There are a lot of ways to kill a person. He'd been taught that many years earlier. Especially a person in A.J. Simon's current position. He might take a nasty spill down the stairs that resulted in a broken neck. Or perhaps his body would be found floating in the swimming pool. Or maybe he'd be injected with a drug so potent it would stop the beating of his heart in mere seconds. A drug so potent and untraceable the medical examiner would be at a loss as to what to put on the death certificate.
He thought of these things every time he searched the man's room, or stood at the door listening to the conversations being carried on between Simon and his older brother. He had never taken another person's life, but knew he could for the right cause.
The intruder eased the door closed as he slipped inside. As usual, Simon's room was neat and orderly, despite his disabilities. He crossed to the work counter, devoid of anything at the moment except a picture of Simon's family, and a battery operated pencil sharpener. He slid open a cabinet door he was more than eye level with, and peered inside, looking for just the right spot. The upper shelf held board games, puzzles, and books brought in for Simon by his family and friends. The lower shelf contained his Walkman, two tidy stacks of cassette tapes, a writing tablet, pencils, pens, and a folder. He leafed through the folder, spotting A.J.'s attempts at the alphabet. Like Rick, the intruder briefly wondered why the letters B and L were consistently circled, or in some cases, singled out and written together as LB in remote corners, or written on the flip side of a completed assignment. He filed that oddity away in his mind, wondering if it would come to mean something, or if it was just the scrawling of a brain injured man.
The intruder returned the folder to the exact place he'd found it. Using his fingers, he felt up and down the four inch wide wooden support beam that ran up the inside center of the side-by-side cabinets. He reached into the front pocket of his brown uniform trousers and pulled out a small, delicate object. The silver disk was flat and no bigger around than a woman's fingernail. Even those who considered themselves experts in the field of espionage would find it hard to believe something so minute could be so powerful. But, then, unlike him, they didn't have the latest in technology at their disposal. Even here, secreted behind closed cabinets doors, the bug would pick up any conversation that ensued within twenty feet of it.
With just the tip of his finger the man gently fastened the delicate object in place on the wooden beam above the cabinet's top shelf. Satisfied that there was no way A.J. Simon would accidentally spot it, the intruder silently slid the door closed and moved on. Another tiny device was placed on the curtain rod above the window, its shiny silver metal blending in perfectly with the drapery hooks. The next disk was attached to the back of the nightstand in a far bottom dusty corner by the floor, while the next one went inside the telephone receiver.
He froze in the act of putting the receiver back together, hearing voices coming from the hallway. He tracked their progress until he was able to discern the conversation coming from the room that butted up to A.J.'s, where a nurse had to shout to be heard by her half deaf charge. No doubt some old man was being returned early from afternoon sessions like elderly patients often were, simply because their stamina didn't allow for an eight hour day of rehabilitation therapy.
He quickly finished what he was doing, put the receiver back in its cradle, and then waited until he heard the nurse push the wheelchair from the old man's room. As soon as he was relatively certain she'd returned to duties elsewhere on the floor, he slipped into the bathroom. He had two disks left in his pocket. One was placed in the dark recesses of the linen closet, while the other was attached to the underside of the silver showerhead. Though that last spot might have seemed foolish to some, he'd been in this business long enough to be well-aware that many productive conversations take place in bathrooms. Yes, even in shower stalls without the water running, and sometimes even with the water running. It was amazing how creative a person could be if he believed he had reason to fear his home or office was being bugged. He hoped Simon, given his head injury, didn't think to go to creative lengths to keep his conversations from being overheard. The guy had been enough of a pain-in-the-ass as it was. He'd already been forced to sneak around and hide these same listening devices when Simon was sharing a room with George Middleton. He didn't appreciate having to retrieve them, test them to make sure they were still in good working condition, and then go through the process of planting them again.
"Middleton sexually assaulted him my butt," the man muttered as he stepped into the shower stall to hide his last disk. "Good story, and it sounded pitiful enough when tearfully told to dear old big brother, but as far as I'm concerned it was an act on the part of both Simons in order to get Pretty Boy moved to a private room. What better way of being able to talk 'business' without having to worry about unwanted visitors, or a roommate. wandering in and out in the middle of your conversations."
Satisfied with his work, he stepped out of the stall, making certain he hadn't left any telltale boot prints behind. Because he was still in the bathroom, he almost didn't hear the distinct 'click, click, click' of heels in the hallway that were rapidly approaching the room.
Oh shit. Just my luck, baldy would decide to show up early today of all days.
His huge feet crossed the main floor of A.J.'s room in three strides. His eyes darted about the area, finally lighting upon the sturdy pencil sharpener that was ten inches long by eight inches wide. With the four 'D' sized batteries it took to run it, the handy little office utensil would do serious damage to that macho cowboy's skull if the need arose.
The man secreted his bulk as best he could between the small junction of the closet and closed door. He gripped the pencil sharpener firmly, holding it above his head. Without consciously thinking about it, he flexed his knees as the door was opened.
The woman stepped all the way in the room before she felt his presence. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the massive figure lurking behind the door. She screamed, her body reflexively plastering itself against the wall. The bag she was carrying fell at her feet as her hand flew to her hammering heart.
"Oh, Mike!" Cecilia Simon gasped as recognition dawned. "You startled me!"
The man dropped his left hand,
hiding it behind his back. "Sorry,
Mrs. Simon Ma'am, I wasn't expectin' you.
You're a little early today, huh?"
"Yes, I am." When Cecilia's heartbeat had slowed to a more comfortable rate she bent down, grasping the fallen sports bag by its handles. "I made a reservation to have dinner with my son. I thought I'd put his clean laundry away before I meet him in the cafeteria."
"Oh, hey, good idea." The man eased along the frame of the door. "There's nothing like the smell of fresh laundry to make a guy happy, that's for sure. Especially when done by the hands of his own loving mama."
Cecilia eyed the tall man, whom
she'd always found to be a little strange.
And, like Rick, she often noticed him lurking outside A.J.'s room at the
oddest times. She pulled some hangers
out of A.J.'s closet, hoping her question sounded innocently nonchalant. "What exactly is it that brings you to
A.J.'s room this afternoon?"
"Yeah, you know. Fixing a little bit of this, repairing a little bit of that."
Cecilia retrieved three pairs of pants from the bag she'd carried in and began laying them over hangers. "I wasn't aware anything was in need of repair."
"Oh sure, several things. The overhead light wasn't working, there was a leaky faucet in the bathroom, the window wouldn't open--"
"Really? Goodness, that's odd. The overhead light was working fine when I left here yesterday. And A.J. never said anything to me or his brother about a leaky faucet in the bathroom, or problems with the window."
"Is that a fact? Well, let me tell ya', Mrs. S., this building is older than my grandmother's bunions and in twice the need of attention. Stuff just seems to break," the big man snapped the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, "like that. Quicker than you can say red rover red rover let Michael come over." The janitor looked up at the faint sound of pounding hammers coming from overhead. "Good thing they're giving this old woman a major overhaul, that's for sure. Uh...no offense meant there, Mrs. S."
Before Cecilia could ask any further questions of the man, he made his escape, slipping backwards out the door until he was in the hallway. "Gotta be goin' now, Mrs. S. See ya' round."
"Yes, Mike," Cecilia murmured to the now empty room, "I'm sure I'll see you around."
With a preoccupied mind Cecilia made quick work of hanging up the remainder of A.J.'s shirts and pants. She crossed over to the dresser and placed socks, handkerchiefs, underwear, and pajamas in various drawers, then returned to the closet where she deposited the sports bag on the floor next to her youngest son's slippers and extra pair of tennis shoes. The entire time she went about her tasks, Cecilia wondered how a janitor could do 'routine maintenance' without a tool or toolbox on his person.
Cecilia shut the closet door, put her hands on her hips, and surveyed the room. About the only items A.J. had here she could imagine someone being interested in stealing was his Walkman, cassettes, or the watch he'd asked Rick to bring him the previous week now that numbers were beginning to mean something to him again. Cecilia knew the watch wouldn't be in the room at this time of day. A.J. would be wearing it. He removed it only when he showered or went to bed at night.
Cecilia kicked off her red pumps and climbed on the chair sitting at the work counter. She peered in the overhead cabinet, seeing A.J.'s Walkman in its usual spot. She saw at least two dozen cassettes sitting next to it. She shuffled through them, mentally taking stock of the ones she knew A.J. had on hand. As far as she could tell nothing was missing, but for a more accurate assessment she'd have to ask Rick, since he was the one who brought them in for his brother. Actually, for the most accurate assessment, she should ask A.J., but she wasn't going to do that. She didn't want to upset him, or cause him to worry every time he left his room. If something was missing, she and Rick would take care of it.
There was nothing else Cecilia Simon could think to check for. She wasn't aware of the pencil sharpener Brendan had given A.J. the evening before when Rick had brought him for his second visit, so didn't take note of its absence. A.J. didn’t take note of its absence either, because by the time he returned to his room from having dinner with his mother, the pencil sharpener was back where it belonged.
Later that night, Cecilia talked to her oldest son on the phone. When she relayed her odd encounter with the big janitor, Rick swiftly put her concerns to rest. "Oh, you mean Mike? No need to worry about him, Mom. He's an undercover cop Abby's got keeping an eye on A.J. just to be on the safe side."
Cecilia slept easier that night, knowing someone besides herself and Rick was watching over her youngest son.
Abigail Marsh was sitting by herself in a booth at the Squire, a restaurant two blocks south of the police station. It was a place the lieutenant occasionally sought refuge within during a hectic day when she felt the need for more than a quickly gulped tuna sandwich at her desk in-between interruptions.
Abby sipped a steaming bowl of beef barley soup while studying the file folder she had laying in front of her. Although she knew she deserved to leave her work back at the office for one short hour, new cases continually cropped up that demanded her attention. She smiled at her waitress as the woman refilled her glass with iced tea.
"You're welcome, Lieutenant. Your food should be ready shortly."
"That's fine. I need a few minutes to relax today anyway."
The heavy-set ash blond cast a doubting eyebrow at Abby's folder. "Doesn't look like you're relaxing to me."
"No, I guess it doesn't, does it? Well, you know what they say, a woman's work is never done."
From across the room a table of rowdy male construction workers beckoned, "Hey, Carol! Carol, we're ready to order, sweetie pie!"
The woman shared a smirk with Abby. "You can say that again."
Because Abby's back was to the door, she didn't see the man enter the bustling restaurant that catered to blue collar workers, cops, and local office people during lunch time. He tugged briefly at the cuffs of his dark suit coat and reached up to straighten his slate gray tie.
Abby looked up when she felt the man's presence at her right elbow.
The man extended his right hand while fumbling for his inside breast pocket with his left. "I'm Agent Dan Phillips, Lieutenant. With the FBI."
He produced a thin black wallet which he flipped open to a badge and ID photo.
Abby glanced at the photo as she attempted to stand. Her efforts were thwarted by the table that hit her thighs, leaving her in a very awkward and unbecoming squatting position. She felt like she was seated on an imaginary toilet and hurried to rectify the situation by side stepping out of the booth.
"Nice to meet you, Agent
The man smiled. "Call me Dan, please."
"Only if you'll call me Abby."
"Abby it is."
Abby indicated to the booth across the table from hers. "Have a seat, Dan. Would you like to order some lunch?"
The agent slid into the offered booth while Abby returned to her own seat. "No, thank you. I finished eating right before I went to the station in search of you. One of your men told me I could find you here."
Before the conversation could continue, Abby's broiled cod arrived. Carol put the woman's plate in front of her, then turned to the new guest.
"Can I get you anything,
"No, thank...well, yes, on second thought, I would like a piece of that cherry pie I see on the shelf over there and a large glass of milk."
Abby glanced up from putting a small
dab of butter on her baked potato.
"Put it on my tab, Carol."
The waitress walked away amidst the man's protests. "That's not necessary, Lieutenant. I can certainly pay for my own dessert." He leaned forward and whispered with playful conspiracy, "Besides, the government does give me an expense account."
"As the city of San Diego does me," Abby countered in the same light tone the man used.
"Yes, I'm sure a woman of your
position does warrant an expense account, Lieutenant."
Abby wasn't sure what to make of the man's open admiration. If he got anymore enthusiastic he'd be like a puppy slobbering in her lap.
"I assume there's a reason
behind your visit, Dan, other than to watch me eat my lunch."
The man gave a polite chuckle. "Yes, there is unfortunately. I'd like to ask you some questions about an ongoing investigation I'm involved in."
"Certainly, though I can't imagine how I can be of help with a bureau case."
"I hope more than you think,
Abby's brow furrowed, but she kept her inquiries on hold until Carol had placed the man's pie and milk in front of him. He forked off an end, chewed for a moment, and then washed it down with a swallow of cold liquid. He leaned on the table, bringing his body closer to Abby's, giving her the impression he didn't want to be overheard. With the noise level in the restaurant continuously on the rise as more and more people arrived she hardly thought that was a concern, but then what few FBI agents she'd encountered in her career always seemed to have an aura of intensity about them that bordered on paranoia.
"I'm the lead investigator on a
case you were involved with about six weeks ago. At the old city morgue?"
Abby paused in the motion of reaching for a napkin. "Yes?"
"I'm afraid I'm not allowed to reveal many details surrounding the case, but I do need to know what your people uncovered."
Being well aware of how mysterious
this case had been right from the start, Abby proceeded with caution. "I find it rather odd, Agent Phillips,
that I wasn't contacted ahead of time regarding your visit today. It would have given me the opportunity to
review my notes before speaking with you."
The man sat back in his seat, his
expression one of open befuddlement.
"You weren't contacted? But
my secretary made an appointment with someone at your end named Hanrahan. I thought it was a little strange that you
weren't at the station when I stopped by, but because I was running about
thirty minutes late, I assumed you'd gotten fed up with waiting for me."
Now it was Abby's turn to be contrite. "No, I didn't get fed up with waiting, I was never told..." to cover Hanrahan's uncharacteristic inefficiency, Abby finished with, "regardless, obviously somehow the message your secretary gave Sergeant Hanrahan got misplaced. I apologize for the inconvenience."
Dan smiled while lifting another fork full of pie to his mouth. "Believe me, Lieutenant, this is not an inconvenience. Mix-up aside, is it all right with you if we continue our interview here?"
