Rick Simon looked up from the newspaper he was reading as he heard an insistent, ‘knock, knock, knock,’ on the closed door of the Simon and Simon office.
"Yeah, come on in!" Rick called from where he sat behind his desk.
The detective jumped to his feet as a dark headed woman entered the office.
The fashionable lady who had just entered accepted Rick's hug and kiss, returning each wholeheartedly.
"Long time no see, Richard," the woman teased as they broke their embrace. "Where have you been hiding yourself?"
"Ah, work's kept me pretty busy lately. And you know how A.J. is. He doesn't let me rest for a minute."
Joy caught sight of the newspaper on Rick's desk opened to the sport's section. "Oh, I can certainly see that. Mean old A.J. keeps your nose to the grindstone, doesn't he?"
“Yeah...uh...well, see that's for a case we're workin' on. A...uh...real important case. A...uh...case involving...uh stolen baseballs."
Joy shook her head and laughed. "Even after all these years, Rick Simon, you haven't changed a bit. You're still the same fourteen-year-old boy I sat in front of in Mrs. Bartlett's English class."
Rick had no choice but to agree. "Yeah, I guess you're right about that, darlin.’"
As Joy looked around the Simons' office she asked, "Speaking of mean old A.J., where is my favorite little brother?"
"He had to deliver some documents to a lawyer we're on a case for."
"The case of the stolen baseballs?"
"No, not that one,” Rick chuckled. “But anyway, he should be back in a little while."
"Good. I'd love to see him. I think the last time I saw A.J. was ten years ago. I stopped in to see you guys when your office was down on the beach, remember?”
"Geez, has it been that long since you've been in San Diego?" Rick asked while at the same time indicating for Joy to sit in one of the chairs that was positioned across from A.J.'s desk.
Rick settled himself in the remaining chair as Joy replied, "Yes, it has been."
"You shouldn't wait so long in between visits."
"Me? What about you, Mr. Simon? The last time you were up to my place was what - almost nine years ago?"
Rick nodded ruefully. "Something like that. I keep meaning to call you and drive up some weekend, but time just keeps slippin' away from me."
"As it does for all of us," Joy agreed. "But listen to you, Mr. ‘time just keeps slippin' away from me.’ What happened to the free spirited, go-whichever-way-the-wind-blows boy I used to know?"
Rick chuckled again. "Oh, there's still quite a bit of that boy left in this man. Just ask A.J."
"I'll do that," Joy confirmed. "Still, it's hard for me to believe that I'm looking at the same guy I sat in front of in nearly every class all through high school."
Joy’s maiden name of, Seddar, had always placed her by order of the alphabet, in front of Rick Simon in all the classes they shared. By the second day of school their freshman year Joy had already decided that Rick was funny, cute, friendly, and a bit on the wild side. It was that reckless devil-may-care attitude of Rick's that had first appealed to the quiet, studious fourteen-year-old Joy. She was an only child who had attended previously an all girls Catholic grade school. Because of that, Rick was the first boy she'd had the opportunity to get to know well...much to her delight, and much to the concern of her parents.
"To this day my father can hardly believe that you're half owner of such a successful business."
Rick smiled modestly. "We get by."
"Oh, come on, Rick, give yourself some credit. You and A.J. have done a wonderful job with this business over the past thirteen years. Dad sees your names in the paper for some deed or another all the time."
"Not all those deeds are necessarily good ones," Rick pointed out with a mischievous grin.
Joy grinned as well. "Dad's mentioned that fact a time or two, I believe."
"I'm sure he has," Rick laughed.
Amidst the couple's laughter A.J. entered the office. He wasn’t paying any attention to who his brother was entertaining as he leafed through the mail he carried in his hands.
At first A.J. couldn't place the woman who was rapidly approaching him with her arms outstretched. He knew exactly who she was though, when she hugged him tightly while exclaiming, "My favorite little brother!"
A.J. broke into a big smile. "Joy!"
Joy stepped out of A.J.'s hug after a moment and studied him at arms length. As she took in the handsome man attired stylishly in dark gray slacks and shirt, light gray sport coat and multi-print tie, she stated, "A.J. you haven't changed a bit since the last time I saw you. How do you stay so young looking?"
"Lots of plastic surgery," Rick quipped.
A.J. ignored Rick's comment as he smiled warmly at their visitor.
"Thank you, Joy. It's a miracle that I've retained my youth, and my sanity, after all these years of working with my older brother. Speaking of which, have you noticed that Rick's lost more hair since you last saw him?"
Rick protested. "Can the smart
remarks, A.J., or I'll arrange for you to lose some of that hair of yours in a
real painful manner."
Joy laughed at the brothers as she retook her seat. A.J. walked behind his desk and sat down as well, while Rick continued to make idle threats in the blond man's direction.
"You two will never change, will you?” Joy smiled. “You're still trying to get the best of each other."
"Yep, but I'm winnin,’" Rick declared.
"Don't bet on it," A.J. retorted.
Joy knew the brothers well enough to know this argument could last all afternoon. Therefore, she intervened.
"Truce, guys. Truce."
"Okay, truce," Rick agreed.
A.J. nodded. "We never continue to argue when a lovely lady lightens our doorstep and asks us to call a truce."
"The one thing you two do have in common; is that you both know how to shamelessly flatter a woman."
"It's not shameless flattery, Joy. It's the truth," A.J. stated as he studied the stylish woman across from him. He doubted that she had put on more than ten pounds since high school, and that extra weight gain did her justice, filling out her figure in all the right places. Although Joy was the same age as Rick, meaning she was forty-nine, A.J. thought she could still pass for thirty-five. The turquoise sweater and skirt outfit she wore today complemented her olive complexion. The bits of gray that were beginning to sprinkle her dark hair only enhanced her looks in A.J.'s opinion.
The blond man elaborated with, "And it's my way of saying thank you for helping Rick through high school. My worst nightmare would have become a reality had he still been in Mrs. Bartlett's class when I got there."
Joy could only laugh as A.J.'s comment caused the brothers to once again get into a verbal scuffle. While the brothers sparred, Joy thought back with fondness to her high school years and the fun she'd had with Rick. They had dated on and off throughout those years, though not seriously. She could still recall many an afternoon spent in Cecilia Simon's kitchen doing homework with Rick...well, doing her homework while Rick kept her entertained with jokes, stories, and amusing antics. These actions would prompt Mrs. Simon to pop in the room to scold Rick and order him to, "Get going on that school work, young man. I certainly wish some of Joy's study habits would rub off on you." And then on many a day, when it came time for Rick to walk Joy home, A.J. would tag along, or ride ahead of them on his bike.
The brothers had evidently called a truce while Joy was somewhere in the past. Rick caught her attention by asking, "What brings you down this way, sweetie? Is everything okay with your folks?"
Joy smiled. "Oh, yes, they're fine. Very active yet. As a matter of fact, so active that I rarely get a chance to get down here to visit them. They drive up to see the girls and me every couple of months."
"I guess that explains why you never come see us," Rick pouted. "At least now I know it's not A.J.'s stinky aftershave that's kept you away."
A.J. ignored his brother. Instead he asked politely of the woman, "Speaking of your girls, how are they?"
"Great. Doing wonderfully in school, both of them. Molly's just finished her junior year at U.C.L.A.--"
"No," Rick denied with disbelief as his mind's eye pictured a pigtailed twelve-year-old with knobby knees, braces, and the promise of someday being the spitting image of her mother.
"Yes, Rick, that's how long it's been since you've been up to my place," Joy scolded. "She's majoring in art and freestyle drawing."
"Oh, an artist like her mother," A.J. commented.
"Well, our techniques are somewhat different, and she has loftier goals that I ever had, A.J., but yes, Molly's inherited her mother's talent. With a little maturity and experience her talent will far surpass mine someday. She didn't come home to live this summer because she was hired to do a series of wall murals for several state owned offices in L.A."
"Good for her," Rick praised. "And I suppose Lauren's all grown up, too. Or at least not still wearing diapers like she was the last time I was up your way."
"No, she's long out of diapers. She's eleven now, a good student, in more activities than I can keep track of, and seems to be a popular girl with her classmates. She was president of her sixth grade class this past year - an accomplishment she was quite proud of."
"And her mother was proud, too, no doubt," A.J. smiled.
"No doubt," Joy agreed with a slight blush.
Before the small talk could take up anymore time, Joy came to the point of her visit. "It's because of Lauren that I'm here, actually. I'd like to hire you both if you're available and willing to take my case."
Although neither brother was expecting a request of this type, they both agreed immediately.
"Of course we'll take your case," Rick said.
“Sure we will," A.J. confirmed.
Joy held up her hands in a gesture meant to indicate, ‘slow down.’
"Now wait a minute, guys. Before you make a commitment I think you should hear what the job involves." Subtly eyeing A.J.'s expensive sport coat, she added, "I'll understand if either one of you says no."
"Why don't you start by telling us why you need to hire us?" A.J. invited. "I can't imagine that either Rick or I will turn you down."
Joy smiled wickedly. "Even if it means sleeping in a barn with forty kids ranging in age from nine to eighteen, plus somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty sheep?"
Joy laughed at the twin expressions of confusion on both brothers' faces. "Maybe I should explain," she offered.
With trepidation, A.J. agreed. "Maybe you should."
"As you both know, I've been divorced from Lauren and Molly's father for seven years now."
Rick and A.J. nodded.
"I never really told you why I divorced Bill, Rick. Actually, our problems went back a lot farther than most people know. It wasn't long after Molly was born that I knew I had made a mistake where marriage to Bill was concerned. Molly was only nine months old when I had my first big success with my artwork. It became apparent very quickly that Bill was jealous of that success, and of the good fortune I continued to have from there on out. The fact that I brought more money into our home than he did became the source of most of our arguments. I repeatedly tried to tell him that it didn't matter to me. That I viewed it as our money, not just my money, but no one could tell Bill much of anything. Molly was just two when the cycle of Bill not holding down a job began. Even though he had a business degree and is very intelligent, he'd work three or four months, then quit and be out of work that long or even longer. He began smoking pot, something he hadn't done since college. I wouldn't let him smoke it in the house, but you can imagine how I felt about that when we had a young child. From there, things between us began to crumble pretty quickly."
Rick rose at the end of Joy's narrative and retrieved cold sodas from the refrigerator for each of them. Joy replied with, "Thank you," before continuing with her story.
"I finally made up my mind to divorce Bill after twelve years of this nonsense. By then I had come to realize he was never going to change. Never going to be the man that I had once thought he was. Then...well, I got pregnant with Lauren. An unplanned pregnancy was not what I needed right then, believe me, but I naively tried to tell myself that this new baby would turn things around for us. That somehow Lauren's birth would change Bill for the better."
Having heard similar stories in the past, A.J. interjected, "But it didn't."
"No, it didn't," Joy reflected sadly. "When she was four and Molly was fourteen, I filed for divorce. It was all very amiable at the time. Bill wasn't working, so I didn't even press for child support payments. I was making more than enough money to support the girls and myself, so rather than have the whole thing drag out in court and hard feelings erupt, I just let it drop. Plus, I got the house, of course."
Joy gave a cynical laugh. "But the money I had worked so hard for built it, so I suppose I was entitled to the house. Believe me, he never contributed one red cent to it."
Rick thought of the beautiful, large log home he had visited nine years earlier. Joy had designed it herself and done a spectacular job in his opinion. Of course, having several hundred thousand dollars on hand to put into a home didn't hurt anything either. Joy's artistic abilities had served her well over the years. Rick had no doubt that she was probably among the most successful, financially speaking, of his former classmates.
Before Joy could get off on a tangent by relaying all of her ex-husband's faults, A.J. said with a smile, "I'm not sure I understand how all of this ties into a large number of children, sheep, and sleeping in a barn."
Joy chuckled. "Well, it does, A.J. Believe it or not, it all has to do with Bill in a round about way."
"Lay it on us then,” Rick said. “We're all ears."
"I got custody of the girls in the divorce proceedings, Bill got weekend and holiday visitation rights. That lasted about four months, then, he stopped coming to pick them up. The first few times it happened I called him, but he always had some excuse. Then one day when I called his apartment I got no answer. That pattern continued for several days until I found out that, once again, he had quit his job. He had packed up the apartment and just...disappeared."
