The Power Of Love
*The Power of Love is an intense adult drama.
The man signaled the waiter by crooking two fingers.
“My friend and I would like wine with our meal. The 1910 chardonnay.”
The tuxedo clad waiter smiled. “That’s a very wise choice, sir. I’ll bring a chilled bottle immediately.”
The man’s companion arched an eyebrow. The price of the wine that had just been ordered was excluded from the leather bound menu for a reason. It was outrageously expensive, and not meant to be requested by someone for whom price was a concern.
“That will make a dent in your pocketbook.”
The smile of a contented cat danced across the man’s lips. His companion, who knew him only as Wyatt, found it to be a fitting compliment to his pointed feline features. Even Wyatt’s eyes were odd and cat-like, one a brilliant green, while the other a dull hazel streaked with flecks of gold. The sandy gold hair on top of his head was shaved in a medium-length crew cut. It was spiked straight up with hair gel, making one think of a kitten that had just bitten into an electrical cord. The sides were buzzed to the skull military style, while the back fell long and full to his suit collar like a wide, bushy tail.
“Money is the least of my worries, Taylor.” Wyatt said. As though to emphasize that point, his right hand played with the band of the gold Rolex watch encircling his left wrist. The gesture could have been an unconscious one, but his luncheon partner hardly thought so. Everything Wyatt did was done deliberately, and for the benefit of his audience.
The arrival of the wine interrupted further conversation. The waiter uncorked the bottle and filled a globed goblet a quarter of the way. He swirled the rich burgundy liquid three times, then handed the goblet to Wyatt. The man took a long sip. He passed it back to the waiter with a smile.
“Heaven. Absolute heaven.” Wyatt winked at his companion. “Almost, though not quite, better than sex.”
The waiter laughed politely at his patron’s joke. He laughed at a lot of jokes throughout each working day that he didn’t find particularly amusing, simply because indulging his customers brought good tips. The man refilled Wyatt’s glass, then filled one for Taylor. The snow-white blond accepted it with a nod of thanks.
“Your meals will be out shortly,
gentlemen. Is there anything else I can
bring you before they arrive?”
Wyatt shook his head. “No.
This is fine.”
The waiter moved off, leaving the pair to their private conversation. The restaurant catered to wealthy men with busy schedules who bought, sold, and traded during their lunch hours. It was rich with polished mahogany wood on the walls, and a floor so thick with ruby red carpeting that one felt like he was sinking in two feet of snow when treading across it. Several sets of short stairways dotted the room’s main floor. They led to levels that contained small alcoves for more secluded dining. Like the alcove Wyatt and Taylor were sequestered in today.
Wyatt glanced down to the main floor below. It was fifteen minutes after twelve. The room was filled with black suits, briefcases, and the spicy odor of men’s cologne. Conversation buzzed continuously like worker bees humming around a hive. Here and there a woman sat eating while hashing out a business deal, but the fairer sex was few and far between. At one point many years ago, when such things were still allowed, the Board Room didn’t permit women entrance. Of course, that policy had long since been changed, but there still seemed to be an unwritten rule in place that kept most females away. Or maybe they just didn’t feel comfortable in this place that was so obviously masculine with its dark wood, blue leather chairs, and imposing male waiters. Whatever the reason, Wyatt didn’t think that was all bad. A man had few sanctuaries any longer. A smart woman remembered her position in society. There was nothing he hated worse than some power-hungry bitch in a suit. The only place he wanted a hungry woman was in his bed.
With a nod of his head, Wyatt indicated to a woman below them seated at a table with two men. She was beautiful by anyone’s standards, with well-defined classic features, deep-set indigo eyes, and hair the color of Cherry Coke that cascaded past her shoulder blades in full, gleaming strands.
“Bet ya’ fifty bucks the bitch is
doin’ both a’ those guys. Even the black dude.”
Taylor followed Wyatt’s gaze. “Pardon me?”
“That broad down there. The one in the gray suit with legs like a gazelle. She probably comes here at lunch to work out a deal, then seals it back at her office with her panties down around her ankles.”
Taylor gave his companion nothing but a small smile. “Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.”
“Aw, Taylor, they’re all that way,”
Wyatt laughed. “Or at least they should
be, huh, buddy?”
Taylor didn’t deem a response necessary. He quickly looked away when the woman flicked an upward glance in his direction.
“Let’s talk business.” Taylor shifted in his chair, turning his back on the people below. “What do you have for me this month?”
Wyatt eyed the plain gold band on his companion’s left ring finger. The leather of his four hundred dollar Italian loafers softly creaked as he, too, shifted position.
“Pardon me for being so blunt, but if I didn’t know better, Taylor, I’d think you were a fuckin’ queer.”
“Oh really? Why is that?”
“Because we’ve been doing business together for almost a year now, and never once have you let me set you up with a lady when you come to visit me.”
Taylor held up his left hand. “I’m happily married.”
“Oh, come on. No one’s that happily married.”
“I am. But regardless, I didn’t fly all the way out here to talk about my personal life. Or yours either, for that matter. You know what I came here to discuss.”
“Taylor, Taylor, Taylor,” Wyatt sighed with playful drama, “haven’t you ever heard the old saying? All fun and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
It was as Wyatt was laughing at his own joke and reaching for the bottle of wine, that Taylor slipped an unseen hand into the pocket of his suit coat. He flipped the switch on the small but powerful tape recorder. He could faintly feel the vibrations of the whirling cassette against his thigh. “My name isn’t Jack, and I’ve been accused of worse things than being dull. So how about if we talk business.”
“Okay, okay, have it your way. Business it is.”
Wyatt folded his hands, rested them on the table and leaned close. Taylor copied the posture. When Wyatt spoke his tone was carefully hushed, but no matter, the tape recorder would pick up even the slightest whisper.
“I’ve got everything for you with
the exception of the AK-47s.”
“But that’s what my client desires most.”
“I know that. But I couldn’t get them this time.”
Taylor’s features hardened. There was no mistaking the fury contained in the tight sigh he released. “Last time it was the Berettas, now the AK’s. If you keep disappointing me like this, Wyatt, I may be forced to take my business elsewhere.”
“No, no. We don’t want you to do that.”
“You know I can’t give you that information.”
“Perhaps you should. Perhaps if I talk to your boss, I’ll be able to stress to him the importance of the people you continuously upset.”
Wyatt’s eyes flashed angry lightening streaks of green and gold. “First of all he’s not my boss, he’s my partner. And secondly, it’s not our intention to upset anyone. The complete deal just didn’t come through this time.”
Taylor leaned back in his chair. He rested his chin between his thumb and forefinger, lost in thought while staring out at the bright San Diego sunshine. It was a far cry from the dull winter sky and slushy snow he’d left behind at home in Maryland.
Wyatt retained the pose he’d struck when they first began to talk. He wasn’t aware that the sudden jiggling of his legs was shaking the table ever so slightly. Or that his companion caught the way he nervously tugged at the cuffs of his black Armani suit coat.
Taylor kept his eyes focused on the window and hid his smile.
A little nervous there, huh, Wyatt, old pal? Afraid I’m gonna back out on the deal leaving you and your...partner, stuck with a hundred grand worth of illegal firearms.
Taylor drew the anxiety out until their wine began to slosh in the glasses in a result of Wyatt’s movements. His lips were set in a grim line when he turned to face the man.
“All right. I’ll take what you have. But tell your partner to can the bullshit. I don’t like being chased all the way out here only to go home with half of what I was expecting. My client will like it even less. If it happens again, I’ll turn to other sources for my needs. “
“It won’t happen again, I
promise. We’re working with some new
guys. There’s been a few glitches in
“Then I’d advise you to work those glitches out and work them out soon.”
Wyatt smiled like a cat who had just swallowed a canary. He thought of the weighted body he’d dumped in the bay at two o’clock that morning after first putting a bullet in the man’s head. He reached out a hand and patted Taylor’s arm right before their food arrived.
“Don’t worry about it, Taylor, the problem’s been taken care of.” Wyatt flicked out his red cloth napkin with the flourish of a victorious bullfighter, then laid it across the lap of his designer suit. “Yes indeed, the problem has been taken care of.”
Charley O’s, across town from where the two men dined, was everything The Board Room wasn’t. Bright with clean white walls, pale pink and beige were the predominate accent colors in the wallpaper and pictures. No levels of varying heights offered alcoves for privacy. If you wanted that, you had to hurry to beat the lunch crowd and hope for a booth in the back. Tables that sat four dotted the wide floor space. Busy waitresses weaved in and out of the tables like skilled stunt drivers. The women would laugh at the notion of tuxedoes. Instead, all were clad in white slacks, white tennis shoes, and pink sweatshirts that had Charley O’s stitched across the front in baby blue lettering. Workmen, and a few women, sat at the coffee counter in uniforms that represented everything from the police department to the gas company.
Rick and A.J. paused a few feet into the doorway. They scanned the bustling area, and were just about to tell the hostess they needed seating for three, when someone hailed them from a corner booth.
The woman stood halfway up, waving a hand. At five feet six inches tall she possessed a trim, athletic build. Her thick hair was platinum blond, hanging to her jaw line in a blunt pageboy cut with bangs covering her forehead. Her fair coloring was offset by bright eyes the same color blue as the sky on a cloudless day. Over the din she called, “Rick! A.J.!”
The brothers headed toward their cousin, freeing the hostess to take care of the people behind them.
The booth Linda Ecklund was seated in was wide and shaped like a crescent moon. Rick slid in on her right, planting a kiss on her cheek.
A.J. slid in on his cousin’s left and kissed the cheek that remained untouched by his brother’s lips. “Hi, Lindy.” Between their coloring, and the fact they both heavily favored the Simon side of the family, A.J. and the woman could have passed for brother and sister.
“Hi, guys. How are you?”
A.J. smiled. “Fine.”
“As ornery as ever,” Rick replied. “A.J. I mean. Me, I’m just my usual charming self.”
Linda laughed at the teasing Rick had rained on A.J. for as long as she could remember - and at the look of mock disgust A.J. threw his brother that had also been going on since childhood.
Linda, or Lindy as her father had christened her shortly after birth, was the eldest daughter of Jack Simon’s sister Joan. She had a brother a year older than Rick, and two sisters younger than A.J., one by two years, the other by three. Linda herself fell in-between the private detectives in age. As a child she’d played with, and fought with, Rick and A.J. just as much as she’d played and fought with her own siblings. Though she still resided in San Diego, Linda rarely saw her cousins outside of the family reunion held each July, and when her holiday obligations allowed, the Christmas Eve party A.J. faithfully hosted each December. But that didn’t mean she’d ever lost the warm feeling she carried inside for both men.
Talk among the trio centered on family gossip while they studied menus, then, placed their order. Rick and A.J. shared glances after the waitress left. In that brief exchange they agreed to allow their cousin to lead the course of the conversation. She had called them at the Simon and Simon office the previous afternoon, sounding on the verge of tears.
A.J. had answered the phone on the second ring. “Simon and Simon Investigations.”
“A.J., it’s Lindy.”
A grin lit A.J.’s face and brightened his voice. “Lindy! Hi!”
The blond had indicated for Rick to pick up the phone on his desk.
