I look back on the rest of that week and can think of it only as a living, breathing nightmare. The good thing about most nightmares, if there is a good thing about nightmares, is that you usually wake yourself up before they climax. And for as scary as they are while you’re dreamin', in a short amount of time you forget all about them.
The bad thing about the nightmare I was experiencing, was that I couldn't get away from it. Not only was it all I focused on when I was awake, it also plagued what little sleep I managed to catch on and off at Mom's house.
By Saturday morning I had spent my third straight night combing the streets of San Diego. Carlos's family was still at it as well, as was the police department.
It was a few minutes after ten as I sat at a stop light in heavy weekend traffic. I rubbed a hand over my tired eyes and down the beard stubble on my cheeks. I glanced up in the rearview mirror and caught my reflection. My eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, my face drawn and pale. It was no wonder that when I'd stopped at Adriano's house at seven, that Carlos and Eva had thrown me out, insisting that I go to Mom's and get some sleep.
I hadn't gotten that far yet though. I had followed up on a few weak leads that didn't prove to be anymore than that, weak. Now I was headed to the office to pick up the mail and check the answering the machine.
I sat at that stoplight turning my head from side to side, trying to work the knots out of the tight muscles in my neck. I could never remember being so full of despair. Could never recall feeling so void of any other emotion except total hopelessness. Not even when I was in 'Nam. I had thought with so many people out looking for A.J. and Erika, and with all the publicity this case was getting in the newspapers and on TV, that someone, somewhere, would have seen something by now. And yet, nothing. Not one word. Not one single indication as to where they were, or whether or not they were alive or dead. Even if all I got back was my brother’s body, I had to know. It was the not knowing that was doing me in, and tearing out my mother's heart piece by piece.
I parked the truck in the office's small lot. It was deserted today because of the weekend, which was fine with me. I didn't feel like conversing with anyone. Not even with those whose only intentions were to offer their sympathy for my situation.
I unlocked the office door and bent to pick up the mail that had been shoved under it. I quickly sorted through it, throwing the junk mail in the trash before tossing the rest of it on my desk. The message light on the answering machine was blinking, though that didn't raise my hopes any. I'd been collecting the messages off of it for the past two days now. I had yet to come up with more than four potential clients inquiring about our services, a handful of salespeople, and a multitude of friends offering their thoughts and prayers.
I stood leaning wearily with my knuckles on the desktop and my eyes closed, as the same type of messages played now. Two potential clients, a sales person, and six friends. I was surprised there was still enough tape left as the machine moved on to the last message.
"Rick, it's Abby," a familiar voice rang out.
I opened my eyes and stood up straight. I hadn't heard from, or talked to Abby, in twenty-four hours.
"It's ten after nine on Saturday morning. I'm at County General Hospital. A.J. was brought in here about three hours ago. Call me at the hospital when you get this message."
I didn't bother to do that. I raced out the door, slamming it behind me. I didn't have time for the ancient elevator. I rounded the corner to the stairwell and took the steps two at a time. I raced for my truck, gunned the engine, and veered out into traffic amidst the blare of car horns.
I think I took up two parking spots at County General. I didn't pay any attention, just came to sudden halt at the first available space I saw. I know I was fishtailed into the empty spot next to me. I suppose someone cussed me out for that, much the same way I cuss out people who don't know how to properly park their vehicles.
I ran for the emergency room entrance, not even bothering to watch for traffic.
At a clipped and rapid pace I made a beeline for the admitting desk.
"I'm lookin' for my brother, A.J. Simon."
A clerk looked up from her computer terminal, not sparing me more than a casual glance. "You'll have to wait your turn, sir."
I looked around. There was no one standing either ahead of or behind me, and the waiting area was occupied by only three people who seemed to be taken care of.
"Lady, I'm in no mood for the bureaucracy shit today. Now I'm lookin' for my brother. He's supposed to be in this hospital somewhere. Andrew Jack--"
Before I could create anymore of a disturbance I felt a hand on my elbow.
"Rick, come on. Let's go over here where we can talk privately."
Abby led me away from the clerk, who looked like she was very glad to see me go.
"What's goin' on, Abby? Where's A.J.?"
Abby and I came to a halt at the end of the long counter. We were well out of earshot of either the clerk. or the three people in the waiting area. The nurses and other medical personnel that passed us were too busy to care about the topic of our conversation.
"A.J.'s in with your doctor right now."
"Joel?" I asked.
"Dr. Lankey, yes," Abby nodded.
A.J. and I had done some work several years back for the clinic where Joel has his office. We had meshed well with the guy, who was a couple of years younger than me, and had been using him for our personal physician ever since our family doctor had retired.
"How did Joel know A.J. was here?" I inquired.
"I believe A.J. told the attending physician here in the emergency room who his regular doctor is."
"Oh." I was relieved, and I suppose rather surprised, to hear that A.J. was apparently conscious and alert.
"So what's wrong with him?" I asked.
"I don't know. I haven't been able to talk to Dr. Lankey yet, or anyone else for that matter. I got my information from the young cop who brought A.J. in."
Abby nodded. "Apparently A.J. managed to escape. At this point I don't know enough of the details to tell you more than that. He flagged down a passing trucker who recognized him from the news stories. The trucker used his C.B. to get a hold of us. A patrol car that was in the vicinity got A.J. from the trucker and brought him here."
"And Erika?" I queried hopefully.
Abby didn't answer.
"Abby? What about Erika? Isn't she here as well?" I began grasping at straws. Not wanting to hear what I plainly saw on Abby's face. "I know A.J. would have never left her behind. She must be here somewhere. Didn't that cop tell you that he brought her here too? Didn't he--"
Abby reached out and laid a hand on my arm so that I was forced to focus on her face. "Rick. I'm sorry. Erika's dead."
I shook my head, whispering, "No."
"Yes, Rick. She is. I’m sorry."
I leaned down against the countertop on my elbows, letting it support the weight that was suddenly too much for my legs to bear. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, forcing the tears to stay hidden.
"How?" I rasped. "Damn it, Abby, just tell me how."
Abby's words came so quietly I had to strain to hear her. "She was raped."
I opened my eyes and turned my head to look at her.
"She was raped. Repeatedly. Gang raped if you will. And sodomized with things...well with things we can only guess at at this point in time. She bled to death from her injuries, Rick."
I dropped my head into my hands.
"Oh, Lord. Oh, God no. Why? Why damn it? She was just a child. Just a little girl."
"I know it, Rick," came the voice filled with sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Another thought crossed my mind, causing me to pull myself upright.
Abby looked at me with confusion, not understanding what I was questioning.
"Was A.J. - was he hurt like that? Did those bastards--"
Abby shook her head. "No. Not that I'm aware of. Not that Kerwin - the officer who brought him here, mentioned. And I'm sure he would have mentioned it had he thought it was a possibility."
"Thank God," I sighed.
The next question I had to ask was the hard one. "Does Adriano and his family know what's happened?"
"By now they do. Gary Childers was going over there to give them the news about the same time I called you. I haven't heard from him, but he planned to take them to the morgue. Someone was going to have to identify Erika. I told Gary to try and convince Adriano to let Carlos do it. I heard that she...well, I don't think Adriano would want to remember Erika this way. She was beaten pretty badly, according to the officers I talked to who were at the scene."
I couldn't say anything for a few minutes. I had to keep swallowing the lump in my throat and wiping at my eyes. When I was finally able to speak, I didn't even recognize my own voice. It came out in a lifeless, tear-filled croak.
"Where was the scene? Where did they have Erika and A.J.?"
I had to know how close we were. How much we had missed them by.
"At Hannigan's Cannery."
"Down on the wharf? Down off of Fifth Street?"
"But there had to have been hundreds of people around there! That's a busy place. How could they have hidden A.J. and Erika there without anyone knowin' it?"
"Rick, the cannery shut its doors six months ago. All the buildings down there are deserted."
Right at that moment I felt like such a goddamn failure.
"I didn't know," I whispered. "I didn't know. If only I woulda' known. We woulda' looked there. I woulda' known it was the perfect place to hide--"
Abby gave my arm a shake. "Rick, stop it. Stop it right now. Don't you dare start laying a guilt trip on yourself. You didn't know. Let it go at that. How do you think I feel? I'm one of the cops on this case. Don't you think I wish I had thought of it? Don't you think I wish Erika was still alive, and that A.J. was spared everything he must have gone through?"
"I know, Abby," I finally nodded my understanding. "I know. It's just that...it's just gonna take a while to come to terms with all of it."
"I understand. Believe me, I understand."
I straightened, when over Abby's shoulder, I saw Joel coming towards us.
I met the man halfway. "Joel, how is he? Can I--"
The doctor held up a hand to silence me. "Rick, he's fine. His injuries are somewhat serious, but not life threatening. You and I will talk further in just a minute."
Joel turned to Abby. The two didn't know each other well, but had met a couple of times at the annual Christmas Eve open house we host each year at A.J.'s.
"Lieutenant, I've been told you need to get a statement from A.J."
Abby's gaze was an even match with our doctor's. He was about five eight, had a stocky build, and possessed a thick head of unruly salt and pepper hair. His neatly trimmed beard and moustache were also salt and pepper, though the salt part was rapidly overtaking the pepper. Between his build, shaggy curly hair, and easy-going nature, he had always reminded me of a friendly Sheepdog.
"Yes, I need to talk to him if I may," Abby replied.
"You may. But keep it brief, please. No more than ten minutes - fifteen tops. He's exhausted and needs to rest. If you don't get all the information you require during that time period, you'll have to wait and see him again tomorrow."
Abby nodded. "I understand."
Joel pointed down the hallway. "He's in Room 104. It's the third door on your left. There's a nurse in there with him who's putting the finishing touches on his bandages. You can ask her to leave if it's necessary."
walked off down the hallway.
"And Lieutenant?" Joel hailed on an afterthought.
Abby turned. "Yes?"
"Don't pressure him. Accept what he can tell you and leave it go at that for today. He's not up to being pushed right now."
Abby and I exchanged worried glances. Both of us were wondering just what those words implied.
"A.J.'s a friend of mine, Doctor," Abby stated. "I'll take it easy and see how it goes. I won't jeopardize his well being."
We watched as Abby knocked on the door of Room 104, her note pad and pen already out of her purse in preparation of taking A.J.'s statement. The nurse must have told her she could come in, because within a few seconds she pushed the door open and disappeared inside.
Joel reached up and laid a hand on my back. "Come with me, Rick. There's an empty office down the hall we can use."
Joel led me to a small office almost directly across from the examining room A.J. was in. It was painful to be so close to my brother, and yet to be kept from him.
My concern and anxiety must have clearly broadcast itself to the doctor. He smiled. "Don't worry, Rick. You'll see him in a few minutes."
He indicated for me to sit in a chair while, he sat on the top of the desk. His white lab coat covered the sweatshirt and blue jeans he was wearing. Since this was not what I normally saw him attired in during office hours, I assumed he had been home when he had gotten the call regarding A.J.
"Okay, Joel. How is he? And give it to me straight."
The doctor chuckled. "Is there any other way to give it to Rick Simon other than straight?"
"Not if you still want to have all your teeth in the morning," I said in return, and almost managed a smile along with my words.
"To get right to the point, I'll give you a run down of A.J.'s injuries. He's got seven cracked ribs. Three on the left, and four on the right. He's got a deep laceration on his upper right arm that needed twenty-five stitches to close. He lost quite a bit of blood from it, which accounts for some of his exhaustion. He's got rope burns on his wrists and ankles that are raw and painful, but nothing that required any sutures. He's been beaten about the face. I was concerned he might have a concussion, but the X-rays came back clear. I think because of the bruising it looks worse than it really is. We X-rayed for internal injuries, but fortunately found none. I imagine he's pretty bruised up on the inside as well though. He's got several pulled muscles in his back and shoulders. I suppose from either the way they had him bound, or the rough treatment he received, or a combination of the two. He has shallow cuts across both of his palms," Joel crisscrossed his own palms in the shape of an X. "An educated guess on my part says they were made by a razor blade."
