A.J. spent Saturday morning at the Simon and Simon office, then headed for home at noon. He let Toby out when he got there. A.J. didn't have Rex staying at his home as he assumed he might. Rick had made no mention of the dog, so had evidently left the golden retriever with his neighbor, Clarissa.
A.J. looked through his mail while waiting by the door for Toby. Another letter had arrived addressed to Shane. That made the third one since the boy no longer spent time in the house on the Grand Canal. A.J. chastised himself and made a vow he'd get the letters to Shane sometime during the next week. Not that he expected the nine-year- old would be willing to see him. He remembered all too well what he'd said to the boy that night of Shane's visit. No longer did either Shane or Tanner leave messages on A.J.’s answering machine.
The blond man pushed thoughts of his former stepsons aside. He had loved those boys so much. He still did love them. Losing contact with them was almost as hard as losing Lauren. But A.J. knew he'd created the rift between them and himself, and he could honestly say he didn't care to mend it. Seeing them would be too hard. They reminded him too much of their mother.
A.J. let Toby back in, while at the same time deciding he'd drop Shane's mail in a bigger envelope, put Rob Albright's address on it, and mail it from his local post office. That task would have to wait until Monday, however, when A.J. returned to the office where he kept legal sized manila envelopes.
The blond man played the messages on his answering machine. He wasn't surprised to discover that Town, Jerry, Lindy, his cousin Kevin Simon, Mac and Annette McAllister, and an old college buddy had issued a vast array of invitations covering the next four days. No doubt Rick had gotten the word out A.J. was going to be alone for a few days. A.J. wanted to be mad at his brother, but he knew this ‘babysitting service’ Rick had set up was simply to give the eldest Simon peace of mind regarding A.J. being left by himself for the first time since Lauren's death.
The detective made no effort to return any calls right now. Maybe later in the afternoon he'd take someone up on his or her invitation, but he had no desire to make a commitment at this moment. He planned to paint his spare room and didn't want to have to stop before he was ready.
A.J. went out to the garage and grabbed off the shelf a brand new can of paint labeled Oyster Shell, which Rick would have said was a fancy name for beige. He picked up a brush and a can of solvent that would dissolve the paste that held the wallpaper in place. He retrieved a stack of newspapers to use as drop cloths then headed up the stairs. He set his burdens in front of the closed door of the nursery and then turned for his room. He dug through the stacks of clothes scattered from the doorway to the master bath. He plucked up a pair of paint stained Levis and an old T-shirt, and exchanged them with the jeans and T-shirt he was wearing. Without allowing himself to think about his destination, or what he was going to do when he got there, A.J. walked down the hall.
The detective paused for a long moment with his hand on the nursery's doorknob. When he finally stepped inside the room the smiling horses brought all his pain and misery back in a way he hadn't felt it for several weeks now. He couldn't bear the thought of taking down that wallpaper, any more than he could bear the thought of covering up the pale peach walls. Lauren had picked out the decor for this room. She had designed it for their baby. To change it all was like burying his wife and child for a second time.
A.J. swiped at the tears running down his face. He turned and fled the room, tripping over the paint can he had setting in the hall. He scrambled to his feet and kept on going. He knew his liquor cabinet was almost empty. He hadn't gone on a drinking binge in almost three weeks. That was all about to change, though, as he gunned the Grand Am's engine and tore out into the street.
The detective returned home an hour later. He carried two brown grocery bags, one full of whiskey and bourbon, the other full of beer. He fumbled for his key and inserted it in the lock on the knob. He didn't need to use his other key for the deadbolt. He'd never thrown it when he'd fled the house.
A.J. took one step into his kitchen and stopped in his tracks.
"Tanner...what the..." The
blond man kicked the door closed and then moved to the table and dropped the
bags. "What are you doing
here? How'd you get in?"
Tanner, who would turn seven two days before Thanksgiving and was in the second grade now, stood on the bottom step of the step-stool he'd pulled over in front of the sink. He had one of his mother's aprons wrapped three times around his skinny waist. Warm water was running in the kitchen sink, and the door to the dishwasher was open. Toby looked up from where he sat on the floor beside the step-stool.
"Hi, A.J. I'm cleaning." The boy, with arms sunk elbow deep in sudsy water, looked around and with his usual blunt honesty declared, "Man, this place is sure a mess."
"Yes, well...I've been busy lately."
A.J. walked over and lifted the boy
off the stool. He untied the apron and
laid it on the counter. He shut the
water off at the sink, shut the door on the dishwasher and grabbed a
towel. "Here. Dry your hands and arms."
The redhead did as he was instructed, then handed the towel back to A.J.
"Now I repeat, how'd you get in
Tanner reached into his back pocket and pulled out an Old Maid card. "With this. Rick taught me how a long time ago."
A.J. raised an eyebrow. "Oh, Rick taught you how, did he?"
"Yep. It was a good thing you didn't have the deadbolt thrown, otherwise I'da been outta luck."
"Don't be mad at Rick, A.J. He said it was only for emergencies. I waited and waited and waited for you outside the door, but then I had to go to the bathroom real bad so I figured that was an emergency."
"Yes, I can see where that would be an emergency."
Tanner put the card back in his
pocket while A.J. guided him to the living room sofa, Toby at their heels. The boy scooped up jeans and shirts so he
could make a place for himself and A.J. to sit. "Geez, A.J., you must be really busy. You would have never let me and Shane leave
our junk laying around like this."
"You're right. I wouldn't have." A.J. tossed the
clothes into the easy chair. He sat
down on the couch and lifted Tanner to his lap. "I suppose I should clean this place up, huh?"
"Yeah. It looks like a pig sty. And I don't even know what a pig sty is."
A.J. laughed at the child who could always tickle his funny bone. Within seconds he sobered and spoke sternly. "Now how did you get here? I hope you're not going to tell me you rode your bike."
"Nah. Shane got in a lotta trouble when he did that. Erin brought me. She's got her own car now that she goes to college."
"Erin brought you? Where is she then?"
"She has a girlfriend who lives a few blocks from here." Tanner pointed out the French doors. "Over that way, I think. Anyway, I asked her to bring me here, so she dropped me off. She's gonna pick me up in a little while."
"Tanner, that's dangerous. What if I hadn't come home? Did Erin know I wasn't here?"
"No. I told her I'd called you and you said I could come over. She's in charge of me and Shane this weekend 'cause Mom and Da...I mean Kathy and Dad, went out of town. But Shane got invited to a birthday sleepover, so it was just me and Erin. I wanted to see you, A.J., so I told her you invited me to come here."
"You shouldn't have lied to
Erin like that. Both of you could get
in trouble over it."
"Aw, A.J. It's like Rick always says. You worry too much."
Again A.J. was forced to laugh at the boy. When he spoke it was to ask quietly, "So how are things going?"
"Okay, I guess. I really miss my mom though."
A.J. ran a hand through Tanner's hair. "I know, buddy, because I really miss your mom, too."
"I wish we could come back here, A.J. To your house like we used to, I mean. You know, live here every other week." The boy's eyes roamed the interior of the familiar rooms. "Even though me and Shane had to share a room, and even though you didn't let us watch as much TV as our dad lets us watch, I really liked it here. We had a lot of fun, didn't we?"
A.J. swallowed his tears. "Yes, Tanner, we did."
"Remember all the bike rides we used to take through the park? And remember the time you chased my mom with the hose and sprayed her when we were washing the cars? Then later she snuck up behind you and dumped a bucket of cold water over your head. That was a riot. And remember when you were reading to me and Shane that night when we were all sitting on Shane's bunk? The three of us fell asleep and you rolled out. Mom came running when she heard a big thud. When we all knew you were okay we laughed and laughed and laughed, and then you pretended to be mad at me the next day when I told Rick about it. And there was that one weekend when Mom had to go away because of her job. You and Rick took me and Shane out on Rick's boat. That was the bestest fishing trip I was ever on. And we went to the zoo, and Sea World, and Disney Land, and swimming, lots of times we went swimming. And you always read to us. Every single night. My dad never does that. I've been wondering for weeks now how The Hobbit ends. Then that day of your birthday party Mom left work early and picked me and Shane up from school so we could get the food and decorate the house. I'm glad we did that, A.J., you know why?"
"No, sport. Why?"
Tanner laid his head against A.J.'s chest. "Because it was the last day we had here with you and my mom. I think about it a lot. I'm happy we had that day. And when Mom looks down from Heaven, I know she's happy we had it, too."
A.J.'s voice was soft and husky. "I'm happy we had it as well, Tanner. I'm very happy we had it."
A.J. cleared his throat and changed the subject to one he hoped wouldn't make him burst into tears in front of the boy. "Are you still going to karate?"
"Yeah." Tanner lifted his head. "My dad is taking me."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"It's fun. But I miss you taking me. That was something we did together. Just you and me."
"I know. I miss it, too. What else have you been up to?"
"Me and Shane see Angie every Thursday after school."
"Yeah. She's a real nice lady who's got this huge playroom with all kinds a' toys. Every toy you could think of. We go see her, and draw pictures for her, and talk to her about Mom. Or at least I talk to her about Mom. Shane won't."
It was then that A.J. understood Angie was a counselor who most likely specialized in the area of pediatric grief.
"Maybe Shane's just not ready to talk about your mom yet. Those kinds of things can be harder for some people than they are for others."
"I know. That's what Mom...Kathy says. And that's another thing, A.J. Shane gets really mad at me when I call Kathy, Mom. I don't do it on purpose, but sometimes I forget. Do you think my mom,.....my real mom, would be mad about that?"
"No, Tanner, I don't think your mother would be mad about that. As a matter of fact, I know she wouldn't. She loved you very, very much. If calling Kathy, Mom, makes you happy, then it would make your mother happy, too."
"She only works some of the time now, you know."
"Who only works some of the
"Kathy. She stays home more so she can be there when Shane and me get out of
school. We don't go to after-school club now."
A.J. knew Kathy had been a dental hygienist for years. If he understood Tanner correctly, she'd cut her hours back at work in an effort to devote more time to the boys. He was glad. Such an act would have pleased Lauren, and he was certain it had only benefited the boys further since their mother's death.
Silence filled the room for a few seconds as Tanner busied himself studying A.J. from head to toe.
"Shane says your nothin' but an old drunk now, A.J. But you don't look like an old drunk to me. He said you were too busy gettin' shnockered to look for the man who hurt our mom. But I called him a liar and I punched him a good one, too."
scolded, "you know your mom didn't
allow you boys to hit one another."
"I know. But Shane deserved it for sayin' those things about you. That's why I came here today. I had to see for myself. And now I'm going to go back home and tell Shane you are looking for the man who hurt Mommy. I'm gonna tell Shane you’ve been so busy looking for him that you haven't had time to do the dishes, or pick up your clothes, or shave, or get a hair cut. I've seen it with my own two eyes so I know it's the truth."
How A.J. wished the truth could always be as clear as when seen through the bright eyes of a six and a half year old.
Tanner slid from A.J.'s lap. He crouched down and ran a tender hand over Toby's coat. "I miss Toby. He loves me a lot, and I love him a lot, too."
A.J. watched while the basset hound hungrily lapped up the attention he was getting. Admittedly, his master had barely noticed his existence over the past two and a half months.
"Toby misses you as well, Tanner." A.J. thought a moment then offered, "Would you like to take him home with you?"
The boy looked up, eyes wide with wonder. "Really? Could I?"
"I don't see why not. I've been too...busy lately to give Toby the time and attention he needs. I know you'll make sure he gets exercised every day, and is well taken care of."
"Oh I will, A.J. I promise I will."
"Do you think your dad and
Kathy will let you have him?"
"Yeah, I think so. Kathy loves dogs. She told me so once. And when she first married my dad she had a beagle named Jake. But he died from old age. She was really sad for a long time. My dad was going to buy her another dog, but she said she didn't have time for one since she was working. But now she doesn't work half as much as she used to, and basset hounds look almost like beagles, so I bet she'll fall in love with Toby the second I show him to her."
A.J. rose from the couch to retrieve two grocery bags from a kitchen drawer. Toby's toys went in one while his food, treats, and bowls went in the other. "Now if you get him home and Kathy or your dad say you can't keep him, you call me. I'll come get him right away."
"Okay. But I know they'll let me have him."
A car horn beeped from the
driveway. Tanner scrambled to his
feet. "That's Erin. I'm not supposed to keep her waiting."
A.J. bent and attached the leash to Toby's collar. "Here, you take Toby and I'll carry the bags."
The detective followed Tanner and Toby out the kitchen door. If Toby was as big a hit with Rob and Kathy as he was with Erin then A.J. knew the dog would be welcome in their home. He jumped right in Erin's purple Plymouth Neon and washed her face with his tongue while Tanner and A.J. said their goodbyes. The blond man deposited Toby's bags in the back of Erin's car, then bent to hug his little visitor.
"Thanks for stopping by today, buddy. You made me feel very good. Better than I've felt in a long, long time."
Tanner stepped out of A.J.'s embrace. "I'll come back in a couple of weeks. You know, to see how things are goin' on my mom's case and all."
A.J. smiled. "You do that. Only next time, call first. I don't want to come home and find you've broken into my house again."
"Aw, A.J., you sure know how to take a guy's fun away."
The blond man laughed, planted a kiss on the boy's head, then helped him get situated on the seat next to Erin. A.J. snapped Tanner's seat belt in place and closed the door. He waved to Erin and Tanner as the car backed out of the drive. Toby sat between them with what A.J. swore was a smile on his face, his tail wagging so hard that both Erin and Tanner were giggling.
It wasn't until Erin's car disappeared around the corner that A.J. remembered Shane's letters.
Oh well, I'll just mail them on Monday like I had originally planned.
It was strange how seeing the world through the eyes of a child could force you to take a good long look at the way you'd been conducting your life. For no reason A.J. Simon could explain, he felt the need to clean his house that afternoon. The first time such a need had struck him since the day Lauren died.
It took him three hours to get the downstairs in immaculate order. Clothes were sorted and thrown in the washing machine while three loads of dishes cycled through the dishwasher. The dust rag traveled over every shelf and piece of furniture, then the vacuum cleaner navigated the area. When A.J. made his way upstairs he gathered his paint, brushes, wallpaper solvent, and newspapers, then carried them back to the garage. Rick had been right. Painting what was to have been the nursery was not a job he should do alone. He knew he'd cry when the day came that he finally brought himself to convert that little room back into his home office, but maybe it was better if those tears were shed when he could draw from his older brother's strength.
A.J. never opened the door to the nursery as he went about cleaning the upper story. It took him fifteen minutes to pick up all the clothes he had strewn around his bedroom, and another hour to clean the master bathroom, which was in atrocious condition. The rest of the rooms upstairs, the second bathroom and the room Shane and Tanner had shared, were spotless by virtue of the fact A.J. hadn't been in them in weeks. Nonetheless, he ran the vacuum throughout the upstairs, though again, he didn't go in the peach colored room at the end of the hall.
As much as A.J. wanted to reach for a cold beer when his work was done, he resisted the urge. He knew if he started drinking he'd find plenty of reasons to never stop. He thought about calling his cousins, Kevin and Lindy, and seeing if they wanted to go out for dinner, but decided against it. Kevin had a wife and three teenagers. It was already six o'clock. The man had probably made plans for the evening by now. He considered calling Mac and Annette, but didn't think he could face Lauren's family. It had been hard enough seeing Tanner today. He'd seen so much of the woman he loved in that little red headed boy. He knew he'd see the same reminders of Lauren when he sat across a table from her red headed father and out-going mother. For now it was okay to say he'd had enough for one day. It was okay to be alone and sober.
Being both alone and sober was new for the detective. He dug around in the refrigerator until he found a casserole his mother had left. He knew he had to start heeding her advice and eating better. Even the high calorie alcohol he'd been guzzling lately wasn't able to keep the pounds on him. His pants barely stayed up. If he lost any more weight he'd have to drop another waist size, which he'd done twice already since his wife and child died.
The blond man warmed his supper in the microwave. He ate at the kitchen table while reading the Saturday paper. He put the last load of dishes away, then placed his plate and silverware in the dishwasher. He closed the lid, but didn't start it cycling. That could wait a few days until he had a full load.
A.J. crossed back to the fridge and opened it. His fingers danced over amber beer bottles, but he didn't allow himself to grab one. He wanted one. He wanted one so damn bad now that it was dark outside. For some reason his heartache and loneliness was all the more acute after the sun set.
The blond man finally reached for a Coke. He had no idea why he was trying so hard to stay sober when all he wanted to do was get drunk. But he had this odd feeling of urgency. As though there was something he just had to accomplish yet tonight.
The detective went out to the garage where he transferred a load of wet clothes to the dryer and put the last load of dirty clothes in the washer. He drained his Coke can and threw it in the garbage. He wandered back into the house and up the stairs. He contemplated calling Downtown Brown. Temple would be doing the late news, meaning Town was on his own as he was most nights. Maybe the black man would want to catch a movie. Or maybe A.J. could just go over to Town's and sit out on his patio and shoot the bull for a while.
A.J. headed to the master bedroom to call his friend. He paused as he passed the room that had belonged to his stepsons. Everything from their games, to their toys, to their computer, to Tanner's hobbit, to Shane's beanie babies, was still in residence. The detective was surprised these items hadn't been packed up the day Lauren's and the baby's things had disappeared. A.J. had been too grief-stricken before now to give it much thought. He supposed there hadn't been room in any of the vehicles to take the boys' paraphernalia along. Maybe the McAllisters had planned to come back at a later date and just hadn't gotten around to it, or maybe Rob Albright was to set up a date with A.J. in order to collect his sons' things. Overall, A.J. supposed it didn't make much difference. Just about anything Shane and Tanner had at his home they had at their father's, including a computer.
The blond walked over to the closet and opened it. The boys' clothes and shoes were gone, which meant Mac and Annette had taken those items with them the day they were here. A quick look in the bureau drawers found them empty as well.
A.J. sighed and walked over to the homework station. He pulled out a chair and sat down. Tears stung his eyes at the thought of what had to be done. He needed to pack the remainder of the boys' things, borrow Rick's Durango, and deliver them to Rob's house. Then he needed to advertise the furniture and sell it, just like he needed to advertise the baby furniture, and boxes and boxes of baby clothes and paraphernalia that were being stored in a bay of Lisa and Jeff's three car garage. Lisa had called him two days after she, her parents, and Cecilia, had cleaned out the nursery. She told A.J. she and Jeff could store the baby's things as long as he wanted them, too, but when he was ready to sell them he should call her. She'd be happy to handle that end of things for him so he didn't have to deal with it.
A.J. had been too drunk that night to care what Lisa was calling about, or to give her permission to handle much of anything for him. But now he knew it had to be done. It wasn't fair to expect her and Jeff to take up room in their garage on account of a dead child. Just like it wasn't fair of him to keep things in this room that belonged to Shane and Tanner, as though some day they were going to return to their toys, and books, and games, and computer.
The detective's eyes fell on The Hobbit, where it still sat on the nightstand. He'd give it to Tanner. The boy had said Rob never read to him, but maybe Kathy would. It was important to A.J. to be assured Tanner would get the opportunity to hear the end of that story.
A.J. squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the happy memories this room evoked. His heart hurt so bad that he couldn't stand it, and he felt tears well under his lids. He thought of how many nights he'd sat in his house since Lauren's death with a loaded gun in his lap. If Rick or his mother knew that they'd have him committed to a mental health center in two seconds flat. The only reason he was still alive today was because always before he'd been too damn drunk to pull the trigger. Well, he wasn't drunk tonight, and being stone cold sober made death sound even more appealing. There was nothing for him to live for. No one who really needed him. Oh, sure, Rick would tell A.J. he needed him, but in truth Rick was strong. Always so strong. He'd mourn his little brother, but he'd go on with his life. A.J. would leave Rick a note so Rick was assured there was nothing he could have done to prevent the choice A.J. made. He'd tell Rick he loved him, and that he was the best big brother a man could have had. He'd leave his mother a note, too. He'd also tell her how much he loved her, and what a terrific mom she'd been. He hoped that would make her feel better. Then he'd go to an isolated stretch of beach and take his life. He didn't want his family to find him with his head half blown off. He hated to put such a burden on an innocent stranger, but better that person than Rick. Or maybe he'd call Town before he left the house. He knew on most evenings that Temple did the late news Town picked her up from work and the two of them stopped for a bite to eat. If A.J. timed it right, Town would be gone and he'd get the answering machine. He'd tell Town what his intentions were and where to find his body. He supposed doing that to his old friend wasn't fair, but Town had seen a lot of grisly sights in his day. One way or another, he'd get past being the person who had to call Jerry to come get A.J.'s body.