“Hey, kiddo,” Rick greeted into the receiver. “Long time no see.”
“Hi, Rick. Listen, guys, I’m calling from work so I can’t really talk. What I need is to schedule an appointment
“An appointment?” A.J. echoed. “Is this business?”
There was an unsteady quiver behind
Linda’s tone. “Yes, A.J. Yes, it is.”
“Can you tell us what it’s about?” Rick asked.
“I…not really. I don’t want anyone to overhear. The bottom line is, I think I need to hire
you guys to do a job for me.”
A.J. sat forward in his chair. “What kind of a job?”
“I’d rather talk to you about it in person.”
“All right,” Rick had agreed after he caught A.J.’s nod. “How ‘bout if we meet for lunch tomorrow. A.J.’s treat.”
Linda chuckled. “Okay.
But not A.J.’s treat. My
treat. Do you guys know where Charley
O’s is at?”
“Sure,” A.J. said. “We know the place.”
“Great. It’s right around the corner from my office. I’ll meet you there at noon.”
“Oakey dokey,” Rick said. “We’ll see ya’ then.”
“See you tomorrow, Lindy.”
“Bye guys. And thanks….thanks a lot.”
What exactly their cousin was thanking them for neither detective knew. They pondered the possibilities aloud for a few minutes, then, returned to their work, knowing they’d have answers to their questions the following day.
Linda sat between them now, leaving nervous finger smudges on her water glass.
“I suppose you’re both wondering why
I called you.”
Rick gently extracted the glass from the woman’s hands and set it in the center of the table.
“You’re gonna spill that if you don’t quit playin’ with it.”
Linda smiled. “That’s what I’m always telling my kids.”
“Good advice,” Rick nodded.
The woman’s fingers found her paper napkin next. A.J. stopped her before she could tear it to shreds.
“Are Rick and I going to have to
take everything off this table before you’ll talk to us?”
Again, the woman smiled. “I’m sorry. It’s just...well now that I’ve asked you here I feel rather foolish. I mean; it’s probably not that big of a deal. I suppose I’m overreacting and you’re going to think my concerns are silly.”
Rick’s eyes flicked to A.J., then back to their cousin. Her head was bent and she wouldn’t look at them. He began to wonder if she was having trouble with her new husband. Maybe she suspected him of having an affair. God knew Rick had heard worse over the years. It was always harder when it was family though. When you shared a history with, and really cared about, the person coming to you for help.
A.J.’s thoughts were similar to Rick’s. “Does this have anything to do with Mark?”
Linda looked up. The smile that dominated her features at the
mention of her husband’s name spoke of nothing but overwhelming love. “No,
no it doesn’t. Mark and I are very
For reasons unknown to the Simon brothers, Linda and her first husband, Greg, had divorced two years earlier. Ten months ago, in April of 1987, she’d married Mark Ecklund, an employee at the small manufacturing plant Linda’s parents owned, and that her mother still ran despite her father’s death three years before. The detectives had only met Mark once, and knew very little about him, but he’d seemed nice enough.
The woman took a deep breath. “Like I said, you’re probably going to think I’m being silly. A neurotic mother who can’t allow her children to grow up.”
At least now the brothers knew Linda’s concern was centered around one, or both, of the children she’d had with Greg Nash. Rick guessed Heather had to be about six years old now. He couldn’t imagine what type of problems that sweet wide-eyed angel could be giving Linda. Greg and Lindy’s oldest child, Brendan, was around twelve, Rick thought. Because the boy had inherited his looks from his mother and his Grandma Joan he was, ironically enough, almost the spitting image of A.J. at the same age. A good kid as far as Rick knew; involved in wholesome activities both in and out of school.
“Lindy,” A.J. said quietly, “neither Rick nor I are going to think
you’re silly regardless of what you tell us.
You said something about the children.
Is everything okay with them?”
“I wish I could say yes, A.J. Hell, I wish I could say no. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not
“What do you mean?”
“What about Brendan?” Rick asked.
“I’m so worried about him. I...he’s suddenly taken to doing things that
are completely out of character for him.”
“Like what?” A.J. inquired.
“Like skipping school for one thing. And dropping out of all his extracurricular activities for another. He quit the Boy Scouts, he quit the soccer team he played on, he dropped out of the school science club...and his grades. His grades are sinful. He’s always been an A student, but now his report cards are full of D’s and F’s. When I try to talk to him about it, he shrugs his shoulders and walks away from me. Brendan’s always taken such pride in his schoolwork. Has always strived to bring home straight A’s and be on the honor roll, but now he doesn’t seem to care that he’s failing every class he’s in.”
Conversation momentarily paused as the waitress brought drinks, a breadbasket and salads. It resumed in-between bites of food.
A.J. reached for a roll and a pad of butter. “When did this behavior on Brendan’s part begin?”
“Some of it began last summer, but the worst of it started after school resumed in September.”
“He’s what?” Rick grabbed a packet of breadsticks and
tore open the plastic wrapper. “Twelve
“So that means he woulda’ started
junior high, right?”
A.J. immediately picked up on his
brother’s thoughts. “Does that also
mean he entered a new school?”
“Yes. He’s attending Southbay Junior High. It houses seventh, eighth, and ninth graders.”
“And I expect along with that comes a whole new set of friends,” Rick guessed. “Possibly some kids who aren’t havin’ the best influence on him? Maybe some boys older than himself?”
“Yes,” Linda agreed, “that’s part of the problem. He’s hanging out with a couple of fourteen year olds, ninth graders, who he has no business spending time with. I’ve tried to encourage him to renew his friendships with the boys he used to be close to. His best buddies from grade school that he did everything with. They go to Southbay, too. All three of them are good kids who come from nice families. I’ve been telling Brendan to invite them for a sleep-over and pizza party on a Saturday night, but he won’t have anything to do with the suggestion.”
Rick speared a cucumber with a tine of his salad fork. “It sounds like he’s gotten himself hooked up with the wrong kids.”
“I wish the problem were that easy.” Linda’s fork played with the lettuce on her plate before she finally pushed it aside untouched. “But I think it goes a lot deeper than that.”
“Deeper?” A.J. looked up from his food.
“In what way?”
“There’s been a lot of changes in our lives in the past year, as both of you know. I believe Brendan’s having difficulties adapting to those changes.”
“Are there problems between him and Mark?” Rick asked.
“I’d like to say no, but I suppose I’d be lying. Mark has tried, really tried to be a friend to my son, but Brendan rebukes his attempts.”
“What about Greg?” A.J. asked.
“Does he stay in close contact with Brendan and Heather?”
“Oh, I don’t suppose you guys would have reason to know. Greg relocated to Billings, Montana almost a year ago. Late last March. He was promoted at work and sent there to run the home office.”
“Which means Brendan doesn’t see him nearly as much as he used to,” A.J. surmised.
“Correct, though I can’t fault Greg in any way. He calls the kids once a week, never forgets their birthdays or holidays; he really tries to stay as involved as he can. Brendan and Heather just spent a week with Greg and Rachel...his wife, last month. During Christmas break.”
“How’d that go?”
“Not good. Not good at all.”
“In what way?” Rick asked.
“Greg had been promising Brendan for months that just the two of them would go skiing for a couple of days while the kids were there. But then those plans fell through because the baby was ill.”
“Baby?” The Simon brothers asked as one.
“Greg and Rachel had their first child in November. A little boy named Alex. He was very sick with some type of virus while Heather and Brendan were visiting. I can’t blame Greg for canceling his plans with Brendan. It wouldn’t have been fair of him to leave his wife alone with a sick baby and a little girl who’s not even hers.”
A.J.’s empty salad plate was piled on top of Linda’s full one. “Did Brendan say anything about it when he came home? About the canceled trip, I mean?”
Linda’s mouth formed a pensive frown. “The only reply he gave when I asked how he liked his ski trip was a sullen, ‘We didn’t go. Dad’s new kid was sick. He’s got another son now, you know.’”
“Ah,” Rick nodded. “I think
we’re finally getting to the root of the problem.”
“I’m sure that’s a lot of it. I know it doesn’t help matters that Mark has a son as well.”
“Does the boy spend time at your house?” A.J. asked.
“Yes. And believe me, that’s another source of dissension for Brendan.”
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Cory’s a bad kid. As a matter of fact, he rarely gives me a problem. But he stays with us every other weekend. Brendan is forced to share his room with Cory at those times. He’s nine-years-old, an only child, and has a bad case of hero worship aimed in Brendan’s direction. I thought that would be good for Bren - to be looked up to by a little brother of sorts. Unfortunately, he’s not reciprocal to it at all. He’s constantly picking fights with Cory over the stupidest things. He won’t let him touch anything in his room, or play with toys Brendan himself hasn’t played with in years. For heaven’s sake last weekend I heard Brendan tell Cory he wasn’t to touch his Matchbox Cars. When I reminded Bren he hadn’t pulled them out of his closet in well over three years, he just gave me a scathing look and said, ‘Well they’re mine, not his. I’ll decide who gets to play with them and who doesn’t.’”
Linda leaned back against the booth with defeat. “Needless to say, my new household has been less than peaceful lately. As you can imagine, Mark’s patience is wearing thin. He’s tried to stay out of my problems with Bren, but more and more he’s being forced to step in and impose discipline on him.”
“Which Brendan resents,” Rick guessed.
“Oh, yeah. Big time.”
“It sounds to me like Brendan feels
as though he’s lost control of his life,” A.J. offered. “I’m sure it’s been very difficult for him
to adjust to, not only to a new baby brother, but a new stepbrother as
well. He was used to being the only boy
in the family for a long time. I’m
certain part of the problem centers around his confusion as to where he now
“I’m sure it does, too, A.J.,” Linda
said, “but he’s old enough to
understand none of that means Greg or I love him any less. I’ve told him that time and time again, but
it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in.”
“He’s at a tough age,” Rick said. “A boy twelve...well, he spends an awful lotta time provin’ to his friends he ain’t a kid anymore, while still feeling inside like he is.”
“I know, but I’m really worried
about him, guys. Skipping school, bad
grades... where is all of this going to lead?
If he doesn’t come to his senses, we’ll be in for nothing but
trouble. His teen years are rapidly
approaching. If I can’t enforce
discipline on him now, how will I enforce it when he’s sixteen?”
“Have you tried punishing him for
his poor grades?” A.J. asked. “And for skipping school?”
“Yes, he’s been grounded more this school year than he hasn’t been. Nothing I do seems to faze him, however. As soon as he’s won his freedom back, the old habits start up again.” Tears shimmered in the woman’s eyes. “I’ve tried to be a good mother. I’ve always spent a lot of time with my kids, taken an interest in their schoolwork, friends, and activities. I’ve tried to instill in Brendan that there’s a consequence for every action we take, for every decision we make, be those actions and decisions good or bad. I’ve talked to him a lot lately about how skipping school can only lead to future problems for him. I found a pack of Camels, of all things, in his dresser drawer last week. I told him smoking cigarettes or drinking will only cause him more trouble. I told him the choices he makes at age twelve, will undoubtedly become choices he regrets someday on down the road. I reminded him of my father’s death from lung cancer. I told him his grandpa made the choice to smoke as a young boy, long before he was mature enough to know the ramifications of that decision. I reminded Bren of the price Dad paid for his two-pack-a-day habit. He knows what the last year of Dad’s life was like. He saw the cancer turn his vibrant, beloved Grandpa into a shadow of the man he’d once been.”