"Foul play?" Rick asked.
"No. At first I worried about that, but then he got in touch with his sister. He told her he was going to travel for a while, and that was it. I never heard from him again."
"He didn't keep in contact with the girls?" A.J. asked.
"No. It was like he had dropped off the face of the earth. He didn't even send them so much as a birthday or Christmas card in almost seven years time. Until two months ago."
"What happened two months ago?" Rick asked.
"Lauren began receiving letters from Bill. Letters with no return address from various places around the country. Letters saying things like, 'Daddy has a nice house now. Daddy's working again. Wouldn't you like to come live with Daddy?' I found it all rather strange and threatening in a very subtle way. Then the other day he called Molly at her apartment in L.A. This is the first time he's made contact with her since she was fifteen."
"What did he say to her?"
"He asked her how she was. What she was studying in college - small talk of that nature. That in itself doesn't really bother me, although I do find it strange that suddenly he's taking an interest in his daughters again after seven years of silence. What does have me worried, is the way he ended his conversation with Molly that day."
"How was that?" A.J. inquired.
"By asking Molly if she thought Lauren would be happy living with him."
"What'd Molly tell him?" came from Rick.
"That she thought Lauren would love to have a visit from him, would love to have the opportunity to get to know him, but that she was happy living with me. Molly then reminded Bill that I had custody of Lauren, not him."
"Did he say anything to that?" A.J. asked.
"No. Molly said he just got very quiet, then said goodbye and hung up."
Several thoughts were racing through Rick's mind. "Has there been any other incidents recently, Joy? Anything at all that might indicate to you what he's up to?"
Joy nodded. "Bill's sister, Sharon, called me yesterday. She, as well as Bill’s mother, live in Utah. Although the girls and I only see them once or twice a year, I've always had a good relationship with both women. Sharon has four boys and has always spoiled my girls whenever she gets the opportunity. Anyway, Bill paid her a surprise visit last weekend. She said he made several comments about wanting to see Molly and Lauren, and wanting to have Lauren come live with him. At first Sharon didn't take him too seriously, but when he kept talking about it, she did as Molly had - reminded Bill that I had custody of Lauren."
A.J. was puzzled. "What's his motive here? I mean, for seven years he has no contact whatsoever with his kids, and now he's talking about having Lauren with him on a permanent basis."
"Frankly, A.J., I haven't a clue," Joy admitted. "As I told you, Bill has always been jealous of me, and not just of my work. Of all aspects of my life. Sharon said he made several comments like, 'Joy's got everything. The money, the fancy house, the career, and my girls. I bet she's turned them against me. I bet she's made my girls hate me.' Which is not true, by the way. I never badmouthed Bill in front of the girls. I was the one who was hoping he'd someday get his act together and come back into their lives. I never imagined it would be in this manner though."
"Have you talked to your local police about this?" A.J. asked.
"Yes, and while they were very sympathetic and understanding of my concerns, there's not much they can do about, as the cop put it, 'idle threats.'"
A.J. nodded. "I figured as much. How about your lawyer?"
"I saw her yesterday. She said there is a possibility, based on the things Bill said to Molly and Sharon, and the threatening tone of his letters to Lauren, that a judge would grant a petition barring him from seeing Lauren at all."
"I think that's where you should start then," A.J. advised. "I realize something like that can take a while to get through the court system, but at least if a judge grants such a motion the police can get involved if Bill comes on your property, or tries to see or contact Lauren."
Seeing Rick's nod of agreement, Joy said, "All right. If that's what the two of you recommend. I'll go see my lawyer about it as soon as I return home."
"Good," A.J. stated, then with a trace of humor asked again, "Now, how does this tie in with forty kids, numerous sheep, and Rick and me sleeping in a barn?"
"Well, guys, unlike my ultra-feminine Molly; my Lauren is a tomboy. Her first love is animals, so several years ago when she got involved in 4-H I had a small barn built on my place for the three rabbits and one goat she had acquired. That menagerie has now grown to thirty rabbits, three goats, more ducks than I can count, twenty laying hens, one rooster, two geese, and eight sheep."
"And she takes care of all these animals by herself?" Rick asked with admiration.
"Yes, she sure does," the proud mother said. "Through what she's been taught in 4-H she's become quite the little business woman. Every fall she advertises and sells her ducks for holiday meal tables. She sells her rabbits for meat year round, and eggs from her hens as well.”
"Gee, Rick, it sounds like Lauren makes more money than you do," A.J. quipped.
Rick sneered at his brother before saying to Joy, "She sounds like quite the little entrepreneur."
"She is. But more importantly, she loves it all and is learning from it. She's due to go up to the state fair at Sacramento with her 4-H club in two weeks. She shows her sheep up there along with the rest of the kids in the animals project."
Rick had guessed what was coming next. "And you want A.J. and me to go up there with her."
"I want to hire you and A.J. to go up there with her, Rick. Aside from the 4-H leader and her husband, usually six to eight other parents serve as chaperones. I've always gone in the past, but this year I have a big art show scheduled for that same week in San Francisco. I wish I could cancel it, especially with all this mess that's come up concerning Bill, but I can't. My income for the entire year depends on this show. I feel like a lousy mother, but I've got Molly's tuition, the mortgage payment,
"Stop it," Rick ordered. "You're not a lousy mother. You're here, aren't you? Getting protection for your child."
Joy nodded. "Yes, I'm here. It's just that...well, you understand how I feel I'm sure. I could keep Lauren home this year, but she's worked so hard for this show. The kids plan for it all year. I hate to take that away from her based on something that might not even happen. Maybe I'm being paranoid. Maybe Bill's threats are idle ones, but I just can't help but worry that he'll show up in Sacramento and try to run off with her. I didn't know who else to turn to. There's no one else I'd entrust with my daughter's safety but the two of you."
Rick reached over and gave Joy's hand a squeeze while A.J. asked, "Does he know about the fair? That Lauren shows animals up there every year?"
"Yes, he does. Sharon told him in the course of casual conversation - you know, while bringing him up to date on the girls' activities. In one of the letters Lauren received he said he'd see her at the fair."
"That doesn't sound like an idle threat to me," Rick muttered. "How much of this have you discussed with Lauren?"
"All of it. I've been as honest with her as I can be, while at the same time trying to hide my fear. I don't want my fear to be passed on to her, nor do I want her to harbor ill feelings toward her father."
"Have you discussed with Lauren what she should do if Bill should somehow try to kidnap her?" A.J. asked.
"Yes. I've reinforced things she's been taught in school, as well as things we've discussed at home concerning strangers. Ironic, isn't it? That the faceless, menacing stranger would turn out to be her father."
"Maybe not," A.J. commented. "I hate to bring up other possibilities, but he could get someone to do it for him. Someone Lauren wouldn't recognize. You've done the right thing by being honest with her. And, after all these years, would Lauren even recognize him?"
Joy shrugged. "I don't know, A.J. We have pictures at home, of course. She's got one of him in her room even, but it's the most current and was taken eight years ago."
"What about him?" A.J. probed. "Would he recognize Lauren? Does he have a recent photo?"
"Yes. Sharon gave him Lauren's latest school picture. She had it on display at her house, and before he had aroused her suspicions, he asked Sharon if he could have it. She had no reason to say no to him at that time."
"And there's no other family members who would help him with this scheme?" Rick asked.
"What do you mean?"
A.J. explained, "Quite often in a situation such as this, a family member aids in the abduction, or provides a home for the child to be hidden in."
Joy shook her head. "No. No one. Sharon is Bill's only sibling. I know neither she nor her husband would help him. Bill's father is deceased, and his mother is seventy-seven and in a nursing home. She had a stroke two years ago that's left her unable to care for herself."
"That rules out a lot of possibilities then," Rick said with satisfaction.
The trio discussed the situation another fifteen minutes, in which time the Simons assured Joy they would take her case.
A.J. ended their conference by looking at this appointment calendar. "The kids leave on Monday the twenty-second you said. So how about if Rick and I drive up to your place after work the Friday before? That way we can spend Saturday and Sunday getting to know Lauren. It's going to be very important that she's comfortable with us. I'd also like to get a feel for how much of this she understands - with your permission, of course."
"That sounds fine, A.J. You discuss with Lauren whatever you and Rick feel is necessary. I think you'll find her to be a mature, intelligent young girl. I'll look forward to your company. I'll have the spare rooms ready and we can--"
Both brothers protested. "No, we won't inconvenience you," A.J. said, while Rick offered, "We'll stay at a hotel."
"I won't hear of it," Joy insisted. "I have five big bedrooms, three of which are hardly ever used. You two will stay with Lauren and me, and that's final. It's not very often I have overnight company other than my folks or Lauren's girlfriends. This will be a real treat for me."
"What will the neighbors say about two single men spending the night at your place?" Rick teased.
"My nearest neighbor is a half mile away, Rick, so I doubt if anyone will even notice. And if they do, I'll just say I've hired two very handsome models to pose for a sketch I'm working on."
"Works for me," Rick agreed while A.J. laughed.
The blond man had one last question that suddenly came to mind. "Since neither you nor Rick has said anything to the contrary, I assume Bill's never met Rick, or seen a picture of him?"
Joy shook her head. "No never. Rick was in Vietnam when Bill and I were married. He visited me once right after he got out of the service, but Bill was gone with some buddies on a fishing trip at that time. When he stopped by nine years ago Bill was out in Utah visiting his mother. I never even mentioned Rick too often. At least not once we were married. As I said, Bill was very jealous. I learned early on in my relationship with him never to bring up past boyfriends. Even one like Rick, who was more of a best friend, than a boyfriend."
"Boy, now she tells me," Rick pouted.
Joy leaned over and gave the pouting detective a kiss on the cheek. "Don't try to pull that act on me, Rick Simon. You spent more time with Carlos and that motorcycle of yours than you ever spent with me."
Rick eyed Joy appreciatively, "Yeah, and now I sure can't figure out why."
From that point, things were quickly wrapped up. At the end of the discussion Rick rose and urged Joy to stand as well.
"Now I'm gonna treat you to lunch. There's a great little seafood place down on the beach. It's quiet, and the atmosphere is just what the doctor ordered for people with too many worries on their mind. And we aren't going to talk business. This is strictly for pleasure."
Joy laughed at Rick's enthusiasm. "Okay, if you insist."
Joy turned to see A.J. still seated at his desk. "A.J., aren't you coming?"
"No, you two go ahead. You've got old times you want to catch up on."
"And you're a part of those old times, so come on," Joy encouraged while walking over to the seated blond and pulling him up by the arm.
"Yeah, come on, A.J.," Rick invited. "You always were taggin' along with me and Joy whether I wanted you to or not. Why should today be any different?"
As the threesome walked out the door A.J. revealed, "The only reason I tagged along was because Joy's dad paid me twenty five cents to make sure you behaved like a gentleman."
"He did not!"
"Oh yes, he did."
"A.J., you're full of it. He's full of it, isn't he, Joy?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rick questioned.
"Um...Rick...my dad really did pay A.J. to make sure you behaved like a gentleman. I didn't know it at the time. I found out about it long after I was out of high school and--"
"A.J.! A.J., you'd better run, 'cause when I catch you..."
Joy laughed all the way to the parking lot. She shook her head as she watched Rick chase A.J. round and round the Camaro until she finally intervened, admonishing her old friends to behave themselves. There was a lot more laughter, and a lot more admonishments from Joy, before lunch was over that day and the three went their separate ways.
The Simons walked Joy to her car. They promised the woman they'd see her again in two weeks right before she pulled out of the parking lot and headed for her parents’ house, where she had to pick up Lauren before making the journey home.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
Everything Rick had told A.J. regarding Joy's home proved to be true. But description alone couldn't do the large, sprawling log house justice. Joy and her girls had a spectacular view of the property's twenty wooded acres from all the rooms of the house due to the large windows each one contained. Each room was tastefully and comfortably decorated and furnished, many of the walls stenciled with designs drawn and painted by Molly and Joy.
It was after nine on Friday evening when Rick and A.J. arrived. They met Lauren and chit chatted with her briefly about her animals and the upcoming fair, then she was sent off to bed so the adults could relax together over coffee and cake in Joy's big country kitchen.