"That's fine. Though, if I could review my notes, I might be able to tell you more."
"I'm on a fairly tight schedule today, so for now let's see how we do. I can contact you at a later date if I have more questions."
The man pulled a notepad out of the right pocket of his suit coat. Abby could see he had something written on the page he flipped it to, and assumed it was filled with the questions he wanted to ask her. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and used it as a marker while proceeding down his list.
"In general, I'd like to know what your investigation wrought."
Abby was honest and frank with her statement. "It would help if I knew what was going on, Agent Phillips, because to tell you the truth, my investigation wrought very little.'"
The man's smile was full of unspoken apologies. "And I wish I could share those things with you, but I can't. Orders from above you, understand. But I will break the rules long enough to tell you the man who was killed was a Federal agent."
"What happened to his
"We took care of it."
Abby had to remember where she was to keep from shouting when she spoke. "And the FBI is allowed to do that? To tamper with a murder investigation that happened in my jurisdiction?"
"I know, I know," Dan crooned sympathetically, "it's frustrating. But, we're already aware of who murdered our agent. Now it's a matter of finding him."
"So this involves some type of sting operation you guys had in place?"
"Yes, it does. Though I can't--"
"Say anymore." Abby beat the man to the punch.
"I'm sorry," Dan smiled again, "I really wish I could give you all the details, but right now I can't. When I'm at liberty to, I promise I'll call and fill you in."
Although Abby didn't want to, she grudgingly agreed. "Fair enough. Just answer one question for me and I'll be happy. Or at least be able to quit spending my time scouring the records of every convicted felon, past or present, in San Diego."
"A beautiful woman such as yourself shouldn't be scouring anything, Lieutenant, so ask away."
Oh, brother. And here I thought I'd heard every line of bull crap a woman in my position could possibly be subjected to.
Abby ignored the man's charm. He was suddenly starting to make her think
of a snake oil salesman. Smooth and
slick on the outside, but possessing only empty promises within. "Is there someone named White connected
to this case?"
"Yes, as in the color
If Abby had been sitting next to the man she might have detected the jittery bobbing of the tassels on his Italian loafers.
"No, no one named
White." Dan recorded the word on
his pad. "What significance does
it have for you?"
"Not much. It was mentioned as having been overheard in the course of a conversation. Obviously, it's not much of a lead."
"No," the man quickly
agreed, "it's not." The agent
glanced down at his notes, feeling a sudden rush to change the line of
questioning. "What I need to
know, Abby, is who was following our agent?"
"Yes, I've been told by my
people that a man was tailing our agent.
Possibly a police officer."
"No, there weren't any police officers tailing your agent. At least none that I'm aware of."
"No one who worked for
"What about the man who was hit
by the truck?"
"The man who was hit by the
truck?" Abby echoed the question
as though she'd almost forgotten this detail of the case.
"Yes. He was one of your officers, wasn't he?"
"Oh no. No, he wasn't. He was a private citizen. We have yet to figure out exactly what it was he was doing in the building to begin with, other than to say robbery might have been the motive."
"Robbery? Robbery of whom, or what?"
Abby gave her shoulders a casual shrug while squeezing the last bit of juice out of a lemon slice and trickling it over what remained of her fish. "I really don't know. The man was a burglar by profession, with a list of convictions a mile long. He was fairly well known to our department, actually."
"I see. Regardless, I need to talk to him. I'd like you to set up an interview for me. Or better yet, if you'll just give me his name, I'll contact him myself."
"That would prove an effort in futility, Dan."
Abigail Marsh didn't even blink when she looked straight into the agent's eyes, noticing for the first time they were two different colors.
"The man you want to contact is dead."
Abby accomplished little more than pacing her office floor in the hour since she had returned from lunch. The first thing she had done upon her arrival was grilled Hanrahan as to the supposed appointment set up by Dan Phillips' secretary. Hanrahan swore he hadn't taken such a call, and Abby had no reason not to believe him. In the two years he'd worked for her, he'd never done anything that would cause her to doubt his competency.
But certainly it was possible the secretary had talked to someone else covering John Hanrahan's desk the day the appointment had supposedly been made. Someone else who wasn't as conscientious as John was. However, trying to find that someone would prove next to impossible. As soon as word got out Abby was after blood, everyone would disavow all knowledge of the phone call in an effort to save his or her butt.
On the other hand, hadn't Abby herself lied to Dan Phillips? When she asked herself why, she really didn't have an answer. Maybe it was because he caught her by surprise when he started asking for information regarding A.J., or maybe it was because, deep down inside, she was doubtful of portions of his story.
But why, she wondered. The man had shown her legitimate ID. Or at least what looked like legitimate ID. The FBI never had been an agency she'd wanted to be involved with. While they had a wonderful track record of solving crimes, the best technology at their fingertips, and some of the brightest people working for them, they also used their position within the government to blanket investigations in secrecy, and to cover up things the public had the right to know.
Still, Abby understood why they'd be upset, and maybe even a little secretive, in this situation. After all, it was one of their agents who was killed. Abby had to acknowledge that if she was on the trail of the man's killer she wouldn't give out much information either, not even to a fellow law enforcement officer, for fear word would somehow get back to the perpetrator of the crime.
Therefore, had she made a fatal error because she hadn't revealed A.J.'s name? Because she had, in fact, lied and said he was a career criminal, and dead to boot?
But A.J. can't tell them anything anyway, the woman attempted to justify.
Right, Marsh, like that's going to make any difference when you're pulled into the Chief's office, stripped of your rank, and arrested for hindering a federal investigation.
Abby was just about to pick up the phone and call the FBI's regional office in Los Angeles, when Hanrahan knocked twice on the door, then peeked his head in. "There's an Agent Matthews here to see you, Lieutenant. He says he's with the FBI. And believe me, he doesn't have an appointment."
Abby looked out her picture window to see a black man in a nondescript dark suit waiting on the other side of the counter top.
How could they have found out so fast?
Abby was certain she was about to be read her rights and led away in humiliation when she told Hanrahan to show the man into her office.
The black man extended his hand. "Lieutenant Marsh, I'm Agent Ted Matthews with the FBI."
"Agent Matthews." Abby's handshake was brief. "Would you like a seat?"
Abby moved to sit behind her desk, the fish she'd had for lunch swimming crazy circles in her stomach.
"Lieutenant Marsh, I'd like to speak with you regarding an investigation you led about two months ago."
"The one involving the death of
the FBI agent down at the vacant morgue?"
"Uh...yes, ma'am. That would be the one. But, did you say the death of an FBI
"Yes. Coincidently enough, I spoke to one of the bureau's people earlier today. An Agent Phillips. Agent Paul Phillips."
"Oh. I see." The black man stood, looking uncomfortable and out-of-place. For some reason Abby didn't think his uneasiness was simply because a mix-up had occurred somewhere in the FBI's administration.
"I won't keep you then. If Paul has already talked to you, it would
be a waste of our time for me to repeat the same questions, now wouldn't
Abby stood. "Yes, Agent Matthews, it would. Especially given the fact Paul has previously spoken to me."
As the man sidled for the door, Abby lunged for his legs, only to land hard on her stomach. She paid no attention to the skirt bunched up around her hips as she hollered, "Stop that man!"
Later, she would wonder how a man could flee out the door of a crowded squad room and make it all the way to the street without anyone being able to catch him. She said as much at the top of her lungs to the staff members she assembled in her office thirty minutes later. When Abby had no voice left, she dismissed them with a thunderous slam of the door.
Abby personally picked up the phone when the call came in from Los Angeles at four o'clock that afternoon. It only confirmed what she suspected. No Agents Dan Phillips or Ted Matthews were employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nor was there any type of on-going investigation in process regarding Abby's case. When she mentioned it was possible an FBI agent had been killed, the man on the other end laughed.
"I can assure you, Lieutenant Marsh, if one of our agents had been killed in San
Diego, you'd know about it."
Abby sat behind her desk long after the first shift of police officers had given way to the arrival of the second shift. For now, there was little else she could do but make certain all her notes were well guarded.
The lieutenant saved every bit of information she had on her computer regarding the troubling case on two discs. When she was certain the files had copied completely, she deleted everything from her hard drive. She took her paper notes out of her desk and placed them in her briefcase along with one of the discs. From this day forward they would not be left in her office when she wasn't present. The remaining disc she locked in her small personal vault in the records room.
As she left the building that night, Abby was thankful she'd listened to her gut instinct at the restaurant. God knows if she hadn't, A.J. Simon might be dead by now.
If Abigail Marsh had been patrolling the streets of Brendan's neighborhood two days later, she would have recognized the black man dressed in the blue uniform of a United States Postal employee. The shorts that came to his knees were neatly pressed, as was his shirt with the postal insignia on the right sleeve. Bright white socks rose to cover his shins, a comfortable looking pair of thick soled black walking shoes were on his feet. He pushed the lightweight mailbag stroller along in front of him, smiling at the children who passed on their way home from school.
Brendan's bus dropped him off at the corner. He walked with a group of his buddies, but one by one they parted ways as each came to his own home, until only Brendan was left.
The boy made a wide circle around
the mailman, walking on Mrs. Cannelli's lawn in order to do so. This was the fourth day in a row he'd
noticed the postal worker. Brendan had
mentioned the man's presence to his mother the evening before, but she'd
dismissed his concerns with a preoccupied,
"Well of course he's hanging around the neighborhood, honey. He is the mailman, after all."
"But, Mom, no. He's not our regular mailman. This one's black, and I never actually see him delivering any mail."
Linda chuckled while running a hand through her son's hair. "Sweetheart, I think you've been spending too much time with Rick and A.J. Now you're looking for an adventure around every corner."
Before Brendan could say anything more on the subject, his
stepfather bellowed from upstairs. Her lips compressed tight with anxiety, Linda hurried off as if she was Mark's handmaiden.
"And he's always watching me," Brendan had mumbled to the empty kitchen, finishing his story as the sound of another argument drifted through the house.
Brendan's eyes flicked up to meet the black man's as he passed. As usual, the youngster wasn't acknowledged with more than a tight nod.
Brendan could feel the man's eyes on his back as he continued toward his house. He was glad Heather's bus dropped her off right in front of the Milligans', and that Cheryl babysat for her until their mother arrived home. At least the man wouldn't have a chance to hurt her, nor would Heather's presence hinder Brendan if he was ever forced to run.
The boy hazarded a quick glance over his shoulder. The mailman was pushing his bag now, slowly ambling along twenty feet or so behind Brendan. He was looking at the houses across the street, as if in search of an address.
Maybe Mom's right. Maybe I'm just imagining things. Why would the guy be interested in me anyway?
Before Brendan's mind could come up with a plausible answer, a blue Chevy careened to the curb. It fishtailed to a stop with a squeal of rubber. A woman with frizzy, two-toned hair and a blouse so tight the buttons gapped where they tried to close around her full breasts, shot out of the vehicle. She grabbed the startled Brendan by the arm, whipping him around to face her. She jabbed him in the shoulder with two-inch blood-red nails manicured to a razor sharp point, causing him to stumble backwards.
"Listen, you little bastard, you quit hangin' around with them nosy dicks, you got that? What the fuck have you been tellin' 'em, boy? Huh? What have you been tellin' em?"
She snared one of the shoulder straps of Brendan's backpack, jerking him forward. He was so close now he could smell the alcohol on her breath, and see the angry red streaks that lined her eyes.
"Cat got your tongue, huh, pretty boy? Well, you better know how to keep your mouth shut, 'cause we can make things a whole lot worse, sweet face. I promise, we can make things a whole lot worse!"
When she threw her head back and laughed like a crazy witch, Brendan saw his chance. He jerked himself free of her grasp, running for all he was worth. He didn't see the black man chase after the woman's car in an attempt to get her license plate number. He didn't see anything. He ran without stopping to his house, fumbled to let himself in with his key, then slammed the door behind him and throwing the deadbolt for good measure.
The twelve-year-old leaned against the door panting for breath. His heart raced more from fear than exertion. When he worked up the nerve, he cautiously moved to the living room window. Brendan peered out from a corner of the draperies, but didn't see anything. He risked exposing more of his body, until finally he was standing in front of the window.
All was quiet in the neighborhood. The boy saw no sign of a blue car, or of the black mailman. He could almost make himself believe he'd dreamed the entire incident if not for the pain his felt in his right shoulder where the woman had stabbed him with her fingernails.
Twenty minutes later, Brendan mulled over the unsettling events while sitting at the kitchen table drinking a glass of milk and nibbling on a cookie. A lot of things had changed recently, and other than Brendan's new-found diligence in school, few of those changes were for the better. Something weird was going on between his mother and Mark. They were fighting now like his mom and dad used to, only when they had argued it had always been behind closed doors, and in hushed tones in an effort to keep their disagreements from him and Heather. But it was different this time. The fights were loud, and the kind of words that were shouted by Mark would have gotten Brendan's mouth washed out with soap if he ever used them. His father had never even used that kind of language in their home, and never had Brendan heard his father call his mother nasty names, no matter how mad he was at her. Never had he heard anyone call his mother a dumb bitch, or a damn whore, like he'd heard Mark scream the other night. He wanted to make the man stop, had even gone to his mother's bedroom doorway, only to have her frantically wave him away before Mark became aware of his presence.
Now Brendan wondered about the woman who had accosted him this afternoon. Was it simply a case of mistaken identity, or maybe someone who was too drunk to know what she was doing? But it was funny, in an odd sort of way; that she told him to stay away from those nosy dicks. He wouldn't have known to what or whom she was referring, if he hadn't heard Mark yell at his mother the other night after Rick dropped him off from a visit with A.J.
"I told you I don't want him hanging around those damn nosy private dick cousins of yours, woman!"
Why would it matter to Mark whether or not Brendan spent his time with Rick and A.J.? His stepfather had always made it clear he didn't want Brendan around, so he should be happy he had some place else to be. And most of all, why would some woman Brendan didn't even know have the same concerns?
In the two weeks since Rick and Troya Yeager had first eaten together at Marty's Café, they met for dinner three more times. They giggled like kids as butter ran down their chins while dining on lobster, they got to know one another better at the Steak Pit while T-bones sizzled in the background, and they talked far into the night over lasagna and red wine on Rick's boat, the meal cooked by the captain himself.