I nodded grimly, remembering Erika's story about Cristiano.
"He's also been...beaten on the back with what looks to be a belt."
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Joel cleared his throat and went on when he thought I was ready to handle more.
"The welts on his back didn't require any more than a cleaning with warm soap and water, though I did apply a disinfectant, too, just to be on the safe side. Other than that, he's got a lot of bruises and small cuts on his face and torso. I gave him a tetanus shot and will be starting him on antibiotics today."
I prayed that was the end. "That's all of it?"
Joel shook his head.
"You heard me tell Lieutenant Marsh A.J.'s exhausted. That wasn't an exaggeration. He's about ready to drop. As I told her, he's had about all he can take for one day. He hasn't had any food since noon on Wednesday, though when I asked him if they’d given him any water, he said yes . He doesn't appear to be dehydrated, or at least not seriously so. Nonetheless, I want him to drink plenty of liquids over the next few days."
"How long are you gonna keep him here?"
"Pardon me?" I was certain I hadn't heard him correctly.
"He's refusing to let me admit him. He keeps saying he's going home."
"What's your opinion on that matter?"
Joel shrugged his shoulders in defeat. "I don't think it's wise. I'd like to keep him here a couple of days. Or at least overnight for observation. But he won't have any part of it."
"So what do we do?"
"Let him go home."
"But you just said that wasn't wise," I pointed out. "You said he should stay here overnight at least."
"Rick, I can't force A.J. to stay here if he doesn't want to. And short of having him declared mentally incompetent and getting a court order that grants you as his medical guardian, you can't force him to stay here either."
More in jest than anything else I said, "I think that's a bit drastic, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. First of all, both you and I know your brother's not mentally incompetent, just stubborn. And secondly, by the time a judge could hear that proposal, A.J. would be well on the road to recovery. So therefore, yes, I'd rather see him stay here at least until tomorrow. But no, I don't think it will cause him any great harm to go home with you this morning as long as it's with the understanding that he's to have complete and total bed rest for the next forty-eight hours, and not to move farther than the couch after that. I told him that he's to eat three nutritious meals a day, drink plenty of liquids, and take the medication on a regular schedule that I'm going to send home with you. And finally, that he's not to even think of going back to work until after I see him in my office a week from Monday."
"Don't worry," I assured. "Those rules will be followed to the letter."
"I'll stop by the house some time tomorrow afternoon to have a look at him," Joel promised.
I smiled my thanks. "I didn't think there were any doctors left who still made house calls."
"To tell you the truth, this will be a first for me," Joel acknowledged. "It'll give me something to brag about in the nurses' lounge."
Joel reached a hand into the pocket of his lab coat. "I had one of the clerks from the pharmacy run these prescriptions up to me."
He handed me the medication one by one. "This one's an antibiotic I want him on until they're all gone. He should take two a day. One with his breakfast, and one with his supper. This one's a painkiller. He can take one every six hours as long as it's necessary. You can give him one as soon as you get him home and settled into bed. There's enough in here to last him until I see him next Monday. He may need to supplement that the first few days. The effectiveness may start to wear thin before he's allowed to take another one. At those times he can take whatever over-the-counter pain reliever he keeps at the house."
I nodded my understanding and pocketed the two bottles.
"And here's a tube of the same antibiotic salve I used on his palms, wrists and ankles. Put this on for him every morning after he's showered, then rebandage the wounds with gauze. Again, I want that done until I see him in my office next week. The cuts on his palms are thin, like a paper cut. They'll probably split open quite easily and cause him a helluva lot of discomfort until the skin finally grows back together. The good news is, that should happen fairly quickly. Within just a few days. I assume you'll be staying with him at his house?"
"Good. I'll have my receptionist call you early in the week to let you know what time I can work A.J. in next Monday."
"That'll be fine," I agreed.
"That about covers it," Joel said. "Just watch him carefully for the next few days. If you have any concerns at all regarding his health, you call me no matter what time of the day or night it is. If you can't reach me, bring him here."
"I will,” I nodded firmly. I rose, assuming we were finished.
"Uh...Rick. Hold up a sec. There's one more thing I'd like to discuss."
I sank back into my chair. "Yeah?"
"I knew, of course, based on the reports I'd seen on TV and read in the paper, that A.J. was missing."
"I know you did," I responded. Joel was one of the many friends who had left a message on the office answering machine.
"And the young cop who brought him in here gave the physician on duty a few details. That doctor, in turn, passed those details on to me."
"So what are you gettin' at here?"
"What I'm trying to say, is that there's a strong possibility A.J. will need a lot of help to get through all this."
"I know that," I stated almost indignantly. "I'll give him whatever help he needs, just like I always--"
"No, Rick," Joel shook his shaggy head. "I mean even more help than you can give him. I mean professional help."
I studied the man for a long moment. Finally I gave a slow nod of my head. "Yeah, I suppose you could be right. I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"We can discuss it more at length in a week or two," Joel agreed. "Let's give his body a chance to mend, then see where things stand."
Joel stood up from the desk. I took this as an indication that our conversation had come to its conclusion.
"Do you mind if I use the phone?" I asked. "I should call our mother. I don't want her to hear about A.J. on the TV or radio news."
Joel turned the phone around that was sitting on the desk so I could easily dial Mom's number
"Go right ahead."
Of course, when I first told Mom A.J. had been found and wasn't seriously hurt, she started crying. When she was able to get a handle on her emotions I briefly explained his injuries, and was even more brief about the circumstances that had brought him to the hospital. I simply told her I'd fill her in later. I was hoping she wouldn't ask about Erika over the phone, but it came as no surprise when she did. Again, I didn't go into any great detail, just told her Erika hadn't made it out alive.
I could tell Mom was choking on her tears over the loss of the young girl. She ended the conversation by saying she and Rex would be waiting for A.J. and me at A.J.'s house.
Joel and I exited the office at the same time Abby exited the examination room A.J. was in.
The woman walked over to us, stopping in front of me. Her voice took on an uncharacteristic softness.
"I shouldn't have to bother A.J. tomorrow. He gave me a complete statement. However, I imagine Gary will want to come by with some mug shots to see if A.J. can identify any of the kids who held him and Erika. I'll probably come with him. We'll call first to make sure A.J.'s awake and up to it."
wasn't used to Abby being so empathetic, especially when it came to police
business as serious as this. For some
reason that scared me.
"Abby...what happened?" I had to know. "What'd A.J. tell you?"
"He wants to tell you himself, Rick," was all she would say.
"Abby, come on. I just want to know--"
Abby stood her ground. "A.J. specifically requested that I not tell you anything. I promised him I wouldn't. He'll tell you when he's ready, Rick."
I couldn't let it go at that. My concern for my brother was too great. "But--"
Joel intervened for the first time since Abby and I had started our discussion.
"Just be patient, Rick. Take it as a good sign that A.J. wants to talk to you about all of this. It might be the first step he needs towards healing the emotional scars he's bound to have suffered."
I looked at both of them a moment, before finally agreeing. "Okay. But after he talks to me, Abby, I want to read the police report. If he leaves anything out, I wanna know about it now. I'm not going to be able to help him unless I do."
Abby nodded. "Fair enough. You let me know after he's talked to you."
Abby reached out and shook Joel's hand. "Thank you for your cooperation, Dr. Lankey."
"Joel," the doctor corrected.
"Joel," Abby smiled. "But only if you stop referring to me as Lieutenant Marsh. It's Abby. And I hope that the next time we see one another it will be under happier circumstances."
I had no doubt our recently divorced doctor was seriously considering asking Abby out at some time in the future. His eyes twinkled as he agreed, "I hope the circumstances are happier ones as well...Abby."
Abby turned to me. "I need to get going. A.J. told me he's not staying here?"
“No,” I shook my head. "According to Joel he's insisting he's going home."
"That's the impression I got, too," Abby said. "Make sure he takes care of himself. I'm sure I'll see him again over the next few days. Tell Cecilia I'll give her a call."
"I will. Thanks, Abby. And, Abby?"
"Find the bastards that did this to my brother and Erika. Find them, or I will."
"We'll find them, Rick," Abby promised. "Believe me, I want them as much as you do."
Abby walked away from us. It wasn't lost on me that Joel didn't take his eyes off of her until she rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.
I hid my smile. True, Abby was a nice lady. But she had a number of other personality traits I would prefer to avoid. I didn't share those with the doctor, however. I figured, what the heck, let him find out for himself.
"Yeah, she's nice," I agreed. "A good friend. And good at what she does. In all my years as a P.I., she's one of the best cops I've ever run across."
Joel shifted the subject from Abby to A.J. "I'll go check and make sure the nurse is done with A.J. and he's ready to leave. You wait out here. I'll be right back."
Joel entered the examination room, and in a less than a minute returned to my side. A woman walked out with him and headed for the nurses' station.
"You can go in, Rick. For my own peace of mind I had to give one last ditch effort at convincing your brother he should stay here until tomorrow morning."
"I doubt I have to ask you what his answer was."
"I doubt you do either. He said no. He said he'd take a bus home if he had to. I told him that wouldn't be necessary – that you'd be right in. Like I said earlier, if you have any concerns once you get him home, call me. Otherwise, I'll see both of you some time tomorrow afternoon."
I stuck my hand out. "Thanks, Joel. For everything."
He smiled as he shook my hand. "You're welcome. I'm just glad A.J.'s all right. I'll wait out here in case you need my help getting him to your truck."
I nodded my agreement and promised, "We won't be long."
I hesitated a moment before pushing open the door to Room 104. Even though I had just confidently indicated otherwise to both Joel and Abby, for the first time in my life I wasn't sure if I was capable of offering my brother the help he was bound to need. Although I had yet to take much time to admit it to myself, I was consumed with guilt. Guilt over what had happened to Erika. Guilt over what had happened to A.J. And guilt over the fact that we had taken this case in the first place. A.J.'s words from nearly two weeks earlier kept bouncing back and forth like a pinball inside my skull.
Rick, I've already told you twice how I feel. I'm concerned that we may get in over our heads on this one. The last thing I want is for that little girl in our office to get hurt because of one of us.
That's the last thing I wanted, too, A.J., I thought as I pushed open the swinging door. Forgive me, little brother.
A.J. was sitting on an examination table with his back to me when I entered the room. He didn't even turn around to see who had come in, though I assumed he knew it was me. I paused a moment in the act of approaching him. Where his bare back wasn't covered with the tape that encircled his ribs, it was covered with angry red welts and a collection of bruises that looked like they had been made by a metal belt buckle. I closed my eyes for just a second and offered up a prayer of help for both of us. I had a feelin' the Simon brothers were gonna need all the assistance they could get in order to make it through this one.
I quietly said his name as I approached.
He didn't turn around, or acknowledge me in any way. I carefully laid a hand on his back, on one of the few spots that was unmarred. His skin was cold to my touch, which surprised me. The room was uncomfortably warm, like most hospital rooms usually are.
"A.J?" I said again. I left my hand on his back as I slowly rounded the table until I came face to face with him.
He looked up at me briefly, then looked away. Like Joel had stated, he was spent. The exhaustion was not only evident in his eyes, but also in the slackness of his normally expressive features, and in the way his shoulders slumped forward.
