Just Like Old Times
Just Like Old Times is a sequel to Precious Cargo. Precious Cargo can be found in the Simon and Simon Library.
The two men withdrew even farther into the bushes, like turtles withdrawing into their shells. Fortunately, the dark night, as well as their dark clothing and the grease paint on their faces, made for good cover.
The teenagers passed within three feet of the men without ever being aware of their presence. The men remained where they were until the teens' laughter and animated chatter faded in the distance.
Rick Simon cautiously rose from the bush he'd dived into. He peered slowly to the left and then to the right.
"Geez, that was close."
Rick's younger brother emerged from his own hiding spot.
kidding. And the next time you can
have the damn rose bush."
A.J. gingerly plucked the thorns from his behind with a strangled cry of "Ouch!" He sneered at Rick in the darkness. "And quit your snickering."
A.J. didn't have to be able to clearly see his brother's face, to be able to visualize the expression of exaggerated innocence that dominated Rick's features.
The blond gently probed his scraped elbows. "Yes, you. It's not funny. This is exactly the kind of thing I didn't miss about being a P.I."
"Aw, A.J., quit your moanin' and groanin'. You'll live. Besides, this kinda stuff is what makes the job fun."
Before A.J. could formulate a sufficiently sharp reply, Rick crouched down and ran for the corner of the house next door. The blond man followed at his brother's heels.
They stopped a moment while Rick peered into the expansive backyard of the dark house. "You know what your problem is?" Rick whispered.
"No. I don't," A.J. answered in an equally quiet tone. "But I suppose you're going to tell me."
Rick's head nodded beneath the bill of his military camouflage cap. "I am. Your problem is you got soft sittin' up there in that highfalutin lawyer's office in Seattle. You forgot how to roll with the punches."
"I'm not soft. And I didn't forget how to roll with the punches. I'm just...a few years older than I was the last time one of your bright ideas caused me to dive for cover in a rose bush."
"Ain't my problem you picked the wrong bush, little brother."
A.J. reached around and pulled another thorn from his jean clad rump. "Let's just get this over with before anything else happens I'm going to find painful."
"Good idea. There's the garage. If Crandal's right, the garden shed should be behind it."
A.J. glanced up at the lavish, two story brick colonial he and Rick were pressed against. "The house is dark. At least he was correct when he told us Burgess and his wife would be out for the evening."
"Appears to be," Rick softly agreed. "Come on. Let's make a run for the back of the garage. If we get that far without any of the neighbors spying us we should be home free. Crandal said the fence that separates this property from the guy in the back is seven feet high. No one will see us go into the shed. We'll be covered by the garage in the front and the fence in the back."
A.J. pressed a dial on his wristwatch, causing a soft light to come on. "It's almost eleven thirty. We'd better get a move on. There's no telling when these people might decide to come home from wherever they are."
"Skinny dipping. They belong to some club that meets once a month to take turns skinny dipping in each other's pools."
"Rick...Burgess and his wife are Mom's age if they're a day."
turned and cocked a devilish eyebrow at his brother. "I know. Kinda makes you wonder what Mom does in her spare
time, doesn't it?"
"No, it doesn't."
A.J. ran behind his brother as Rick dashed for the back of the garage. They skirted the edge of the kidney shaped swimming pool, and with all the dexterity of Olympic athletes half their ages weaved in and out of the lawn furniture surrounding the pool before vaulting a grounded beach ball. Within seconds the two men arrived at their destination.
"And just what do you mean by that anyway?"
"Oh, nothin' special. Just keep in mind, little brother, that you've been gone five years. People tend to acquire new hobbies in that amount of time, you know."
A.J. simply shook his head at his sibling as Rick picked the lock on the shed.
A.J. had indeed been gone from San Diego for five years. Actually four years and eight months to be exact. He and his ex-wife, Janet Fowler, had been married in September of 1990. They'd permanently parted ways in May of 1995, when A.J. returned home to San Diego on the yacht, Precious Cargo, with his mother and brother. The divorce had been granted the next week. It was now two and a half months later, and A.J. was slowly working at rebuilding his life.
He'd bought his house back from Rick, while Rick had returned to his boat. The houseboat had been leased out to Carlos's oldest son and his wife at the same time Janet and A.J. married. Conveniently enough, Diego and Melissa purchased a home of their own in April, leaving Rick's boat vacant and awaiting his return. Just like A.J.'s old house seemed to know all along that one day he'd return to it as well.
Rick had done very little to change the interior of the house in five years time. And, in some strange way, that brought comfort to A.J. It allowed him to live within the illusion that the past five years hadn't happened. It allowed him to forget the heartache the breakup of his marriage had caused him. The sense of tremendous disappointment and guilt he felt at having failed to make something as important as his marriage work. And, the devastating realization that he might never be a father. That at age forty-six, the possibility of having children with a woman he loved seemed to be slipping farther and farther out of A.J.’s reach.
At one time A.J. had loved Janet more than life itself. Now what he felt for her...well, even he didn't know sometimes. They'd parted on amiable enough terms. Far better terms than many divorced couples do. But it scared him. That he could be so in love with a woman, treasure her above all else in his life, only to have that love whither and die like a water-hungry flower. To only be able to acknowledge to himself that what he felt for Janet now was the same type of love a person feels for an old and distant friend. Yes, he cared about what happened to her and wished her great success. But no, they didn't keep in touch with one other and, quite frankly, he'd be surprised if he ever saw her again.
"Yo, A.J. Earth to A.J."
Rick's voice caused A.J. to shake off his muddled and depressing thoughts.
"I've asked you twice to hold the flashlight on this lock for me so I can see what I'm doin' here."
“Oh.” A.J. fumbled for the switch on the flashlight he held in his right hand. "Sorry."
Rick studied what part of his brother's face the light's beam revealed. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Why?"
"Just askin'. You kinda zoned out on me for a few seconds there."
"I'm fine," A.J. reiterated firmly before Rick could ask any further questions. "Come on. Let's get this job over with before we get caught with our hands in the cookie jar, so to speak."
Rick slipped the pick into the lock. "That's just what I'm tryin' to do."
Rick hadn't lost his skill at gaining illegal entrance into locked buildings in the years since he and A.J. had last worked together. In less than a minute, he swung the door open and invited A.J. to step inside.
The blond man swung the flashlight around the interior of the shed. He spotted a light switch, but thought better of flipping it on. The eight foot by eight foot shed had no windows and was secluded behind the garage, but nonetheless it was better to be safe than sorry.
The brothers picked their way cautiously about the interior of the old garden shed. Three rusted bicycles, reminiscent of the sturdy style from their own childhoods, littered their path. Old iron milk crates and antique lawn equipment was stored haphazardly about the small area as well.
Rick crouched down on his knees. "Take a look at this old rotary mower. I didn't think there were any of these things left around. Remember how I used to mow old Mrs. Neeman's lawn with one of these things every Saturday?"
"I sure do. Though I don't recall you looking at her mower with quite the fondness you're looking at this one."
Rick smiled in memory. "No, I guess I didn't. That was a hell of a lot of work pushing that old thing over her lawn week after week. I got paid three bucks for about five hours of work and thought I’d hit the big time."
A.J. fingered through the weathered tools on the tool bench. "If this guy had taken care of this stuff he'd have a fortune in antiques out here."
“Yeah, he sure would.” Rick's knees cracked as he rose. "After seein' the fancy house, it's hard to believe things are such a mess out here."
Thoughtfully, A.J. agreed. "Yes, it is." He weaved his way in and out of the ancient, rusted equipment. He leaned his right side and shoulder against one wall and shone the flashlight beam behind a discarded stack of broken rakes and shovels.
"What ya' got there?"
A.J. reached out hand and moved something Rick couldn't see. He lifted what he thought was a tattered bed sheet. "Well, well, well. I think I found the missing paintings. Or at least some of them."
"Yep." A.J. moved away from the wall. "Take a look."
Rick reached for his brother's flashlight. "Well, whatta ya' know. Who would have ever thought the guy stored stolen artwork out here?"
"But if you think about it, what better place to store it?" A.J. pointed out. "You can't see the shed from the street, so unless you know the property you wouldn't even guess it existed. And once you see the inside, you'd assume no one has been in here for years."
"And to think that all this time it was right under our noses. We wasted all that time searching the guy's house and garage last week. And the storage facility he rents the week before."
"And almost got caught both those times," A.J. reminded.
Rick pushed himself away from the wall. "There you go again, knockin' the excitement of the job."
"Yeah, well, before the job gets anymore exciting let's get out of here. We can call Crandal from my house. He can place an anonymous call to the cops about this. My guess is that by morning Lester Burgess's skinny dipping days will have come to a permanent...ouch!"
A.J. reached around and awkwardly brushed a hand over his shoulder blade. "Something's poking me in the back. Another damn thorn from that stupid rose bush no doubt."
Rick muttered, "I told ya' you were gettin' soft," right before he cautiously opened the shed door and exited into the night.
A.J. relocked the shed and scurried across the back lawn after his sibling. "I'll give you soft, Rick Simon," he quietly vowed.
A week and a half after the raid on Lester Burgess's shed, Rick was sitting behind his desk in the office perusing the sports section of the paper. Not the familiar, downtown office that had housed Simon and Simon Investigations for a number of years, but rather the office Rick had been renting at the marina for the now defunct Captain Gully's Excursions.
The Simon brothers had agreed to go back into business together on a trail basis for the summer. If things worked out, then they'd move into their former office at the beginning of September. They had bought the building it was housed in in 1988, and had leased out what had been their office to a local bank for its bookkeeping staff when they dissolved the partnership five years earlier.
Now, as far as Rick Simon was concerned, that former office was exactly where he and his brother were headed. The resurrection of Simon and Simon had been a worthwhile one...and was beginning to be a profitable one, as well. They were already doing business for a number of old clients who happy to give the Simon brothers their patronage once more. New clients were slowly coming their way, too. It hadn't hurt any that Rick had advertised Simon and Simon could now offer sound legal advise, as well as top notch investigation work, in deference to A.J.'s stint as a Seattle attorney. A.J. hadn't been too pleased about that first part. But then, even in the old days A.J. generally found fault with Rick's marketing ploys. It was just another one of the many things the brothers agreed to disagree on.
Yep, it's just like the old days, Rick Simon often found himself thinking of late with great fondness, and a certain degree of smug satisfaction thrown in to boot.
More than he'd ever admit to himself, let alone to anyone else, Rick had missed his brother these past five years. To all appearances he had been content running Captain Gully's Excursions. But that was just on the outside. Inside, he grieved for the loss of the Simon and Simon partnership almost from the very day A.J. left for Seattle. Not to mention the loss of the close bond he and A.J. had shared those ten years in business together that just couldn't quite bridge the miles that separated Southern California from Northern Washington.
Rick looked up from the printed page when the door opened. A.J. maneuvered around the chairs and coffee table in the center of the cramped room until he came to his desk.