It had been a long time since Rick Simon had fallen head over heels in love with a woman. He found himself thinking about Troya at all hours of the day and night, just as she found herself thinking of him. If they didn't happen to run across each other at the rehab center while Rick was visiting A.J., then their nights were capped off by a phone call placed from Rick's boat to her house.
As much as Rick sensed a sexual attraction between them, he had yet to try to maneuver her into the bedroom, which only emphasized more to the detective how serious this relationship was. He'd be the first to admit he'd dated a number of women over the years with the only intention on his part being that the night end with a round of playful sex. Not that those particular women didn't want the night to end the same way, but with Troya it was different. He wanted to wait. He wanted their first time together to be special. He wanted it to be a significant step in their relationship, and one they both desired to take. He didn't want either one of them waking up with regrets the next morning.
For despite his strong attraction to the woman, Rick readily acknowledged the vast differences between himself and Troya Yeager. First of all, she was a well-educated woman of culture and class. More A.J.'s type than his. She had attended only the best private schools since kindergarten, traveled abroad for a year after college, and even been a debutante; though she'd wrinkled her nose in distaste when she told Rick that had not been her idea, but rather, her mother's. Still, he found it hard to believe she could be so taken with him, an earthy guy who said exactly what he was thinking regardless of the circumstances. A guy who rarely employed the art of tact. A guy who often allowed his temper to do his talking. A guy to whom money and position meant little. But then, those last two items didn't mean much to Troya, either. Or so Rick was beginning to learn.
The detective was thinking of all these things while in the swimming pool at the rehab center on Friday night. A.J. swam beside him wearing his life vest. They had found the pool was generally empty on any given night after eight o'clock, so tended to plan their visits accordingly.
A.J. was just beginning to expand his horizons; this nighttime swim only the third such foray. In a few weeks, he would be venturing outside the walls of the rehab center, reacquainting himself with grocery stores, banks, and other common places of business a little at a time. A therapist, Rick, or Cecilia, would be at his side as he took these next small steps toward independence. Whether A.J. would ever be able to live alone again and function within the demands of the everyday world, would not be known for sometime yet, but as Troya had told Rick, they needed to start somewhere.
Rick inhaled the chemical scent of chlorine as he swam beside his brother. A.J.'s vest provided the buoyancy he needed, though he hated wearing it. Both Simon men had been accomplished swimmers since early childhood. They had competed on a swim team at their neighborhood pool during their youth, and then gone on to swim for their high school team. A.J. had competed at the college level as well, adding to his vast collection of trophies and medals awarded for athletic excellence.
The blond man now looked upon the bulky padded vest as an unnecessary hindrance. Rick had been forced to give him a stern lecture in regards to wearing it after A.J. gave his therapist a hard time over its use the first day he'd been allowed in the pool.
The brothers were moving through the water at a leisurely pace, or at least what was a leisurely pace for Rick. A.J. was working hard, taking big gulps of air every time his face emerged and rolled sideways, as though he was swimming the laps in Olympic time. In total contrast, Rick was doing a slow crawl beside him.
"That's good, A.J. That's right. Keep kicking. Keep that right leg straight. And don't forget about your arm. Extend it all the way out. Don't doggy paddle with it."
Rick reached over, gently pulling A.J.'s right arm straight without hindering his brother's progress. "That's better. Good job, little brother. Good job."
When they came to the end of the pool, A.J. attempted to go under the water. Rick knew he wanted to flip himself around and use his feet to propel his body off the concrete wall. The water was only four feet deep at this end, so Rick stood, reaching out a hand.
"A.J. A.J., wait up there. Hold it now. You can't do it that way. The life vest won't let you."
Rick's hands rested on his brother's back and chest. He attempted to right A.J., like one would right a child struggling to stand in the water. Only A.J. didn't want to stand. The more Rick tried to help him, the more he fought.
"A.J. A.J., come on! Let me help you!"
"No! No! Stop!"
"A.J., knock it off!" Rick turned his face away as water was intentionally splashed in his eyes. "What the hell is the matter with you? Cool it!" Rick tugged down hard on A.J.'s arms, pinning them to his sides. "I said cool it!"
A.J. fought and kicked, twisting his body in a futile attempt to break Rick's hold. All he got for his effort was picked up and sat firmly on the edge of the pool.
Rick pushed himself out of the water, flipping around to sit next to his brother. He gasped for breath, running a hand over his wet face while allowing his temper to dissipate.
A.J. had no concern of that nature. He violently tugged on the ties of his vest, but because they were wet, and because his right hand still lacked coordination, he couldn't get them undone.
Rick reached over to help, only to have his hands pushed away.
"A.J., come on. They're wet. I know they're tough to untie when they're like that. Let me help."
A.J.'s nostrils flared and his eyes turned dark blue with anger. "No!
Rick sighed, dropping his hands back to his sides. He watched as minute after minute passed without A.J. being able to accomplish the task of removing the vest. The blond man's frustration increased to the point he was clawing at the wide ties, only making the situation worse, instead of better.
A.J. jerked at the ties with one last angry "Arrr!" before his shoulders slumped with defeat. He turned away from Rick, hiding his face in his left hand.
Rick hadn't seen his brother cry since the day A.J. had told him Middleton had molested him. In recent weeks, it appeared as though the blond man was regaining control of the emotions made fragile by his head injury, but tonight's frustrations were evidently more than he could handle.
Rick started to put an arm around his brother. "A.J., it's okay. Come on, I'll help you. It's--"
A.J. jerked away. He didn't care about the tears running down his cheeks when he turned to face Rick. "Don't! Leaf-----me-----lone! Hate----dis! Hate it! Hate-----it-----an' hate------you!"
Rick couldn't have been more shocked by A.J.'s words, or the vehemence behind them. The only thing that was missing was a slap in the face to go along with them.
The Simon brothers exchanged no more
words as Rick walked A.J. back to his room that night. When they got to the nurses’ station the
lanky man said to one of the women on duty,
"My brother needs help getting his life vest off."
If the young woman wondered why A.J. was still wearing his dripping life vest in the first place, or why Rick hadn't helped him take it off at the pool, she kept her questions to herself. She felt the tension radiating from both men and took the situation in hand.
"I'll help him, Mr. Simon. You go back down to the locker room and put
on some dry clothes. You look
Rick had to acknowledge that riding three flights up an elevator and walking down a long hallway in nothing but a pair of bathing shorts and deck shoes was cold. A.J. looked cold, too, but Rick would let the nurse worry about that.
Neither man said anything to the other as Rick walked away. Twenty minutes later, he returned to the third floor from the men's locker room dressed in jeans, a blue shirt, and his cowboy boots. He carried his wet swim trunks, towel and shoes in a small gym bag.
Rick didn't see the nurse he'd left A.J. with as he passed the station. Nor was she in A.J.'s room, but A.J. was there fresh from the shower and wearing his pajama bottoms. He stood by the window leaning on his cane, staring up at the night sky. The room was clothed in semi-darkness; the only light on was the one by the bed.
Rick took four steps into the room, stopping by the work counter. "I'll be goin' now. It's gettin' late. Do you need my...help with anything before I leave?"
Without turning to look at his brother, A.J. shook his head no.
"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow then."
Rick waited until the silent seconds had stretched to a full minute. With the words, "Hate you!" echoing in his head, the detective turned and walked away.
This was the first time since A.J. had been hospitalized Rick didn't hug his brother before saying good night.
Rick didn't hear the woman the first time she hailed him. Nor the second. It wasn't until he felt someone grab his arm that he stopped his progress toward the lobby doors.
"Hey, my favorite cowboy! Whoa! Wait up there. I thought we were going to get something to eat after you and A.J...." Troya's sentence trailed off unfinished when she caught sight of Rick's face. "Rick? Rick, are you okay?"
Rick looked away from the concern he saw in the eyes that matched the color of his shirt. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. What happened?"
Troya Yeager was just beginning to learn how frustrating it could be when Rick Simon chose to close off his emotions from those who cared about him the most. And, Rick Simon was just beginning to learn how tenacious Troya Yeager could be until she obtained the results she was seeking.
"Just by looking at your face I'd say there's more to this than ‘nothing.’" She pulled on his arm. "Come on."
Rick didn't protest while Troya led him down the dimly lit hallway past dark offices long vacated of their occupants. Hers was the only one with the florescent overheads still shining brightly. Sometimes he wondered if she allowed herself a life outside the rehab center.
Troya sat down in one of the two chairs that were situated across from her desk. The same chair Cecilia had sat in the first day they'd met. She tugged on Rick's arm until he had no choice but to be seated in the other chair. He dropped his gym bag at his feet and threw his hat on top of it.
"So what gives, Mr. Simon?"
Normally Troya referring to him as Mr. Simon got a smile out of him, but not tonight. "What gives? Gee, where do I start? Maybe with my brother telling me he hates me."
Troya didn't register any surprise
at this revelation. As a matter of
fact, she acted as if she was expecting it.
"What were you two doing when he said that?"
"Swimming. I was trying to help him get his life jacket off. Obviously, my help wasn't welcome."
Troya quietly redirected Rick's thoughts. "Look past the words for a minute, Rick, and think of everything that led up to them."
"Everything that led up to
"Yes. From the time you first arrived tonight, until this blow up occurred."
"Nothing significant happened until we got in the pool. We swam for maybe fifteen minutes. He was even talking and joking with me. Then, when we came to the shallow end, he tried to dive under the water. I think he wanted to somersault and push himself off the wall, but a' course with the vest on he couldn't. I just figured he forgot it wouldn't work that way, so I was trying to help him right himself. That's when he started gettin' pissed at me."
"At you? Or at himself?"
Rick thought a moment, as Troya's words were meant to make him do.
"Maybe at both of us. At himself for not being physically able to
do what he wanted, and at me for stopping him."
"And what about this incident
with trying to get the vest off of him?
Was it the same?"
"Probably. A.J. was mad at himself because he couldn't get it untied, then mad at me for trying to help him." Rick recalled more of A.J.'s words.
"Hate----dis! Hate it!"
"Mad at the entire situation, I suspect," the detective concluded. "At everything his injury encompasses."
"Rick, based on what you've just told me, I'd say the only thing that really happened tonight is that A.J.'s asserting his independence. In some ways, it's like watching a child try a new skill for the first time. As much as you'd like to step in and help him, you have to allow A.J. to struggle on his own to a certain extent. Don't be so quick to point out to him what he's doing wrong, or what he's not physically capable of doing. Let him find out some of those things for himself. Believe me, he wouldn't have floundered in that pool all night. He would have eventually realized he couldn't get himself flipped around the way he wanted to with the method he was trying to use. Yes, it might have still made him angry, but the world wouldn't have stopped turning."
"If you don't think he wouldn't
have floundered in that pool all night, lady," Rick smiled wryly, "then you don't know my brother very well."
Troya laughed. "If worse came to worse, Nurse Finster would have fished him out in the morning while complaining he was throwing her schedule off." The doctor sobered, laying a gentle hand on the detective's knee. "I know what A.J. said hurt you, but he didn't mean it. At that moment he was angry with you, and angry with himself. Out of that anger came words. Just words, nothing more. Of everyone who works with A.J., or comes to visit him, you're the one he respects most. You're the one he works hardest for. You're the one he listens to. You're the one he strives to please. It's your praise and compliments that mean the most to him. It only stands to reason that every so often you're the one who's going to be on the receiving end of his wrath."
Rick gave a thoughtful nod, but made no reply.
Troya leaned forward in her chair, hugging him tightly. As he brought his arms up to encircle her slender back, he felt her soft kiss on his cheek, then her whispered words near his ear. It was the first time she'd called him by a term of endearment.
"I know it hurt, sweetheart. I know it hurt, because one time when I was trying to help my brother, he told me he hated me, too. But Tad and I worked it out, just like you and A.J. will."
Maybe, Rick thought while holding the woman as though she was his anchor to life. But you weren't the one who put your brother in his position like I did to A.J. You didn't deserve to be hated, I do. Oh, Troya, I hate myself so much for what I've done to him. I hate myself more than you or anyone else can imagine.
Twenty-four hours would pass before Troya Yeager came to fully understand the tear she saw Rick brush away when they finally parted.
Rick wasn't certain how he would be received by his brother when he arrived after lunch the next day. Therapy sessions were abbreviated on Saturdays, held from eight until noon. The remainder of the day, as well as Sunday, was open to the patients and their families.
The hospital grounds and hallways were alive with activity that afternoon. Young voices could be heard as children visited with grandparents or other relatives. Rick sidestepped two little girls intent on racing one another to Grandma's room. A basketball game was being broadcast from the TV in the lounge, though the four men who had turned it on weren't paying much attention to it. Instead, they sat around a table playing a lively game of poker, much to the displeasure of Nurse Finster who stood nearby with a disapproving frown etched on her face.
In contrast to the almost party-like atmosphere on the floor, A.J. sat alone in his room with the door closed. He was grateful for this isolated section of hallway where he resided. Rarely was he disturbed by anyone unless it was a nurse coming to check on him, or that big janitor who always seemed to be fixing something, or cleaning something, or painting something, nearby.
A.J. leaned back in his chair, staring at the framed picture on the counter. Taken the previous summer, it was of Rick, their mother, and himself. Some days the smiling blond man who stared back at A.J. from that photograph was so familiar, while on other days he was a complete stranger. There were things about himself and his life before the accident that A.J. remembered so well, while there were other things that remained maddeningly elusive.
He studied the man with the strong physique and healthy tan, then thought of his now hollow cheeks, sunken chest, and stick-like arms and legs. It was hard to believe he and that man were one in the same. He might have denied it if his mother and Rick weren't standing in the picture with him.
A.J. traced a finger over the ghost-figure of himself, wondering if life would ever be what it had been. He remembered his home on the Grand Canal, though he tried not to think of it too often. When he inquired of it, he only got vague answers.
"I'm taking care of things, honey," his mom would say. "All the bills are being paid, and I'm keeping it just as spotlessly clean as you would."
"Don't worry about it, A.J.," Rick would assure, "I've got Mr. Gorman keepin' a close eye on it. And me or Mom stop over a couple times a’ week to make sure everything's okay."