His left eye was black and blue, and his lip was split. His right cheek, though not swollen, was red. I could clearly discern a handprint in the design of the marking, as if someone had repeatedly slapped him. There was a large white bandage covering the stitches on his right biceps. His wrists were wrapped with gauze as Joel had said they would be. I assumed his ankles were, too, though I couldn't see them as someone had put his socks back on him. Each of his palms held two crisscrossing strips of gauze secured at the ends by medical tape. And like Joel had promised, the rest of his face and torso was covered with an array of bruises and cuts.
I didn't know what to say to him. I'm sorry, was the only thing that came to mind, but for some reason I knew it wasn't the time for my self-incriminations.
I studied him a moment, before reaching out and gently pulling him to me. He didn't resist at all. Just allowed me to bring him forward until his head rested sideways against my chest. I carefully wrapped my arms around his back and laid my head lightly on top of his.
We stayed that way a long time, meither of us saying anything. It was me who finally broke the silence.
Quietly I asked, "Are you ready to go home?"
"Yes." I heard from the vicinity of my chest.
I raised my head and looked down at him. "Can I try to talk you into stayin' here overnight? I'd feel better about all this if you would."
"No. I'm not staying," came the firm declaration from my chest. "If you don't take me home I'll walk."
I couldn't help but smile at that. I hated to break the news to him, but in his condition he wasn't gonna be walkin' too far. Certainly not the ten miles it would take him to get home.
Under normal circumstances his foolish stubbornness would have caused an argument to break out between us. An argument I woulda' ultimately won, because in the condition he was in, he would have found his sorry little butt in a hospital bed if I had to carry him there myself and sit on him the whole night to make him stay.
But these weren't normal circumstances. He'd been through hell. And A.J.'s home has always been his haven. As has his family. I knew he was looking to find the solace he so desperately needed in that comfortable home on the Grand Canal with Mom and me. After all he'd been through, I couldn't deny him the one thing I could easily provide.
I gave into his wishes. "Let's get you ready to go then."
I glanced around the room, but didn't see the white dress shirt or slate blue double-breasted suit coat he'd had on three days prior. He was still wearin' the trousers that completed the outfit, though they were torn at both knees and stained with dirt and blood. I figured the coat and shirt were either bloodied and torn as well, therefore an orderly had done away with them, or that some punk was struttin' around in them while wearin’ the tie our mother had given him for Christmas just one month earlier.
I didn't ask A.J. where any of his stuff was. I gently pulled him away from my chest and kept one supportive hand on his uninjured arm as I wormed my way out of my field jacket. Because of the stitches in his arm and the tape around his ribs, I didn't attempt to put the jacket on him. I simply laid it over his shoulders and brought it around to cover his chest as best I could.
I looked around for his shoes. For just a second I wondered if I was gonna have to give up my boots as well, before spotting his shoes in a far corner. I went and retrieved them. I carefully slipped them on his feet in deference of the bandages I could feel around his ankles through his socks.
I rose from my task and threw him a smile. "Ready?"
"Yeah," he nodded, his eyes half closed.
I put a hand under both his arms and helped A.J. ease himself off the high table. His knees buckled as soon as his feet hit the floor. I tightened my grip and adjusted my body so I could better support his weight. I had to bite my tongue to keep from tellin' him he wasn't going anywhere expect up to a fourth floor hospital room.
We stood like that a second or two until A.J. managed to pull himself upright with what little strength he had left. I maintained my strong grip on him as we slowly exited the room. Joel offered to get a wheelchair, which naturally, my brother refused.
Between Joel and I we were able to get A.J. to the emergency room exit. Joel had him sit in a chair while I ran out and got the truck. I pulled it up to the door, where the doctor and I somehow managed to get A.J. in the cab without causing him further injury.
"Think you'll be able to get him out of there by yourself once you get him home?" Joel asked me after I had shut the passenger side door.
"I think so. The step down should be a lot easier for him than the step up was. Otherwise he's got a pretty good neighbor who I know will help me. Mr. Gorman's come to like A.J. a lot better ever since I sold The Hole In The Water and got my own place."
"Okay," Joel agreed. "Otherwise, I can follow and give you a hand."
"No. You've done enough already. We'll manage."
Joel told me one last time he'd see us tomorrow, then went back in the hospital. I walked around to the driver's side of the truck and climbed in. A.J. was leaning back against the seat with his eyes closed, and remained that way until we pulled in his driveway twenty minutes later. He hadn't said a word to me the entire trip, and not knowin' whether he had fallen asleep or not, I didn't say anything to him. His eyes snapped open the minute the truck came to a halt, which led me to believe he'd been awake the whole time.
"Wait right there," I ordered my brother before he could take a notion to climb out of the cab by himself.
I hopped out and ran around to the passenger side. I opened the door and reached inside, helping him turn his body so he could make the big step down. I was wrong when I had told Joel the step down would be easier. It wasn't. In fact, I think it was even more painful for A.J. because of the jarring effect it had on his injuries. I cushioned that as best I could, holding onto his left arm and easing him down to the ground as gently as possible.
Mom had parked her car in the far spot in front of A.J.'s garage so I could get as close to the kitchen door as possible. Carlos and I had brought the Camaro home on Thursday. It was parked in its usual place in the garage.
I supported the bulk of A.J.'s weight the entire trip to the kitchen. I could tell his exhaustion and injuries were about to do him in. Earlier, at the hospital, he had been able to pretty much walk upright. Now that seemed an impossible feat for him. He was hunched over at the shoulders. He kept his left arm wrapped securely around his aching rib cage, as if he needed more support there than the tape was providing.
It seemed to take us forever to make it to the door. I was beginning to have my doubts that we'd make it at all unless I carried him, when we finally arrived. Before I could lay a hand on the knob the door was pulled open.
A.J.'s eyes met Mom's tear-filled ones for just a brief moment before they were downcast again. I got him in the kitchen and Mom closed the door firmly behind us.
She couldn't wait any longer. She moved forward with her arms outstretched. "A.J.?"
A.J. looked up at her. He hesitated just a second before beckoning her to him by holding out his right arm. Mom gently cupped his face in her hands and kissed every uninjured spot she could find. She then buried her head in his shoulder and started to softly cry.
A.J. squeezed his eyes tightly shut. Not before I saw a tear leak out from under one, however, to trail down his battered face.
"Mom, please don't cry," he whispered, his head coming to rest on her shoulder. "Don't cry. I'm okay."
I maintained my hold on his upper arm. I don't know if Mom could tell how much of his weight I was supporting. Or if, because of her strong relief, she didn't notice how heavily he was leaning on her. But, being somewhat of an outside observer at this point in time, I could see how close he was to total collapse. The left arm I was holding onto was shaking, as was the right hand he had gripping the countertop in an effort to keep himself upright.
I reached out a hand and laid it on Mom's back.
"Mom, I think I'd better get A.J. upstairs. Joel wants him to have nothing but bed rest for the next forty-eight hours."
My words prompted Mom to pull away from him. For the first time she noticed the awful weariness that seemed to have settled itself on his shoulders like an anvil. For the first time she saw the pain in his eyes. Not just the physical pain, but the emotional pain that needed no voice to speak volumes to us about all he had been through since Wednesday afternoon.
Before any of us could say any more, Rex came bounding down the stairs. Our voices must have woken him up from the nap I was sure he had been taking on A.J.'s bed.
There had never been any doubt in my mind that Marlowe had always liked A.J., and had as much loyalty for my brother as he did for me. However, I think old Marlowe secretly loved to annoy A.J., and knew just how to get under his skin. Knew exactly what furniture A.J. didn't want him sittin' on and always managed to park himself there. Knew exactly where the muddiest spots in the yard were after a rain, and always managed to walk through them right before being let in the house. And no matter where A.J. hid his slippers, Marlowe always managed to find them. I swear I musta' bought my brother twenty new pairs of slippers during the four years Marlowe and I lived in his back yard.
My golden retriever, Rex, was another story all together. His affection for A.J. was equal to, if not greater than, his affection for me. Exactly why this was so I don't know. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that A.J. kept Rex at his house for three days before giving him to me. Rex had only been ten weeks old then, but I really think he remembers that time. All I know is Rex seems to want to please A.J., and is devastated if A.J. scolds him or looks at him crossly. Mom and I would laugh when we'd see Rex slink off into a corner and pout after having been on the receiving end of one of A.J.'s lectures. Even I don't have that much power over the dog.
Poor Rex didn't know who to go to first. His master, who he had seen very little of since Wednesday, or his master's brother, who he hadn't seen at all since the previous weekend.
The dog danced around our feet for a minute, not getting the attention he wanted from either one of us. I couldn't bend down to pet him because I was holding onto A.J., and A.J. couldn't bend down to pet him because...well, because he couldn't bend down.
A.J. finally let go of the countertop and managed to give Rex's head a stroke or two.
Rex looked up, confused as to why A.J. wasn't talking to him, or crouching down to look him in the eye like A.J. normally does when he greets him. Rex sensed something was amiss. He looked from me, to Mom, to A.J. Abruptly he calmed down and contained his excitement as if he knew now was the time to be gentle. He began washing the back of A.J.'s hand over and over with his tongue.
When Rex was satisfied that he had said a proper hello
to A.J., he walked over to me and accepted a pat on the head and a soft, "Good boy, Rex. Good boy. You take it easy on A.J. for the next few weeks. He's not up to playin' rough right now."
A.J.'s face was beginning to turn a ghastly shade of white, and he was starting to sway with pain and fatigue.
"Rick, you'd better get A.J. up to bed," Mom suggested. "I'll bring up some hot food once you have him settled."
I didn't know what Mom had warming up on the stove, but it smelled like chicken soup. I had no doubt she had brought with her to A.J.'s, all the food she had cooked for herself and me over the past three days. All the food we had hardly touched.
Like most mothers, I suppose, when Mom doesn't know what else to do for her children, how else to help them, she cooks. I guess it goes back to the days when you're a kid and a hot meal and a heart-to-heart talk over supper makes your problems suddenly seem small and easily manageable. How I wished that remedy carried over into adulthood. I had a feelin' we were gonna be in a need of some of it in the coming days.
Mom never took her eyes off of us as I helped A.J. walk through the den to the stairway. Although he tried to hide it, I could tell each stair step was agony. Between the fact that I was bushed myself, and supportin' most of his weight, I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever make it up to that bedroom, or if we'd just collapse in a heap at the top of the stairs, both of us admitting defeat.
But, we did in fact make it to our destination. The Simon brothers never admit defeat. Or at least not very often. And, as per usual, the youngest Simon brother doesn't employ nearly as much common sense as his older sibling. Instead of letting me help him undress and get right in bed, A.J. insisted, "I want to take a shower first, Rick."
I turned to look him in the eye. "A.J., come on. That can wait until tomorrow. Let's get you to bed."
"No," he shook his head. "I'm dirty. My hair feels disgusting. And I hurt. I want a hot shower."
I tried my best to convince him to travel another avenue.
"How about a sponge bath?"
"And just who's going to give it to me?"
"Well...me I guess."
I smiled. "Okay. Mom."
"That's not even funny. I'm taking a shower."
I knew there was no use arguing with him, because I know how much he hates to feel dirty. And, after all he'd been through, I could understand that a hot shower might serve a medicinal purpose as well. Both physically and emotionally.
"Okay. Come on then," I gave in. I took my field jacket off of him and threw it on the bedroom chair. I then helped him into the bathroom and sat him down on the closed lid of the toilet. I moved to turn on and adjust the water for his shower. I left the room long enough to grab a pair of clean underwear and pajama bottoms from one of his dresser drawers. When I got back to the bathroom he was attempting to stand over the sink and brush his teeth, the toothbrush held awkwardly by a bandaged hand that couldn't quite close around it.