The small, wood paneled office had a distinctive nautical air about it. Fish of various sizes were mounted and hung on the walls. Eight by ten photographs displayed Captain Gully patrons proudly showing off the good fortune their excursions had brought them.
The little office had been just the right size for one man, one desk, and the necessary paraphernalia involved in the day-to- day running of a business. Adding an additional man and desk had made for tight quarters. When clients were present it was like being on a crowded bus. Or so A.J. often said.
"Morning," Rick greeted.
A.J. slid bonelessly into his chair. "Morning," he mumbled.
The blond head gave a weary, negative roll. "Thanks. Not this morning."
Rick studied his pale sibling for a few seconds. "You okay?"
A.J. rubbed a hand over his throbbing forehead. "Yeah."
"You don't look okay."
"I guess I've still got a touch of that flu bug. I can't seem to shake it."
"But you were feeling fine yesterday."
"I know. I was feeling okay over the weekend, too. But last night, after I got home from work, I felt like someone had wrung me out like a dishrag."
A.J. closed his eyes and lifted a shoulder. "I don't know. I just...ache all over."
"Have you been throwin' up again?"
"No. But let's put it this way, eating doesn't sound like a very good idea right now."
"Ah," Rick nodded. "The reason behind you turnin' down my offer of coffee."
Without lifting his head from the back of his chair, A.J. looked over at his brother. "I don't have to be nauseous to turn down your coffee. Generally, that's a good idea on any given day. But believe me, today it's an extremely good idea."
Rick had no smart aleck retort for A.J.'s comments, but rather sat quietly with a funny little grin on his face.
are you smiling about?" A.J.
"About how much things really haven't changed."
"Well, before you came in I was sittin' here thinkin' how us being back in business together is just like old times. And now, with you making cracks about my coffee, it just further emphasizes that fact. Some days it kinda feels like the last five years never happened, don't ya' think? Like there's never been an interruption to the flow of Simon and Simon."
"Some days it feels like that," A.J. agreed. "But some days..."
A.J. let that thought trail off has he propelled himself out of his chair and sprinted for the tiny bathroom at the back of the office. Within seconds, Rick was at his side.
The blond man made it has far as the sink. He leaned over it, supporting himself in a half upright position by hanging onto the vanity top with one hand. His other hand held his tie in place against his chest.
Because A.J. hadn't eaten any breakfast very little was vomited up. He stomach cramped and rolled as dry heaves assaulted him next.
Rick reached for a hand towel and turned on the cold water. He wet the towel and wrung it out, then held it against A.J.'s forehead. They stood that way for several minutes, A.J. bent over the sink while waiting for the nausea to pass, with Rick standing next to him holding the towel in place. Rick's other hand came up to rest lightly on his younger brother's back.
Rick had to strain to hear his brother's mumbled words.
"I could have done this perfectly fine without the benefit of an audience."
"But gee, what fun would that have been for me?"
Finally A.J. swallowed hard a few times, before shakily rising to an upright position. He raised his hand to brush Rick's towel aside.
"You okay now?"
"Yeah." The blond man lied with great effort. "I'm okay." His stomach felt like he’d just stepped off an out-of-control roller coaster with triple loops and seven hairpin turns.
"You look like something the cat dragged in."
A.J. threw his brother a glance that told Rick he was in no mood for further humor. "We haven't had a cat since you ran over Snowball on the first day you became a licensed driver."
Rick mumbled, "Wasn't my fault the stupid cat was sittin' underneath one of the car's tires," right before gently urging A.J. backwards to sit on the closed toilet lid.
"Sit down for a minute. I'll go get your mug and fill it with water."
A.J. didn't protest his brother's suggestion. Within seconds Rick had returned with A.J.'s coffee mug. He rinsed it out before filling it with cold water and handing it to the blond. A.J. took a few sips. He swished the liquid around in his mouth then spit it out in the sink. He reached for the faucet and rose on legs that had all the stability of gelatin. He leaned over and splashed his face with cool water.
Rick retrieved another towel off the rack and handed it to A.J. when he surfaced. The blond nodded gratefully and patted his face dry.
"I'll take you home."
"No," A.J. shook his head. "I can drive."
"I can drive," A.J. reiterated. "I feel okay now."
"You feel okay?" Rick mocked. "A.J., you just finished pukin' your guts up, your hands are shaking, and a piece of chalk has more color than you do right at the moment. Now come on, let me take you home."
A.J. pulled himself up to his full height. His response was terse and tight. "Rick, I can take care of myself, thank you very much. I'm perfectly capable of driving home."
Rick followed his brother out of the bathroom. "Okay, fine. Have it your way. But if you end up tossin' your cookies in the Camaro, don't come cryin' to me."
"I won't. Do either one, that is. I'll see you tomorrow."
"You call me when you get home."
A.J. turned from the doorway. "Rick..."
"Look, A.J., that's the deal. Either I drive you home now, or you call me when you get there."
A.J. felt too rotten to stand and argue the point any further. "Fine. I'll call you. Goodbye."
"Bye. And you make sure you rest. I'll stop by after work to see how you're doin'. I'll make supper for us if you feel like eating."
Rick couldn't help but smile at the sarcastic remark that drifted back to him as A.J. walked out the door.
"I can hardly wait. If I am feeling better by then, your cooking's liable to do me in for good."
"Just like old times, A.J.!" Rick called after his departing sibling.
If A.J. heard his brother, he chose not to answer.
Just like he promised, A.J. called Rick when he arrived home. Rick kept the conversation short in deference to the fact that A.J. sounded more wrung out than he had when he left the office.
"You goin' to bed?" Rick asked, though it was more a directive than a question.
"I'm already there."
"Good. Stay there. Maybe you just need to get a few days of rest to get past this flu, or whatever it is."
"I'll see you after work. Call me if you need anything before then."
"Okay. See you later."
Rick hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, lost in deep thought. He was still sitting like that ten minutes later when there was a knock on the office door.
"Come on in!"
A shaggy headed, stocky man two years younger than Rick, entered the room.
Rick rounded his desk with his right hand outstretched.
"Hey, Joel. How ya' doin'?"
Joel Lankey, the Simon brothers' friend, as well as personal physician, shook hands with the detective.
"Hi, Rick. I'm doing fine. How are you?"
"Right as rain, as the expression goes." Rick led the doctor toward the grouping of chairs in the center of the little office floor. "Have a seat."
Rick sat down across from the doctor and propped his feet up on the round coffee table. "So, what brings you to our neck of the woods?"
to say hi. I heard A.J. was back in
town, but I haven't had a chance to run down here. Is he around?"
"He was until about forty-five minutes ago. He went home sick."
"Sounds like I arrived a little too late to offer my services," Joel quipped. "It's nothing serious I hope."
"Naw," Rick dismissed. "I don't think so. He says it's a touch of the flu."
Joel's right eyebrow disappeared into his salt and pepper curls. "He says? You sound like you don't believe him."
Rick smiled with chagrin. He hadn't intended for his thoughts to be so easily read.
"It's not that I don't believe him. I mean, he really was sick. He looked like death warmed over when he walked in the door this morning. And he wasn't here five minutes before he was throwing up in the sink."
"Sounds like the flu to me. Or some type of intestinal bug anyway."
"Yeah. But the strange thing is, he had it for a day a week ago Sunday. Then he was fine. It came back again last week on Wednesday and Thursday. Then on Friday he was okay again, and continued to be throughout the weekend and yesterday. Now it flares up again. Don't you think that's a little out of the ordinary?"
"Quite frankly, yes I do. Or at least it's not the normal pattern a flu virus generally follows. But I get the impression you already know what's wrong."
"Not really. But I've been wonderin' if it could be nerves."
"Yeah, you now, 'cause of the divorce and everything that's followed. Him givin' up his law career, the move back here, us reopening the business..."
Rick let his sentence trail off in the form of a question.
"That's quite possible. Those are some very major lifestyle changes in only what, three months time?"
"Has A.J. said anything to you about it? Indicated to you that he's not happy, or at loose ends?"
"No. As a matter of fact, I thought he was settling in real well. He seems happy. Or at least content. But he wouldn't necessarily tell me if he wasn't. I'm worried that this breakup with Janet is botherin' him more than he's lettin' on."
than likely it is," Joel replied honestly. "You and I both know how much A.J. loved her. Now, I don't have the faintest idea as to
what their problems were, but speaking from experience, I can tell you it's not
always easy to decide to end a marriage.
It's not just the expectations you had of yourself and those of your
spouse that come into play, but also the expectations of your children, family,
and friends. For a long time after my
divorce, I felt like I not only let myself down, but that I also let down
everyone that cared about me. It's not
easy, Rick. Even when you know it's for
Rick stared thoughtfully off into space. "No. I don't suppose it is."
"I lost fifteen pounds the first three months after Carrie and I split up. Of course, you wouldn't know it to look at me now."
Rick's eyes lit up with teasing. "I guess you've gotten over it, huh?"
"Yes I have. And as time goes by, A.J. will, too. Or at least he'll get past the hard parts. But don't be surprised if it takes him a while. I know A.J. well enough to know that he didn't take this marital breakup lightly."
"No," Rick shook his head. "No, he didn't. I think inside...well, I think inside it's really tearin' him apart."
"It could very well be. And that, in turn, is quite likely the cause of his recent health problems. I was plagued by a general feeling of fatigue and depression for the first six months after my divorce. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. Why I felt so rotten. I mean, logic tells you the worst of it is behind you once the papers are signed. All the fighting, the tension between you and your spouse, is over. You've moved on to start a new life. Only it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes our minds and bodies throw a variety of symptoms our way in a delayed reaction to stress."
"So that's what you think is wrong with A.J.? That this flu is really nothing more than pent-up stress?"
"Probably. Though if it continues, he should come in for a complete physical. While I doubt that it's anything serious, he shouldn't let the symptoms persist without seeing me."
"I'll keep that in mind," Rick promised. "I know he'll buck such a suggestion if I make it now. But I also know if he continues to puke in the sink every morning, he's not going to have any choice but to make an appointment with you. If nothing else, I'll hog tie him and haul him to your office myself."
"Whatever works," Joel agreed. "Just keep a discreet eye on him for the next few weeks. If this is due to stress, it will come and go in spurts like it has been. Then out of the blue, one day it will likely all be over with."
More to himself than the doctor Rick muttered, "The sooner the better."
On Friday evening one week later, Rick parked his truck in his mother's driveway. He hopped out of the cab and stepped aside to allow his dog, Rex, to do the same.
The well-trained retriever stood by his master while Rick reached into the bed of the truck for a brown grocery bag and a twenty-five pound sack of dog food.
Cecilia must have seen them coming through the living room window. Before Rick could ring the bell his mother opened the front door.
A.J.'s round little basset hound, Toby, waddled onto the front porch to greet his friend Rex. Rick let the two dogs sniff and lick each other a moment before beckoning, "Come on, guys. Come on in the house."
Cecilia shut the door on her brood and accepted Rick's kiss on the cheek.
"Hi, Mom. I see A.J.'s already been here."
