OVER THE HILL
Music filling his bedroom woke A.J. Simon at six o’clock Thursday morning. He opened a sleepy eye and glanced at the digital alarm-clock radio on the nightstand next to his bed.
"It's morning already?" A.J. groaned as he rolled onto his back. He opened both eyes long enough to peer at the blinds that covered the French doors, and was able to discern that the sun was up.
The blond man yawned and stretched. He debated whether to get up and workout, as he had planned to do before he had to leave for the office at eight-thirty. Doing some type of workout before the start of his day at Simon and Simon Investigations had long ago become a habit with A.J. Some days he lifted weights; some days he boxed; some days he ran a few miles. Regardless, he always chose some form of exercise and rarely varied from this routine. The erratic hours he and Rick often kept made early morning exercise the easiest to commit to.
Those often erratic hours P.I.'s keep was the reason A.J. was having a problem getting out of bed this morning. He and Rick had four cases underway at the present time. A.J. had drawn the late night stakeout duty of one of those cases for the last two evenings. Tuesday night, or rather early Wednesday morning, he hadn't gotten to bed until one-thirty. Wednesday night had been a little better. It had been eleven fifty-five p.m., according to the bedside clock, when A.J. had finally been able to call it a day. Fortunately for the business checking account, but unfortunately for A.J.'s sleep schedule, he hadn't had the luxury of sleeping a few extra hours either one of the mornings after his long working days. He'd had to meet with a client at nine o'clock on Wednesday morning at her downtown office, and this morning he had to meet with a client in the Simon and Simon office at nine.
Things weren't any better for A.J.’s brother, either. Rick had taken the stakeout duty both Sunday and Monday nights, and then each of the following mornings he had to report for ‘work’ by eight at a San Diego factory. The brothers had been hired to investigate on-going thefts at the factory that could only be occurring at the hands of its own employees. Rick had been on the job for almost three weeks now, but at least that one was coming to a close. When A.J. entered his house at eleven-thirty the previous evening there had been a message on the answering machine from his older brother.
"Yeah, A.J., it's me. It looks like I caught our thief today, so I should be in the office around ten. I'm goin' over to the factory at eight in the morning to wrap things up with Mr. Pritchard and some head honcho we didn't meet. I’ll get our check then, too. I'll fill ya’ in on everything when I see you. Bye."
A.J. hit the snooze alarm and lay in bed with the intention of dozing for a few minutes. He kept telling himself he should get up, but the bed felt too good to do much more than enjoy the early morning sunlight from a reclining position. The detective mentally reviewed the last three weeks as he yawned again.
It's no wonder Rick and I have been so tired lately. These hours we've been keeping will kill both of us yet. Well...at least they'll kill me - maybe not Rick, the man who can survive on four hours of sleep a night, but me for sure.
A.J. couldn't help but smile as he thought of all his big brother would have to say if he could see A.J. now, dozing in bed with the alarm on snooze, totally oblivious to the minutes as they ticked by. Rick didn't need to be present for A.J. to be able to hear him gloat.
"I told ya' forty would catch up to ya', kid. You're not as young as you used to be, you know. You gotta slow down a little, take it easy, get used to the fact you can't do all the things you could when you were in your thirties. Yep, you're really over the hill now. Man, it's hard to believe my little brother is forty."
Rick didn't have to be present for A.J. to know he'd say all these things, simply because the elder Simon had been saying them repeatedly over the past month.
A.J. had turned forty on Monday, and Rick had taken great delight in reminding his younger brother of the upcoming event almost daily since the end of June. It amazed A.J. how his brother ignored the fact that he had five years on A.J., so therefore if A.J. was ‘over the hill,’ Rick must be, “Really, really, over the hill,” as A.J. had told his older brother more than once in the past few weeks.
Rick would use his own brand of twisted logic then. "Yeah, but I don't show my age the way you do. Lately, a lotta people have been mistaking you for my older brother. I think it's my hat, A.J. I think it makes me look younger. You should get one, too. As a matter of fact, that's what I’m gonna get ya’ for your birthday - a hat just like mine."
At those times A.J. would just roll his eyes at his sibling and say, "Don't do me any favors, Rick."
Aside from having to endure ‘over the hill’ comments issued from Rick during the month of July, A.J. had also been living in fear of what his fortieth birthday on the 29th of that month might bring. There had been too many comments throughout the month like, "Carlos can sure come up with some great party ideas, you know, A.J." And, "There's just something about several women with handcuffs that can make a party fun. Can make a guy feel young again, know what I mean?" Or, "I've really never seen a naked girl jump out of a cake, have you?" Add to those comments the times Rick would laugh for no reason while looking at his brother and saying, "You're gonna love it. You're just gonna love it!"
After two weeks of this, A.J. had finally learned none of the hollering, pleading, or threatening he had been throwing his older brother's way, was going to make Rick spill his guts, or shut up. A.J. reached the conclusion that the only way to beat Rick at his game was to ignore him, and act like none of the comments bothered him in the slightest. So, that's exactly what A.J. had done in the two weeks preceding his birthday. That tactic didn't have much of an effect on Rick, however. The older brother continued tormenting the younger, not seeming to care if A.J. reacted to him or not. Other than the fact that A.J. felt he was keeping a hold on his dignity, his little charade didn’t help his peace of mind. The blond man hadn’t been able to fathom all the things Rick might have up his sleeve. Knowing his brother, A.J. was sure the things Rick had already mentioned were only the tip of the iceberg.
At those times, A.J. would think back to the surprise fortieth birthday party he and his mother had thrown for Rick five years earlier, and know he had brought this on himself. Even though the detective had been aware Rick would find the taste of revenge sweet, A.J.'s own fortieth birthday seemed like a long time in the future. If he'd have known how fast those five years would fly by, A.J. would have settled for taking his brother out for a steak dinner and calling it a night by eight o'clock. But, did A.J. do that? No, of course not. It was a well-known fact that Rick Simon loved a good party, and A.J. was bound and determined that Rick was going to be given the best party a man could have.
Cecilia and A.J. had put together an informal, festive bash that had Rick Simon written all over it. The large pavilion at a park near Cecilia's house had been rented for the occasion, and Cecilia arranged for a picnic supper to be catered in. A.J. had taken care of the music for the evening by hiring a man the Simon brothers had grown up with, who now made a part-time income as a D.J. That was one of the easiest duties on A.J.'s list. All he had to do was call up their old friend, set the date and time, and then say, "This one will be easy for you, Al. You know Rick's likes. Nothing but music from the 50's and 60's. Oh, yeah, and maybe you'd better throw in some country music, too, just to make the birthday boy really happy."
Cecilia had come up with the idea of making a picture collage of Rick throughout the various stages of his life, starting with infancy and leading up to the present. That collage, along with the captions Cecilia had posted beneath the pictures, was on display when the party began.
While Cecilia worked on that, A.J. put together a Memory Book for his brother. The blond man sent a form letter to Rick’s friends, asking them to return to him a memory of some event they had shared with Rick. A.J. had spent a lot of time on this aspect of Rick's party, as some of the people he wrote to were friends of Rick's from back in grade school, whom Rick hadn't seen in twenty-five years or longer. Some of the others included guys Rick had served with in Vietnam, whom A.J. had never personally met. Therefore, A.J. had to use his detective skills to obtain addresses of men Rick hadn’t had contact with since coming leaving the Marine Corps. But, in the end, A.J. knew all his labor was worth it. He received responses to almost every letter he sent, and true to Rick's character, most of those responses contained the telling of some hilarious event or mischievous prank in which Rick took part.
Cecilia had organized all the letters into a leather binder, and that, too, was displayed the night of Rick's birthday. There was never a doubt in A.J.'s mind that his brother didn’t appreciate, and treasure, that Memory Book. Rick had studied the book for weeks afterwards, laughing and smiling over the many events mentioned that he hadn't thought of in years.
Even now, five years later, A.J. knew Rick wouldn’t extract revenge for the party, the pictures, or the memory book. Rick had always loved being the center of attention, and was touched by the time and effort his mother and brother had put into his fortieth birthday celebration.
Thus, A.J. was positive there would be no payback demanded of him for the party itself. The payback, if there was to be one, was going to be for the little game of, ‘Rick Simon, This Is Your Life!’ that had been played at the party, and one other minor incident that involved Rick spending most of the day of his birthday sitting alone in a San Diego jail cell.
A.J. had been thinking for weeks of what could possibly be done for the entertainment of the guests in between the end of dinner and the start of dancing. He wanted to do something special, something funny, with his brother being the brunt of the joke, but didn't know what that should be. Finally, A.J. thought of the old television show, This Is Your Life, and knew he'd hit upon the perfect idea.
The detective enlisted the help of people ranging from his mother, to several cousins, to Carlos and other old friends, to Downtown Brown. Just about anyone A.J. knew, whom he classified as a ‘ham,’ was cast in a role as a person from Rick's past. Some, like Carlos, played themselves. Others, like an older lady who was a close friend of the family, played the parts of people like Rick's high school English teacher, Mrs. Bartlett. A.J. himself acted as the M.C.
As long as he lived, A.J. didn't think he'd ever forget the look of puzzlement on Rick's face as he was called up front by his brother and made to sit on a chair on the pavilion’s stage.
A.J. had grinned at his brother that night as he announced, "That's right, folks. Rick's forty years old today! That's forty years of a lot of living! So much living, in fact, that we're sure Rick can't quite remember it all. So, to help Rick out, we've managed to gather many people from his past who have come here tonight, willing to share some of the highlights of Rick's life with him. Yes, Richard Simon, this is your life!"
Rick let out a small groan at all he could imagine he was in for. An hour passed in which family members and friends took great joy in reminding Rick of incidents from his youth and young adult years. By the time, This Is Your Life, drew to a close, the party was successfully underway.
As A.J. threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, he recalled the event that really demanded payback – the fact that Rick had spent his fortieth birthday in jail.