I walked up behind him and wrapped an arm around his ribs for support. "What the hell are you doing?"
He spoke around the toothbrush and Colgate in his mouth. The words I had to decipher sounding something like this.
"Mrushing my eeth. Whz it loo ike 'm doin'?"
"I don't know. All I know is it looks strange. Usually a person bends over the sink when they brush they're teeth so the toothpaste doesn't run down their chest."
I listened hard to discern his next garbled words.
"Can't ben. Hurz too much. Tis'll 'ave ta' do."
I shook my head at him in the mirror. His chest was dotted with flecks of toothpaste. "It's a good thing you're takin' a shower after you're done with this," was all I said.
Although someone at the hospital had run a razor over his face so they could better access the damage done, there was still a three day growth of beard here and there. When the tooth brushing exhibition ended, it didn't come as any great surprise to me that A.J. insisted on running his electric razor over the places the nurse had missed. I winced right along with him each time that razor got too close to his swollen eye, or hit a sensitive cut.
It took longer to get him ready for the shower than it actually took him in the shower. When he finished brushing his teeth and shaving I sat him back down on the toilet. First I took the bandages off his palms and wrists, then took off his shoes and socks so I could remove the bandages from his ankles as well. The skin on both his wrists and ankles was scrapped raw from what I guessed had been horsehair ropes.
"Sorry about this," he apologized. "I forgot we'd have to go through all of this."
"Don't worry about it," I dismissed as I stood, giving his knee a little pat in the process. I discarded the bandages in the wastepaper basket before turning my attention to him once more. "I don't know if we should be doin' this, but I guess I'm gonna have to unwrap those ribs. We shoulda' asked Joel."
I had A.J. lift his arms slightly so I could unwrap the tape that wound tightly around his midsection, though tape isn't really an accurate term with which to describe it. The whole contraption was similar to a big Ace bandage, but more constricting. It fastened with the aid of Velcro tabs and strips.
"Once I get this off, you sit up straight," I ordered. Obviously the bandage was supporting his rib cage. I was afraid if he allowed his posture to sag with pain and fatigue he'd hurt himself. I didn't know if a cracked rib could puncture a lung, but I was certainly in no mood to find out.
I finally got the thing off him and laid it aside. I carefully removed the bandage covering the stitches on his arm. The wound was angry and red. It was clearly apparent that it hadn't had attention from the time it happened until he'd been brought into the hospital that morning.
I wasn't even thinkin' when I asked, "This is where you got knifed in the struggle?"
He looked up at me, then looked away. "Yeah. How...how did you know?"
Now that we had started this conversation there was no turning back. "There was...blood on the carpet at Adriano's house. And a little neighbor kid saw you and...and Erika being led away."
He didn't say any more, and neither did I. I was sorry I had brought it up.
The bathroom was getting good and steamy by this time. I helped him stand, then held onto him while he unbuckled his belt and undid the button and zipper on his trousers. After three days of no food they hung loosely on his hips. Without too much effort on his part they fell to his ankles and he stepped out of them.
The briefs were another story however, but between the two of us we managed to get them off of him. I know A.J. was embarrassed 'cause I had to help him with something like that. Hell, I suppose none of us likes someone else helpin' us take off our underwear, unless that someone else is an attractive member of the opposite sex. But regardless of whether or not he liked it, he had no choice.
I rolled up my shirtsleeve and helped him make the step over the side of the tub. I shut the sliding shower door as far as I could so water wouldn't get all over the floor. I left it cracked open just enough so I could keep a firm grip on A.J.'s left arm. The last thing I needed was to have him fall in the tub and add to the abundance of injuries he already had.
heard him draw his breath in with a sharp hiss. Without askin,' I knew the hot water and soap were stingin' the
hell out of the cuts and raw places on his hands, wrists, ankles, and
"You okay, A.J.?" I called over the sound of the running water.
"Yeah," came the weak reply. "Yeah...I'm fine,"
With a bit of urging from me, A.J. didn't linger underneath the water for too long. I promised him I'd help him get in his whirlpool tub for a nice long soak in a day or two. He soaped up his body and hair, then rinsed off. I snatched a couple of towels off the rack as I helped him step out onto the thick wall to wall bathroom carpet.
He grabbed one of the towels from me and wrapped it around his hips. I laid the other one over his head so the water from his wet hair wouldn't drip in his eyes. I grabbed one more towel and bent to dry his legs and feet for him, then urged him back to the toilet and sat him down. I gently dried his upper torso, working my way carefully around the ribs, back, and stitches. I took the towel that was draped over his head and dried his hair with it, then ran a comb through it a couple of times for him.
"Feel better?" I asked as I rewrapped his ribs.
"Yeah. The shower felt good. Thanks for helping me."
I gave him a smile. "Any time, little brother. Any time."
Once the ribs were snug in their cocoon once again, I stood him up and helped him get on his briefs and pajama bottoms. Just as I was sitting him back down there was a knock on the door.
"Boys? Can I come in?"
"Yeah, Mom!" I called. "Come in!"
Mom smiled when she saw her freshly showered youngest. She walked over and kissed the top of his damp head. "You already look much better, honey."
I asked Mom to get me the tube of salve that was still in my jacket pocket. While I applied it to A.J.'s wrists and palms, she dug around in the medicine cabinet and vanity drawers until she found the necessary gauze, tape, and bandages we'd need to patch him back up. With the two of us working together, it didn't take long to complete the job. I caught Mom's eye once and saw the tears she was fighting to contain as she gently worked the salve into A.J.'s raw ankles. I gave her a small smile and wink. She smiled back and even managed to tease me.
"Did you end up showering with your brother, Rick?"
Even though I had rolled up my sleeve, the majority of my shirt was wet from the spray of the water.
I looked down at myself. "No, I didn't. Though I guess it kinda looks that way, huh?"
A.J. even managed to join in the teasing for a moment.
"Believe me, Mom. Rick is definitely not among my choice of shower partners."
"Boy, A.J., you really know how to hurt a guy. And here you let me take off your underwear for you and everything."
"Rick!" Came my brother's embarrassed admonishment.
Mom couldn't help but laugh as she picked up the wet towels and dirty clothes while urging, "Come on you two, let's get those stitches covered back up and get this guy to bed where he belongs."
We're a clan that's always relied on humor to help us through the bad times. I think that Saturday, all three of us recognized the value of that family trait.
Mom had already pulled down the bed covers and piled three pillows on top of one another, stacking them against the headboard. I helped A.J. ease onto the bed, then lifted his legs for him and helped him get situated as comfortably as possible considering the circumstances. Mom retrieved the tray she had sat on the dresser and put it over his lap.
I saw a mug full of her homemade chicken soup, though I could see that she had strained the meat out and left only two noodles. A dish of cherry Jell-o sat off to the side, and a glass of ice water rounded out his meal. Obviously Mom knew what was best for a stomach that hadn't seen an ounce of food since noon on Wednesday.
Although I figured A.J. would have preferred a grilled
T-bone and a baked potato lathered with butter, he didn't protest over what was set before him. He probably knew as well as Mom and I did, that ten minutes after he ate a rich meal we'd be cleaning it off of him and the bedclothes.
His exhaustion became more apparent now that he was settled in bed. Mom and I talked back and forth quietly while A.J. ate, discussing the arrangements for his care over the next few days. We both watched him out of the corner of our eyes as we talked. I saw his hands begin to shake as he repeatedly lifted the mug to his mouth. Without breaking the stride of my conversation with Mom, I unobtrusively sat down in the chair I'd pulled up next to his bed and wrapped my hands around his, helping him get that soup to its final destination.
He drank most of the soup, but barely touched the Jell-o. Two small spoonfuls was all he managed before he let the utensil drop back into the jiggling red mass for good. I reached around and searched blindly for the field jacket that was layin' over my chair.
"What do you need, honey?" Mom asked.
"There's a couple of prescription bottles in my coat pocket, Mom. The same one where you got the salve from. One of them is a pain killer, the other's an antibiotic. You wanna pop the lid on the painkiller and give one to A.J.?"
Mom quickly scanned the instructions on both bottles before doing as I asked. A.J. took the pill from her and washed it down with a swig of water. I had to bully him a bit to get him to drain the glass but finally, to get me to shut up I suppose, he did as I ordered.
"Can I get you anything else, A.J.?" Mom asked.
His head shook back and forth wearily against the pillows.
"No, Mom. I'm fine."
She bent and placed a kiss on his forehead, then ran a gentle hand down the side of his face. The soft smile she gave him was full of love. "You get some sleep," she ordered as she removed the bed tray. "Just call if you need anything. One of us will be here with you."
His eyes were already at half closed. "Okay."
After Mom left the room I helped A.J. get settled.
"You wanna try sleeping like that?" I asked in reference to the fact that he was still propped up against three pillows.
"No. I don't think this is going to work. It hurts like hell."
"Too much pressure against your ribs?"
"Okay then. Let's try this." I eased him forward just enough so I could pull out two pillows and discard them on the floor. I helped him lay down on the one pillow I had left behind.
He nodded his head weakly and allowed his eyes to close.
I pulled the covers up to his shoulders before walking over to the French doors and shutting the blinds. By this time it was quarter to one in the afternoon, and sunshine had been flooding the room with bright golden light.
I returned to the chair I had just vacated and sat back down. I wasn't sure if A.J. wanted me stick around a while or not, but decided unless he told me to go, I'd stay until he fell asleep. I knew from first hand experience that as much as your body craves sleep after an ordeal like A.J. had been through, those first minutes of solitude can be hard to take. For whatever reason - the darkness of the room, the stillness of the house, always makes it worse. Always magnifies what happened. I guess that's why there's that old saying, "Things will look better in the morning." Pain easily dealt with and pushed aside in the light of a busy day, seems to take on a life of its own in a dark room.
I reached a hand out and laid it on his shoulder. I gave a little squeeze, just letting him know I was still there. Allowing him the option of telling me to get lost.
It was an option he didn't choose. He didn't say any more to me, but rather lifted his right hand and covered the one I still had resting on his shoulder. His weak grip encased my knuckles and fingers. We stayed like that a long minute before his grip slackened and his arm slipped slowly back to his side. Within seconds his breathing became slow and even, indicating to me he had dropped off into a deep sleep.
I sat there a couple of more minutes until I was satisfied he was out for the count. I rose, gathered up my jacket, put the chair back where it belonged in the corner of the room, and shut the bedroom door quietly behind me as I exited.
I entered the kitchen to find Mom washing the dishes A.J. had used.
"Why don't you just put those in the dishwasher?" I asked.
"Because I needed to do something with my hands."
"What do you mean?"
She turned to face me, her arms buried to the elbows in warm sudsy water.
"After seeing your brother's injuries, I want nothing more than to break every bone in the bodies of the people who hurt him like that. I needed to do something productive with my hands before my anger forced me to start slashing A.J.'s throw pillows with the butcher knife."
I smiled at her. "In an effort to save A.J.'s pillows, I'll be happy to show you where he keeps his boxing gloves. He always says hitting that punching bag out in the garage has a tremendous therapeutic effect on pent-up anger."
Mom turned back to her dishes. "I just might take you up on that, Rick."
I couldn't help but chuckle at the mental picture that came to mind of my tiny mother socking the stuffing out of A.J.'s punching bag.
I walked over and grabbed a towel. I made quick work of drying the few dishes she handed me, then returning them to the cabinets they belonged in. I spread the damp towel over the sink and laid my hands on her shoulders.
"How you doin' with all this, lady?"