But before he wrote any notes, or loaded his gun, or called Town's house, or left for the beach, he'd pack up the boys' room. The rest of the house was neat and clean now, and Toby was with his new family, so once this room was taken care of A.J. wasn't leaving behind any unfinished business.
The detective trotted down to the garage as though it was any other Saturday night, and not the Saturday night on which he'd decided to kill himself. He folded the load of laundry that he pulled out of the dryer as if he was going to be wearing these shirts and socks come tomorrow morning. He took the load of jeans out of the washer and deposited them in the dryer. He set the timer for forty minutes, figuring that was just about how long it would take him to pack the boys' stuff in boxes.
The blond man carried two cardboard boxes under one arm and the laundry basket under the other. He felt surprisingly light-hearted as he entered his room to put his clothes away. He pushed Lauren's face from his mind. She seemed to be scolding him for what he planned to do before the night ended. A.J. didn't want her to scold him. He wanted her to welcome him just like that poem said that Lisa had read at the funeral. He wanted Lauren to greet him with a smile and say, "Welcome home." He wanted her to take him in her arms and introduce him to their baby.
When A.J. put the last shirt away he veered for the bathroom where he shaved. Short of cutting his hair himself, there wasn't much he could do about his thick, shaggy locks, so decided he'd have to go to his grave looking as though he'd never left the decade of the sixties behind.
He reentered his bedroom, picked up the boxes, and strolled down the hall to the boys' room. It didn't take him long to pack the games and books. The toys that were on the shelves were more time consuming to stow because of their varying sizes and awkward shapes. The remainder of the toys he left in the toy chest. It could be carried out of the house by its handles, just like he and Rick had carried it in.
A.J. reached into the tall cabinet along side the homework station and pulled out coloring books and school folders. The bundle slipped from his hands and landed on the floor. Envelopes slid out of a bright white folder that had red stop signs all over it. When A.J. picked the envelopes up he noticed the same postmark and child’s handwriting as were on the envelopes piled on the kitchen counter addressed to Shane.
The detective wouldn't have read the letters that night that those envelopes contained if he hadn't, for the first time, realized the postmark was from the island where he and Lauren had honeymooned. He recalled now, his wife telling him about a school assignment Shane had been given the previous fall in which he and his classmates were corresponding with students who lived on an island in the South Pacific. A.J. didn't remember Lauren mentioning it was the same island they'd visited on their wedding trip, but then, maybe she'd never known that fact.
A.J. looked at the dates on the postmarks and began pulling the letters out of the envelopes in chronological order. He sat back down in the chair and read out loud, "Dear Shane. My name is Troya and I live on an island that my daddy and Grandpa practically own."
A.J. paused for a moment. He'd never heard of any one else named Troya other than Troya Yeager. He pondered that a moment, but realized there were surely a number of little girls and women around the world who bore such a moniker. He continued reading. "I am seven years old. I'll be eight on November third. My mommy's name is Hillary, and my daddy's name is Troy."
Ah, A.J. thought. The reason behind Troya.
"We have a maid named Aziah, and we love her a lot. I have a little sister named Tiffany. She is five and just started first grade. There is no kindergarten on our island, so kids can start the first grade when they're five. We don't have a high school either, but my daddy says he's going to build one before I'm old enough to go. Oh, I have a brother, too. He's my favorite one in the whole entire family. He's two, and his name is Brooks. Sincerely, Troya Aubrey Andrews."
A.J.'s eyes read over the girl's closing line one last time, then darted up to the prior sentence. "He's two and a half and his name is Brooks. Sincerely, Troya Aubrey Andrews."
The blond man swallowed hard. "No. No it can't be."
Troya Aubrey, as in Troya Aubrey Yeager? And Brooks. As in Tad Brooks?
A.J.'s hands flew to the next letter. The child told more about her island culture and evidently answered questions Shane had asked of her. Again she mentioned the brother named Brooks. Three more letters followed in the same vein until A.J. ran across the one he was looking for. He remembered Shane asking him a question back in early July about the witness protection program.
"Dear Shane. My father is an even bigger hero than your stepfather. So big that he's in something the FBI has called the witness protection club. A long time ago he saw two mean brothers kill a beautiful lady. She was very pretty. I think maybe my daddy was in love with her."
"Oh God," A.J. muttered with disbelief. "Oh God no. But how can this be? He's dead. He died that night ten years ago."
But the detective was well aware no one knew for certain if Tad Brooks had died the night he'd fled by diving over the side of The Aubrey. Could he have somehow lived through that terrible storm? A.J. knew it was a possibility. Especially if he'd had a boat waiting for him somewhere in the darkness.
A.J. clawed for the next letter. In this one Troya told Shane that her brother Brooks was very sick and that her parents were fighting a lot. The blond man's heart stopped for a moment when he read the next paragraph.
"I helped my Daddy send an e-mail to his Uncle Sam today in San Diego. I didn't know Daddy had an Uncle Sam. He never talks about his family. I'll try to find out Uncle Sam's last name. Maybe you know him. I think Uncle Sam is going to help Brooks."
A.J. didn't even need to think about whom he knew who used Uncle Sam as their e-mail address. It had been Cord Franklin. Somehow Franklin and Tad Brooks were acquainted. And if they were acquainted, and Cord had mentioned Rick's name, well then that might just explain who had really been behind Lauren's death.
Poker-hot fury lashed the blond man's soul. "I'll kill the son-of-a-bitch," he vowed. "I'll kill him."
A.J.'s hands grabbed little Troya's next letter. In this one the child's pain was profound as she told Shane that her brother Brooks had died, and that her mother had a break down and went with her maternal grandparents to the Hamptons.
A.J. Simon was no fool. He knew he'd just read Tad Brooks' motive for revenge. The man had lost his son because he'd been forced to live in exile on a remote island where medical care was undoubtedly elementary at best. The man who now called himself Troy Andrews, wanted to take from A.J. Simon what had been taken from him.
A.J.'s eyes scanned the next letter in the pile. In this one Troya talked of the baby shower A.J.'s family had thrown Lauren, and tells Shane she'd never seen fireworks except on television. She says her parents are divorcing, but no other information came forth that was useful to A.J. The detective pawed through the rest of Shane's school papers, but there were no other letters from Troya. He jumped up and ran for the stairs. He flew down the steps, he feet landing on only three before he was in the den.
The blond man raced to the kitchen. He tore the oldest letter open. This was like reading a best-selling mystery that was so intriguing you couldn't wait to get to the next chapter. Nonetheless, A.J. wasn't expecting to uncover what he did. He barely made it around the counter before he sank to a bar stool in utter shock and disbelief.
I have a new brother. Daddy says we adopted him. He has white hair and big blue eyes and came to live with us when he was only one day old. Daddy says his birthday is July 26th. He kind of looks like Brooks did when he was a newborn baby. Me and Tiffany already love him a hole lot. Has your mommy had her baby yet?
Your friend Troya
P.S. Our new baby's name is Tad.
"No," A.J. muttered. "It can't be. I...how...how could he...how?"
A.J. ripped open the next letter and read as fast as he could.
"Dear Shane. Things are very confusing. For a few days back 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 confuses 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 would 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."
A.J. skimmed over the rest of the letter until he got to Troya's postscript. "Baby Tad cries a lot. I don't think he likes us."
The detective's mind was reeling. First Cord Franklin, then Allison Baker, and now Casey. How the hell did all these people tie into Tad Brooks, and who was it that set A.J. and Lauren up? The blond man knew any answers he might yet glean would come in Troya's last letter. He read past the little girl's talk of the hurricane season, but paid more attention when she spoke of how cute her little brother was. When he came to a paragraph of interest he read out loud.
"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."
A.J. skipped past the section where Troya spoke of her birthday. His interest was piqued again when he read her last line. "I'm sending you a picture of Tad. That's me holding him."
The detective scrounged for the envelope he'd tossed aside. He barely paid attention to the pretty little girl in the picture. Instead, his eyes focused on the baby in her arms.
"Oh Lord. Oh my Lord." A.J. ran for the closet in the living room. He knew his baby book was on the top shelf somewhere. His mother had given it to him when they'd found out Lauren was pregnant.
A.J. sunk to a nearby chair and flipped through the heavy pages that had yellowed with age. He knew exactly what picture he was looking for. In this one it was a five-year- old big brother holding a two-month-old infant. When A.J. found it he laid the pictures side by side. The babies, though born exactly forty-nine years apart, could have been identical twins.
"That bastard," A.J. muttered. "I don't know how, but that bastard has my son. I have a son and Tad Brooks has him."
The detective tossed the book aside and dashed for the stairs. He had a lot to do before he climbed on a plane that would take to the island where a man who called himself Troy Andrews was hiding out.
All thoughts of suicide left A.J. Simon as he threw clothes and toiletries in a zippered sports bag. He had a son, and the little boy needed him.
Rick carried Nancy's suitcase into her home. While she opened windows to let fresh air in he used her phone. When he got nothing but the answering machine at A.J.'s house he tried the office. The answering machine picked up there as well. The detective disconnected the call without leaving a message.
Nancy walked into the kitchen as Rick was hanging up.
"Did you get a hold of
"No. Still no answer either place."
"Hon, don't get so upset." She ran her hands over the knotted muscles in Rick's back. "I'm sure A.J.'s just involved with a case. You know how he's been since Lauren passed away. How many hours he's been putting in and such."
"Yeah, I know how he's been," Rick said while staring out the window into Nancy's small back yard. "And that's what worries me."
Rick refused Nancy's offer of supper, gave her a kiss, and promised to call her later. He let himself out of her house and hurried to his vehicle.
It was Monday evening. Rick hadn't been due back from Las Vegas for another twenty-four hours, but when phone calls placed to A.J.'s home and the office had gone unanswered throughout Saturday night, Sunday, and early this morning, Rick had grown increasingly worried. He kept telling himself exactly what Nancy had just voiced, that A.J. had probably gotten tied up on a case. But that was no excuse for A.J.'s lack of contact as far as Rick was concerned. He'd left the phone number of his hotel each time he'd called. He'd told A.J. to leave a message with the desk clerk if the phone in Rick and Nancy's room went unanswered. But each time Rick checked at the desk he was told no one had called for him. And each time he tried to reach A.J. he got answering machines.
Rick pulled out of Nancy's driveway and was soon navigating through congested rush hour traffic. He'd head to the office first. It was almost six o'clock. If A.J. were true to the habits he'd begun since Lauren's death he'd be there yet hard at work. The detective made a mental note to treat his lady and the Escobars to dinner next weekend. When he'd made the decision to end his vacation earlier than planned he offered to leave the Durango behind and rent a car in order to make the trip home. Nancy, Carlos, and Eva wouldn't allow him to do that, all three insisting they understood his concerns over not being able to reach A.J. In thirty minutes time they were ready to depart, not one word of complaint over the vacation being cut short was voiced on the long drive home.
Because of the heavy traffic, Rick didn't pull into the Simon and Simon parking lot until quarter to seven. The Grand Am was nowhere to be seen, but Rick entered the building anyway.
At this time of the evening most of Rick and A.J.'s tenants had gone home save for the employees of the busy restaurant that was housed on the ground floor. Given the absence of A.J.'s rental car, Rick wasn't surprised to find the office door shut and locked. He was surprised, however, to find Monday's mail sitting on the floor outside the office. Rick's worry grew as he bent to pick it up.
That means he hasn't been here since at least eleven. If he was here at all today. Shit. Why the hell did I let him talk me into going to Vegas? I knew damn good and well he shouldn't be left alone.
Rick was well aware he was jumping to conclusions. Just because he hadn't been able to get a hold of his brother for three days was hardly reason for concern of his present magnitude.
At any other time it wouldn't be, Rick argued as he flicked on the office light. But ever since Lauren and the baby died...well, ever since then everything A.J. does or doesn't do gives me reason to be concerned.
Because this office was as familiar to Rick Simon as his home, he immediately knew A.J. hadn't been present that day. The coffee pot was empty, clean, and dry, as was A.J.'s coffee mug. The message light on the answering machine was blinking. Rick flicked it back and listened. He grabbed a pen from the holder on his brother's desk and used the back of one of the envelopes he still held to right down the phone number of a potential client. Seven other messages played, again indicating to the detective that A.J. hadn't been in the office. Two of the messages indicated even more to Rick, that A.J. hadn't been in contact with anyone for several days.
"Hey, A.J., it's Town. I've been trying to catch you since Saturday morning. Give me a call if you'd like to go to dinner tonight."
The next message was from Mac McAllister. "A.J., hi. I'm sorry I keep missing you. I was hoping we could meet for tennis yesterday afternoon, but I never heard back from you. If you've got the time I'd like to treat you to lunch today. Call me at the office before noon."
Rick heard the two messages he'd left, one on Sunday morning, and the other from this morning. He tossed the mail on A.J.'s desk, picked up the phone, and dialed his brother's house. When he got the machine he waited for the message to play. No more did Tanner's sunny voice greet callers, instead A.J.'s came on the line with a succinct, "Leave a message at the beep."
At the sound of the beep Rick said sternly, "A.J., it's your brother. If you're home, please pick up the phone."
Rick waited a full thirty seconds before disconnecting the call. He hit the lights and locked the office door all in the same motion. He bypassed the elevator, taking the stairs two at a time until he reached the parking lot. He started the Durango, threw it in reverse, and flew onto the street.
A lot of thoughts ran through Rick Simon's mind as he drove to the house on the Grand Canal. With a sinking heart he wondered how he would find his brother, drunk or dead. Deep in the pit of his stomach Rick was certain those two options were the only alternatives. A.J. had either spent the weekend drinking himself into oblivion, or he had used the absence of his family to his advantage and taken his life.
Rick didn't know where that last thought came from, but it surfaced all too willingly. He pressed his foot on the accelerator, driving as fast as he dared.
A.J. Simon had done his research and he'd done it well. He knew exactly where he was going and how he was going to get there when he contacted Carlos's cousin Emilio at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning.
Emilio Escobar owned a small two-seater Cessna. The man made his living flying just about anyone, or anything, to whatever destination money could buy. Emilio didn't even blink when A.J. told him he couldn't file a flight plan. But then, A.J. imagined with the kind of cargo Emilio often hauled he rarely filed a flight plan to begin with.
The only objection the Hispanic man
voiced when A.J. began mapping out their route was, "I don't know, A.J.
You might want to wait a few days before heading in that direction. A tropical storm is brewing down there. From what I saw on the radar it looks like a
big one. Big and powerful. They've started issuing hurricane
A.J. couldn't be deterred. "I can't wait. I have to go now. Can you get me there before the storm hits?"
Emilio thought a long moment. "Probably. Though I can't guarantee you a smooth ride."
"Don't worry about it, Emilio. I haven't had a smooth ride in several months now. I'm kind of getting used to it."
The blond man swung himself up into the plane at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, Emilio following. Ten minutes later the Cessna was flying south over the Pacific.
What exactly A.J. Simon was up to Emilio never knew. From the time they took off until they landed at their final destination the blond man had barely said more than two words. The long journey had forced them to stop and fuel four times. Each time A.J. had paid cash for the gas that had gone in the plane's tanks. He bought Emilio a sandwich or soda, or whatever else the pilot desired from the vending machines they found on the succession of island airports they visited, but never did the detective give Emilio a clue as to what he was thinking or where he was ultimately headed.
The plane landed for the last time on an island that was a mere ten miles wide. The airstrip wasn't really an airstrip at all, just an overgrown path through the jungle where planes bearing supplies occasionally touched down. Emilio circled the area three times before he gained enough courage to risk landing the plane. Though the sun was out that Monday morning, the winds were already rising, indicating to the pilot that the prediction of the storm was right on target.
A wizened old island native met the Cessna. A close cropped white beard contrasted the deep mulberry of his skin. His curly white hair was shaved close to his skull as well, his cotton trousers cut off at the knees. He wore no shirt and his feet were bare. Emilio could see the tough calluses on the man's soles, and guessed he'd rarely worn a pair of shoes in all his seventy-odd years.
A.J. grabbed his bag from the plane and hopped out. Before Emilio
had a chance to ask any questions twelve one hundred dollar bills were being shoved in his hand.
"Thanks, Emilio. I appreciate the trip on such short
"No problem, amigo. It's what I do." Emilio looked up at the sky. The bright, cloudless day gave little clue of the storm brewing to the south. "You want me to stick around?"
"No, you go on back. I'm going to be tied up for several days."
Emilio's eyes scanned the tiny island. All the immediate area revealed was overgrown foliage. From the air he'd spotted a dotting of unpainted shacks and a few boats pulled up on the beach, but other than that the island held no stores or means of commercial trade that Emilio could detect. He wondered what in the world could possibly keep A.J. Simon tied up here for several days.
The detective didn't seem inclined to share that with Emilio, so the man finally shrugged his shoulders and headed for his plane. He assumed A.J. knew what he was doing, and long ago Emilio had learned to keep his mouth shut regarding who or what he flew where.
Carlos's cousin gave a final wave as the plane slowly climbed over the palm trees. He saw A.J. wave back, then disappear into the jungle with the old man.
Lights shone from the homes in the Grand Canal neighborhood, but otherwise the area was quiet. Rick swung the Durango into his brother's driveway. The house was dark, the garage door shut.
The detective slid out of his vehicle and ran for the kitchen door. He didn't bother to ring the bell or knock. He inserted his key in the lock and tore inside. His right hand automatically reached for the light switch. The interior of the house was clean and quiet. Clean in a way it hadn't been since Lauren's death except for those times Cecilia visited. But Rick's mother had been on the east coast for almost two weeks now, causing the lanky man to wonder why A.J. had suddenly felt the need to put his life in order, so to speak.
A chill ran down Rick's spine as he pushed the door closed. "A.J.!" He glanced at the spot next to the refrigerator where Toby's food and water bowls normally sat. The area was vacant, and no stubby legged dog came to greet him.
Rick passed through the den. "A.J.!" The man took the stairs two at a time. Each room he came to was as clean and organized as the main floor had been. "A.J.!"
Rick moved from the master bedroom to the bath. Without realizing it he was holding his breath. He squinted when he flicked the bright bathroom light on. The interior was spotless, and devoid of the body Rick had feared he'd find there.
"A.J.!" Rick walked down the hall to the nursery. "A.J.!"
He opened the door, immediately noting the room was still papered and painted in the patterns and colors A.J. and Lauren had chosen months earlier.
For whatever reason he didn't paint this room like he said he was going to.
Rick thundered down the stairs. The last place he could think to look was the garage. Just like fear had assaulted his heart when he'd checked the master bathroom, it now made his mouth go dry when he opened the door that led from the den to the garage.
The detective sagged against the frame with relief. The car was gone, meaning A.J. hadn't locked himself in it and let it run until carbon monoxide poisoned his lungs and blood stream.
Rick shut the door and reentered the
house. He looked from the den, to the
living room, to the kitchen, and began to feel like a fool. Maybe A.J. had been working on some case
that had simply prevented him from making it into the office today. Maybe he'd been so busy he'd left Toby next
door with the Gormans. But still, why
hadn't he returned Rick's phone calls?
Or had he been gone so long that he'd never heard them?
The man played back the messages on the answering machine. He heard his own, and because of that was able to determine that the machine hadn't been checked since Saturday evening.
But where the hell would he have disappeared to?
Rick's ears perked up when the last message played.