“You said you talked to Brendan about drinking as well,” A.J. stated. “Do you suspect he’s doing that, too?”
“I don’t necessarily suspect it at this time, but I’m not naive, A.J. I know it’s a very real possibility. I also know it’s a very real possibility that if Brendan keeps skipping school, he’ll eventually be doing things that get him in trouble with the law.”
Rick’s reply was grim and full of conviction. “He will be.”
“That’s why I want to hire you
The waitress returned with their meals. While ketchup, salt and pepper was passed around, A.J. asked, “You want to hire us to do what?”
“First of all, to find out where it is he’s going when he’s not in school. Secondly, maybe you could uncover some information about the boys he’s hanging around with. You know, see if they’ve had any run-ins with the police.”
The brothers nodded. Though juvenile records are usually sealed, they had enough contacts within the police department to make gaining information on Brendan’s friends fairly easy.
“And then I’d like you to talk to him.”
Rick’s hamburger halted midway to
his mouth. “To Brendan?”
“Why us?” A.J. asked. “Why not Greg or Mark? Or what about Trent?”
Trent was Linda’s older brother. The woman shook her head at all three suggestions.
“Brendan’s not interested in hearing what his father has to say on any subject right at the moment. As far as Mark goes, Brendan hardly gives him the time of day. And Trent, well as much as I hate to admit this, I doubt Bren would recognize his uncle if he passed him on the street. You know my brother, he’s always been a swinging single.” Linda gave a mirthless laugh. “Even when he was married. He rarely sees his own kids, let alone spends time with mine.”
Rick stabbed at a glob of ketchup with a French fry. “But there must be a teacher, or coach, or some male figure in Brendan’s life who he looks up to.”
“There is. Two male figures in fact. You guys.”
“Oh, Lindy,” A.J. negated, “come on. You give us way too much credit. We only see Brendan a couple of times a year.”
“That’s true, but he’s always thought the world of you guys. When he had to do that paper for school about two people who had vastly differing experiences during the Vietnam War, who did he interview?”
Although Rick had a distinct feeling he and A.J. were about to be backed into a corner, he acknowledged with a mumble, “Us.”
“And when he had to write a paper about the ins and outs of owning your own business, who did he talk to?”
A.J. knew he and Rick were being backed into a corner, as well. “Us,” he reluctantly admitted.
“Then last year, when he had to write his sixth grade term paper on what he wanted to be when he grew up, who did he follow around for two days at their job?”
“Us,” the brothers were forced to say in unison.
“Yes, you guys. That’s all he talked about for weeks afterwards. It was ‘Rick and A.J. this’ and ‘Rick and A.J. that.’ Because of you guys, Brendan had his sights set on being a private investigator, or perhaps going into law enforcement in some capacity. But now those dreams are crumbling before my eyes. And whether Brendan realizes it or not, they’re crumbling before his eyes, too.”
The tears Linda had been holding at bay began to trickle down her cheeks. “Regardless of how he views himself, in many ways he’s still a little boy. Only twelve years old. He’s too young to be throwing his life away, but I’m so afraid that’s what he’s doing. You guys know better than anyone else what it’s like for a boy to grow up without a father. You were just kids when Uncle Jack died. I know Brendan’s circumstances are much different from yours, but in many ways, I suspect that’s how he feels. Like he no longer has a dad.”
Rick and A.J. exchanged long looks across the table. Yes, they both well remembered the pain of growing up without a father. They couldn’t disagree with their cousin. They imagined, to a large extent, Brendan did feel as though he no longer had a man in his life he could look up to and emulate.
A.J. handed the woman his napkin while catching the nod his brother threw in his direction. “Don’t cry, Lindy. Rick and I will talk to the boy.”
Linda dabbed at her eyes with a corner of the rough white paper. “Thanks, guys. Thanks so much. I know...well, I know this isn’t the kind of case you usually take. I really appreciate you going to all this effort for me.”
Rick put an arm around his cousin’s shoulders and pulled her head to his chest. “Hey, no thanks is necessary. Aside from the fact that you’re family, you’re also the little girl who, along with Elizabeth, picked A.J. up and dunked him head first in Mom’s fountain. I’ll repay a favor to any gal who does that.”
Despite her tears, Linda chuckled as she thought of their shared childhood, and another Simon cousin turned private investigator, Elizabeth Charles.
“Yeah, Elizabeth and I sure picked on poor A.J., didn’t we?”
“Yes, you did,” A.J. imparted, trying hard to hide his smile. “And the two of you are just lucky I forgave you a long time ago.”
Linda moved from Rick to A.J. She accepted her blond cousin’s hug, and as with Rick, briefly laid her head against A.J.’s chest.
“Don’t worry, Lindy,” A.J. assured, “things will work out just fine. After all, by asking for Rick’s help you’ve just obtained assistance from the most incorrigible teenager to ever walk the face of this planet.”
“That’s true,” Rick proudly acknowledged.
Linda laughed, well remembering her elder cousin’s many escapades.
Lunch ended shortly thereafter. Although Brendan weighed heavily on his mother’s mind, she wasn’t quite as upset as she had been before meeting with the Simon brothers.
It’ll be okay, the woman assured herself at work that afternoon. Brendan’s always admired Rick and A.J. He’ll listen to them. They’ll make him understand he can’t go on skipping school and not doing his homework. They’ll make him see he needs to get involved with his soccer team again, and reacquaint himself with his old friends. Like A.J. said, things will work out just fine.
If Linda had only known that day what maelstrom her seemingly simple request was about to throw her cousins into, she never would have asked for their help. Many months would pass before she forgave herself for all that was about to change.
“First of all, he’s not my boss, he’s my partner.”
The three men and one woman were gathered around the table in the woman’s room at the San Diego Best Western on Harbor Drive. The area smelled of such a wide variety of fast food it was almost nauseating. Two grease stained cardboard Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes filled with naked bones and crumpled napkins were pushed to one side, a rolled up McDonald’s bag setting with them. The Burger King bag was open yet, the charcoal scent of a flame-broiled Whopper wafting through the top like smoke from a cooking fire wafts through the hole in the top of a teepee. The only indication that someone amongst them was concerned about fat intake and cholesterol levels came in the form of the empty Yoplait container and pint-sized skim milk carton.
The woman had long ago shed her gray suit in favor of faded jeans and a navy blue polo shirt. She sat sideways in the padded chair upholstered with green vinyl, her long legs swinging back and forth over the wooden arm. Her Adidas running shoes, scuffed and worn from the four miles she put on them every morning at dawn, had been haphazardly kicked off on the oatmeal carpeting. The left one was pointing north, while the right one pointed south, giving the impression their owner wasn’t quite sure which direction she was headed in.
A fitting analogy, Shannon O’Brien thought as she looked over her bare feet at the well-cushioned white shoes striped in plum and turquoise. She reached up and undid the thin band that was allowing strands of her hair to fall from her ponytail. She shook out the rich dark mane before gathering it all up again. In the soft light cast from the dresser lamp her tresses possessed a deep black-maroon cast. She secured the hair high against the back of her head with her left hand, then, twisted the navy blue coated elastic band around it with her right.
Will Fleming rewound the tape, hitting the ‘play’ button for the third time that evening. They listened in silence until Wyatt’s voice imparted once again, “First of all he’s not my boss, he’s my partner.”
Will tapped a light finger on the recorder’s small speaker. Although he’d long ago learned to expertly cover his Southern accent with the more neutral flat tones of a Midwesterner, when he was relaxed and among friends there was no doubt the man had been born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line.
“This is it. This is the first time he’s slipped up and admitted he’s not in this alone.”
A hulking man with a baritone voice reminded, “But we’ve assumed that all along,” right before he took the last bite out of his Whopper.
Vlademar Braun was as big and powerful as his name implied. At six foot eight and possessing three hundred pounds of well-toned muscle, he towered over the friends who affectionately referred to him as Lurch, a direct reference to the seven foot plus character from the quirky 1960’s television show, The Addams Family.
Though he hailed from the small farming community of Harvard in northeastern Illinois, his unusual name was given to him in honor of his German-born paternal great grandfather. For just that reason, he’d always envied his two younger brothers. His parents hadn’t felt the need to bestow upon Tom and Dave the moniker of some long dead relative they’d never met. Admittedly, that was a lot easier on a boy from a conservative town in the Midwest where the biggest celebration of the year came each July in the form of Harvard Milk Days, and where a thirty foot plastic Holstein cow was mounted on a cement pedestal right in the middle of the only intersection in town. If nothing else, Vlad had always been thankful he’d emerged from the birth canal at a hefty eleven pounds two ounces. He had, by far, never been small for his age, meaning no one ever picked on him more than once because of his funny sounding name. And if they possessed half a brain, they didn’t pick on him at all. But still, even all these years later, he often wished his parents had simply called him Mike.
Vlad pulled his second Whopper out of his Burger King bag. He lifted the bun, plucked out the pickles and tossed them on his napkin before swallowing a quarter of the sandwich with one gulp.
“Yes, we have assumed all along that he’s not the guy calling the shots,” Shannon said, “but what does this prove to us? Nothing. He’s not going to reveal what we need to know most.”
Mitchell Carpenter held up a smooth,
walnut hand. He was the patient thinker
of the group, and the only African American among them. “If there is indeed something to reveal, or
rather someone, perhaps the revealing will occur given enough time.”
Shannon’s intensity flashed in her Irish eyes. “But that’s just it, Mitch. We don’t have time. Will’s been dealing with this squirrel for close to a year now. We need to grab him by the nuts and shake his tree.”
“Look, Shannon, I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but my point is--”
Will interrupted before an argument could break out between the pair. He was the senior member of the group, and was often forced to play mediator when their discussions became livelier than they were productive.
“Hold up there you two. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Will looked at the black man with
the rugged features and close cropped hair.
“Have you been able to discover anything about our friend?”
Mitch reached into the breast pocket of his green and white oxford shirt. He pulled out a small spiral note pad and flipped open the cover.
“In the greater San Diego area there
are only fourteen people with the first name of Wyatt.”
“Not surprisin’,” Will nodded. “I wouldn’t exactly think of it as a common name.”
Mitch referred to the figures he had written down. “I tapped into the databases of the area police departments, DMV, and courthouse. As far as the PD’s went, I came up with nothing on anyone by the first name of Wyatt that would indicate the cops have a file on our guy. I discovered numerous Wyatt’s that proved to be last names, but it will take a while for me to run any type of background checks on those.”
“Keep working on it,” Will instructed. “In the meantime, what about the fourteen people who carry Wyatt as their first name?”
“Not much luck there either. Four are teenage boys, eight are infants or toddlers, one’s in Mrs. Carter’s first grade class at Grover Elementary School, and one’s a ten-year-old girl.”
Vlad wrinkled his wide putty nose. “A ten-year-old girl? Poor kid. That’s as bad as naming your boy Vlademar.”