The weekend proved to be enjoyable for all. The Simon brothers thoroughly enjoyed their time in the country, and their vivacious little eleven-year-old hostess.
By lunch time on Saturday Rick and A.J. had been introduced to all of Lauren's animals, helped her collect, wash, sort, and carton the eggs, feed and water chickens, sheep, goats, ducks, and rabbits. They also aided her in chasing a stray tomcat out of the hen house.
In the afternoon Lauren gave the brothers the grand tour of her mother's property, leading them through woods, a grassy meadow, and over a small stream that ran into a creek.
Both Rick and A.J. found Lauren to be an outgoing, happy, mature child, and like her mother had said, quite a tomboy. In her baggy black shorts, white t-shirt that proclaimed, L.A. LAKERS, and black high top sneakers, the fine boned, petite girl with the short blond wedge style hair cut could easily have been mistaken for a nine or ten year old boy. Or at least until she smiles, A.J. thought. The smile emphasized her pretty features, giving away the fact that this wannabe boy was someday going to be a knock out in the department of feminine looks.
Lauren and Rick quickly formed a fast and firm bond, partly based on the fact that Rick was an old high school friend of her mother's, thereby prompting the young girl to drill Rick insistently with questions pertaining to Joy's teen years. Rick's natural love for animals came through clearly to Lauren as well, giving her another reason to immediately take to him.
Of A.J., Lauren wasn't so sure. She quickly picked up on the fact that while he was enjoying his time spent in the country, he was not a country boy. She found it amusing when A.J. got 'strict' with Rick, scolding him for this or that. She also found the blond man easy to talk to, just as she did Rick. It didn't take Lauren long to feel comfortable with A.J., almost as comfortable as she felt with Rick, yet not quite. She held back a little, not too sure of the alien feelings that stirred somewhere deep inside her when she studied the blond detective from across the room.
By Sunday evening the Simons had spent enough time with Lauren to feel assured that she trusted them and would do as they told her to without question over the next four days. They had also gained insight as to how much she understood about the potential problems they might face at the fair, and how she felt about that. Although Lauren was upset that the father she didn't really even know might try to kidnap her, she had a child's complete faith in the adults her mother had hired to protect her. She was excited enough about the upcoming 4-H show to be able to push the adults' concerns and worries to the back of her young and busy mind.
At seven on Monday morning two of Lauren's sheep, Virginia and Lucky, were loaded on a large stock trailer that came to Joy's house. The girl's sheep joined other sheep from her 4-H club that were to be exhibited at the state fair. The trucker and his helpers had started well before dawn that morning, and Lauren's sheep were the last to go on. The bleating of eighty sheep could be heard as the big truck made its way down the long driveway, headed for the expressway that would take it to Sacramento.
Ten minutes later the Simons, Joy, and Lauren, pulled out of the driveway in Joy's car. They were headed for the local grade school where the club members were to meet.
The sleeping bags, cots, suitcases, and show chests were loaded into a trailer that one of the father-chaperones was pulling behind his pickup truck to Sacramento.
Amidst goodbyes and admonishments to 'behave yourself,' and 'have a good time this week,' one after the other of the 4-H kids climbed on board the school bus that would take them north to the fair grounds.
Rick and A.J. were quietly introduced to the 4-H leader and her husband, Beverly and Allan Timmons. They were the only two people, aside from Lauren, who knew Rick and A.J.'s real purpose for being along on this trip. As far as everyone else was concerned, Rick and A.J. Simon were extension agents employed by the 4-H council whose main headquarters were in, as luck would have it, San Diego. As Bev explained to her club members, "The Simon brothers are spending the summer with various 4-H clubs, seeing how well organized they are, how well run - things of that type. They will also be acting as chaperones while they're with us on this trip, so keep in mind, what they say goes."
While Rick and A.J. were being introduced to the other chaperones, Joy was saying goodbye to Lauren.
"You have a good time this week, sweetheart. I know Lucky and Virginia will do well for you. Just remember to smile when you're in the show ring and look confident."
With an air typical of a child who's been told these same things too many times in recent days, Lauren assured, "I will, Mom."
Joy hugged her daughter tightly. "You do everything Rick and A.J. tell you to. Don't go anywhere without one of them with you."
"Mom, you've told me that about a hundred times already. I know. I will. I promise. Don't worry so much. Everything's gonna be okay. I gotta go. The bus is ready to leave."
The hardest thing Joy had ever done up to this point in her life, came when she had to kiss her daughter goodbye and send her off to a situation that was so uncertain.
As the blond waif ran full speed for the bus, Joy wiped at her tears with the back of one hand. Rick and A.J. approached, causing Joy to smile self-consciously. "It looks like she's holding up better than her mother."
"Kids are tough," Rick commented while listening to the laughter coming from the bus. "And you've got yourself a very strong little girl in that one."
"She'll be fine, Joy. We won't let anything happen to her," A.J. promised as he hugged the woman goodbye.
"I know you won't," she agreed.
Rick took his turn for a goodbye hug and kiss, saying softly in Joy's ear, "Hey, do you actually think I'd let down the girl who got me through old lady Bartlett's English class?”
Joy couldn't help but laugh. "No...no, I don't."
"All right then. Dry those tears and quit your worryin.’ I'll take care of Lauren as if she were my own."
“I know you will, Rick. Thank you."
The brothers turned and boarded the bus that was filled with excited, chattering young people.
Joy stood with a group of other parents in the school parking lot, waving goodbye until the bus was out of sight.
The artist tried to keep her worries at bay as she got in her car and headed in the opposite direction the bus had turned in. Her destination, San Francisco and her art show.
Rick was never so happy to get off a bus as he was when that 4-H bus pulled up next to one of the sheep barns at the state fair grounds. Under his breath, Rick grumbled to his brother, "I didn't know forty kids could be so damn noisy. Isn't there some law about silence on a school bus?"
A.J. gave his brother a pained look. "In your advanced years, you've obviously forgotten our many bus trips up to Camp Noahwanga."
"I don't remember those trips bein' noisy. We were good kids."
"I was a good kid," A.J. pointed out. "You, on the other hand, were the kid who initiated the bus wide paper airplane attack on the driver and encouraged all the other little campers to scream out the bus windows, 'Help! We're being kidnapped by a crazy man!’"
"I wasn't that bad," Rick protested.
As usual, A.J. had the last word. "Oh, really? Then I wonder why Mom got that letter from the bus company telling her that she'd have to drive Richard up to summer camp from now on because his presence on the bus was too disruptive. Not to mention the fact, that the driver had a nervous break down."
"Ah, he was an old guy anyway. I bet he really had a heart attack or something, and they made that nervous break down part up," was all Rick said as he and A.J. assisted with unloading the sleeping bags and other paraphernalia.
For all Rick's complaining about the noise level of the kids on the bus, A.J. was impressed at how well organized this little club was. By the time he, Rick, and the father who had driven up the kids’ supplied, had the trailer and truck unloaded, the children had been given their pen assignments and were helping each other and the trucker unload all the sheep. A.J. watched with interest as the children, from the nine year olds to the eighteen year olds, took responsibility for their own animals.
Rick and A.J. delivered each wooden show chest to the appropriate child. When the large boxes were open out came rubber pans for food and water, halters, currycombs, and other necessary items for the sheep. The blond detective commented about the usefulness of these chests to the 4-H leader who told him, "Yes, they need something to haul all the equipment in they use for the animals. They make their show chest as part of their winter project the first year they sign up to be part of the animal program. They have a ball decorating them, as you probably can guess."
A.J. nodded, having noted that the kids had painted the boxes the colors of their choice, then lettered them with their names and any other designs that struck their fancy. No doubt some father had helped all of them mount metal handles on the sides that made for easy carrying, as well as a latch for a padlock to keep their equipment secure.
Long experience in undercover work had taught both Simons that it could be very boring just standing around watching the subject you were to guard. Therefore, whenever possible, Rick and A.J. liked to get involved in whatever activity or job precipitated this type of work. Soon both Simons were busy helping the smaller children haul buckets of water to their sheep from the spigot at the other end of the barn. A.J. lifted and opened several fifty pound bags of feed for an admiring group of young girls, Lauren included, then poured the pellets into the buckets the girls held out for him.
When the feeding, watering, and bedding of the animals was finished, the children began pulling out small wooden signs they had made as part of a 4-H project. The sound of hammers hitting nails soon echoed throughout the barn as those signs were hung above each pen. Each sign contained the name of the 4-H club, The Valley Explorers, the child's name, and the names of their sheep. As A.J. and Rick walked the barn aisle they were amused to see sheep with names like Moe, Larry, and Curly, Hillary and Bill, as well as Magic, and his pen mate, Johnson.
Rick returned to Lauren's side while A.J. continued on with a tour of the barn. He soon came upon a forlorn looking eleven year old.
"What's wrong, Pete?"
"I don't have a name for my sheep yet," the boy answered while eyeing his two animals, one all black, the other white.
"Is that a problem?" A.J. asked while leaning down on the pen, resting his weight on his arms.
"I'm supposed to have a name before I show them. I was really supposed to have 'em named before I brought them here, but I can't decide who they look like."
"Who they look like?"
"Yeah. I mean, they gotta look like somebody in order for me to give 'em names. All my other sheep have, but this year I just can't decide who they look like. You know, like a movie star, or baseball player, or someone like that."
A.J. reached out to pet both rams. "I guess that is a problem, isn't it? What happened to this one's head?" the blond man asked as he rubbed his hand over a permanent bald spot on top of the black ram's skull.
"My dopey little brother was playing with matches and caught his wool on fire."
"Ouch," A.J. sympathized.
"He wasn't hurt too bad. My dad got it out right away. But his wool won't grow back there."
"Poor guy," A.J. said before moving along. He gave the boy an encouraging clap on the back. "Hey, get rid of the long face now. I'm sure you'll come up with names for them yet."
"I've only got until tomorrow. I sure hope I figure out who they look like by then."
"You will. I'm sure of it," were A.J.'s parting words.
Pete stood alone then, studying his animals for a long time. Then he stood studying A.J. and Rick as they conversed down by Lauren's pen. His attention was returned to his animals as they locked horns and scuffled playfully within their confines. He looked back at Rick and A.J. and watched as they teased each other over something, A.J. eventually knocking Rick's cowboy hat off his head. It was then, when Pete caught sight of Rick's hairline, that he came up with a name for his two rams.
The boy raced full speed down the barn aisle.
"Hey, A.J.! Hey, A.J.! I've got it! I've got names for my sheep! I know who they look like!"
The club members and their chaperones ate a late lunch as a group, then were allowed to split up for the afternoon to explore the fair grounds. All the children twelve and under were divided into groups and assigned to a chaperone. The teenagers were allowed to roam on their own, although were cautioned to stay in groups of three or more, and given strict orders as to what time they were expected back at the barn.
A.J. and Rick had agreed to switch off in their roles as bodyguards to Lauren. A.J. volunteered to take the first shift, so soon found himself a chaperone to eight girls ages nine to twelve.
Rick hadn't been assigned to a group of kids, so relished going off to explore the fair he had never been to. That luxury was not to be, however, as a group of fifteen and sixteen year old boys attached themselves to the man who they thought was 'cool.’
"Hey, Rick, let's go down to the Midway and play some games. Bet I can out shoot ya',” a tall, blond headed sixteen- year-old named Jason bragged.
Rick's eyes glowed with opportunity. "How much ya' willin' to wager, kid?"
"I don't know. How about fifty cents for best shot three outta five."
"Baby money," Rick scoffed. "Make me an offer when you're grown up, junior."
"Yeah, junior, that's baby money," Jason's friends teased.
"Well...okay, how about...two bucks best three outta five, Rick?" Jason offered in an attempt to save face.
"Now you're talkin', kid," Rick agreed as he and his entourage of five boys headed off to the games.
It was almost suppertime when A.J. and his little group of girls were walking down the roads that led past all the restaurants and food booths. A.J. did a double take as he glanced at a large, open sided canvas tent.
His mouth set in a grim line, he ordered, "You girls wait here. Don't move from this spot, any of you. Do you understand me, Lauren?"