"Yo, A.J., it's Emilio. My wife said you called. I'm home now so--"
There was a mechanical screech, then silence, leading Rick to believe A.J. had picked up the phone in the middle of Emilio's message. But what the heck would his brother have been calling Carlos's cousin for?
And that's when Rick's eyes fell to the stack of letters piled on the counter in disarray. Twenty minutes later, with A.J.'s baby book sitting in his lap, a shell-shocked Rick Simon reached the same conclusions his brother had come to on Saturday night. Now he knew why Lauren's body had been doused with acid - to cover up the fact that her child had been taken from her. Had been taken from her, and was very much alive.
Rick threw the book on the counter, scooped up the letters, slammed the kitchen door, and ran for his truck.
Night had fallen over the South Pacific. Unlike the last time A.J. had visited this part of the world, no stars dotted a clear moonlit sky. He recalled how much he and Lauren had enjoyed sitting on the beach after the sun had set and gazing up at the sky. Then they'd walk back to their honeymoon suite on the Island Queen where they sipped chilled wine on the deck, or enjoyed a late night snack in the dining room, or made love, or simply held one another until dawn.
But tonight a heavy cloud cover prevented A.J. from seeing any stars, which was just as well. He couldn't afford to allow his mind to wander to what once had been. Instead, he needed to focus on the job at hand.
The fishing boat A.J. was riding in bucked angry waves while chugging to an isolated part of the shore. The wind whipped A.J.'s hair in his eyes as he grabbed his bag and climbed out. He reached in his front pocket, handing the old man who had greeted him and Emilio that morning the cash he owed him for the trip.
Without saying a word, A.J. disappeared into the night. There was a row of hotels in the business district three miles away. He planned to hike there and rent himself a room under the assumed name he was using in honor of his dead wife, Loren Jay.
The old man watched his passenger walk along the dark shoreline. When Mr. Jay was too far away to be seen, the boat captain headed toward the mansion on the distant hill.
Rick pounded on the front door of the dark home, not even sure if the man was still living here. With his patience wearing thin he pounded again. From the other side of the sturdy door he heard, "You better have a damn good reason for disturbing my sleep! I've got a loaded Magnum ready to fill your behind with lead if I don't like the explanation I hear!"
"Creek, it's me! Rick Simon! Open this door and let me in! I have to talk to you!"
The porch light above Rick's head came on as the door was opened. Pellman Creek stood in the threshold wearing a robe that had hastily been thrown over a pair of pajama bottoms, that had just as hastily been pulled on over his bare skin.
"Simon! What the...do you know what time it
"Yeah. It's ten minutes after eleven," Rick replied matter-of-factly as he pushed his way into the home. His eyes caught a glimpse of Mrs. Creek staring at him from the dark hallway that led to the bedrooms. Pellman offered her his reassurance with a wave of his hand. "It's okay, Glory. Go back to bed. I'll be there in a little while."
The woman nodded. In her husband's line of work late night visitors weren't that uncommon, though usually they were fellow FBI agents, and usually they had the courtesy to call first. She turned and headed for the distant bedroom. Rick heard her close the door after she entered.
The black man led the way to the kitchen. He flipped on the overhead light and indicated for Rick to take a chair at the small table that sat two. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a jug of Minute Maid.
"You want anything, Simon? Juice, soda, milk, coffee?"
Pellman poured himself a glass of orange juice and then crossed to the table. "Now just what is so urgent that you have to pound on my door in the middle of the night waking me, my wife, and half the neighborhood to boot?"
"What's so urgent? I'll tell you what's so damn urgent." Rick tossed little Troya's letters at the man. "Read these."
"What are they?"
"Just read them."
"Simon, look...it's late and--"
"Read 'em, Pellman."
The black man raised a skeptical eyebrow, took a long swig of juice, then reached for the rubber-banded bundle that had landed in the middle of the table. He took the rubber band off and began to read the letters in the exact order Rick had them stacked, from the first one Troya had written Shane to the last one. He sipped his juice as his eyes traveled over line after line.
"Simon, what the hell are you
wasting my time for on letters that were obviously written by a child?"
"Just read 'em," Rick ordered again, barely able to keep the fury out of his voice. "Read every last one of 'em."
"Okay, fine. I'll read them. But who is Troya, and who is Shane?"
"Troya is a little girl that lives on an island in the South Pacific. Ironically enough, the same island A.J. and Lauren honeymooned on in June of last year. Shane is Lauren's oldest son, A.J.'s stepson. He just turned nine. He had a school assignment last year where he was paired up with a pen pal. The only reason I know that is 'cause his little brother took great delight in telling me Shane's pen pal was a girl."
"So, I repeat, why am I reading letter written by a child?"
"Because when you're done you'll know who killed my brother's wife."
"What? What the hell are you saying here?"
"Just read 'em, Pellman."
The agent eyed Rick a long moment as though he was gauging the detective's sanity. With a heavy sigh he returned to the childish scrawl. When he came to the letter about the visitor named Casey his juice glass hit the table with a thump.
The man couldn't read fast enough from that point on. When he finished Troya's last letter he looked at Rick in a cross between astonishment and disbelief. Before he had a chance to ask the private investigator any questions, Rick unleashed the anger he'd been holding at bay.
"What the hell was this, Creek? Some game you were playing with me and my brother?"
"What do you mean, a game?"
"Casey. Spencer. Whatever the fuck her name is! She was a goddamn mole! She was hooked up with Tad Brooks and with Cord Franklin! Uncle Sam, dammit. Cord was Uncle Sam."
Pellman's face reflected his confusion. "Uncle Sam?"
"I don't suppose Casey passed
that message on to you."
"A.J. discovered that Cord's e-mail address was Uncle Sam. He told Casey to let you know that. He figured you could tap into the messages Cord was receiving if you had that information."
"I could have. But no, Cas...Spencer didn't tell me."
"Rick, you have to believe me. I had no idea the woman was playing this kind of game. She...she's been an ex--"
"Yeah, yeah. I've heard it before. An exemplary agent. Well, your exemplary agent was working for a guy by the name of Tad Brooks. Lowell Thaddeus Brooks Junior. Ever heard of him, Pellman? Huh? You seemed to know so much about me and my brother the day you came to our office back in June. If you know about Dagmar Finster and Shannon O'Brien, then you must know who Tad Brooks is."
A long silence ensued before the black man spoke.
"I'm vaguely familiar with the specifics of the case. Why don't you fill me in."
"Oh, I'll be all too happy to do that, Agent Creek. And if my brother has gone where I suspect he has, and loses his life trying to get his child back as I suspect he might, I'll be only too happy to go to every major news organization in this country with the story of the FBI's incompetence!"
Pellman waited out Rick Simon's anger. When Rick could once again talk in a calm voice he began. His story started on that day back in February of 1988 when he hit A.J. with his truck. It ended on the night five months later with Troya Brooks Yeager dead, and with Tad Brooks diving over the side of The Aubrey.
"So you think this Troy Andrews the little girl refers to as her father is really Tad Brooks?"
"I don't think it, I know it. And A.J. knows it, too. The woman my brother knew as Casey led Tad Brooks right to him. How and why I can't say for certain, but I'll bet my life she did. Maybe Cord had something to do with it, too. Based on little Troya's letters we know Logan is, or at least was, on that island. I'll bet you ten to one odds it was his shirt the cops found at the scene of the fire."
"What about Joey
Rick shrugged. "Beats me. Maybe he's on that island, too. If Casey...or Spencer rather, was workin' with Cord to help Brooks extract revenge against A.J., maybe Cord sent Logan and Joey with Spencer in order to keep them safe."
"Or maybe someone killed Joey to get him out of the way."
"Maybe," Rick agreed. "I wouldn't put anything past Tad Brooks. The bastard is a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch. He killed his sister's husband Graham, - a man he considered to be his best friend. He would have killed me and A.J., too, if circumstances hadn't worked against him that night."
"What do you think the original connection was between Brooks and Franklin? I'm assuming they didn't hook up simply to get revenge against A.J. Maybe they never did...hook up, that is."
"Run that by me again."
"You and I have been in agreement all along that Cord Franklin didn't know you were working undercover for the FBI until the night of the raid when Tom Bidwell revealed your connection to Brendan, and the fact that you're a P.I. Therefore, I don't believe Cord ever knew who A.J. was until the moment your brother barreled through those gates."
Rick nodded at those theories.
"So how were Brooks and Franklin connected if, in fact, Brooks was sending Franklin e-mails?"
"I suspect Tad Brooks was up to his old tricks."
"Smuggling illegal arms." Rick reached in the pocket of his field jacket. "Here. I pulled this out of a crate filled with the guns the first night I was at Camp Cord. Why the hell I forgot all about it I don't know. But after reading those letters tonight I remembered I had it."
Pellman took the small, fragile slip of paper Rick handed him that had gone through several wash cycles. He unfolded it, but the letters made no more sense to him than they did to Rick.
"It looks like some kind of packing slip."
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Like what would go in a crate if it was filled with fruit or goods that were being shipped to the U.S. I have a feeling someone got careless and dropped it in a crate they weren't supposed to."
Pellman stood and crossed to the phone. Without explanation he dialed a number from memory. From the black man's side of the conversation Rick soon deduced Creek was speaking to someone at FBI headquarters.
Fifteen minutes later, Pellman hung up the phone.
"I talked to a linguistics specialist. These letters make up two words in a language inherent to a group of small islands in the South Pacific. In English they translate to Island Queen."
Recognition dawned in Rick's eyes. "That's the cruise ship A.J. and Lauren took their honeymoon on. And I'll venture to guess it's also how Cord came by his arsenal. If you check into it, I bet you'll find the Island Queen is owned by a man named Troy Andrews. Not only does he make his money by hauling passengers back and forth across the Pacific, but that's how he smuggles arms into this country."
Pellman thought a long moment. "And somehow Spencer got hooked up with him. Most likely she was his connection to Cord Franklin."
The black man's mind wandered back two years to when Spencer St. Pierre had first been assigned to him. "She had just come back from a vacation," he murmured.
"Spencer. When she was first assigned to my division ,she had just returned from a vacation. She'd taken a cruise to the South Pacific. She told me she'd met a man there she was going to marry some day. She always referred to him as her fiancé, but I don't recall her ever mentioning his name. She's vacationed there once a year ever since I've known her."
"And has maybe taken some additional trips there you never realized."
"That could be," Creek acknowledged. The man placed his juice glass in the sink. "Wait for me right here."
"Where are you going?"
"To get some clothes on and kiss my wife goodbye. I think you and I better high-tail it to that island before your brother finds himself with more trouble than he bargained for."
"That's just where I was headed."
Creek disappeared down the dark hall. "Somehow, Simon, I already had that figured out."
Emilio Escobar jumped from of his plane at one a.m. on Tuesday morning. Never one to pass up on opportunity, Emilio had found a variety of items to transport from island to island each time he stopped to refuel the aircraft. Therefore, what should have normally been a twenty hour round trip had been lengthened by another twenty hours. The man stretched, his body cramped and tired from sitting in the Cessna for so long. He patted the front pocket of his blue jeans that was bulging with the currency he'd collected throughout this lucrative journey. His kids would definitely have a good Christmas this year. And there'd even be enough leftover for Emilio and his wife, Isabel, to steal a weekend away at one of those fancy resorts where a man could sit naked in a whirlpool tub right in his own suite while he puffed on a big Cuban cigar. The pilot pictured his wife in the tub with him, and could almost feel her heavy breasts pressed against his chest.
Ah, my lovely Isabel. Beautiful bride of almost two decades now. A little plumper than when we first married...okay, a lot plumper than when we first married, but such a wonderful woman. It's been two years since the last baby. I think another is long over due.
At the same time Emilio mentally recounted his booty. His smile widened when he realized he'd still have money to burn after the bambinos' Christmas presents were purchased, and after he'd treated Isabel to their weekend away. He thought of another woman whose body was everything Isabel's wasn't. Tight and slender with firm breasts and long legs.
Ah, and my lovely Rita. The faithful mistress of so many years. Yes, she deserves a weekend away, too. And then there's my pretty Margarita. My pearl. Oh, but how she can drive a man to distraction with her teasing ways. And sweet Sofia. A man could get lost in her treasures. And Rosalee. Oh, Rosalee, but I do pine for you when we're apart. And Maria...oh my Maria…
The women crowding Emilio's thoughts brought a smile to his face as he headed for the Chevy pickup that was parked right next to A.J.'s Grand Am. The little airport was deserted at this time of the morning. The pilot was inserting his key into the truck's lock when a voice from behind brought him three feet off the ground.
"Emilio. Where you comin' from at this hour of the morning?"
"Rick!" The Hispanic man whipped around. "Dammit, you scared the shit outta me!"
Emilio bent to retrieve the keys
he'd dropped. Rick Simon's boot came down
on top of them. "You didn't answer
my question, amigo. Where you coming
Emilio slowly stood. He chewed on his lower lip with indecision. He'd promised A.J. he wouldn't tell Rick anything about their flight should Rick somehow discover where A.J. had gone.
"I've been on business." Emilio's eyes traveled to the black man at Rick's side. "You know how it is. I take stuff here and there. I've got eight kids and a wife to feed. I do what I gotta do."
"And at least half a dozen mistresses to keep happy," Rick imparted. "So would ‘doing what you gotta do’ include taking my brother to an island roughly fifty miles southeast of Figi?"
"Your brother? A.J. you mean?"
"Yeah. I mean A.J. The only brother I got."
"Oh yeah. That's right. The only brother you got.
Well, no. No. I can't say I've
seen A.J. lately."
"Then how come you were on his
answering machine sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning?"
"Me? On A.J.'s answering machine?
You must be mistaken, Ricky. I
wasn't on A.J.'s answering machine. I
don't even know A.J.'s phone number."
Rick's hand shot out to grab the man's upper arm. "Stop playin' games with me, amigo. You talked to my brother over the weekend, and I wanna know what that conversation was about!"
"Rick, come on. I--"
"Man...I promised A.J. I wouldn't tell you if you came around asking questions. He said he didn't want you involved."
Rick released the man. "Involved with what?"
"I don't know. He wouldn't say. He said almost nothing during the entire trip."
"Trip to where?"
Emilio sighed. He knew he wouldn't get Rick Simon out of his face until he told the stubborn man the truth. "To the island."
"The one I'm talking about? The one south of Figi?"
"I took him to an island, only it wasn't south of Figi, it was directly east of it. And it wasn't much of an island. A few shacks here and there, and a couple of fishing boats was about all that was on it."
Rick glanced at Pellman with confusion. "Why would he go to a place like that?"
Before Creek could shrug with matched confusion Emilio said, "I've got a feeling A.J. prearranged it somehow."
"There was an old man waiting for us. Had to be seventy-five if he was a day. Right before A.J. walked off with the old guy he told me not to wait. Told me that I was to head back home."
"And how far was this from the
island I'm talking about?"
"Maybe ten miles. Fifteen at the most."
Because Rick Simon knew how his brother thought, he also knew what his brother had done. He turned to Pellman.
"A.J. hired the old guy to charter him to the island Brooks is on. He knew there was no way Emilio could land his plane on Brooks' island without Tad knowing about it. Don't ask me how A.J. managed to do all this, but if anyone could pull off making these kinda connections, it would be my brother."
Rick bent and picked up Emilio's keys. He put them in his pocket and jerked his head toward Creek.
"Pellman, let my friend Emilio use your cell phone. He needs to call his wife and let her know he's not gonna be home for a couple more days."
"Rick, come on. I'm beat. And besides, I already told your crazy brother there's a hurricane brewing in that part of the world. I just flew back here ahead of it. No way am I flying back into it."
"Emilio, my buddy here is FBI. As in a federal agent who could keep your ass in jail for plenty of years if I told him half the things you haul in that little plane of yours. Now what will it be? Jail, or a trip back to the scenic South Pacific?"
"But my plane only has two seats, and there's three of us."
"I'll sit in the jump seat," Rick countered, talking about the narrow fold-down seat that resided in the wall behind the pilot.
"It'll be uncomfortable."
"I've been uncomfortable before and lived to tell the story so quit stallin' and make your choice. Jail, or a vacation with me and my FBI pal here."
Emilio swore under his breath and
snatched the phone Pellman held out to him.
These damn loco Simon brothers.
You never could talk sense into either one of them.
A.J. bided his time on Tuesday, melting into the crowds of tourists who departed from the Island Queen. Despite hurricane warnings that had been upgraded to a category two tropical storm out of a grading scale that reached five, people shopped and strolled the beaches as though the high winds and powerful waves were just another part of the vacation package they'd paid for.
The hotel room A.J. procured was clean and quiet. Because of the massive satellite dish that sat behind the building he could get almost every station in on the TV that he could get back home in San Diego. But watching television wasn't on the blond man's agenda, rescuing his infant son was.
It was not by coincidence that A.J.'s hotel room was directly across the street from Tad Brook's office complex. He'd watched from his third story window Tuesday morning and seen the man park a white Range Rover utility vehicle in an empty spot directly in front of the building. If A.J. hadn't been using his binoculars he would have dismissed the deeply tanned man with the white beard and long corkscrew curls as being one of Brooks' employees. But the high-powered tool he was using to aid in his surveillance brought the man's face into sharp focus. Though ten years had passed since their last encounter, A.J. had no doubt the object of his observation was Tad Brooks.
Tuesday afternoon A.J. took a long, solitary walk. To a casual observer he was just another tourist out on a stroll. But the detective had a destination in mind, and when he got to the beach that stretched below the only mansion on the island he sat down in the sand. Behind his sunglasses his eyes roamed the area. When he rose to leave two hours later, he knew just how he was going to get into Tad Brooks' home.
A.J. Simon wasn't the only person making use of binoculars that day. From the deck outside his dining room, Tad Brooks observed his opponent. When A.J. left the beach Tad allowed his binoculars to fall. A smile touched the corners of his mouth.
"Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly."
Tad's eyes followed A.J. until the detective disappeared from sight. The baby had just woken from his nap and Tad could hear him crying somewhere in the house. He entered the kitchen to find Aziah preparing a bottle with one hand while cradling the hungry little Tad with the other.
The man took the infant from his housekeeper. He stepped onto the deck with him, brought the crying baby's ear to his mouth and whispered, "You're my son, Tad. My son. No one will ever take you away from me, I promise.
Tad Brooks looked in the direction he'd last seen A.J. Simon walking.
"And if any man tries, I'll take great delight in killing him."
Wednesday morning dawned dark and ominous. Tourists were cautious about going too far from their hotel rooms, or the relative safety of the hulking Island Queen as shopkeepers boarded up their windows and brought any wares in they’d been displaying on the sidewalks. Again that morning the man who was calling himself Loren Jay watched Tad Brooks arrive at work. When the man disappeared through the front double doors A.J. laid his binoculars on the nightstand and shifted his attention to the TV. The forecaster on the twenty-four cable weather channel was advising against travel of any kind within a hundred mile radius of Figi. Hurricane Amy, as the storm had been dubbed, was picking up speed and would hit the island where A.J. was staying sometime during the early morning hours on Thursday.
The detective used the remote control to click off the television. He stretched out on his bed and closed his eyes. He planned to get as much sleep as he could throughout the day because, just about the time Hurricane Amy swept over this little tropical paradise, A.J. would be gaining entrance into Tad Brooks' home.
It had been three days now since a nurse or housekeeper had shown up to take care of Joey Franklin's needs. Whether the pending storm had scared the women away, or whether they were no longer being paid, Joey didn't know. He hadn't seen Casey for several weeks and doubted she'd be returning either. His survival now depended on him finding the man he'd heard the housekeeper and nurse refer to as Doctor David. It might be a wild goose chase on his part. Doctor David might not be a medical doctor at all, but Joey couldn't sit here in his own filth any longer waiting for someone to come feed him and bathe him. He had to get to whatever type of town this island possessed before the storm hit that he’d watched brewing outside the patio doors.