Rick's birthday had, conveniently enough, fallen on a Saturday, which made choosing the party date easy. What proved to be difficult, was keeping Rick occupied that day, and keeping him away from all the people involved in decorating the pavilion.
Up until the Friday before Rick's party, A.J. had it all worked out. Rick thought he would be celebrating his birthday at his brother's house with a small party in the early evening that would involve a cookout including a few close friends and Cecilia.
Rick threw a wrench in A.J.'s plans of having Saturday free to get everything done when he announced on Friday morning, "Hey, A.J., let's go fishin' tomorrow. Just you and me."
"I...I can't, Rick,” A.J. had said that day in the Simon and Simon office. “I've...I’ve already made plans to play tennis with Dean in the morning, and in the afternoon I need to grocery shop for your birthday cookout tomorrow night."
"Oh. Okay,” came the disappointed response. "Maybe I'll call Carlos and see if he wants to go."
At this point, A.J. was beginning to panic. He knew Carlos couldn't go fishing either, as his help had been enlisted for Saturday as well.
Trying to stall, A.J. asked, "Why the sudden urge to go fishing?"
"I don't know. I just wanna do something special. It is my birthday tomorrow, you know."
"Yes, Rick, I know. You've reminded me of that fact about a hundred times this week. I’m cooking for your birthday tomorrow night, and having twelve guests over. Isn't that enough of a celebration?”
Rick had turned away then, reaching for the phone. "Yeah, yeah, that's fine, A.J. I'd just like to do something during the day, too. I think I'll give Carlos a call."
A.J. listened to the one-sided conversation Rick had with Carlos, and then with three other friends. It was apparent to the blond man that every person Rick telephoned was quickly coming up with a hasty excuse as to why he couldn't go fishing the next day. Of course, A.J. knew why. Every person Rick had called was on A.J.'s list of party helpers.
After his fourth call, Rick slammed down the phone in disgust. "I can't believe this! Everyone's tied up tomorrow. Now what are the odds that all these guys would be busy on the same Saturday? You'd think there was something special like a wedding going on, or some kinda big shindig. Geez, I really wanted to go fishing, too. Sure you won't change your mind?"
"Uh...no. No, I can't. Not this week. But we can go next Saturday if you want to."
Rick had sounded like a little kid, then, as he said, "Next
Saturday won't be my birthday."
Rick had continued to grumble that morning until A.J. finally sent him out to get lunch. A.J. then took advantage of his time alone in the office to make a call to Town. In doing so, A.J. arranged for Rick to spend the better part of Saturday in one of San Diego's jail cells. Up until then, A.J. had been lucky and the impending party had been kept a secret. He was now afraid that Rick, in his quest to snare a fishing buddy, would find out about the party somehow. A.J. was determined that wasn't going to happen. He and his mother had worked too hard and for too long to have the surprise be found out only twenty-four hours before the big event.
Therefore, at nine Saturday morning, Rick had two uniformed officers knocking on the door of his boat with a warrant for his arrest. An irate Rick didn't even hear all the charges as he was led away in handcuffs, loudly proclaiming his innocence to all the accusations.
Mysteriously enough, Rick couldn't get a hold of his brother, his mother, Carlos, or anyone else who might be able to post bail for his release. Even Town, who was on duty that day, was "Much too busy to see you right now, Simon. He'll try to get down here later," Rick was repeatedly told by a guard during the eight hours of his incarceration.
Finally, Cecilia showed up shortly before five o'clock, explaining that Town had called her to come and get Rick because some terrible mistake had been made.
"You bet there's been a terrible mistake made!" Rick roared as he claimed his wallet, belt, pocket change, and hat. "And I'm goin' up to see Town about all this right now!"
Cecilia had told her raging oldest then that Town was already gone for the day, and that they might as well go, too. Rick could talk to Town on Monday because they needed to get to A.J.'s since it was after five and the cookout was about to begin.
As Cecilia drove her car through the streets of San Diego, Rick carried on about all he had endured that day. He was outraged that he had been thrown in a jail cell through no fault of his own, and evidently because of a screw-up made by some, "Damn paper pusher!"
Rick was so engrossed in his tirade that he never noticed the route his mother was driving wasn't taking them to the Grand Canal neighborhood where A.J. lived. It wasn't until they had pulled into the park, that Rick first became aware that something wasn't quite right.
"What are we doing here, Mom?"
"I have to pick something up at the pavilion and I need your help. It’s rather heavy. It'll only take a minute."
As Cecilia walked toward the distant pavilion, she could hear Rick grumbling as he followed her.
"This is the rottenest birthday I've ever had. First there's nobody to go fishing with, then I get stuck spending the day in jail, now I gotta be an errand boy. I can't wait until this day ends."
By the time mother and son reached the pavilion, Rick was in such a dark mood that he hadn’t taken notice of the bright streamers and helium balloons that adorned it. It wasn't until he looked up and saw a large banner that read, Happy Birthday, Rick!, that the detective took notice of the people he had seen from a distance, and realized they were all people he knew.
At that moment those people yelled as one, "Surprise!" and the party began.
As the night progressed, A.J. had wondered if Rick knew the day he had spent in jail was the working of his younger brother, or if he really did think it was the work of some, "Damn paper pusher," as Cecilia had related to her youngest that Rick seemed to believe. A.J. hoped Rick thought it was the latter, but that hope was dashed at ten o'clock that evening.
A.J. was on the dance floor with a lady friend of his, when Rick appeared with one of their female cousins as his own dance partner. As the older man passed by his younger brother, he stopped long enough to say, "You will pay for this, Andrew," and then danced away with a sly smile on his face.
A.J. could still recall looking at his girlfriend and saying, "I've got a feeling I'm in big trouble. He's never, in his entire life, called me Andrew. I don't think that's a good sign."
A.J. was reminded of that fact again at two-thirty in the morning. The last of the party guests had just departed, leaving only A.J. and his date, Town and Temple, Carlos and his wife, and Rick and Cecilia. A.J. was talking to Carlos and Town, when he noticed his mother saying good-bye to his older brother and wishing him one last, "Happy Birthday." A.J. moved away from the men, intent on seeing his mother to her car in the darkened parking lot, as well as driving his date home and calling it a night himself.
As A.J. came to stand beside Rick, he was engulfed in a bear hug and told, "Thanks for a super party, little brother. I know you put a lot of work into all this. It was terrific. I had a great time. Thanks."
A.J. had shrugged, still within the confines of his brother's arms. He started to break the hug, when the hold Rick had on him tightened.
"I'll get you for this, A.J.,” Rick whispered into his brother’s right ear. “I'll get you for this. You're gonna turn forty one of these days, too, ya’ know. And when you do, you'll pay. Believe me, you are going to pay."
A.J. recalled that he bravely laughed at his older brother's threat that night while saying, "In five more years you'll be so old that you will have forgotten all about tonight."
Rick had assured his brother then, that he'd never forget that night, not ever – and that’s what A.J. was afraid of.
A.J. came back to the present, almost five and a half years later now, as he made his bed.
Fat chance of me having to pay now, Rick. My birthday's over. It's a shame we've been too busy lately to worry about birthdays, and parties, and paybacks.
A.J. now suspected Rick's hints about a wild party and the foretelling of doom concerning the younger man's birthday, was all a put-on done purposely by his older brother in the hopes of driving him nuts. A.J. was well aware that Rick liked nothing better than to egg him on, and to get his temper riled. Rick had teased him that way ever since A.J. could remember.
Both Cecilia and Rick knew A.J. didn’t enjoy parties per se. Certainly not in the way Rick did. The blond man garnered more enjoyment out of a small dinner with his family, or an evening out with a few close friends, or a favorite lady.
And, even if there had been a party in the making, A.J. knew the plans would have gone by the wayside last week when Cecilia was unexpectedly called out of town for the funeral of a family member in Florida. Cecilia had flown from San Diego a week ago Tuesday, and hadn't returned until noon on Monday, A.J.'s birthday. Obviously, their mother couldn't get anything in the way of party preparations done while she was away, and A.J. knew Rick had been too busy with their heavy case load to get anything done himself.
Therefore, A.J.'s birthday had simply turned out to be another hectic working day. Rick had spent the day at the factory, and had also volunteered to take Monday night’s stakeout in honor of A.J.'s special day. That was a nice gesture on the part of Rick, but it didn't make much difference one way or another to the blond man. A.J. had to be at the home of a client at seven-thirty that evening to discuss an upcoming case the brothers had been hired to do.
A.J. felt like his whole day on Monday was spent in the car. First he was at the office, then at the courthouse, then at the police station, then sometime in between all that he remembered his mother's flight was due in at noon and he had to pick her up at the airport. As it was, A.J. arrived ten minutes late to find his mother waiting patiently for him, searching out her luggage.
It was one o'clock when A.J. pulled into his mother's driveway. He carried her suitcases into the house for her. As he said a hasty good-bye she stopped him.
"I'll see you at six tonight for your birthday dinner like we planned, honey."
"No, Mom, just forget it for tonight,” A.J. had protested. “You're tired. I don't want you to go to all that work. Besides, I've got to meet with a client at seven-thirty, and Rick will have to leave by eight or so. We're still staking-out that restaurant and he's taking tonight's shift.
strong-willed Cecilia wouldn't hear of the birthday boy not having something in
the way of a special day. "A.J., we had
this dinner set weeks ago and we're going to have it. I understand that
you and Rick will have to eat and run. That's all right. But I want us to be together on your
birthday, even if only for a little while.
I bet no one's even told you 'Happy Birthday' yet, have they?"
A.J. recalled the half smile that came to his face. "No, I guess not. I didn't see Rick yet today. He's at the factory. He probably forgot anyway."
Cecilia smiled as she got up on her tiptoes to kiss her son's cheek. "Oh, I don't think he did. Happy Birthday, sweetheart."
"Thanks, Mom, but I'm serious. We can forget dinner for tonight. It's been a busy couple of weeks for all of us. We can have dinner next week instead."