"Yes, he has. He dropped Toby off about an hour ago."
Rex followed Toby to the pile of doggy toys scattered about the living room floor. Cecilia led her son into the kitchen. Rick deposited the dog food and the paper bag that contained dishes, a box of Milkbones, and a leash, right next to the bags A.J. had deposited earlier for Toby on the floor of their mother's kitchen closet.
"Everything you need should be right in this bag, Mom. Thanks for taking care of him for me."
"Like I told A.J., honey, I don't mind. Any time you boys need me to baby-sit for my granddoggies, all you have to do is ask."
Rick chuckled. "Glad to hear it. If they misbehave you get after 'em with your fly swatter like you used to do to me and A.J. If I remember correctly, that caused us to straighten out in short order."
"It certainly did. But I doubt I'll have to resort to that. Usually Rex and Toby are easier to deal with on a daily basis than you and your brother ever dreamed of being."
laughed. "I'm only teasing you,
dear. On most days, you two boys were
the light of my life. You still
Rick kissed his mother again. "That's why we love ya' so much, Mom. You continuously forgive us our transgressions."
"That I do, son. That I do," Cecilia teased again. "So, are you all packed for your trip?"
Rick leaned against the countertop and crossed his arms over his chest. "Just about. I've got a few more things to throw in my bag, but other than that I've got all my fishing and camping gear together."
"I'm glad you boys are taking this vacation. I was afraid A.J. would back out of it with the two of you so recently having reopened the business."
"To tell you the truth, I thought he might, too. But he hasn't said a word about it. About us not going, I mean."
Over one year earlier, Rick and A.J., Downtown Brown and his younger brother Marcus, and Jerry Reiner and his older brother Lee, had reserved six spots on a privately chartered plane that would fly them to a remote area of the Canadian wilderness. Years earlier the men had spent a week camping together a few hours north of San Diego. They'd had such a good time, that on several occasions since then they'd vacationed together again.
The previous year Lee Reiner had suggested that they go up to the Canadian province of British Columbia, where he claimed the water was so clear you could see your reflection as if you were looking into a mirror. His description of abundant wildlife, pristine pine forests, wilderness untouched by man or machine, and excellent fishing, easily convinced the other men that this was a vacation well worth spending their money on.
"Good," Cecilia stated now. "I'm glad he hasn't considered backing out. I think he needs this vacation, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do. I'm hoping between the trip, and the fact that within a couple of weeks after we return we'll be movin' back into our old office...well, I'm hopin' those two things will be the final push A.J. needs to work past everything that's been botherin' him concerning the divorce."
"Is he still getting sick?"
"I don't know. I suspect he’s not feeling the best, but he hasn't been physically ill in front of me since last Tuesday. I think there have been days on and off that he hasn’t felt good, but he won’t admit to it if I ask, so I've quit askin'. I just hope Joel is right, and that in time, A.J.'ll be his old self again."
"I think he will be," Cecilia stated. "After your father died, I didn't feel good for an entire year. Food had no appeal to me, I didn't sleep well, and I suffered from frequent headaches. I finally made an appointment to see Doctor Bolton. He didn't find anything wrong, of course. Just told me it was nerves."
"What'd you do? I mean, did he give you anything for it?"
"He offered me a mild tranquilizer, which I refused. Time was what I needed, Rick. Time, and you boys. Just like A.J. needs some time and his family right now. But if these symptoms don't abate once you two are back from vacation and settled in your old office, then I’ll try to convince your brother to schedule an appointment with Joel."
"I've been thinkin' the same thing myself, Mom. I'm willing to give it that long. That's three more weeks. If he's not feelin' better by that time, then he's goin' to see Joel whether he wants to or not."
Cecilia smiled. "I'm glad we're in agreement on that fact. It will make it harder for A.J. to refuse."
"Yeah, it will. And if nothing else, I'll get Lauren to work on him, as well. Maybe she can convince him to go."
Lauren Albright was the vivacious, thirty-eight-year-old public relations director for the city of San Diego. A.J. met the copper-haired beauty in early June when the Simon brothers were contracted by the city to do background checks on potential employees. Lauren had been divorced for three years, and shared joint custody of her two sons, ages four and six, with her ex-husband.
"Yes," Cecilia agreed now with a hint of distraction behind her tone. "Possibly she can."
"What? Oh, I'm sorry, Rick. Did you say something?"
"No. Not really. You just seemed to be somewhere else there for a second. When I mentioned Lauren's name. What's the matter? Don't you like her?"
"Quite the contrary. I like her very much. I'm simply...concerned, that's all."
"Concerned? About what?"
"About A.J.'s motives behind his relationship with her."
"His motives? What motives? Whatta ya' mean?"
"It's just that A.J. seems awfully attached to her boys. And it's as plain as the nose on your face that Shane and Tanner are crazy about him. Remember before A.J. was married, when he was still in the dating world, how your brother refused to date a woman with children? Remember how he used to say he didn't want to deal with all the headaches another man's children can bring to a relationship?"
"Well, yeah. But that was a number of years ago, Mom. Things change with time. For all of us. In the first place, there's not a lot of women out there for guys our age that haven't been married before. And most of them have kids."
"That's true. The women A.J. will date now will naturally be older than the ones he dated ten and fifteen years ago. I understand that. I just hope...well, I just hope that he isn't using Shane and Tanner to replace what he never had with Janet."
"You mean children."
"Yes. That's exactly what I mean. I truly think Lauren is a wonderful woman. And the little boys are sweet children. If things became serious between A.J. and Lauren, I could easily accept Shane and Tanner as grandchildren. Easily and willingly. I just don't want to see A.J. rush into anything without giving it a lot of thought. And giving himself plenty of time to work through the repercussions of his divorce."
"I've never known A.J. to rush into anything before."
"No. But he's never been faced with this particular heartache before, either."
Thoughtfully, Rick agreed. "No, he hasn't."
Cecilia mentally gave herself a shake. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean to bring up such heavy thoughts the night before you leave on vacation. You and your brother go and have a good time. I'm sure you're right. A.J. won't foolishly rush into anything, and given time things will all work out for the best. I just find myself worrying about him a lot these days."
Rick bent and kissed his mother's cheek. "I know what you mean. I find myself worrying about him ,too."
"Well, don't. Worry, I mean. At least not while you’re away. You're both under orders to relax and have a good time."
Rick clipped off a crisp salute. "Yes, sir, General Mom. Whatever you say goes."
Cecilia laughed at her eldest's antics. "You better believe it does, Private. Now go on. Get home and get your packing done, or A.J.'s liable to leave you behind in the morning."
"I wouldn't put it past him, Mom. I wouldn't put it past him."
At seven o’clock on Saturday morning, five of the six campers boarded a plane in San Diego bound for Vancouver, British Columbia. Town's brother, Marcus, would fly to Vancouver from his home in Ohio, and was due to arrive there within an hour of the other men.
At two o'clock that afternoon all six men, their camping gear, fishing equipment, duffel bags, and a week's worth of food, was loaded onto the chartered plane that would carry them another five hundred miles north to the vast Canadian wilderness.
The plane bounced to a halt on a rugged dirt runway right next to the bluest lake Rick Simon had ever seen. Lee Reiner hadn't been exaggerating when he'd spoken of the beauty of this remote area of British Columbia. Pine forests with one hundred year old trees surrounded the spot where the men would be pitching their tents. The crystal clear lake spread out for miles before them. Off to the distant west, one could see the snow capped peaks of the Coast Mountains. Rick knew the Pacific Ocean lay on the other side of those mountains.
The men gaped at the splendor before them. Everything was so clean, pure, quiet, and unmarred by human hands, that it almost seemed larger than life to Rick. He thought he knew how the American settlers must have felt when they first came upon the virgin landscape of the west. It was as if he, and his brother, and their friends, had been flown into another place in time. And, to a certain extent, Rick supposed they had. When the pilot took off their only means of contact with the outside world would be gone. According to Lee, they were one hundred and fifty miles from anything that resembled a small town, and three hundred miles from the nearest city.
With the help of the pilot, the men quickly unloaded everything from the cargo hold.
"I'll see you boys next Sunday morning at nine o'clock," the slight man promised. "I usually buzz overhead every other day or so. If you have an emergency, just leave the signal flag spread out on the ground beside the runway. If it's there, I'll come in for a landing."
Lee nodded his understanding and took a black backpack from the man. He knew from the two previous Canadian excursions he had been on that tightly folded up inside the pack, was a bright orange flag that measured thirty feet by thirty feet. Bold white letters spelled out SOS. Inside the pack, as well, was a flare gun and three flares.
"I'm sure we won't be needing this, Gil," Lee assured. "But thanks."
The pilot lifted his green cap just enough to run a hand through his thick gray hair.
"I'm sure you won't be in need of it, either. It's just a precaution. In all the years I've been doing this, and that's going on forty, I've only had one emergency. A guy had a heart attack. A' course, by the time I flew over and saw the flag he was dead, but in theory, it all worked like it should have."
The campers exchanged dubious glances.
"Yes, well...uh, I brought my medical bag and a first aid kit," Jerry announced to put everyone, including himself, at ease. "I think I can handle anything that comes up in the way of a medical emergency in the next week."
"Unless one of us has a heart attack," Rick muttered.
"Aw, don't worry about it," Town dismissed. "Jerry can take care of you if you kick the bucket up here, just as well as he can take care of you if you permanently check out back in San Diego."
A.J., Lee, and Marcus laughed at Town's remark while bending down to shoulder some of the gear. The rest of the men followed suit while Gil climbed back in his plane.
"Was that supposed to be funny?" Rick asked of no one in particular as they walked from the runway. " 'Cause if that was supposed to be funny, I'm not laughin.’ I came up here to have a good time, not to find out some poor sucker died of a heart attack before help could arrive."
"Then don't do anything more strenuous this week than you usually do," A.J. advised. "Which means the extent of your activities will be casting a fishing line in the water with one hand, while tipping back a beer with the other."
"And that's just about all I intend on doin', little brother."
The last remark made on that subject before the men came to the clearing where they planned to set up camp, was A.J.'s sarcastic teasing of, "For some reason, that doesn't surprise me in the slightest, Rick."
It took the men what was left of the afternoon to pitch their tents, and unpack and stow their gear. Afterwards, they took a short hike up dirt trails to both enjoy the splendor of the nature around them, and to collect a few armloads each of firewood.
They didn't move farther than the campfire after supper that night. It had been a long day of travel and everyone was tired. The men talked and laughed until ten o'clock. One by one they started to turn in for the night shortly after that. By ten-thirty Lee Reiner was stoking the fire a final time. He added enough wood to keep it burning throughout the night in order to ward off any predators that might be interested in their food cache. Soon thereafter, he joined Jerry in the tent they were sharing.
The Brown brothers were sharing a tent, as well, just as Rick and A.J. Simon were. Rick was beginning to drift off to sleep for the fourth time in less than a half an hour when he heard it again - the sound of A.J. shifting restlessly on his air mattress.