“Which gives us nothing more than we’ve suspected all along,” Shannon said. “That Wyatt is our friend’s ‘doing business’ name. Just like Wyatt Earp, he imagines himself the lead gunfighter at the OK Corral.”
“But he’s not,” Will reminded. “There’s another gunfighter callin’ the shots, and that’s the guy we need to get our hands on.”
Mitch tapped a pencil on the table while Vlad stood to retrieve the only garbage can in the room. In one sweep he dumped all the fast food bags, boxes, napkins, and drinking cups in the plastic receptacle.
“Take that with you when you go,” Shannon instructed while tossing her yogurt container and milk cartoon into the can. “I don’t want my room smelling like the kitchen of a greasy spoon all night long.”
“And what makes you think me and Mitch want our room to smell that way?”
Shannon’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “You and Mitch are guys. By virtue of that fact alone, your room already smells.”
“Hey!” Mitch protested, “I resent that. My side of the room is pleasant smelling, thank you very much. It’s Lurch’s side that stinks like stale sweat socks and a well-used jock strap.”
Will allowed the young people to banter back and forth. A few laughs would do them all good. When the teasing began to wind down he redirected the conversation.
“So whatta’ you guys think? You still with me on this? That Wyatt’s someone’s front man? Someone’s pansy?”
Vlad and Shannon nodded their agreement. Mitch was the lone holdout.
“I’m not certain,” the black man said. “This Wyatt character isn’t just another thug with no brains. To begin with, the guy’s proven to be impossible to tail. He shows up out of nowhere, and disappears into thin air. He’s thwarted our best efforts at uncovering his real identity. “
“Yeah, he has,” Will agreed. “But he’s made some mistakes, too.”
“Like what?” Mitch asked.
“He’s a cocky son-of-a-bitch for one thing. Cocky and arrogant as a skunk in springtime. Regardless of whether or not he’s the lead gunfighter, as Shannon put it, he fancies himself as such. And he has an insatiable appetite for the money, along with everything it represents to him. Power, wealth, women, and the good life. He loves it, and he loves to show off the fact he has it. Which leads me to believe he’s not a self-made man. The money...” Will paused in thought, “the money is new to him.”
“Which is where the mysterious boss,
or ‘partner’ as Wyatt phrased it, comes in,” Vlad deduced.
“Yes,” Will said. “Partner. A very important choice of words. He didn’t like it when I referred to his accomplice as his boss. He didn’t like it one bit. You can hear it in his voice on the tape. If you’d have been sittin’ with him you woulda’ seen the rage on his face. On the surface he thinks of himself as the man’s equal, but deep down inside he knows he never will be. Ole’ Wyatt doesn’t like that. No-siree-bob, he doesn’t like that any better than a coonhound likes fleas on his privates in August.”
Will’s friends chuckled at the never-ending ways their Alabama-born colleague could find to turn a phrase.
“So what’s our next move?” Vlad asked.
“We’re gonna keep working at flushin’ the fox out of his den. In Wyatt we’ve got the tuna, but that ain’t good enough for me, kids. I don’t want the tuna, I want the shark.”
Shannon stood as the men rose to return to their rooms. “Just how do you intend to reel in the shark, Will?”
“Using the tuna as bait, Shannon. Using the tuna as bait.” The humor left Will’s tone. “I’m gonna raise the flame under the tea kettle until it starts to whistle. I’m gonna give Wyatt the impression that I’m beginning to surmise he’s less than competent. That I’m surmisin’ he might be rippin’ me off. I found his sensitive spot today.”
“His boss,” Mitch said.
“That’s right. His boss. If we’re lucky, our friend Wyatt will shoot off his big mouth some more when I start squawkin’ and demandin’ to see the man in charge. It may take a while, but trust me on this one; eventually we’ll find out what we need to know. I’ve encountered too many Wyatt’s in my life to doubt that for a second.”
“As arrogant as a skunk in spring
time, huh?” Shannon smiled as she saw
the men to the door. “And just how
arrogant is a skunk in spring time?”
Will clipped his nostrils together with his fingers. “Ooooo, baby, take it from me, so ar-RO-gant you don’t wanna be standin’ within twenty feet of ‘em.”
Shannon shook her head with friendly
affection while giving the handsome, white-headed man a final push out the
Will Fleming leaned back against the flat pillows supplied by the hotel. He looked at his watch. Though his nine-month-old daughter would have long ago been put to bed, he knew his four-year-old son would be fighting to stay awake for Daddy’s nightly phone call.
Will smiled at the sound of the melodious female voice on the other end of the line.
“Hi, Susie Q, It’s me.”
“Hi, sweetheart. How are you?”
Will could tell his wife was smiling in return. They’d been married ten years now, but had yet to lose their infatuation for another one. Will doubted they ever would.
“I’m fine. Is our fireball still up?”
“Oh yes. He’s standing right here jumping for all he’s worth to try and
get the receiver out of my hands.”
Will chuckled as he pictured his energetic son doing just what his wife described. “Put him on the line. I’ll say good night to him before we talk.”
Will could hear his wife say to their son, “It’s Daddy. He wants to talk to you.”
“Daddy! My name’s not Fred. I’m Taylor!”
Will smiled, thinking of the tow-headed child with the pale brows and lashes, whom everyone said looked just like him. He teased the boy a few moments longer, then listened attentively as his son relayed the events of his busy day.
“I need to talk to Mommy now. You be a good boy. Take care of Sarah and Mommy for me, can you do that?”
“You bet, Daddy! I can do that. Daddy?”
“I miss you. Are you coming home soon?”
“I’ll be home at the end of the week, gator.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, Taylor.”
That was the last time Will Fleming
ever talked to his son. He kept his
promise and arrived home at the end of the week, but not in the way he had
On Thursday, two days after Brendan Nash’s mother had met with Rick and A.J., the boy sat slumped at his desk in the back of his seventh grade homeroom class. He glanced up to see the thick black hands on the clock slowly inching toward twelve. He was hungry and bored. He’d be glad when the bell rang, releasing him from this prison.
Brendan hunkered down farther out of the lecturer’s line of vision. A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy was visiting the school this morning, talking to the young teens about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Brendan had sat through similar spiels at least a dozen times since the first grade. He couldn’t understand why they were forcing him and his classmates to sit through this crap again.
The boy’s eyes flicked to the man leaning casually against Mr. Ulen’s desk. His uniform shirt was short sleeved. When he crossed his arms over his chest his thick biceps bulged until you could clearly see the purple veins beneath the skin. His uniform pants were far too tight across the crotch, worn that way on purpose Brendan was certain, and his black shoes were polished to a spit shine. At first Brendan couldn’t figure out why the man kept glancing down at them, but then he realized the guy was admiring his own reflection. The cop kept running a hand through his hair, too - hair that was cut in the current style worn by a fair number of the twelve-year-old’s schoolmates, including his good friend Jeremy. The blond couldn’t help but wonder what the jerk was trying to prove.
The seventh grader opened his yellow spiral notebook to the middle and began doodling. The cop liked hearing himself talk; that was for sure. He had a condescending manner about him that reminded Brendan of his stepfather, Mark. Like his shit didn’t smell or something. And Bren didn’t approve of the way the police officer kept eyeing Heidi Zoller. Granted, Heidi was the hottest babe in the school, and a cheerleader besides. And she had what most of the rest of Brendan’s female seventh grade classmates were lacking - tits. Big ones at that. But still, Brendan didn’t think it was right for a grown man to look at Heidi in that way. To flirt with her by smiling and winking in her direction, while in the middle of his talk. To allow his eyes to travel up her bare tan legs as though he was wondering what was beneath her short denim skirt.
Brendan had a knack for sketching. Soon his doodles began to take on shapes other than random lines and circles. His mom would be ticked off if she found out he was drawing in class again. He’d already been sent to the principal’s office for that offense three times this school year. He could easily hear the lecture that would be forthcoming.
“Brendan Gregory Nash, that’s enough of this daydreaming in class! I don’t know what’s gotten into you! You used to such a good student. You used to care so much about your grades. From now on use that notebook for what it was intended for, homework assignments!”
But the notebook hadn’t been used for school assignments like his mother ordered, only exasperating her further. But what did it matter? No one really cared anyway. When Brendan’s dad still lived with them he always took Brendan out to dinner for a good report card. He always praised him, patting him on the back and telling him how smart he was.
“Your grades are your ticket to
college, Bren. Your ticket to the kind
of school Grandma and Grandpa Nash couldn’t afford to send me to. You’re going to go far in life, son. You’re going to be somebody.”
But all Brendan wanted to be was his dad’s boy, like he used to be. Like he used to be when his mom and dad were married. Like he used to be before his dad had another son. When he and Heather visited their dad in Montana over Christmas vacation, Dad had tried to talk to him about his failing grades and sudden lack of interest in school. But then Alex started crying, and Dad went off to rock him and coo to him, and to tell him what a sweet baby he was, leaving Brendan and his grades forgotten. The thing of it was, it wouldn’t have bothered Brendan if he’d gotten a stern talking-to from his dad about his poor schoolwork. Wouldn’t have even bothered him if his dad had given him a spanking. At least then he’d have known Dad still cared.
Brendan’s thumb fanned the pages of his notebook. He smiled slightly when he came to the picture he’d drawn of Heather. She was taking her first wobbly ride on the two-wheeler bike she’d gotten for her birthday. The gapping space in her mouth was an exaggeration of the front teeth she was missing in real life. Next he came to his cat, Winston. He had the white and butterscotch splashed feline running away from an oversized mouse to illustrate what a chicken the big old lazy tom was. On the page after Winston, the boy had drawn his stepbrother, Cory. Out of the nine-year-old’s flaxen cherubic curls curved horns, and from the seat of his blue jeans a tail grew. With a crafty eye cast over his shoulder, Cory was stuffing Brendan’s Matchbox Cars into his overnight bag, just like Brendan had caught him doing weeks earlier. Though by the time Mom entered the fray Cory had put the cars back where they belonged and cried big old crocodile tears while telling her Brendan wouldn’t let him play with any toys. Brendan had wanted to shout, “I don’t let him play with my toys because he breaks or steals everything he touches!” but he knew it would do him no good. Mom would side with Cory like she had ever since she and Mark had gotten married.
She acts like she loves Cory better than she loves me.
And then came Mark, his face drawn on both sides of his head. The boyish grin Mark always bestowed on Brendan’s mother flashed on the left, while the thin lipped, cold smile he reserved for Brendan was on the right. A snake’s forked tongue slithered out between the man’s lips.
Brendan ran across some caricatures of his classmates and his teachers next, some complimentary, others not so complimentary. Following those came the drawing of his mom’s cousins, Rick and A.J. They stood side by side in the picture, their chests wide and jutting proudly forward, their feet planted firmly atop the large round planet Brendan had drawn that represented Earth. Long capes billowed out behind both the men, and the middle of their shirts had been adorned with the capital letters S & S, blackened with thick dark pencil. The young artist had left just a hint of the brothers’ individual styles. Rick’s cowboy hat was perched on his head, while A.J.’s tie flew sideways from his neck like a kite’s tail does in a strong wind. Below the picture the boy had printed in bold block letters,
My Crime Fighting Cousins, Rick and A.J. – Simon And Simon To The Rescue!