Lauren, who knew how important A.J.'s words were, nodded and replied, "Sure, A.J. We'll wait here."
A.J. entered the tent, striding purposefully to the person who had first caught his eye. "Rick! Rick!" He shouted in order to be heard over the exotic music.
A.J. wasn't able to get his brother's attention until he clamped his hands on Rick's shoulders and shouted in his ear, "Rick! What the hell are you doing in here?"
Rick glanced up at his brother. "Eatin' supper."
"You can't bring these boys into a place like this!"
A.J. looked up at the stage where several woman were belly dancing in sheer skirts and veils.
"Rick, we're supposed to be setting an example for these kids. If you're going to take charge of them you can't--"
Over the music, Rick shouted back, "I didn't take charge of them! They tagged along behind me! I can't help it if they followed me in here!" ‘Here,’ meaning the large Arabian style tent where gyros were served and belly dancing was the main form of entertainment.
A.J. shook his head at his brother in disapproval while he began gathering up the boys. "Come on, guys. Let's go."
Amidst protests of, "We just got here!" and "Oh come on, A.J., we wanna see the show!" A.J. finally got all five boys and Rick out of the tent.
The boys reluctantly joined A.J.'s circle of little girls outside the tent.
"Rick was just buying us supper, A.J.,” Jason said. “It was no big deal. He won twenty dollars off me so--"
A.J. glared at his sibling while asking Jason, "He won twenty dollars off you? And how exactly did that happen?"
Rick attempted to make himself very small as Jason volunteered, "We made a bet at the target shooting booth. Two dollars for the best shot three outta five. I never could beat him."
A.J. cocked an eyebrow at his brother and asked dryly, "Gee, I wonder why?" Then ordered firmly, "All you kids stay right here. Rick and I will be back in a second."
A.J. pulled his brother off to one side. "What are you doing with these kids? Gambling, belly dancers--"
"Ah, A.J., you're makin' a big deal over nothing. Besides, they're not little kids. They're teenage boys."
"Yes, I know. That's what worries me."
To stall any further scolding Rick said, "Tell ya' what. I'll take the girls for a while and you can have some free time."
"Sounds good to me," A.J. readily agreed. "If I have to go on the Tilt ‘O Whirl or Scrambler one more time today I think I'll throw up."
"In all your tiltings, scramblings, and otherwise wanderings, did you see anyone who looked like Bill?"
"No, but it only took me five minutes to figure out that practically every man attending this fair is wearing either sunglasses, a baseball cap, or both. Aside from that fact, there’s a sign posted on an administration building that says there are over forty thousand people here today. I have a feeling he could very easily get lost in the crowd."
Rick glanced around at the throngs of people passing by them. "Yeah, that's for sure."
"Just don't let Lauren out of your sight."
"I won't," Rick assured as the two began moving back to the group of children.
"Girls, I'm gonna be your chaperone for a while now," Rick announced. "You've all been too hard on old A.J. He just can't handle the ladies like he used to in his younger days."
All the little girls cast a collective, forlorn backwards glance at A.J. They waved and called as one, "Goodbye, A.J."
"Goodbye, girls," A.J. called back while trying to ignore the blatantly obvious signs of puppy love.
A.J. began walking in the opposite direction of Rick and the girls, only to turn around to see that Rick's group of boys were tagging along behind him now.
With a twinkle in his eye, Jason asked, "Hey, A.J., you wanna go to one of the shooting games with us?"
"No, I don't think so. You guys go on if you want to."
A thin, gangly brunette boy named Zack teased, "I bet you can't shoot as good as Rick, can you? That's why you don't want to go, huh, A.J.?"
The wheeler-dealer Jason carried the ball from there. "Yeah. I bet you can't shoot at all, can ya?" You don't really look like the kind of guy that knows how to handle a gun. Rick was in Vietnam, ya' know."
"Yes, I know that," A.J. acknowledged. "But that doesn't have anything to do with whether a person can handle a gun or not. A lot of guys who served in Vietnam never had to use their guns."
"Yeah, but Rick did I bet. I can tell by the way he shoots," an impressed Jason stated. "Come on, A.J., I'll even give you the first five shots free, then bet you the best three out of five just like I did Rick."
A.J. looked around to make sure his brother was nowhere in sight. "Do you have enough money left to back that bet, Jason?"
The boy reached in the pocket of his blue jeans and produced a roll of bills. "Sure do."
"Okay.” A.J. agreed with a hidden smiled. “Let's go then."
"All right!" The boys whooped as they ran ahead of the detective toward the Midway once again.
Later that evening a poorer but wiser Jason returned to the barn with his friends and A.J. The chaperones were soon busy making sure the kids fed and watered their animals again. Rick laughed as white cloths where fastened around the bodies of all the sheep and white hoods were pulled over their heads so only their eyes, ears, mouths, and noses were showing.
"Look, A.J., the sheep are getting ready for bed. They've got their nighties on."
Watching this odd ritual being preformed by all the children prompted A.J. to say, "The sheep look like they're getting ready for a Klan rally."
Rick laughed again, then Lauren explained that the hoods and robes were used to keep the animals’ wool clean for show day. When the sheep laid down in their pens they wouldn't get their wool matted with straw or dirty with manure.
Once the chores were done the children broke off with their various friends to chat, eat snacks, or play board games that had been brought along. The adults were finally able to relax for the first time all day.
Rick and A.J. sat on a bale of straw in an empty pen close enough to Lauren to keep an eye on her, but far enough away so she couldn't hear their conversation.
"Did everything go okay when she was with you?" A.J. asked while nodding in the little girl's direction.
"Yep, everything went fine," Rick replied between swigs of a cold Pepsi. "But you're right, with the amount of people this place pulls in he could slip by us so easily that it wouldn't be funny."
"I know," A.J. agreed. "Are you taking the first shift in the morning or am I?"
"Doesn't matter. What time do the kids show tomorrow?"
"Two o'clock. They have to be back here at the barn by noon to get their animals ready."
"I can take the morning," Rick volunteered. "You can have her after the show."
A.J. nodded, knowing that both he and Rick would be on bodyguard duty during the show.
Two hours later the kids, as well as their chaperones, were getting ready for bed. The boys' cots were on one side of the long steel-sided barn, separated from the girls by pens that ran the full length of the structure. The chaperones split up throughout the barn, Rick and A.J. setting their cots up right in the middle of the barn's two aisles, Rick on the boys side, A.J. on the girls. The blond detectives cot was right outside the empty pen where Lauren and two of her girlfriends were 'camping' out.
No one went with the formality of pajamas. Boys and girls alike climbed into sleeping bags wearing jeans and t-shirts or shorts and t-shirts. A.J. got ready to get in his own sleeping bag. He left his jeans on, but pulled off his shoes and socks and set them on the cement floor under his cot. The blond man had his shirt up to his neck, in the process of taking it off as well, when he was stopped by a succession of giggles. He blushed bright red and smiled weakly at the collection of admiring adolescent girls who were staring at him from their beds.
"'Night, A.J.," the girls chorused sweetly.
A.J. pulled his shirt back down. "Good night, girls," he replied in a tone of long suffering before making himself comfortable in his sleeping bag.
It took A.J. quite a while to fall asleep that night. One row of barn lights was left on permanently, so he had to get used to a bare light bulb shining above him. It took a long time, as well, for the children to settle down and for their whispers and quiet laughter to slowly die out. Even then, A.J. could hear faint shouts, screams, and laughter coming from the Midway where the games and rides continued full speed until midnight. After that, things finally began to grow quiet. Or as quiet as things can get, A.J. thought, when one is sleeping in a barn with forty kids and eighty animals. Occasionally an animal would bleat, or get up and move about restlessly, or two rams would lock horns and scuffle for a while.
Must be Rick and A.J., the detective thought as he drifted toward sleep with the sound of Pete's fighting rams in the background.
A.J. wasn't sure what brought him wide-awake with a start in the early morning hours. He pressed a tiny button on his watch and glanced at the lit dial to see that it was two fifty-five. As he sat up on his cot, A.J. thought he saw the shadow of a man standing in the doorway at the south end of the barn. When he looked again, however, the man was gone. A.J. sat there a moment longer before getting out of his sleeping bag and reaching for his shoes. He walked the length of the aisle, peering out the doorway looking first right, and then left. A.J. saw no one, but stood there in the darkness for a few minutes anyway, the lights from the barn throwing his shadow out in front of him.
A.J. swiveled as he heard a noise at the other end of the barn. Rick was entering through the north doorway with Jason beside him.
Rick's jaw was set sternly as he gave the boy a little shove toward his cot. "Get in there and get to sleep," Rick growled.
"You aren't gonna tell, are you, Rick?"
Although Rick had no intention of 'telling' he decided to make the teen sweat a bit. "I don't know, kid. I'll have to think about it. Now get back to bed."
"Where were you?" A.J. whispered as the brothers met halfway down the barn aisle.
"My friend Jason there decided to make a little night time recon mission over to the horse barn. Seems he had a cute little cowgirl waitin' there for him. I caught the two of 'em neckin' hot and heavy in the corner of an empty stall."
"Ah, you're own experiences sneaking off to the girls' cabins at Camp Noahwanga no doubt aided you in your efforts to round up Jason tonight."
Rick nodded wryly. "That, and the fact that the kid couldn't sneak by a room full of deaf old ladies if he tried. I heard him the minute he got up."
"I see," was all A.J. said in return.
realizing that A.J. was awake at three o'clock in the morning for no apparent
reason prompted Rick to inquire, "What are you doin' up?"
"Some noise woke me, I guess. I looked in that direction," A.J. pointed to the south doorway, "and thought I saw a man standing there so got up to check things out."
"Was anyone there?"
"No, not that I could see."
"Do you think one of us should have a look around?"
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt."
"Since I've already been out there once and am now wide awake, I might as well go," Rick volunteered. He headed toward the south entrance, his unbuttoned shirt billowing gently around his back in the night breeze.
Twenty minutes later Rick returned, having walked a circle around all the barns, pigs, cattle, and horses included.
"I didn't see a soul," Rick reported to his brother who was leaning tiredly against a wooden support beam.
Both men noted that all was quiet in their barn, everyone apparently asleep, so they, too, returned to their cots. A.J. fell asleep almost immediately, unlike Rick, who remained awake and alert for another forty-five minutes before finally dropping off to sleep somewhere around four a.m.
By seven the children were beginning to stir. The barn was soon bustling with the activity of morning chores. In order to keep the barn and pens cleaned, Bev had made a game of it by dividing the children into sections and awarding prizes to the first group who had the cleanest pens each morning.
A.J. was put in charge of Lauren and her girlfriends again, so with his urging all the girls were stirring about like busy bumble bees. They fed and watered their animals first, then cleaned out the pens. They loaded the manure and straw in a wheelbarrow and dumped it outside the barn where the fair's ground crew would haul it away later in the morning. The girls then spread fresh bales of straw in the pens.
Rick was to supervise Jason and his friends in these activities, but was having trouble getting the teens motivated. Just getting the boys out of bed was a project. As each second passed and he watched A.J.'s little charges hard at work, Rick grew angrier and angrier. Finally, in his best Marine sergeant voice, he bellowed, "Now listen up, you lazy bones! You guys are gonna get your sorry carcasses out of bed and I mean right now!" Rick moved along and began dumping the boys from their cots.
"Move it, Jason! Come on, lover boy, rise and shine! Zack get up! Now! Travis, let's go! Justin, I mean you too! Brian, come on! Move it, move it, move it!"
"Gee, since when did we get drafted," Jason muttered as he untangled himself from his sleeping bag.
"Since those little girls over there started beating you at this morning's contest. Come on, you guys, let's go!"
Although somewhat unorthodox, Rick's method was effective. Soon all his boys were getting their morning work done. A.J.'s girls still won the prizes awarded for cleanest pens, but Rick and his boys vowed they'd get them the next day. A.J. merely scoffed, knowing fully well his group of girls were bound to beat the teenagers to the punch every morning.
Rick quickly showered before his morning duty with Lauren was to begin. He then sat sipping coffee at an outside picnic table that was two hundred feet from the door of the girls' bathroom/shower room. He passed the time people watching while he waited for Lauren to shower and dress for the day.