But never once did they promise A.J. he'd eventually return to his home. Actually, he thought they were being careful not to.
He remembered the business, too, and his partnership with Rick. At least that was more openly spoken of. Rick never took a case without discussing it with him first, though sometimes A.J. felt like an idiot because within an hour or two he often forgot what it was Rick had said. How could he ever be part of Simon and Simon again if he couldn't even remember anything about their damn cases?
And the accident. Or THE ACCIDENT, as his mind's eye saw those words waving like a huge banner in the wind, taunting him. The big black gapping hole in his memory that was identified by two simple words that encompassed so much, yet to A.J., meant so little. It was another issue his family continued to skirt around when he directly asked of it.
Therefore, without their knowledge, he'd been forced to draw his own conclusions, limited though they were. A.J. was now certain his injuries had something to do with Brendan. The boy had inadvertently revealed enough on his recent visits for A.J. to at least deduce that much. It hadn't been lost on him either, that Rick often cut Brendan off, quickly changing the subject when the boy's innocent ramblings were about to reveal more than Rick evidently deemed necessary.
And hardly a day passed that A.J. didn't spend time pondering the reoccurring dream that plagued his sleep. Try as he might, when he pieced the events of the dream together, he still came up with far more things that made no sense than the other way around. He was certain just the right words or clues dropped by Rick, would open up the correct pathways in his mind so that the odd images he saw in his head would collate into meaningful reality. For whatever reason, however, Rick was being careful not to let that happen, forcing A.J. to rely on his own devices.
The blond detective had pieces of paper stashed all over his room now in which he continuously added the prominent words from his dreams. L B and Taylor being two that cropped up repeatedly, though he'd recently added Wyatt, shark, Brendan, and sunglasses. A.J. wasn't concerned that he'd misspelled most of the words, what mattered was being able to see them on paper while trying to figure out how they tied into one another. He often wished he had the white erasable board he and Rick used at the office that hung on the wall behind Rick's desk. It came in handy when a case was so puzzling that seeing the clues in front of them was the only way to solve it. They could scrawl what they wanted on the board's slick surface with colored Magic Markers, and then using an eraser, could rearrange or delete whatever was necessary.
But, for now, A.J. had to rely on whatever methods were available to him, those methods being a simple Bic pen and plain sheet of paper. There were two things he knew for certain. The sunglasses represented the hockey puck that first appeared in his dream. The glasses evidently belonged to someone else, someone with the initials L. B. Exactly why he had them in his possession, A.J. wasn't sure, but at the time he picked them up he must have felt they were of significance.
The other thing the detective knew without a doubt; was that the white headed man in his dreams was no longer among the living. The white headed man who had tried to convey an important message to A.J. by whispering, “Elbee,” right before death claimed him. The white headed man who wanted Taylor to know he loved him.
A.J. drew idle circles on his paper while he mulled over the words he'd written. When his brain could no longer provide him with any meaningful revelations, he folded the paper in half and shoved it in a pocket of the folder he had laying in front of him. He glared at his grinning image in the family photo. It almost seemed like that A.J. was mocking him. Making fun of all he had lost and who he had become.
Come on, A.J., what's the matter with you? If you can't solve even the easiest of cases, Rick will never want you for his partner again. There won't be anymore Simon and Simon if you don't get your act together.
Just when A.J. was about to send the photo sailing across the room with an angry sweep of his hand, someone knocked on his door. He looked up to see Rick open it just far enough to stick his head inside. The lanky man's greeting was quiet and tentative.
A.J. dropped his eyes. "Hi."
"Mind if I come in?"
The blond shook his head no.
Rick pulled out the chair next to
A.J.'s. "Mind if I sit down?"
Again, A.J. shook his head no. Rick seated himself, but it was a long time before either of them spoke further.
"Don-----hate------you. Never------hate-----you. Mad------him."
"You're mad at who, A.J.?"
A.J. pointed to himself in the family photo. "Him."
"You? You're mad at yourself?"
At first Rick wasn't sure what A.J. meant. Before he could ask any further questions, however, his brother's thoughts came forth.
"Yeah, that's you. That's a picture of you, and me, and Mom,
taken last summer at the family reunion."
"Whatta ya' mean that's not you now, A.J.? I don't understand."
A.J. used his left hand to lift up his weak right arm, before allowing it to flop uselessly back to the counter top. Then he lightly touched his skull in the area that was damaged by the accident. "No----me-----any-----more."
Rick reached over, laying a hand on A.J.'s right arm. "A.J., look at me."
A.J.'s eyes met his brother's.
"A.J., you are the man in that picture. No injury of any kind will ever change that."
"Who the hell told you that?"
"Well, I don't wanna hear that kinda shit comin' outta your mouth ever again, you got that? You're not stupid. You've sustained a head injury. A head injury that's making things difficult for you right now, but that's all."
Rick moved his hand, resting the open palm over A.J.'s beating heart. "Andy, you will always be the same person inside here to me and Mom. Always." Rick's hand moved up to his brother's forehead next. He lightly tapped it with two fingers. "And you will always be the same person in here, too. We don't care if you can't spell a word, or if you forget a number. We don't care if it takes you a little longer to tell us something now than it used to. We don't care about any of those things; because what's important to us is that you're still with us. We love you, A.J. We love you, and nothing is ever gonna change that. Nothing. You understand?"
A.J. nodded, willing the tears in his eyes not to fall. He reached up, grasping his brother's hand and squeezing it as tight as he could. For the first time since the accident he said a sentence without faltering. "Love you, too."
Rick allowed the quiet moment to play out as long as A.J. needed it to. A full minute passed before Rick's hand was released.
A.J. gave his eyes a quick, self-conscious swipe. When his vision was no longer blurred by water, he reached for the second grade math textbook lying next to his folder. Rick hid his smile, and his thoughts, when A.J. sighed heavily while opening the book.
The last thing this poor guy needs is another day of work. If nobody else recognizes he could use a break from all this, big brother sure does.
A.J. glanced at his brother, wondering why Rick needed to ask.
"Math. Work-----on. Nee-----you-------help."
"On a Saturday? Hell, A.J., in case you've forgotten, I don't believe in doing homework on a Saturday." Rick cupped a hand underneath A.J.'s right arm. "Come on."
"Just come on. Get up. I'm springin' you from this place for a couple hours."
A.J. had been at San Diego Rehab five weeks now, and had yet to venture beyond the hospital grounds. Doctor Cho had visited him on Thursday, and for the first time granted permission for day-trips, as the staff referred to them. However, the head of the physical therapy department and the head nurse had to be notified of these trips twenty-four hours in advance.
"Can't------go." A.J. watched with puzzlement as Rick stash his cane in the clothes closet.
"Whatta ya' mean you can't go? Of course you can go."
"No what? Say that
"Oh, no permission." Rick smiled. "Since when have you known me to worry about needin'
permission to do anything?"
"Ne--ver. But -------we--------get-------tou----ble."
"Oh well, that's the breaks, uh, kid?" Rick took hold of his brother's arm again and gently pulled him up from his chair. "If we get Nurse Finster's undies in a bundle, so be it. Besides, we've been in trouble before and lived to tell the story, haven't we?"
"Yes." A.J. grinned at the prospect of high-jinx with Rick. "But--------wait."
Now it was Rick's turn to puzzle over what his sibling was doing. Without Rick's help, A.J. crossed the few feet to his nightstand. He opened the drawer, pulling out a plastic Do Not Disturb card that had a hole cut out of the top. On weekends, when visitors were abundant, patients often made use of the cards when they wanted to rest behind closed doors, or simply needed to use the bathroom without someone walking in on them.
Because their lives had been intertwined for so long, Rick knew exactly what his brother had in mind. "Good idea. That'll throw 'em off our trail for sure."
Rick lightly grasped A.J.'s arm. He held up a hand when they came to the door. With exaggerated drama, he poked his head into the hallway. He looked back at A.J. and said in a stage whisper, "The coast is clear. Come on, we'll head for the stairs."
A.J. hung the card he was carrying over the knob, then quietly closed the door behind them. Rick guided his brother the few feet across the hall. He opened the door to the stairwell and allowed A.J. to pass in front of him before silently easing it shut.
As Rick looked down the three flights of stairs they had to traverse, he wondered if he'd made a mistake by suggesting this foray, but A.J. appeared undaunted. He held tightly to his brother with one hand, while clinging to the railing with the other. Though it was slow going, they made it to the first floor without incident.
The people coming and going in the busy lobby paid no attention to the brothers. Rick didn't see Troya watching them from her office doorway down the hall. She smiled, shaking her head at their obvious in-fraction of the rules. "Have fun, guys," she said softly right before returning to her work.
When the brothers reached Rick's truck they stopped, Rick fishing for the keys in the pocket of his jeans. He turned around to give A.J. help stepping up into the high cab, only to see the man intently studying the front chrome grill of the vehicle, seemingly mesmerized by it. A.J. reached a tentative hand out, barely touching the metal, as though he expected it to come to life and tear away flesh and bone. His eyes traveled over the remainder of the Dodge. "You-----tuck?"
Rick realized he'd foolishly assumed A.J. would have no memory of what type of vehicle he'd been driving at the time the accident occurred. "Yeah, it's my truck. Come on. I'll help you up."
A.J. pulled back from his brother's reaching hand. "Black. You----tuck-------black. Fod."
"Uh...yeah, you're right, I had a black Ford. I guess I forgot to tell you I had to get rid of it a few weeks back. It...uh...it was givin' me a lotta trouble. Turned out to be a helluva lemon."
Before A.J. could ask any further questions, Rick urged him to the open door. He supported his brother while A.J. first stepped on the running board, then while he climbed inside. Rick shut the door and trotted around to the driver's side. He helped A.J. clasp his seat belt, put his own in place, then backed out of his parking spot.
Rick had no specific destination in mind, but then A.J. didn't pester him too much about that fact to begin with. He was happy to have the freedom the drive afforded him, and was content to watch the passing scenery.
Ten minutes passed before A.J. made a request. "Go----my-----hou."
"Uh...no, A.J., I don't think so. Maybe some other time."
"Yes. My--------hou---house. Few--------mints."
"No, another time. Maybe in a couple weeks we can--"
Rick pondered this entreaty a long
time before turning the truck in the direction of the Grand Canal
neighborhood. "Okay, we'll go by
there. But, only for a minute. You can't stay. You understand that, right?"
Despite the fact Rick's gut instinct told him this would be a mistake of gigantic proportions, he couldn't deny A.J. this one small request.
How would I feel if I was in his shoes and he refused to take me to my boat? I'd be mad as hell for one thing, and feel like he let me down for another.
A.J. leaned forward in his seat when the truck turned down familiar streets, his eyes taking in everything they passed. Rick pulled into the driveway outside A.J.'s home. Before he even had a chance to shut off the engine, his brother's feet were on the pavement.
"Hey, hey," Rick negated,
scampering around the vehicle. "Be
careful. And I never said anything
about us going inside."
A.J. ignored his brother's words. "Keys?"
"Yeah, I've got your house keys on my ring, but..."
A.J. limped with purpose up the ramp that led to the kitchen door.
Rick sighed, finishing lamely, "I don't think this is such a good idea."
Against his better judgment, Rick let them into the kitchen. The house had the desolate, closed-up feel houses take on when left vacant for a long period of time. As Cecilia had repeatedly told her son, the home was spotlessly clean. But small things were missing, things that only its owner would recognize, like the absence of the red numerals displaying the time on the microwave and VCR. Like the comforting ticking of the kitchen clock and the warm hum of the refrigerator. These items, as well as the television, stereo system, and the clock radio in A.J.'s bedroom, had been unplugged weeks earlier as a safety precaution.
A.J. slowly moved from room to room, his eyes lighting on all the familiar objects that made this house his home. He refused to allow Rick to help him up the stairs, making no comment when Rick suggested they forget touring the upper level. The older man shadowed his brother in and out of the three bedrooms on the second story. A.J. didn't have to say anything for Rick to know what he was thinking. The sorrow in his eyes spoke volumes.
Knowing his brother's stubborn will, Rick half expected A.J. to plant himself on the couch in the den and refuse to leave the premises. That's not what happened, however. Though it filled the blond man with tremendous pain to walk back out of his beloved home, he'd made a promise to Rick that they'd only stay for a brief visit. For as much as Rick suspected this stop would be a mistake, A.J. had known it would be from the moment he requested it.
A deep silence that spoke of nothing but moroseness and depression filled the cab of the Dodge as Rick drove. A.J. stared out the passenger side window, keeping his thoughts to himself. The silence cracked like delicate glass when Rick quietly spoke.
"Where would you like to go now?"
A.J. gave a disinterested shrug. He turned to look at his brother.
This was one time Rick wished he couldn't so easily translate A.J.'s faulty speech.
Will I live in my house again?
Several seconds passed before the detective answered his brother. He hated to say the words just as much he knew A.J. hated to hear them.
"A.J., I...I don't know. I hope so. We all hope so. We'll just have to wait and see, buddy. We just gotta take it one day at a time for a while longer yet, okay?"
Without acknowledging Rick's words verbally, A.J. turned back to stare out the window. But Rick had caught the acknowledgment in A.J.'s blue eyes, and what he saw there made him want to cry.
A.J. paid no attention to the rest of their trip. It wasn't until the truck began to bump and rock over uneven gravel that the blond man came out of his self-imposed exile. He immediately recognized they were at the gravel pit on the other side of the city. When A.J. was no more than twelve and thirteen-years-old, they often came here on Saturdays on Rick's motorcycle. Once they were on the roads used only by the gravel trucks during the work week, Rick would switch places with his brother on the cycle's back and allow A.J. to drive.
Rick smiled while shoving the gearshift in neutral and putting on the emergency brake. "Why are we here, little brother? We're here so you can drive for a while. Whatta ya' think of that?"
Rick opened his door and hopped out, not waiting for an answer. "Come on. Scoot over and get behind the wheel. See how you like my new truck."
The depression from earlier was forgotten as A.J. slid behind the steering wheel. Rick used one of his lock picks to quickly unlatched the padlock that held the big gates closed that led to the pit's main roads and quarries.