"A.J.?" Rick questioned softly into the darkness. "You okay over there?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," came the quiet voice. "Sorry if I woke you."
didn't wake me. I haven't been to sleep
"Oh. Well, sorry if I'm keeping you up."
"Don't worry about it. What's wrong? Can't you get comfortable?"
"Not really. My shoulder's killing me."
turned his head toward the dark figure of his brother. "Your shoulder?"
"My right one."
"What'd you do to it?"
"Maybe you pulled something carrying all that gear this afternoon."
"I don't know. Maybe. It doesn't feel like a pulled muscle though."
"No? What's it feel like then?"
"I don't know. I can't really describe it. Like it's on fire. And it aches like hell."
"I've got a bottle of aspirin in my duffel bag. You want me to get a couple for you?"
"No. I brought some, too. If it doesn't let up in a minute I'll get them."
"Okay," Rick agreed. "Good night then."
The only thing Rick remembered hearing after that was a lone timber wolf howling in the distance. Whether or not A.J. ever got up and took any aspirin, or whether he simply dropped off to sleep, Rick didn't know. Within five minutes time of their conversation, Rick's soft snores were filling the tent.
The next day brought an official start to the men's vacation. Rick woke to the heady smell of frying bacon and eggs. He stretched, feeling the gentle pull of muscles all the way to his toes. He lazily turned his head and saw A.J.'s sleeping bag was already empty, neatly straightened, and zipped up. Bright sunlight shone through the yellow canvas of the tent, raising the inside temperature ten degrees over what it had been the previous night. Voices drifted in to Rick from the outside, leading him to conclude that A.J. wasn't the only one who had started his day early.
Everyone but Jerry was present when Rick crawled out of the tent fully dressed ten minutes later. He greeted the other men before walking off into the thick cover of the pine trees to do what comes necessary after a long night of sleep. He returned in a short amount of time and filled a pot of water from the lake to use for shaving like everyone else had done. Bottled water was used for washing his hands and brushing his teeth. It was up to each individual camper to choose how he was going to bathe and wash his hair during the coming week. A complete dip in the chilly lake would be chosen by some, while others would choose to warm up a large pot of water over the fire and make do with sponge baths.
Jerry joined the group just as Rick finished shaving. No one lingered over breakfast that morning. The dishes were quickly cleaned up and the campsite put back in order. When the work was done, the campers retrieved their fishing gear and headed down to the lake.
The men fished to varying degrees that day. The true diehards, Rick and Lee, didn't reel their lines in for good until five o'clock that afternoon. A.J., Marcus, and Jerry called it quits at noon, Town shortly after that. The four men tossed a football around after lunch, then went off in their own directions. Jerry and Mark braved a swim in water of less than desirable temperature, while Town and A.J. took an hour hike in the woods. Upon their return, Town stretched out in a reclining lawn chair and fell sleep, while A.J. stretched out and read. Town woke up when Jerry and Marcus returned to the campsite. The four men then sat around the portable table Lee had brought and played cards.
Rick and Lee walked into camp, each carrying a large string of fish.
A.J. glanced up from his hand. "It looks as though you guys had good luck today."
"Best luck a man could have, kid." The oldest Simon grinned. "I think I've died and gone to fishermen's Heaven."
Rick clapped A.J. soundly on the shoulder as he passed.
geez. Sorry about that. Is your shoulder still botherin' ya'?"
"A little bit. Don't worry about it."
Jerry looked across the table at A.J. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." The blond dismissed. "I pulled a muscle or something hauling gear yesterday."
Rick turned from where he was getting out the utensils he'd need to clean his catch. "I thought you said it didn't feel like a pulled muscle. I thought you said it burned."
"It does somewhat. But it must be a pulled muscle. I don't know what else it could be."
"Want me to take a look at it?" Jerry questioned.
“No.” A.J. shook his head. "Don't worry about it. It's nothing serious. It's your deal, Town."
The card players returned to their game while Rick and Lee prepared that evening's meal.
By the lighted dial on his watch, Downtown Brown saw it was ten minutes after three on Monday morning. He was about to roll over and go back to sleep, when he heard someone, or something, moving quietly about the campsite. His brows etched in puzzlement, Town crawled out of his sleeping bag. He reached for the white sweatshirt at the end of his bedroll that in maroon letters across the chest read San Diego Police Department, and was a match to the sweatpants he'd been sleeping in. He didn't bother to tie the tennis shoes he slipped on his bare feet.
Marcus never woke up as his older brother stepped over him on the way to the door.
Town poked his head out the tent's flap. He saw A.J. sitting in a lawn chair in front of the fire. The black man realized then, that the sounds he had heard hadn't come from a bear forging through their tightly sealed garbage, but rather had been A.J. adding wood to the fire.
A.J. looked up as the lanky police lieutenant approached.
"Hi," Town softly greeted. "You okay?"
A.J. nodded from where he sat huddled in a blanket. "I'm fine. Just couldn't sleep."
Town's keen observation skills, honed by twenty-five years of police work, didn't miss the shivers that coursed through the blond man's body. Their movement, while somewhat hidden by the thick blanket A.J. had bundled himself in, also periodically disturbed the way the blanket lay across his shoulders.
Town sat down in a vacant chair and subtly eyed his friend with concern. A.J.'s colorless face shone like wax in the orange glow of the fire, and his eyes appeared dull and lifeless. But, on the other hand, how bright and full of life were anyone's eyes at three o'clock in the morning? But Town couldn't understand the shivering. The temperature was fifty degrees. While that was a bit on the cool side, it didn't warrant a heavy blanket while sitting in front of a roaring fire dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, and a jacket. Or at least Town didn't think so based on the fact that he was warm enough dressed in nothing more than his fleece sweatshirt and pants.
"You sure you're okay?"
A.J.'s succinct reply carried a sharp edge. "Yes."
The black man overlooked his friend's tone, and with an air of relaxed comfort, slid down in his chair. He stretched his long legs out and crossed them at the ankles.
For a period of time the two men sat in silence, reveling in the wilderness sounds that were foreign to their urban life. Logs cracked, split, and hissed in the heat of the fire. An occasional fish jumping out of, and then back into the lake, emitted a shallow splash. Crickets sang from the woods in synchronized chorus. Across the lake, a bull moose bellowed. Whether it was in satisfaction of a successful rendezvous with a female moose, or whether it was the bull’s way of letting the fairer sex know he was available, Town didn't know.
The policeman's voice overrode the night sounds. "This is a beautiful place, isn't it?"
A.J. nodded. "Yes, it is. Janet and I..."
The blond man faltered, as if he'd caught himself off guard by bringing up the name of his former wife. He cleared his throat and continued quietly. "Janet and I drove up here - to British Columbia, a few times. Not nearly this far north, though."
Town studied the youngest Simon brother. Although the blond had to be aware he was being scrutinized by his friend, he dutifully ignored the black man's gaze in favor of staring into the crackling fire.
"A.J., I'm really sorry about what happened between you and--"
"Don't say it, Town."
do you mean, don't say it? How do you
know what I'm going to say?"
A.J. turned his head and looked into Town's dark eyes.
"Because I just know. Because at least a dozen other well- meaning friends have said it to me this summer. Because Jerry said it to me yesterday when he caught me alone for a few minutes. And Lee the day before that. Since you have yet to bring it up, I assume you've decided that this would be a good time."
"I...well, it's not that I haven't wanted to bring it up before this. I just didn't know if I should acknowledge it or not. Temple doesn't think I should unless you mention it first."
A.J. smiled. "Temple's a smart woman, Town. Hang onto her. Love her like she deserves to be loved. Don't ever let anyone tell you..." A.J. stopped there and stared into the fire again. "Just don't ever let anyone try to convince you that other choices...options, will be any better. Not even her. The nights...the nights can be pretty damn long and lonely sometimes."
Town didn't know how to reply to the carefully concealed anguish he heard in A.J. Simon's words. Nothing more was said between them until Town rose ten minutes later to return to his tent.
"I'm heading back to bed. Knowing Lee, he's got some insane plans for the day that will require all of us to be up at dawn."
A.J. chuckled. "Knowing Lee, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if you're right."
Town tried not to sound like a mother, or an older brother, when he asked with nonchalance, "You gonna turn in, too?"
"In a little while. Good night."
Town recognized a firm dismissal when he heard one.
"Good night, A.J." Town reached out and gave A.J.'s upper arm a quick pat. "See ya' in a few hours."
At ten o'clock the next morning Rick was standing in water up to his knees, a San Diego Padres baseball cap perched on his head. The thigh high waders he wore kept his deck shoes and jeans dry. He cast his fishing line out, before reeling it back in a few feet. The bright sunlight reflected off his sunglasses as Rick looked up into the sky. So far, the weather had been perfect. The daytime temperatures had been in the low-seventies. According to Lee, that was the average summer time high this far north. At night the mercury dropped about twenty degrees, making for comfortable sleeping conditions.
Lee stood a few hundred yards to Rick's right. The oldest Simon brother could vaguely hear the sound of horseshoes clanging against metal stakes from somewhere near the campsite. Occasionally a good-natured shout, or someone's laughter, would drift down to Rick and Lee, indicating that the other campers were engaged in enjoyable recreation as well.
Long before he could see it, Rick heard the distinct buzz of a small airplane from overhead, sounding like a swarm of bees returning to their hive. It flew in from the east, nothing but a vague shape at first, until finally it was so close you could clearly see its red and white belly.
Lee shaded his eyes and looked up. "Here comes Gil."
The pilot intentionally allowed the plane to lose some altitude as it came in over the lake. When Gil was directly above Rick and Lee he tilted the left wing downward.
Both fishermen lifted their right arms and waved back at the man. Gil straightened the plane out. He began to gain altitude once more and flew westward. Rick followed the little aircraft with his eyes until it was out of sight. When it had disappeared like a tiny distant bird over the Coast Mountains, Rick returned his attention to his fishing.
Rick surreptitiously eyed his brother from across the table that evening. A.J.'s entire demeanor clearly told Rick the blond wasn't feeling well again. He had only picked at his supper. His still full plate had been pushed off to the side. Rick's younger brother had been unusually quiet throughout the meal, too. Rick didn't like the pallor of his skin either. Underneath the tan he had acquired from spending three days outdoors, A.J. was beginning to look like a piece of faded laundry that had been left soaking too long in bleach.
As much as Rick wanted to ask A.J. how he was feeling, he kept his peace. First of all, the chance that his brother would lie to him and say he was fine was high. Second of all, Rick knew A.J. would be mad as hell at him for bringing the subject of his health up in front of the other men.
By eight o'clock the sun was beginning its slow fall down the western horizon. The campers straggled in to gather around the fire from whatever individual pursuits they had gone off to indulge in after supper.
Within fifteen minutes, A.J. was bidding everyone good night.
Jerry finished chewing one of the homemade chocolate chip cookies Lee's wife had sent along. "Are you okay, A.J.? As my mother is fond of saying, you looked a little peaked."