Joey had been sitting on the patio the day the housekeeper left for good. Therefore, he'd been unable to open or close the doors since that time. That meant a parrot and an iguana were now living somewhere in the bungalow, but it also meant Joey could get outside without assistance.
The wheelchair easily made the transition from concrete to grass. When it came to the sand it bucked and stopped a moment, but Joey hiked the power level with his crooked right wrist. The chair whined, but finally rolled forward. He headed for the wet sand near the water's edge, knowing it was packed tighter and would allow the wheelchair to move more freely. Joey never thought of the dangers that might await a person who chose to be so close to the ocean during a tropical storm. The wheels of his chair left deep marks in the sand, a trail for someone to follow should they be so inclined.
Hurricane Amy closed Troya's school at two o’clock that Wednesday afternoon. Of the sixty pupils who attended the old wooden structure, Troya and Tiffany were among the few who had a parent with a vehicle. Like a knight in shining armor, Troya's daddy arrived just as it started to rain. His white horse was the Range Rover, and he loaded as many students in it as he could. He drove all over the island, dropping some children off at their homes, and others at the businesses where their parents worked. When the Rover was empty he came back for another group. By three-thirty he was making his last trip. Troya and Tiffany sat in the front seat next to their father with the teachers sitting behind them.
The Range Rover pulled up in front of a row of luxurious bungalows Tad Brooks owned right in the center of town. Part of the teachers' salaries included the provision of a home. Since Tad was the school board president, it had been logical for him to offer all the teachers a bungalow. That had been part of the problem with the education system here on the island prior to his arrival. Few people wanted to teach on Kono in exchange for living in a shack without electricity or indoor plumbing. But now, because of the man everyone knew as Troy Andrews, the children of the island were getting the education they deserved. Miss Senters had been with them for four years, Mr. and Mrs. Dalski for six.
"Thank you for the ride, Mr. Andrews." Miss Senters opened the back door of the Rover and stuck her umbrella out. "And thank you for seeing the children home safely."
Tad turned and gave the young Carolina beauty a charming smile. "No problem, Paige. I was happy to do it."
Troya and Tiffany covered their mouths and giggled at their father's use of their teacher's first name. Miss Senters blushed under the man's scrutiny, then popped her umbrella open and ran for her bungalow. Mr. and Mrs. Dalski voiced their words of thanks, then raced for the home right next door to their colleague's.
Tad waited until he saw lights come on in both bungalows before driving away. He wheeled the Range Rover back out onto the street and headed for his office. He parked the vehicle by the side service door because the glass front doors had been boarded up that morning by Aziah's brother, Manolo, right after he'd boarded up the windows at the mansion.
Tad ducked his head and plunged into the rain. He dashed around to the passenger side of the Rover. He swung Tiffany to his hip and took Troya by the hand. They ran as fast as they could for the door, but even so, by the time they entered the building Tad's hair and clothes were soaked. The girls, who were wearing matching red rain slickers and hats, fared far better than their father. They laughed when their daddy shook his wet hair out like a lion's mane. They followed him to his office where he gathered papers he wanted to work on in the comfort of his luxurious house. The rest of the building was deserted. Tad had sent his employees home at noon when the approaching storm was upgraded to a category three hurricane.
Tiffany jumped when a loud crack of lightening echoed from outside. "Daddy, where's Tad? Is he okay?"
"Yes, princess, Tad's just fine." Tad Brooks shoved the last of the papers into his briefcase. "Aziah's taking good care of him."
"But Aziah's almost as scared of hurricanes as I am."
Tad chuckled. "That may be true, but she'll be fine until we get home. We'll be there long before Hurricane Amy pays us a visit."
"Besides," Troya said, "Tad's not afraid, is he, Daddy? He's a brave boy. He'll take care of Aziah."
Tiffany stuck her tongue out at her older sister. "Tad's only a baby, Troya. He can't take care of anyone."
"He might be a baby, but he can still be brave. Brave like me and Daddy are. We're not chicken of a little wind and rain like you and Aziah."
"Me and Aziah aren't chickens!"
"Girls, that's enough now. Don't fight." Tad picked up his briefcase, bent at the waist, and allowed Tiffany to jump back on his hip. "Daddy's going to take care of everyone tonight. No one needs to be afraid."
The trio ran out into the rain. The girls scrambled into the front seat of the Range Rover while Tad tossed his briefcase in the back. He sprinted to the driver's side and slid behind the wheel. Right before he turned the key in the ignition he looked across the street at the hotel. The room he knew to house A.J. Simon was dark with the curtains drawn over the windows. Tad Brooks had felt no fear in leaving his infant son with his housekeeper that day. Somehow he knew Simon had no intention of sneaking into his home when he wasn't there. Somehow he knew Simon had a confrontation planned.
You have revenge on your mind, don't you, Simon? Simply leaving this island with your son won't be enough. You have every intention of having my blood on your hands before you go. You have every intention of killing me because you know it was me who had your wife murdered. But, once again, I have the upper hand, A.J. Simon. I know you're here. And I'd venture to guess you plan to show up at my home when the hurricane is at its peak. No matter. I'll be waiting.
Tad Brooks smiled as he drove his vehicle onto the street. I'll be waiting with my own special brand of hospitality. I don't think it will be to your liking, but I know I'm going to have a helluva good time.
For the same reasons A.J. had not allowed Emilio Escobar to land his plane on the island Tad Brooks' called home, Rick and Pellman didn't allow it either. It took all Emilio's skills to bring the craft down at a modern airstrip on Figi. The last fifty miles of the ride had been horrid. The little Cessna was bounced up and down like a yo-yo on a string. Air turbulence created by the storm tossed the plane around as though it was child's toy. The only thing that saved it and the men inside it from plunging into the ocean was Emilio's ability to find a hole in the blackness that finally allowed him to climb higher than Amy's winds could reach.
The planes surrounding the Cessna were wired to the ground. Three men in yellow rain slickers, hats, and rubber boots seemingly appeared out of nowhere to do the same for Emilio's craft. The Hispanic man slumped across the console. He'd flown in bad weather before, but nothing of this magnitude. His heart was flapping against his chest when he felt Rick's hand clap him on the back.
"Thanks for the ride, amigo. Get yourself a hotel room and wait out the storm, then head on home. Me and my friend here will make other arrangements when it comes to gettin' back."
A thick wad of fifty dollar bills
was placed on the dash board, but Emilio barely noticed. He was still reciting a prayer of thanks
when his passengers jumped into the storm.
Though Amy had wrecked havoc with Pellman's attempts to communicate with those on the ground, he'd finally managed to get in touch with a United States Coast Guard unit based on Figi. A young man in uniform was waiting for Rick and Pellman in a covered jeep. The men ran through the driving rain to the vehicle. Rick knew the storm was bad, but he also knew it would get worse. He prayed the Coast Guard cutter Pellman had arranged for them could make it to Kono before the brunt of Amy's wrath hit. He knew even Pellman didn't have the power to overrule the cutter's commander should he or she decide the ocean was too dangerous to venture out on.
Lady Luck was with Rick Simon that night. Commander Macon Shepard agreed to make the trip to Kono. It was quarter to eleven when the boat roared out of port. Rick thought of his brother and the reason that brought them both so far from home. He hoped A.J. didn't let his fury overrule his common sense. He hoped A.J. was still safely encased in some hotel somewhere, and that when the storm broke the two of them together, along with help from Pellman, could confront Tad Brooks.
Rick stared out a window at the angry sea. The night poignantly reminded him of another night ten years earlier when he was on a boat on a storm-racked ocean. Recalling the outcome of that evening caused a shudder to run down his spine.
Just ride it out, A.J. Ride it out. Wait for me. You have to know I'm behind you somewhere. You have to know that by now I've figured out where you've gone. Don't do something foolish, kid. Don't lose your life to that madman when you've just discovered you have so much to live for. Stop and think, A.J. Please stop and think about that baby who needs his daddy.
But A.J.'s wife had been murdered, and his child taken from him. Which was why Rick feared A.J. would confront Tad Brooks long before he and Pellman arrived.
If Joey had known the island was so wide, and that the heart of town was so far away, he never would have left the bungalow. Or at least not left until after the storm had passed. A little hunger and a dirty diaper was hardly an inconvenience when compared to death by drowning. But now that's the fate Joey Franklin knew awaited him. The wheelchair's batteries had long ago run out of power. By that time the rain had started and the beaches he was traveling were long deserted. When the chair stopped Joey could do nothing but sit in the rain and watch as the waves crashed closer to shore. It was late at night now, and the powerful winds were bending the palm trees almost to the ground. It would have been a fascinating phenomenon to watch if one was safe within a solid structure. When the wind blew Joey's wheelchair sideways he knew his life would soon end. By some miracle his respirator was pushing air in and out of his lungs yet, but that wouldn't matter for long. Soon the waves would carry him out to sea. Soon he would join his mother in whatever existence one lived after life on earth came to an end.
As cold water crashed over Joey he surrendered his soul to the powers that be. At just that moment bright lights that could only be celestial in nature bathed his body in their heavenly beams. At first he thought his mind was playing tricks on him when he heard a voice shout his name. But the voice called again and again, and then someone who knew how to release him from the confinement of his wheelchair, yet keep the respirator intact on his back, was lifting him from the sand.
The glare from the vehicle's headlights and the blinding rain made it impossible for Joey to see his rescuer's face. But he didn't have to see the man's features to know who he was. Only one person on this earth called him Joe, and that person was carrying him to safety.
A.J. parked the rented Jeep he was driving in a canopy of thick foliage a half mile from Tad Brooks' mansion. His arrival time had been delayed by a quirk of fate when he'd discovered Joe Franklin lying on a beach waiting to die. How his former pupil came to be on that beach A.J. didn't know, and without his voice synthesizer Joe wasn't able to tell him. Even if the young man had been given access to his computer, he was too weak from his ordeal to make use of it.
The detective drove Joe to the small hospital in the heart of town. A startled doctor ran to greet them when a soaking wet A.J. carried an equally soaking wet Joe Franklin into the emergency room. A.J. quickly briefed the doctor on Joe's wide range of medical problems, then told the physician where he'd found Joe. Before the man could ask any more questions A.J. was gone.
As A.J. drove to Tad Brooks' home, he wondered what had happened to Logan and Casey. Surely they hadn't turned Joe out in weather like this to fend for himself, had they? Whatever answers A.J. was going to uncover he had a feeling would be revealed when he confronted his old nemesis.
The blond man sat in the Jeep a moment, feeling it sway in time with the wind. The rain was coming down sideways now in heavy sheets. It lashed against the heavy vinyl top and sides of the normally open-air vehicle. A.J. placed his gun in a plastic bag to keep it dry, then slipped it into the shoulder holster he was wearing. Next he put on the bulky jean jacket he'd brought from San Diego. With the way it was raining the jacket would be soaked in a matter of seconds, but there wasn't much the detective could do about that fact. He hadn't thought to bring any type of a waterproof coat with him, despite the warning Emilio had given him before they left home regarding the brewing storm.
The detective reached into the back seat one last time and retrieved a black baseball cap. Though it was Rick who was far more fond of hats than his brother, A.J. had brought this one along to help hide his identity as he tailed Tad Brooks around the island. Tonight it would come in handy in terms of keeping the rain out of his eyes as he hiked up the hill to the man's house.
It was one-thirty on Thursday morning and the mansion was pitch black. The electricity had been out all over the island since eleven p.m.. so A.J. knew the dark house didn't necessarily indicate everyone was in bed. Perhaps Tad was up keeping an eye on the storm, as any protective father would be doing. A.J. actually hoped he was. The detective wanted Brooks to know exactly what was happening when he put his gun to the man's head and pulled the trigger.
A.J. stepped out into the ire of Hurricane Amy. He'd weathered several hurricanes many years ago when he'd lived in Florida. When compared to a hurricane named Louise that he and Rick had ridden out on Pirate's Key one weekend, Amy was a novice. Or maybe A.J. was just too old and experienced to worry about dying in a tropical storm. Thinking of his wife, he knew there were far worse ways to meet your maker. At least he wasn't feeling the terror he knew must have engulfed Lauren that night in her office building right before death claimed her. But before Hurricane Amy passed, A.J. vowed Tad Brooks would experience the same horror his wife had. A.J. vowed Tad Brooks would know who was taking his life from him and why.
Perhaps A.J.'s thoughts of revenge made him lax that night. Or perhaps the roar of the storm prevented him from hearing the man behind him. Or perhaps the man simply had one up on him because he knew all along that A.J. Simon was on his island, and that A.J. Simon would eventually come to get him.
A.J. never heard the gunshot, which made the hot lead embedding itself in his left shoulder all the more painful. He swiveled, but between the blackness and driving rain he couldn't see a thing. Another bullet passed through his upper left arm. Before he could dive for cover something heavy crashed against his skull.
As A.J. sunk to the wet ground, he knew he'd been a fool. He hadn't taken Tad Brooks by surprise like he'd hoped, but rather, it was the other way around.
Semi-consciousness played with A.J.'s sluggish brain. He was aware enough to realize his body was being dragged down a flight of stairs. His left arm burned from shoulder to wrist, and he moaned in pain when someone clutched the injured arm in a bruising grip. Yellow light blurred before his eyes and caused the churning nausea in his stomach to increase. He knew if he were forced to stand he'd throw-up, and then most likely pass out again. When his captor got him to their destination he was dumped on a cement floor. His body shivered when his soaking wet clothes came in contact with the damp concrete. The room had a funny smell to it that made A.J. think of bitter grapes.
The blond man blinked his eyes several times in an attempt to figure out where he was, how he got here, and why his head and left arm hurt so much. Another yellow glow appeared at the top of the stairs, and it was then A.J. realized the room he was in was being lit with an old-fashioned oil lamp. Evidently whoever had come to the doorway was carrying such a lamp as well.
A woman's voice sounded from above. Despite A.J.'s foggy brain he distinctly heard the accent that said she was a native of this island called Kono.
"Mr. Andrews, are you all right?"
Tad Brooks scurried to the bottom of the wine cellar's stairs. "Yes, Aziah, yes. I'm fine. Where are the children?"
"I have them all in baby's room. The storm is making him to fuss, and little Tiffany is scared. She wants her daddy."
"Tell her Daddy will be there in a minute. No matter what happens, you keep the children in the nursery, Aziah. You'll all be safe there. Remind Troya and Tiffany that Manolo boarded up all the windows for us. Tell the girls nothing can hurt them. We sit too high for any ocean water to get in, and besides which, the storm will pass very soon."
Aziah's voice didn't sound nearly as confident as her words. "Okay, Mr. Andrews. I tell them."
The housekeeper tightened her robe around her pudgy body and hurried off to the children like she'd been instructed. When she was gone, Tad turned and looked down into A.J.'s open eyes.
"So, you've joined me. That's good. I'd hate for you not to be aware of each moment of pain I plan to inflict on you."
"Why?" A.J. pushed out of a dry, parched
mouth. "Why did you kill my
wife? Why did you take my son?"
Tad threw his head back and laughed. "You really are stupid, aren't you, Simon? You're the same brain-dead imbecile I knew ten years ago. I killed your wife because you killed my sister."
A.J. clawed his way to his feet using the necks from the bottles of wine as hand-holds. Rows and rows of wooden racks lined the cellar walls. Hundreds of wine bottles resided within their specially made nests, meaning there was thousands of dollars worth of liquor in this room alone.
The detective stood on shaky legs, half bent at the waist. With his right hand he clutched his burning left arm to his side. He could feel blood trickling down the back of his head and knew the butt of his captor's gun had undoubtedly laid open a portion of his skull. He sagged against the racks as Tad Brooks swam before his eyes.
"I didn't kill your sister, Brooks. You killed her. You killed her, and then you killed my wife and took my son."
"I didn't kill Troya! You did!" Tad lashed out with a crazed roar. "You killed her!"
Tad clasped his hands and slammed his fists down on the base of A.J.'s neck. The detective collapsed with a cry, the throbbing in his head increasing until he thought his skull would explode. Tad battered his adversary's ribs with the sharp toe of a Gucci boot.
"You killed Troya, and he's not your son! He's my son, do you hear me, Simon! Little Tad is my son, and he always will be!"
Because A.J. possessed a stubborn streak present since birth, he didn't have the sense to keep his smart tongue silent. He looked up into Tad Brooks' enraged face and smiled. "You might call him your son, Brooks, but you're not his father. I am. I am, and there's nothing you can ever do that will change that fact. Nothing."
"You bastard!" Tad out-screamed the rage of the storm. "You fucking bastard!"
Tad's boots bashed A.J.'s torso. He threw himself on the blond, his fists pummeling the detective's face and chest.
"He's my son! He's mine! Do you hear me, Simon! He's mine! He's mine!"
A.J. lost consciousness to Tad Brooks' proclamations. As darkness drew him under he prayed that, if only for a mere second, the Lord would allow him to lay eyes on his child before he died.
The Coast Guard cutter barely made it to shore. The sturdy boat had taken on so much water that her captain ordered everyone into life jackets. Rick and Pellman stood by ready to jump in the ocean if instructed to do so, but the ship's skilled crew finally managed to dock her on Kono.
The island was dark save for the lights coming from a long building at the edge of town. Rick and Pellman made use of the first vehicle they came to, a Jeep similar to the one A.J. was driving that they stumbled upon in the tiny rent-a-car lot.
The Coast Guard crew had provided the two men with yellow knee length raincoats. Though Rick's cowboy boots were soaked right through to his socks, at least the rest of his clothing stayed dry as he stood out in the elements picking the lock on the Jeep's driver side door. Once he and Pellman gained entrance Rick made quick work of hot-wiring the vehicle.
The FBI agent cocked an eyebrow at the lanky body angled underneath the dashboard. "A man of many talents."
"In my line of work you have to be."
"I'm beginning to learn that."
Rick started the Jeep and drove for the lights. What exactly he planned to do when he got there he didn't know, but if nothing else he might be able to find out where A.J. was staying. Rick was no fool. On an island this small no visitor would go unnoticed by the locals for long.
The lights proved to be shining from a modern looking hospital that wasn't even as big as the clinic where Joel Lanky worked. Rick wheeled the Jeep into the parking lot. He and Pellman ducked their heads against the blowing rain and dashed through shin-deep puddles until they came to an entrance marked Emergency Room. For the second time that night Doctor David Wentall found strangers in his hospital. He poked his head out of the room he was in.
"Can I help you gentlemen?"
Rick felt more than heard the distant rumble of a generator and knew that was the reason behind this building having electricity. Even so, the lights were dim as though they were operating at only half their normal strength.
"I don't know if you can or not," Rick replied. He took off the camouflage cap he was wearing and shook the rainwater out of it while he talked. "We're looking for a man by the name of Tad Brooks."
"You might know him as Troy Andrews."
"Oh. I see."
The expression on the doctor's face gave him away.
"You do know him then?" Rick asked, setting his cap back on his head.
"Yes. Yes I do." David stepped out of the room he was half hidden in. "And just who might you be?"
"My name's Rick Simon. I'm a private investigator from San Diego. This is Agent Creek. Pellman Creek. He's with the FBI."
"This is about the baby, isn't it?"
"The baby?" Rick's voice rose with excitement. "You've seen the baby?"
"I'm his doctor."
"Is he okay? I mean, is everything normal? Is he healthy?"
"Yes, Mr. Simon, he's healthy
and normal. Are you the father?"
"No, but my brother is." Rick shot a glance at Pellman before returning his attention to the doctor. "What makes you ask that?"
"I…" David looked around to make certain the hallway was vacant of listening ears. A good number of the island's residents had sought refuge against the storm within the hospital's sturdy walls. He didn't want this conversation to be overheard.
"I've had my suspicions about the baby ever since he arrived. Troy told me he had adopted the little boy. That he'd arranged it through his lawyer. He said the child's mother was an unwed teenage girl. But something didn't seem right about his story. For one thing, that baby was barely twenty-four hours when he arrived here. I was certain no reputable doctor would have allowed a child that young to be flown so far. But," David shrugged, "I've known Troy a long time. He's a very influential and well-liked man. He's not been himself since his young son, Brooks, passed away in June. I suppose I should have questioned him further, but I took what he said at face value."