Fifteen minutes later the girl appeared carrying her gym bag. She was freshly scrubbed and wearing blue jeans, a white man's style button up shirt with her 4-H club's name on the back, and a green baseball cap that also proclaimed the name, VALLEY EXPLORERS. All the children were dressed like this for their first show day, as were the adults. Rick and A.J. had been provided with shirts and hats by Mrs. Timmons, too, so they would look like they belonged.
Lauren did an uncharacteristic little feminine spin on the toe of her sneaker. "How do I look, Rick?"
"You look gorgeous, sweetheart," Rick smiled. "You make me wish I was eleven again."
"It wouldn't do you any good. I wouldn't help you with your homework like my mom did," Lauren teased.
"Why you little creep," Rick teased right back as he made a grab for the girl, picking her up and hanging her upside down by her ankles.
"Rick! Rick...put me down!" Lauren shouted giggles.
Rick gently deposited the girl back on her feet, warning her, "Don't mess with me again, kid."
faced and laughing, Lauren promised, "I won't."
Rick gathered up his Styrofoam coffee cup as all the girls he was chaperoning began to appear from the bathroom. "Are you girls ready to get some breakfast?"
A chorus of "Yeses," came forth as the little group followed Rick toward the streets of the fair grounds that were predominately lined with restaurants and dining halls.
Lauren walked hand in hand with the detective. "Rick, do you think A.J. will think I look okay today?"
Rick had to hide his smile. "A.J. will think you're just as gorgeous as I do, sweetie. Even more so 'cause he's a sucker for blonds."
"Are we going to see him at breakfast?"
"No, I think he ate while you were in the shower, but we can look for him after you're done if you want."
Lauren turned to the girls following behind her and Rick. "Hey, everybody! We'll go look for A.J. after we eat!"
"Yay!" came the cheer from A.J.'s admiring masses.
"You girls really know how to make a guy feel welcome," Rick pouted.
A red headed pigtailed ten-year-old who reminded Rick of Pippi Longstocking, tugged his waist. "We like you, Rick, but we love A.J. He's cute."
"You think so, huh? Then I guess you girls have never watched him sleep. He's real ugly when he's asleep. His hair's all messed up, his mouth is open, he drools, and he snores."
"I don't believe you," the red headed April declared.
"It's true," Rick countered back. "You girls stay up tonight and watch him."
"Okay, we will," April said as all the other girls nodded. "Will you wake us up after A.J.'s asleep?"
"Sure I will," Rick promised before further conversation halted when his group came upon a dining hall that Rick had been told served an excellent breakfast.
Later that morning Rick and the girls walked the entire fairgrounds twice in search of A.J. Although their wanderings proved futile, Rick didn't mind. He was constantly impressed with how much the fair had to offer. He and his little group walked through the commercial building where merchants hawked their wares. Everything from hot tubs, to jewelry, to cowboy boots, to saltwater taffy could be found for sale. From there they went through one of the 4-H buildings where children’s projects of all kinds were on display with blue, red, and pink ribbons attached. The state police had a booth at the fair, the men and women offering short safety seminars for children while passing out balloons and whistles. Rick and his girls passed by other booths selling everything from cotton candy, to encyclopedias, to t-shirts, to every type of trinket imaginable.
There were three different beer gardens where one could get a hot meal and cold brew while being entertained by a live band, the music ranging from rap to country. What impressed Rick the most was how clean everything was. There seemed to constantly be a young person wearing a shirt proclaiming Grounds Crew, who was picking up garbage that had missed containers, or cleaning one of the many bathrooms. The fair itself was almost like a small city with paved streets and concrete sidewalks, the only area being grass and dirt was that where the rides and games were set up.
"Geez, it must cost the state a fortune to keep this place up," Rick had said to A.J. on more than one occasion.
The detective walked slowly now as he read through a leaflet he had regarding special events occurring at the fair each day. "Well, girls, we could go watch the fiddling contest for a while."
"Nooooo," the girls vetoed.
"Okay, how about the sibling look alike contest," he suggested.
"What's that?" one of his nine-year-old charges asked.
"It's where judges vote on which set of brothers and sisters look the most alike," Rick explained while thinking with amusement that this was one contest he and A.J. wouldn't have a chance at winning.
"Sounds boring," April spoke for all the girls.
"Okay...hey, here's one. The state pom-pom girls competition. Pom-pom girls from all across the state of California compete to take home a trophy for best squad in the area of routines performed, enthusiasm, and gymnastic ability," Rick read from the leaflet. "Come on, girls, let's go watch that."
"Rick, you said we could look for A.J.," Lauren reminded. "Besides, I don't think you should be watching pom-pom girls."
"'Cause you're too old for that kind of stuff. Now come on, let's find A.J."
"Yeah, let's find A.J.," was heard from the ranks, thereby out voting Rick's choice of entertainment.
"You girls just aren't gonna let me have any fun, are ya'?" Rick muttered as he followed after his charges.
The girls were headed back toward the Midway when one of them pointed and exclaimed, "There he is! There's A.J.!"
Rick looked around the immediate area. "Where?"
"Up there!" Lauren pointed.
"What the...is he doing up there?" Rick asked as he and the girls took off running.
Rick came to a halt at the bottom of a three hundred foot platform. He recognized a pack of familiar boys.
"Jason, what's goin' on?"
Jason gestured skyward. "A.J.'s gonna bungee jump, Rick."
"He's gonna do what?"
"Whose idea was that?" Rick asked as he looked up.
"A.J.'s," Jason replied.
"It figures," Rick muttered.
"Rick, is A.J. gonna get hurt?" a worried April asked.
"Nah, darlin.’ The worst that will happen is he'll land on his head. That won't affect him any, believe me," Rick scoffed with more assurance than he felt.
The crowd of people surrounding Rick looked up as one, squinting into the late morning sun as they watched A.J. get ready to make his jump. The man running the attraction gave last minute instructions to the blond, then, A.J. turned so he would be jumping off the platform backwards.
Using a bullhorn, the operator enticed the crowd.
"Okay, folks, on the count of three yell, Geronimo, and A.J. will jump. But first let's give him a big round of encouraging applause."
The crowd clapped and cheered, the boys from the 4-H club yelling, "Go, A.J.!"
"All right, A.J.!"
"Jump, A.J.! Jump!"
Rick stood shaking his head, watching as A.J. let the operator know he was ready.
The children joined in on the count as the bullhorn echoed, "One! Two! Three!"
All on the ground, save for Rick, finished with a loud, GERONIMO!, as A.J. dived backwards off the platform. For a few seconds the blond man was free falling through the air. Just as the top of his head was about to rake the large safety bag on the ground, the elastic of the bungee cords harnessed to A.J.’s ankles yanked him back up, bringing him almost as high as the platform once again.
This action repeated itself several times while the children clapped and cheered, the older boys calling, "Way to go, A.J.! Way to go!"
Rick simply stood there, still shaking his head at his brother's foolishness as the kids ran to greet A.J. once his feet were on the ground.
The children surrounded A.J. as he approached his brother.
"That was so cool, A.J.,” Jason said. “I wish I could do it."
"Sorry, Jason, the sign says you have to be twenty-one," A.J. informed the young man, glad he didn't have to take responsibility for any teenage boys who might want to bungee jump.
"Oh, yeah, A.J., that was real cool," Rick chastised as soon as his younger brother came abreast of him. "You coulda' killed yourself doin' a damn fool stunt like that!"
A.J. was rather taken aback by Rick's reprimand. Rick had always been such a dare devil that it was usually him pulling the 'damn fool stunts.’ A.J. was surprised by his brother's obvious disapproval.
"There was nothing to it, Rick," A.J. shrugged, still glowing from his adventure. "It was fun! You should try it."
Rick took a long look up the platform A.J. had just jumped from. "No way," he declared.
"But, Rick, look at the neat shirt A.J. got for jumping," Lauren said. A white short sleeve t-shirt was held up for the older man to see that announced on the front in sky blue lettering, I JUMPED THE BUNGEE, and on the back proclaimed, GERONIMO!
"Yeah, that's real neat," Rick agreed. "But not worth riskin' your life for."
"Hey, Rick's a chicken!" Jason took glee in announcing. That good-natured teasing prompted the children and A.J. to begin chanting in sing-song voices, "Rick is a chicken, Rick is a chicken, Rick is a chicken."
"I'm not chicken!" Rick shouted in an effort to shut everyone up.
"Sure you are,” Jason challenged. “If you're not, then you'll jump."
"I'm not jumping because it cost seventy-five bucks. If A.J. wants to spend his money in such a foolish way, that's his business."
"You'd know about foolish ways to spend money," A.J. quipped.
"Shut up," Rick growled, not enjoying being exposed as a chicken - something he was definitely not used to.
"Okay, Rick, then how about if me and the guys come up with seventy-five bucks? Will you jump then?" Jason asked, his friends eagerly nodding their agreement.
Rick thought a moment, then, counter offered with, "If you guys can come up with one hundred bucks, I'll jump."
"A hundred!" Jason exclaimed. "But it only costs seventy- five."
"Yeah, but I want a little something leftover for my trouble," Rick justified.
"Okay, a hundred it is," the teen agreed. "Deal?"
Rick shook Jason’s hand, confirming, "Deal," before calling to all the kids, "Come on now, it's almost noon. We've got to get back to the barn. Mrs. Timmons has a picnic lunch waitin’ for us, and then you have to get your animals ready."
The kids began heading off in the direction of the barn, Rick and A.J. following several paces behind.
"I don't think you should have made that deal with Jason if you really don't want to jump, big brother. He'll hold you to it, you know."
"Ah, I ain't worried," Rick scoffed. "The kid will never be able to raise that kind of money. Bev doles out their food money from their club treasury, and their parents only sent enough spending money along for games, rides, and snacks. No kid's gonna give up his ride money to watch an old bald guy jump off a three hundred foot platform."
"I don't know about that," A.J. warned.
"As usual, kid, you worry too much," Rick commented before letting the subject drop for good.
That afternoon the Simons sat on metal bleachers in a large amphitheater watching the children show their sheep. The brothers had learned that today the animals weren't actually being judged, but rather, the kids were being judged on their showmanship abilities. This meant the judges were looking to see how well each child handled his or her animals. The animals that needed the least amount of guidance or hands-on leadership in the show ring were generally the animals that had been worked with the most. This particular round of judging was designed to inspire the children to do more than simply feed and water their 4-H project. It was designed to teach them that a show animal requires a lot of time, care, and commitment.
A.J. sat on one side of the amphitheater in the top row of bleachers, while Rick sat on the other side in the bottom row. The bottom row still put Rick a good five feet above the large railed-off show ring.
A.J. constantly scanned the crowd, looking for any sign of Lauren's father, or anyone else who might be acting out of the ordinary.
The children were divided into age groups for the judging, nine to thirteen year olds being considered junior showmen, while fourteen to eighteen year olds were considered senior showmen. In this particular contest, all the children would come away with a ribbon. This gave them all a chance to feel like winners and boost their self-esteem.
A.J. and Rick watched proudly from their respective positions as Lauren led Virginia into the ring by her nylon halter. Each child picked only one of their sheep to show in the showmanship judging, generally the one that was the easiest to handle and least temperamental.
The large group of children and sheep came to stand in a circle on the amphitheater's graded dirt floor. The judges then instructed the kids to urge their sheep to move left, then move right, then step forward, step backward, and finally to parade their animals around the circle.
Because this judging involved other 4-H clubs as well from various areas of the state, the judging took a long period of time. While it was going on A.J. casually walked up and down the stairs of each aisle, glancing at the various parents and fair patrons in attendance. Rick remained seated where he was, as close to the show ring as possible without actually being in it.
When the children were awarded their ribbons, Lauren received a blue. A wide smile lit her face as she held it up for Rick to see, then looked for A.J. She held it up again upon spotting A.J. standing in one of the aisles way up by the rafters. A.J. raised his hands and clapped them together silently three times in a gesture of, "Good job!"
All the kids hung the ribbons from their shirt pockets, the red and pink award winners then leading their animals from the ring.