A.J. threw Jerry a small smile. "I'm fine. Just tired. Good night."
A chorus of good nights followed the blond as he shuffled off to his tent.
Rick's eyes tracked his brother's slow progress until the tent flap fell closed behind him. He sat there lost in thought. Town's voice finally brought him out of his musing.
"What? Oh sorry, Towner. What'd you say?"
"I said we're going to play poker. Are you joining us?"
Rick's knees gave an audible crack as he pushed himself off the ground. The other men were making their way to the table. Lee went into his tent to retrieve two oil lanterns so there would be enough light to see by.
Rick pushed his worried thoughts concerning A.J. to the back of his mind.
"Sure I'm playin.' Deal me in."
It was eleven o'clock before the card players called it a night. Rick entered the tent as quietly as he could. Because A.J. didn't say anything to him, and because Rick could faintly hear his soft, even breathing, the eldest Simon came to the conclusion his brother was sound asleep.
Best thing for him, Rick thought, as he silently stripped down to his boxer shorts and slipped into his sleeping bag.
Several hours later Rick was sure he was dreaming. On and off the sound of mumbled words penetrated his unconscious mind. Just as he would start to fall back into a deeper sleep, the mumbling would bring him to a closer state of awareness, as though a pesky mosquito was whining overhead.
What exactly brought Rick fully awake he never knew. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked around the dark tent. Although the moon was three quarters full, the thick cover of pine trees around the encampment kept most of its bright light hidden. Rick's eyes could barely make out A.J.'s shadow. The blond man's back was to his brother, and from what Rick could discern it looked like he was lying in a loose fetal position.
loud enough so A.J. could hear him if he was awake, but not loud enough to wake
him if he was, in fact, asleep, Rick whispered, "A.J.?"
When his brother didn't answer him, Rick shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment and started to lie back down. It was then that he heard it again - mumbled words that he couldn't understand, punctuated by what sounded like a cross between a groan and a weak cry of pain.
Rick unzipped his sleeping bag and crawled out. "A.J.?" The lanky man's voice gradually grew louder as his urgency to get a response from his brother increased. "A.J.! A.J.!"
With one long stretch of his legs, Rick was at his brother's side.
"A.J. A.J., come on, wake up. A.J.!" Rick gave A.J.'s naked right shoulder a firm shake.
The only response Rick got was a strangled cry of pain. His brother's shoulder burned like a red-hot brick underneath Rick's hand.
Rick unzipped A.J.'s sleeping bag and flung it down to his knees. He laid a hand on A.J.'s right arm. It was as hot as his shoulder. Rick moved his hand to his brother's face.
"Damn," he muttered. "You're burnin' up. What the hell is wrong here, A.J.?"
Rick spun around on his bare heels and rummaged through the gear at the foot of his air mattress until his hand encountered a flashlight. He returned to his brother's side and flicked the beam on. Just as he had expected, A.J.'s cheeks were painted scarlet with fever. Beads of sweat stood out on his upper lip. His blond hair was pasted to his forehead, its color stained dark with moisture.
"A.J. A.J., come on." Four times Rick flicked two fingertips off his thumb and rapped them against his brother's right cheek. "A.J.! A.J., wake up a minute for me."
A.J.'s eyes fluttered open for a mere second, then slid shut once more. No amount of calling or coaxing on Rick's part could get A.J. to open his eyes again.
Rick grabbed the jeans he'd left laying on the tent's floor by his bed. The pants were hastily pulled on, snapped and zipped. He reached for his flannel shirt and thrust his arms in the sleeves, but didn't waste time buttoning it. He bare feet plunged haphazardly into his deck shoes. He didn't bother to straighten out the crooked tongue in one, or slip his foot all the way in the other when it caught on the shoe's heel.
Though his words of comfort were lost on his brother, Rick bent down and said them anyway while laying his hand on A.J.'s scalding face. "Just hang in there for a minute, little brother. I'm gonna get Jerry. You'll be feelin' better in no time."
With flashlight in hand and shirttails flying out behind him like a cape, Rick ran across the open space to the Reiner brothers' tent. Not wanting to wake up the entire camp by calling for Jerry from outside, Rick entered and dropped to the slumbering coroner's side.
Rick shook the arm that was flung outside the sleeping bag.
"Jerry! Jerry, wake up. Jerry!"
"Uh...what?" A disoriented Jerry Reiner hiked himself up on one elbow. He squinted into the flashlight beam shining in his face. "Rick? What's the matt--"
"It's A.J. I don't know what's wrong with him, but he's burning with fever. I can't get him to wake up, either."
Before Rick finished his explanation Jerry's bare legs were emerging from his sleeping bag.
"Here, hand me your flashlight."
Rick did as Jerry requested. The man, clad only in a pair of ragged gray gym shorts that were remnants from his college days, scurried to one corner of the tent. He retrieved his medical bag and the toolbox that he'd converted into a thorough First Aid kit prior to the trip.
"Lee left the lamps we were using on the table, Rick. I'll grab some matches if you'll grab one of them."
Rick was outside before Jerry even heard his, "Sure thing."
All the commotion in the confined space woke Lee. He raised his head off his pillow, and in a voice thick with sleep croaked, "What's going on?"
Jerry looked over from where he was thrusting his legs into a pair of blue sweatpants. "Rick said A.J.'s unconscious and running a high temperature."
"What? What happened to cause that?"
"I don't know. But I'm headed over there right now to find out."
Lee kicked his legs free of his sleeping bag. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I don't know yet. If nothing else, you can keep Rick calm for me while I have a look at A.J."
"Will do," Lee nodded. Jerry was out of the tent by the time the red headed Lee had pulled on a pair of faded jeans and a T-shirt.
Jerry could hear A.J.'s delirious cries as he approached the Simons’ tent. He could see the powerful flashlight's beam reflecting from the inside, causing the tent to shine with an eerie yellow glow.
Rick was kneeling at his brother's side trying to keep A.J.'s thrashing body still. He held A.J.'s shoulders firmly against his air mattress.
"A.J., calm down! Calm down, A.J."
Rick looked up as Jerry entered. For the first time in his life, Jerry Reiner saw fear in Rick Simon's eyes.
"Jerry, what's wrong with him? What's making him this sick?"
Jerry's calm voice and quiet bedside manner would have lead one to believe he dealt with live patients and their families on a daily basis.
"I don't know, Rick. I'm going to have a look at him right now."
Jerry handed Rick a book of matches. "Light that lamp for me, turn it up all the way, and hang it on the center pole there behind you."
Rick did as he was asked. The brightness given off by the oil lantern bathed the inside of the tent in a fair amount of light.
Lee entered with the other light. "I thought you might need this one, too."
Jerry agreed, "It’ll help."
Rick lit the lamp that Lee continued to hold by the handle before returning to A.J.'s side. He knelt by his brother's back once more. Jerry pulled out a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Lee stood over his sibling, shining the lantern down on the withering A.J. who continued to mumble incoherently in total unawareness of the men's presence.
"A.J.!" Jerry called loudly. "A.J., listen to me. I'm going to take your blood pressure and listen to your heart. A.J., can you hear me?"
A.J. fought to open his eyes. His lids felt weighted and kept threatening to close. "Jer...Jerry?" Came his confused slur.
"That's right, A.J. It's Jerry." Jerry wrapped the blood pressure cuff around A.J.'s right biceps. He put one end of the cuff's stethoscope in his ears, and laid the other against A.J.'s arm before pumping the ball. "Can you tell me what's happening, A.J.? Do you know why you're feeling this way?"
All three men had to strain to hear the thick words A.J. struggled to say.
"No...I...I...don...don't know. Thought it was...was the flu. But I...I...I've never felt thi...this...sick with the flu before."
Jerry looked over at Rick for further explanation.
"He's been fighting a flu bug of some sort for the last few weeks. Or at least that's what he thought it was."
Jerry pulled a thermometer out of his medical bag and slipped it under A.J.'s tongue. "What do you mean, that's what A.J. thought it was?"
"The symptoms were like what you have with the flu. You know, upset stomach, headache, body aches, but it kept coming and going."
"Coming and going?"
"Yeah. He'd be sick one day, then fine for two or three. Then sick again."
Jerry frowned as he placed his stethoscope against A.J.'s chest. "That doesn't sound like a typical flu bug to me."
Rick looked down at his flushed brother. A.J.'s eyes were only half open, and slowly flicking in a dazed fashion about the tent. Rick was fairly certain his brother wasn't lucid enough to follow much of what was being said around him, but nonetheless, lowered his voice.
"To tell ya’ the truth, Jer, I had my doubts it was the flu. I thought, as did Joel Lankey, that the symptoms were from nerves. You know, 'cause of the divorce and all."
"A.J. saw Joel?"
Rick shook his head. "No, no. I talked to Joel about it one day when he dropped by the office. A.J. had gone home sick."
Jerry mulled this information over while retrieving the thermometer. Lee moved the lantern closer.
Jerry made eye contact with both Rick and Lee. "It's one hundred and four point two."
hundred and four! What the hell is
“I don’t know, Rick,” the coroner shook his head. “But we have to get him cooled down fast. I do know this isn't the flu. At least not any kind of flu I've ever heard of. And as far as it being caused by nerves...well, it's certainly not that either. His blood pressure is high, not dangerously so, but high nonetheless. And his pulse is accelerated, as well. It's as if his body is trying to fight off some kind of massive infection."
Jerry grasped A.J.'s bare shoulders to roll him flat on his back.
A screech of pain escaped the semi-conscious A.J.'s lips, startling all three men.
"A.J.!," Jerry called. "A.J., what is it? A.J., I need you to tell me what's hurting you."
A.J.'s words came out in shallow gasps.
Rick recalled A.J.'s complaints since their first night in camp. "Your right shoulder, A.J.? Is it your right shoulder that's bothering you?"
The blond's face was etched in a grimace. He gave a weak nod of his head.
Rick looked at Jerry. "He's been complaining off and on about his shoulder bothering him since we got here."
Jerry was already feeling inadequately educated for the current situation he found himself in. This new piece of information only added to his confusion.
Jerry looked at A.J.'s shoulder in the light provided by Lee's lamp. He laid a hand on it but couldn't detect any swelling, or anything else out of the ordinary. "Help me roll him back over, Rick. Back to the position he was lying in when I entered."
The two men gently rolled A.J. on to his left side once again.
For the first time, Rick got a look at A.J.'s right shoulder blade. “What the...? What the hell is that, Jerry?"
The coroner was as puzzled as the detective. "I haven't the faintest idea."
Smack in the center of A.J's shoulder blade was an open sore the size of a half dollar. It had a crusted center that was oozing puss and was surrounded by rings of white, red, and blue.
Jerry looked up at his brother. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"
Like his brother, Lee Reiner worked in a branch of the medical field. The elder Reiner was a research scientist, and was employed by one of the largest pharmaceutical labs in the country based in San Diego. By virtue of his love of nature and the outdoors, he also possessed a vast amount of knowledge regarding the animal and insect world.