The lanky man shoved the pick case back in his pocket and swung the gates open. He ran to the truck, hiked himself into the passenger side, and slammed the door. He gave A.J. no further instructions other than, "Let 'er rip, kid!"
A.J. might have lost a number of skills to his injuries, but it quickly became apparent driving wasn't one of them. He released the emergency brake, depressed the clutch, and with Rick's help shifted the truck into first gear with his right hand. With gravel sputtering out behind them, they took off laughing like a couple of teenagers.
The truck roared over the bumpy roads and narrow lanes, sending up clouds of dust in its wake. The only time A.J. needed Rick's help was when he shifted gears, simply because his arm was too weak to do the job for him. Fifteen minutes into their fun, another car pulled into the gravel pit. A.J. slowed to a stop when the vehicle turned sideways, blocking their path.
Abigail Marsh exited her car and marched toward the truck. A.J. looked at Rick with a grin on his face.
"Uh oh. We------busted."
"Yeah, it looks like we've been busted all right," Rick said, catching sight of Abby's stern continence. Rick spoke the same words he'd often used in their childhood whenever they were caught by their mother engaged in a wrongdoing. "Just be quiet and let me do the talkin'."
Abby stopped when she got to the driver's side of the vehicle. It was her day off, and she'd been on her way to meet a friend for an afternoon movie when she'd heard the call come across the radio about a disturbance at the gravel pit. As long as she was passing by, she radioed the dispatcher to say she'd check it out.
A.J. rolled down the window. As soon as Abby realized it was Rick's truck she was approaching, and recognized the driver, she was easily able to guess what was going on.
"Okay, baby face, what's your story?"
A.J. flicked a thumb toward his brother. "Kee-----make------me------do."
Rick's outrage was more for the benefit of his audience than it was real. "Why you little rat fink you! See if I ever bring you here again."
"You'd better not," Abby advised. "The next time I catch you two here I'll have no choice but to arrest you both for trespassing." She looked pointedly at A.J. "And arrest you for driving before you've been released by your physician to do so, Mr. Simon. You're both just lucky I'm in such a generous mood today. Now come on, switch places and get your butts out of here. It's a wonder your mother didn't pull her hair out while she was raising the two of you."
A.J.'s grin never left him as he
scooted back over to the passenger side.
As Rick passed Abby on his way to the driver's door, he stopped and said
quietly, "Thanks, Abby."
"Looking the other way. Telling A.J. you'd arrest him for driving before he's allowed to - the whole shot."
Abby's eyes flicked to the blond
man. "He needed it today,
"He needed to feel like an adult, if that's what you mean. He needed to have someone talk to him, instead of talk at him through me. He needed to feel like he still has control over his life."
"We all do on some days, Rick." Abby thought of her recent fiasco with the phony FBI agents. "Believe me, we all do on some days."
It was five o'clock that evening when Rick presented himself on Troya Yeager's door step. His mother was picking Brendan up at that same time. Cecilia and her great-nephew planned to have supper with A.J., then swim with him afterwards in the rehab's pool.
Rick had easily followed the directions Troya had given him in her office the evening before. But, this, he wasn't quite expecting. Her home sat on a secluded dead-end road with five acres of woods and foliage surrounding it. He didn't know such a place still existed in suburban San Diego.
The garage stood by itself, unattached from the house. Rick didn't see Troya's Miata, so assumed it had already been put away for the night. The home itself was a tall A-frame stained a rustic brown; its windows framed by bright blue shutters. Between the architecture and the colors, the home reminded Rick of a Swiss ski chalet. Flowers lined every path, and a rock garden complete with a small waterfall sat off to the west of the home. Later, Rick would discover colorful fish swam in the small pond the waterfall was constantly refilling. Feeders meant to attract a large variety of birds, as well as attract squirrels, hung from trees and stood alone on poles throughout the yard.
Potted flowers stood all over the cement patio, bringing it alive with yellows, reds, greens, oranges, and purples. Rick could see Troya through the French doors working barefoot in the kitchen. Blue jeans hugged her slim hips and lean legs; a pale pink short sleeve turtleneck completed her casual ensemble. Rick had yet to see her in anything but a suit. He found he liked her even better in Levi's than Donna Karan.
The detective watched the doctor move gracefully around the room before breaking the spell he was under and tapping on the glass. When she turned and saw it was Rick, a smile of delight lit her face.
Troya unlocked the doors, allowing Rick to enter. She kissed him on the cheek in greeting. "Hi, hon."
Rick slipped off his boots before walking over the white ceramic tiles that made up Troya's kitchen floor. Everywhere he looked he saw white and green. The cabinets were bright clean white like the floor. The counter top was made of ceramic squares alternating in patterns of white and green, with sprigs of herbs and yellow flowers thrown in here and there. A green table with maple trim that seated four sat in the center of the room, its chairs green and maple, too. Plants, as well as trailing vines and ivy, hung in baskets from the wooden beams of the cathedral ceiling above Rick's head. Windows surrounded the kitchen on all sides, giving one the impression you were standing in the yard.
Rick gazed up at tall ceiling and plants. "This is something else."
"Can you tell I like the outdoors?"
The detective smiled. "I'd say that's pretty obvious."
Troya turned down the temperature on
the oven that was built into her counter top.
"Would you like to take the grand tour before we eat?"
"Love to. But you better put this in the fridge."
Troya took the bottle of wine Rick handed her, doing as he suggested.
A laundry room, bathroom, and bedroom sat secluded behind the kitchen. From there, a door at the end of the hallway led out to the driveway. Like the kitchen, those three rooms were neat and orderly, plants hanging from their ceilings and sitting on shelves.
"I didn't know you had such a
"My mother got me interested in gardening years ago. She loved to work outside, turning over dirt. She was forever repotting things, moving them, and rearranging what she'd done the previous summer. My dad used to say she missed her calling as a horticulturist for Yellowstone Park. And, in truth, she probably did." Troya looked up at the dozen hanging baskets as they passed back through the kitchen. "Taking care of all my plants makes me feel close to her. Makes me remember how we used to love working together in her garden. I guess it's my way of keeping an important part of her memory alive."
Rick nodded his understanding. There were ways he kept important parts of his father's memory alive within himself even yet today, thirty years after the man's death. Every time he went camping, or fishing, or to a Major League ballgame, he thought of his dad.
The kitchen flowed without the interruption of walls into the living room. Again, windows surrounded Rick everywhere he looked. Just like in the kitchen, green mini-blinds were rolled up, allowing an uninhibited view of the outdoors. The detective could only guess that the windows and blinds alone in all the rooms had to have cost in excess of twenty thousand dollars.
Forest green carpeting so plush and velvety it felt like grass beneath Rick's feet lined the floor and climbed the stairs to the upper story. The sofa and two easy chairs were, appropriately enough, done in a wild floral pattern that touched on every color in the rainbow. Valances that matched the furniture were draped from the tops of the windows, leading Rick to believe they'd been custom-made with just this room in mind. A huge glass-enclosed sunroom was in front of the living room and faced the desolate street. A white wicker couch sat along one wall, with a large comfortable looking wicker rocking chair taking up residence in a distant corner. Six ferns hung up out here, but it was the baby grand piano in the center of the room that caught Rick's eye. On top of it sat a photo of a man who appeared to be in his late twenties. Walnut curls framed his handsome face, while deep brown eyes smiled at some point beyond the camera, as though he'd caught sight of someone dear to him.
Rick was at a loss as to what to say. He recalled the photo in Troya's office of a man's hands playing a piano keyboard, and could only wonder if that picture somehow tied into what he was seeing now. He settled on what he assumed was a safe comment.
"I didn't know you played the piano."
Troya smiled softly while running
her fingers soundlessly across the keys.
"I don't. My husband
Rick glanced at her left ring
finger. It was still unadorned, as it
had been ever since he'd met her.
"Yes. Graham. That's him in the
photo. He...he was killed in an
accident eight years ago."
Sorrow radiated from the woman as though the pain of her husband's death was still as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
"I'm sorry, Troya."
Troya sat down on the piano bench, indicating with a pat of her hand for Rick to sit beside her.
"He was a truly beautiful man, Rick, both on the inside and out. His death...his death brought me a pain I've never felt since. Not even when my mother passed away."
"How long were you
"Two years." Troya glanced over her shoulder at the
picture. "I met him at the rehab
center. He was a pianist by profession,
and had broken his hand playing baseball of all things. I wasn't his therapist, but a girlfriend of
mine was. She thought the two of us
would make a good match, so introduced us.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I was twenty-six when we got married, he was twenty-eight. We loved each other very much."
"I'm sure you did."
"My life couldn't have been more perfect than it was during those two years. I went off to work every morning to the sound of Graham playing the piano and singing in this room. His career was just beginning to skyrocket when he died. After years of paying his dues by performing in seedy nightclubs and smoke-filled lounges, he had signed with RCA and was supposed to record his first album the next week. He wrote a song for me he called Troya's Garden. He said it was going to be his first big hit. I only got to hear him sing it once. The next time I heard it, a friend of Graham's was singing it at his funeral."
Though Troya wasn't crying, there was an odd little catch to her voice. Without thinking whether or not he should take such liberties, Rick pulled her close. He rested his chin upon her head and brought a hand up to stroke through her hair.
"How did he die?"
"He drowned. He and Tad were out for the weekend on one of Tad's new boats. They were very close. Became best friends really, after Graham and I married. Tad had gotten a new schooner and was anxious to try it out. He talked Graham into going with him."
"A terrible storm blew up. Despite all the money Tad paid for the boat, something went wrong with the electrical system. They were stuck out on the ocean with no engines and no radio."
"In other words, no way to get
home, and no way to tell anyone they needed help."
"Exactly. There were gale force winds that night and forty foot swells. The boat began to take on water. Eventually, it capsized. Both Graham and Tad had on life jackets, but Graham couldn't swim. He was a farm boy from Indiana. As he was often fond of telling me, the only thing he ever swam in as a kid was the three foot deep water tank where the cows got their drinks."
"But he went out on the boat
with your brother anyway?"
"Yes. Despite the fact that he couldn't swim, he loved the beauty of the ocean. And, like I said, he and Tad were good friends. Graham was looking forward to spending time with him.
"Two days after the storm, the Coast Guard found Tad. He was severely sunburned, delirious, and dehydrated, but alive. Graham...some fishermen found him a week after that, minus his life jacket. To this day, what exactly happened, we don't know. Tad tried to stay with him, but the waves caused by the storm quickly swept them off in two different directions. Whether Graham's life jacket wasn't on securely, or whether he grew delirious and took it off, is anyone's guess. The coroner ruled his death was from drowning."
Rick's hand continued to caress the
pearly hair. "I'm sure it was
very difficult for you."
"It was. For a long time I didn't want to go on living. If it hadn't been for my brother's support and encouragement, I honestly don't think I would have. The first year following Graham's death was hell. After that…well, after that things got better. Every day got a little easier. I continued to work at the rehab center, but went back to school at night until I earned my doctorate. A year after that, I was appointed to my present position. Somehow, I've managed to put my life back together. Somehow, I've learned to enjoy life again, even though for several years after Graham died I never thought that would be possible."
"Losing someone you love is
tough," Rick sympathized.
"You spend a lotta days wonderin' if you'll ever laugh again. If you'll ever notice the little things that
make life so precious, like a flower, or the call of a bird, or the color of
the ocean on a sunny summer day."
Troya tilted her head, looking up
into Rick's eyes. "You say that
like you know."
"There was a girl once. A young Vietnamese woman I almost married when I was in Nam. Tiny and delicate as a china cup. When she laughed it was like wind chimes gently blowing in the breeze. She was killed by Charlie before we had a chance to have a future together as husband and wife."
"And there's been no one
since? No other woman you've ever been
"One or two, I suppose. But, for whatever reason, things just never worked out. To tell ya’ the truth, I've got more of a reputation for being a love 'em and leave 'em kind of guy, than the other way around."
Troya chuckled at Rick's
candor. "So, Mr. Simon, is that
what you plan to do with me? Love me
and leave me?"
Rick looked into those smiling blue eyes. Troya moved her head up at the same moment he moved his down. As their lips met he murmured, "I don't intend to leave you unless you tell me to."
Troya's hand traveled over Rick's chest as their kiss became more passionate, and then slipped in-between two buttons. "And I don't intend to tell you to."
The woman rose from the piano bench, pulling Rick up with her. She led him to the upper story where her enormous loft bedroom and master bath took up the entire second floor.
Troya stopped in front of the white four-poster bed, allowing Rick to take the lead. He gently pulled her to him, his lips finding hers once more, his tongue sweeping the inside of her mouth.
Their lovemaking moved no farther than that spot for what seemed like a pleasurable eternity. They kissed and caressed while whispering words of endearment. Rick's hands slid underneath Troya's shirt. She lifted her arms so he could slip it over her head. He fumbled with the thin clasp on her delicate bra, allowing the garment to fall to the floor. Troya arched her back and moaned when he suckled first one breast and then the other.
It was a long time before they were both naked. With Rick's lips sealed on hers, Troya flipped the comforter and blankets back on the bed. They fell to the mattress as one and explored each other fully, taking pleasure in getting acquainted in this new and intimate way. The woman didn't protest when Rick kissed the inside of her thighs many minutes later, then spread her legs.
Troya gasped when Rick entered her. She hadn't been with a man since her husband died; her love for Graham Yeager had been that deep and true. She'd forgotten how good it felt to be one with another human being. To be one with a spirit whose soul danced in rhythm with hers.
Troya cried out her ecstasy when their lovemaking exploded into mutual fireworks. Rick rained light kisses on her closed eyelids and damp brow before rolling to the mattress and pulling her against him. She raked her fingers through his thinning hair, then kissed his bald spot.
When Rick's eyes met Troya's, he
smiled. "Is it to soon for me to
tell you I love you?"
Troya laughed. "No, it's not too soon. As a matter of fact, I'd say this is a very appropriate time to make that proclamation."
The woman reached down and pulled the covers around their naked bodies. They burrowed together cuddling, as darkness fell on the outside world. Rick looked through the skylight above his head, marveling at how clearly he could see the stars.