"I get the feeling, doctor," Pellman said, "that something caused you to have doubts about the man you know as Troy Andrews long before we arrived here tonight."
David sighed with resignation. "Yes, it did. Follow me please."
Rick and Pellman exchanged glances before trailing David to the room he'd just exited.
"Another stranger showed up here a few hours ago. He carried a young man in, spewed some instructions at me, then took off like a wild animal."
"A stranger?" Rick asked. "Was he a broad shouldered blond headed guy, slender, six feet tall, in his late forties?"
"I don't know if he was blond or not because his hair was wet, but yes. The rest of your description is accurate."
Rick turned to Pellman. "It was A.J. It had to have been."
David paused in the act of pushing open the swinging door. "Did you say A.J.?"
"Yeah, my brother. A.J. Simon. Why?"
"This is why." David led the men into the dimly lit room. "This is who your brother left in my care."
Though Rick had never seen Joey Franklin, he immediately knew that was the identity of the young man lying in the hospital bed that had been raised to an angle that allowed for reclining. Joey was now clean, dry, fed, and dressed in a crisp white hospital gown. His respirator still breathed for him just like it always would, but he looked comfortable and in good condition considering his recent ordeal.
A nurse was communicating with Joey using sign language. David spoke in a low voice.
"When he gained a little strength he began signing. Because of his lack of muscle control, it took me a moment to figure out what he was doing, but when I did I got Sherry in here. Her father was born deaf, so sign language is second nature to her. Joe told us quite a story."
"What'd he say?"
"That a woman named Lauren Simon had been murdered in San Diego, and her unborn baby taken from her via a cesarean section. That baby was then delivered here to Troy by a woman named Casey. Joe's brother was with them as well."
"Logan," Rick supplied.
"Yes, Logan. A teenager, from what Joe said. Anyway, he hasn't seen Logan in two months, or the woman Casey, in several weeks. I suspect I met the woman once at Troy's house, though she was calling herself Spencer then."
"You said A.J. brought him here," Pellman said. "How did that come about?"
"Joe told Sherry he was being hidden in a bungalow on the other side of the island. It has to be one of the homes owned by Troy. He's the only one around here that has property one wouldn't refer to as a shack. He rents his bungalows to tourists and provides them free of charge to people like me, my staff, and our schoolteachers, in an effort to bring quality health care and education to the island. Anyway, Joe said the housekeeper and nurse who had been coming daily to take care of him haven't shown up for three days. He knew he had to get help, so set out in his motorized wheelchair sometime yesterday morning. He told Sherry a man named A.J. Simon found him on the beach and brought him here. He seems to know your brother quite well, Mr. Simon. He keeps referring to him as ‘my friend.’
"Yeah, he knows my brother pretty well." Rick nodded toward the patient in the
bed who was just now taking notice of the group of men. "Can I talk to him?"
"For just a moment. Then he needs to rest. He's been through a lot."
Rick approached the bed and held out his hand. "Hi, Joe. I know we haven't met, but I've heard a lot about you. I'm Rick Simon, A.J.'s brother."
Joe struggled to grasp Rick's hand. With his other he awkwardly signed to Sherry. When he was finished she interpreted.
"He says, ‘I know you're A.J.'s brother because you shook my hand and called me Joe.’ "
Rick smiled, then asked, "Joe, can you tell me anything else about
tonight? Anything my brother might have told you."
Rick waited while Joe signed to Sherry.
"He didn't tell me anything," Sherry said for the disabled young man. "But I know where he's going."
Sherry watched Joe's fingers move. "To get his son."
"That's what I
figured." Rick turned to
David. "How do we get to Brooks'
place from here?"
"That's easy. You just take the main road out of town. It'll wind right up to Troy's mansion. You can't miss it. The mansion, I mean. It's the only one on the island."
"I'd tell you to contact our island constable, but like everyone else who works here, he's on Troy's payroll. His little girls are close friends with Troy's daughters, so I don't think you'll get much help from him. Or at least not without a lot of hassle."
"Thanks for the advice," Pellman said. He and Rick had already discussed this issue prior to disembarking from the Coast Guard cutter. Considering one of the sentences little Troya's letters contained was, ‘my daddy practically owns this whole island,’ the two men had assumed they wouldn't get much help from the locals when it came to apprehending Tad Brooks.
Rick and Pellman turned to leave. Before they got to the door Sherry said, "Mr. Simon, Joe has a question for you."
"He wants to know what happened to his father."
Rick crossed back to Joey Franklin's bed. He laid a gentle hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Joe, your father was a good friend of mine through some of the hardest years of my life. But he...time had changed him."
Joey signed to Sherry, "I know. He killed my mother. He killed lots of people."
"Yeah," Rick agreed softly, "yeah, he did."
Again Joey spoke through
Sherry. "And now he's dead, too,
A heavy silence filled the room before Rick finally confessed, "Yes, he is. I'm sorry."
The young man turned away as tears spilled down his cheeks for the man he had both loved and hated. Rick squeezed his shoulder a final time.
"I'll be back later, Joe. You deserve to be told the good things about your dad by a guy who remembers him from another place and time."
As Rick and Pellman left the room Rick heard Sherry say for Joey Franklin, "Thank you, Sergeant Simon. Thank you."
Despite the raging storm, Tad Brooks' home was easy to find. The Jeep swayed and bucked as it was battered by one hundred and ten mile an hour winds. Twice Rick had to drive around palm trees blown down by Amy's wrath, but the Jeep faithfully climbed the road David Wentall had indicated until a large, dark house loomed in the distance.
By Southern California standards Tad's residence wouldn't be called a mansion, though it certainly represented four thousand square feet of luxury, and was by far the biggest building of any on the island save for the hospital. It was made of white stucco and had a red tile roof and bright red shutters. When powerful streaks of lightening flashed one after the other Rick could see the many long windows, now covered with heavy plywood, and three separate decks that all overlooked the ocean.
Rick doused the Jeep's lights long before they could shine on the mansion and parked it below the hill the home had been built upon. He tossed his hat in the back seat and secured the metal closures of his raincoat. Though the wind would cover any sound Rick and Pellman made, they were careful not to slam the Jeep's doors when they exited. They crouched low and tried to run through the storm, but the wind pushed against their bodies, forcing them to fight just to stay on their feet. They slogged forward, their guns holstered under their slickers. When they got to the home's front door they slipped their loaded firearms into their hands.
Pellman nodded as Rick counted by showing his fingers, 1, 2, 3. On three, Pellman assumed a crouched stance with his gun extended in front of his body while Rick turned the doorknob. It didn't surprise either man to find the door unlocked. In a small, close-knit community such as Kono they doubted anyone locked their homes at night, if they even had locks on their doors to begin with.
The men stepped into a wide, dark living room. Together they silently closed the door, using all their combined strength to keep Amy from ripping it out of their hands and banging it against the wall.
Rick kept his own gun extended as he crept across the carpeting to the dark room in the far corner. He took a flashlight out of a deep pocket of his rain slicker and shone it around the interior of Tad's office. He turned back to Pellman and shook his head. Pellman used a finger to point up the stairway that curved down from the upper story. Rick craned his neck and thought he could detect a faint light coming from a room, like the light of an oil lamp, but he was too far away to tell. Rick had just put his foot on the first step when a clattering crash came from below him. He heard a little girl's voice cry from above, "Daddy!" then a woman shout, "No, child, stay here!"
Rick and Pellman used a sudden increase in Amy's violence to their advantage. As the wind howled against the house and rain tore at the tiles on the roof the two men rushed through the formal dining room and into the kitchen. Rick stopped so abruptly Pellman slammed into his back. The detective bent, picking up a dark wet object from the floor.
Rick allowed his flashlight beam to shine on the black cap he'd retrieved. Pellman didn't question Rick when the private detective whispered with heartfelt conviction, "It's A.J.'s."
The door was open that normally hid the stairway that led below. Again, a faint yellow light caught Rick's eye. He stuffed the cap in one of his coat pockets, then crept to the stairs. A body lay below, sprawled face up in a pool of scarlet on the damp concrete. Pellman saw the body as well. He grabbed Rick's arm to prevent the man from clamoring down the wooden steps to A.J.
Pellman's voice was barely pitched above a whisper. "Easy, Rick. Easy. That's just what Brooks wants is for you to go rushing down there. It's a trap. We can't help A.J. by doing something foolish."
Before the two men could confer on a course of action a gun was rammed in Rick's side. Tad Brooks stepped around the corner from the dark hallway that led to Aziah's quarters.
"Ah, but, gentlemen, you already have done something foolish. You've invaded my island and my home. But that's okay. I was going to invite Rick to the party anyway. It's nice that you were able to join him as well, Agent Creek. My friend, Spencer, always spoke so highly of you. If the poor woman was still among the living I would let her know you're not quite as smart as she claimed you to be."
Tad's left hand slipped between the men's shoulders. He waggled his fingers. "Guns please, gentlemen."
Rick's eyes darted from Pellman to the injured A.J. below. Several plans ran through his mind, but none that would allow him to protect his brother should Tad Brooks get off a well-aimed shot in the melee.
As if he could read Rick's mind, Tad said, "Don't even think it, Rick. I won't hesitate to blow your guts all over the wall, then finish off your friend Pellman before either one of you realizes what's happening. And if you don't think I'll do it, just try me."
Rick hesitated a second longer, and then passed his gun back to Tad.
"Doin' your own dirty work now, huh, Brooks? That's quite a change from how you used to operate."
Tad took the firearm Pellman handed him. He placed both guns on the kitchen counter.
"Ten years time hasn't toned down that smart mouth of yours, Rick. You're just lucky I always found your wise-ass tongue so amusing, or I'd be cutting it out of your head right now and feeding it to you on a silver platter."
Tad jammed the muzzle of his gun into Rick's neck. "Now get going, both of you. To the wine cellar. Step over A.J., then pick him up and move him to the south wall. If you don't do exactly as I say I'll put a bullet in his skull."
Rick led the way down the wooden stairs. He stepped over his battered brother as instructed, Pellman following suit. An oil lantern hung from a hook in the center of the ceiling and bathed the room in an adequate amount of light. Down here, this far under the house, it was difficult to hear the howling winds and driving rains of Amy.
Tad stopped on the second step from the bottom, his gun aimed at A.J.'s forehead. "Move him. And hurry up about it."
Rick didn't have time to assess the semi-conscious A.J.'s injuries, but if nothing else he was relieved to discover his brother wasn't lying in blood like he had first thought, but rather in wine. A wooden wine rack was toppled on its side. Broken bottles littered the area, expensive liquid pooling and trickling in whatever direction it could find.
"I should be angry with A.J. for the mess he's made. He dumped thirty thousand dollars worth of wine on the floor just by tipping this one rack. But, quite the contrary, I applaud his efforts. He created the diversion I needed to draw you gentlemen to the kitchen. Now get moving," Tad ordered a final time. "I wasn't just whistling Dixie when I said I'd put a bullet in his head. Take him over there against the wall."
As gently as they could, Rick and Pellman grasped A.J. under his armpits. The blond man moaned when Rick's hand came in contact with his left shoulder, but for the time being the semi-automatic Colt Mustang Tad had pointed at A.J.'s head convinced Rick to ignore the pain his brother was reacting to. Being careful to avoid the many shards of broken glass, Rick and Pellman dragged A.J. to the far wall Tad was pointing at.
When they two men reached their destination Rick crouched to ground level and opened A.J.'s drenched coat. Blood covered his brother's shirt. A.J. moaned again when Rick pulled the material away from his skin.
"I know, A.J.," Rick soothed. "I know it smarts like hell. But just hang in there for me. I need to take a look at this."
Tad laughed. "You always have babied him, haven't you, Rick? Always have looked after your little brother as though he was still five years old. You did it when I first met you, and you're doing it yet today. But that's okay. I understand where you're coming from. Troya and I used to look out for one another, too. Of course, A.J. put an end to that."
Rick glanced up from where he was placing his handkerchief over the more serious of A.J.'s bullet wounds. "A.J. didn't put an end to that, Brooks. You did. You were the one who killed Troya, not my brother."
"I didn't kill Troya! A.J. made me do it! Troya jumped in front of him! If she just would have minded her own business everything would have been okay! But no. She had to go and play hero. And for what? To protect some nosey private dick who was half an imbecile, and the biggest pain in the ass I ever ran across."
Rick ignored Tad's tirade. He took off his rain slicker, shook the water out of it, and wrapped it around his brother. Rick stayed crouched on the floor and raised A.J. to a half sitting position. He leaned the blond head against his right shoulder before looking over at Tad again.
"Why? Just tell me why? If you blame A.J. for Troya's death why'd you kill his wife? Why not just kill him and have it done with?"
"I didn't kill his wife. My associate did."
"Spencer," Pellman said.
"Yes, Agent Creek, Spencer. Spencer St. Pierre." Tad smiled and stepped to the concrete. He paced the area in front of the three men as though he was a professor lecturing at a university. "It came about quite by accident, you know. Spencer and I met right here on this island almost three years ago. We were alike in so many ways. Had quite a passion for each other. Couldn't get enough of each other really, if you gentlemen get my drift. Then one day a year ago this past June, I'm sitting on the beach watching my children play, and who strolls by but A.J. Simon and his lovely bride. My, my, my, what an opportunity had come to my island. But, to tell you the truth, the love I had for my kids had pretty well put thoughts of revenge out of my mind. That's why I let A.J. leave here alive. I mentioned him to Spencer, however, and low and behold this summer she contacted me and told me the most incredible story. That the case she was working on involved a man I know. And who would that man be, you ask? Well, A.J. Simon, of course."
"So Uncle Sam was your connection." Pellman said. "Spencer was working between you and Cord Franklin to facilitate your shipments of arms to the States."
"Way to go, Agent Creek. You've finally figured it out. Spencer thought that was so funny - that she was able to pull the wool over the eyes of such a bright man like you."
"But why? What was in it for her? Why would she risk her career, and quite possibly spend many years in jail, if she'd been caught?"
"Because, my dear Pellman,
Spencer wasn't quite as in love with the FBI as you might think. Or at least not as in love with it as she
was in love with me. Think back, Agent Creek.
Was it you who assigned Spencer to the Franklin home, or did she come to
you asking for the assignment?"
Pellman mentally reviewed the evolution of the case. Yes, Spencer had asked for the assignment, but at the time he hadn't found that unusual. Pellman and his people had been discussing Cord Franklin for weeks. With Spencer's nursing background it was only logical that she would volunteer to be put in place as Joey's caretaker.
"I can see by the look on your face that you realize Spencer double crossed you. Don't think ill of her, Pellman. She did it for love. And she never sold you or your agents out to Franklin. Franklin had no idea she was my contact in the States. He was simply aware that someone who mutually knew the two of us had put me in contact with him via our e-mail addresses. He was such a fool. He never knew that someone was living right in his own home. But, then, he never knew the woman who was pretending to be his son's nurse was also an FBI agent."
By now A.J.'s bruised eyes were open and he was taking in the whole conversation. If he was going to his grave tonight so be it, but he was going with answers. His voice was weak and hoarse.
"So why did you have her kill my wife?"
Tad's eyes shifted to the man lying against Rick's shoulder. Rick tightened a protective arm around A.J.'s chest as though he expected Tad to break out in a fit of anger if the wrong question was asked.
"Why did I have Spencer kill your wife, Simon? For the same reason I had her kill Brendan Nash. Revenge."
The shock at this revelation was plain to see on the faces of the Simons and Creek. They'd been under the assumption that Brendan had been killed by Tom Bidwell, or someone employed by him.
"Caught ya' by surprise, huh? I must admit that was one of my smoother moves. Poor little Brendan. I've never forgotten him either. Or how he got away from Kit and me that night. He was almost as big of a pain in the butt as you, A.J. And like so many wonderful coincidences that have come my way in recent months, Brendan just happened to be a buddy of Logan Franklin's. It wasn't until after Brendan’s death that Spencer and I found out he was an undercover cop. So see, it must run in your family, huh, guys? Always stickin' your noses where they don't belong. It was a brilliant plan, actually. I had Spencer hire a couple street punks to help her and Logan overpower Brendan, and then make it look like he'd hung himself. You know, make it look like he felt guilty over getting involved with Cord Franklin's group. Maybe if he hadn't been a cop the police would have fallen for that. But, of course, since he was one of their own they looked into his death with more detail than they would have the death of just another skinhead. But again, no matter. The worst that could have happened did, the cops assumed Brendan’s death was tied to his undercover work and blamed Franklin's group for it."
Rick sneered at the man's self-righteousness. "You're such a clever guy, Brooks."
Tad smiled. "Thank you."
"What about my wife?" A.J. rasped. "Why did you murder her? If it was me you wanted, then why the hell did you have to kill her?"
"Perhaps I never would have killed her if it hadn't been for you, A.J."
"Yes, you. You see; I had a beautiful little boy. As a matter of fact, your wife commented on his beauty right out here on the beach in front of my home while you were visiting my island on your honeymoon. My son, Brooks, was my pride and joy. I loved him with all my heart, as he loved me. But Brooks was ill. Had been since he was born. Unfortunately, our good island doctor didn't know what was wrong with him, and because of you, Simon, I couldn't return to the States with Brooks in an effort to seek better medical care for him. Because of you, I'm living in exile. My child died because of you. My beautiful boy who was only three years old."
"Tad, get off your high horse," Rick scoffed. "Everything you're blaming on my brother is your fault. and you damn well know it."
"It isn't my fault! It isn't!" Tad grabbed another wine rack and sent it crashing to the floor. "Do you hear me? It's not my fault! It's your brother's fault, and he deserves every ounce of pain I've inflicted on him!"
Tad raised his gun and fired four shots into the wall above Rick's head. Pellman dove for the floor while Rick pounced on top of A.J., covering his brother's body with his own.
"Get up! Get up I'm telling you!"
Pellman's head inched out of its turtle-in-the-shell like position. Rick did the same.
"Get up! Back like you were!" The crazed Tad waved his gun.
Pellman got to his feet. Rick rose just enough to be crouched next to A.J. like he had been earlier. He was certain they were all going to be killed execution style within seconds.
When Tad's rapid breathing calmed and the wild look left his eyes Creek spoke. The agent wasn't so much attempting to get answers, as he was attempting to bide time while he pondered a way to wrestle Brooks' gun from him.
"How did Spencer come to take Mrs. Simon's child?"
Tad didn't seem to realize Pellman was trying to distract him. He liked to boast about his deeds, and was all too willing to talk.
"She saw A.J. and his wife at the doctor's office. That's when she found out who A.J. really was and that his wife was pregnant. I wanted a son. I needed a son to take the place of my little Brooks. Spencer broke into the clinic one night and read Lauren's ultrasound results. That's when we knew she was carrying a boy. And that's when I knew, because of what A.J. had done to me, the child was meant to be mine."
"And how does Allison Baker play into all this?" Rick asked.
Tad's brows furrowed at the question. He was unaware Allison had a past connection to the Simons. "Allison Baker?"
"She was employed by you, wasn't she?"
"Yes. As my public relations director. She was in contact with Mrs. Simon about my desire to expand my cruise line into San Diego's harbor, but that was another mere coincidence."
"Then why did she die in the fire that night?"
"Because like you and A.J., Rick, Allison was too nosey. She deliberately eavesdropped on a telephone conversation she had no business listening to. She had to be taken care of. I had no choice."
"You were afraid she was gonna warn A.J. about your plans to kill Lauren," Rick guessed.
"My plans to kill both Lauren and A.J., yes. And I'm sure she would have. She was a peculiar woman, as it turns out. Probably deserved to die anyway."
"No one deserves to die, Brooks," Pellman said. "At least not by the decree of a man like you."
"Well, Agent Creek, then I guess this isn't your lucky night." Tad raised his gun and aimed it at Pellman's head. "Because all three of you are going to die tonight, and then this entire mess will forever be out of my hair."
A.J. tried to rise, but Rick held him down.