Brendan studied the picture he’d drawn the previous year. Rick and A.J. were pretty cool guys for adults. Brendan liked them, but didn’t have occasion to see much of them. But then, maybe if he were around them more, he’d find out they would abandon him just like all the other adults in his life had.
The twelve-year-old was still flipping through his notebook when a large hand slammed down on top of it.
“Hand it over, son,” the cop ordered.
Brendan hesitated, looking up at the man.
The cop gave a tight smile. “Now.”
Brendan had no choice but to let the man take his prized book. He tossed it carelessly onto Mr. Ulen’s desk. He perched a hip on the corner of the wooden desk, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared out at Brendan.
“What’s your name, boy?”
Brendan’s classmates snickered at
his humiliation. Pink twinged his fair
“What’s the matter, boy? You stupid or something? You can’t remember your name?”
The twelve-year-old’s eyes dropped as the snickers grew louder. “Brendan.”
“What’s that you say, boy?”
The man’s next words had Brendan’s twenty-five classmates laughing uproariously.
“Brenda? Did you say your name was Brenda, boy? You are a boy, aren’t you?”
The blond’s fists clenched underneath his desk. “Yes. And it’s Brendan.”
“Uh huh. Bren-dan. I see. My mistake. Kinduva sissy name, ain’t it there, Bren-dan?”
Brendan’s face burned a brilliant shade of scarlet. He couldn’t have answered the man even if someone attempted to force him.
The cop stared at Brendan a long time before turning to look up at the clock. He gave the young pupils before him a benevolent smile.
“I see we’re just about out of time, so I’d like to thank all of you for being such a good audience this morning. All of you but Brenda, that is.”
Again the class broke into laughter and loud guffaws. Brendan was thankful the bell rang in the middle of the merriment.
The cop was packing up the charts he had used when Brendan approached the desk. Sensing the movement behind him, the man turned around.
“Whatta ya’ doin,’ punk?”
“Getting my notebook.”
The cop moved to stand toe to toe
with the boy. “Did I say you could?”
“No, but I need it for my next cla--”
The cop’s hand whipped out and grabbed a fistful of Brendan’s
T-shirt. He lifted the boy up until his feet were dangling three inches off the ground.
“You don’t do anything unless I tell you to, you little bastard. You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you punk? Yeah, well I’ve seen plenty a’ smart mouthed delinquents with your attitude in my time, and let me tell you somethin’, kid, a few nights in Juvie Hall would knock that cockiness right outta ya’.”
As abruptly as the man had picked
Brendan up, he dropped him, causing the boy to stumble backwards. The cop reached out and ran a hand through
Brendan’s thick blond hair. “Oh yeah,
with that pretty face ‘a yours, and them baby blues, the boys would have their
fun. Ooooo, would they have their fun.”
Brendan had no idea what the man was talking about, but he didn’t like the way the cop was touching him. The way the man ran his hand down the side of his face in a light caress like Brendan’s mother sometimes did.
Before the cop could bully him any further, Mr. Ulen walked in.
“Brendan, what are you still doing here? Lunch started five minutes ago.”
The cop pulled Brendan to him and laid an arm across the boy’s shoulders. He flashed the teacher a big grin.
“My fault, Mr. Ulen. I apologize for holding Brendan up. He volunteered to help me gather my things.”
Mr. Ulen smiled with surprise at his normally sullen pupil. “Good for you, Brendan. But run along now. You need to have time to eat before afternoon classes start.”
The police officer patted Brendan’s shoulders with both his hands. The boy looked up into the man’s face and received a wink. “Go on now, buddy. And thanks for your help.”
Brendan swallowed hard and nodded. He snatched his notebook from the desk and ran out of the room. He rounded a corner, raced down a long deserted hallway, then peeled around another corner so quickly the soles of his tennis shoes squealed and left black marks on the white tile. He didn’t stop until he came to his locker.
The boy leaned against the fire-engine-red metal door gasping for breath. Thank God the guy hadn’t opened his notebook and seen the picture Brendan had drawn of him. A shiny police badge dominated his chest, while his tongue hung from his mouth thick and drooling as a St. Bernard’s. His eyes popped forward in appreciation of Heidi Zoller, whom Brendan had drawn in her cheerleading outfit with breasts as long and pointy as traffic cones.
The boy looked at the picture again. The only thing he didn’t get right with nothing more than a pencil at his disposal were the eyes. The guy had weird eyes. One was green, the other a washed out hazel with lines of gold running though it like Winston’s.
Looking down at his caricature of the man caused Brendan to recall the feel of the cop’s smooth hand caressing his face. He gave an involuntary shudder, wondering what would have happened had Mr. Ulen not come in when he did.
The blond didn’t have time to mull the possibilities over further. He was hailed from behind by his friends.
“Hey, Bren!” Jeremy called. “Whatta ya’ say we blow this Popsicle stand? Me and Tim are goin’ concrete cruisin’ at the body barn.”
After the experience he’d just had, Brendan was more than ready to get out of school. “Count me in.”
The boy grabbed his skateboard from his locker while shoving the notepad amongst his schoolbooks on the top shelf.
“You guys wanna stop at McDonald’s
for some burgers?” Brendan asked. “I’ve got money.”
The older boys eagerly agreed. That was one reason they liked hanging out with Brendan; he was generous with his pocket change. Granted, he was just a seventh grader and not too hip, but what the heck, free food was free food.
The trio walked down the deserted hallway to a side entrance door. By the time the bell rang that signaled the start of afternoon classes they were gathered around a table at a local McDonald’s, chowing down on hamburgers and French fries bought with Brendan’s allowance.
A.J.’s fingers softly plunked against the computer’s keyboard as he input data regarding a current case. Without turning in his seat, he reached blindly for the ringing telephone.
“Simon and Si--”
“A.J., it’s Lindy.”
“A.J., I just got a call from Brendan’s school. He skipped out sometime between lunch, and when classes resumed afterwards.”
A.J. hit the Alt-S keys on the
board, saving his work to the hard drive.
“Was he there this morning?”
“According to the attendance officer he was. They have him marked present for every class until twelve-thirty, when he’s supposed to be in history.”
A.J. looked at his watch to see it was one thirty-five.
Lindy, calm down. Rick and I will drive
around and see if we can spot him. If
we don’t, I’ll give you a call later this afternoon to make sure he showed up
at home. He always has in the past, am
“Yes. Yes, he always has.”
“Then I’m sure he will this time, too.”
The relief in the woman’s voice was plain to hear. “Thank you, A.J. Thank you.”
“No problem. One way or the other, I’ll call you later today.”
“Okay. And, A.J.?”
“You and Rick have my permission to
beat the living tar out of that boy when you find him.”
A.J. chuckled at the statement he knew wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. He highly doubted his cousin had ever raised a hand to either one of her children.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Believe me, I can handle one twelve-year-old boy. After all, I put up with Rick every day, don’t I?”
Despite her unrest, Linda laughed. “That you do, A.J. That you do.”
A.J. looked up as his brother walked in the door carrying a bag from a nearby deli.
“Rick just came in. We’ll head out looking for him right now.”
The lanky man stood in the middle of the floor while A.J. quickly said his goodbyes.
“We’ll head out where looking for
“For whom,” A.J. corrected, shouldering into his sport coat.
“That’s what I asked. For who?”
“Brendan. That was Lindy. She got a call from the school a little while ago. Seems he’s skipped out on afternoon classes.”
“So I guess this means we gotta eat
on the run, huh?”
“Yep.” A.J. snared the front of his brother’s field jacket, pulling the
reluctant man along. “Come on. Let’s see if we can find him before he gets
himself in any further trouble.”
A.J. paused to lock the office door, then, joined his brother in the elevator.
“We takin’ your car or my truck?”
“The truck,” A.J. decided. “That way we can put Brendan
us in the front seat. The last thing we
need is to have him open a door on a moving vehicle and jump out.”
The brothers crossed the parking lot to Rick’s black, 1987 Ford
extended cab pickup. The Powerwagon had been coaxed out of her last mile six months earlier. As much as Rick had loved that sturdy old truck, he hadn’t been too surprised at her passing. He’d bought her used when he and A.J. had first moved back to San Diego from Florida. By virtue of their profession, she’d suffered a lot of wear and tear since. The truck that had replaced her was the first brand new vehicle Rick had ever owned. He treated the Ford as such; washing her weekly, vacuuming out her pale gray insides every other week, and lovingly caressing her ebony outsides with wax once a month.
The large four wheel drive stood high enough off the ground that Rick had installed black running boards below the driver’s door and passenger’s door that served as steps. His left cowboy boot briefly lighted the running board as he slid in behind the wheel. A.J. ignored the step below his feet, effortlessly swinging himself into the cab without its aid.
The blond dug through the food bag while Rick drove.
“Hey! Don’t get any crumbs on my seats!”
A.J. shot a smirk in his brother’s direction. “Me getting crumbs on your seats will hardly
make up for the time you allowed a twelve-pack of beer to explode in my car.”
“That was an accident. And besides, me and Carlos cleaned it up.”
“Yeah, I know how well you and Carlos cleaned it up. I stuck to my seat for a month, and when I finally traded the car off the salesman accused me of using it as a distillery.”
Knowing he couldn’t win this argument, Rick finished the discussion with a growled, “Just don’t make a mess of my truck, A.J., or you’ll be sorry. Now hand me one a’ them sandwiches.”
Will Fleming was watching sports highlights on ESPN when the phone rang. He rolled to his right, away from the phone owned by the Best Western, to instead pick up the phone on the other nightstand. The phone he and Mitch had installed on his first day here with the private line that couldn’t be traced by anyone, and wouldn’t go through the motel’s switchboard first.
He silenced the television with the ‘mute’ button on the remote. He cleared his throat as though clearing away his Southern accent. His voice was carefully modulated when he picked up the receiver on the fourth ring. The tape recorder hooked up next to it silently clicked into action.
The formality wasn’t necessary. Will already knew who his caller was. Wyatt was the only person who had this number.
“How about if we meet at our usual place at two-thirty.”
Will looked at his watch to see it was one thirty-five. It was past time to start the tea kettle whistling.
“I don’t think so, Wyatt.”
“I said, I don’t think so.”
“Because I talked to my client last night. He’s very angry, Wyatt. Very angry because you aren’t delivering what you promised.”
“But I explained all that. I told you it won’t happen again.”
Will could almost hear the sweat breaking out on the man’s forehead. There was no way Wyatt wanted to tell his partner that a hundred thousand dollar cash deal had just gone sour.
“It won’t happen again isn’t good enough for me. Or for my client.”
A lengthy pause followed until Wyatt
was forced to fill it. “Then what will
be good enough?”
“I want to meet with your boss, Wyatt. I think he and I need to talk face to face. Tell him I’m sick of him sending a boy to do a man’s job.”
Will could envision Wyatt’s hand clenching the phone’s receiver. When he spoke again his voice was tight, his rage barely contained.
“I don’t understand why you think that’s necessary, Taylor. You and I have always worked well together in the past.”