Troya ran a finger over Rick's POW bracelet, the only thing she hadn't removed aside from his watch when their lovemaking began. He was a man of so many facets. As gentle as he was hot-tempered. As caring as he could be callous. As humble as he could be arrogant. As mature as he could be child-like. A man who loved those closest to him with a depth even he couldn't define, and that seemed to have no limits.
Rick turned his head, melancholy lighting his eyes. He ran the fingers of his right hand down Troya's face, tracing her delicate jaw-line. "I can't help but wonder if A.J. will ever know the beauty of this again."
"The beauty of what?"
"Of making love to a woman he treasures."
"Rick, A.J.'s injury should in no way inhibit his ability to make love. Certainly some men are left impotent by head injuries, but A.J.'s wasn't in the area that governs a male's sexual performance."
"I know. Or at least I assumed it, since Joel never
said anything about it. What I meant
was, will he ever have a chance to be close to a woman again? Will a woman take the time to look beyond
his disabilities long enough to see who he really is inside?"
"I can't answer that question, honey, because I honestly don't know. Was there a special woman in his life before the accident?"
"Not anyone he was serious with. There had been, but they parted ways about six months ago. She was a lawyer - Hollis Marshall. Ironically enough, she was disabled herself."
"She was? How?"
"Severe spinal cord injury of some sort. She was thrown from a faulty carnival ride in a freak accident when she was eight. Never walked a day after that, except with the help of braces and crutches."
"Why'd they break up?"
"She moved to Virginia. Got an appointment from the White House to write up some kinda act for the disabled that's supposed to on into effect in the next couple years."
"The Americans With Disabilities Act."
"You've heard of it?"
"I've read a lot of literature on its proposal. Ideally, it's supposed to end discrimination of the disabled in the work environment. As well, it will allow them easier access to every public place by means of wheelchair ramps, wider doors on everything from elevators to bathroom stalls, and Braille keypads on ATM machines, to name just a few of the changes that are to take place."
"Sounds like a good thing."
"If it's complied with by all institutions, it will be."
Troya nestled her head in the hollow between Rick's head and shoulder. He ran his fingers over the sheet that covered her back. "You know,” Rick said softly, “life sure throws you some curves every now and then. I never thought much about someone I saw in a wheelchair, or on crutches, other than to feel sorry for them. I never paid much attention to someone who seemed 'slow' because of brain damage, simply because it didn't directly affect me. But now, because of A.J., those things do affect me, and something like this act for the disabled you were tellin' me about is suddenly important to me."
"Don't berate yourself over circumstances that didn't touch you, Rick. We're all like that to a certain extent. We generally don't get involved in a cause unless it directly affects our lives."
Rick turned his head, his eyes glued
on Troya Yeager's face. "What are
his chances, Troya? What are A.J.'s
chances of living a normal life again?
Of returning to his home? Of
making love to a woman? Of someday
marrying and having a family of his own?
Of being a full partner in our business again?"
"You know I can't answer those questions, simply because I have no answers for you at this time. A.J. has come a long way in the six weeks since he came to the rehab center. A very long way."
Rick voiced the remainder of what he knew Troya wasn't saying. "But he has a long way to go."
"Yes, he has a long way to go. But, where it all will end for him, I can't predict."
"If he doesn't come back one hundred percent, I'll never forgive myself."
Troya hiked up an elbow. "What
do you mean, you'll never forgive yourself?
You didn't do anything to cause A.J.'s injuries."
"Didn't Joel tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"It was me who hit him, Troya." Rick's eyes swam with sudden tears. "I hit him with my truck. It was an accident, but I'll never forgive myself for that. Every night in my dreams I see him how he used to be, vibrant and whole. A guy as sharp as a tack, who loved life and embraced it to its fullest. And now...now, because of me, he's lucky if recognizes all the letters of the alphabet on some days. You don't know how many nights I've wished it was me, and not him. You don't know how quickly I'd change places with him if someone could give me the opportunity. He's my little brother, and I love him. I love him, but what I did to him is killin' him deep down inside. It's killin' him, Troya, just as sure as it's killin' me. Not a day goes by I don't hate myself for that. Hate myself for what I did to my baby brother."
Troya kissed the tears that trickled down Rick's face. She told him she loved him, and assured him the accident wasn't his fault until he made gentle love to her again. They fell asleep in each other’s arms, and didn't wake up until midnight. They laughed at the way supper had burned, then showered together before dressing to go out for a late night snack. At two o'clock that morning, Rick found himself back in Troya Yeager's bed once more.
It was only in her arms that he found respite from the guilt that weighed so heavy on his heart.
Brendan enjoyed himself on Saturday night with A.J. and Great Aunt Cecilia. He hadn't known her well before the accident, but now she'd picked him up on several occasions and taken him with her when she went to visit A.J. He was finding Cecilia Simon to be woman of remarkable strength, humor, and wisdom. At twelve-years-old, Brendan Nash was beginning to reevaluate the way he looked at those he'd once dismissed as being too old to have anything of value to pass along to him. Including people of his mother's generation like Rick and A.J.
Rick picked him up on Sunday afternoon. Brendan raced from the house when he saw Rick's truck pull in the driveway. He felt a little guilty about leaving his mother behind. She tried to hide the upsets from him that she was experiencing with his stepfather, but the tight lines around her eyes, and the tense frown that had replaced her smile, revealed more to Brendan than words ever could.
The boy stopped on his headlong rush for the door. He turned to his mother, who was seated in an easy chair with an open book in her lap. In truth, he didn't think she'd read a page all afternoon.
"Come on, Mom. Why don't you come with me and Rick. You haven't been to see A.J. in a couple of weeks now. Cheryl will watch Heather while we're gone. She's already over there playing with Katelyn as it is."
Linda's smile was tired. "I know, honey, but I can't today. I'd better be here when Mark gets back."
"Where is he?"
"I...I don't know. He said he had to run an errand."
"Oh, come on, Mom. Please. Mark's a big boy. He can find his own way home."
"I know. I just better be here."
That was another thing that was rapidly changing. Brendan's normally assertive mother was becoming uncharacteristically submissive - behavior the boy had never previously witnessed. He didn't quite understand the reasoning behind it, but knew the cause. The verbal abuse his stepfather had recently begun raining on her was taking its toll on her self-esteem.
"If you want my advice, I think
you should dump Mark."
For the first time since she'd married Mark Ecklund, Linda didn't scold Brendan for his harsh words regarding the man. "To tell you the truth, Bren," she said softly, "I've been sitting here thinking the same thing."
Brendan had never mentioned anything about the trouble brewing in his home to Rick. On several occasions he almost did, but he knew Rick had enough worries and concerns of his own regarding A.J., so Brendan kept the upheaval to himself. Besides, his time spent with Rick and A.J. was his escape from all that was going on within his household. Brendan didn't want what little peace he was able to find intruded on by unwelcome thoughts.
Brendan helped A.J. with the assignments the blond man had due the next day. He was proud of his ability to tutor his mother's cousin, and even more proud of the praise Rick lavished on him because of it. The three of them swam together after A.J.'s work was done, then Rick ordered a large pizza and had it delivered to A.J.'s room. Nurse Finster frowned, scolded, and clucked like an chicken straining to lay an egg about this last event, but Rick simply gave her a flirtatious smile and told her he hoped she liked pepperoni.
The woman pointed a stern finger at
the detective. "I know what you
did yesterday, Mr. Simon, sneaking Andrew out of here like that without
permission. And now this. Pizza in the room. Let me warn you right now, I'm keeping a close eye on you,
Rick waggled his brows. "I'm glad to hear that, Nurse Finster, 'cause I've been keepin' a close eye on you, too, if you get my drift."
The nurse straightened in a huff, her breasts jutting forward at Rick's offensive suggestions. "Your verbal advances are most unwelcome, sir."
Rick and Brendan laughed when the woman spun away on one heel. A.J. tried to do the right thing and scold Rick for his behavior, but he ended up laughing, too. The three of them – A.J., Rick, and Brendan, would be Nurse Finster's undoing yet, as she was often fond of saying.
It was eight o'clock when Rick returned Brendan home that night. When the boy saw his stepfather's car in the driveway his good mood bottomed out.
Oh great, the turd came back. I don't know why he can't just go away forever.
Brendan walked into the living room to see the man he knew as Mark Ecklund sprawled out on the couch, his eyes glued to the television. The boy started to circumvent the man. He could enter the dining area of the kitchen and come out on the other side by the stairway without having to cross in front of Luke. Unfortunately, Luke wasn't as mesmerized by his program as Brendan had hoped. He sneered in the boy's direction.
"Where you been?"
"With Rick and A.J."
"I told your goddamn mother you had no business seein' either one of them anymore!"
"You can't tell me what to
do! And don't you ever swear
when you're talking about my mom again!"
"Why you little--"
Brendan shot by the man, taking the stairs two at a time. Luke wasn't even off the couch yet before the boy had his bedroom door shut and the chair from his desk shoved underneath the knob. He heard his mother come out of Heather's room in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
"Mark, please. Calm down.
Whatever Brendan did, I'll deal with it in the morning."
"What he did! The little bastard smart-mouthed me; that's what he did! I oughta' tear up his hide with my belt!"
"You'll do no such thing. Now, please, go back downstairs and let me get Heather to sleep."
The last thing Brendan heard before Luke stomped off down the stairs was, "I don't take no sassin' from you, bitch, or from that fuckin' kid a' yours!"
The chair remained in front of Brendan's door until his mother knocked a few minutes later. The boy allowed her to enter, accepting her strong hug.
"I didn't do anything wrong, Mom. He was ticked off because I went with Rick to see A.J."
Linda hugged her son while murmuring quiet words of understanding. "I know, sweetheart. I know."
Long after his mother left the room, the boy laid in the blue sweatpants and white Padres T-shirt he used as pajamas, staring up at the springs of the top bunk that rested above his head. He stroked a hand over the purring Winston, who was curled up against his side, until both he and the cat finally drifted off to sleep.
Hours later, Brendan thought he was dreaming when a loud voice raised in anger permeated his subconscious. He rolled over, trying to get away from the voice, but it grew fiercer and more intense with each passing moment, like a runaway semi-truck barreling down a mountain road with its air horn blasting.
The boy threw back his covers and padded across his bedroom carpeting. He opened the door just enough to see out into the dark hallway. Light from the living room below crawled up the stairs, enabling Brendan to see his stepfather's shadow on the wall.
"It's about time you tell me what this is all about, Linda!"
"Mark, lower your voice. The children are sleeping."
"I don't give a damn about the children! Now why have you been keeping this from me!"
"I haven't been keeping
anything from you! Mother and I haven't
worked out all the details yet! That's
only a proposal you're holding in your hands.
I didn't want to say anything until I knew for certain."
"What's there to be certain about? It says here you're joining your mother as a full partner in the business! Now I want to know why you didn't think you could share that with your husband!"
"Mark, my mother hasn't even discussed this with my brother and sisters."
"What's it have to do with them?"
"For one thing, that business is part of their inheritance, too."
"Not if you're the one who’s gonna be taking it over. I don't see how they have anything to do with it."
"Because unlike you, my mother is a fair person. She and my dad worked hard to make Palmer Manufacturing what it is today. Regardless of whether any of us went into business with them, Trent, Julie, and Dawn all have the right to an equal share."
Brendan saw his stepfather's shadow turn away in disgust. "Oh for God's sake! That's the stupidest buncha' shit I ever heard! Trent's a waste of breathing space if there ever was one. All your sister Julie does is lay on her back, get knocked up, and push out more babies. And Dawn is off somewhere playing with germs on taxpayers' money, as if that's something to be proud of."
"First of all, Trent is not a waste of any type. He simply chose a long time ago not to go into the family business. He has his own career and his own life. Granted, I don't always approve of some of the choices he's made, but he's my brother and I love him. As far as what you said about Julie, well I resent that, Mark. I really resent it. Julie and her husband have never been anything other than kind and hospitable toward you. They're wonderful parents. How many children they have is their business, not yours. And Dawn does not play with germs on taxpayers' money. She's a highly skilled scientist who specializes in the containment and control of deadly viruses. She risks her life every day so that our kids can grow up healthy. You should admire her for that, not make light of what she does."
"I don't give a damn about what she does, anymore than I give a damn about Julie or Trent! What I care about right now are these papers!"
Brendan crept toward the stairs, peering down to the room below without being seen. His mother firmly stood her ground, hands planted on her hips.
"And just what is it about those papers that has you so concerned?"
"I wanna know why my name isn't
on them! It was the last time I saw
them. Why has it been removed?"
Linda's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean it was the last time
you saw them? What kind of game are you
playing here? If you've seen these papers
before, why are you bringing them up now and acting as if this is all new to
you? And more importantly, why have you
been snooping through my things?"
Luke was enraged at the way he'd entrapped himself, but even more enraged at the way he perceived the woman to have tricked him into doing it. "Don't give me that, Linda! Your 'things' my ass! We're married! You don't have any things anymore. Regardless of what you or that worthless kid of yours might think, I'm the head of this household and I will see, hear, and review anything and everything that passes through it! I expect my name to be put back on every single goddamn document by the time--"
"Don't hold your breath waiting for that day to come." Linda stuck her chin out in firm defiance. "Your name was removed from those papers last week. It won't be returned to them."
"And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means your recent behavior has forced me to reevaluate our marriage. I'm not sure what's going on with you, but I don't like it. I don't like the way you treat me, and I don't like the way you treat Brendan." Linda turned her back on her husband so she didn't lose her courage in the face of his barely contained rage. "Pack your things, Mark. Pack your things and get out tonight."
"Why you bitch!" Luke grabbed the woman by the arm, spinning her around like top. "How dare you! No woman kicks me out!"
"Well, I've got news for you, Mark Ecklund, this woman is. Now go. I'll give you ten minutes to get your clothes together and get--" Linda's sentence was broken off in a strangled cry. Her husband's hands wrapped themselves around her throat in a boa constrictor grip. He shook her like a neglected Raggedy Ann.
"Shut up! Shut the hell up! You're not the one makin' the rules around here, bitch, I am! You got that? I am!"
Linda brought her hands up, struggling to break Luke's hold around her neck.
"Mark...Mark," she gasped through lips rounded by lack of air. "Mark...."
Brendan flew down the stairs. "Leave her alone! Stop it!" His fists pounded against Luke's back in rapid fire succession. "Stop! Leave her alone!"