She smiled at me through her tears. "I suppose I'm doin' about as good as you are, partner," she gently mocked. "I'm grieving for Adriano and his family. I'm crying inside for that young girl whose life came to an end in such a cruel manner. And most of all, I'm worried about my boy. About what all this will do to him. About what he went through. About how he's going to deal with all of this."
I pulled her into a tight embrace and rested my chin on her head. "I know, Mom. I know. I'm worried about him, too."
We stayed like that a long time. Our embrace offering one another comfort.
When Mom pulled away she looked up and studied my face. "You're so tired too, sweetheart. Let me make you some lunch, then you go on up to bed. I'll--"
She stopped there and craned her head to look over my shoulder.
"What is it, Mom?"
She walked around me and stood on her tiptoes, straining to see out the kitchen window.
"Rick...there's a crowd of people out in the driveway."
I turned to look out the window as well. "Aw, damn."
"Who are they?"
"Reporters," I spat out as if the word was poison.
I grabbed the kitchen door knob, yanking the door open right before some idiot was just about to clang the ship's bell that was mounted on the outside of the house.
"Don't touch that," I snarled in the guy's face. I quietly closed the door before speaking to the gathering in front of me. "If you people wake my brother there's gonna be hell to pay, you got that?"
They all made an effort to honor my threat, though that didn't keep three or four of them from shouting questions at me in strangled whispers.
"Is it true then, Mr. Simon, that you brought your brother home from County General Hospital this morning?"
"Mr. Simon! Have you talked to the Garcia family since they got the news of Erika?"
"How does your brother feel about what happened to the girl?"
"Rick! Can you give us a rundown of A.J.'s injuries?"
I knew there was no use to tell 'em, ‘no comment’ and turn and go back inside. They'd just plague my every step for the next week in the hopes of gettin' something out of me.
I held up my hand in a gesture of silence. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mr. Gorman. He was practically falling out of his kitchen window as he tried to unobtrusively observe what was going on.
When it was so quiet that all you could hear was the occasional quack of a duck on the canal, and the distant sound of children playing somewhere in the neighborhood, I said, "I'm not gonna field any questions, but I will give you a statement on one condition. That condition is that you leave my brother alone. I know who everyone of you is, and I know where to find you. So help me God, if you so much as snap a picture of him, I'll shag you down and make you sorry you were ever born."
I saw a smattering of heads nodding and heard a couple of, "Yeah, okay's," from my captive audience.
When all was quiet I began.
"My family and I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the Garcias. Erika was a bright, beautiful, loving girl. My mother, brother, and myself, feel great pain over her death. I would also like to say thank you to the many friends and acquaintances who took part in the search for Erika and A.J. My mother and I want to thank the many relatives and friends who called to extend their prayers to us. We would also like to thank the men and women of the San Diego Police Department, who worked around the clock in an effort to solve this case. And a special thank you goes out to the anonymous trucker who helped my brother."
I stopped there. "That's all I have to say. I'd like all of you to go now."
Surprisingly enough none, of them were too insistent on getting any more information outta me. Like I said before, most of them were familiar with me, and my temper. A few tried to ask me questions, but gave up when all they got was a cold stare in return.
I didn't go back in the house until the last of their vehicles pulled away from the curb.
I walked into the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind me.
"I don't think they'll come back, Mom, but if they do don't talk to 'em. And don't let 'em get within a hundred yards of A.J., no matter what you do."
"I won't," Mom assured.
She wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed.
"Your statement was beautiful, honey. You said everything that needed to be said."
"Yeah, I guess. Let's just hope those bozos don't screw it up when it goes to press."
Mom chuckled. "Let's hope not. It's not often I get to hear you speak so eloquently."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Mom, but I hope I don't have reason to do it again anytime soon." I smiled. "I'm gonna run over to the boat and pack a bag since it looks like I'll be staying here at least until A.J. sees Joel next Monday."
"I'll have lunch ready when you get back," Mom promised, seeing me out the door and locking it behind me.
I made quick work of packin' a bag and lockin' the boat up tightly. I saw Clarissa a moment as she passed on her Rollerblades, Molly pulling her along as the leashed dog trotted ahead of her. Clarissa gave Molly's leash a little tug and stopped their progress. I answered her questions regarding A.J., told her Rex and I'd be staying at A.J.'s place a while, and asked her to keep an eye on my boat.
I had only been gone from A.J.'s an hour, when I pulled into his driveway once again. I took note of the silver B.M.W. at the curb. For just a second I saw red.
If one of them damn reporters has managed to get past Mom I'll--
My thoughts in that regard came to a quick end when it dawned on me as to who the car belonged to.
I entered the kitchen and laid my bag on the floor. Mom and Janet, Janet Fowler Cassidy, were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Rex had already zeroed in on the attractive lawyer and had managed to park himself right next to her, enjoying the strokes Janet continuously gave his soft coat.
"So I see you're at it again there, huh, boy?" I said to my dog. "Charmin' the two prettiest women in San Diego."
I leaned across the table and gave the smiling Janet a kiss on the upturned cheek she offered me. "Hi, darlin'."
"Hi, Rick," she greeted warmly. "I'd ask you how you're doing, but all I have to do is take one look at you to form my own opinion."
I nodded. I knew I was in bad need of a shave, shower, clean clothes, and twelve or so hours of uninterrupted sleep.
"Yeah, well, it's been a rough few days," was all I said.
Janet agreed. "So I've heard."
Mom rose from the table. "I've got lunch ready for you, Rick. Janet, you eat with us, too."
Janet stood. "No, no. I just came by to see how A.J. was. I'll leave now and let you two eat. Please tell him I stopped by, and that I'll—“
Mom began pulling hot food from the oven. "I'll do no such thing unless you stay and have lunch with us. If you've already eaten, then I'll refill your coffee cup and you'll have dessert with us."
Janet smiled her defeat at me. She couldn't win against Mom either.
"All right. If you insist, Cecilia."
"I do. Now, have you had lunch?"
Mom put an end to any further argument. "Then all the more reason you should stay."
Janet and I pulled out plates, bowls, and silverware, while Mom sliced the ham she had cooked two days earlier that she and I had only picked at. Voices that would have normally been raised in chatter, and the banging of pots, pans, and plates, were cautiously muffled in deference to the sleeping man upstairs.
Janet easily remembered where A.J. kept everything and moved comfortably around the kitchen. She had no trouble finding the loaf of bread, and pulled three drinking glasses from a corner cabinet without being asked.
I eyed her as she talked softly to Mom while retrieving the necessary amenities from the refrigerator. Though ten years older, she still possessed the same slim figure she had when A.J. had been engaged to her. I didn't know of many other women who could make an old, faded pair of blue jeans look so damn good. Her looks were only further enhanced by the red and black lumberjack's flannel shirt she wore with a black turtleneck sweater underneath. Or at least I thought so. I remember thinkin' that her husband was one very lucky guy.
Janet had been living back in San Diego for about four months at that time. Neither A.J. nor I knew she was in town until one day in October when she showed up at our office and took us out to lunch. She said she'd gotten an offer from the San Diego District Attorney's Office that was too good to refuse. She had quit her job at the D.A.'s office in Sacramento, and would be commuting back there on weekends until she and her husband sold their house and he joined her here. Since I knew her husband had a pretty important job himself with the Sacramento D.A., I expressed some surprise at this turn of events. Janet had simply told us that day that she and Allan had decided it was time for a change. She said he would most likely end up working for the D.A.'s office here in San Diego, as well, or possibly even go to work for a private law firm in the area.
We didn't see Janet again until right before Christmas when A.J. and I surprised her at her office. We took her out to lunch in repayment of the lunch she had bought us two months earlier. I know Mom had her over for supper one night right around Christmas time, as well, but other than that we hadn't seen or heard from her.
With the three of us working together it didn't take long for a meal of soup, ham sandwiches, Jell-o salad, and lemonade to be set out on the kitchen table.
While we ate I filled Mom and Janet in on what had happened to A.J. and Erika based on what Abby had told me. It didn't exactly make for a light and airy lunch time atmosphere, but they both insisted that I tell them, and in the end I figured I'd might as well get it over with since they'd have to know sooner or later anyway.
Janet told us that someone from the D.A.'s office had called her and told her A.J. had been found alive. She had gone into the office for a while that morning to find what was being said about the case.
"I can tell the two of you this," she said in-between bites of her sandwich. "If they find the man, or men, responsible for Erika's murder, they're going to seek the death penalty."
"They might be minors," I reminded.
"Yes, but if they're sixteen or over we can try them as adults. In this situation I think it's a strong possibility that a judge will wave the case into adult court. There's been a big effort in this city during the past two years to crack down on gangs. The police are really working hard to stop the influence the gangs have on other kids, as well as to stop the large amount of crimes they instigate. I was told this morning that the D.A.'s office is going to push as hard at it can to have these kids punished with the maximum sentence allowed."
"If they even catch them," I stated skeptically.
Janet looked across the table at me. "From what I understand, this one's a priority with the police, Rick. They really want to get these kids."
My mother and Janet exchanged glances when all I said was, "So do I."
"Will you be working on this case, Janet?" Mom asked hopefully.
Janet shook her head. "Because of my past...relationship with A.J., I've already bowed out." Janet looked from me to Mom and rushed on to justify, "I hope neither of you feels as though I'm being disloyal to him...or to you. It's just that I don't know if I can do an effective job considering all the...emotions that might be involved. When I heard that A.J. was missing I sat down and cried. When I heard that he'd been found I sat and cried again. For his sake, as well as my own, I had to disqualify myself."
Both Mom and I assured Janet that we understood completely, and that A.J. would too.
"How's he doing, Rick?" Janet asked with great concern.
"And I don't mean physically. Your mother's already told me about his injuries. How's he handling all of this?"
I pushed my empty plate out of the way and sat back in my chair.
"I don't really know, Janet. He hasn't said anything about it. He gave Abby...Lieutenant Marsh, a statement, but he asked her not to tell me what that statement contained. Said he wants to tell me himself. I'm sure Mom told you he's exhausted and in a lot of pain. I brought him right here from the hospital and helped him get in bed. There hasn't really been a chance for us to talk."
Liar, liar, liar, my brain taunted me. Of course there's been a chance, Rick. You could have talked to him in the trauma room at the hospital. Or during the drive home. Or in the bathroom while you were helping him shower and get dressed. Or even right before he fell asleep. But you're avoiding it, aren't you? Avoiding it because you're blaming yourself for what he went through, and for what happened to Erika.
I turned a deaf ear to that voice inside my head and changed the subject.
"Hey," I said to Janet. "What are you doin' in town on a Saturday anyway? I thought you flew up to Sacramento on Friday nights to be with Allan for the weekend."
"Oh, Janet," Mom said in way of apology. "I hope you didn't stay here this weekend just because of A.J. That wasn't necessary. We would have called you to let you know he'd been found."
Janet suddenly looked very uncomfortable. She gave us a weak smile. "I think the time has come for me to tell both of you the real reason I'm back in San Diego."
Mom and I looked at each other briefly with puzzlement, before returning our attention to the attractive woman across the table. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two of us as she fiddled with her glass of lemonade.
"I...we...Allan and I are getting divorced."
"Oh, honey," Mom offered sympathetically. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
"I'm sorry, Janet," I said. I noticed the tears that were welling up in the corner of her eyes. I leaned across the table and lightly squeezed one of her hands. "Are you okay?"
Janet wiped at her eyes and nodded. When she could speak again she told us, "The real reason I came back to San Diego was because I thought if Allan and I separated for a while it might offer us the time we needed to put things into their proper perspective. That things might become...clearer if we spent some time apart. I hadn't necessarily planned on coming back here to do that, but then I got offered the job with the D.A.'s office, and it just seemed like the thing to do. I've always loved this city. It holds a lot of good memories for me. I thought maybe if I got away from him for a while I could...work things out."