“Until recently, yes we have. But the past is the past, Wyatt. You no longer treat me like the preferred customer you used to. Therefore, I’d like to make a complaint to the management.”
“When we meet. At two-thirty.”
“What? Hell, Taylor, give a guy some notice, will ya’! I can’t get him there by two-thirty. That’s less than an hour away. How about tomorrow?”
“No. I’m leaving tomorrow. With or without what I came for. The choice is yours.”
“All right, all right. I’ll see what I can do. You understand he’s a busy man, and this is damn short notice.”
“I’m a busy man, too, Wyatt, and it was damn short notice you gave me in regards to not delivering the contracted goods.”
“Okay. I’ll call you back in a little--”
“I won’t be here.”
“You won’t be there? Where the hell will you be?”
“I’ll be waiting for you where we agreed to meet.”
“Well at least give us until three
Will smiled at the plea that was so out of character for this cocky bastard.
Yeah, Wyatt, you bleed a little for me there, pal. You whiny, spineless gopher.
“Okay, Wyatt, three o’clock it is. But one second after, and I’m gone. You’ll never hear from me again, you got it?”
“Yeah, Taylor, I got it. We’ll be there.”
Wyatt hung up the phone without saying goodbye. Will rolled off the bed, moving into action. He walked across the hall and pounded on a door. When Mitch opened it he could see ESPN was on in this room as well.
“Get ready. We’re supposed to meet Wyatt and his boss at three.”
Mitch couldn’t keep the surprise out
of his voice. “His boss?”
“You bet,” Will grinned. “His boss.” The blond nodded toward the slumbering Vlad. He wondered how the big man could sleep with his legs hanging six inches over the double bed that was too short to accommodate his long frame.
“Wake Sleeping Beauty. Is Shannon in her room?”
A voice from behind caused Will to turn.
“I’m right here.”
Shannon stepped off the elevator. A white terry cloth robe covered up her swimming suit. Her attire, and her wet hair, suggested she’d chosen to exercise in the hotel’s pool rather than watch TV or sleep while they waited.
“We’re meeting Wyatt and the boss man at three. Be ready to leave here in twenty minutes.”
Will offered no further explanations as he disappeared into his room.
Shannon looked at Mitch. “The boss man? How’d he manage to do that so fast? I figured this would draw out for at least another two or three days.”
Mitch shrugged. “I guess he must have raised the flame under the tea kettle, like he said he going to.”
Shannon looked after the older man with open admiration. “I guess he must have, Mitch. I guess he must have.
Rick drove slowly up and down the streets surrounding Southbay Junior High. The Simon brothers thought they might get lucky and spot Brendan walking somewhere in its vicinity. They stopped at every fast food restaurant within two miles of the school. Knowing Brendan had left Southbay during lunch period led the brothers to conclude he hadn’t eaten. Rick waited in the truck, keeping an eye out for the boy while A.J. entered and exited each restaurant they stopped at. The Ford’s door slammed as A.J. hopped in for the fifth time in less than ten minutes.
“No, not really. A clerk thought she might have waited on Brendan and a couple of other boys about two hours ago, but she’s not sure.”
Rick nodded. They didn’t have a picture of Brendan to show, so had to rely on A.J.’s description of him. The lanky man could easily imagine how many blond haired, blue-eyed twelve-year-olds a counter clerk at McDonald’s saw on any given day.
Rick placed his right arm on the
seat, turning to make sure the path behind him was clear before backing out of
his parking space. “So where should we
“You’d know that better than me.”
A.J. tossed his sibling a teasing grin. “Because you skipped school when you were twelve, I didn’t.”
“That’s true.” Rick thought a moment. “Nah.”
“Nah, I can’t tell you where I
“You’re still too young to know.”
The blond detective shook his head at the standard line Rick threw him whenever he didn’t want to confess a past wrongdoing A.J. knew nothing about.
“Fine. I’m still too young to know.
Forget about yourself for a moment then, and imagine you’re
Brendan. Where would you go?”
“Someplace where there ain’t a lot of people around ‘cause I wouldn’t wanna get caught.”
Rick made a right turn at the next intersection, then a left at the one immediately following. “Someplace where I could grab a smoke without my mom hearin’ about it. Someplace where I could shoot the bull with my buddies.”
“That narrows it down,” A.J. intoned with heavy sarcasm.
“Hey, give me a break! Whatta ya’ think I am, psychic? If I knew where the kid went, would I be puttin’ needless miles on my truck lookin’ for him? Would I be gettin’ my truck dirty lookin’ for him? Would I have let you get crumbs on my seats while we looked for ‘im? Would I be wastin’ my time lookin’--”
“There he is.”
“Who?” Rick glanced around. “Where?”
A.J. pointed to his brother’s
“I don’t see ‘im.”
“Just watch. You will.”
“A.J., what the hell are you talking
Before A.J. had a chance to answer, Rick saw what his brother meant. Brendan propelled his skateboard up a steep concrete incline until he was at street level, only to swivel it around with nothing more than his Converse high-tops and disappear below the earth again. Two other boys appeared and disappeared in the same manner.
A.J. looked up at the massive concrete structure. “Just the kind of place you would have come to, huh, big brother?”
Rick eased his truck over to the opposite curb from where the boys were. “Yep, it meets my criteria all right.”
The brothers were parked across the street from what, until recently, had been the building that housed the county coroner’s office, labs, autopsy rooms, and morgue. The entire facility and staff, including the Simons’ friend Jerry Reiner, had relocated to a brand new multi-million dollar complex on the outskirts of the city. A political war of sorts was raging in San Diego as to what should be done with this old relic that would prove halfway profitable for the city. Rumor had it an attempt at selling the building to a private party was being considered if a buyer could be found who was willing to pay the right price. For now, it sat empty in an ancient business district that was still clean and relatively crime free, but like the morgue’s former patrons, for the most part, dead.
The five story hulking structure smothered the small area of ground it had been built on sixty years earlier. Though from their current vantage point they couldn’t see it, the brothers knew a parking lot sprawled out behind the building. Its blacktop coating was more a faded gray now than true black, the surface scarred, and chipped and pitted with age. The lot had served the morgue’s employees, as well as having housed the white vans labeled, County Coroner, in black that were used for body removal.
The area Brendan and his buddies were getting so much enjoyment out of was perfect for skateboarding. The wide incline the boys were flying down took them underneath the building into a vast array of massive support pillars and thick concrete ramps that had aided in wheeling gurneys bearing the deceased up and into the building. Those same ramps now served as a glorious instrument to skateboard up, down, over, and around.
The boys had the wide-open area to themselves. Because the overhead lights had been permanently extinguished the day the last desk and file cabinet had been relocated to the new facility, the area was dim and heavy shadowed. But that didn’t keep the boys from sailing their boards around blind corners before weaving in and out of the support pillars.
The Simon brothers patiently observed until they could accurately time how long it would be before the boys emerged on ground level again. Roughly five minutes passed with each sighting, leading the detectives to conclude the boys were making the most of what was available to them below. As Brendan and his friends appeared briefly for the third time, Rick shook his head in disgust.
“What the hell is he doin’ hanging around with kids that much older than himself? Doesn’t he know what kinda trouble he’s in for? And what’s with wearin’ your jeans three sizes too big and your shirts so long they look like dresses? Don’t kids nowadays buy clothes that fit ‘em? And did you see that one punk’s hair? It looks like he stuck his finger in a damn electrical socket.”
“Oh, come on, Rick, cut the kids some slack. They’re no different than we were as teenagers.”
“Whatta ya’ mean they’re no
different than we were? They’re a lot
different! I never wore pants intended
for a fat guy. And I sure never owned a
shirt that came down to my knees.”
“No. But you wore bell-bottoms with hems so wide you had to secure them to your legs with rubber bands just so you could ride your cycle. And don’t forget the tie-dyed T-shirts that, you have to admit, twenty years later, looked as ridiculous as hell. And if you recall correctly, Mom couldn’t understand why a certain son of hers wanted to grow his hair down to the middle of his back and wear it in a ponytail.”
Rick knew he couldn’t argue any of A.J.’s points, but nonetheless wasn’t about to concede victory to his brother. “It’s not the same.”
“What’s not the same about it? Every generation of teenagers expresses their individuality in their own way. You know as well as I do it’s all part of growing up and declaring your independence from your parents.”
“Yeah, well Brendan’s declarin’ his independence in a real stupid way.”
A.J. was rather surprised at Rick’s vehemence on this entire subject. He might be able to understand it if they were close to the boy, but realistically speaking, they hardly knew Brendan.
“Why has this situation with Brendan
got you so upset?”
“I’m not upset!”
“Rick,” A.J. scolded, “you’re upset. Now come on. What gives?”
Rick glanced out the window, as once again Brendan briefly appeared. “It’s just that I don’t like seein’ the kid screw his life up. I’ve been there, A.J. I’ve felt a lot of what he’s feelin.’ I know how easy it is to get hooked up with the wrong people. Make the wrong choices. I know what it’s like to put your mother through hell worrin’ about you. When you’re a kid...well, when you’re a kid you don’t care about any of those things too much. But twenty-five years later, a lot of ‘em come back to haunt you. I hate what Brendan’s doin’ to himself, and I hate even more what he’s doin’ to Lindy.”
A.J. reached for the truck’s door
handle. “Which is why you’re going to
“Which is why you’re going to wait here while I go in and talk to him.”
“No way. I’m coming with.”
A.J. reached out a hand, firmly latching onto Rick’s arm. “Rick, you’re too pissed right now to deal with the boy.”
“I’m not pissed!”
“Your jaw is twitching.”
“And just what the hell is that
supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re angry. Your jaw always twitches when you’re angry.”
“Just how do you know that?”
“How do I know that?” A.J. echoed as he hopped out of the truck. He looked at his brother and grinned. “Because I’ve been seeing it happen for close to forty years now.”
A.J. didn’t give Rick a chance to reply. He shut the door on the pickup and crossed in front of the vehicle. He paused a moment to allow traffic to pass, then trotted across the street.
Rick watched him go, mimicking, “Because I’ve been seeing it happen for close to forty years now.”
The lanky man reached over and flipped on the radio. “Although I’ll never admit it to you, ya’ know me too well, kid. Ya’ know me too damn well.”
Brendan’s problems, concerns, sorrows, and humiliations left him as he soared free atop his skateboard. His lithe young body allowed him to jump, swivel, turn and bend, while riding nothing more than a six inch wide piece of fiberglass that was a mere three feet long. He could track the movement of his friends by their occasional shouts, and by the sound of rubber wheels rolling over concrete.
The smooth swaying motion of the boy’s lean hips weaved him in and out of support pillars. He took a side trip up a steep ramp, flipped the skateboard around with his feet, then flew downwards until a slight breeze created by the movement of his own body ruffled through his blond hair.
The boy used his right leg to propel the board toward his friends. They were at the back of the underground garage now, sailing up an incline that took them to the parking lot behind the structure. They skated on the flat surface until that proved too boring for daredevils such as themselves. None of them paid any attention to the white van that sat all alone right in the center of the big lot.