Linda's throat opened to take welcome gulps of oxygen when Luke's grip faltered under Brendan's attack.
The man spun on the twelve-year-old with an upraised hand. "You no good little sonuvabitch! I knew I should have gotten rid of you a long time ago!"
"Run, Brendan, run!" Linda cried. "Call the police!"
Brendan ducked low, Luke's fingers barely missed getting the hem of his T-shirt. The boy ran up the stairs without looking back. Linda placed herself between her husband and her son, taking the blow full in the face Luke had intended to land on the twelve-year-old. The sounds of slaps and cries echoed from below as Brendan slammed his mother's bedroom door and turned the lock. He dialed 911, frantically giving his address and the reason for his call. The dispatcher attempted to calm him while keeping him on the phone until the first squad car arrived, its siren piercing the quiet of the normally peaceful neighborhood. When Brendan heard the police officers burst in through the front door, he broke his connection with the dispatcher.
The next call the boy made that night went to Rick Simon.
Fifteen hours later, Linda Ecklund sat on the couch in her home, an ice pack resting on her bruised and swollen right cheek. Despite the high collar of her man-tailored shirt, one could easily see the red imprints her husband's fingers had made on her neck.
Brendan's frantic midnight phone call had woken Rick out of a sound sleep. By the time he arrived at Linda's home her husband was being led to a squad car in handcuffs.
Rick stood silently by, listening as Linda relayed the events of the evening, and of recent weeks, to one of the police officers. When the officer's questioning of Linda came to an end, Rick took charge. Though his cousin protested, Rick insisted she was going to the emergency room to be checked over by a doctor. Her face was already so tender she could barely talk, and the rough treatment Luke had inflicted on her neck caused her words to be spoken in a harsh rasp.
Cheryl Milligan and her husband, Bob, had rushed over when the first squad car arrived, assuming someone in their neighbors' household was sick or had been injured. They were as shocked as Rick to find out the real source of the trouble. The police officers wanted to speak with Brendan, but allowed Bob Milligan to carry Heather next door where she would stay for the remainder of the night. The little girl had slept through the disturbance, and though upset when she caught sight of her mother's face, was willing to go with Bob and Cheryl when she was assured by Linda that everything was going to be okay.
It was three a.m. before Rick returned to the house with Brendan and Linda. The emergency room physician didn't find anything seriously wrong with the woman, and
X-rays revealed nothing was broken. Linda was advised to take it easy for the next few days, keep ice on the injured areas, and was given a prescription for a pain killer, which Rick had filled at an all-night pharmacy on their way home.
At Linda's insistence, Rick spent what was left of the night in Heather's bed. He woke up at eight-thirty. The rest of the house was stirring by nine. Brendan helped his mother make the beds and pick up the house while Rick cooked breakfast. Linda's sore face didn't allow her to enjoy the pancakes and eggs nearly as much as Brendan did, but she appreciated Rick's efforts. The detective made her rest on the couch with an ice pack while he and Brendan washed the breakfast dishes. Rick took Brendan with him when he left for the Simon and Simon office shortly after that. Heather had caught the school bus with Katelyn. Between that fact, and the fact that Brendan was with Rick, Linda was able to get a few hours of sleep aided by the painkiller without the worry of children on her mind.
Rick put Brendan to work filing while he went through the mail, returned phone messages, and met with a client who had a twelve-thirty appointment. By two, Rick was locking up the office for the day. Linda had called to say Abigail Marsh was coming to see her at three. Both Abby and Linda wanted Rick to be present if it was possible.
Rick and Brendan stopped at a deli, picking up sandwiches and soup for themselves and Linda. The trio had just finished eating when Abby knocked on the front door. Linda and Brendan sat together on the sofa, with Rick and Abby taking the easy chairs. Abby refused Linda's offer of coffee, to instead get right to the point of her visit.
"I have some news for you
regarding your husband, Mrs. Ecklund, that I imagine you'll find rather
"Believe me, Lieutenant, after
last night I doubt I'll be astonished by much of anything you tell me."
"The man you know as Mark Gerald Ecklund; is actually Lucas Samuel Bentz."
Despite her assurances, Linda's surprise was plain to hear. "He's who?"
"Lucas Bentz. More commonly known as Lucky Bentz. Mr. Bentz is wanted in five states for fraud. Most recently in Michigan."
"I knew it!" Brendan exclaimed, recalling Cory's love of the Detroit Pistons. "I knew he was a big fat phony."
Linda reached over and patted her
son's knee. "Shhh, Bren. Let Lieutenant Marsh tell us the rest."
"Other aliases the man has used over the years include Darrell Francis Greene, Joseph Patrick O'Connor, and Glen James Anderson."
"But why? I don't understand."
"Bentz runs an elaborate and profitable scam, Linda," Abby explained. "He attaches himself to wealthy women, gains their trust, marries them, lives the high-life for a period of time, generally manages to have his name added to their bank accounts and other financial assets, then one day disappears, taking their life savings with him, as well as any other items of value such as jewelry or works of art."
"But I'm not wealthy," Linda protested. "Far from it."
"No. But your mother is."
Rick nodded his understanding. "It was my aunt he was originally
after, wasn't it? But his attraction to
Lindy caused his train to derail."
"Yes. Or at least according to his sister Natalie, that was the plan."
"His sister?" Linda questioned. "Natalie is his ex-wife."
"No," Abby corrected, "she's his sister, and the mother of the child Bentz passes off as his son. In actuality, Cory is his nephew."
"I can't believe this," Linda muttered. "I can't believe I was taken in by his lies."
"You weren't the first. And if the events of last night hadn't occurred, you wouldn't have been the last. The man's a smooth operator. He's been doing this his entire adult life. As Rick said, it was your mother he originally had his eyes set on. It's always been wealthy older women he's courted in the past. Generally widows with either no children, or grown children, who don't live in the immediate area. Women who are lonely and vulnerable to the attentions of a good looking, charming younger man."
"Then why did he end up
"I surmise he really did fall
in love with you."
"Or fell in love with my
youth," Linda said wryly.
"After all those old ladies, maybe he wanted one he didn't have to
help up the stairs."
"Possibly. Whatever the case, he thought he could still
get at your mother's money through you."
With a wave of her hand Linda
indicated to her battered face.
"He made that fairly evident last night."
"Has he ever been caught before?" Rick asked.
"Once. In New York. But the woman wouldn't press charges because of her embarrassment over the situation. She's quite well-known on the East coast, owns a popular cosmetics firm, therefore didn't want the publicity the story would bring her. Cory was taken away from Bentz and his sister at that time. He was placed in foster care, but before the courts had a chance to make a permanent decision regarding the child, Luke and Natalie parked their car across the street from the school he was attending. All they had to do was call to him when he came out of the building at the end of the day. Naturally, he ran right to them, jumped in the car, and was spirited away."
"How much of this scam was Cory
privy to?" Linda asked. "I can hardly believe a nine-year-old
child wouldn't spill the beans at some point in time."
"He knows Luke Bentz is his uncle and not his father, but other than that I really can't say. Keep in mind he's been a part of this scheme all his young life. I get the impression Natalie Bentz doesn't even know who the boy's father is. Or, if she does, she's never made it a point to get the man involved in Cory's life. All the child has known is moving from town to town while his uncle and mother play their little games."
"But if they've amassed so much
money why do they keep doing it?"
Rick responded to that
question. "Scam artists rarely
stop while they're ahead, Lindy. It's
an addiction with them. Each time they
get away with their game it brings them some kinda false high, like a drug
trip. They just keep goin' back for
"And the money never lasted long," Abby added. "Natalie sings like a caged bird. She's all too willing to let her brother take the fall for this entire incident. Evidently, they both have extravagant tastes. The money flowed through their hands like water. Plus, Luke tended to spend his off-time at the gambling tables and race tracks, where evidently he didn't live up to his nickname."
"No wonder he didn't like me hanging around with Rick and A.J.," Brendan commented.
Rick's attention shifted to the
boy. "What'd you say?"
"I said no wonder he didn't
like me hanging around with you and A.J."
"Right from the start. From when you first started taking me places
and picking me up to visit A.J."
Rick looked at his cousin. "Is that true? Did Bentz have a problem over Brendan spendin' time with me and A.J.?"
"Yes. And as the weeks went by, it got worse. And, now that I think about it, the first time he hit me was just
a couple of days after the first time you took Bren to see A.J. He came home after dropping Cory off and
went ballistic over that visit. I never
could figure out why."
"I know why," Brendan volunteered.
"Why?" Abby asked.
"Just a minute." The boy ran for the stairs. "I'll be right back!"
The adults exchanged puzzled glances, but waited patiently until the blond returned. Rick immediately recognized the paper Brendan handed him as being the one on which A.J. had written the alphabet with the twelve-year-old's help the first night Brendan had visited him.
Rick sat forward in his chair, sharing the paper with Abby while Brendan offered a brief explanation.
"Mark...or whatever you wanna call the guy, got really mad when he saw this."
Abby looked up. "Why's that?"
Rick could already guess what the boy was going to point out.
"Because of these two letters
down here," Brendan explained.
"The L and B that A.J. printed in the corner."
"LB," Rick muttered. "Luke Bentz."
Abby glanced at the detective. "You think there's a connection?"
Rick sat back in his chair, brows drawn together in thought. "I don't know. Maybe. These letters keep croppin' up in the oddest places."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean A.J. has a tendency to write them over and over."
"Have you asked him why?"
"Yeah. He claims he doesn't know."
"Do you think otherwise?"
Rick's, "I'm not certain,"
was spoken with preoccupation as he turned his attention to his cousin's
son. "Brendan, what'd you tell me
about the man who entered the amphitheater?
The one you never saw. You said
something about him in relation to your stepfather that night we ate at Pizza
"I said he smelled like
Mark. That the cologne he wore was the
same kind Mark used."
"Are you thinking that man, and Luke Bentz, are one in the same person?" Abby asked Rick.
"I don't know. A.J. woulda' recognized the guy as being Lindy's husband if that's the case."
"But he wouldn't have known him as Luke Bentz," Abby reminded. “Which means the L and B on this paper likely have nothing to do with Bentz.”
"Maybe not. Unless A.J. overheard something we don't know about."
Abby nodded her agreement to Rick’s statement while Linda asked, "A.J. surely would have said something to you about it by now though, wouldn't he, Rick?"
"If he remembers, which I don't think he does. If this LB is any kind of a clue at all in regards to what A.J. saw or heard, which it might not be, I doubt he recalls enough to be able to tell me much of anything. Troya...Doctor Yeager, says if he ever gets his memory back about the events surrounding the accident, it'll come to him in bits and pieces that he may never be able to put together in a way that makes sense to him."
"Still," Abby said,
"it's worth looking into. Where
was your husband the day of the accident, Linda?"
"Are you certain?"
"Well...no, I don't guess I
am. I mean, I assume he was at work,
but I wasn't with him, so can't stake my life on it."
"Is there any way you can find
"I can call and have the payroll clerk take a look at the attendance records from that week."
Linda rose and rounded the corner to the kitchen. While she was gone, Brendan told Abby and Rick about the woman who had accosted him after school the previous week. Just by his description of the woman and the car she was driving, Abby knew Brendan's attacker had been Natalie Bentz.
Linda spent several minutes on the kitchen phone with the payroll clerk at her mother's firm. When she returned, her bruised eyes had taken on a look of unrest.
"What'd you find out?" Abby asked.
"He was there the day of A.J.’s
accident, but left early, saying he was sick.
He punched out at two o'clock."
"Where'd he go?"
"I don't know. But he didn't come home until the time he normally arrives from work. Five-thirty. And he never said a word to me about being ill."
"Two o'clock, Abby," Rick said. "A little over an hour before the accident happened. Not only does the guy have the same initials that A.J. keeps printing all over his papers, but he wears the same kinda cologne Brendan smelled on our shooter, and for some reason he didn't like the fact Brendan was spending time with me and my brother. What do you make of it?"
"I don't know," Abby stood to let herself out. "But it certainly warrants a closer look, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," Rick agreed
wholeheartedly, "it certainly does."
Three days later, Abby appeared in the Simon and Simon office. Stacks of files formed a man-made barricade around Rick. He was diligently making notes on a new case when the police lieutenant entered. Without asking, she poured cups of coffee for the two of them. The detective walked around from behind his desk, joining the woman in the grouping of chairs that flanked the sturdy round coffee table in the center of the room.
"So, what'd you find out on
this Bentz character? Where was he the
afternoon of the accident?"
"At your cousin's bank,
snooping through her safety deposit box."
"She'd recently added him as signer, but he'd never seen the contents of the box. Linda assumes he was looking for anything of value. Jewelry, passbooks, stocks, things of that nature. Given his history, I tend to concur."
"You verified this?"
"Of course. Anytime someone gains entrance to their box they have to sign a card that's punched on a time clock. The procedure is repeated when they exit the area."
"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. So I suppose the time Bentz was looking through that box, coincides with the time A.J. was in the morgue."
"You got it. The vault attendant punched him in at two
fifty-three, and back out again at three twenty-seven. Exactly during the time frame the shooting
and subsequent accident occurred."
Rick sagged down in his chair, letting out a heavy sigh of disappointment. "Damn. I was hopin' this guy would lead us somewhere."
"I was, too, but it doesn't appear as though that's going to happen. I believe Lucas Bentz is guilty of fraud and spousal abuse, but nothing more. Though, that should put him away for a while. Authorities in Michigan and Ohio want a crack at him when we're done with him, and New York wants to try him and Natalie on kidnapping charges in regards to them taking Cory while he was in the custody of the state."
"Where's the kid now?"
"In a foster home here in the city. The good news for the boy is, Luke and Natalie have a younger sister in North Dakota who's willing to take him."
"I hope she didn't fall from the
same branch those two did."
"Child Services is looking into that right now. From what I've heard so far, things sound good. The woman's married with two children of her own. Reports indicated she’s never been in trouble with the law, and she claims to be ignorant of her siblings' lifestyle. If she's as clean in person as she appears to be on paper, she may turn out to be the best thing that's happened to the boy in all his nine years."
"Good. It'd be nice to know somethin' positive came out of this twisted mess."