Lee gingerly stepped over A.J. and hunkered down next to Rick. He sat the lantern at his feet and reached for the flashlight. He shined the beam directly on A.J.'s shoulder blade. He reached out to gently probe the sore, but even his careful ministrations couldn't prevent A.J. from moaning softly with pain.
The red headed man looked at Rick. "When did his flu symptoms start?"
Rick had to think a moment before he could pinpoint the exact date. "I know it was a Sunday. A.J., Town, and I had tickets to a Padres game. A.J. had to back out 'cause he was sick. That was...three weeks ago this past weekend."
"And you said he's been bothered by those symptoms on and off ever since?"
"Do you know what this is?" Jerry asked his brother.
"I might," Lee nodded. "Rick, do you know where A.J. was a few days before his symptoms started?"
"Where he was?"
"Yes. Like in a basement? Or an attic? Possibly cleaning out some things that have been in storage such as boxes of clothes or books. Or perhaps he was in an abandoned building. A shed of some sort, or--"
Lee's words prompted Rick's memory. "A shed. He and I were in an old garden shed on the Friday night before he got sick for the first time."
"That makes sense then."
"What makes sense?"
"Judging by the looks of this sore, and the symptoms you describe that he's been having, I'd say A.J.'s been bitten by a brown recluse."
"A brown recluse?" Rick's tone clearly spoke his disbelief. "As in a brown recluse spider?"
"Yes." Lee reached out a finger and circled the wound without touching it. "See how the sore has a distinct bulls-eye appearance?"
Both Jerry and Rick nodded as they once again observed the perfectly symmetrical rings of white, red, and blue that rimmed the raised, crusted center of the angry sore.
"That's what the bite of the brown recluse looks like when gone untreated for this long. A woman I work with was bitten by one several years ago. This is exactly what the sore on her arm looked like when I suggested she see her doctor. Prior to that, she suffered from the same symptoms you describe A.J. as having."
"But why didn't he say anything?" Rick asked. "Why didn't he tell me he was in pain?"
"Because he probably wasn't," Lee informed the man. "For as potent as its venom is, the brown recluse's bite is relatively painless. A.J. may not have even felt it at the time the bite occurred. The sore doesn't appear until several days later, and it starts out looking like a small pimple. From where it is here on his back, he couldn't have even seen it without turning and looking in a mirror. And in A.J.'s defense, more than likely it didn't bother him until he first started complaining that his shoulder was aching. The early symptoms often mirror those of the flu. From what I've read, it isn't unusual for people not to seek treatment until the bite's advanced to this stage. Or to be misdiagnosed with the flu if they do seek treatment early on."
Without giving his action conscious thought, Rick reached over and gently brushed A.J.'s wet bangs off his forehead. "So what do we do now?"
"First of all, we work to get his temperature down like Jerry said. Then, as soon as it gets light, we spread Gil's SOS flag out on the ground. We've got to get A.J. to a hospital. They'll treat him with intravenous fluids and antibiotics. A doctor will have to lance the sore. If it goes untreated for much longer..."
Lee let his sentence fade away, knowing that if Gil didn't fly over soon there was nothing anyone could do to prevent what was bound to happen.
"What Lee?" Rick pressed. "What's gonna happen?"
Lee looked at Jerry, who gave a subtle nod of his head.
"The spider's venom destroys the skin tissue, Rick. Gangrene can set in quickly once it's advanced this far. And the venom from the bite can cause hemolysis, a break down of the red blood cells, that can in turn lead to kidney failure among other things."
"Which means he'll die if we don't get him out of here."
Jerry shook his head before Lee could answer. "That's not going to happen, Rick. We'll get him out of here. In the meantime, I'll treat him as best I can until help arrives."
"And just when will that be?" Rick questioned sharply. "Gil flew over yesterday morning. Based on what he told us when he left us here, he won't be back until at least tomorrow, and maybe not even then."
"He'll be back," Lee assured Rick before rising to his feet.
Jerry copied his brother's movement. "Stay here with A.J., Rick. I'm going to the lake and get a bucket of water so we can work at bringing his fever down."
The Reiner brothers stepped outside the tent and walked away from it so not to be overheard.
"I think you'd better wake Town," Lee advised. "He'll wanna know what's going on. Besides, it wouldn't hurt for him or Marcus to listen for airplanes until it gets light and the signal flag can be seen. I'll give Town the flare gun. If a plane does happen to fly overhead, he can shoot it off."
"What are the chances of that happening?" Jerry questioned candidly. "The only plane that's flown over in the last three days has been Gil's."
"I know. But it doesn't hurt to be on alert."
Lee started to walk away from his brother, with the intention of returning to their tent to retrieve the backpack Gil had given him on Saturday afternoon. Jerry stopped his progress by laying a hand on his arm.
"Lee...does Gil always fly over every couple of days?"
"Usually. But this is a very isolated piece of country. If there's an emergency somewhere else, and his plane is needed..."
Jerry finished the thought his brother refused to voice. "He might not return until next Sunday when he's supposed to pick us up."
Lee's mouth was pursed in a grim line as he nodded. "It's a possibility."
"Will A.J. last that long?"
"Jer, I'm not a doctor. I can't say for sure. You know as well as I do that if you see signs his kidneys are failing to function, there won't be a damn thing any of us can do about it. If that doesn't happen, then A.J.'s chances of lasting until Sunday will improve drastically. But I know he's really sick. And I know that other than keeping the fever down, and keeping fluids in him, there's not much we can do for him."
Jerry chewed on his lower lip in thought. "If Gil doesn't show up in the next day or two, can I lance the sore?"
"I don't know enough about the repercussions of such a procedure to answer that question. That's your area of expertise. I know when they did that to Eva, my co-worker, it was in the operating room, and they discovered two large abscesses under the skin that had to be lanced and drained, as well."
Jerry rested his hands on his hips and tilted his head back to look up at the starlit sky. He sighed with frustration.
"It would be risky enough if things went well. I don't have any type of anesthetic to give him to begin with. And the scalpel would have to be one of your scaling knives. And if I run across abscesses to deal with, and then, in turn, if he starts to bleed heavily...well, I could fairly quickly get into more than I'm capable of handling under the present conditions."
Lee brought his hand up and rested it on one of Jerry's tense shoulders. "Let's not cross that bridge until we come to it. If we come to it. Let's just hope...and pray, that Gil shows up here within the next day or two."
"Sounds like a good plan to me, brother," was what Jerry mumbled as Lee headed for their tent.
Rick and Jerry spent the next three hours bathing A.J.'s face and bare torso in cool water drawn from the lake. When the blond's temperature had dropped three degrees, and he was considerably more lucid than he had been when Rick first woke Jerry, the coroner had his patient swallow two buffered aspirin and got him to drink half an eight ounce bottle of apple juice.
There wasn't much Town, Marcus, or Lee could do to help, other than keep a vigilant ear open for passing aircraft and run fresh buckets of water up from the lake. As soon as dawn began to streak the eastern sky, Lee and Marcus spread out the bright orange signal flag and secured its corners with heavy rocks.
At eight o'clock that morning A.J.'s temperature was holding steady at one hundred point six. He had fallen asleep a half hour earlier, and seemed to be resting fairly comfortably when Jerry motioned Rick to step outside with him.
"I want to continue giving A.J. two aspirin every four hours. That should help keep his temperature down. But, I also want you to be aware that I don't have enough knowledge to be certain that I'm not doing him more harm than good in the long run."
"Whatta’ ya' mean?"
"If the venom is causing, or does cause hemolysis as Lee mentioned, I probably shouldn't be giving him aspirin, or anything similar to it. But, on the other hand, if his temperature shoots up on us again...well, you know as well as I do how dangerous that can be. It'll put a strain on his entire system. We were damn lucky we got it to drop as much as we did. If it had gotten into the hundred and five range it could have easily caused brain damage, or killed him."
"So, what you're saying is, everything from here on out until we get A.J. to a hospital is a crap shoot."
"I'm sorry, Rick,” Jerry nodded. “But I'm afraid that about sums up our situation. I just don't have enough
"Hey." Rick reached out a hand and touched his friend's arm, cutting off Jerry's self-incriminations. "You're doin' the best you can. I know it, and A.J. knows it. Nobody is gonna blame you for...anything that happens. I'm just grateful you're here."
Jerry gave a small smile. "Thanks, Rick. I simply wanted you to be aware of the facts. If you tell me that you'd rather I not give A.J. any more aspirin, then I won't. It's up to you as to how we proceed."
"No, Jerry,” Rick shook his head. “It's up to you. I trust your judgment. And like I said, whatever happens, no one's gonna hold you at fault."
Again, Jerry nodded his appreciation of Rick's complete faith in him. Along with that faith, however, came a terrible burden. What if something he did ultimately made A.J.'s condition worse? Or what if something he didn't do had the same effect? A.J. had been Jerry's friend since they'd met on their first day of high school back in the fall of 1963. Over thirty years ago now. And Jerry had known Rick that long, as well. The last thing he wanted was to inadvertently be the cause of A.J. Simon's death.
Jerry kept his troubling thoughts to himself and spoke with a confidence intended to make Rick Simon believe, as well as make Jerry himself believe, that he knew exactly how to proceed.
"It's not going to hurt for you to keep wiping him down with water. Maybe we'll get lucky and get his temperature back to normal with a few more hours work. I'll rummage through our food and see what I can find for him to eat. He'll probably try and refuse anything we give him, but he's going to eat it anyway. And make him finish that bottle of juice. I want to keep as many fluids going into him as we can. I don't care what they are. Juice, water, or even soda if that's what he says he wants."
Rick nodded his understanding. "As soon as he wakes up I'm gonna move him to my bed and air out his blanket and sleeping bag. They're wringing wet with sweat."
"Good idea. Just throw them out the tent flap. I'll get one of the guys to rig up a clothesline of some sort. With the way the sun's shining today, and with the breeze that's blowing off the lake, everything should dry out in no time."
Jerry went off to search through their food and beverage supply with the intention of pulling anything out he specifically wanted earmarked for A.J.'s consumption only. In the meantime, Rick returned to the tent. The temperature was beginning to rise in the ten foot by eight foot space due to the bright sunlight, and it was starting to acquire a distinctive musky odor of canvas and sweat.
A.J. was sleeping yet when Rick unzipped three of the window flaps. Screens were in place to keep insects out. He left the flap directly above A.J.'s bed closed so the breeze wouldn't blow right on his brother. He unzipped the door flap halfway, leaving the side closest to A.J.'s head and upper body covered with canvas. Within a few minutes the closed-up, stale feeling that had been prevalent upon Rick's entrance vanished. The fresh smells of pine, cedar, wild violets, and clean water gently blew through the tent's interior.
Rick sat down at his brother's side and reached for the washcloth that had been left in a bucket of still cool water. He wrung it out, then ran it across A.J.'s warm face and chest.
bleary blue eyes opened. A.J.'s voice was hoarse and only half its normal
strength. "How long was I
"Not long enough," Rick's answered. "Sorry I woke you. I was hopin' I wouldn't, but your temperature's still over a hundred, and Jerry said I should keep wiping you down."