"No, we aren’t going to forget it. I won't go to a lot of trouble. Maybe I'll just grill some hamburgers. But regardless, I do expect you here by six o'clock. All right?"
Even at age forty, A.J. couldn't dispute a direct order from his mother. "All right, you win. I'll see you at six."
With that, A.J. left his boyhood home only to return that same evening, a few minutes after six. His brother's truck was already in the driveway, and as A.J. walked to the side kitchen door, he could smell hamburgers cooking on the patio grill. He walked in the kitchen and was greeted by his mother who kissed him and told him once again, "Happy Birthday." A.J. could see Rick through the glass patio doors, flipping hamburgers and singing along to the radio he had out there.
As Cecilia finished tossing a salad, A.J. commented in reference to the chocolate cake sitting on the countertop, "You shouldn't have gone to all this trouble. I don't need a cake."
"Everybody needs a cake on their birthday. And besides, it wasn't
that much trouble, so don't worry about it." Reluctantly, Cecilia
admitted, "I didn't have time to make one from scratch. It's from a box.”
“It doesn't matter if it's from scratch or from a box. If it was made by my mom, I know it'll be great."
Cecilia's youngest helped her carry everything out to the round iron table on the patio, and was greeted with, "Oh, geez, do you look old now, A.J. Man, my baby brother's forty! Hard to believe, isn't it, Mom? I mean, that this well dressed business man was once the annoying little kid that used to take up all the room in my bed, sucking on his thumb while I read him the same stories over and over."
A.J. just rolled his eyes while Rick laughed and told him, "Happy Birthday, little brother."
From there, dinner was a hurried affair, followed by A.J. blowing out one candle with the number 40 on it contributed by Rick, and then the opening of gifts.
Rick's present to his brother wasn't even wrapped. A.J. was handed an envelope across the table. Upon opening it, the younger man found four box seat tickets to a Padres game for a Sunday in late August. At that same time he was told, "You take whoever you want to the game, A.J." Smiling, Rick added, "As long as one of the people you take is me."
A.J. just shook his head at his older brother while handing one of the tickets back to him. "You might as well hang on to this then. Nothing like giving me a present and telling me exactly how I'm supposed to use it, Rick. Thanks."
"You're welcome," Rick told his sibling, who wasn't doing a very good job of pretending to be annoyed. The twinkle in A.J.'s eyes was giving him away.
A.J. said one last round of thank yous to his mother and brother for the little party and gifts, then rose and kissed his mom good-bye. It was seven o'clock by then, and if he didn't leave he’d never make it to his client's home by seven-thirty.
"Sorry I can't help you with the dishes, Mom. Can I at least carry some of this in the house for you before I head out?"
"No, you go ahead. Rick and I will clean things up in a few minutes. And don't worry about the dishes. Your brother's going to help me tonight."
A.J.'s eyes had grown wide with mock astonishment. "You mean Rick's actually going to do the dishes? He's not just going to stand in the kitchen and pretend to help like usual?"
"That's right, little brother. It's another birthday present from me to you."
A.J.'s last comment as he left to go to his car that night was a sarcastic, "Boy, it's too bad I had to have forty birthdays before I got to see this big event occur."
A.J. could still remember laughing as Rick's shout reached his ears. "Any more smart remarks like that, A.J., and you won't live to see another birthday! I can guarantee that!"
Finishing with the bed, A.J. went to the dresser and grabbed his work-out clothes, still smiling as he recalled Monday. All in all it hadn't been such a bad birthday. Too hectic maybe, and he didn't get to spend as much time with his family as he would have liked that evening, but at least none of Rick's dire predictions had come true. It had actually been a very quiet day. And now A.J. had the peace of mind knowing none of Rick's threats from the last month would come to pass. Their lives were just too busy right at the moment. Even last Saturday had been spent at the office, and both Saturday and Sunday night they had each taken a turn at the stakeout site. This weekend didn't look to be much better, as indications were that the case involving the stakeout wasn't going to come to an end anytime soon. He and Rick would have to discuss this weekend's schedule today.
A.J. was immensely relieved to suddenly realize there was no way he was going to become the victim of one of his brother's wild schemes, or be the center of attention at some raucous party filled with nude women and other...interesting things only Rick Simon could think of.
Looking at the clock, A.J. saw it was now six forty-five. He knew he'd better get moving if he was going to box for thirty minutes before showering, eating, and leaving for the office by eight-thirty. As he hurried down the stairs, all thoughts of his recent birthday left A.J. as he focused on the busy day ahead.
At two o'clock that same afternoon, the door to the Simon and Simon office opened. Cecilia peered around it, cautiously looking inside. When the only son she saw was Rick, she asked softly, "A.J.'s not back yet, is he?"
Rick stood up from behind his desk and waved his mother in.
"No, Mom, come on in. He's down at the library going through microfiche of old newspaper articles for a case we're working on. He's not planning on being back here for a couple of hours yet."
"Good," Cecilia replied as she sat down on the couch, motioning for Rick to sit next to her. "I was afraid he'd be back before I got here. I wanted to leave the house as soon as you called, but just as I was walking out the door the phone rang. It was your Aunt Marion wanting to know all about the funeral and my visit in Florida. I didn't think I'd ever get off the phone with her."
“Don't worry about it. We've got plenty of time."
“Good,” Cecilia said. “I think everything's all set, honey. I talked to Betty today. The catering is taken care of, and she'll make the cake tomorrow morning, so in terms of food we’re ready. She said we could get into the banquet hall any time tomorrow afternoon to decorate. She's been so helpful. I'm glad you thought of going through her for all this."
"Yeah, she's a nice lady. She was happy with the work A.J. and I did for her last year, so I guess that helps. I think she feels like she kinda owes us one."
"Yes, she has mentioned that several times. That, and the fact that she thinks A.J. is handsome. She's told me at least ten times in the last three weeks, 'Mrs. Simon, both your boys are very good-looking men. Your A.J. is especially handsome, and so sweet, too.' I think she has the hots for your brother, Rick."
Rick laughed. "I told A.J. that last year. He sure denied it loudly enough."
"I can understand why. Did you know Betty's older than I am? She told me she's seventy-three."
"Yeah, I know. I kept tellin' A.J. she was on the prowl for a young guy who could offer her some adventure and excitement in her later years. He didn't find that too funny."
"Well, regardless of what he thinks, this has worked out to our advantage. We rented the hall for one hundred dollars less than she normally charges, and she's giving us an excellent price on the food. I have a suspicion she's even making more than what we ordered. She keeps asking me what some of A.J.'s favorite dishes are."
"A.J. has power over women of all ages, Mom, whether he’ll admit to it or not." Changing the subject, Rick said, "I called Al a little while ago. He’s set with the music. When I talked to him a few months ago I told him to bring the same kind of stuff he had at my party, then I remembered that he had played quite a bit of country. I told him today he could leave that at home. A.J.'ll have a fit if Hank Williams, Jr. starts blarin’ out of those speakers. I also asked Al to bring a little jazz and big band. He thought that request was kinda strange, but he said he'd bring some anyway."
“Why did Al think that request was so strange?"
"He said he only gets requests for that kind of music at seventieth birthday parties. I guess he thought that was a strange type music for a forty year old guy to like." Rick shrugged his shoulders. "I told him A.J. is a strange kind of person who has moronic tastes in music."
"Rick, don't pick on your brother."
Ignoring that little scolding, Rick said, "I'll drop the helium tank off at the hall in the morning. Betty's gonna meet me there before I come to work. I just have to pick it up from Carlos tonight on my way home. I gave you the balloons Monday night, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did. I've got them in the trunk of my car along with the banners and other decorations. And speaking of balloons, Rick, all you gave me were black ones! Aren't we going to have any other color at this party but black? I thought it was bad enough when you told Betty you wanted black table cloths, and when you had me write on the invitations that everyone was to dress in black, but now black balloons, too?"
"They're not all black, Mom. Some of them have white writing on them that say ‘Over the Hill.’ Besides, everything has to be in black since this is an official ‘Over the Hill’ party. Don't you go sneakin' off and buying other colors on me."
"I won’t,” Cecilia promised, despite her longing for this to look more like a birthday celebration than a funeral. “I have a feeling this party is going to be very interesting. Do you have everything ready for the roast you're doing of your brother?"
"Yep. I heard from Town yesterday, He'll be able to make it down,
so everyone's ready. Do you know what you're gonna say?"
"Yes, I'm ready,” Cecilia assured. “Don't worry."
Rick pointed a finger at his mother. "Whatever you say better be as embarrassing to A.J. as it was to me five years ago when you participated in ‘This Is Your Life.’"
Cecilia laughed. "I wasn't trying to embarrass you. I just tell it like it is, dear."
"Yeah, yeah. Well, you tell it like it is tomorrow night, too. Don't spare my brother just because he's your baby," Rick teased, before growing serious again. "I'm sorry I had to push so much of this off on you. I didn't mean for it to work out this way. If I can, I'll stop by and try to help with some of the decorating, but I can't promise that. A.J. and I have something to do for a client tomorrow afternoon that's going to take both of us. There's no way I can get out of it without making him suspicious."
"That's all right. You boys have been so busy this month, too busy, as a matter of fact. I don't mind helping in any way I can. And don't worry about helping us decorate. I don't want A.J. figuring out what we have planned at this late date. I don't think he suspects a thing, do you?"
"No, not at all. Especially since you laid it on so thick on Monday night about how you were sorry everything was so rushed, and then told him it wasn't fair that I had a party for my fortieth and he didn't get one."
"Yes, that was pretty good acting on my part, wasn't it?" Cecilia smiled. "Anyway, Edie and your Aunt Pat are going to help me decorate tomorrow afternoon, and Pat said Kevin would stop by on his way home from work to see if we need him to do anything for us that requires heavy lifting or climbing. Overall, we’re as ready as we can be."