"Sometimes that helps,” Mom agreed.
Janet smiled sadly. "Not this time, Cecilia. You see..." She paused, seemingly embarrassed to go on. "Allan was...well, he couldn't...he didn't--"
"Janet," I interrupted to get her attention. "You don't have to tell us."
"No, Rick. I want to tell you. Both of you." She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Allan Cassidy can't stay in his own bed."
"Oh," I slowly nodded my understanding. "I see,"
The look on Mom's face told me she also knew exactly what Janet meant.
Now that Janet was past the hard part, she was able to maintain eye contact with us.
"I found out last summer that he was having an affair with a woman we worked with. A woman I considered to be one of my closest friends. I can't even begin to tell you how much it hurt me. There were days I wondered if I'd even be able to get out of bed in the morning. I was so...depressed. So devastated. So betrayed. Once I pulled myself together, though, I did a bit of investigating."
Janet threw me a smile. "I'm not Myron Fowler's daughter for nothing. Through my efforts I found out that wasn't the first affair my husband had engaged in over the life of our marriage, but rather the third one. When I confronted him about all my findings, he begged my forgiveness and promised it wouldn't happen again. He couldn't even give me a reason for his tomcatting. Said there was absolutely nothing wrong with me, or our marriage. That I hadn't done anything to cause him to cheat.
"As I said before, I'm not my father's daughter for nothing. I saw Daddy work on enough cases that involved philandering husbands who weren't satisfied with what was available to them in their own marital beds. Those kinds of men are repentant when they first get caught, but turn right around and do it again. And to add to my humiliation, my husband's escapades were the talk of the office. Had been for years evidently.
"I felt like such a fool. I never knew. We both worked such long hours. It wasn't unusual for either of us to be tied up on a court case for weeks at a time. It wasn't unusual for either one of us to be out of town for weeks at a time. I never questioned him about his long hours. Or his business trips. I put in long hours, too. I took business trips, too. I trusted him. I..."
By this time tears were steadily streaming down Janet's face. Mom stood up and walked over to her, wrapping her slender body in a firm hug. I reclaimed the hand I had been holding earlier and gave it another squeeze.
"I'm so sorry," she choked out in-between her tears. "You two have enough worries right now without me coming over here and crying on your shoulders."
"Hey, now," I scolded. "Don't let me hear you say that again. What are friends for if you can't cry on their shoulders once an' a while?"
"That's right, Janet," Mom said. "You listen to Rick. We're your friends. You know we've always been concerned about your happiness and well-being. We always will be. Years ago I told you you were like a daughter to me. Well, you still are."
Mom's words only made Janet cry harder. Once she composed herself she told us the divorce would be final within a month.
Mom left Janet's side in order to refill everyone's glasses. "So you'll be staying here in San Diego then?"
"I'm not sure," Janet replied. "For the time being. I'm renting a beautiful condo with the option to buy. Once things are settled I may purchase it. I also have my resume¢ out in several other cities. Miami's one of them. I had thought about moving back to Florida now that Daddy's retired there."
Myron had retired and moved to Florida about the time Janet and Allan had married four years earlier. He lived in a small town on the coast north of Miami.
"Does Myron know what's going on?" I asked her.
"He knows that Allan and I are getting divorced, and that I'm living here. Other than that I've been vague about the details. You know how mad he'd get, Rick, if he knew the truth."
Boy, was that an understatement. I figured if Myron knew Allan had been cheating on Janet, he'd probably show up on the guy's doorstep with a loaded shotgun and wouldn't think twice about eliminating that piece of male anatomy all men hold dear.
"At some point in time...after the divorce is final, I'll tell him the whole story," Janet said. "I've also sent a resume¢ to a friend's boss in Dallas, and to someone I know in New Orleans. And one up to Seattle, as well."
"Seattle?" I said with surprise to the Florida born and raised woman. "You do know it gets cold up there in the winter, don’t you?"
Janet laughed. "Yes, Rick, I do. But Seattle is a beautiful city. I've been there several times on business. The district attorney up there even offered me a job two years ago. I worked with him on a criminal extradition. He told me to keep him in mind if I ever wanted to make a change. I've been thinking that a complete change...a relocation to a new city, might be what I need right now."
“Not way up there,” I gave an exaggerated shudder. "Too cold."
guess this means you won't come visit me if I do move there?" Janet teased.
"Not in the winter," I vowed.
"Well, you might not even have to worry about it. For all I know I might decide to stay right here in San Diego. I'm just trying to get through each day until the divorce is final. After that, I'll begin making other decisions."
"That sounds like a wise idea," Mom confirmed as she rose from the table. "Now is not the time for you to rush into anything."
Janet and I cleared the table while Mom dished up apple pie and ice cream. We didn't linger over dessert. I think the weariness that was beginning to settle over me like a shroud of fog was all too apparent to the women. We made quick work of cleaning off the table and loading the dishwasher.
Janet gathered up her purse and jacket. She gave us both a long hug.
"Thank you for listening. And thank you for lunch. Please tell A.J. I stopped by and that I'll come back tomorrow."
"How about if I give you a call tomorrow when he's awake?" Mom suggested. "I hate for you to run all the way over here if he's sleeping. Besides, I know he'll want to see you."
Janet agreed to that. Before bidding both of us a final goodbye, she requested hesitantly, "Please don't tell A.J. what we talked about. About Allan and me. I'd like to tell him myself when he's had a chance to recover from his injuries."
I nodded my agreement to Janet's request. Mom smiled and told Janet she thought that was a good idea. That A.J. would want to hear that kind of news directly from her.
After Janet left, Mom and I stood in the kitchen for a few minutes and talked about all she’d revealed. We both felt sorry for her, and agreed that she'd been dealt a bum hand. Mom put an end to our discussion when she patted me on the arm.
"Honey, you go on up to bed now. I'll stay here in case A.J. wakes--"
"No, if I'm goin' to bed, you're goin' home and doin' the same."
"Mom, come on. You haven't gotten much more sleep than I have in the past three days. You're tired, too. You know I'm a light sleeper. I'll hear A.J. if he wakes up. Besides, I bet he'll sleep through until tomorrow morning now."
Mom thought a moment before finally agreeing. "All right. I'll go home. But if you need me for any reason you call me. Deal?"
While Mom went up to check on A.J. one last time, I let Rex out. I didn't want to be awakened for bathroom duty by my dog a mere hour or two after I'd gone to sleep.
Within a few short minutes Mom was back downstairs.
"Is he still sleepin'?"
"Yes," she nodded. "He hasn't so much as shifted position. I hope he sleeps the whole night through."
I tried to relieve the worry I saw in her eyes. "He probably will. And I want you go on home and do the same."
Mom allowed me to shoo her out the door. "I'm going. I'm going."
She turned and kissed my cheek. "I'll be back some time tomorrow morning. I want to stop at the grocery store first and stock A.J.'s kitchen so you don't have to worry about it this week."
"Okay," I agreed, returning her kiss. "I'll see you in the morning. Be careful driving home."
"I will," Mom promised.
I watched her walk out to her car, gave her a final wave as she backed out onto the street, then whistled for Rex. The dog came bounding around the corner of the house and followed me inside where I shut and locked the door. I flipped off the kitchen light before picking up my duffel bag and making my way quietly up the stairs, Rex trailing along behind me.
For as hard of a time as I'd given A.J. just a few hours earlier, I had to admit shaving, brushing my teeth, and showering sounded like good ideas before calling it a night. Or maybe I should say calling it an afternoon, since it was only four-thirty. I used the bathroom that was situated between the two upstairs guest rooms. I lingered under the hot water a while, though when I noticed myself nodding off standin' up I decided I'd better get out before I fell asleep and drowned. I made quick work of dressing in a pair of clean boxer shorts and picking up the bathroom. I walked into the bedroom next door and turned down the bedspread. I shut the shades to block out the afternoon sun before walking down the hallway to check on A.J. one last time.
His door was cracked open just wide enough for a golden retriever to fit through. I pushed the door open a little more and slipped inside. Sure enough, Rex raised his head and looked up at me from where he was layin' on the carpeting next to A.J.'s bed.
I bent down and gave his head a pat. "If you wanna stay in here you better behave yourself," I whispered. "Don't wake A.J. up."
I rose and studied my brother a moment. Like Mom had said a half an hour before, he hadn't shifted position since I'd gotten him settled at quarter to one. He had, however, managed to push the covers down to his waist. I lightly laid a hand on his left shoulder. It was cold to my touch. I reached down and pulled the blankets back up and tucked them in a bit more firmly. I stayed a minute longer, making sure my presence hadn't disturbed his sleep. When I was satisfied he would go on sleeping comfortably I exited the room. I left the door open far enough so that I'd be able to hear him if he called for me, and so that Rex would be able to get out of the room without waking A.J.
I don't think anything ever felt as good to me as that bed did that afternoon. I had been so tense, and so tired, that every muscle in my body throbbed like a bad toothache. I remember thinkin' that with all that was on my mind, with all that had happened, it would probably take me a while to relax and drop off. It did. About thirty whole seconds. I barely remember pullin' the covers up before I was dead to the world.
At first I didn't know what woke me out of such a deep sleep. Once I got my bearings and realized I was in A.J.'s guest room, I came awake enough to notice one corner of the mattress was sagging and someone was trying to make a nest with my blankets. I rose up on my elbows, and could discern the shadowy figure of Rex through the darkness. He looked at me, yawned, then laid down on his side and went to sleep.
Rex musta' decided to switch bedrooms, I thought.
I glanced over at the bedside clock to see that it was two-ten a.m. I had been asleep for nine hours, and felt like I could use about nine more. I fluffed my pillows, rearranged the blankets, and lay back down. I had just closed my eyes when I heard what sounded like a soft groan. I listened, thinking it was Rex dreaming about cavorting with Molly.
Just when I decided that I'd either heard nothing, or that the noise had indeed come from Rex, I heard it again. Only this time it was louder. This time it sounded like a moan of pain. And this time I could identify it as belonging to A.J.
I threw the covers back and shot out of bed, almost dumping poor Rex on the floor in the process. Despite the stiffness of my sleep-laden limbs I rushed outta the room, flipping on the hall light as I passed the switch. I pushed A.J.'s door wide open and came to a halt by his bedside.
The light shining in from the hallway threw a wide arc across his face and chest - wide enough that I could see him clearly. His arms and legs were twitching with rapid, jerky motions. Beads of sweat covered his forehead and upper lip. Yet when I reached out and laid the back of my hand against his cheek his skin wasn't warm to my touch like I had expected, but rather cold and clammy.
He moaned again and grimaced, that action indicating to me that the pain he was feeling was penetrating his sleep. I stood there a full minute, waiting to see if I was going to have to wake him up, or if he would settle down and fall back into a deeper state of unawareness. He mumbled something in his sleep. It might have been Erika's name, or it might have been mine. I couldn't tell. It did confirm what I suspected, however. That along with the pain, he was having a nightmare.
I moved my hand from his face to his shoulder. I shook gently and called quietly, "A.J. A.J., come on. Wake up. A.J.! A.J.!"
There was no dramatic climax to the dream, as often happens when someone is awakened from a nightmare. His eyes blinked a few times before he opened them. Or I should say, opened the right one. The left one was so swollen he could barely see out of it.
He looked up at me a moment before scanning the room. I figured he was getting his bearings, too.
"Wha' time's it?" He finally mumbled.
"About two-fifteen...in the morning."
I reached down and flicked his bedside lamp on low.