The six remaining blue ribbon winners now competed for Champion Showman. Again the kids and the sheep were put through the paces. They paraded in a circle around the show ring six times as the four judges conferred back and forth in the middle of the circle. Finally a decision was reached and a plaque awarded. When that wooden plaque that read, California State Fair 1993, Champion Junior Showman Sheep Division, was handed out, it was Lauren who received it.
Rick's smile went from ear to ear as he clapped along with the rest of the crowd. The young girl once again held up her award for first Rick to see, then turned to find A.J. and repeated the motion.
Rick rose from his seat as the kids led their sheep out of the ring to make way for the senior showmen. He met Lauren as she came out of one of the amphitheater exit tunnels.
Rick was ready with a bear hug and praise. "You did fantastic, sweetie!"
"Did you see, Rick?” Lauren asked as she hugged Rick back. “Did you see all the show?"
"I sure did.” Rick said while taking Virginia's halter and leading her toward the barn. “You did great!”
"Do you think A.J. saw...ah!" the girl yelped in surprise before she received an answer.
Lauren was being swung through the air while being told, "Of course I saw!"
A.J. too, gave and received a hug once he put Lauren back on the ground. "You did a wonderful job," he told her. "All your hard work really paid off. When we call your mom tonight you'll really have something to tell her."
"Yeah, I sure will," Lauren agreed as she gazed at her plaque. "This is the best I've ever done. My first year I only got a red ribbon, then last year I got a blue, but I wasn't champion showman."
"Well, no matter what, you're a champ in my book," Rick announced as he put an arm around the girl’s shoulder and gave her an affectionate squeeze.
Later that afternoon Joy was reached at her hotel room and given the happy news, then Lauren insisted on calling her grandparents, as well. Joy's folks had planned to drive up to the fair for their granddaughter's competitions, but a flu bug that had left both grandparents feeling ill had prevented that.
Once she was through telling her grandma and grandpa everything she could think of, Lauren turned to Rick and handed him the phone. "Grandpa wants to talk to you."
Although he didn't want to, Rick accepted the receiver. "Uh...yes, sir...uh, hello, sir."
"Richard Simon, is that you?"
"Uh...yes, sir, it's me."
"Are you taking good care of my granddaughter?"
"Uh...yes, sir, I am."
"You'd better be. Mark my words, young man, if anything happens to that little girl I’ll hold you personally responsible."
"No, sir, nothing will happen to her. You have my word on that, sir," Rick replied, feeling very much sixteen all over again.
"Is your brother there, Richard?"
"Uh...yes, sir, he is."
"I'd like to talk to him, please."
Rick was more than happy to hand the phone to A.J. and get off the line with the formidable Lyle Seddar.
"Hello, Mr. Seddar," A.J. greeted cheerfully, much to Rick's disgust.
"Hello, Andrew. Nice to talk to you. I appreciate what you and Richard are doing for Joy. She's very worried, you know."
"Yes, sir, I know. Things are going very well though."
"Good. I'm happy to hear it. Is your brother behaving himself, Andrew? Doing what he's supposed to be in regards to protecting my Lauren?"
A.J. smiled as he looked at Rick. "Yes, sir, I can assure you he is."
"I suppose you charge more than a quarter now to keep Richard on his best behavior," Mr. Seddar joked.
A.J. chuckled. "Yes, sir, I do. But this one's a freebie for old time's sake."
"You're a good man, Andrew. Don't tell your brother this, but I was the one who insisted to Joy that she speak to the two of you about her problems. I told her that I had heard around town more than once that Rick and A.J. Simon are the best P.I.'s in the business. I wouldn't trust just anyone with my grandchild's life."
"I know that, Mr. Seddar. We appreciate your confidence in us. Believe me, we won't let anything happen to Lauren."
A.J. turned the phone back over to Lauren so she could say her final goodbyes.
"What'd the old coot say?" Rick whispered.
"He just wanted to make sure you're behaving yourself."
Before Rick could reply Lauren hung up the phone. She turned around to tease the detective. "Grandpa told me to tell you to behave yourself."
As the three walked back to the barn Rick grumbled, "Geez, some people just can't let go of the past. I'm almost fifty, and some old guy is still worrying about whether or not I'm behaving myself. Maybe I don't wanna behave myself. Maybe I want..."
Lauren and A.J. just laughed at Rick's moaning and groaning, the moaning and groaning that continued until they finally reached the barn.
That evening was a relatively quiet one. The children were tired from the afternoon show, so once supper of pizzas was consume, the kids were willing to return to the barn to play cards or games, or just to visit with friends from other 4-H clubs.
A.J. lay on his cot reading a book he had brought along while keeping an eye on Lauren. The shouts and laughter of the children echoed throughout the barn, as did the quiet murmur of adult conversation. Every once in a while A.J. would hear a chaperone admonish, "Don't run in the barn!" when a group of young boys started up a game of tag or football in one of the aisles.
The blond man looked across the tops of the pens to the opposite side of the barn to see Jason and his usual crowd, as well as Rick, seated around Jason's show chest, using it for a card table.
God only knows what he's teaching them, A.J. thought in reference to his brother and the deck of cards he held in his hand. The blond detective decided it was too much of an effort to get up and investigate, however.
If Bev doesn't approve, let her go over there and handle it. Rick won't listen to me anyway.
Staying right where he was, reclining on his cot, sounded better to the tired A.J. than arguing with his brother. The muffled giggles of Lauren and April drew A.J.'s attention to the young girls who were seated on some wooden shelves that were mounted above the sheep pens. Both the girls held onto a long strand of fishing line that had been, with help from A.J., strung over a ceiling rafter. At the other end of the line each girl had attached a large rubber spider. The spiders were lowered on to unsuspecting fair patrons as they toured the barn admiring the sheep.
Women and men of all ages were caught off guard, screaming or exclaiming with fright when one of the spiders landed on their shoulder, or got tangled in their hair, or simply dangled in front of their faces. Because of the transparency of the fishing line many people couldn't figure out who was playing the trick on them as the girls retracted the lines quickly, pulling the spiders back up to the ceiling, then sitting there the picture of innocence, not even cracking as a smile.
Everyone seemed to take the joke well, realizing that kids will be kids. A.J. himself was getting a kick out of the whole thing as he observed people's reactions to the girls' stunt. He was glad to see that there were still some children who knew the meaning of the phrase, ‘good, clean fun.’
Everyone was in bed by ten thirty that evening. Not even the noise from the Midway could keep A.J. awake tonight. He barely remembered his head hitting the pillow before being sound asleep.
"Uh...what!" The startled blond detective awoke suddenly somewhere around one a.m. Girlish giggles greeted the bleary eyed A.J. as he looked up into eight smiling faces.
A.J. hiked himself up on one elbow. "What's wrong, girls? What's going--"
It was then that A.J. recounted. There were nine heads gathered around his cot, one with hair on its upper lip. "Rick!” A.J. exclaimed in a strained whisper. “What the hel...heck is going on? What are you doing?"
"The girls wanted to see what you look like when you're sleepin.’"
A.J.'s voice was tight with hard sought after control. "I'm not even going to ask what prompted this little field trip sponsored by Richard Simon. All I'm going to do is suggest that you, older brother, get these girls back to bed."
Rick recognized the danger that lurked behind A.J.'s tone. He rose and gathered up his charges. "Okay, girls, show's over. See, he is ugly when he's asleep, and he's even uglier when he first wakes up."
April immediately came to A.J.'s defense. "He's not ugly when he sleeps, Rick. And the only reason A.J. woke up mad was because you played a trick on him."
"See, there you guys go again, takin' blondie's side," Rick teased as he saw the girls off to their cots.
Once all eight of them were where they belonged, Rick chanced a look in his brother's direction, only to see that A.J.'s cot was empty. He grew puzzled when he caught sight of his brother's tennis shoes still sitting underneath the cot. If A.J. had gotten up to walk to the bathrooms that were several blocks down he surely would have put his shoes on first. Rick started for the entrance on the south end of the barn, stopping when A.J. appeared from the darkness.
"Where'd you go?" Rick asked quietly as his brother approached him.
"I saw some guy standing in the doorway when you were getting the girls back to bed."
"Did you get a good look at him?"
"If you mean do I think it was Bill, I don't know. No, I didn't get a good enough look at him. But, curiously enough, he took off running when I stepped outside. It's so dark though, that I lost him before I even got to the horse barn."
"You couldn't make out his hair color?" Rick asked.
shook his head. "No."
The brothers had been given a picture of Bill by Joy, and had as well, studied various photos of him while they had been at her home. Lauren had gotten her fair hair and complexion from her father, as well as her pretty features. Joy's ex-husband was a handsome man with classic Nordic good looks, his blond hair so light it appeared to be white in the photos. Other than that he was of average build and height. Rick and A.J. had been counting on Bill's hair color to give him away.
"I don't know how much difference it will make even if we do get a good look at him," Rick commented. "For all we know we might have seen him a hundred times in the past two days, or not at all. It's been a long time since Joy's seen him. His appearance coulda' changed a lot by now. He coulda' dyed his hair...hell, he might have even lost his hair for all we know."
"I know. I've thought of that too," A.J. agreed. "All his threats may be just that, threats. He might not be within two thousand miles of this place."
"That's true, too. But, on the other hand, it is kinda strange that for two nights in a row now you've woken up to see someone standing in the doorway."
A.J. shrugged. "I'm not positive I did see someone last night, and as far as tonight goes, I didn't get a good enough look at the guy to even begin to guess if it was Bill or not."
"Yeah, but it's a little weird that the guy would take off runnin' like that, don't you think?" Rick tossed back, not even realizing that he and A.J. were excelling at what they did best, batting around opposing ideas and opinions in an effort to obtain a solution to a problem.
"Rick, for all I know it could have been a teenager from one of the other barns who was afraid of getting caught out after curfew."
Rick studied his brother's face a moment. "Is that what you really think?"
A.J. smiled slightly. Rick knew him too well. "No, I guess that's not what I really think. He seemed to be built more like a grown man, and he moved like a man when he ran. He didn't have that loose, easy way of running you usually associate with kids. But there again, I can't really say for sure."
"There's not much we can do about it tonight," Rick finally decided. "We might as well get back to bed. The show starts at eight thirty in the morning. I have a feeling it's gonna be a long day."
"I think you're right," A.J. agreed as he walked toward his cot.
"Hey, A.J.!" Rick softly hailed on an afterthought.
"Sleep with one eye open."
"I should have been doing that earlier. If I had, I would have avoided waking up to a circle of giggling little girls at my bedside."
Rick chuckled softly to himself as he, too, returned to bed.
The next morning the entire barn was up at six. The adults worked with the children as they prepared for the busy day they had ahead of them. The chaperones, including Rick and A.J., had more than enough to do as they helped the children feed and water their animals, clean the pens, then made sure that everyone got off to the showers so the entire group could meet together for breakfast by seven thirty.
A quick breakfast was eaten before the kids rushed back to the barn to brush their animals, then spray their hooves with a black polish that was buffed off with clean cloths.
Mrs. Timmons and her husband gathered the kids in a circle, reminding them as to what times their various shows were. Some of the club members were just showing rams, some just ewes, while others, like Lauren and Pete, had two sheep of the same sex that were siblings, and were shown in a category referred to as, 'matching pen of two.'
"Remember, if you're not in the show ring...boys, be quiet and listen," Bev interrupted to scold. "If you're not in the show ring you are to be seated together on the bleachers watching the show and offering encouragement to your fellow club members. Pay attention to the clock so you can get back here in time to get your animals ready for their particular class. Mr. Timmons, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Holst, will be in here to help you. Does anyone have any questions?"
The children were too excited to have any questions. All the kids over ten thought of themselves as old pros at this anyway. The nine-year-old novices had been assigned to a teenage club member who was to help guide them through this; their first livestock show.
Lauren sat next to Rick in the amphitheater watching the first class of animals show - yearling rams. A.J. did as he had on the previous day - casually walked up and down the aisles surveying the crowd.
On occasion Lauren would lean over to explain something to the inquiring Rick about the show as they watched a large group of children in all age brackets, from all clubs, compete on the show ring's floor.
It was an hour later before a judge announced over the P.A. system, "Our next class to compete will be matching pen of two sheep born between August of '92 and January of '93. If your animals fall into that category you have ten minutes to get to the ring."