"That's okay. It's not your fault."
"You up to me movin' you?"
"That depends on how far you're planning on us going."
Rick smiled. It had to be a good sign that A.J. was up to engaging in a bit of light humor, didn't it?
"Not far," Rick assured. "Only over to my bed. I want to hang your sleeping bag and blanket outside for a few hours."
"Based on how they feel, I won't argue that idea."
A.J.'s heavy quilted sleeping bag had long ago been unzipped and flung down to his ankles. He was lying covered to the waist by his blanket.
Rick tossed the blanket aside. Just as quickly A.J. retrieved it and pulled it back up.
"Hey! What happened to my pajama bottoms?"
"People who are running temperatures of over one hundred and four don't wear pajama bottoms. The first thing their concerned older brothers do, is strip anything off of ‘em that might help in cooling them down."
A.J. was forced to silently concede that Rick made a good point, so chose instead to make another point of his own.
"You're starting to talk in the plural form, just like they do at the hospital. You know how much I hate that."
"I'll keep it in mind. Now come on, let me get you out of these wet bed covers."
By this time A.J.'s right shoulder and arm were useless. Much to the concern of Jerry and Rick, the shoulder blade had begun to swell. The swelling had rapidly traveled to the blond's upper arm.
Rather than fight his brother for the blanket, Rick left it in place for the time being. He stepped over the air mattress and squatted down on A.J.'s left side, knowing there was no way he could move A.J. from the right without causing him considerable pain. He slipped an arm under his brother's back, being careful to place it below the open sore.
"Can you sit up for me?"
"Of course I can sit up!"
Rick hid his smile. Right now that indignant exclamation was music to his ears. It was a far cry from the state of unawareness Rick had found his brother in during the early hours of the morning.
With Rick's help, A.J. got himself into a half upright position. He lifted his left arm and brought it up across Rick's shoulders and neck. That movement emphasized to Rick how serious A.J.'s condition was. He had fully expected his brother to insist on scooting over to the other bed by himself. This willingly compliance on A.J.'s part to let Rick carry him scared the hell out of the older man.
Rick did an effective job of hiding his fear. He placed his other arm under A.J.'s bent knees and lifted. He was forced to stifle a groan as he pushed himself off the ground while bearing his brother's weight.
It was only six short steps from A.J.'s bed to Rick's, but one had to maneuver around Rick's duffel bag and a bucket of water to get there. Not to mention bending back down to ground level to gently deposit A.J. on the air mattress.
"Geez, A.J.," the out of breath Rick joked, "you been packin' on the pounds lately or what?"
"Ha. Ha. I think it's you who's out of shape, old man."
Actually, Rick thought his brother felt too light, and wondered how much weight he'd lost in the last three weeks. He and his mother had guessed A.J. had dropped a couple pounds back when they thought this whole thing was related to the divorce, but now Rick would say the weight loss was closer to seven or eight pounds. Lee had mentioned that the woman he worked with had lost twenty from the time she was bitten until she was well on the road to recovery. It was hard for Rick to believe that such a small insect could reek such havoc on the human body.
Rick swiveled on his heels and retrieved one of the pillows left on A.J.'s bed. A.J. rolled on his left side and allowed his brother to slip the pillow behind his right arm and shoulder. They had found this to be a fairly comfortable way for A.J. to lie. The pillow supported his right side without the pressure lying flat on his back put on the ugly, draining wound that was now covered with a gauze dressing.
Rick helped A.J. ease himself over and onto the pillow. His head rested comfortably on the two pillows Rick normally slept on.
Rick took the damp pillowcase off of A.J.'s remaining pillow. He tossed it down on the sleeping bag, then reached for the blanket still covering A.J's lower body.
"Uh, huh." A.J. negated. "Not until you give me something to wear."
"It's not like I've never seen you in the buff before, but okay. Have it your way."
Rick rummaged around in his duffel bag until he found the light blanket he had brought along that he had yet to use.
"I said something to wear," A.J. stated. "As in a pair of pants."
"Just cover yourself with this for now. If your temperature stays down I'll put your pajama bottoms back on you. For the time being they need to dry out in the sun with the rest of this stuff."
A.J. didn't have the strength or desire to argue the point any further. He allowed Rick to exchange blankets with him, and let his eyes drift close when Rick stepped out of the tent with the wet bedclothes.
Marcus retrieved the items from Rick and hung them over the makeshift clothesline he and Town had strung using a rope.
Jerry was crossing the open area between the tents. When he got close enough, Rick could see he was carrying a plastic spoon and two snack size containers. One held applesauce, the other vanilla pudding.
"I want A.J. to eat these. If he keeps them down, then we'll give him something more substantial in a few hours."
Rick nodded and followed Jerry into the tent.
A.J. opened his eyes when he heard the two men enter.
Jerry held out both containers the spoon. "Here you go, A.J."
A.J. wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I'm not really hungry."
"I know you're not," Jerry agreed. "But you have to eat. I'm not going to lie to you. We don't know for sure how long it will be before we can get you out of here. You have to keep up your strength in the meantime. And part of doing that is eating."
A.J. was tempted to argue further, but in one quick glance he caught the worry hovering around Rick's eyes. He reached for the containers and the spoon.
While A.J. slowly ate, Jerry took his blood pressure and pulse. When the blond had eaten both containers clean, the coroner helped him roll forward.
Rick stood craning his neck over the two men. "How's it look?"
"About the same as it did the last time I checked. It's really starting to swell."
"Yeah," Rick grimly acknowledged. "I noticed that."
"I'm going to get some ice from one of the chests. I'll wrap it in a small towel. Let's place it on here. Maybe it will help."
Rick nodded, though he was fairly certain that if the swelling was being caused solely by the spider's venom, no amount of ice was going to have much of an affect on it.
Jerry took A.J.'s temperature next and was happy to see that it hadn't climbed any higher in the past hour.
A.J. drifted into a light sleep before Jerry left the tent. The coroner turned to Rick and spoke in a hushed tone.
"I'll be back with that ice pack in a minute. Then I'm going to grab a couple hours of sleep if you think you can handle things here for a while."
Rick gave a firm nod of his head.
"If you get too tired have Lee or Town take over."
"I'm fine. I don't need anyone taking over for me."
Jerry knew arguing with the eldest Simon brother would be a waste of his breath. Plus, he was well aware of how he'd feel if their positions were reversed, and it was his brother lying ill on the floor of a tent two hundred miles from civilization.
"Just don't push yourself," Jerry advised. "You need to rest, too, as much for A.J.'s sake as for your own."
Again, Rick nodded. "I know. And I intend to. But not right now."
Rick waited outside the tent until Jerry returned with the ice pack.
"Thanks, Jer. For everything. Now get some sleep."
"I will. I'd tell you to do the same, but we've already had that argument."
Rick smiled at the teasing. "Yeah, we have. And if I recall correctly, you lost."
Jerry chuckled while turning to walk away. Rick turned, too, and entered his tent.
A.J.'s eyes opened when he heard his brother's soft footfalls at his bedside.
Rick dropped to his knees. As gently as he could he placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I'm gonna roll you forward for a second. I need to put this ice pack against your back."
"You don't have to roll me forward. I'm not an invalid. I can roll forward all by myself."
Rick's moustache twitched. "Okay then. Do it."
Without too much effort, A.J. rolled forward enough to allow Rick to slip the ice pack between the pillow and the swollen shoulder blade.
A grimace of discomfort dominated A.J.'s features when he rolled back and was forced to lie against the cold towel. Between clenched teeth he hissed softly, "Damn. That hurts."
"Because it's cold?"
"No," A.J. shook his head. "Because of the pressure of the sore laying against the ice."
“I was afraid that was gonna happen. I'd like you to leave it there for a while...just to see if it helps like Jerry thought it might, but if it really bothers you I’ll take it away."
"No. Leave it alone. Maybe it won't bother me so much in a few minutes."
A.J. closed his eyes as Rick moved to sit down. He leaned against the ice chest he had brought in the tent several hours earlier to use as support for his back.
"Rick?" A.J. questioned without opening his eyes.
"Yeah, A.J. I'm here. What do you need?"
"I don't need anything. I just want you to fill me on what's going on. I think I was kind of drifting in and out when you, and Jerry, and Lee were all in here earlier. The three of you were in here, weren't you?"
"Yeah. That was about three-thirty this morning. You were running a high temperature. I went and got Jerry. Lee came along, too. To make a long story short, Lee thinks you were bitten by a brown recluse spider several weeks ago."
A.J.'s eyes opened. "Where in the heck did I come in contact with one of those?"
"I'm guessing when we were in Burgess's shed that Friday night."
A.J. gave a weary nod. "That was probably where it was. Remember when we were leaving, I thought I felt something poking me in the back?"
Rick thought a moment. "Yeah. You were gripin' about it being a thorn from that rose bush you'd dived into."
thought it was. The spider must have
gotten on me when I was leaning against the wall looking at the paintings.
"Probably. It might have even crawled inside your shirt."
Rick recalled that his brother had been wearing a short sleeve, loose fitting black shirt that night. An insect could have easily crawled down the open collar, or up under one of the sleeves.
"It might have," A.J. agreed. "Guess it doesn't make much difference how it got there at this point."
"No, it doesn't. There's nothing we can do about it now. You just gotta rest until Gil comes back." With more confidence than he was feeling, Rick assured, "He's due to fly over tomorrow. The guys have the SOS flag spread out. When he lands we'll get you to a hospital. Lee said once treatment is started for the bite you'll feel a hundred percent better."
A.J.'s smiled slightly and let his eyes drift close for good. "I don't think I could feel much worse."
Rick Simon reached out and laid a hand on his sleeping brother's forearm.
You're gonna be okay, A.J. Rick silently vowed. I promise you I'll get you outta here before you get any sicker, even if I have to carry you across those mountains on my back.
The remainder of the day was uneventful. Or at least as uneventful as it could be considering one member of the group was seriously ill.
A.J.'s temperature had dropped to ninety-nine point eight by early afternoon. He ate the entire bowl of Campbell's chicken noodle soup Jerry brought him at noon, and drank a bottle of juice. When he was done he asked Rick to bring him some water and his shaving kit. With his brother's help, A.J. managed to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and rid his face of blond beard stubble. He even felt good enough afterwards to read the book he'd brought along, while Rick caught a couple hour's worth of sleep.
A.J. was still reading when his older brother awakened. Rick sat up from where he'd been sleeping on A.J.'s air mattress.
"You must be feelin' better."
A.J. smiled into worried eyes. "I'm feeling okay. Better than I was this morning anyway."
Rick slid off the mattress and reached out a hand.
"You don't feel hot anymore."
A.J. brushed the solicitous hand aside. "I'm not. Like I said, I feel okay. As a matter of fact, I'd appreciate it if you'd find me a pair of pants. I need to get out of this tent for a while."