"Sounds like it," Rick commented. "Oh, did you do something with pictures?"
"Yes, I did. I didn't want copy what we did for your birthday, so I pulled out of the photo album several five-by-seven and eight-by-ten photos I had and put them in frames. All I have to do is hang them up when we decorate tomorrow."
"I hope you picked out one that will embarrass A.J., just like that one you used five years ago embarrassed me. You know, the one where I’m layin’ on that bearskin rug naked as a jaybird. I happen to know my little brother personally chose that one and told you to use it."
Cecilia laughed at her oldest. "Well, I don't have any like that of A.J. Come to think of it, I don't know why we never had one like that taken of him, but we didn't. I guess we just never got around to it. But, I am using his high school graduation picture. I think that about evens the score, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah," Rick said with glee. "A.J. really hates that
picture. Remember how Janet always told A.J. he looked just like a Ken doll in
that picture 'cause of the way his hair was combed, and that big cheesy smile
he has on his face?"
Cecilia nodded. "Yes, I do remember that. She used to tease A.J. unmercifully about that picture.” Changing the subject, Cecilia asked, "What about the stakeout tomorrow night, Rick? I know A.J.'s planning on working it."
"Yeah, he is, but I've got it all taken care of. One of the guys who works for Abby sometimes moonlights for A.J. and me when we're in a bind. I've got Mike hired to do the stakeout. Everything's all set, which is good, considering A.J. would kill me if I didn't have somebody workin' this job while the party's goin' on. Now all I have to do is figure out how to keep A.J. from going to the stakeout, and how to get him to the party. I haven't quite come up with how I'm going to accomplish that yet."
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Cecilia said as she rose from the couch. It was time for her to head home. She didn't want her youngest son to catch her here this afternoon. "If you can't come up with any ideas, call me. Maybe I can think of something."
Rick stood and walked his mother to the door. "Oh, I'll come up with something. I'm sure of that, Mom. I don't know what it's gonna be yet, but I do know I owe my little brother a payback in a big way for that jail stunt he pulled on me.”
Cecilia just shook her head. "I don't think I want to hear anymore about this, but I am going to tell you the same thing I told A.J. five years ago, Rick."
"And what was that?"
“Go ahead and have your fun, but remember, this is your brother's birthday party and I want him to have a good time. Don't do anything that will spoil the night for him."
"You told A.J. that five years ago, huh?"
"Yes, I did."
"He didn't listen very well then, did he?" Rick teased with a grin.
Cecilia knew her oldest son too well to be fooled. "Rick, you had a wonderful time at your birthday party, and don't try to tell me any differently. I know better."
Rick chuckled and kissed his mother's cheek. "Yeah, I sure did. It was a great party. A.J.'s is gonna be great, too. Don't worry, Mom. I won't torture him too much. He'll have a good time."
"Good," Cecilia replied as she headed out the door. Over her shoulder she called, "I'll tell you the other thing I told A.J. five years ago. If he asks me, I know absolutely nothing about your schemes. As his mother, I get to deny all knowledge of any pranks pulled on him."
Rick laughed and agreed as he watched his mother enter the elevator. "Okay, Mom, you're got yourself a deal."
Friday morning A.J. was alone in the Simon and Simon office doing backlogged paperwork. He glanced at his watch to see it was ten thirty-five.
Rick’ll be here soon. With his help, I should be able to make a dent in these reports.
Rick had been on the previous night's stakeout duty. Since the brothers had no clients to meet with, or other obligations that required the two of them to be present this morning, Rick had made arrangements to come in late.
Hey, A.J., I probably won’t be in until around ten-thirty or so tomorrow morning,” Rick had said as the brothers left the office shortly after five on Thursday evening. I’ve got a few errands to run.
A.J. hadn’t questioned Rick as to what those errands might be. The hours the men had been working the past few weeks had barely allowed for the chance to get to a grocery store, or bank, or any number of other places that were necessary on a frequent basis.
A.J. pushed his chair away from his desk, stretching his legs for a moment and enjoying the comfort of blue jeans and tennis shoes. He would never admit it to Rick, but A.J. looked forward to the days he allowed himself to come to the office informally dressed. A suit and tie was the type of attire A.J. required of himself when meeting with a client, especially for the first time. But on days like today when no appointments were scheduled, A.J. enjoyed his casual dress of jeans and a short sleeve shirt.
Aside from the fact that the blond man wasn't expecting any clients, he and his brother also had to leave the office shortly after noon for a little ‘bug’ planting operation that would require crawling through a large ventilation system in a downtown office building. A.J. had ruined more than one pair of expensive dress slacks over the years on such a job. Therefore, he had finally learned to listen when Rick told him, "A.J., you don't have to dress like you're goin' to a wedding all the time. Nobody cares what you look like. Especially me when I'm stuck sittin' in a swamp with you all night."
The job the brothers had today was the reason, not just for A.J.'s attire, but also for the pair of denim coveralls thrown over the arm of the couch that bore the logo on the back, Will Kill Pest Control. The 'Will Kill' exterminators would be planting the bugs this afternoon, a fact which Rick had found hilarious the previous day when he and A.J. had mapped out today's strategy.
A.J. had just returned to his paperwork when the door opened and Rick walked in carrying a bag in his hand. He headed to the small refrigerator that the coffee maker sat on and put the bag in it.
"I stopped by the deli and got us a couple of sub sandwiches and some chips for lunch. I figured we wouldn't have time to get anything before we had to leave."
A.J. eyed his brother. "Thanks...I...uh...want to get through as much of this paperwork as I can before we have to leave. Eating here will help." A.J. couldn't hold back any longer as he asked Rick what was really on his mind. "What's this? Your Johnny Cash imitation?"
That question was prompted by Rick's outfit of black jeans, black shirt, and a black cowboy hat that A.J. had never seen before. As a matter of fact, A.J. wasn't aware that his brother even owned such a hat.
Rick shrugged his shoulders as he walked over to his desk. "Just felt like a different look today, that's all."
"You look different, all right," came the smart remark Rick chose to ignore. A.J. looked his brother over one more time, then asked, "Isn't that my shirt?"
"No, it's not your shirt. I think you've got one like it, but this one's mine."
"Oh, okay," A.J. said as he turned his attention back to the work on his desk.
Rick had to hide his smile as began leafing through his own pile of paperwork.
Boy, A.J., after forty years of being my brother, I'd think you would have learned a thing or two by now.
For indeed, the shirt Rick was wearing did belong to his younger brother. Upon discovering he didn't own a black shirt to wear to A.J.'s party tonight, Rick had taken advantage of his brother's empty house on Tuesday evening and had raided A.J.'s closet, ‘borrowing’ the black shirt he knew he would find hanging there.
What the heck, Rick had thought to himself then. It's not like A.J.'s gonna need this Friday night. He's going to be the only one at his party not dressed in black, since he's the only one who doesn't know about his party and my required dress code.
At fifteen minutes after twelve, two empty soda cans, two empty potato chip bags, and two empty sandwich wrappers were deposited in the garbage can as the detectives finished their lunch. A.J. walked to the couch and picked up his coveralls, slipping them on over his jeans. He stopped there and took off the shirt he was wearing. He knew from experience he'd get too hot with it on, especially since today's job required crawling around in a small, confined space.
A.J. finished zipping the one-piece suit, picked up his shirt, and
headed for the door with his brother following. As the two men walked down the
hallway A.J. asked, "Where are your coveralls?"
"I left 'em in the truck. I figured we'd be taking it to the job. I doubt if anybody's gonna believe we're from a pest control company if we pull up in your Camaro."
"Good point," A.J. conceded as the men entered the elevator.
The detectives trekked through the small parking lot outside the office building heading to Rick's truck, which was parked against the curb. Having arrived so late this morning, Rick had no choice but to park on the street since the lot was already full.
The brothers were discussing details involving the afternoon's case when A.J. stopped in his tracks. Rick had continued walking and talking, not noticing he no longer had a companion until he didn't get an answer to a question. He turned around to see what had become of his younger brother, only to observe A.J. standing in an empty parking space, arms akimbo.
"A.J., come on! We gotta get movin' here, we're gonna be late."
"Rick! My car's gone!"
"A.J., your car isn't gone. It can't be."
"What do you mean it isn't gone? Of course it's gone! Do you see a car here, or didn’t you notice I'm standing in an empty spot?"
Rick walked toward his sibling. "What I mean is, are you sure you parked it there?"
A.J.'s blood pressure was rising with each passing moment. "Of course I parked it here! I've parked it here every day for the last five years! Where else could it be?"
"Maybe Mom borrowed it and forgot to tell you."
The look on the blond man's face told his older brother how much value A.J. put on that idea.
"Rick, Mom doesn't even have a set of keys to my car. She couldn't have taken it without my knowing it unless she's suddenly started hot-wiring automobiles in her spare time. Besides, when have you ever known Mom to drive around San Diego in my Camaro? And besides, Mom's not even home today. She was going to L.A. today with Edie and some other friends. Somehow I can't picture seven women over the age of sixty crammed into my Camaro while cruising the freeway."
"You never know with Mom, A.J."
A.J. decided that last comment wasn't even worth replying to, therefore, he didn't.
"Where are you goin'?" Rick asked as A.J. stomped toward the building.
“To call Abby!"
Rick ran to catch up with his brother. "What are you calling her for?"
“Rick, my car has been stolen,” A.J. explained through clenched teeth.
“Abby is a police officer. I believe the two kind of go together, don't
"Yeah, yeah, I suppose. But I still think you're jumping to conclusions."
"Jumping to conclusions! Oh sure, Rick, I'm jumping to conclusions! Gee, maybe my car decided it needed some exercise and took itself for a little drive. Or, maybe the Car Fairy came and is changing it into a Porsche for me."
A.J. went ranted on as Rick trailed behind him quietly, barely able to keep the smile from his face that was trying so hard to appear.