Following that proclamation Lauren rose, Rick following behind her. Once back at the barn the girl quickly curried her sheep once more, then led them by their halters to the arena.
Just before Lauren disappeared into the short concrete tunnel that went under the raised bleachers and came out in the show ring, Rick gave her a kiss on the forehead.
"Good luck, sweetheart."
"Thanks, Rick," the excited girl replied. She tugged on the halter in each hand urging, "Come on, Lucky. Come on, Virginia," as she followed the other children into the tunnel.
Rick met up with his brother in one of the aisles before the show started. Over the conversations buzzing around them he asked, "See anything?"
"No," A.J. replied while scanning the area. "But this place has got to be almost filled to capacity today."
"That means close to six thousand people," Rick commented grimly, knowing how easy it would be for Lauren's father to hide amongst the seated patrons.
"I'm gonna go down and sit by the railing like I did yesterday," Rick informed his brother. "At least that way I'll be as close to the show ring as I can be in case he is here and tries to pull something."
A.J. nodded his agreement as the kids began to file in. Rather than being dressed in the more casual look of their club shirts and hats today, all the children were instead dressed up for this big show.
Boys and girls alike wore jeans, but many of the young men also wore western style string ties, some even adding a western cut sport coat. The girls wore western style blouses, many with ruffles down the front, some with brightly colored kerchiefs knotted at their necks.
A.J. smiled fondly at the sight of Lauren in her maroon cowgirl blouse with the ruffles down the middle trimmed in black. She had a black kerchief tied to the side of her bare throat. He had watched Lauren polish her black cowboy boots that morning with the same lacquer she had used on the hooves of her sheep. Those boots gleamed now underneath the arena's bright lights.
The black felt cowboy hat perched on Lauren's head prompted A.J. to ask his brother, "Where'd she get the hat?"
"I bought it for her this morning. We spotted it at one of the vendor's booths on our way back from breakfast. I told her it would be just the thing she needs to make the judges take notice of her today."
Having heard that the kids liked to wear something that set them apart in the ring for the specific reason of drawing the judges' attention to their animals, A.J. commented, "Good idea. She looks sharp. Heaven forbid, though, I do believe she's starting to dress like you."
"Only after she asked me about ten times, 'Do you think A.J. will like this hat, Rick,'" the oldest Simon teased.
smiled. "I think we took a tomboy
from Joy at the start of this trip, but will be returning a young lady."
"A young lady with a bad case of puppy love for someone named Andrew Simon," Rick pointed out.
"She'll get over it fairly quickly, I'm sure. I've caught her making eyes at Pete on several occasions recently."
"Ah...young love," Rick intoned with fond remembrance before heading down to the first row of bleachers.
The class was large, with thirty children and sixty sheep competing for Champion Pen of Two. It took the judges close to an hour to weed the showmen down to ten, Lauren and Pete among them.
A.J. laughed to himself as Pete's rams, Rick and A.J., fought and scuffled out in the ring, definitely not on their best behavior today. A male judge finally had to step in and help the young boy get the combatants under control. Poor Pete, A.J. sympathized silently. I should have told him he's bound to have behavior problems with two rams he names for my brother and me.
Rick sat attentively watching the show. Though he wasn't quite sure what made up a Champion Pen of Two, the judges seemed to finally reach a collective decision after quite some time had passed. One of the female judges took the microphone and began explaining how they had reached their decision based on height, weight, wool coat, and overall appearance of the animals.
The pretty teenage fair queen, dressed in high heels, a red calf length dress, wearing a crown, and with a banner around one shoulder that read FAIREST OF THE FAIR, awarded the winning fifteen-year-old girl from the Happy Worker's club a trophy and large purple ribbon.
Rick was surprised, as well as pleased, when the next place given, Reserve Champion Pen of Two, was awarded to young Lauren. Like the previous day, the blond girl broke into a grin that slid from ear to ear when she was given her prizes. Once again she held her awards up for both Rick and A.J. to see.
It took another fifteen minutes for the remaining eight contenders to be given their placement ribbons and for the judges to briefly explain their reasons behind each choice.
"Let's give all our young people who have competed in this class a big hand for a job well done this morning," one of the judges encouraged as the last ribbon was handed out.
The children led their animals and filed out single file through the tunnel to the claps and cheers of appreciation from the audience.
Rick rose to meet Lauren as she came out of the tunnel, but had his path blocked by a group of elderly people who were exiting the amphitheater as well. He tried to make his way around the slow moving group, but to no avail. The arena was just too crowded today to make it possible for him to move as freely and quickly as he wanted to.
Rick was finally able to scurry down the steps and out into the bright sunshine. He stopped for a moment, looking both left and right for Lauren. He spotted her black hat and had just lifted an arm to draw her attention, when he felt someone knock hard against him. Rick caught just a flash of a red shirt as he was spun into the amphitheater's brick front, his back momentarily ending up turned to the action that was occurring around him.
The detective knew immediately what was going on when he heard a startled scream and a "Put me down! Put me down!" as well as the frantic cries of several children, "Lauren! Lauren!"
Rick turned in time to see a man disappear around a corner with seventy pound Lauren tucked under his arm like a football. Rick ran in the direction the man had taken, yelling over his shoulder to Jason and his buddies, "Find A.J.! Tell him Lauren’s been kidnapped! Then get the fair police!"
Justin and Travis took off running at full speed back into the arena in search of A.J., while Zack and Brian ran to look for the off duty Sacramento police officers who earned extra money by patrolling the fair grounds during the state fair's two week run.
Although Jason wasn't sure what was going on, he was getting the impression that Rick and A.J. weren't mere extension agents from the main 4-H office. Something exciting was happening, and the adventuresome teen wanted to be a part of it.
Jason handed the wide-eyed Pete Lucky and Virginia's halters, as well as the dropped blue ribbon, plaque, and black cowboy hat. "Here, hold these."
"Jason!" Pete called after the rapidly departing
youth. “Hey, Jason, where are you going?”
"I'm gonna help Rick!"
Mrs. Timmons came out of the arena with A.J. at just that moment. "Jason! Jason, you get back here!" she ordered.
Jason paid his group leader no mind, for which A.J. was grateful as he, too, took off running. He assumed the boy would lead him in the general direction Rick had taken.
Mrs. Timmons and the other chaperones were left behind to comfort the circle of confused and scared children. As their questions threatened to border hysteria, and some of Lauren's young girlfriends began to cry while exclaiming, "Lauren's been kidnapped! Lauren's been kidnapped!," Bev took charge by ushering everyone back to the barn.
Rick ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He was slowed down considerably by the fact that he had to dodge strolling groups of fair patrons. He strained to keep sight of the man wearing the baseball cap and red shirt. Because of the crowd of tightly knotted people, Rick couldn't discern if the man was still carrying Lauren or not. He prayed that the guy hadn't passed her off to someone else in the confusion.
When the red shirt disappeared around a corner Rick was familiar with, the detective knew without a doubt the man was headed for the vast parking lot. Fearing that someone could be waiting right at the gate with a running car caused Rick to increase his pace to a speed he hadn't thought possible.
The man was almost to his destination when he was momentarily slowed down by a large tram that crossed his path. Rick gained enough on the guy at that time to be able to see Lauren struggling for all she was worth, and to hear her cries of "Daddy, put me down! Please, Daddy, put me down!"
Rick now knew for certain whom he was chasing.
A.J. and Jason came abreast of Rick at just that moment, the two detectives so intent on their job that they didn't take the time to tell the teen to get lost.
Bill Kline might just have made it out to the parking lot and to his car that day if it hadn't been for six young mothers grouped together pushing infants in strollers while holding the hands of toddlers. As Bill tried to maneuver around this group the toe of his shoe got caught by the wheel of a stroller. He tripped and fell hard to the ground, taking Lauren with him.
Before Bill had a chance to get his wits about him Rick was on him, hauling him roughly to his feet.
A.J. moved to help the scraped and scared Lauren up, while at the same time keeping an eye on his brother. When Rick's fist drew back A.J. rebuked, "Rick! Don't! Stop it!"
Rick was halted, not by A.J.'s words, but rather by the glimpse he caught of Lauren. The little girl was watching him with rapt attention, her eyes saucer round, her face pale and full of sorrow.
It took Rick a minute to calm down. He kept a firm grip on Bill's shirt and turned to instruct Jason, "Go find the cops."
The boy nodded before dashing off in the direction of the fair's main office.
Rick flung Bill back against the chain link fence that separated the fair grounds from the parking lot. The man didn't even attempt to struggle out of the detective’s grasp, but simply began weeping with despair.
"I just want my daughter. I just want my little girl."
Rick looked over at Lauren who was crying in A.J.'s arms, her head buried in his shoulder. He couldn't hear what A.J. was saying to the girl, but he could see that his younger brother was speaking to her quietly, no doubt offering the frightened and confused child what comfort he could.
Rick looked back at the man he had pinned to the fence, surprised to find himself feeling pity for Bill as his sobs became more intense and he repeated, "I just want my daughter. I just want to be her daddy again."
"There's better ways to go about it, pal," was all Rick said as four uniformed police officers approached the pair.
The next morning everyone was considerably calmer than they had been the previous day. Rick, A.J., and Lauren had spent most of the previous afternoon at Sacramento's police station giving their statements pertaining to the events that had transpired. The other children who were witnesses to the attempted abduction were questioned by the police at the fair grounds.
A lengthy call was made to Joy from the police station. It ended with Lauren assuring her mother that she was okay, and that yes, she still wanted to stay at the fair and come home with her friends in two days as originally planned. Joy reluctantly agreed after talking a final time with Rick, who told her he thought that perhaps in this situation they should bow to Lauren's wishes. He ended the conversation by promising the upset mother that he would call if Lauren changed her mind so that Joy could come pick them up.
Rick spent quite a bit of time that evening and the next morning with Lauren, answering her many questions and calming her fears. Ironically enough, her biggest concern was over what would happen to her father because of this incident. She was torn between wanting to see him punished for frightening her like that, and wanting to see him freed simply because he was her dad. Like her mother, Lauren didn't understand why he just hadn't taken advantage of the visitation schedule that had been granted when the divorce was finalized. Why had he felt the need to cause all this trouble?
For that Rick's only answer was, "Sometimes, sweetie, when a person has pulled away from his family like your dad did, and then gets real lonely and finds himself far from home...well, it kinda makes him do crazy things. Things he wouldn't do if had his family nearby for support."
"But why, Rick?" Lauren had asked him.
"I don't know, babe. All I know is that it happened to me once a long time ago, when I came back from Vietnam and chose not to turn to my family for help through the rough times. If A.J. hadn't come along and insisted I needed someone, even while I was insisting I didn't...I don't honestly know what might have happened to me. But I can guarantee you, I wouldn't be sittin' here talkin' to you today."
"Because you'd be in jail like my dad?" Lauren asked.
"I don't know. Maybe. Or worse. Maybe dead. For a long time I didn't care, Lauren, about myself, or about anyone else. It wasn't until A.J. showed up on my doorstep in Florida one morning that all that began to change. He made me realize that in order to survive the hard times I did need my family. In the business A.J. and I are in I've seen it happen to plenty of other people, too. I wish I could tell you why, but I can't. I really don't know."
Lauren accepted the hug Rick offered her. She sought comfort in his arms as she realized, for the first time, that there aren't always answers to life's happenings.
Later that afternoon the Simon brothers treated Lauren and her girlfriends to ice cream cones and cotton candy in an effort to raise the girl's spirits. It seemed to help somewhat, Rick thought, as he got Lauren to laugh a few times and later caught her flirting with A.J.
The brothers and their group of eight girls walked down one of the fair's streets while licking at their rapidly melting ice cream cones. Rick had just offered to take everyone to the Midway, declaring, "We'll ride 'till we puke, girls!," while A.J. simply shook his head at his Peter Pan brother.
The sound of running footsteps overtook the group before they got any farther. Jason's shouts of, "Hey, Rick! Hey, A.J.! Wait up!" brought everyone to a halt.
Jason pulled on Rick's arm. "Hey, Rick, come on! We got it!"
"Slow down. Wait a minute. You got what?" the confused Rick asked.