"Where's my son?"
"Don't worry, A.J., the child is safe, though we've had this discussion before. Tad is not your son. He's mine. And he'll never know any life different than the one I'm currently giving him. He'll never know another daddy but me."
The gun traveled from one man to the next. "Let's see. Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. I think we'll get rid of Agent Creek first, because his death is of little consequence to me. Then..." Tad's eyes jumped from Rick to A.J., A.J. to Rick. "Then Rick, simply because I want to see the expression on your face, A.J., as you watch your big brother die. Then you and I will have our fun. Don't think your death will be easy, Andrew Simon, because it won't be. You deserve every ounce of suffering that comes your way. You killed Troya. You killed Brooks. I'll see to it you pay for those transgressions before you go to your grave."
The gun was aimed at Pellman's forehead. Tad Brooks smiled.
"So, gentlemen, shall we begin?"
Troya didn't know what was worse, the power of the hurricane outside the house, or the crashes coming from the basement. She wished her daddy would come to the nursery like he'd promised Aziah he was going to.
The girls, their maid, and their baby brother were dressed in pajamas and sitting on the floor as far away from the boarded over windows as possible when they'd heard the first noise. The front door had banged open, and then it sounded like someone was being dragged down the stairs to the wine cellar. Aziah handed little Tad to Troya and reluctantly went to investigate. Troya didn't know who had been more frightened, Aziah when she'd ventured out of that room, or she and Tiffany at being left alone in the dark because the maid had taken the oil lamp. Troya and her sister breathed a sigh of relief when Aziah returned saying everything was okay, and that Daddy would be joining them soon. But now more noises that sounded like gunshots had come from below, and Aziah made Troya and Tiffany scurry to Tad's walk-in closet. Tiffany had her face buried in Aziah's side, and Aziah was muttering a steady-stream of prayers in the island language as they all hid together in the big closet. Troya sat on the other side of Aziah rocking the crying Tad back and forth in her arms. She didn't know if the baby was hungry, had a dirty diaper, or was just plain terrified like the rest of them.
Even with boards on the windows Troya could see lightening rip the sky. Debris banged against the house like it was trying to make its way to safety. Troya couldn't ever remember being this scared during a hurricane. But, then, during past storms her mother had always been here, and her father had never left them alone either. They sang songs and read storybooks and they'd all been allowed, Troya, Tiffany, and Brooks, to cuddle together in Mommy and Daddy's big bed. Even Aziah had joined them, which made the girls laugh. And before they knew it the hurricane would be over, and Daddy had kept them safe just like he'd promised.
But this time Daddy had disappeared almost as soon as the storm started. And this time Mommy was in New York. And this time Brooks wasn't with them because he was buried in a little casket in the graveyard on the hill. And as Troya looked down at Tad, she somehow knew he wasn't crying because he was hungry, or wet, or frightened, but was crying because he knew he didn't belong to them. Tad was crying because he was waiting for his daddy, too.
And when the front door burst open for a second time that night Troya wondered if Hurricane Amy had found a way to get inside, or if Tad's daddy had finally come for him.
Tad Brooks was laughing as he squeezed his finger on the trigger. Rick and A.J. dove as one, Rick for Tad, A.J. for Pellman. Neither man would have made their destinations before Tad's semi-automatic weapon mowed them down save for one thing. An eighty-year-old man standing on a step with Rick's Magnum in his hands.
Lowell Brooks didn't have time to plead with his son. He pulled the trigger, the bullet burrowing a path into Tad's skull. The younger man never knew what hit him as his body fell to the ground.
For a long moment time seemed to stop. The three men left alive in the wine cellar stared open mouthed as Lowell descended the rest of the way to the basement with David Wentall behind him.
The old man stared at his dead child. Sorrow twisted his features into a mask of mourning.
"He was my son," Lowell said to no one in particular, and yet to everyone present. "My only son. For many years now I have forgiven Tad his weaknesses. I have blamed myself for the evil I saw in him. But the blame is not mine, but rather his. I could not control his actions any more than I could control the rising and setting of the sun."
"So you knew?" Rick asked.
"Knew?" Lowell looked over at Rick. "If by knew, Rick, you mean did I know my son would kill A.J.'s wife, then the answer is no, I didn't. I never imagined such a possibility. I feared my son would kill A.J. I've been following A.J. for months now in an effort to try to prevent just that. I thought I could talk sense into Tad before he did such a deed. I...I know I should have gone to the police when I first overheard Tad make a threat against A.J., but he was my child. How does one turn his child into the law? The only child he has left."
"Only child?" Rick asked.
"But what about Ashton?"
"Ashton is dead. She passed away two weeks ago from the same disease her mother had. And, of course, you know I lost my Troya ten years ago at her brother's hand. For a long time I hid from that fact. Nonetheless, it's true. But, I'm eighty years old and Tad was my last surviving child. I...I didn't want to bury him, too." Lowell wiped tears from his eyes with shaking hands. "However, that is what I must do."
The elderly man looked down at A.J. "I'm sorry for the pain my son caused you. If I had known he planned to hurt your wife I would have gone to the authorities. I would have put a stop to things even if it meant turning Tad into the law. I'm a foolish old man, I know, to think that someone my age could stop his son from killing, but I truly thought I could convince him to leave you alone by reminding him of his duties to his children. But after Brooks died…after Brooks died, Tad lost all control of himself."
A.J. tried to get to his feet. Rick put an arm around his brother's waist and helped him rise. He was forced to support most of A.J.'s weight, and wondered how long it would be before blood loss, combined with the concussion he was certain A.J. had, would cause his brother to pass out.
"Why?" A.J. questioned Lowell. "Why didn't you at least contact me about the baby? Why did you let me think my child was dead when he really wasn't?"
"I didn't know about the baby until Saturday afternoon. Prior to that I thought he had died in the fire with your wife, just as you thought. But a phone conversation with my son revealed the truth. I came here tonight with the intention of telling Tad he had to turn himself into the authorities for what he had done. If he wouldn't agree, then I was going to turn him in myself. When I arrived on the island a short time ago and talked to David I discovered you gentlemen had beaten me here. I knew then, that Tad would never let any of you leave alive. That he'd never let you take the baby with him." Lowell turned to Pellman and held out his wrists. "So arrest me now, Agent Creek, for I know it's what you must do. But please allow me one thing."
"And what is that?"
"To stay here long enough to bury Tad."
A.J. spoke from where his head was slumping against Rick's shoulder. He fought to stay conscious and get the words out.
"I don't want you to arrest him, Pellman. I just want...want all of us to be able to go home...go home and forget this night ever happened. But most of all I want...I want my son."
"I'll have to talk to my superiors about that when we arrive back in the States, A.J.," Pellman said. "For the time being, let's work on filling your last request."
A.J. smiled at Pellman's words, then passed out in his brother's arms.
The living room glowed with light from additional lanterns found in the kitchen. A.J. was carried to the couch by his brother and placed in a seated position. Doctor David gave what first aid he could to the unconscious detective with Pellman Creek offering assistance.
The lusty cry of a baby caught Rick's attention. He headed up the stairs, following the sound to the nursery. An oil light resided on a nightstand that sat next to an empty crib. Rick looked around with confusion until the cry sounded again. He proceeded to the set of double closet doors that were closed. He grabbed the knobs on the bi-fold doors and opened them.
The detective gazed upon the figures huddled on the dark closet floor. A round native woman in her mid-fifties, who Rick guessed was the maid Troya had mentioned in her letters, looked up at him in fright. In a language he couldn't understand, she seemed to be pleading with him as she held the children tightly to her plump sides.
"It's okay," Rick said softly. He crouched down so he was even with the closet's occupants. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt any of you."
A little girl cried into the maid's thick bathrobe and refused to look at Rick, but the other girl, the one who was holding the wailing baby, met his eyes.
"You're here to take Tad from
us, aren't you?"
Rick almost started crying when he took in the sight of that beautiful face, those pale blue eyes, and the thick ivory hair that made this child the spitting image of her namesake. That made this child the spitting imagine of his long dead fiancé, Troya Yeager. It had been years since the thought of Troya's death had hurt Rick in the way it was right now.
"Aren't you?" Troya repeated her question. "You're here to take Tad from us. Are you his real daddy?"
Rick swallowed the lump in his throat as he gazed down at his squalling nephew. This red-faced, white headed, angry little boy looked so much like A.J. the resemblance almost made Rick laugh. The infant drew his legs up to his chest, balled his fists, and let out another furious howl.
I see you're a stubborn little cuss, just like you're old man. Oh boy, are you and A.J. ever gonna have a time together. Your old Uncle Rick can't wait to be a part of this, little guy. Your daddy deserves a kid as hard-headed as he is.
Rick looked into Troya's face. "No, sweetie, I'm not his daddy, but I know who is. And yes, I'm here to take him to his father."
"We love Tad, but he'd not happy here. He never has been. He cries a lot. We're just his adopted family, you know."
"I know. And I thank you for taking such good care of him. I can see you've been a wonderful big sister to him, Troya."
The girl cocked her head. "How do you know my name?"
"I know your name because you're exactly like a woman I used to know named Troya."
"Really? I never met anyone else with my first name. My mommy says it's very unusual."
"It is. And very special." Rick's attention shifted to his nephew. "Do you think I could hold the baby?"
Troya looked down at the child she
thought of as her little brother. She
kissed him on the forehead and tried hard not to cry. "I love Tad almost as much as I loved Brooks, but it
wouldn't be right to keep him if he doesn't belong to us. If his real daddy is looking for him. You'll take good care of him, won't
"Yes, sweetie, I will."
"He likes to lay across your knees on his tummy and have his back rubbed before he goes to sleep at night. And he likes to be rocked and sung to both at the same time. Any song will do. He's not picky."
Rick smiled. "I'll remember that."
"And we have a special toy he likes when he gets his bath. It's a duck that squirts water on him from its bill. His name is Bucky Ducky. I'll give him to you before you leave."
"That'll be swell, Troya. After all, we can't have this boy missing his rubber ducky now, can we?"
Troya peeked around the corner of the closet. "Where's my daddy? Is he coming up here soon?" The child caught sight of another man who had just entered the room. She sprang from her confinement with outstretched arms.
"Papa Lowell! Papa Lowell! I haven't seen you in so long! Why haven't you come to visit?"
Lowell Brooks bent down and took his granddaughter in his arms.
"Where's my daddy, Papa Lowell? Have you seen him?"
Tears leaked from the elderly man's eyes. He'd just come from covering his son's body with a blanket and shutting the cellar door. Tiffany crawled out of the closet, staring at this old stranger her sister was hugging.
Lowell smoothed Troya's hair from her face. "Troya, Papa Lowell needs to talk to you and Tiffany. Let's go to your room. Bring Aziah, too. You all need to hear what Papa Lowell has to say."
Troya gathered her sister and their maid and herded them to her room down the hall. Rick paused in the act of stepping past Lowell Brooks.
"I don't know what the future holds for any of us, Mr. Brooks, but I know those two little girls are going to need you."
"Need me? But I'm an old man, what can I do for them?"
"You can be their father. The only father they'll have now. Your children are gone, but you still have your grandchildren. Don't abandon the girls because you think you're too old to do them any good." Rick looked down at his fussing nephew. "None of us is ever too old to give love to a child entrusted to our care."
Lowell nodded. He reached out an age freckled hand and ran it over the baby's head.
As Rick moved to walk out the door he made one last request of Lowell Brooks.
"And please tell little Troya about the woman she was named for. Show her pictures of your daughter. Tell her about Troya's inner beauty, and what a loving person she was."
"I will, Rick. I promise I will."
Rick whispered a "Thank you," around his tears and exited the room.
Rick was upstairs when A.J. regained consciousness. Doctor Wentall had removed the detective's wet clothing while Pellman went in search of clean linens and blankets. The bleeding wounds in A.J.'s left arm and shoulder were now wrapped with bath towels, and the arm itself had been immobilized with a sling made out of a bed sheet. Another towel had been folded into a thick pad and placed against the open gash on the back of the detective's skull. The blond man was still sitting up, but his feet were now propped on a pillow that had been placed on the coffee table and he was wrapped in two large, thick blankets. A.J.'s eyes were closed, and his head gingerly rested against the folded towel residing on a sofa cushion while Pellman and David stood in the dining room discussing the merits of moving him to the hospital now, versus waiting a few hours until the worst of Amy blew over.
The blond's eyes popped open when Rick descended the stairs with the crying baby in his arms. He walked over to A.J.'s side and lowered himself to the edge of the couch. He smiled at the wonder he saw on his younger brother's face.
"A.J., I think this little fellow belongs to you."
"Oh, God. Oh my God." A.J. struggled to get his right arm free of the blankets. "I never...I never thought I'd really see him. I never thought he'd really be mine."
"Well, you are, and he is, and I think he's mad as hell for being kept from his daddy for so long. So here. Take him."
"No." A.J. shook his head as Rick held the baby out to him. "No, I can't. I don't...I don't know how. I don't--."
Rick chuckled at the nervous tremor in his brother's voice.
"You'll do fine, A.J. You'll do better than fine. Come on, here you go. Take him."
Rick carefully transferred the squalling boy from his arms to A.J.'s right one. He kept a hand on the back of the baby's head and neck in the event A.J. was too weak to support his weight.
The moment the child was snuggled against A.J.'s chest his crying stopped. He looked up, cooed, and waved a little hand in the air that patted itself against his father's cheek as though he, too, was assuring his daddy that he'd do just fine.
Tears blurred A.J.'s vision as he gazed down upon his son. He thought of Lauren and all she was missing. The pain over her passing was just as strong as it had been the day he buried her, and he wondered if he'd ever get over her death.
Through his tears A.J. asked his brother, "He's beautiful, isn't he?"
"Yeah, A.J," Rick's big hand stroked the baby's head, "yeah, he is."
"Lauren...Lauren would be so proud if she could see him. She'd love him so much."
"I'm sure she has seen him, kid. And I know she loves him very much. She loves both of you very much."
A.J. raised the child to his face and kissed a round little cheek. His eyes traveled his son with wonder, and Rick knew he was counting every finger and toe making sure, as all new parents do, that the baby was healthy.
"He's perfect. He's absolutely perfect."
"That he is. And speaking of ‘he,’ does my nephew have a name?"
A.J. thought a moment and then nodded. "His mother wanted to call him Jackson Richard McAllister Simon."
Rick smiled at the name, and his chest couldn't help but swell with pride over Richard. "Well, I'd say that's kind of a long handle for such a little guy, but I'm sure he'll grow into it." Rick looked into his nephew's bright blue eyes. "So, Jackson Richard McAllister Simon, what do you think of that?"
A tiny hand rose and wound its fingers in Rick's moustache while the other hand patted A.J.'s cheek again. The baby cooed, and then he smiled for the very first time in his young life. Smiled because he knew he was finally being held within the arms of his family. Rick laughed when the three month old let out a shriek of delight. He bent and kissed the baby's forehead.
"I couldn't have put it better myself, kid. Your ole' Uncle Rick couldn't have put it better himself."
An old saying claims there's a calm after every storm. The sun smiled upon Kono on Thursday morning, and the water that surrounded the island was once again sedate and inviting.
Other than Tad Brooks, no island residents lost their lives during the hurricane. The modern hospital and hotels provided shelter for those residents who lived in dwellings that couldn't withstand Amy's winds. Dawn had barely broken before the hearty islanders were clearing downed trees and other debris that blocked the roads. Even the youngest children knew they must pitch in and help their families rebuild what was lost. Little ones no older than three and four picked up roof tiles, branches, slats from wooden shutters, and anything else that wasn't too heavy for them to carry.
Tad Brooks was removed from his mansion while his daughters were still sleeping. Lowell walked with the body bag as it was transported to the only hearse on the island. He watched the 1955 Cadillac weave down the hill toward town. When the vehicle was out of sight he turned and headed for the house. Troya stood on the front steps in her nightgown, tears streaming down her cheeks as she silently bid her daddy goodbye.
Lowell bent on one stiff knee and the little girl buried her face in his neck. Rick Simon had been right. Regardless of his advanced years, Lowell's young granddaughters needed him. It was now up to him to be the father figure in their lives. He patted Troya's back and spoke in a soft voice.
"As soon as the phone lines have been restored we'll call your mother. I'm sure she'll get on the first available plane so she can be here with you and Tiffany."
Troya nodded within the haven of her grandfather's shoulder. He smelled just like her daddy, and even though he was old, he walked like her daddy, too. Their voices and their eyes were alike as well, and all those similarities brought Troya comfort. She wasn't exactly certain what had happened the night before. Papa Lowell told her and Tiffany and Aziah that Daddy had an accident during the hurricane that caused his death. When Troya asked Papa Lowell for more details about this accident, he'd simply said, "Child, no matter what the passing years bring, no matter what things you overhear or are told, always remember how much your father loved you. For in the end, Troya Aubrey, love is all that really matters."
Lowell released his granddaughter and stood. He took her hand in his and crossed the threshold into the house. By the time he had set out a breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt Aziah and Tiffany had arrived in the kitchen. The maid bustled around the room while urging her charges to sit at the table.
"No, no, Mr. Brooks, this is my job. Aziah does the kitchen work. You sit. Girls sit. Yes, yes, I must get Manolo here right away to take the boards off the windows. The house is so dark and sad when one can't see outside. Eat. Everyone eat. Eat, then go. All of you go to the beach. Let Aziah clean the house without you underfoot."
Lowell smiled at the woman. She reminded him of Carmina, his faithful maid of four decades. Later in the day he sat on the beach watching his granddaughters frolic in the waves. He even joined them, not realizing how many years it had been since he'd felt this young.
Lowell Brooks had been a grandfather for almost three decades now. He hadn't expected to ever be a father again. But when Tiffany came to him needing a scraped elbow kissed, and when Troya needed help fixing her ponytail, he knew he was up to the task.
And when the girls took each of his hands on their walk back to the mansion the pain Lowell felt over the passing of first Troya, then Ashton, and now Tad, was eased just a little bit.
Lowell Thaddeus Brooks Junior was buried on Saturday morning. The service was kept private, the only people in attendance were Tad's father, his wife, his in-laws, his daughters, Aziah, and David Wentall. Island gossip spread far and wide about the man's demise. By the time Sunday came most residents were aware the man they knew as Troy Andrews had really been a fugitive from justice who had been hiding out on their island for the past decade. Shock and disbelief were the main reaction to this news regarding the well-respected entrepreneur. Some claimed to have known all along that Troy Andrews possessed a mysterious past, while others claimed to have heard he killed over twenty people back in the States, but the rumor that was most astounding was the one that was spreading about the man's sister. Some people were saying he murdered his twin sister, and that his oldest daughter Troya had been named for the woman.
Rick Simon was oblivious to the hubbub occurring on the island. He'd spent most of the past three days at the hospital with his brother. A.J.'s injuries included a severe concussion and a bullet wound that required surgery. The blond man was now on the road to recovery. If no further complications arose the Simon brothers, along with A.J.'s son, Pellman Creek, Joey Franklin, and Joey's nurse Sherry, were scheduled to fly from the island on an FBI chartered jet on Monday morning.
When Rick knew it was late on Saturday afternoon in San Diego he placed a phone call. He was sitting in the hospital's small desolate lobby with Jackson cradled in the crook of his elbow. The baby was sucking from the bottle Rick was holding, making tiny mews of satisfaction around the nipple.
Although Rick had been an uncle for only three days he was already a pro. Within hours of a nurse showing him the rudiments of feeding, burping, changing, and bathing an infant, Rick was doing all those chores himself and enjoying every minute of it. A.J.'s left arm was still giving him considerable pain. Between the blood loss he'd incurred and the pain killer he was receiving, A.J. slept more hours than he was awake, meaning he had yet to fight with Rick for the opportunity to care for Jackson. Rick knew that wouldn't last for long. As soon as A.J. was feeling better Rick had no doubt the baby would quickly become his daddy's boy.