The boys soared downward once again, disappearing into the hole in the earth. Jeremy hopped off his skateboard, flipping it up to his hands by sharply snapping the end of it with the toe of his right tennis shoe. Tim and Brendan followed suit. The three sat on a nearby ramp for a few minutes, shooting the bull about school, teachers, and girls. Jeremy reached into the back pocket of his oversized jeans, pulling out a pack of Marlboros. The fourteen-year-old expertly tapped the red and white pack against his hand, causing three cigarettes to smoothly appear. He held the pack out to his companions.
Tim and Brendan plucked the offered cigarettes. Jeremy took one for himself, then fished for the Bic Lighter in his front pocket. His thumb flicked it four times before he finally got a flame. He lit his friends’ cigarettes, then his own. Jeremy and Tim inhaled deeply with all the skill of seasoned smokers. If they noticed Brendan’s hesitation before inhaling his, or the way he coughed after he did so, they didn’t comment on it.
Jeremy tapped ashes onto the concrete below. He looked behind himself at the double steel swinging doors that had a large padlock secured through their handles.
“I heard they left some bodies in this place when they moved.”
“Aw, Jeremy, you’re full a’ shit,” Tim scoffed. He reached up and secured a long lock of brown hair behind his left ear. The hair on the right side of his head was sheared to the skull, making it appear as though the barber had changed his mind as to style in mid-cut. “They didn’t leave no bodies in there.”
“Yes, they did,” Jeremy insisted. “That’s what someone told me.”
“Prove it,” Tim challenged.
Jeremy jumped to his feet, throwing down what little remained of his cigarette. “All right, I will.”
Brendan wasn’t sure what Jeremy had in mind, but he hoped his friend wasn’t planning on breaking into the building. The twelve-year-old didn’t know what he’d do in that event. The last thing he wanted was to be labeled a nerd by his new buddies, but on the other hand, he knew entering property that didn’t belong to you was wrong.
Tim and Brendan snuffed out their cigarettes with their tennis shoes as they, too, rose. They followed Jeremy from ramp to ramp, not really certain what he had in mind. Every set of double doors they came to were padlocked on the outside, and for that Brendan was thankful. It wasn’t until they happened on a side service door secluded in a short, dark, concrete block hallway that Jeremy was victorious.
The teen tried the handle. He stood back, momentarily surprised when it freely turned. He looked at his friends and grinned.
“Looks like we got our ticket inside, boys.”
Tim smiled. “Cool.”
Brendan took a step backwards. “I don’t know. I’m not sure we--”
“What’s the matter, Brendan, you chicken?” Jeremy sneered.
“Yeah, are you a pussy or what, Bren?” Tim said. “Come on.”
“But if we get caught--”
Jeremy tucked his skateboard underneath his arm. “We won’t get caught. Me and Tim are goin’ in. You can come along, or you can stay out here. It’s up to you. But if you stay out here, don’t plan on hangin’ with us no more. We don’t mix with little girls.”
Jeremy’s insult, and the way he said, it was too reminiscent of the humiliation Brendan had suffered at the hands of the visiting cop that morning. No one was going to make him feel like that ever again.
Brendan stuck his chin out. “I’m not a chicken, or a pussy. I’m comin’ with you guys.”
Jeremy grinned while slapping the younger boy on the back. “I always knew you were one all-right dude, Brendan.”
Tim eased the door open and peered inside. He turned to his friends.
“It looks deserted. I don’t see any bodies.”
“The bodies aren’t gonna just be sittin’ around, stupid,” Jeremy scoffed. “They’ll be in a refrigerator, or big cooler, or something like that.”
The fourteen-year-old stepped in front of Tim to lead the way. “Come on. Follow me.”
A.J. listened carefully as he walked through the underground service area. He should have been able to hear the sound of the boys’ skateboard wheels, but all that greeted him was silence. The heels of his hard-soled dress shoes clicked softly against the concrete. There were no surprises for him in this vast maze; he’d been down here many times in the past.
The detective followed the smell of cigarette smoke. The butts he came upon were still warm and numbered three, indicating the boys had recently been here. The blond trotted over two ramps, then rounded a corner that led down a seventy-five foot straightaway lined with concrete block walls that were interspersed with ramps and double doors leading into the building. He knew if he went far enough he’d emerge in the parking lot at the back of the large structure. He could see shafts of sunlight spilling down the distant incline that was once used exclusively by coroner’s vans, ambulances, and hearses.
As A.J. continued his search he wondered where the guard was who should have been on duty. Based on what he’d read in the paper, he knew the city was paying a local security company to provide a twenty-four hour watch in and out of the building to protect it from vandals. The salary being paid to the men who each worked one twelve hour shift per day was another source of political upheaval. By now A.J. thought the guard would have chased the boys away. But, maybe the guy was on an upper floor inside the building and hadn’t heard the kids.
If the detective hadn’t known a service door that had been used by the facility’s employees was secluded within a wall made of concrete blocks he never would have entered the dark hallway. He didn’t even have to try the door to see if it was unlocked. Whoever entered before him had left it open.
A.J. immediately recognized the dim area he stepped into. The decaying hall with its dull mustard-colored walls was filled with deserted offices. Jerry’s office had been the third one on the right - a cramped cubbyhole that, when in use, couldn’t hold anything more than a bookshelf, desk, and filing cabinet.
A.J. listened as he strolled through the familiar maze of hallways, but he didn’t hear the boys’ voices. He couldn’t imagine what had possessed them to enter the building, if indeed they had. He supposed they could have emerged out on the parking lot, and therefore be long gone by now. While he hated to miss the opportunity to talk to Brendan, he also didn’t want to see the kids get caught in the building by the security guard. That would only create more trouble for Lindy’s son. But, then again, A.J. had no desire to get caught in the building either. A trip to the police station while handcuffed was not exactly on his agenda for this afternoon.
A.J. sped up his footsteps. He knew it was in his best interest to make this search as brief as possible.
The boys pushed open a set of swinging doors. They looked up at the ceiling that rose a hundred feet above them. Tim found the light switch and flipped it on.
“Wow!” Jeremy stated with admiration, his words echoing off the barren, cavernous walls. “Awesome!”
The boys stepped into the room that was the size of a small gymnasium. The floor space was wide open, but brackets remained in the middle of the scuffed and worn white tiles indicating something had once been mounted there. Two sets of steps branched off ahead of them, leading to bench seats made of poured concrete on ascending levels like seats in a football stadium. A red iron railing circled the structure, its paint chipped and marred with time. Jutting out over the top seats was a glass observatory room.
Jeremy began opening and closing the stainless steel cabinets mounted on the walls.
“Hey, guys! Look at this!”
The teenager held up a serrated skull saw that had somehow been left behind. “I bet they used this to cut up the dead bodies!”
Tim ran over for a closer look. “Rockin’! And you can still see blood on it, too!”
Jeremy brought the saw up to his
“That’s not blood, idiot.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not blood. They wash the stuff off when they’re done with it, ya’ know.”
Tim knew better than to argue with his friend. Jeremy put the saw back and circled the room, Tim and Brendan his faithful shadows.
“This is neat. They musta’ let people in to watch what they were doing. Maybe they sold tickets on the sly or something, and no one’s supposed to know.”
Jeremy turned to look at
“Students,” the twelve-year-old said. “This is where students would sit and observe autopsy procedures.”
Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t like being shown up by a skinny kid two years younger, and a full head shorter, than himself. Especially one who had a far better explanation for the room’s structure than he did.
“How do you know that?”
Brendan shrugged. “I read about it in a book once. The room that was described was just like this one.”
Jeremy wasn’t about to give the twelve-year-old any credit for his intelligent deduction, so replied with an unimpressed, “Oh.” He ran for the stairs. “Come on! Let’s check out that place at the top.”
With their skateboards still under their arms, the boys ran up the steep stairs that branched to their right. The only door to the glass observatory box wasn’t locked, allowing for easy entrance. The fourteen-foot by twelve-foot room didn’t contain anything other than ten plastic black chairs bolted to the floor on slightly differing levels so the back row students could see as clearly as the front row. It didn’t take long for Jeremy and Tim to grow bored.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
Brendan looked up from the chair he
was sitting in. “Where to?”
“I don’t know,” Jeremy shrugged. “To look around some more.”
“Yeah,” Tim laughed. “To look around some more. To find those dead bodies Jeremy was promising us.”
Jeremy curled his right hand into a fist, slugging his friend in the shoulder. “Shut up.”
“Come on, Brendan,” Jeremy urged. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll meet up with you guys later.”
“Whatta ya’ gonna do?”
“Just stay here a while.”
Tim looked around the barren
“Cause I want to, that’s why.”
Jeremy wiggled his fingers toward Brendan, crossed his eyes, and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth. “Just don’t let the boogey man get you.”
Brendan pushed his friend away. “Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not afraid to be here by myself.”
“Whatta ya’ know, Tim, I guess Brendan ain’t such a wuss after all.”
Tim and Jeremy laughed as they turned and ran.
Brendan watched from his post high above the floor. His friends trotted down the stairs and raced across the wide room, Jeremy slamming an open hand against the silver double doors. Tim had just enough time to slip through the wedge made before they swung closed again.
Like fog slowly drifting to the ground, silence settled around the boy. That was okay with him. He enjoyed being alone with his thoughts and imagination. He looked out from his domed perch. This is exactly how it would feel to be on the bridge of the Enterprise. He flipped a pretend switch on the arm of his chair; the chair that in Brendan’s mind was large, square, and padded in black, and that contained an elaborately lit console on both his left and his right.
“Kirk to Star Base 10. Kirk to Star Base 10. This is the U.S.S. Enterprise, Star Base 10. Do you read me, Star Base 10?”
Brendan swiveled to his left. “Mr. Sulu, phasers on stun.” He swung to his right. “Mr. Chekov, warp speed ahead. There’s trouble on Star Base 10.” His thumb hit a button that really wasn’t there. “Scotty, give me all she’s got.”
“I wished I’d watched Star Trek often enough to be able to give you the correct response, but that was one of Rick’s favorite shows, not mine.”
The boy gasped, throwing himself back in the captain’s seat. For a brief second, he was certain the boogey man Jeremy had teased him about had come to life. Brendan’s racing heart slowed when he recognized the man standing in the doorway.
“What...what are you doing here?”
A.J. stepped into the room. “What do you think I’m doing here?”
Brendan scowled. “My mom sent you to find me, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did.” A.J. crossed the small floor space and sat in the chair next to Brendan’s. “She’s worried about you, Brendan.”
“Yeah, right.” Brendan’s eyes dropped to the floor, focusing on the thread bare, dirty pewter carpeting. “All she’s worried about is keeping Mark happy, keeping Cory happy, keeping everyone happy but me. Everyone but me and my dad.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If she would have kept my dad happy, he never woulda’ left. But he did, and now she practically breaks her neck for that stupid Mark.”
A.J. didn’t admonish the boy for his feelings. First of all, he wasn’t close enough to the situation to know how much of what Brendan said was true and how much wasn’t, and secondly, none of that mattered anyway. What mattered were Brendan’s perceptions of what was transpiring in his household.
The blond man sat in silence with the boy for a long minute. When no more of Brendan’s thoughts came forth, A.J. leaned back in his chair.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but I was just a couple of years younger than you when my dad died.”