"The money," Jason explained while waving ten and twenty dollar bills in Rick's face.
"Money for what?"
"For your bungee jump! Come on!"
Rick jerked his arm from Jason's grasp. "Now just hold on a second."
"Come on, Rick, you can't back out. You shook on it and everything," Zack reminded while giving the reluctant Rick a little push from behind.
"Yeah, see, Rick. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred," Jason showed Rick the bills as he counted them out.
Before the detective could get anymore out the boys ganged up on him, Jason and Brian each taking an arm while Zack, Travis, and Justin pushed him from behind.
Over Rick's protests Jason spotted Mr. and Mrs. Timmons, the chaperones, and the rest of the 4-H club coming out of a restaurant. He beckoned with the wave of an arm and a holler at the top of his lungs, "Hey, you guys! Rick's gonna bungee jump!"
"Now just...uh...just wait a minute...I...," was all Rick managed to get out as he was being propelled toward the bungee attraction.
"Come on, Rick,” Brian admonished. “You made a deal."
"Yeah, Rick, you made a deal," A.J. took great delight in reminding.
Rick didn't have a chance to do more than growl at his sibling as the group behind him prodded him steadily along.
By the time they got to the bungee jump area the entire 4-H club was with them. The children’s enthusiasm had caused a large crowd of fair patrons to gather out of curiosity as to what was going on.
Rick looked at the throng of strangers, then up, up, up, to the bungee platform high above his head.
the boys, he tried again. "Uh...look guys, I've got this old war injury
that bothers me now and then, and--"
Jason pushed Rick toward the cage that would lift him to the platform. "You're not backing out, Rick," he stated firmly.
"No...no, I'm not backing out. I'm just telling you that I don't think I can--"
Jason ignored Rick, snatched the detective's cowboy hat off his head, then handed the man in charge seventy-five dollars.
"I'll hang onto the other twenty-five for you, Rick, until you're back down."
"Oh, yeah, like I'm really gonna need it after I'm dead," Rick muttered before the bungee man took charge of him.
Rick was given an explanation as to the safety procedures necessary for bungee jumping, then the cage he and the operator were in was slowly lifted upward by a crane. A grinning Jason began to chant, "Go, Rick! Go, Rick! Go, Rick!" The other club members picked up on the chant as well, all chorusing as one, "Go, Rick! Go, Rick! Go, Rick!"
"You've got quite a fan club down there," the operator commented with a smile.
"So I hear," Rick reluctantly acknowledged, looking down to see the large crowd below him grow smaller and smaller. All the eager faces looking up with anticipation made Rick realize that backing out at this point would mean total humiliation, plus he'd never hear the end of it from Jason and his buddies, not to mention A.J.
Upon arriving at the top of the attraction the bungee cords were harnessed to Rick's ankles. It was then demonstrated to him how secure and safe this procedure was.
Rick was skeptical. "How many people have died doing this?"
"Not a one," the muscle bound young man chuckled. He pointed down at A.J., "As a matter of fact, that blond guy down there in the crowd jumped the other day."
"Yeah, well just between you and me, that blond guy's got a mental health condition his family doesn't like to talk about."
The man gave Rick an odd look before passing along further instructions that were guaranteed to make his jump a pleasant one.
Rick took a long look down at the crowd again. The children’s laughter and shouts drifted up to him. Lauren held up a camera while hollering, "Hey, Rick, I've got a camera! I'm gonna take your picture for my mom!"
Rick gave Lauren a weak smile and wave as he got into position.
"Aw, Rick, you big chicken! Jump like a man!" A.J. shamed from below, referring to the fact that he had jumped off the edge of the platform backwards. That position was considered to be more frightening and daring than jumping frontward as Rick was proposing to do.
"Yeah, Rick, jump like a man!" Jason called before starting a new chant with the children.
"Jump like a man! Jump like a man! Jump like a man!"
"I'm gonna kill A.J. if I live through this," Rick vowed to himself.
"It's easy, buddy. Nothin' to it," the young operator assured the nervous Rick. The detective finally gave into the children’s chants and carefully repositioned himself on the platform.
"You ready?" the man asked Rick.
"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."
The operator picked up his bullhorn, "Okay! On the count of three, everyone yell Geronimo and Rick here is going to jump!"
The children’s excitement spilled over to even the spectators who didn't know Rick. Everyone counted together, "One! Two! Three!" then all yelled as one, "GERONIMO!"
Rick took a deep breath, closed his eyes, said a brief prayer, then jumped. "Ahhhhhhhhh!," he was heard to scream on the way down and, "Oooooh shiiiit!," as the bungee cords pulled him back up in the air time and time again like a yo-yo.
After what seemed like an eternity to Rick, his momentum finally came to a halt. When his feet were back on solid ground he was immediately surrounded by clapping, cheering kids who praised his efforts.
"That was great, Rick!" Pete offered.
"Rick, you were so cool," Jason admired.
"Rick, you're so brave," April told him.
"Hey, Rick, did you know you screamed the whole way down?” Justin asked. “It was neat."
The boys patted their warrior on the back, while Lauren and her girlfriends took turns hugging his waist.
When all the accolades had been doled out Rick wiped at the perspiration coating his pale face, put his hat back on his head, staggered through the crowd, and headed straight for the beer stand across the way. At this point in time the detective didn't much care as to what kind of an example he set.
Jason and his friends, Lauren and hers, as well as A.J., followed Rick, standing with him as he gulped down a cold beer.
A.J. patted his still shaky brother on the back. "That was good, big brother. You looked great up there. Now, I do have to admit that scream on the way down did take away somewhat from your reputation as a hard nose ex-Marine, however."
"Oh, shut up," Rick sneered at his laughing sibling.
The children chattered on through Rick's second beer about his jump, all contributing the parts of it they each liked best. When Rick threw his empty cup away Jason handed him the money he owed him. "Here's your twenty-five bucks, Rick. You earned it."
"Thanks, kid," Rick acknowledged while pocketing the cash.
"Hey, A.J., thanks for the mon...ooof!" Justin finished as he got an elbow in the ribs from Jason.
"What money?" Rick asked suspiciously.
Jason's eyes grew wide. "Um...no money. Justin doesn't know what he's talkin' about."
"What money, Jason?" Rick asked firmly.
Jason's eyes dashed from Rick to A.J., who was standing behind his brother, frantically signaling the boy to keep his mouth shut.
"No money, Rick,” Jason lied. “No money at all."
Rick turned to face his brother. "What money?"
A.J. shrugged. "I don't know what they're talking about."
Rick swung around, eyes narrowing. "Jason, what money?"
"Money? Did someone say something about money? I didn't hear anything about money."
Rick advanced on the boy with a menacing look to his eye. "Justin said money, Jason. What money was he talkin'
Justin, who wasn't so sure Rick was just fooling around and found the oldest Simon brother to be rather scary, encouraged with a whisper, "Just tell him, Jason. Just tell him."
"Yeah, Jason, come on. Tell me," Rick said as he grabbed the teen by the shirtfront. "You were in charge of the money, so you should know what Justin's talkin' about."
Jason nervously chewed on his lower lip. Like Justin, he wasn't so sure Rick was kidding around. On the first day of this trip Jason had come to the conclusion that Rick Simon wasn't a man to be messed with. The large, firm hand now gripping his shirtfront only served to emphasize that fact.
The boy threw a glance over Rick's shoulder at A.J. that plainly said, "Sorry", before spilling his guts.
"Well, you see, Rick...well, it was like this. See, us
kids didn't have a lot of money 'cause of the rides and games and all, so when...uh...when me and the guys collected from everyone we could only come up with twenty dollars."
"Yeah, so where did the rest of it come from?" Rick asked, keeping up the act of being furious over this little prank.
"Well...uh...well it came...well we got it from--"
Rick's grip on Jason's shirt collar tightened. "You know, kid, in Nam I once ripped a guy's tongue right outta his head for not given me an answer fast enough."
"A.J. gave us the rest," came out in a nervous rush of words.
Rick slowly nodded his understanding while echoing, "A.J. gave you the rest."
"Yeah, he told us whatever we couldn't raise ourselves for your jump, that he'd make up the difference," Jason was all too willing to confess.
Rick released the teen, spun around, and began advancing on his brother.
A.J. walked slowly backwards, hands held up with his palms turned outward. "Now, Rick, it was just a joke."
For each step backward A.J. took, Rick countered it by stepping forward. "Just a joke, huh?"
"Yeah, a joke."
"Well, I don't think it was very funny," Rick growled.
"You've played plenty of jokes on me that I didn't think were very funny either," A.J. tossed back.
"Yeah, but I never made you jump three hundred feet through the air with nothing but a couple of giant rubber bands for support."
By now the children had caught on to Rick's act, coming to realize that he wasn't really mad at A.J., but that this was some kind of brotherly game. Lauren and her friends formed a circle around A.J. in an effort to protect him.
"Don't hurt A.J., Rick," Lauren pleaded with a laugh.
"You girls better get outta my way 'cause I'm not gonna hurt him, I'm gonna kill him!" Rick roared as he charged at the girls, sending them screaming and scattering in all directions like barnyard chickens.
Left unprotected, A.J. was caught off guard when he was tackled and driven to his knees. The Simon brothers went down in a heap, Rick throwing light, playful punches at A.J.'s ribs and midsection. "That'll teach ya' to play a joke on me," Rick said while giving A.J. a thorough tousling, then holding him in a kneeling position on the ground in a firm headlock.
"Okay, okay, you win," came A.J.'s muffled voice. "Let me go, I'm eating dirt here."
"Say uncle," Rick taunted with a joke that went back to childhood. "No...better yet, say Geronimo."
A.J. looked up at his brother the best he could. Amidst the children’s laughter at the grown men’s silliness he said, "You've got to be kidding me."
Rick shook his head as he tightened the hold he had on his brother. "No. If you want up you've gotta say Geronimo."
"I'd rather die first," the stubborn A.J. stated.
Lauren thought A.J. looked uncomfortable kneeling in the dirt and was worried about him so pleaded, "Just say it, A.J. Please."
"Never!" A.J. declared.
Rick's eyes twinkled as he looked up at Lauren and her friends. The fingers of his left hand poked A.J.'s ribs lightly. "I know how to make him say it, girls."
A.J. began to struggle. "Rick, don't! Don't you dare!"
"See, he's got this ticklish spot right here," Rick gave the spot a firm rake with his fingers causing A.J. to squirm away while unintentionally laughing. "Now, if we were all to tickle him at one time I'll bet he'd say--"
"Okay, okay, Geronimo," A.J. gave in.
"What was that?” Rick asked as he tickled a little harder. “I couldn't hear you, A.J."
"Geronimo!" A.J. got out in a burst of laughter.
Rick looked at the laughing children. "Did you guys hear that?"
"No!" the kids all agreed, enjoying the fun.
"I'll get you for this, Rick," A.J. muttered.
Rick's fingertips moved again against sensitive ribs. "What was that?"
"Nothing! Nothing! I said Geronimo!"
"What?" Rick laughed.
"GERONIMO!" A.J. yelled at the top of his lungs, rewarded for his efforts by finally being released from his brother's hold.
Rick laughed while helping his sibling to his feet. "That's much better."
Jason's cry of, "Monkey pile on Rick!" brought all the children to A.J.'s defense. Rick landed back on the ground with thirteen kids piled on top of him.
"Don't hurt him,” A.J. instructed as he walked away. “But don't let him up until he says Geronimo."
Rick turned his head as much as possible, seeing his brother's tennis shoes moving away from him. "A.J.! Hey, A.J.! A.J. get back here and get these kids off of me!"
"Not until you say Geronimo," A.J.'s voice came somewhere from the distance.
Rick quickly gave in under the weight of the laughing children, yelling as loud as he could, "Geronimo! Geronimo! Hey, you guys! I said Geronimo! Geronimo! GERONIMO! GEROOOOONIMO!"
And with that final call, the children rolled off of Rick. The laughing man was helped to his feet. They had another full day yet before they’d be headed home. As the detective and the kids walked back to the barn, Rick mulled over all the ways he’d pay his brother back in the next twenty-four hours, before their fun at the state fair came to a close.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~