"Sorry I woke you. You seemed to be havin' a...lot of pain," I finished, deciding for the time being not to mention the nightmare. "I figure by now that painkiller Mom gave you is good and worn off, huh?"
He seemed to take a moment to assess how he was feeling.
"Yeah. It sure has."
I grabbed the two pillows I had thrown on the floor when he first went to bed. He stifled a moan as I helped him sit up and slipped the pillows behind him so he'd have some support for his back.
He lay there breathing rapidly with his eyes squeezed shut.
"I'm gonna get you a glass of water so you can take another one of these pills. Do you need me to get you anything else?"
He opened his good eye and looked up at me. "Actually, I need you to help me to the bathroom. I don't think I can make it there by myself."
I nodded. I knew by now the pulled muscles in his back and arms were damn near makin' it impossible for him to move. Especially if you considered that he'd been lyin’ in pretty much the same position for the past thirteen hours.
I tossed the covers back and helped him swing his legs over the side of the bed. The grimace etched on his face told me how painful just that small amount of activity was.
I had to support his back by encircling it with my left arm so he could remain in a sitting position. He stayed that a way a minute before telling me he was ready to tackle the next step. I helped him stand, held onto him while he swayed back and forth three times, then walked him to the master bathroom. We came to a stop in front of the toilet.
"You want me to stay in here with you while you...uh..."
That question put a little of that old A.J. Simon spunk back in him. I got a scathing look and a firm, "No."
I ducked my head and hid my smile. "I'll wait for you right outside the door then. Call me when you're ready."
I walked out and shut the bathroom door. In a short amount of time I heard the toilet flush, and the water come on at the sink. I didn't wait for him to call me, I simply reentered the room as he was drying his hands. He looked like shit. The bright light of the bathroom only accented the paleness of his features. The bruises and welts seemed more prominent than they had been at the hospital.
I put my best face on. "Ready to go back to bed?"
He gave a weak nod of his head. "Yeah."
It scared me a little when he willingly reached for my arm. He gripped the vanity top with his free hand as we walked. When that was no longer available, he used the wall for support.
I helped him get settled in bed before going to retrieve a glass of water. I returned, handing him the water and a pain pill, which he downed with one swallow.
"How about if I bring you some of Mom's soup?" I suggested.
He wrinkled his nose. "No. I'm not hungry."
"A.J.," I firmly reminded. "Joel said part of the bargain of you gettin' to come home was that you had to eat."
"Rick, it's two-thirty in the morning for God's sake! No one eats at two-thirty in the..."
"They do when they've been through what you have. You're gonna eat somethin' if I have to sit on you and shove it in your mouth with my fingers."
I think A.J. realized he was fighting a losing battle.
"Okay. Okay," he gave in. "But no soup. How about a bowl of cereal instead?"
"Um, I don't know," I shook my head doubtfully. "I think maybe we better stick with the soup for a while yet."
"Rick, come on," A.J. pleaded his case. "A bowl of cereal isn't going to hurt me. I need something with a little substance before Mom comes back. I already know I'm destined to a day of soup with all the meat strained out of it. If I'm lucky, by supper time I might get five or six noodles."
I laughed at him, and at the truth to his words. "Okay. We'll try a bowl of cereal."
I went down to the kitchen and searched through the cabinet where he kept the cereal. I had no idea what might be the easiest on his stomach - Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, or Wheaties. I immediately ruled out Raisin Bran, deciding I didn't like the sound of the bran part on a stomach that hadn't seen solid food in four days. It was a toss up then between Corn Flakes and Wheaties, with the Corn Flakes finally coming out in the lead - if for no other reason than I had always found them to be rather blah without at least five teaspoonfuls of sugar to flavor them up a bit.
I poured A.J. a small bowl of Corn Flakes, minus the sugar.
I decided to join him and poured myself a bowl of Wheaties. I put both bowls on the bed tray Mom had used earlier and grabbed a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator. I carried everything up the stairs, and finished the preparations once I'd stood the tray on its legs across his lap.
I went to the corner of the room and pulled the chair to his bedside again. I sat down and picked up my bowl. I had my cereal gone before he finished his. And even at that, he didn't eat the bowl clean. But, he had made an effort for my sake, and had probably managed to get down seven or eight spoonfuls, so I didn't bitch at him to eat any more. Besides, I wasn't sure how his digestive system would react to the milk, so figured it was best to let him decide when he'd had enough.
He laid his head back the pillows and closed his eyes.
"Done?" I asked.
I removed the tray and set it on the floor next to the milk. I leaned him forward just enough so I could once again remove the extra pillows. Instead of lying on his back this time, he half turned onto his right side, facing away from me.
I pulled the blankets back up to his shoulders. "You comfortable?"
"Yeah. I'm okay."
I guessed that by now the pain pill was starting to kick in. I hadn't asked Joel if it had a sedative in it, but thought by the way his eyelids were beginning to droop that it might.
I shut off the bedside lamp, planning to let the light from the hallway guide me outta the room while I balanced the tray, dishes, and milk in my arms. I left that stuff on the floor for the time being and I sat in the chair for a couple of minutes. I only started to rise when I thought he'd fallen back to sleep.
He must have sensed my movement. "Rick?"
"Yeah, A.J. What do you need?"
He remained as he was, on his side facing away from me.
"I...Rick...I...I don't think I can do this job anymore."
"What? You mean bein' a P.I.?"
"Yeah," came the quiet response.
I sat back down in the chair. I reached out and gave his shoulder a squeeze.
"A.J. I don't think right now's the time to decide something like that. I think you...well, that you and I both just need some time. Some...distance from all of this."
A long moment passed before he answered me with a dull, "Yeah. Maybe."
I look back now and can kick myself for accepting his, "Yeah. Maybe." Accepting something that I knew he didn't mean. Or didn't feel. Accepting something I knew perfectly well he was saying just to please me.
"A.J.," I said gently into the darkness. "Do you wanna tell me what happened?"
It was quiet for a long time. So quiet that I could faintly hear the alarm clock ticking from the guest room I was using.
Just when I thought he wasn't ready to talk about the whole thing yet, or even that he might have fallen back to sleep, he spoke. His voice was quiet and hoarse. I had to listen hard to pickup his words.
"I took Erika home that day like I told you I was going to. I checked all the doors. They were locked. I even looked in the windows, but I didn't see anything out of the ordinary."
He stopped there so I contributed, "Abby figured they picked the lock on the back door and hid somewhere in the house until you and Erika came in."
The light from the hall enabled me to see the small nod of his head. "They were in Erika's bedroom. Behind the door and in the closet. When she walked back there to change her clothes they grabbed her. I was out in the living room. By the time I realized what was happening they...they had a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if I didn't give up my gun.
"I gave them what they wanted, but not without a fight. I thought I might get lucky and distract them so that Erika could get away. If nothing else, I wanted to leave behind enough of a mess so that you and the police would know what had happened."
"I knew," I confirmed, my voice almost as soft as his. "I knew as soon as Adriano called me."
"I knew you would. I kept telling her...Erika, that you'd know. That you'd know and that the police would be looking for us."
"Everyone was lookin' for the two of you, A.J. Everyone. I turned Adriano's house into a command post and had every cousin, in-law, brother, and nephew he and Carlos possess, out lookin' for you."
The blame I was layin' on myself over not being able to find him and Erika was all too apparent in my tone.
"I know you did," A.J. replied in a voice full of understanding. "You did the best you could, Rick. Just...let it go."
"But if only I had known the cannery was closed. If only I had thought--"
He never turned to face me, but I saw him shake his head no. "Just forget it, Rick. You didn't know. I don't want you kicking yourself in the butt for that."
"I have no choice." My tone was bitter. "Erika's dead."
If I could have reached into mid-air and taken back those words the second they came out of my mouth I swear I would have. What I’d been thinking spewed forth without me taking the time to decide if it should be said, or if it should remain a private thought.
By the heavy silence that suddenly blanketed the room, it should have remained a private thought.
I knew perfectly well that A.J. had to be carrying a shit load of guilt around inside himself over all this. Why I didn't use that opportunity, the opportunity bringing up Erika's death would have afforded me to discuss it with him, to help him get it out in the open, I don't know. I suppose I was feeling so much guilt of my own right then, that I just had no room left to be burdened with his as well. It was easier to pretend I'd never mentioned it. And that's what we both did.
Even though I didn't want to dwell on Erika's death right at the moment, I did want A.J. to tell me what had occurred during his sixty some hour ordeal.
"So...uh...what happened after the fight in Adriano's living room?"
He didn't answer me immediately. Just when I was beginning to wonder if I'd blown all further communication between us for the night by bringing up Erika, he took a deep breath.
"They drove us out of Adriano's neighborhood to a back alley a few blocks away. They stopped the car long enough to blindfold us, then made us crouch down in the back seat. They drove around a long time after that...to disorient us I suppose. After an hour or so they stopped the cars and took us out at the cannery. They didn't take the blindfolds off until they got us inside, but I had a pretty good idea as to where we were. I knew the cannery had closed down, and there were still signs and other forms of advertisements on the interior walls.
"Basically...well basically, except for one kid with a gun to stand guard duty, they left us there alone until Friday night. A few of them would come back every once and a while to threaten us. To tell us what was in store for us. You know, just playing around with us psychologically."
"When...when did they hurt you?" I had to know. "Beat you up like this?"
He sounded almost nonchalant about it. "Whenever they'd come back. Whenever they would...hit me, it upset Erika. That only spurred them on further."
that went on for three days and nights?"
He lifted his left shoulder in what seemed to be a shrug of indifference. "Pretty much."
I couldn't help it. I reached out and began rubbing a hand over his back. Across the raised welts.
I pressed for more information. "Did they...hurt Erika during all this?"
"No," he said quietly.
"That came on Friday night?" I asked, though I already knew the answer. I had called Abby from the boat, when I'd gone there to pack my bag, to get an update on the case. Although the autopsy was just getting started, she did tell me that between the information the police investigation had already uncovered, and the information A.J. had given in his statement, they had a rough estimate of the time of death as being shortly after three o'clock on Saturday morning.
A.J. swallowed hard. His voice was tight and raspy as he continued.
"They...a good portion of the whole gang, boys and girls, came to the cannery around six o'clock. They had their...fun with me for a while, then...then started in on...on Erika. I tried to distract them...tried to make them stop, but they... they wouldn't."
And that's where he ended his story.
For a long time that night I sat in the bedside chair, rubbing my hand in light, circular motions across A.J.’s bare back. I knew perfectly well there was more to the story than he was telling me. Knew he'd skipped over a lot of parts, and purposely left a lot of parts out - and completely omitted any details surrounding Erika's death. And above all else, he'd left out the feelings. All the feelings of despair, and fear, and desperation, he must have had during those three days for himself, and more importantly, for the young girl he and I had been hired to protect.
I know now, I shouldn't have let it end there. I should have made him talk about the hard parts. About the feelings. But I didn't - because I wasn't ready to hear them. Because I honestly didn't know if I could handle them. And if I couldn't handle them, then how in the hell was I supposed to help A.J. handle them?
If I'd only realized that Saturday night, that he was protecting me. That A.J. didn't think he could turn to me for the help he needed to work through this. That he thought I'd been through enough already. That he didn't want to burden me.
By the time I realized all this and was ready for him to turn to me, it was too late. He had already found someone else to turn to. Janet.
He had already turned to Janet.
A.J. had dropped off to sleep again somewhere around four that morning. I returned to my own bed shortly after that, sleeping fitfully on and off until I heard Mom come in at quarter to nine. I got up and dressed, arriving down in the kitchen in time to help her put away four bags of groceries.
She greeted me with a kiss. "Did you sleep well, honey?"
"Yeah. Great." I replied as I reached into a grocery bag.