Brendan looked up at his mother’s cousin. “I didn’t know that. I mean, I know Aunt Cecilia is a widow, but she’s old, so I figured her husband died when he was old, too.”
A.J. smiled at how his spunky mother would react to being referred to as old. But, of course, to a twelve-year-old, a woman just a few years younger than his maternal grandmother would seem ancient.
“No, my dad didn’t die when he was old. As a matter of fact, he a was younger than I am now.”
Brendan thought about that while
studying A.J. “How old are you?”
“That’s pretty old.”
A.J. laughed. “Yes, when you’re twelve it is. But wait until you hit about twenty-five, Bren. Suddenly thirty-eight doesn’t seem all that far off.”
“It sounds old,” Brendan said, “but you don’t seem that old. You’re not a jerk like my stepfather. Neither is Rick.”
“I don’t necessarily think your stepfather means to be a jerk. Perhaps he’s simply having difficulty adjusting to the changes in his life, just like you’re having difficulty adjusting to the changes in yours.”
“My mom told you that, didn’t she? That I’m having ‘difficulty adjusting.’ That’s what she tells everyone.”
“Is it true?”
The boy leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. His feet swung aimlessly back and forth, his skateboard resting next to them. “I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter if I am. I just want things to go back to how they used to be. How they used to be when my mom and dad were married.”
“I understand how you feel. After my dad died...well, for a long time I
wanted things to go back to how they used to be, too. Unfortunately, none of us has the power to change what’s
happened. Not even you, Brendan.”
“I know. But it really sucks, A.J.”
A.J. smiled at the boy’s colorful
assessment. “Yes, it does. On more days than it doesn’t right now. But given time things can get
better. You have the ability to make
“For one thing, you can quit
skipping school. For another, you can
rejoin the clubs you dropped out of and take back up with your old friends.”
“Now you sound like my mom. She’s always feeding me the same line of crap.”
“It’s not crap. It’s a place to start.”
“But what if I don’t wanna start
there? What if I wanna do things my own
A.J.’s answer was honest and
forthright. “Then I’m afraid someday
you’ll pay a heavy price for doing things your own way. Someday, you’ll look behind you to see
nothing but a trail of broken dreams and mistakes that you can’t go back and
Brendan pondered A.J.’s words. He liked it that A.J. didn’t talk to him as though he was a little kid. That A.J. listened to him. and allowed him to have his say without berating his opinions. That A.J. talked to him man to man, with respect. It had been a long time since a grownup had spoken to him in that manner.
Because Brendan instinctively knew A.J. wouldn’t make light of his thoughts no matter what he said, he confessed, “I wish I could go live with my dad.”
A.J. didn’t discount that as a bad
suggestion. Possibly living with Greg
was what the boy needed right now. “Is
that what you really want?”
“Yeah, maybe. Except he’s got a new son, so he probably doesn’t want me with him eith--”
Before Brendan could finish his sentence, A.J. threw him to the floor, diving down after him.
The boy rubbed the back of his head where it had connected painfully with the wall below the window. “What’d you do that for?”
“Shhh,” A.J. hushed.
The blond man snapped his palm over the boy’s mouth. “Be quiet,” A.J. commanded in a strained whisper. “Someone just came in.”
Brendan whispered back when A.J.
pulled his hand away. “It’s probably my
friends, Jeremy and Tim.”
“No, it’s a grown man. More than likely it’s the security guard. Just stay down and don’t do anything unless I tell you to.”
Brendan nodded. He knew the presence of a security guard, unless it was Manuel, could only mean trouble for him and A.J., but at the same time this was exciting. He was actually having an adventure of sorts with a private detective.
From his crouched position A.J. climbed over Brendan. He duck-walked to the end of the room, then cautiously raised his head until he could peer out a corner of the glass window.
A man about forty-five years old with hair so pale A.J. would call it white, stood in the center of the empty rotunda. He certainly wasn’t dressed like a security guard, but instead wore a light gray suit and starched white shirt with a gray and blue tie knotted neatly at his throat. He appeared to be waiting for someone, but for whom, A.J. couldn’t imagine. He studied the man further, trying to recall if he was someone associated with the medical examiner’s office. Trying to recall if he was someone who would have reason to be in the building. His face wasn’t familiar, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t one of Jerry Reiner’s colleagues whom A.J. had never met.
The blond detective watched as the man pulled something out of the right front pocket of his suit coat. He spoke into it, but whether it was a tape recorder, or some type of small walkie-talkie, A.J. couldn’t tell. An unsettling feeling overcame the private eye. Instinct, and years of investigation work, were telling A.J. he and Brendan just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, they were secluded in a fairly good spot. With any luck they wouldn’t be detected.
The second man was halfway down the stairs before A.J. saw him since he entered on the detective’s blind side. A.J. knew there was a hallway behind him and Brendan on the third floor of the building. That’s how he had entered the medical amphitheater and snuck up on the boy. Two doors led into the amphitheater from the hallway, one that would allow you to use the stairway on the right like A.J. had, the other that would bring you down on the left. It was the latter route their new visitor was taking.
The first thing A.J. noticed about him was the fedora perched on his head, its brim sitting low in front. It made his age hard to guess. Dress hats were rarely worn by men of A.J.’s generation – that was something men of his father’s generation favored. Yet the stranger didn’t carry himself like an elderly man, though A.J. knew that didn’t mean anything. The guy could be an amateur athlete and exercise fanatic, which would account for the appearance of a body years younger than it was. The dark suit he wore was expensive, hand tailored to fit his broad shoulders no doubt. Then came the shoes, Gucci loafers. The kind A.J. knew set a guy back several hundred bucks. The detective was certain the man had sunglasses on as well. He’d gotten a peek of what looked to be a black earpiece and dark lens as the man descended the steps in a casual trot, a hand jiggling the change in the left front pocket of his trousers.
Now, why would someone wear sunglasses inside a building? The first thing most people do is take them off.
Between the way the man was dressed and his sunglasses, A.J. couldn’t help but think of how government agents are commonly depicted on television and in the movies.
Even without being able to see what was occurring, Brendan knew another man had entered the area. The heavy, sweet spice of his cologne wafted up into the observatory as he walked down the stairs, causing Brendan’s stomach to roll. It smelled like the guy had swum laps in the stuff. Mark always smelled like that, too, giving the boy one more reason to wonder what it was his mother found so appealing about the man.
Brendan’s head rose to join A.J.’s. The boy got no more than a fleeting glimpse of the men below before he was pushed to the carpet again. A.J. shot him a stern look while shaking his head no.
A.J. was torn as to whether he should remain where he was, or move toward the open doorway. The problem was he wouldn’t be able to see what was going on below if he left the window. There was no way he could risk looking out the door. The concrete bench seats that descended to the floor wouldn’t provide any type of cover for him. But remaining where he was prevented him from hearing the men’s exchange.
The blond man briefly wondered why it was so important to him to know what was going on. If he was smart, the only thing he would concern himself with was keeping Brendan hidden until the men left. But his detective’s curiosity wouldn’t allow it. A.J. looked around the observatory, finally spotting what he’d surmised it contained. Ancient boxy speakers were mounted in opposite back corners of the room. He looked for a switch next. When his eyes didn’t see one he used his hands. He ran them under the window ledge until they came in contact with a small plastic object. He pointed a finger toward the speakers, waiting until Brendan focused on them. Next he showed the boy the switch. Brendan nodded; indicating he understood what A.J. was about to do. The detective didn’t want to startle the boy into crying out when voices suddenly filled the room.
A.J. had no idea if the sound system still worked. He prayed it didn’t erupt into sizzling flames as he flipped the switch. The crackle of the speakers coming to life seemed extraordinarily loud to the detective, but didn’t appear to be heard by the men below who never broke the stride of their conversation.
As A.J. had guessed, the sound system had seen better days. The voices were distorted and fuzzy, but the words clear enough to understand if he listened hard. The man in the fedora had his back to A.J., while at the same time his body blocked the other man from A.J.’s view, making it impossible to tell who was speaking.
“What concern is it of yours? You didn’t want to see Wyatt. You wanted to see me.”
“Yes, I did. As I told your errand boy, I don’t like being jacked around.”
“That’s commendable. Because I don’t like being jacked around either.”
A.J. saw the man’s hand rise and surmised he was slipping it inside the jacket of his suit coat. But he was only surmising. What the man was really doing he didn’t know.
“What’s this? You brought me a sample of the goods?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether or not you’re playing games with me. Now open your coat.”
“What? Why? What the hell is your problem? I’ve been doing business with you people for almost a year. To be treated like this is an outrage!”
“Fine. Be outraged. But open your coat.”
Again, because the man in the fedora blocked most of A.J.’s view of the other man, he only caught a glimpse of a fanned out suit coat - like A.J. would imagine someone making you hold your coat open if you were being searched for weapons.
Something small and silver was dropped to the floor and crushed by an Italian loafer. A.J. could hear the quiet rage in the speaker’s voice.
“I don’t like being double crossed. I don’t like it one bit.”
A.J. weighed whether or not to get involved with what was going on below. Unfortunately, he had no idea as to who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. If in fact, there was a good guy at all. Nor did A.J. have his gun with him. He had left it locked in his desk drawer at the office.
“Look. Let’s go somewhere where we can talk. Perhaps we can still work out a deal of sorts.”
The man wearing the hat laughed. “Oh yeah. Won’t that be sweet. I know just what kind of a deal you’ll want to work out, and I’m not interested. I’m not interested at all...Taylor.”
Before A.J. knew what was happening, four shots exploded, echoing painfully off the walls of the hollow room. Brendan’s body jerked in time with the sounds that were magnified through the speakers. A.J. sprang to his feet and took off running with an order tossed over his shoulder.
“You wait right here until I come get you!”
“But, A.J., I can help!” Brendan rolled on his belly, scurrying to his knees. “I can—“
“Wait right here, Brendan!”
By the time A.J. hit the bottom step the shooter had disappeared out the doors Tim and Jeremy exited twenty minutes earlier. The detective dropped to the side of the man sprawled helplessly in the middle of the floor. His white shirt was stained crimson, and blood flowed freely from the multiple wounds inflicted at close range. A.J. thought the man was already dead when he reached out to place his fingers at the pulse point of his throat. Hazy blue eyes blinked twice as the man fought to bring A.J.’s face into focus. A trembling hand rose to grasp the detective’s wrist.
A.J. cocked his head, bringing his
ear to the man’s mouth. “What did you
The words came out in no more than a
gasping whisper. “Elbee.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” A.J. stripped off his sport coat, covering the man’s torso with it. “Calm down. Don’t try to talk. I’m going to call for help.”
A.J. knew the man was trying to tell him something, but what, he couldn’t fathom. Possibly the identity of the person who had shot him, or possibly one hundred other things that could keep A.J. guessing all day. Right now, the best thing he could do was get to the nearest phone and call for an ambulance.
Within seconds, A.J. knew the ambulance would be a wasted effort. The man gasped out, “Tell...tell Taylor...I love him,” right before his body succumbed to the massive hemorrhaging occurring within.