Rick gently tweaked the baby's
nose. Jackson went on drinking from the
bottle, but his nose crinkled and he kicked his feet as though he was laughing
at his Uncle Rick.
"Yeah, you're a little sweetheart, aren't you? I've been with you three days, kiddo, and other than that night of the hurricane I have yet to hear you cry. You just giggle and coo and kick those feet, all the while flirting with every pretty nurse that gives you the time of day. There's no doubt you're a Simon, Jackson Richard. You're not quite three months old, and already you know how to get your way with the ladies."
The baby kicked his legs again, let out a laugh, then went back to the business of eating. Using his free hand, Rick punched numbers in on the portable phone Pellman had given him. It was answered on the other end on the third ring.
"Richard Lawrence Simon, where are you? You and your brother were supposed to pick me up at the senior center at four this afternoon. You said we'd all go out to dinner together. But when I didn't spot hide or hair of either one of you, I was forced to ask Bud and Edie to bring me home. Talk about the ride from hell. I'm sure it'll come as no surprise when I tell you they're on the brink of divorce again."
"No, it doesn't come as any surprise to me, and I'm sorry me and A.J. weren't there to get you like I said we would be. I didn't know how to get a hold of you to let you know there's been a change in plans."
"Change in plans? What kind of change in plans? And where are you? This connection's really muffled. You sound like you're calling from a thousand miles away."
"Funny you should say that, 'cause you're not too far off."
"What? Rick, what's going on? Where are you? Is A.J. with you? And what's that noise I hear? It sounds like a baby cooing. Like the noises you and A.J. used to make when I was feeding you."
"Then I guess that must run in the family, too."
"What must run in the family? Richard, what are you talking about?"
Rick looked down at the baby whose eyes were now heavy with sleep. He pulled the bottle from the infant's mouth, and using a burping cloth wiped away the formula that ringed Jackson's lips.
"Mom, it's a long story. Too long to go into over the phone. I'll tell you all about it when we get back home."
"And just when will that be?"
"If A.J.'s feelin' good enough to travel, it should be Monday."
"If A.J.'s feeling good enough to travel! Rick--"
"Mom, he's fine. A little banged up, but fine."
"Richard, would you please tell me what's going on."
"Like I said, it's a long story. Just pick us up at Lindbergh Field at seven on Monday evening."
"I don't know which gate, but
we'll be easy to spot."
"We're comin' home on a private jet chartered by the FBI. Aside from me and A.J., there'll be a black man, a nurse, a young man in a wheelchair," Rick looked down at the sleeping bundle in his arms, "oh yeah, and a baby."
"Your grandson. Jackson Richard McAllister Simon. I'm holding him in my arms right now, and he's the spitting image of A.J. from the white hair on his head, to the way he wrinkles his nose when he's teasing Uncle Rick or flirting with the nurses, on down to the crooked little toe on his left foot."
Cecilia Simon sank to her couch in shock. She had no idea what had transpired while she was on vacation, but she didn't question Rick further. If anyone could stun her with this kind of news, it would be her sons. She was certain whatever story accompanied the homecoming of Jackson Richard McAllister would be an interesting one.
Cecilia based her last sentence on the bizarre conversation she was having with her oldest son. "I'll get the guest room ready for one injured private detective and one baby, both in need of tender loving care."
The detective smiled as the sleeping infant squirmed and wriggled and snuggled in closer to Uncle Rick's strong chest.
"Well, Grandma, I'd have to say that's just what the doctor ordered."
One Year Later
It was early on a Sunday evening in late October. A.J. stood in his kitchen, remnants of a party held still visible on the counter tops. He wrapped what was left of the bakery-made sheet cake and put it in the refrigerator on the shelf below the leftover ham and turkey. If he asked Rick to come for dinner over the next few nights the food would be polished off before the week came to an end. Between the opportunity for a free meal, and the opportunity to spend time with his nephew, A.J. knew Rick wouldn't refuse the offer.
The blond man put the last of dirty dishes in the dishwasher, added soap, and started the appliance. He wiped off the counter tops and then straightened the chairs around the dining room table. As he carried the chairs brought from the kitchen table back to their original home, he reminisced about the many events of the past year.
The injuries A.J. received at the hands of Tad Brooks healed with time. He'd arrived in San Diego on the FBI chartered plane on Monday, October twenty-sixth. Ironically enough, the date signified both the three month anniversary of his wife's death and his son's birth.
Cecilia Simon was at the airport anxiously awaiting her returning sons. As soon as she caught sight of the baby cradled in A.J.'s good arm she started to cry. At that point she didn't know the hows or whys behind the child's existence, but all it took was one look for her to know without a doubt he was A.J.'s little boy.
Later that night Rick sat with his mother in her kitchen and told her the incredible story of Tad Brooks' revenge from start to finish. A.J. was asleep in Cecilia's guestroom with baby Jackson sleeping in a bassinet beside him. Cecilia had planned to give to her son and Lauren the new bassinet upon their child's birth. After Lauren's death she stowed it in a dark corner of the attic and covered it with a sheet, never imagining it would be put to use.
A.J. spent that week at his mother's house recovering and learning to take care of a three month old. Like Rick, he was a quick study, and his mother a good teacher. Within twenty-four hours A.J. was providing for all the baby's needs, despite the fact he had use of just his right arm.
When A.J. called Lauren's parents to tell them they had a new grandson they were as shocked by the announcement as Cecilia had been. At first Mac was certain his son-in-law was drunk. When he realized that wasn't the case, he began to wonder if the detective was suffering hallucinations brought on by grief. It wasn't until Rick took the phone from A.J. and assured Mac that he did indeed, have a new grandson; that the man believed some sort of miracle had occurred. Within forty-five minutes time the McAllisters arrived at Cecilia's home with Lisa and her family in tow, along with Shane and Tanner. After the children had gotten their fill of the baby Cecilia ushered them to the kitchen for ice cream. While she kept them occupied A.J. quietly told Lauren's family of the events that brought Jackson to them. He went back ten years to the accident he'd suffered outside the old city morgue, and relayed how he and Rick had first come to cross paths with a man named Tad Brooks.
The family listened in stunned silence. A.J. had no idea what their reaction would be when his story came to an end. He feared they'd blame him for Lauren's death, and knew he wouldn't fault them for it if they did. But the McAllisters didn't blame A.J. now any more than they'd blamed him the night the fire claimed Lauren's life and everyone thought that tragedy was somehow tied to the Simon brothers' dealings with Cord Franklin. Mac looked down at the sleeping grandson he was holding and said through his tears, "The Lord doesn't make mistakes, A.J. He wanted Lauren with Him. But this little guy," Mac's eyes traveled from Jackson to A.J., "this little guy He wanted with you. He knows you need your son and that your son needs you. He knows all of us need this precious boy to help us heal. To help us come to terms with Lauren's passing."
A.J. was too choked up to reply to his father-in-law, so simply nodded his head in heartfelt agreement. When the visitors stood to leave Shane wrapped his arms around A.J.'s waist. The detective crouched down and gave the boy a one armed hug in return. Shane spoke in a voice only A.J. could hear.
"I'm sorry about the mean things I said to you, A.J."
"You don't have to be sorry, buddy. Those mean things you said were just what I needed to hear. Without them, I wouldn't have been driven to find your brother."
Before the week was over Jackson Richard McAllister Simon was a local celebrity. The fire that everyone thought claimed the life of a woman and her unborn child had been well publicized throughout the city. Now the media couldn't get enough of the events surrounding the baby's survival, subsequent kidnapping, and ultimate return to his family. A.J. refused to allow any pictures to be taken of his son, nor did he speak directly to any member of the media other than Temple Hill. He did keep all the newspaper articles that were written, smiling slightly at the headlines that dubbed Jackson, THE MIRACLE BABY. A.J. couldn't have put it better himself, and someday when his son was older he would share all the articles with him, including those published right after the fire. For now, A.J. filed the newspaper clippings in the baby book Spencer St. Pierre started and Tad Brooks had continued to update. Again, it would be many years before A.J. showed Jackson the book, but when he felt his son was ready to hear the entire story surrounding his birth and first three months of life, the baby book and articles would help complete the tale that was filled with both sorrow and joy.
So much had changed in A.J.'s life since he'd put that baby book away and brought home the little boy he now called Jack. He hadn't touched a drop of alcohol in over a year. Even today at the party, while the other adults enjoyed a glass of wine he passed up the beverage while remembering how he'd allowed himself to drown in its power those months after Lauren's death. If he'd been foolish enough to be drunk that Saturday night Rick was in Las Vegas, he never would have read Troya's letters to Shane, and never would have found his son. That was a lesson A.J. never intended to forget.
The blond man still made his home on the Grand Canal and had no plans to change that. Other than the five years he'd lived in Seattle, this house had been his for almost twenty years now. It was just the right size for A.J. and little Jack, and they were happy here. The room Shane and Tanner had shared remained unchanged as well. Once a month the two boys came and spent the weekend with their half-brother, and once a week A.J. picked them up at their father's home and took all three boys on an outing of some sort, be it supper at McDonald’s, a romp at a local park, or a swim in the ocean and picnic on the beach afterwards. A.J. knew much of the connection Jack would feel to his deceased mother was based on the relationship he would forge with the older brothers who had strong memories of her. The detective couldn't have been happier with the bond he saw forming between the boys. Shane was protective and coddling of Jack in much the same way A.J. could recall Rick being when A.J. himself was a small boy. Shane couldn't wait until he was old enough to baby-sit for his youngest brother. Therefore, the ten-year-old was counting down the days until he turned twelve.
Tanner was ever the family clown, and Jack would screech with delight the second he saw his red headed brother while knowing nothing but fun was to be had until Tanner went home. Again, A.J. was reminded of his relationship with Rick. Tanner was Jack's favorite playmate, and the two boys often got scolded for the mischief they were up to. A.J. could only imagine it would get worse as Jack got older, but he had to admit he was looking forward to every minute of it.
The Grand Am he'd been renting from Carlos was gone, replaced the previous fall by a smoky gray Oldsmobile Bravada. The sports utility vehicle was similar in size to Rick's Duranago. A.J. had to admit that it took him some time to get used to the big vehicle. Chevy's zippy little Camaro had been his love for so many years. But the logistics of traveling with a child in a car seat, plus two other boys on occasion, meant A.J. needed something that would hold a family. He was used to the Bravada now and was growing as fond of it has he had been of his beloved Camaros. The Oldsmobile had taken Jack on his first trip to the zoo and Sea World, where his father, brothers, and his Uncle Rick accompanied him. Next summer the little boy would be taken on his first camping trip, again with his brothers and Uncle Rick in attendance.
Other lives had been changed, too, as a result of that stormy night on Kono. Joe Franklin was living in San Diego once again; in the home he inherited upon his father's death. His paternal grandparents had moved from Ohio and were living with him, as was a full-time nurse. Joe was attending college at UCSD and studying astronomy. He loved school and was meeting with great successes, just as A.J. had known he would. A.J. made the effort to stop by the Franklin home and see the young man every couple of months. With the aid of Joe's computer they often spent time talking of the odd coincidences that brought them together as teacher and student, and the tragedies they'd both incurred that now brought them together as friends.
Despite pressure from Town and Pellman, A.J. refused to press charges against Lowell Brooks. Like he'd said that night on the island, it was time for all of them to go forward with their lives. Making an eighty-year-old man pay for an error in judgment was not what Lauren would have wanted A.J. to do. The McAllisters agreed with A.J.'s decision and assured him he was abiding by what would have been Lauren's wishes.
Lowell returned to his large home in San Diego, though not alone. Upon his insistence Troya, Tiffany, and Hillary moved in with him. Kono held too many bad memories for Troya and Tiffany. As soon as their mother arrived from New York the girls made it clear to her they didn't want to live on the island any longer. Hillary and Lowell thought that was for the best. They knew the girls would never again be able to return to school without being subjected to gossip and teasing. Hillary thought a fresh start was in order, but didn't particularly want to live in New York during the winter months. When Lowell proposed they come live with him, she agreed to try the arrangement for one year. That year had almost passed and it looked as though Hillary and her daughters were settled in San Diego for good. Prior to her marriage to the man Hillary would forever think of as Troy Andrews, she'd been a professional photographer. She went back to that trade, opening her own studio that specialized in children's portraits. During this past summer Troya and Tiffany had finally gotten to see that mysterious place called the Hamptons when they'd gone with their mother to spend three weeks in New York with their maternal grandparents. The girls fell in love with Grandpa Dalton's estate, and even found ponies stabled there for their use. But they loved Papa Lowell, too, and when it was time to return to San Diego for the start of another school session they were eager to go back to the place they now thought of as home.
Aziah had insisted on leaving Kono with Hillary and the girls. She now served the Lowell Brooks household in much the same way she'd served Tad's household, and in the same way Carmina had served Lowell for all those years. She was maid, and nanny, and friend to the little girls she'd known since their births. Her presence made the transition for Troya and Tiffany all that much easier.
Because of the location of Lowell's home the girls went to the same school Shane and Tanner attended. The friendship between Shane and Troya that started with the exchange of letters had now grown to puppy love. Whether it would blossom further as the pair got older remained to be seen. All four children were still ignorant to the events surrounding Tad Brooks' death, and how the man was tied into Lauren's murder. The letters Troya had written that Shane had never read were kept from him by the mutual agreement of A.J. and Rob Albright. All Shane and Tanner knew was that A.J. had tracked down the man who had killed their mother and kidnapped their baby brother. They'd been told justice was served and the man would never hurt anyone again. Because of the pain that time had caused her, Troya didn't talk about her deceased father or the baby who had come to live with them for a few short months, not even with Shane, whom she considered to be her best friend. Nonetheless, A.J. knew the children would eventually have to be told the truth, but he was leaving the timing of that decision up to Rob Albright and Hillary Dalton.
The only mysteries remaining involved Spencer St. Pierre and Logan Franklin. Based on the formal statement Joey had given the FBI regarding when, first Logan, and then Spencer, went missing, there was little doubt the woman and teenager had died on Kono. Traces of blood that proved to belong to Spencer had been found on a recreational boat Tad Brooks had owned. There had been no evidence on the boat that tied to Logan, but despite that, Joey was certain is younger brother was dead. He’d mourned the loss of his sibling, but Joey also found himself wondering it this wasn’t for the best. What kind of man would Logan have become based on the things he’d already gotten involved in at the age of sixteen – the murder of Brendan Nash and Lauren Simon. Not a man their mother would have been proud of, there was no doubt about that.
One would think that a man A.J.'s age, who had never raised a child of his own, would have a tough time adjusting to being the single father of an infant. But the first year of Jack's life had brought nothing but joy to the detective, and he cherished each day he had with his little boy. Admittedly, the child was spoiled with love, affection, and his daddy's never-ending attention, but he was also well behaved. A.J. had no patience for bratty children and was a firm disciplinarian when need be. Simply a pointed look, a firm "No, Jack," or a stern, "Jackson Richard McAllister," spoke volumes to the toddler who immediately rectified whatever it was he'd been doing to draw his daddy's ire.
While A.J. was at work Jack was cared for by his extended family. He spent Mondays at Cecilia's home and Fridays at the home of Grandma and Grandpa McAllister. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays he went to Lisa and Jeff's where he loved playing with his cousin Brittany, and where A.J. appreciated Lisa's influence. She possessed so many of Lauren's mannerisms that again, A.J. knew Jack would come to know his mother through his aunt. Unfortunately, those visits would have to be modified the following September when Brittany started school and Lisa returned to the work force. Because of that, A.J. had already pre-enrolled Jack in the Terrible Twos nursery school. A branch of the school was housed on the second floor of the Simon and Simon office, meaning A.J. could be close to his son while they both experienced the pains the first few days of school brought any young child and new parent. Jack would continue to spend Mondays with Cecilia and Fridays with Mac and Annette, but the middle portion of the week he'd attend the Terrible Twos. For as vocal as A.J. had been about the prospect of a child of his attending daycare back when he was married to Janet, he was forced to admit that given his current circumstances this was for the best. As much as Jack's grandparents adored him, A.J. didn't want the active toddler to wear out his welcome with either Cecilia or the McAllisters. As it was, both sets of grandparents were pressed into service for occasional night or weekend duty if Rick and A.J. had a job that required odd hours. And A.J. was well aware Jack loved to play with other children. He would be doing his child a disservice if he didn't allow Jack to continue that experience once Brittany's days were no longer free.
A.J. carried the last chair into the kitchen and straightened all four chairs around the table by the bay window. He returned to the dining room, wiped off Jack's high chair tray, and then carried the chair to its spot next to the refrigerator. While A.J. was recuperating at his mother's home that week one year earlier, the McAllisters had borrowed his house key from Cecilia. When A.J. brought his son to the house on the Grand Canal all the things Lauren had been given at the shower were back in place. He'd cried that day as he held his child and stood in the nursery taking in the crib, changing table, mobile, and swing. Cried because he never thought he'd be bringing a baby home to this room, and cried because his wife wasn't here to share the joy of the moment with him. After the sleeping Jack had been laid in his crib. Rick took his younger brother in his arms and pulled A.J. to his chest. Without askin,g Rick seemed to know the cause of A.J.'s silent tears. As he rubbed a hand over A.J.'s back he quietly assured, "She's here with you, kid. She's here with you."
For all the happiness little Jack brought his daddy there had been other hard days that first year, as well. Every time the baby accomplished a new feat, from crawling, to walking, to the first time he verbally identified A.J. as Daddy, A.J. longed for Lauren to be with him and share in their son's accomplishments. He dutifully recorded all Jack's milestones in the baby book Lauren had received as a shower gift. He even wrote some of the information in it that he'd read in the book Spencer and Tad had kept such as Jack's birth date and time, weight and length.
As the first anniversary of Lauren's death approached the days once again got difficult for A.J. To make matters more painful, A.J. would be celebrating his fiftieth birthday and Jack would be celebrating his first on the same day Lauren died. For just that reason Rick suggested to his mother they not host a big party that year for either A.J. or the baby. A.J. had been quiet and withdrawn the entire month of July. Rick knew the last thing his brother wanted was to be forced to wear a ‘party face’ on the anniversary of his wife's death. Cecilia agreed with her oldest son and then talked to the McAllisters. It was Mac who suggested a, “big bash for Jack” as he put it, be delayed until October when they could celebrate the anniversary of the baby's homecoming. A.J. thought that was a good idea, so his birthday and Jack's passed quietly at Cecilia's with no one else in attendance but A.J., his son, and Rick. There were hamburgers cooked on the grill by Uncle Rick and a cake made by Cecilia, then presents for both the birthday boys. It was a hard day for A.J., but his little son helped him through it. If nothing else the baby made A.J. laugh when he put his hands in the cake's chocolate icing and bounced up and down in his high chair while squealing with glee at the sight of the gaily wrapped presents piled on the table.
After that day things got a little easier for A.J. He knew next year he'd be up to facing a party for his son on Jack's birth date. This July twenty-sixth it hadn't mattered because the baby hadn't known the difference, but in years to come he would. A.J. knew Lauren wouldn't want the child to carry her death around his neck like some sort of albatross. And if today's homecoming party was any indication of the parties to come, A.J. had no doubt his son would have only good memories of his birthday.
The bash had proved to be a big one just as Mac had declared it should be. Cecilia and Rick arrived at eleven to help A.J. with the preparations for the party that was to start two hours later. Mac and Annette came shortly thereafter bringing Shane and Tanner with them. Tanner walked in the door with Toby on his leash. Jack immediately toddled for the dog crying, "Buppy! Buppy!"
"I brought him for Jack, A.J.," the red headed boy explained. "Toby's his birthday present from me."
A.J. bent so he was eye level with
the almost eight-year-old. "But,
Tanner, I gave Toby to you. You don't
have to bring him back. I'll get Jack a
dog when he gets older if he wants one."
"That's okay. I want Jack to have Toby. I've been plannin' it for a long time. Besides, Mom said we could adopt a dog from the Humane Society if I decided to give Toby to Jack."
By ‘Mom’ A.J. knew Tanner meant his stepmother Kathy. Even Shane had begun to refer to the woman as such, which A.J. thought was good for both boys.