Twenty minutes later A.J. was still on the phone with Abby. Actually, he was on hold with Abby, waiting for her to get back to him regarding his stolen vehicle. The only good thing so far was that Abby was being cooperative. She had agreed to take all the necessary information over the phone and pass it on to the right department, in light of the fact that the Simon brothers had a job to get to.
A.J. paced back and forth while he waited for Abby to come back on the line. He walked as far as the telephone cord would allow, then was forced to untangle himself before starting the whole routine over again.
“I’ll tell you, Rick, when I get a hold of the guy who stole my car he’ll wish he could spend a few nights behind bars. When I’m through with him he’ll be lucky if he can still walk, let alone drive a car. I’ll--
Rick ducked his head in order to hide his smile.
Good thing you’ve got a strong heart, kid, or I'd be doin' CPR on you right about now. I bet your blood pressure is sky high. Watching in disguised delight all that was happening in front of him, Rick thought with glee, "Oh man, A.J., you really deserve this, and it's workin' out perfectly."
A.J. stopped his one-sided tirade as Abby came back on the line.
"Yeah, Abby, I'm here."
Rick would have had to be deaf not to hear the remainder of A.J.'s conversation with the woman.
“No...no...there's no way! Abby! No! Absolutely not!
“Abby...that's not true! I haven't had so much as a speeding ticket in six years.
“Well, what am I supposed to do now?
“Okay, Okay. I'll be there as soon as I can. It'll be at least two or three hours though. Rick and I have to get this job done first.
A.J. finished the conversation with, “Yeah, good-bye,” before slamming the receiver into its cradle.
"What was that all about?"
"Abby says my car was towed away because of unpaid parking tickets. I don't have any unpaid tickets! The last ticket I got was a speeding ticket six or seven years ago."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure! I'd know if I had any unpaid parking tickets." A.J.’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You didn't get any parking tickets at any time when you've borrowed my car that you haven't told me about, have you?"
"No, A.J. Not me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I wouldn't lie to you about this, A.J. I know how upset you are, and how hard you worked for that car."
A.J. could tell Rick was being honest with him, so he dropped any further discussion in that area as he rubbed the tense muscles in his neck.
"What did Abby say you needed to do to get this mess straightened out?"
"She said I'd have to go down the station and pay the parking tickets, which I have absolutely no intention of doing since they're not mine to begin with. Therefore, my other choice is to see someone in Traffic Violations and go through a bunch of hassles to prove this has been a mistake. Abby said it could take a few hours to get it all squared away, but that every once in a while this sort of thing happens to some innocent person." Rolling his eyes, A.J. finished with, "I guess that was supposed to make me feel better."
On that note, Rick rose from the couch and headed for the door. "Come on then, let's get this job done, then I'll drive you to the station. Don't worry about it. It'll all work out."
"Easy for you to say," A.J. mumbled as he followed his older brother out the door.
As he turned to shut the door, Rick saw A.J.'s shirt lying on his desk. He started to point that fact out to his brother, only to see A.J. was already punching the elevator buttons. Rick stepped back into the office picked up the shirt.
It's a good thing you got me to watch out for you, kid. I don't know how you'd ever survive without a big brother.
A.J. was almost...almost, put in a better mood a half an hour later as Rick went through his, 'Will Kill Pest Control' slogan with the receptionist in the office building they were entering. As Rick informed the young lady, "If they fly, they die. If they crawl, they fall," A.J. had to turn away to hide his smile. No matter how many times he heard his older brother give this spiel, A.J. still found it funny.
Now though, even his brother’s drama skills couldn't completely shake A.J.'s dark mood as he and Rick worked in the relatively empty office building. The two detectives had been hired to track down the person, or persons, from within the company who had been giving out some highly classified information to a local competitor. The personnel director who had contacted the brothers had set up this week for them to come in and do the start of their work, since the firm was at a quarter of its usual staff due to major renovations. Therefore, Rick and A.J. fit right in with the many other coverall clad men who were walking around that afternoon carrying paint brushes, toolboxes, and electrical cables.
An hour and a half into their work, Rick looked at his watch to see the time he and A.J. had guessed this would take was just about right. Another forty-five minutes would find them done and on their way.
Rick crawled forward in the cramped ventilation shaft; A.J. close behind handing him the things he asked for. Spending the last hour and a half crawling in and out of the massive duct system that ran throughout this building had not improved A.J.'s mood any. The blond detective had little to say, and when he did speak, he was grumbling over the towed car. Rick almost felt sorry for his brother. Almost, but not quite. All the oldest Simon brother had to do was recall the eight hours he spent locked in a jail call five years earlier. That thought alone made Rick decide he didn't feel sorry for A.J. at all.
A.J. had just finished connecting tiny wires of a bug Rick had installed. Rick was in the process of asking his brother to hand him another one, when he heard a loud, "Damn it!"
Because of their cramped quarters, and because of the way they were laying on their stomachs, and with A.J.’s head beneath Rick’s feet, Rick couldn't clearly see his brother.
"I cut my hand on one of these damn vents."
"Is it bad?"
"No, no, it's okay,” A.J. assured as he reached for his hankie and wrapped his hand. “Let's just get done and get out of here."
Twenty minutes later, A.J. asked, "Rick, do you have a handkerchief
with you? One that's at least relatively clean?"
"Uh...I need another one to wrap my hand with. The blood's soaking
"You said it wasn't bad!"
"It's not! I just need something else to wrap it with. Now can I
have your handkerchief or not?"
"Yeah, all right. Just a second," Rick replied as he struggled to give his brother the requested hankie. That quest didn't prove easy since Rick had to roll first on his back so he could unzip his coveralls, then he rolled on his side so he could reach inside his coveralls to his back jeans pocket. After all this maneuvering Rick was finally able to hand his handkerchief to his brother. "Sometimes you're more trouble than you're worth, you know that?"
"Yeah, yeah," a preoccupied A.J. answered as he rewrapped his hand. "So sell me to someone else who's looking for a little brother."
"I hate to tell you this, A.J., but I tried that once about thirty-seven years ago without any luck. Nobody else wants you."
"Oh well, guess you're stuck with me then."
"That's what Mom keeps tellin' me," Rick replied as he resumed his interrupted work.
The two men finished up ten minutes later and exited the building. They headed for Rick's truck while carrying their exterminating equipment.
"Let's put this stuff in the back and go to the station," A.J. said as he hurried ahead of his brother.
It was when Rick caught up with the blond man by the back of the truck, that he got his first good look at A.J.'s hand.
"A.J., that hand's still bleeding!"
"Don't worry about it,” A.J. said as he quickly stripped off his coveralls and put them in the truck’s bed. He walked to the cab, opened the passenger door, grabbed his polo shirt, and shrugged into it. “Let's go. I want to get my car back."
Rick shook his head in exasperation. "Unwrap that hand and let me see it."
"Rick, no! Come on, let's go."
"A.J.! Unwrap that hand! Now."
Even the stubborn A.J. didn't ignore his older brother when he used that tone of voice. A.J. unwrapped the two blood soaked handkerchiefs from his left hand in angry, jerky movements.
Rick took hold of his brother's forearm and looked at the jagged, deep cut that started at the base of A.J.'s little finger and stopped just below his wrist. "I thought you said it wasn't serious."
"It's not. Just forget it, will you? I want--"
"To get your car. I know. You've told me that often enough in the last two hours." Rick let go of A.J.'s arm and began removing his own coveralls as he ordered, "Wrap that hand back up. We're goin' to the Emergency Room."
"A.J., cool it, will ya'? That cut's deep. You're gonna have to have stitches. You can't go down to the station and bleed all over everybody. Let's get your hand taken care of first, then we'll get the car."
“It's not that bad,” A.J. protested as the brothers climbed in the truck. “I don't need to go to the hospital."
“Would you quit being so damn hard-headed! Your car's not going anywhere for chrissake! It's been impounded behind a chain link fence since before noon. A couple more hours isn't going to make any difference. Now we're goin' to the hospital, and I don't much care whether you want to or not."
A.J. had to bite his tongue to keep from losing his temper any further. "This has been a hell of a day so far. I wonder what else will go wrong?"
Rick kept his attention focused on the road, choosing not to answer that particular question at the present time.
You don't wanna know, kid. Believe me, you don't wanna know.
The brothers had to sit in the E.R. of County General Hospital awaiting A.J.'s turn to see a doctor for almost two hours. At least in that time A.J.'s hand had quit bleeding, thanks in part to a nurse who had provided him with a gauze compress to hold against it.
A.J. was now seated on an examining table, getting the hand bandaged by Dr. Raj. Prior to the bandage, the deep cut had been thoroughly cleaned and twelve stitches had been put in.
"Ah, yes, J.A., soon you will be as new as good. You come back to see me next Friday, and we will be able to remove those sutures with no problem at all."
"Thanks, Raj," A.J. replied as the Indian doctor finished up with him.
"Now, J.A., when was your last tetanus shot?"
"I...I don't know...but I'm sure I don't need one," A.J. had already been given a shot of Novocain before the stitches were put in. As far as he was concerned, one shot was enough.
"Oh, yes, J.A. Nasty, nasty cut. If you cannot remember when you had your last shot for tetanus, we must now give you one."
At this point, Rick decided he couldn't let his brother suffer any more. Having the car towed away was the payback from the jail stunt five years ago, A.J.'s cut hand and the unexpected trip to the hospital was not.
“As much as I'd like to tell you to make sure you use a real long needle and give my little brother a shot right in his butt, it's not necessary, Raj,” Rick said with a grin. “A.J. had a tetanus shot two years ago when we had that accident and he cut his head on the frame of the truck."
"I don't remember getting any shot then."
"That's 'cause you were unconscious at the time."
Satisfied with Rick's answer, Raj moved to a cabinet and began putting away the things he had used while working on A.J.'s hand. Rick took advantage of the fact that a nurse with whom A.J. had gone to high school had just come into the room to visit with the blond, as he subtly moved to stand beside Raj.
