. You canceled because Mom's on that two week tour of the Northeast with her senior citizens group and she's left you instructions to keep an eye on me."
"How do you know she left me
instructions like that?"
"Because I know our mother." A.J. stood and crossed over to his own desk. He sat down in his chair. "Look, Rick, I'm going to insist that you take your vacation just like I insisted Mom take hers. You both need to get away for a little while."
"And what about you, A.J.? When are you gonna get away?"
This had long been a subject that caused tempers to flare between the brothers. Rick thought A.J. needed to get out of San Diego for a few week,s just as steadfastly as had A.J. refused to entertain such a notion.
"I...I've been thinking of going to Pirate's Key when you get back from Vegas. Maybe just for a week. No more than two."
Thank God. He's taking his first steps toward healing mighty slowly, but at least he's finally making some progress. Now if I can just convince him to attend that bereavement group I was telling him about a few weeks back for people who have recently lost a spouse or child. But not today. If he keeps moving forward little by little, he'll be more receptive to hearing about it again in a couple weeks.
"I think that sounds like a good idea," Rick said.
"And if you don't mind, I'd like you to come along."
The lanky man smiled. "I think that sounds like an even better idea."
"But first things first. And the first thing on your agenda is to call Nancy and Carlos and let them know your trip is back on for tomorrow."
"No. I mean it, Rick. You need this time away with your lady and your friends. Besides, I've got plenty to keep me busy while you're gone."
"I've got a lot of work to do here at the office tomorrow, and next week."
"What about over the weekend? What are ya' gonna do then?"
"I...I'm," A.J.'s eyes flicked about the room. He cleared his throat and started again. "I want to paint the nurs..spare bedroom and take down the wallpaper border so I can move my desk and computer back in there."
"I'll stay home and help you then."
A bit of that old-familiar teasing
sarcasm touched A.J.'s voice.
"Since when do you give up a trip to Vegas to help me paint?"
"I was just thinking that maybe you shouldn't tackle that job by yourself. I'll probably take two guys to move your desk anyway. And I could be painting while you take down the wallpaper, which means we'll get the job done in half the time."
Just a few short weeks earlier this entire conversation would have caused A.J. to explode in rage. But now that he wasn't spending seven days out of seven days nursing a hangover, he was able to realize Rick was simply worried about him. That Rick was well aware of how difficult it would be for A.J. to enter the nursery he hadn't gone into since he'd found the baby's things gone a month earlier.
"Rick, I'll be fine. I promise I will. I can handle this. It's just...it's just paint. Everything else is gone now anyway. The crib...all the things are gone. Once the wallpaper and curtains are down there won't be any reminders. Besides, this is something I have to do for myself."
"I realize that. I just don't think it's something you should do alone."
A.J. threw a soft smile Rick's way. "You're a good brother. The best a man could have. But please respect the fact that I need to do this job by myself."
Rick wanted to say, "Why? So you can sit in that room by yourself and cry? So you can become so emotionally distraught you head for the liquor cabinet and spend the weekend blitzed?" But Rick didn't say any of those things, because he had to trust that A.J. knew what was best.
It took a long time for the oldest Simon brother to finally consent to A.J.'s request. When he picked up the phone to call Nancy, and then Carlos, it was with great reluctance. In a matter of minutes the trip was on again. The two couples would depart in Rick's Durango the following morning and return on Tuesday evening as originally planned.
When the brothers walked out of the office at six that night Rick couldn't help but think, I sure as hell hope I'm doing the right thing by leaving him here by himself this weekend. If I'm not, Mom will never forgive me, but more importantly, I'll never forgive myself.
Lowell Brooks waited with the phone's receiver pressed to his ear while Aziah went to find his son. He sat at the desk in his home office, staring out at the swimming pool that hadn't been used in years. In his mind's eye the eighty-year-old man was transported back to happier times. He could see his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ashton, merrily paddling through the water, his four-year-old twins, Tad and Troya, following her like faithful little ducklings. He wondered where the years had gone. He wondered what he'd done that had caused God to allow him to live this long, and suffer this much heartache.
"Dad? Hi!" Tad's voice boomed over the phone. Lowell hadn't heard his son sound this chipper since little Brooks had passed away. "How are you?"
"I..." Lowell choked on his tears. "I'm calling to tell you Ashton...Ashton died last week, son. I just got back from France. The service and burial took place in Paris."
They'd known for two years it would only be a matter of time for Lowell Brooks' oldest child. She'd been diagnosed with the same rare liver disorder her mother had succumbed to in 1984.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Dad. I wish I had more to offer you than that."
"I know you do, son. I know you do."
Lowell sat for a moment lost in his grief. His wife and daughters were dead. His son was the only member of Lowell's immediate family that was left. Yet Tad had lived in exile for the past decade. Even a simple phone call was a risk they rarely took. You never knew for certain who might be watching or listening.
The elderly man sat up in his chair when heard a baby fussing. "What was that?"
Lowell could hear the grin in his son's voice.
"Dad, I've got a surprise for you."
"Yes, but you're going to have to visit me in order to meet him."
"Yes. Your new grandson, Lowell Thaddeus. We're calling him Tad."
Lowell Brooks cradled his forehead in his palm. For so many years now he'd denied knowledge of the man his son had become. He had turned away from Tad's misdeeds so many times even when the evidence was right at his feet. Even when the evidence meant a woman had died in a fire because Tad blamed her husband for something that wasn't A.J. Simon's fault. Now, the evidence brought forth by a baby’s cries heard through a phone line, led Lowell to conclude the Simon infant hadn’t perished with his mother that night in July, but had somehow been taken from Lauren and delivered to Tad.
Please, Tad. Please no. I've buried my head in the sand for years concerning your actions. I can't do it again. I can't allow you to get away with this. Not when there's an innocent man who's in so much pain because of you.
Tad's voice caused Lowell to raise his head.
"So are you coming for a visit?"
"Yes. A visit. In order to meet you new grandson. In order to meet my little Tad."
Lowell looked at the swimming pool that no longer held the memory of happy children, but simply contained cold, stagnant water.
"Yes, son. Yes.
I think that's a good idea. I'll be paying you a visit soon. Very soon."
"That's great, Dad. Troya will be thrilled to see you." Almost as an afterthought the self-absorbed Tad added, "Oh, and I am sorry about Ashton."
"Yes, Tad. I'm sure you are."
The two men broke their connection. Lowell pushed himself to stand on shaky legs. Whatever spring he'd still had to his step had left him. With hunched shoulders he shuffled up the stairs to the second floor.
Before this is all over you're going to force me to right your wrongs, aren't you, son? You're going to force me to turn you into the authorities. It will break my heart, but what choice do I have left?
Lowell Brooks spent a long time gazing at the pictures that lined his hallway. He cried as he stared at the regal Ashton and the beautiful Troya. When he came to Tad's picture he had no tears left to shed. Over the past ten years he'd cried all he could for his son. Now it was time to do the right thing.