"Rick...look...I'll be the first to admit I'm not feeling up to a three hour hike in the woods, or a run around the lake. But if I have to lie here and stare at these canvas walls any longer I'll scream. I'd just like to go out in the sun and sit in a lawn chair. Plus, I have to go to the bathroom."
"We can do that like we did this morning."
Rick was referring to the improvised urinal Jerry had provided by cutting the top off an empty two liter plastic Coke bottle. A.J.'d had no choice but to use it twice that morning when he was too weak and sick to make it outside.
A.J.'s face colored bright red, and he gave a firm shake of his head. "No way. Not as long as I'm feeling this good."
"It sounds like the early rumblings of World War III in here."
The brothers looked up as Jerry Reiner entered their tent.
"I want to sit outside for a while and go to the bathroom in a manner other than how I was forced to this morning, but nursemaid Rick won't let me."
"Look, Jerry, it's not that I won't let him. It's just that you said he should rest. I don't think he should be runnin' all over the woods like--"
"I'm not going to run all over the woods!" A.J. declared. "I just want to get some fresh air. I said I'd sit in a lawn chair. I only want--"
Rick's voice increased in volume. His nerves and temper were frayed by hours of worry and lack of adequate sleep.
"And I don't think you should! I think you should lay here and rest until Gil arrives and we can get you to a--"
Jerry held up a hand. "Okay, guys. Cool it. Let's reach a compromise here."
The coroner pulled the thermometer out of his black bag.
"I came in to check on A.J. anyway. I'll take his temperature and blood pressure and look at the bite. If everything seems...okay, then it certainly won't hurt him to sit outside for a while.
Jerry made eye contact with the eldest Simon. "If he feels up to taking a little walk, Rick, then it's probably a good idea if he does."
After a moment Rick gave a reluctant nod of understanding at the words the coroner left unspoken. If, for some reason, Gil didn't return until Sunday it was important that A.J. keep his strength up and keep his chances of contracting pneumonia down. The best way to do that was to take periodic walks.
Rick rummaged around in A.J.'s sports bag while Jerry stuck the thermometer under the blond's tongue and then took his blood pressure.
By the time Jerry's doctoring was done and he announced that he saw no reason for A.J. not to venture outdoors, Rick had retrieved a pair of blue jeans, underwear, socks, and a flannel shirt for his brother.
Jerry stepped outside while Rick helped A.J. dress. The task was no easy feat considering the small confines of the tent, and A.J.'s useless and painful right shoulder and arm. Rick decided to forego trying to get the arm into the sleeve of the blue plaid shirt in favor of buttoning the garment as best he could over his brother's chest.
Other than Jerry, there was no one else in sight when the Simon brothers emerged from their tent. For that, A.J. was grateful. The last thing he wanted was to be stared at like some exotic animal in a zoo.
As if he could read his brother's thoughts Rick asked, "Where are the other guys?"
Jerry smiled. "I told them after lunch there was no use in them hanging around here with long faces. That A.J. was going to be okay, and they might as well go off and have some fun. They headed down to the lake to fish for a while."
A.J. nodded his satisfaction at that arrangement. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin everyone’s vacation.
Jerry remained behind as the Simon brothers slowly made their way toward the thick pine forest that towered over the back of the campsite. Rick kept a firm hand wrapped around his brother's left arm, but other than that A.J. navigated fairly well on his own. When they had walked several hundred yards into the forest, A.J. broke free from Rick and disappeared behind a tree. Rick knew better than to follow his sibling, but stood close by waiting with impatience.
"Are you done yet?"
Rick couldn't see A.J. roll his eyes. "I haven't even gotten my pants unzipped. Why don't you go wait at the campsite for me. I'll be there in a--."
"A.J., I ain't goin' anywhere. And I don't mind waiting. I just don't want you fallin' on your face in a bed of pine needles."
From behind the tree Rick heard his brother's dry reply. "I'm not planning to. And if I do, you'll be the first to know."
Within a few seconds A.J. reappeared. Rick didn't reach out and take his arm this time, but simply remained close to him as they headed back to camp.
A.J. pulled a lawn chair into the warm sun. He sat down, being careful not to lean too heavily against his tender shoulder blade. Rick and Jerry sat in chairs on either side of him. They tried their best to carry on a light conversation that belayed their true feelings and worries. For a while, A.J. participated in the discussion. When he dropped out, it was done so gradually that at first Rick and Jerry didn't even notice.
A.J. was staring at the lake the afternoon sun had stained indigo when Jerry's voice penetrated his thoughts.
"A.J.? A.J., are you okay?"
A.J. briefly glanced in Jerry's direction before turning his eyes back to the water. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just getting kind of tired."
Rick started to rise. "I'll help you back to the tent."
"Not yet. I want to sit here a while longer."
Rick looked at Jerry over the top of A.J.'s head. The coroner merely nodded, but Rick could read his unspoken words.
Back off, Rick. Let A.J. decide what's best for him.
Rick sat back down. "You tell me when you're ready then."
Town, Lee, and Marcus returned with dinner a short time later. Lee and Mark gave A.J. a casual greeting, attempting not to make him feel on display. Town passed his string of fish off to his brother and pulled a chair across from the blond man. He reached out and gave A.J.'s knee a pat.
"You doin' okay?"
A.J. looked into caramel eyes. The concern he saw there was plainly evident.
"I'm fine, Town. Don't worry."
Town's eyes flicked to Rick, then back to A.J. "Hey, I'm not worried. I hardly think one little old spider could bother a Simon too much. As a matter of fact, I figure the poor thing is probably in worse shape than you are right about now for having tangled with you in the first place."
A.J. chuckled. "No doubt you're probably correct."
Town gave A.J.'s knee another pat as he rose. "I'd better go help Mark. It's the Brown brothers turn to cook tonight."
A.J. sat with Jerry and Rick a few more minutes. He tried to hide from his sibling the fact that he was once again feeling increasingly ill. Sudden and overwhelming nausea was making A.J. light headed, and his stomach felt as though it was being tossed around like a ship on a stormy sea.
Rick didn’t miss seeing the effort it took A.J. to rise on shaky legs.
"I think I'll go lie down for a while again."
Rick and Jerry exchanged glances behind A.J.'s back. The elder Simon pushed himself out of his chair.
"I'll walk with you."
Jerry followed suit and rose as well. "I'll get some supper together for you, A.J. I'd like you to eat once more before you fall asleep."
A.J.'s weary, indifferent reply of "Whatever," scared Rick. And, if the truth were told, it scared Jerry as well.
Jerry had taken the blond detective's dry bedclothes and sleeping bag off the line while the Simon brothers had been in the woods. A.J.'s bed was neatly made up when he and Rick entered the tent. His pajama bottoms had been folded and left laying on top of his sleeping bag.
Rick gripped his brother's upper left arm and helped him ease himself to a sitting position.
"Want me to help you undress?"
"If you don't mind." Black dots swam in front of A.J.'s eyes, making him feel like he was dangerously close to passing out. "I don't think I'll be going too far tonight."
It didn't take Rick long to help A.J. remove his jeans and replace them with the blue pajama pants. A.J. handed the flannel shirt to his brother, then removed his socks.
Rick grabbed the extra pillow off his bed and used it to make A.J. as comfortable as he could.
A.J. had just slipped his legs into his sleeping bag when Jerry arrived with another mug of soup, a sandwich, a container of pudding, and a bottle of juice.
The feeling of nausea continued to increase, but A.J. tried to eat a few bites of everything in order to appease both Jerry and his brother. He managed three swallows of soup and two spoonfuls of pudding, but was forced to leave the peanut butter sandwich sitting on its paper plate.
The blond sat his half eaten dinner down on the tent floor.
"Done already?" Jerry questioned. "Don't you want some of that sandwich?"
"No thanks." A.J. lay back against his pillows. He rested his left forearm on top of his closed eyes.
"A.J.," Rick cajoled. "I think you should try. Just a couple of bites. You've hardly eaten anything."
Although the last thing A.J. wanted to do was admit to his brother how sick he was feeling, he also didn't want to engage in an argument that would only upset them both at a time when neither one of them needed to be upset.
"Rick, if I eat it, I'll throw it back up." The blond lifted his arm just enough to allow him to look up at his brother and friend. "And don't you two stand there and exchange worried glances like you've been doing for the past twelve hours when you think I'm not looking. I don't feel any worse than I've been feeling since all this started three weeks ago. I can assure you I'll survive until Gil arrives. Whenever that may be."
Rick knew without a doubt A.J. was lying to him. But what good would it do to call his brother on that fact? Rick was well aware A.J. was only trying to make the situation easier on him.
Jerry bent down to give his patient a quick once over before A.J. fell asleep. "Anyone as ornery as you are will survive to be a hundred and five years old."
"Then that must mean my ornery older brother will survive to be a hundred and ten."
Dryly, Jerry agreed, "More than likely," right before he slid the thermometer under A.J.'s tongue.
Rick stepped outside with Jerry when the short examination ended.
The two men moved far enough away from the tent so they wouldn’t be overheard by the dozing A.J.
"Well?" Rick demanded.
Jerry shook his head in frustration. "I don't know what to say, Rick. His temperature is holding steady at ninety nine point three. His blood pressure is fairly good. A little high, but not as high as it was at four o'clock this morning. But he's obviously feeling pretty rotten again. There's just not much more I can do for him. He needs to be in a hospital."
"Tell me about it. That's exactly where I want him to be." Rick rolled his head from side to side in an effort to loosen his tight neck and shoulder muscles. "What about his kidneys? Does everything seem okay to you?"
"The only way we're going to know if they're not functioning properly is if he stops urinating. That's why I want you to keep pushing him to drink whenever he's awake. I know it's got to be a real drag for him, having to drink and then piss all the time. But we don't have much choice. I'm keeping track of how much fluid gets in him. That enables me to make an educated guess as to how often it should come back out of him. For now, everything appears to be functioning as it should."
Over Rick's shoulder Jerry caught sight of Town waving to him.
"It looks like dinner's ready. Come on. Let's grab a bite to eat."
"I'd better stay with A.J. I'll get something later."
Jerry laid a firm hand on Rick's arm. "Rick, I just checked A.J. He's fine. And he's sleeping. You can take twenty minutes to sit down and eat with us. We'll hear him if calls out for anything."
Rick reluctantly let himself be led to the dinner table. Fifteen minutes later he deposited his empty plate in the garbage and grabbed a second Coke from one of the ice chests.
"I'm going back to the tent."
The other men watched him walk away. When Rick had entered his tent, Town looked across the table at Jerry.
"How is he?"
coroner swallowed his mouthful of grilled fish. "Rick, or A.J.?"
"The only thing I can say about A.J. is what I told Rick twenty minutes ago. We've got to get him to a hospital. The sooner the better. As for Rick, he's worried. Very worried. Just like any of us would be if it was our brother who was suddenly stricken ill in the middle of nowhere."
None of the men replied. None of them had to. Each of them could easily put themselves in Rick Simon's place.