While A.J. and the woman were catching up on who was doing what, and who was living where, Rick asked quietly, "Would you give A.J. some aspirin to take, Raj?"
"Why is this necessary, Ricky?"
"Well...uh...he's had kind of a tense day you, might say, and it, uh...may get a little more tense before I get him to the party tonight. I just wanna prevent the headache I'm sure he's got coming on, if you know what I mean."
"Ah, Ricky, you must be up to no good. Naughty, naughty, naughty. But, yes, I can give J.A. something for that headache you will surely cause him."
A.J. said good-bye to his old high school friend as Raj walked over to him carrying a cup of water and two Tylenol.
"J.A., take these, please. And here are two more for later if you need them."
Looking at the tablets, A.J. asked, "What are these for?"
"When the Novocain wears off, your hand may bother you. Therefore, I am prescribing some preventative medicine."
A.J. shrugged and swallowed the Tylenol, pocketing the other two as he got off the table.
The Simon brothers walked to the door, followed by Raj. As Rick opened the swinging door, A.J. turned and said again, "Thanks for everything, Raj."
"You're welcome. I shall see you later tonight, J.A."
Oh no! Rick thought as he shook his head at Raj from behind A.J.’s back. Only two and a half hours to go until the party and the secret’s out.
Fortunately Raj realized his slip as A.J. said, “What do you mean, you’ll see me later tonight?”
“Oh yes, yes. I may see you again tonight, J.A. It is a full moon, you know. That is not good. No, no, no. Many accidents occur when the moon is full. You and Ricky must be very careful."
Chalking the conversation up to Raj and his quirky ways, A.J. assured, "I'll be careful, Raj, believe me. One trip to the hospital in a day is more than enough."
"That is good, J.A. Good-bye, Ricky. Good-bye, J.A." With that, the Indian doctor made his way to the examining room across the hall, while the detectives headed out of the hospital. Rick breathed an internal sigh of relief when A.J. made no mention of Raj's last comment. Instead, the blond began talking about getting to the police station - his mind only on his impounded vehicle.
It was six-thirty on Rick's watch when he and his brother exited the building that housed the San Diego Police Department.
"I can't believe this! How is it possible that not one person in that building knows a thing about my car?"
"I don't know," Rick replied as the brothers walked up to the pickup truck. "There must be some mix-up like they told you."
"Mix-up! How can there be a mix-up over a car that was towed here at eleven o'clock this morning? How can the police department lose a car? My car!"
"I don't know,” Rick said as he started the truck’s engine. “But we walked through that impound yard three times and it sure wasn't there."
"Yeah, not only was my car not there, but neither was Abby, or Mike, or Gail, or Bill. Not one person I know that could have helped me out was there. The only people there for me to talk to were a bunch of rookie cops who don't look like they're graduated from high school yet, who kept saying, ‘We're sorry, Mr. Simon, we don't have any record of a Camaro being towed here today.’"
Rick pulled out of the parking lot as A.J. continued to rant about the last hour they had spent in the station, and how no one had been able to help him.
Of course no one could help you, A.J. They're all waiting for us at the banquet hall."
"Would you just calm down. You'll get a hold of Abby one way or another. Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it? Don't worry about it! You've been saying that all afternoon. Rick, that's a twenty thousand dollar automobile! Don't tell me not to worry about it!"
"Look, we're private eyes for God’s sake. If Abby doesn't know anything more about your car, we'll find it ourselves. We do this sort of thing for people all the time."
"I'm not worried about whether we'll find it or not. I know we'll find it. What I'm worried about is what kind of shape we'll find it in."
"Well, it hasn't been stolen. Abby told you she saw it in the impound yard. Someone probably moved it. And besides, it couldn't have been stolen. Everyone in our building would have heard that damn car alarm go off if it had been," Rick informed his brother while making a left hand turn.
"No, Rick, everyone in our building would have ignored the car alarm if it had been stolen, because you set it off so often, nobody pays any attention to it anymore!"
"It's not my fault that damn thing doesn't work right."
"The car alarm works fine. It's you that doesn't work right."
Rick threw his brother a wilting glance. "You better be nice to me, bucko. I just might be your only means of transportation for while."
"I knew you'd get around to bringing that up sooner or later." A.J. sighed heavily. "This day sure didn't turn out the way I had planned it."
"Why? What'd you have
"After we were done with our job this afternoon I assumed we'd go back to the office and get some of that paperwork finished that's been piling up on us. Then I wanted to go home at four and catch a couple of hours of sleep before I had to leave for the stakeout tonight." A.J. glanced at his watch. "That's a lost cause now."
"Forget about the stakeout. I'll drop you off at your place and take the shift for tonight."
"No, I don't want you to do that. If you don't need the truck tonight, I'll run you by the marina and just use it."
"Nah, I don't need it. But, I can take the stakeout. Maybe with your hand and all you should take the night off," Rick said, deciding to play the game out to its fullest extent so his brother wouldn’t grow suspicious.
"A few stitches in my hand won’t affect my ability to sit in your truck watching the back door of a restaurant."
"Okay, have it your way. Where to now?"
"Let's run by my place for a minute. I’d like to call Abby. Since she did see my car, maybe she knows what happened to it."
"Yeah, I'm sure she does," Rick agreed. "Don't worry about it, A.J. Abby will get it straightened out."
"I sure hope so."
Fifteen minutes later, A.J. stopped his brooding long enough to observe his surroundings. "Hey! What are we going this way for? This isn't the way to my house."
"Oh, guess I forget to tell you. Betty Zelman called yesterday afternoon while you were out of the office and wants to hire us again. I told her we'd stop by the hall sometime today. We've got time before you have to leave for the stakeout, so I figure we might as well see her now."
"Rick, I'd like to go home and call Abby! Besides, we can’t take on another case now. We’re spread too thin as it is."
Rick shrugged his shoulders. "I know, but she's a nice lady, and she paid us a big bonus last year on that other job we did for her. I kinda figured that alone makes it worth our time." Rick tossed his brother an evil grin. "And besides, she's got a thing for you."
"Need I remind you, she's older than our mother."
"Yeah, but she sure can cook."
"Oh, yes, Heaven forbid I forget the most important criteria on the 'Rick Simon Potential Wife List.’ She's got to be a good cook."
"Or, 'Potential Sister-In-Law List.’ I think Betty's the kind of woman I could grow to love just like I would a sister. Plus, she and Mom would have a lot in common. I don't know, A.J., this just might be the right woman for you."
Rick arrived at the banquet hall from a side road that led to the back service door. Rick didn't want to use the main road that the building faced since the hall's parking lot was adjacent to it. A.J. was bound to recognize the majority of the cars parked there if he took notice, especially their mother's Mercedes.
Rick looked at his watch again and smiled. It was five minutes to seven.
This couldn’t have worked out better.
All the party attendees were to be in place by six-thirty, with Rick having promised his mother he'd arrive with A.J. at seven or shortly after. Cecilia, knowing her sons’ often erratic work schedule, had been adamant when informing her oldest that dinner would be served promptly at seven-thirty, so come hell or high water, her children would make their appearance sometime before then. As she had told Rick at the time, "I've hosted enough parties and family get-togethers that you boys haven't made it to because you're peeping in someone's windows. I expect you and A.J. there on time Friday night, Rick."
Rick had no doubt his mother meant business and had simply promised, "Yes, ma'am, we'll be there on time."
After making that promise, Rick was relieved to find they were on time. The unscheduled trip to the hospital had him worried that he would give his mother reason to disown him. Fortunately, things moved along faster at the police station than Rick had anticipated, and A.J. hadn't pulled some stubborn stunt like insisting on sitting there for however long it took the cops to locate the missing vehicle.
As Rick turned into the small back parking lot of the hall, A.J. exclaimed, "My car! That's my car!"
Sure enough, parked all by itself at the back entrance, was an '88 red Camaro.
"A.J., that's not your car. How can it be your car? There's at least a couple of thousand cars like that in San Diego."
"Rick, that's my car.” A.J. pointed. “That's my license plate number."
Looking through the windshield of his truck, Rick squinted in the evening sun. "Oh, guess you're right. That is your car."
Rick hadn't even brought the truck to a complete stop before A.J. jumped out of it and jogged to his car.
"How the hell did it get here?" the blond wondered, while meticulously checking the vehicle for scratches and dents.
Rick pocketed his keys and joined his brother by the Camaro. "Maybe Betty put the police up to impounding your car as a way of gettin' you here alone."
"Real funny, Rick," A.J. said, throwing his brother a dirty look. "If Dad were here today he'd regret ever having encouraged your warped sense of humor back when you were a kid."
"Think so, huh? Actually, I think he'd find me pretty amusing."
"No, he'd just find you pretty annoying, like I do."
Rick changed the subject as he walked to the back entrance that would take the brothers into the kitchen. "Come on, let’s go in and find Betty."
A.J. trailed behind his older brother, shaking his head in confusion. "This is all really weird. I mean first my car is towed for unpaid parking tickets that aren’t mine to begin with, and then the police claim they can’t find record of it when it’s not in their impound yard. Now, we come here to talk to Betty about a job, and presto, my car magically appears."
“Which just goes to show, you’re never too old to believe in magic.”
A.J. looked at his brother eyes narrowed by suspicion. "All right, what's going on here? What do you know about all this?"
Rick stopped walking and turned to face his brother. "I don't know any more than you do."
"Look, I'm telling you the truth. All I know is Betty called yesterday and wanted to see us about doin' a job for her. I told her we'd try to stop by sometime today. I'm just as confused by all of this as you are, so instead of standin' here looking at each other, let's go inside and see what we can find out."
“Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to accuse you of anything. It's just been kind of a rough day, you know?"
Rick didn't reply. Instead, he nodded his head yes as he continued walking. He knew if he tried to answer A.J. now, he'd burst out laughing. It was amazing that even after forty years, Rick could still fool his little brother. A.J. should know him better by now. But, Rick felt good inside, too, when the realization hit that A.J. was still as loyal to him as he had been when they were kids. If Rick said he didn't do something, then A.J. believed him, no matter who might say otherwise.