Well, okay, that wasn't entirely the truth, but on the other hand, I had slept like a rock for nine hours. It was just the remaining four or five I had trouble with.
Mom turned from the refrigerator where she'd just put away a new gallon of milk and several cartons of juice. "How about A.J.?"
"Didn't hear a peep out of him until about two this morning. He needed a little help gettin' to the bathroom. Sayin' he's sore would be an understatement."
"Judging by the injuries I saw yesterday I would agree with that. Did he go right back to sleep?"
"I had him take a pain pill and then made him eat a little something. We talked for a while." I buried my head in another grocery bag to keep it hidden from the only woman I had ever encountered who could catch me in a lie. "But then yeah...yeah, he went right back to sleep."
Mom caught my eye as I put some canned goods away. "Did you two talk about what...happened?"
I glanced at her, then bored my gaze into the cabinet.
"Uh...yeah. Yeah, we did. He told me what happened...we talked about all of it for a while...and then he went back to sleep."
Boy, was I wrapping the whole thing up in a nice, neat little package, or what?
I was rather surprised when Mom didn't press me for any details. Actually, I was very surprised. It was only much later that I found out she wasn't ready to handle the particulars surrounding the whole affair either. And found out later that she carried some guilt, too, over the fact that she didn't pressure me that day to tell her more. Had she, she would have quickly come to the conclusion that A.J. and I hadn't nearly discussed the ordeal in quite the detail I led her to believe. And had she known that, she would have talked to him herself. And had she done that, maybe things would have ended differently.
"So he's...dealing with it alright?" Mom asked.
I gave her a smile of assurance. "He's hangin' in there, Mom. As we both know, there's bound to be some rough spots for him over the next few months, but he's doin' okay. A.J.'s strong. He'll get past this."
To show you how out-of-touch I was at that moment with not only A.J.'s thoughts and feelings, but with my own, I actually believed that line of bull I handed my mother.
I didn't want to talk about it anymore. Didn't want to give her a chance to ask me any more questions, so quickly changed the subject by offering to make her breakfast. We talked of other things while I fried eggs and sausage, and Mom set the table.
We had just finished eating when I heard bed springs creak from up above, then the sound of bare feet shuffling across the carpeting.
I pushed my chair back and rose from the table. "I imagine your stubborn youngest is makin' a trip to the bathroom and doesn't have enough sense to call his older brother for help. I'd better get up there before he falls and cracks open that hard head of his."
Mom chuckled and rose from the table as well. "While you're helping our patient, I'll get some breakfast ready for him."
By the time I got up the stairs A.J. was slowly making his way out of the bathroom. I scolded him for not callin' me, then helped him back to bed. It wasn't long after, that Mom arrived bearing his breakfast tray.
I could clearly read A.J.'s, "I told you so," expression as he rolled his eyes at me when Mom sat the tray across his lap. Cream Of Wheat, a bowl of canned peaches with the syrup drained off of 'em, a naked piece of toast without so much as a drop of butter, and a glass of very diluted grape juice, was not exactly how A.J. normally started off his mornings. He must have known it would do him no good to complain though, because all he did was tell Mom thank you before starting to eat.
He finished off most of his breakfast while we sat and visited with him. The phone rang twice while we were talking. Both times A.J. nodded to Mom to answer the extension on his nightstand. The first time it was Joel checking up on his patient, and saying he'd stop by around noon to have a look at A.J. The second time it was Abby. She was also checking in to see how A.J. was doing, and to ask if it was okay if both she and Gary Childers came by at one. Mom relayed the message to A.J. He had her tell Abby that one o'clock was fine.
After she hung up the phone, Mom told him of Janet's visit the previous afternoon.
"I'm supposed to call her if you're feeling up to a visit from her some time today, sweetheart."
"That's fine," A.J. readily agreed. “I feel up to seeing her.”
Shortly after that Mom went down to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen. Just as I had thought, the pulled muscles in A.J.'s back and shoulders were startin' to give him hell. He decided he wanted to soak in the whirlpool for a while before his visitors started to arrive.
To this day I'm not exactly sure how I managed to get him in the round, sunken tub without both of us endin' up soaking wet. He was having so much trouble moving, not to mention bending, that it proved to be quite interesting to say the least. But, by carefully coordinating our efforts, and by taking it slow and easy, and with me taking off my socks and rolling up the legs of my jeans and climbing in there with him, he was finally able to ease himself down into the warm swirling water. As the whirlpool began to work its magic the grimace of pain he had been wearing melted from his face. He closed his eyes and laid his head back against the lip of the tub, his body visibly relaxing. Seeing how such a small act gave him so much relief from the pain made my wet pant legs worth it.
Since I'm not any more A.J.'s choice of whirlpool partners than I am his choice of shower partners, I climbed out of the tub and dried my feet off. I brushed my teeth and shaved, and just in general puttered around upstairs while I waited for him to tell me when he was ready to get out.
An hour later he was back in bed and I was giving him another pain pill. Aside from the long soak, he had followed my lead and brushed his teeth and shaved. He then insisted that I help him get dressed in something other than pajama bottoms since, from the sounds of it, he would have a variety of company that day. Mom had fielded three other calls while he was in the tub. One was from Edie and Bud Krelman, who wanted to come by and see him, one was from two of our aunts who wanted to do the same, and another was from some friends of A.J.'s who also wanted to stop by.
A.J. settled on a new pair of black sweatpants he had gotten from me for Christmas that he hadn't had a chance to wear yet. The Chargers logo ran up and down the sides of both legs. There was a matching heavy fleece sweatshirt that he had me lay across the bed within his easy reach. Although he didn't say so, I guessed he wanted to be able to cover up the welts on his back and the tape around his ribs, for visitors like Edie and our aunts, who were bound to be upset by the battered sight he presented.
Joel arrived right at noon as he had promised. He listened to A.J.'s heart and lungs, and took his blood pressure. He unwrapped his ribs, pressing here and there and asking a lot of questions of all three of us. He was pleased to hear that A.J. had slept fairly well the previous night and was eating pretty good. He seemed to be satisfied with A.J.'s health in general, and the care Mom and I were giving him. The only thing he did was write another prescription, this one for a muscle relaxant in deference to all the pain A.J. was having throughout his shoulders, neck, and upper back. Other than that, Joel reminded us that his receptionist would be calling to set up an appointment for the following week, and told me to call him if I thought A.J. needed to see him before then. He gave A.J.'s arm a pat as he rose from the bed. Before he left the room, the doctor gave my brother a final warning in regards to getting plenty of rest and eating well in the coming week.
Joel no more than pulled out of the driveway, when Abby and Gary arrived. Gary was carrying a thick mug book. He followed me up to A.J.'s room where I left the two of them alone. When I returned to the kitchen, Mom and Abby were sitting at the table talking. I poured all three of us coffee and joined them.
Abby filled us in on the case. Gary and his people in the Gang Unit knew who a lot of the kids were that belonged to the Conquistadores¢ and Conquistadoras. They were feeling positive that with A.J.'s help as an eyewitness, they could nail those guilty of Erika's murder.
The coroner had determined the time of death to be approximately three twenty-three a.m. on Saturday morning. He had confirmed what Abby had said at the hospital - that Erika bled to death because of the internal injuries she had suffered from the repeated abuse of her body.
Mom and I didn't say anything for a long time after that. The tears that had welled up in Mom's eyes as Abby relayed the coroner's findings now ran silently down her cheeks. I reached over and squeezed her hand.
Finally, I cleared my throat. "Abby? How'd A.J. manage to get away?"
"He didn't tell you?"
"No. He...uh...told me everything else early this morning, but not that part. He was...pretty tired. I didn't wanna press the issue."
In reality, I knew perfectly well why A.J. hadn't told me how he escaped. He hadn't told me because we had completely bypassed the details of Erika's death. And in order to get to how he managed to free himself, we would have had to discuss how she died. It was only logical. In the sequence of events, Erika's death came before A.J.'s escape.
Abby had no qualms about filling Mom and me in on that part.
"According to what A.J. told me at the hospital yesterday, one of the boys cut him loose."
Mom and I exchanged looks of surprise.
"A.J. said the kid looked to be about fourteen or fifteen. He thinks the boy might have been a friend of Erika's. Regardless, the kid didn't take part in the rape, and although he hit A.J. when he was coerced into doing so, A.J. said he was holding back. That he got the impression the kid didn't want to hurt him. After Erika died, they started in on A.J. again - started working him over with the intention of killing him. A.J. said they stopped when they heard three or four police sirens outside. They must have thought they'd been caught, though in actuality, the units were responding to an armed robbery at a liquor store a few blocks from there.
"At that point the kids took off in their cars and on foot and left A.J. there. The boy I was telling you about hung back until the others were gone. Without saying a word to A.J., he slipped out a knife and cut the ropes. Then he ran off into the night."
Mom summed it up best. "Thank God for that boy."
Abby nodded. "Gary's hoping he'll know who the boy is based on the description A.J. gives him. Maybe we'll get lucky and he'll even be in the mug book. If nothing else, we know who White Snake is, and know he was the driving force behind all of this. The big problem now will be finding him and the others who were involved."
I fiddled with my coffee cup. "By now they must know A.J. got outta there alive. The story's been all over TV and in the papers. If they figure out one of their own let him loose, and figure out who did it, they'll kill the kid, Abby. You know they will."
Abby nodded. "That's why Gary wanted to talk to A.J. as soon as he could today. We want to find the kid. Not only will he be in grave danger like you stated, but we can use as many witnesses in this case as we can get. We really want to hang high those who are responsible."
A few minutes later Gary called Abby upstairs to talk to A.J. as well. It was forty-five minutes later before they left. Gary was sure he knew who a number of the kids were based on A.J.'s descriptions, as well as the fact that A.J. was able to provide him with a good share of the nicknames they went by. A.J. had also picked several out of the mug book, including White Snake. They hadn't found a picture of the boy who had freed A.J. though, and Gary didn't think he knew who the kid was. He was suspicious that the boy was new to gang involvement, which probably accounted for his sympathetic nature. Abby told us she'd be bringing the department sketch artist over to see A.J. the next morning. She and Gary wanted to put a face to this mystery kid.
Mom and I saw Abby and Gary to the door. I went upstairs to talk to A.J. about their visit and to see if he wanted some lunch. It didn't surprise me when I found him sound asleep. Between the two police officers, they'd been questioning him for close to an hour and a half. I covered him up, pulled the blinds like I had the previous afternoon, and closed the door behind me as I left the room.
Edie and Bud were just walking in the door when I returned to the kitchen. I told Mom A.J. was sleeping. Mom invited the couple to stay for lunch, telling them that maybe by the time we were done A.J. would be awake. Mom had to shush them when they began arguing over whose fault it was in regards to the time of their arrival. Edie insisted that she had wanted to come in the morning when she knew A.J. would be awake. Bud countered that by saying he was the one who had wanted to come after breakfast, but that Edie was dawdling as usual. Mom finally got them to shut up by telling them she'd have to ask them to leave if all they were going to do was fight because she didn't want them waking A.J.
I decided it was time to make my escape. Aunt Edie and Uncle Bud get on my nerves on a good day. After what we'd been through recently, I wasn't up to dealing with them over lunch.
I gave Mom a quick kiss and told her I was going to have A.J.'s new prescription filled, then go over to Adriano's. She nodded, understanding my need to get out of there. Bud and Edie were still arguing, albeit in hushed tones.
Mom returned my kiss. "Extend my sympathies to Adriano and his sons."
I nodded and gave her a quick hug. I said goodbye to Uncle Bud and Aunt Edie, who didn't even hear me, and walked out the door.