Tanner watched as Jack's clumsy little hands roamed over Toby's clean coat and patted the docile old hound's head. "See, Jack already loves Toby. I can't take him back now. You'll let Jack keep him, won't you?"
A.J. put an arm around the boy's shoulders. "Yes, Tanner, I'll let Jack keep him. You're a wonderful big brother, do you know that, sport?"
Tanner stuck his chest out with pride. "Yep, I know that. I wanna be as good of a big brother to Jack as Rick is to you, A.J."
Rather than making a smart remark to Tanner's words as Rick half expected A.J. to, the blond man told the boy, "I couldn't ask any more of you than that, Tanner. You and Rick are two very special big brothers to a couple of very lucky little brothers."
Rick smiled from where he stood at the counter carving the turkey. He felt his brother pat him on the back as A.J. passed by on his way to the dining room table with a stack of dinner plates.
A.J.'s home soon filled with the people he'd invited to Jack's party. Lisa, Jeff, and their girls arrived followed closely by Jerry Reiner and his family. Jerry's two-year-old son Collin and Jack were already fast friends, and Jerry's five-year-old Kara was soon drawn into play with Lisa's girls. Town and Temple arrived shortly after that, as did Nancy, and then Carlos and Eva. Right on their heels came Linda and Heather.
The past year had been as difficult on Linda Palmer as it had been on her cousin A.J. At least after A.J.'s return from Kono Linda had answers regarding Brendan's death, and some closure to her life. She immersed herself in her family-owned business and got Heather ready for college. In recent months she'd met a man who treated her like a woman deserves to be treated. She thought the world of him, as did her family. Rick and A.J. were hopeful Linda would finally have the happiness she hadn't known since the early days of her marriage to Greg Nash.
Because Brendan had always bore a strong resemblance to A.J., Linda saw shades of Brendan in little Jack. Being around the toddler brought her a sense of comfort she couldn't quite explain, though A.J. seemed to understand how she felt. He'd even asked her to baby-sit on occasion, and each time Jack was with her for a few hours it was as though Linda had spent time with her son.
Pellman Creek and his wife Gloria were the last to arrive. San Diego was to be Pellman's home base for at least another year. He'd stayed in close contact with the Simons since the previous October, and had enjoyed watching the infant he'd help rescue grow into a little boy.
By five o'clock that evening the party was winding down and had been declared a roaring success. When Tanner first saw the table laden with platters of turkey and ham, mounds of mashed potatoes, baskets of rolls, and more vegetables and Jell-O salads than he could count, his eyes grew wide and he said it was just like Thanksgiving Day.
Grandpa Mac, who was holding Jack, put an arm around Tanner's shoulders while kissing Jack's cheek. Through his tears he told his red headed grandson, "You're right, Tanner. This is a very special day of thanksgiving."
After the main course was eaten A.J. carried out the sheet cake that read Welcome Home Jack. He placed it on the table in front of his son and everyone say Happy Birthday to the baby as he blew out the big number 1 candle A.J. had lit. With A.J.'s help Jack opened his presents. By the time the last bit of wrapping paper had been torn away the detective declared his son wouldn't need any more toys until at least his twelfth birthday.
The last of the party guests left for home at five-thirty, save for Rick who volunteered to get Jack ready for bed while A.J. finished clean up duties. The blond detective could hear Rick and Jack upstairs, the baby shrieking and giggling as he splashed water in the bathtub. A.J. could easily imagine the mess that was being made, but the last thing he'd do is complain. Quite the contrary. He was grateful for the support his brother had so willingly given him this past year. In many ways, Jack had two fathers. That's how involved Rick was with his nephew. A.J. laughed to himself as he swept the kitchen floor and heard from above, "Whoa! Whoa there, little buddy, don't go climbin' outta that tub without Uncle Rick's help. The last time you did that we ended up with enough water on the floor to float a boat."
Rick snared his naked nephew by the underarms and swung the child out of the bathtub. The boy threw back his head and laughed as he was settled on his uncle's hip. Rick wrapped the toddler in a dry towel and then bent to release the tub's drain. While water gurgled down the pipes Rick carried the boy to the nursery. He laid Jack on the changing table, then finished drying him. Without having to think about his actions, Rick automatically reached for baby powder, a disposable diaper, and the pajamas he'd gotten out of a drawer prior to placing Jack in the tub.
As Rick powdered, and diapered, and dressed the boy, he thought back to the first day he went to Camp Cord. He remembered thinking as he passed the farm fields that he was too old now to ever have a child of his own. Well, he didn't have a child of his own per se, but he couldn't possibly love Jack any more than he could love a son of his own, and on that day last July Fourth he certainly never imagined he'd be involved in the raising of A.J. and Lauren's child to the extent he had been this past year. Considering how many years Rick had been a swinging single, most people wouldn't have thought he'd take to his role as surrogate father with quite the dedication he had. But those people didn't know the real Rick Simon, nor could they understand the depth of love that flowed between the man and his little nephew.
Rick stood Jack up on the table and immediately received a wet kiss on his nose. The toddler patted Rick's bald head, smiled, and announced, "Una Ick."
Rick kissed the boy in return. "Yep, pardner, Uncle Rick takes real good care of you, doesn't he?"
Jack laughed and said again, "Una Ick."
"Or, as you call me, Una Ick."
Rick settled the tow-headed toddler back on his hip. He turned down the blanket in the crib and straightened the small pillow, getting the bed ready for the child. It was barely six-thirty, but between the afternoon's excitement and the fact that Jack had gotten no nap, Rick knew his nephew would soon be ready for sleep.
"Won't be long now, kid, and your daddy and me will be haulin' this crib outta here. It doesn't seem possible, but you're growin' from a baby into a little boy. Daddy says he's going to get you a big bed after Christmas 'cause you keep climbing out of your crib. You're just like your dad. Did you know that? He used to climb out of his crib when he was your age, too. Half the time I'd wake up to find him in my bed with me just like you like to climb in bed with him. He even fell on his noggin' a few times pullin' that stunt, but it didn't stop him. Like you, he's got more stubbornness than common sense sometimes." Rick looked around at the peach colored walls and carousal horse motif. "And we're gonna paint the room blue and put up different wallpaper for you, too. No more of this baby stuff for Jackson Richard. How does that sound?"
The boy tried to imitate Rick's words. "Jay Icker."
"Yep, Jackson Richard. That's right. That's you. You almost got it.
Come on, kiddo," Rick carried his nephew to the bathroom, "you help me pick up in here. We've got so much water splashed around it looks like the Titanic sunk in this tub. If we don't clean it up your daddy will be after both our hides."
Rick deposited the plastic bath toys in a mesh bag that hung from the showerhead including the squirting rubber duck Troya had sent home with him a year earlier. He gave Jack a towel, then grabbed one for himself and went about wiping up the floor and the walls around the tub. He smiled as he watched the baby try to imitate him, his movements too uncoordinated at this time to be anything other than funny. When they were done Rick put the towels in the hamper. Jack ran out of the bathroom, the lump in the back of his pajama pants that was his diaper made crinkling noises as he raced from his Uncle Rick. Rick got to the child right before Jack arrived at the stairs. He swung the boy in the air again, this time lifting Jack's pajama top and bringing a naked belly to his moustache. He moved his head back and forth, gently tickling the baby's stomach with the bristly hairs.
"You're nothin' but trouble, you know that?" Rick teased. "Nothin' but trouble."
Jack squealed and laughed and arched his back while trying to get away from his uncle. Rick brought the child to his hip again, pulled the pajama top back in place, then bounded down the stairs. When he got to the den he dropped to the floor and began wrestling with the toddler. Toby soon joined in the fray, and Jack was once again shrieking and giggling with delight.
A.J. looked on from the kitchen. He put the broom and dustpan away while shaking his head.
"Rick, you're supposed to be winding him down for the evening, not winding him up."
Rick spun on his knees on the carpeting, trying to ‘get’ his nephew who ran around him in circles.
"Hear that, kid, we're supposed to be winding you down, not up. Do you think we're in trouble with your daddy?"
"I don't know if Jack's in trouble with Daddy," A.J. said as he walked into the room and scooped up his son, "but Uncle Rick will be if Daddy can't get Jack to sleep within the next thirty minutes."
"Aw, Daddy, you're no fun."
A.J. went back into the kitchen with his son seated on his left forearm. He couldn't help but laugh when Jack tried to mimic not only Rick's words, but his tone as well.
"Aaa, Daaie, no un."
A.J. tousled the hair that was
slowly changing from baby fine to thick and silky like A.J.'s own hair. "I'm no fun, huh? Did you say Daddy was no fun?"
When A.J.'s fingers tickled Jack's stomach he laughed and rectified his words. "Daaie un! Daaie un!"
While A.J. poured some milk in a sipper cup for his son, Rick straightened up the den and put away two toys the visiting children had missed when they'd been told to pick things up prior to leaving Jack's party. Rick sank to the couch just as A.J. sat in the rocking easy chair. The lanky man leaned forward and opened the deep wooden chest A.J. still used as a coffee table. It now held a good number of Jack's toys and a couple of blankets just the right size for a fifteen month old. Rick tossed a lightweight quilt A.J.'s way.
"Thanks." A.J. laid the quilt over his son's legs and bare feet. Jack snuggled into the crook of his daddy's left elbow and immediately took the cup A.J. handed him. He drank from it like he would a bottle, this nighttime routine being one neither Jack nor his father, was quite ready to give up. The springs in the chair emitted a slight, ‘squeak, squeak, squeak,’ as A.J. gently rocked it back and forth. Toby trotted over and lay down next to his master's chair; already comfortable in the house he hadn't lived in for a year.
Rick nodded toward the slumbering basset hound. "Looks like Toby's gonna settle back in without a fuss."
A.J. craned his head to gaze over
the side of the recliner. "Looks
"Jack's already crazy about him. They'll be good companions for each other."
A.J. smiled down at his son and ran his fingers through the toddler's hair. "Uh huh," came his preoccupied agreement to his brother's words. Jack's eyes were already at half mast, the exciting day finally taking its toll on the youngster.
"He'll sleep good tonight."
"That he will. I don't imagine I'll have to worry about him climbing out of his crib."
"I doubt it. He's zonked. But, then, good friends and good food will do that to a guy."
"That's for sure." A.J. flicked his head toward the kitchen. "Speaking of food, there are plenty of leftovers in the fridge. Make yourself a sandwich before you leave and have another piece of cake."
"I will. But I can wait until you get Jack to
bed. We can eat together then if you
"Sure. Sounds good."
The two men sat in silence for the next few minutes, both almost as tired as A.J.'s young son. Now that the sun set early it was easy to feel your internal clock adjusting to the autumn darkness. It wasn't quite seven o'clock, but night had arrived. The lamp in the den was turned to its dimmest setting, and the only light on in the kitchen was the one over the sink. Between the semi-dark room and the rhythmic creaking of A.J.'s chair, Rick was lulled into a light doze. He brought his head up off the back of the couch when A.J. spoke in a quiet voice.
"Mac told me they're having the engraving changed on Lauren's tombstone."
"Changed? How come?"
"Because of Jack. Because he's with us now and didn't...didn't die with Lauren like we first thought. Mac and Annette want to change the part that reads ‘A mother and her child gone home to Heaven,’ to ‘A faithful daughter gone home to her Heavenly Father.’
Rick thought a moment then nodded. "I think that's a good idea. It sounds like something that would make Lauren happy."
"Yeah, I thought so to. I told Mac as much." A.J. pulled the sipper cup from his sleeping son's grasp, swiveled his chair around, and set the cup on the breakfast bar. He brought the quilt up to cover Jack's arms and shoulders, returned the chair to its former position, and resumed rocking his child. Rick watched his brother's actions and saw the tenderness in A.J.'s eyes when he gazed down at the little boy.
"Lauren would be real proud of you, A.J. Of the way you've taken care of Jack this past year. Of the way you've made him the number one priority in your life."
"Along with you and Mom, he is the number one priority in my life."
"I realize that. But I know you traveled a helluva rocky road until you found Jack. A road that was gonna take you to an early grave if something didn't come along that forced you to give up the booze and find meaning to your life again. Jack was that something. You've done good by him, kid. You've done real good."
"Funny you should say that, because I've been doing a lot of thinking these past couple of days about where I was a year ago."
"Where you were?"
"Yes. If I had gone through with what I'd planned to the night I stumbled on Troya's letters, I would have died without ever knowing this little boy."
"What? What the hell are you talking about you would have died?"
"I almost killed myself that night, Rick. I almost committed suicide."
Rick didn't react at all to that revelation because in truth, it didn't surprise him. He knew A.J. had been that close to the edge right after Lauren's death. It was the reason he'd hesitated over going to Las Vegas. It was also the reason he came back early when he couldn't get a hold of A.J.
"I'd thought about it plenty of nights before. Ever since the day we buried Lauren. But up until that point I'd always been too drunk to get the job done. Or maybe I passed out before I could figure out how to pull the trigger on my gun. Beats me. I don't remember much about any of those nights, and to tell you the truth I look back on them and see myself as entirely different person."
"You were a different person. Different from the man you were before Lauren's death, and different from the man you are today. Different because grief does that to a person sometimes, kid."
"I know. But it was a side of myself I never thought I'd meet. Not that I'm immune to grief, but--"
"But you didn't expect to handle it in quite the fashion you did."
"No, not at all."
"'Cause drinkin' like a fish through hard times was more my bag."
"I never said that!"
"I know. But you've probably thought it a time or two in the past year, and that's okay because it's true. The bottle was my salvation when I returned from Vietnam. Or so I thought for a good long time. But, eventually I came to realize my salvation was my family, A.J. My kid brother who showed up uninvited on Pirate's Key, and without really tryin' taught me how to live life again. Taught me how to enjoy life again. When Troya died...when she died old Jack Daniels looked pretty good to me on many a night."
"But you didn't start drinking again. I mean, not in excess like you were when you lived on the Key."
"No, I didn't. But not because I didn't think about it a time or two. But again, A.J., you were my salvation. You'd just gotten out of the rehab hospital and you needed me. You were just starting to put your life back together both here at home, and at the office. You couldn't have done that without my help and I knew it. Whether you realize it or not you gave me a purpose, just like little Jackson Richard there has given you a purpose this last year."
A.J. looked down at his son, then back over at his brother. He couldn't stop the tears that welled in his eyes.
"I tried, Rick. I really tried. I knew I was disappointing you and Mom. Hurting both of you by my actions and the things I said when I was drunk. But I just couldn't stop. I thought the booze would keep me from feeling the pain. And when it didn't, I just kept drinking more and more, sure that just one more swallow would do it. Sure that if I could just get drunk enough I'd forget Lauren. That I'd wake up the next morning and never know she existed."
"And all the while that's not what you really wanted."
"No," A.J. shook his head. "It's never what I wanted. I never really wanted to forget Lauren, but remembering her and the times we had together in this house hurt me in a way I'd never previously experienced. For as supportive and loving as you and Mom were, it just wasn't enough to get me through."
"We understood that, A.J. Believe me, watching you sink lower and lower into despair just about broke Mom's heart, and it tore me right in two. I kept telling her that we had to find something that would make you wanna live again, but the problem was, I had no idea what that something would be. But when I read Troya's letters that night I knew you'd found that something on your own. Whether you'd come back to me alive with your son in your arms was another concern altogether."
A.J. smiled. "So, as usual, you charged in where angels fear to tread."
"Only after my hard-headed younger brother went before me. Why the hell didn't you wait for me to get back from Vegas? If you'd have called me, I woulda' caught the first flight I could have booked."
"I know, but I also knew Tad Brooks. He would have loved nothing better than to kill both of us. I couldn't risk your life. When I flew out with Emilio that Sunday morning I left Troya's letters behind on purpose. I knew you'd find them and quickly come to the same conclusions I had. If I didn't get off that island alive I knew you'd go to Pellman, and that somehow the two of you would rescue my son. That was all I really cared about. That my boy would be reunited with his rightful family, even if I didn't live to see that happen."
"You took a helluva chance, A.J."
"I know. And when I think about what I could have missed out on," A.J. glanced at the sleeping bundle in his arms, "I realize how foolish I was. But that night I was consumed with a rage so strong I couldn't have controlled it had I wanted to. To discover Tad had been the person behind Lauren's death, and to discover I had a son he was passing off as his own…well, I couldn't wait, Rick. I had to get to that island as soon as possible."
Rick said no more. Had their places been reversed he would have done the exact same thing A.J. had. Any man would have in order to keep his child out of the clutches of a person like Tad Brooks.
Minutes passed before either brother spoke again. A.J. stopped the chair from rocking. "I've been meaning to tell you that I saw my lawyer last week."
"Your lawyer? Why?"
"To modify my will. I've wanted to do it ever since I brought Jack home, but never took the time before now. Unless you have objections, I've named you as Jack's legal guardian in the event something should happen to me before he reaches eighteen."
"Me? But don't you think he'd be better off with Lisa and Jeff?"
"Because...well because with them he'd have a family."
"You’re Jack's family, Rick. At least part of it. A very important part. He loves you. As a matter of fact, he's crazy about you. You see how his eyes light up the minute you walk in the room. And if you're not here all I have to do is say your name and he runs around the house looking for you. In turn, you're wonderful with him. You know how to take care of him just as good as Lisa does. But, if you don't want to be faced with that type of potential responsibility, I understand. That's why I wanted to ask you if it was okay. I can change things if I need to."
"No, no. I don't want you to change things. I...I'm honored that I have such an important place in your son's life. I just wanna make sure you've thought this over. That you know for sure you've made the best choice concerning Jack's future."
A.J. gave his head a fond shake while smiling at his brother. "Rick, trust me. I've made the best choice."
"Now enough of this talk," Rick dismissed as he stood. "Nothing's gonna happen to you until that little boy has long grown into a man and made you a grandpa at least three times over."
"A grandpa three times over, huh? At least let me get through his first day at the Terrible Twos before we look that far into the future."
A.J. stood up without disturbing his son's sleep and started walking toward the stairs. Rick headed for the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, "I'll make us some sandwiches while you put Jack to bed. Whatta ya' want? Turkey or ham?"
"Doesn't matter. Whatever you feel like fixing for yourself."
There was something comforting about hearing Rick's muted movements in the kitchen while A.J. tucked his son in for the night. He bent and kissed the boy's temple, and then smiled as the toddler turned on his side, his hand groping for the teddy bear that Grandma McAllister had given him several months earlier. The panda with the happy smile and missing ear had been a beloved friend of Lauren's whom she'd dubbed Louis at the age of three. Now Jack loved the old bear, too, and never roamed far without Louis tagging along behind him.
Tears came to A.J.'s eyes as they often did when he stood gazing upon his son, while at the same time thinking of his wife. He looked out the window at the star-filled night and asked, "Do you see our little boy, Lauren? Have you watched him grow these last fifteen months? Have I done the kind of job you'd want me to when it comes to raising him? God, babe, I miss you so much. Every single day I wish you were still here with me. I wish we could be raising Jack together. I just hope I've done right by you, Lauren." A.J. brushed a stray lock of hair away from Jack's pale eyebrows. "I just hope I've done right by you."
When A.J. shut off Jack's bedside light a twinkling star caught his attention. It was brighter than the other stars in the sky, and as odd as it seemed, it appeared to be trying to communicate with him. A.J. watched the star a long moment, and then checked to make sure his son was covered before quietly exiting the room.
And across town, Joey Franklin sat in front of a telescope in his sunroom. He was fascinated by the same star that had caught A.J.'s attention. He knew no one would believe him if he told them the star was blinking a message in Morse Code.
A.J., I love you. And yes, you have done right by me. In what seems like the blink of an eye we’ll be together again. But until you’re called to join me raise our son to be the type of man his father is. A good man. A decent man. An honest man. In so doing, you’ll continue to honor my memory.
Joey knew exactly whom the message was meant for. And someday, someday he'd tell his teacher, his mentor, and his friend, all about it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~