As far as A.J.'s thoughts went over his brother’s guilt or innocence, he swiftly reached the conclusion that Rick would have nothing to gain by pulling a stunt like this on him. They'd both put in a long day of unexpected hassles due to the car's disappearance. A.J. knew Rick had been looking forward to calling it a night at a reasonable time today, and had wanted nothing more than to be home by six o’clock with a hot pizza in one hand, and a cold beer in the other.
Rick's first thought as he entered the kitchen was, All this food sure looks good. I'm starving. His second thought was that he couldn't believe the one hundred people in the next room could be so quiet. All Rick could hear was the chatter of the kitchen workers and a song coming from the radio that sat on top of one of the counters. Evidently, whichever person, or persons, Cecilia had positioned as lookouts had done a good job.
One of the young kitchen employees was in on the surprise.
She approached Rick and asked, "May I help you?"
"Yeah, I'm looking for Betty. My brother and I have an appointment with her."
"Oh, she said you might be stopping by. Mr. Simon, right?" At Rick's affirmative nod, the girl continued, "Go right through this door and into the banquet room. She's setting up for a party in there."
Rick smiled at the girl, letting her know he appreciated her role in his little charade. “Okay, thanks a lot.”
Rick walked the twenty feet to the door that led into the hall.
"Betty! Hey, Betty! It's Rick Simon!"
A.J. shook his head at what he deemed Rick's lack of good manners. "Since when do you feel the need to herald your arrival when you enter a room?"
Rick turned around just long enough to smile. "Since now." He opened the door and walked on into the darkened hall, A.J. right behind him.
The large, dark room was silent a moment before one hundred voices erupted with a huge swell of, "Surprise!”
For several reasons, A.J. was caught unaware. First of all, Rick’s body and black cowboy hat had blocked A.J.’s view of the room. Next came the fact that the blond was in such a foul mood regarding his car that he wasn't paying attention to his surroundings. And, as the lights came on, A.J. realized the other reason he had been caught so unaware. Not only were all the blinds pulled in the room to make it as dark as possible, but every person in the room was dressed in black. Every person but A.J., that is.
Therefore, as the guests yelled, "Surprise!" the above factors contributed to why A.J. jumped six inches off the ground and fell right into his brother, who was now standing beside him. Rick grabbed A.J. by the upper arm, helping the younger man regain his balance.
"Geez, A.J., what happened? You turned forty and your coordination got so bad you can't stand without my help?"
A.J. didn't answer his brother. He took in the room as everyone sang Happy Birthday. Not only were all the attendees dressed in black, he noted, but all the decorations were black as well. There were black streamers hanging from the ceiling, and several hundred black helium balloons tied with black ribbon in bunches of eight and used as centerpieces on the guests’ tables. There were black tablecloths on all the tables complete with black dinnerware. On what A.J. surmised to be the head table, a big banner had been hung that read, A.J. - 40, And Now Over The Hill. A huge round black and white sign was affixed to the wall behind the table and proclaimed, A.J. Simon, Man of the Hour. A.J.'s high school graduation picture was in the center of the sign. Surrounding it were ten other framed pictures of A.J., alone and with his family members, at various stages of his life. From the chair A.J. assumed was meant for him, three black Mylar balloons rose in the air. One said, Over The Hill. One said, We Mourn the Passing of Your Youth, and the last simply contained a giant 40, as if everyone in the room wasn’t already aware of how old A.J. was.
The blond man took it all in a moment longer. He wasn’t sure what Rick had in mind with this, ‘Man of the Hour’ thing, but an educated guess caused him to groan inwardly. A.J. knew he was in for a long night of good-natured public humiliation.
Shaking his head, A.J. said, "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it."
Smiling, Rick questioned above the babble of voices, "You can't believe what, little brother?"
“I can't believe you pulled this off without me ever knowing. When did you have the time to work on all this? We've been. Mom's been busy. How'd you two find the time to do this?"
"Oh, we found it here and there," was the nonchalant answer.
Before the brothers’ conversation could continue, A.J. was descended upon by well-wishers. He began walking around the room, greeting people and making conversation. A.J. had gotten no more than twenty-five feet away from his brother when he spotted Abby and several members of the San Diego police force, sitting together at one table. The same members of the San Diego police force A.J. had been attempting to locate just two hours earlier. It was then that the light of day dawned. The blond man whirled to face his sibling.
“My car! You were the one who had my car towed. You're in for it, Rick!"
"Kevin, Donny, grab him!” Rick yelled to the two Simon cousins whom A.J. had been greeting. “Don't let him loose. He's gonna kill me!"
"You and anyone else who had anything to do with my car being towed today! I want names, Rick, and I want them now!"
The room erupted into laughter as the six foot two inch Rick made a show of seeking safety behind his petite mother.
After A.J. had worked the room, saying a brief hello to everyone from people he saw on a day to day basis, to people he was surprised to see like Downtown Brown and some old college friends, the meal was served. True to her word, Betty had even thrown in several of A.J.'s favorites. Cecilia couldn't believe all the food they were getting at such a reasonable price. Although the meal was served buffet style, Betty doted on the youngest Simon brother personally, much to his embarrassment, and much to Rick's delight.
The guests enjoyed themselves throughout dinner. The buzz of conversation filled the room, and at the head table things grew a bit rowdy with Rick and A.J. bantering back and forth about jail stays and car towings. By the time the cake was served everyone was ready to share in the fun Rick had planned for the birthday boy.
Rick stood up and briefly toasted his brother - the 'Man of the Hour' – then said, "And, who better to tell you about A.J. and his forty years than our mother, Cecilia Simon."
With that introduction, Cecilia stood at A.J.’s left side. A podium with a microphone stand had been moved behind the center of the table after the meal ended. A.J. kept a plastic smile on his face in order to hide his thoughts.
Please, God, don't let her embarrass me. Please don’t let her embarrass me in front of all these people.
A.J. knew his prayer would go unanswered as his mother began describing the events of the day he was born, then told of the day he was brought home to meet his big brother and beyond.
"Five years ago I told many of you about Rick and all the mischief he got into as a child. Well, A.J, wasn't like that at all. My two boys were so opposite, which probably doesn't come as a surprise to most of you. Usually, the only trouble A.J. got into was any that Rick put him up to." The crowd laughed. Cecilia waited for the room to quiet down before continuing. "I remember when A.J. was little, as I saw him off to school, or dropped him off at a friend's house to play, I would say as all mothers do, 'You be a good boy today.' A.J. would invariably reply with a firm, 'Mom, I’m always a good boy.' And he was right, he almost always was."
After everyone's laughter had quieted again, Cecilia informed the crowd, "Rick told me I had to tell at least one embarrassing story about A.J., so I think I've come up with one everyone will enjoy."
A.J. cradled his head in his hands. "Everyone but me."
Cecilia ignored her youngest and spoke over the laughter of the audience.
"When A.J. was two years old, his father and I had a difficult time keeping him dressed. We'd no more than get one sock on him, and he'd have the other one off. The same with his shoes. We'd finish getting his pants on him, only to discover he'd taken off his shirt. I'd get him all dressed in the morning, only to have him run through the kitchen stark naked ten minutes later. We went through this with A.J. for six months. I can't begin to count how many times I'd hear Rick yell from somewhere in the house, 'Mom, A.J.'s taking his clothes off again!' Within seconds of Rick’s announcement, I'd see A.J.’s naked rear-end fly by me. He knew when I caught him I'd dress him again, so he was always running from me. I guess you could say my youngest son was a streaker before his time."
Cecilia had to stop briefly as the crowd erupted into laughter again.
"One day I was talking on the phone, only to have A.J. disappear while I was occupied. When I hung up from the call, I went in search of him. When I came to his bedroom all I found was a pile of discarded clothing. I was getting frantic by this time, calling his name as I ran from room to room. As I reached the living room, I heard a little voice from outside calling, 'Here I is, Mama!'"
I opened the front door and sure enough, there he was, in all his naked splendor. He was standing on the sidewalk waving to passing cars. When A.J. saw me he took off running up the sidewalk with me chasing him. Our neighbors talked about that incident for years. I'll never forget overhearing a neighbor man say to his wife as I chased my naked two-year-old, 'That poor Mrs. Simon. She's got her work cut out for her with those two boys of hers. She's always chasing after one of them.' Well, I was always chasing after one of them, and there are still days when I feel like I’m chasing after those boys of mine yet. But, it's been worth every minute of it."
Cecilia finished up that night with a "Happy Birthday, sweetheart." Then, on an after thought, she told her red-faced youngest, "I'm glad you wore your clothes tonight, A.J. I don't think I can catch you anymore."
As Cecilia bent to kiss A.J.'s cheek she whispered, "I want to talk to you about that injured hand later," and "Rick made me do it."
A.J. kissed her back. "Yeah, sure, Mom. I saw the gun he was holding to your head." He didn't bother to comment about Cecilia’s first order. A.J. knew before the night was over his mother would want her questions answered regarding how he’d hurt himself earlier that day.
Rick stood at the podium just long enough to introduce the next speakers. Two Simon cousins came forward, men A.J. had been close with when he was a boy. The cousins related several incidents of mischief they had shared throughout their growing up years with A.J. Within minutes, Kevin and Mark Simon disproved Cecilia's offering of, "I'm always a good boy, Mom."
An old college friend of A.J.'s was called upon next. The man related an incident that occurred when A.J. was nineteen regarding the detective sneaking out of a girl’s dorm room after curfew. Ron did a good job of insinuating that there had been more going on than just studying that night.
A.J. shook his head at the memory, and the way Ron was making the incident sound. He and the girl were just studying and had fallen asleep. They had never been more than good friends. As a matter of fact, she was at the party tonight. Maybe she'd help him out.
A.J. no more than thought this when Ron wrapped his story up. "And Judy's still wearing a smile on her face because of that night she spent with A.J." With that, Ron asked Judy to stand. Playing along with the gag, the lawyer was grinning as she stood.
As Ron stepped down to return to his table, A.J. asked Rick, "Do I get a chance to defend myself?"
The next fifteen minutes flew by and were rounded out by embarrassing stories contributed by both Abby and Town. A.J. gave a sigh of relief knowing this roast must be about over, as he had heard Rick tell their mother the dancing would start at nine-thirty. A.J. had just glanced at his watch to see it was nine-fifteen. He was surprised then, when Rick introduced one more person, and even more surprised to find that person was Carlos. A.J. and Carlos got along well, they always had, but Carlos was Rick's buddy. What in the world could he have to say about A.J.?
Knowing Carlos, it's sure to be interesting - and probably a lie, too.
A.J. soon found he was wrong about his last assumption. Carlos was being truthful that night as he began his speech.
"I've known A.J. longer than many of you in this room. I first met him when he was four years old. I was the new kid in school that year, and right away Rick and I hit it off and became good buddies. Rick invited me over to his house one day after school to play. I remember him introducing me to his mama and his little brother. A.J. was hiding behind Rick’s legs and lookin’ up at me like I was the scariest nine-year-old he’d ever seen."
At this point everyone laughed, not from what Carlos had said, A.J. imagined, but probably because they were trying to picture what the nine-year-old Carlos looked like and were simply coming up with a smaller version of the man who now stood before them. The man who, at six feet three inches tall, weighed a very solid two hundred pounds, had tattoos covering both bare arms, and at forty-five years old and a new grandfather, had recently begun sporting an earring. Carlos’s salt and pepper hair fell to his shoulders, so given all the above he had the stereotyped biker look about him, although A.J. knew him to be a good, decent man, if not a little on the wild side.
Carlos picked up his story where he had left off after the room quieted. "Anyway, all I could see looking up at me that day were two big blue eyes under a mop of tangled blond hair. A.J. didn't say a word to me, only shook his head no when his mama asked if he didn't want to tell me hi. I remember Senora Simon fed the three of us cookies and milk then, and A.J. still wouldn't let go of Rick. He sat in Rick's lap while we ate and stared at me from across the table."
"But, I guess as time went on A.J. got used to seein’ me around their house, 'cause pretty soon he started saying hello to me when I'd come by to play, and he'd follow Rick and me any place we'd let him. Every time Rick and I were plotting one of our wilder pranks, or ‘hare-brained schemes’ as our mamas referred to them, A.J. would be right there telling us, ‘I don't think you guys better do that. You guys will get in trouble. I don't think that's a good idea.' I told Rick once we didn't need our own consciences ‘cause we had A.J.
"And, over the last thirty-six years things haven't changed much, I guess. A couple of weeks ago I stopped by the office to see Rick and tell him about a new business venture I was sure would make us lots of money. A.J. didn't say a word about it until I was out the door, then I heard him tell Rick, 'I don't think that's a good idea, Rick. You guys are asking for nothing but trouble if you do this.'"
As everyone laughed, Carlos turned and wished A.J., "Feliz Cumpleanos, hermanito," which A.J. knew meant, ‘Happy Birthday, little brother.’
Okay, Okay, A.J. thought as Carlos made his way back to his seat. Nice little story, but thank God we're done now.
A.J. was surprised, then, when Rick stood behind the podium once more and began talking. Given the time, A.J. was expecting Rick to say a quick, "Thanks everyone, let's dance," or something like that. He wasn't expecting his older brother to contribute anything, but rather just serve as the M.C. After all, that's what A.J. had done five years earlier at Rick's party. It was only fair that Rick play by the same rules.
However, Rick Simon never followed anyone's rules but his own, and he wasn’t about to make an exception to that tonight.
"At first I was going to get up here and tell you all kinds of embarrassing stories about A.J. when he was just a little squirt, but Mom pretty well covered that. Then I was going to let you know he wasn't always a good boy like Mom claimed, but Kevin, Mark, and Ron pretty much covered that. So, I guess I'll have to do something only I can, and that's tell a few big brother stories."
"Are these going to be true stories or lies?" A.J. asked from where he sat.
“Oh, very true, A.J. Besides, when have I ever lied to you?"
"Well, for starters, this morning when you told me that shirt you're wearing was yours."
Rick ignored his sibling, waited for the laughter in the room to die down, then started.
"I remember the day Dad came home to tell me I had a new little brother to play with who was just like me. Well, being a five-year-old kid, I took his words literally and was expecting Mom to come home with another five-year-old kid - someone I could play ball with and stuff. Boy, was I surprised when she walked in the door carrying this newborn baby in her arms who was sound asleep. She sat me on the couch and put A.J. in my arms, and I thought to myself, 'Boy, this kid doesn't look anything like me, and he isn't much fun either!' After a couple of days I asked my dad if we couldn't take A.J. back and pick out another brother. But Dad said no, that A.J. was ours and we had to keep him. I remember thinking then, that we didn't get such a good deal."
Everyone chuckled as Rick continued, "But, as A.J. grew, Mom made such a big deal over me being the one to help him walk, or zip his coat and tie his shoes, that pretty soon I didn't think we'd gotten such a bad deal after all, and I took a lotta pride in being A.J.'s big brother. Reading was always encouraged in our house, so before A.J. could read for himself, I read to him almost every night. He'd climb in my bed with me and without fail fall asleep before I finished the story, hogging all the covers and takin' up all the space, too. Although I can't speak from personal experience anymore, several reliable sources tell me he still takes up all the room in the bed and hogs the covers."
Every woman in the room who was not a Simon relative said in unison, "He sure does, Rick."
A.J. wanted to hide underneath the table as the entire audience burst into laughter. Now A.J. knew what his brother had been up to while the cake was being served. A.J. had seen Rick going from table to table, talking to all the female guests.
"Five years ago at my birthday party, a lot of people wrote letters to me that contained memories of my growing up years. Well, I pulled one of those letters out the other day to read tonight, because it has a memory of A.J. in it, too, that really sums up our shared boyhood."
A.J. looked at his brother, confused as to what Rick was going to read. Off the top of his head, A.J. couldn't recall what letter Rick was referring to.
"This is from a guy who grew up two doors down from us who was a good buddy of mine all through school.
“'The thing I remember most about Rick was that no matter where you saw him, his little brother A.J. was usually tagging along right behind. A.J. never made a pest of himself. If he was too little to be included in our fun, he was satisfied to sit and watch us, or stand behind Rick - just as long as he could be with his big brother. I envied the two of them and their closeness. I had a big brother of my own who did nothing but pick on me and fight with me. I used to think A.J. was lucky. Rick was so good with him. Oh sure, Rick would tease him sometimes, and every so often they'd get good and mad at each other, but they always had a deep respect for each other, even as kids. I remember thinking Rick was lucky, too. It must have been neat to have someone look up to you like you can do no wrong. Being the object of hero worship at the age of eleven is pretty satisfying, I suppose. Anyway, that's my strongest memory of Rick. Where you saw Rick, you saw A.J.'"
With that Rick folded the letter he had been reading and stuffed it back in his shirt pocket. As he did so he looked out at the audience and said, "Everybody needs a best friend. Someone you go through everything with. Someone who looks up to you when you're eleven years old. Someone who defends you to your mother no matter how stupid the stunt is that you’ve just pulled. Someone who listens to you when no one else will. Someone you just enjoy hanging out with, and someone who lets you know he still thinks you're a pretty worthwhile guy, even when you don't think much of yourself. Someone who still throws a little hero worship your way, even when you don't deserve it. That's my definition of a best friend, and that's what my younger brother's been to me for the last forty years."
Rick turned to smile at A.J. and said quietly, "Happy Birthday, A.J."
Before the sentimental moment could linger, the lanky man turned to the crowd. "Okay, everybody, let's dance! Get this party movin', Al."
Upon Rick’s instructions the music started. The room began to buzz with activity as people got up to dance, refill their drinks, and stretch their legs.
A.J. just sat for a moment looking at his brother, surprised at all he had just heard. Rick didn’t usually voice much of what he felt, so his speech meant the world to the blond man. A.J. couldn’t recall having ever received a gift more special than those words had been. Even more so, because A.J. knew voicing those words in public could not have been easy for Rick.
A.J. rose from his seat. He walked over to older brother and gave him a hug. "Thanks for everything. It means a lot."
"Hey, no problem, A.J. You know my motto, 'Nothing's too good for my baby brother,'" Rick replied, patting A.J. on the back while still held within the younger man's embrace.
"Yeah, right," came the teasing reply, as A.J. pulled away. "Nothing's too good for me. Nothing like parties in my living room I don't know about. Letting rattlesnakes loose in my house. Charging your purchases to my credit cards. ‘Borrowing' my last gallon of milk, not to mention my shirt. Oh, and then the little incident that involved having my car towed."
"Yeah...well...we'll talk about all those things later. I see a beautiful woman motioning me to the dance floor, so I gotta run." Right before Rick made his escape he said, "Oh, by the way, A.J., I promised Betty you'd give her the first dance. Here she comes."
A.J. looked to where Rick was indicating, and sure enough the elderly lady was approaching A.J. with a huge smile on her face.
"Gotta go, A.J."
As Rick made a hasty retreat to the dance floor, A.J. called after him, "I'll get you for this, Rick! I'll get you! Just remember in five more years you turn fifty. I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but the day you spent in jail will seem like a Sunday school picnic compared to what you'll suffer next time."
A.J. barely heard Rick's high-pitched laugh as he turned to find Betty advancing on him. He gallantly escorted the older woman to the dance floor, while thinking of his best friend. Rick drove him crazy sometimes, but in the end there was no one A.J. would rather call big brother. A.J. hoped the two of them had many more birthdays in their futures. After all, there was a lot of revenge to be extracted, and a lot of fun to be had, with his best friend.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~