"Yes, it would be." Abby
took a drink of her coffee. "Have
you talked to A.J. about all this since Bentz was arrested?"
"Yeah. I told him what happened to Lindy, who the guy we knew as Mark Ecklund really is, and what kinda scam it was he's been runnin'."
"Did he say anything?"
"Not really. Just expressed his surprise, then asked if Lindy was okay."
"Did you question him further
on this LB issue?"
"I asked him if the LB on his
papers represented Bentz. I asked him if
the name Lucas Bentz meant anything to him."
"And, he looked at me like I was nuts. So, to be honest with you, I had already guessed Luke Bentz wasn't our man long before you came to see me today. But, I figured there was always hope."
"So what do the letters LB mean to A.J.?"
"Don't think for one minute I haven't been mulling that question over for weeks now. Hell, Abby, I don't know. Those two stupid letters could mean everything we need to know about crackin' this case, or they could mean nothing. As long as A.J. can't tell us what they represent, I don't hold out much hope of us ever knowin' their value."
Abby hesitated before continuing the conversation, unsure if she should bring up what was on her mind. "Rick...last week I had a visit from a man claiming to be with the FBI, who questioned me about the incident at the morgue."
"The way you say 'claiming' gives me a bad feelin' in my gut, Abby."
"It gives me a bad feeling as well. That feeling gets worse when, not one hour later, another man shows up in my office claiming the same thing."
"To make a long story short, it turns out neither one of them are employed by the bureau. But, exactly who they are, and why they're so interested in this case, I don't know."
"What'd you tell them?"
"The second man I told nothing. The first...well, the first I didn't tell much that was useful. He had enough knowledge of what went on in that building for me to believe he was who said. But when he started questioning me about A.J., a red flag went up for some reason."
"He questioned you about
"Yes, though I'm fairly certain he doesn't know A.J.'s name. He just knew a man was hit by truck. He seemed to think A.J. was an undercover cop."
"An undercover cop, huh? That's interesting."
"Yes, I thought so, too. I told him A.J. was a career felon who was probably in the building with the intention of burglarizing it."
"Did he buy that?"
"I don't know. I hope it doesn't matter whether he did or
"Because I told him A.J. was dead."
Though that last word was hard for Rick to hear because of how true it might have been, he nodded his appreciation of the way Abby threw up roadblocks to protect his brother. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me yet."
"Whatta ya' mean?"
"You might not be so grateful when you hear what I have to tell you next."
"Yesterday, Hew forced me to pull Edmunds off undercover duty at the rehab hospital."
Rick knew the ‘Hew’ Abby was referring to was Chief Hewett Thorton, her direct supervisor and, to a certain extent, her mentor. The man had developed a strong dislike for the Simon brothers over the years because of the way some of their more colorful escapades had brought embarrassment to both himself and his department.
"Why?" Rick was outraged at this latest news and didn't try to hide it. "Is this Thorton's way of gettin' back at us for--"
Abby held up a hand to stop Rick's tirade. "Rick, no. No, it's not Hew's way at getting back at you and A.J. for anything. I realize there's no love lost between the three of you, but if Hew felt A.J. was in danger, he wouldn't be doing this."
"Then how does he explain these so-called FBI agents who have suddenly appeared out of thin air, askin' questions about what happened the day of the accident?"
"He doesn't explain them. But, then, he doesn't have to," Abby said dryly. "He's the chief. Believe me, Rick, I gave it my best shot. I argued with Hew until I was blue in the face, and on the verge of being fired. But you know how it goes when they start looking at the budget, salaries, and overtime hours. Edmunds has been at the rehab center for weeks now. In that time period, nothing has happened, and he's seen nothing he's perceived as suspicious. Between that, and the fact that Hew feels A.J. is in a fairly contained, controlled environment, there was just no way I could convince him to keep Edmunds in place a little longer."
Rick shook his head in frustration at Thorton's decision, but said nothing other than, "Thanks for tryin', Abby. I know you did the best you could." He stared straight ahead without really seeing anything, mentally reviewing all Abby had told him since she walked in the door, dwelling for a moment on the visits she had received from the supposed FBI agents. "This whole case just seems to be gettin' more complicated every time I turn around."
"I won't disagree with you
there." Abby nodded toward the
manila files that had almost obscured Rick from her view when she first entered
the office. She shifted the subject for
the time being. "Looks like
you're staying out of trouble."
"Yeah, pretty much. There's little time for that these
"Heavy case load?"
"Yep," Rick sipped at his
coffee. "I can't afford to turn
anyone away, that's for sure."
"I suppose A.J.'s rehab stay is getting expensive."
"It's costly, but not as bad as it could be. Our medical insurance covers everything after the first three thousand bucks. And, the disability insurance kicked in last week, so things should ease up a bit for me now. At least that'll cover the salary A.J. drew from the business, which in turn takes care of his mortgage and other bills. Mom's been givin' me a hand, too. She comes in a couple of times a week to file, pay the bills, answer the phone, balance the checkbook, stuff like that."
"What about A.J.?"
"What about him?"
"What are his chances of
rejoining you here at Simon and Simon?"
"He'll rejoin me, Abby. One way or another, he'll rejoin me."
"One way or another?"
"If he...never recovers enough to handle the kinda case load we used to take, then I don't see how we'll be able to afford to pay the rent on this office. So I've been thinkin' if worse comes to worse, we can work outta my boat or his house. Lots of P.I.'s have offices in their homes. We don't need anything fancy, or a huge income. Just enough to pay our bills, have a little leftover for a night on the town every so often, and a camping trip a few times a year."
Abby had visited A.J. a week earlier. Between that, and her friendship with Cecilia, she knew how limited many of A.J.'s abilities still were. "Have you thought ahead to when he's released from rehab? Your mother said the doctors aren't certain he'll live independently again."
Rick's eyes dropped to his lap, making Abby sorry she'd brought the subject up.
"No...no, they're not
certain. Troy...Doctor Yeager keeps
tellin' me it's too early to know for sure." Rick sat his empty cup on the coffee table. "But Mom and I have already been
thinkin' ahead to that possibility. We
won't do anything without discussing it with A.J. first, of course, but we've
been tossin' around ideas between the two of us."
"What kind of ideas? If you don't mind me asking, that is."
"No, I don't mind. Just don't ever say anything about it to A.J."
"If A.J.'s willing to sell his house, I was thinkin' he might like to buy a boat and dock it at the marina. Then I could moor mine next to his and be right there to help him out. Back when we lived in Florida he owned a one bedroom cabin cruiser he lived on. He really liked it. I was hopin' maybe he'd learn to like it again. But, if that doesn't trip his trigger, then I'd be willing to sell my boat. We could buy a duplex. He could live on one side and me on the other. Or, we could get side-by-side condos. Mom's also talked about turning her entire upstairs into an apartment for him. Makin' the guest room into a kitchen, our old room into a living room, leaving her master bed and bath as it is, then adding an outside entrance so A.J. would feel like he was in a place he could call his own. She'd move downstairs and use the study as her bedroom." Rick shrugged. "I don't know. They're just ideas. And maybe not even good ones. The last thing we wanna do is take A.J.'s independence away from him."
"If you want the opinion of an outsider, they all sound like excellent thoughts, Rick. Each one of them would give A.J. a large degree of independence, while at the same time allowing either you or Cecilia to be close by if he needs you."
"Thanks. That makes me feel a little better, I guess. Though I dread the day we have to propose it to A.J."
"I imagine when and if that day
comes, A.J. will be ready for it, don't you think?"
Rick thought back to A.J.'s visit to the home on the Grand Canal. It almost seemed to the detective that day as though A.J. was mourning the loss of something he would never again have. Or at least not in the way he once did.
"Yeah, I suppose. But bein' ready for it, and having your brother tell you that's how things have to be, are two different set of circumstances all together." Rick emitted a weary sigh. "We'll just have see. Continue to take it one day at a time, as Doctor Yeager is fond of reminding me. Whether or not A.J. will remember what a stop sign means, or recognize the Don't Walk signal at a pedestrian crossing, or know what change he's supposed to get back after paying for his groceries, or remember to turn the burners off on the stove after he's cooked a meal, is left to be seen. If all those little things start to come together for him, then I'll have hope he can one day live back at his house, drive a car, do all the stuff you and I take for granted on a daily basis. But, if those things don't come together for him, then no, Abby, as much as I hate to say it, I doubt he'll ever really live a completely independent life again."
Long after Abby departed, Rick Simon remained seated in the chair, his booted feet propped up on the coffee table. He wondered about the men who had come to see Abby. Were they, in fact, with some type of federal or state law enforcement agency? Or, were they employed by someone else who, if he managed to unearth A.J.'s name, would have him killed for what he might have witnessed?
And then there was the issue of where A.J. would make his home after he was released from rehab. All the possibilities Rick and his mother had discussed sounded so practical when spoken aloud, but what would A.J. think of them? Rick was afraid he already knew the answer to that. He'd hate them. He'd hate every one of them because he loved his home on the Grand Canal, and he'd never been a man who wanted to be dependant on anyone.
But he might not have a choice, Rick reminded himself while running a hand over tired eyes.
When the detective locked up the Simon and Simon office at the end of the day, his mind was still churning with concerns for A.J.'s safety, and concerns of A.J.'s future. Rick’s worries didn't leave him until late that night when he climbed in Troya Yeager's bed. He kissed the woman before being drowned in her passion.
As always when he was wrapped in her arms, Rick’s sleep came without the unwelcome dreams that so often replayed the accident, and what it had done to his beloved brother.
The heels of the older man's shoes clacked against the tile floors of the building that was once home to the county coroner and his staff. With a keen, well-trained eye, the man viewed every room he was led to. Without writing anything down, he assessed and committed to memory each detail and nuance. By the time his tour of all five floors was drawing to a close, he knew exactly how many rooms the building contained, the approximate size of each of those rooms, and what type of repairs they were in need of. He jiggled the change in the wide pockets of his Dockers trousers, his mind already reeling with proposals for his client as to the vast possible uses of the building.
The eager young city commissioner recently put in charge of unloading this white elephant spoke of the building's attributes with great enthusiasm, ignoring the bleak scuff-marked walls and the rust stained tiles on the fifth floor ceiling where rain water occasionally found its way in. He sidestepped around the gray-headed man, attempting to prevent him from entering the amphitheater.
"There's not much in
there. Just an empty autopsy room with
seats for viewing by students. I
imagine your client will have it torn apart and made into office space. That's what I'd do if it were mine."
The older man would not be deterred. He hadn't built his reputation of being one of the best realtors in San Diego by not thoroughly viewing every nook and cranny of each and every home or building prior to presenting it to a potential buyer. He circled the wet-behind-the-ears commissioner, hitting the double doors with one firm hand. The young man had no choice but to follow.
The older gentleman studied the vast room, seeing potential that went far beyond office space. He took a few steps forward. "Perfect. This is perfect."
"Perfect for what?"
"My client employs a large number of people. He believes the key to a healthy, productive staff that remains with him for the long haul, is providing them with a place to relieve stress. More than anything else, he wanted a building that had a gymnasium. As you can imagine, I have yet to find anything that meets those exact specifications. But this room, with its size and high ceilings, has the potential to be converted to just that." He panned the area with his right hand. "Those seats and that observatory could be torn out. If that were done, there'd be more than enough room for an abundance of exercise equipment. And two of the old labs out in the hallway could be converted to locker rooms. One for the men, and one for the women."
The expression on the man's face led one to believe the work was already complete. That in his mind's eye he was seeing the room as it would look after several hundred thousand dollars worth of renovations.
A pair of hands flew out, grabbing him and almost throwing him off balance.
"Sorry, Mr. Brooks. But you almost stepped in it."
Lowell looked down at the large
brown stain several feet in diameter that covered the floor tiles. "Stepped in what?"
"The blood." The young man gave a sheepish shrug. "I know it's dry and all, but it still gives
me the willies."
"The willies? Whatever for? This was where autopsies were performed, my boy. There's bound to be some remnants of those procedures in a place or two."
"But that's not from an autopsy. That's from the murder that happened here a couple of months ago. Didn't you read about it in the papers? The one where the body just up and disappeared before the cops arrived?"
Lowell stepped right on top of the stain. His action could have been interpreted as deliberate disrespect for the dead, or he might have been intent on proving that dried blood wasn't going to be put a curse on anyone. Least of all him.
"Yes, well murders happen all the time in this city," he casually dismissed. "A tragedy to be sure, but a fact of life, nonetheless."
Lowell Brooks marched forward with authority, headed for the stairs that would lead to the observatory. He took them two at a time with a spring to his step the younger man found amazing for one of such advanced years.
The remainder of the tour found Lowell in the lead, the almost overpowering odor of his cologne wafting backwards as he walked. The commissioner couldn't help but wonder if Mr. Brooks was more familiar with the interior of the building than he was willing to admit.
But how that would be possible. the younger man couldn't imagine.
Rick looked across the seat of his truck, smiling at the beautiful woman riding beside him. Her lavender dress was fitted, buttoned up the front, and fell to her shins. A string of pearls Rick had no doubt were real, encircled her throat. Her hair was pulled up in the back, a large barrette also adorned with pearls held the bulk of her tresses in place. Thin ivory tendrils that the clasp wouldn't hold wisped and curled around her neck. Her delicate beauty made her seem out of place in a pickup truck. When Rick made mention of it, Troya laughed while snuggling close to kiss his cheek.
"I wouldn't matter to me if you arrived in a buckboard pulled by an old mule. I'd go anywhere with you, Mr. Simon."
Rick took her hand. "I'm glad to hear it, cause I'd go anywhere with you, Doctor Yeager."
And going anywhere Rick was. Tonight, he was meeting Troya's father for the first time. The trio was having dinner at a swanky restaurant across town. The detective had felt like a nervous teenager when, while getting dressed for the evening on his boat, it took him three times to knot his tie. He chastised himself for his foolishness, and his clumsy fingers. What was the big deal anyway? It wasn't as though Troya had ever said anything about her dad that had lead Rick to form a negative opinion of him.
What the big deal is, Rick had told himself as he slipped into his black suit coat, is that it's been years since you've been introduced to a woman's family. It's been years since you've been serious enough about a woman to want to meet her family in the first place. It's been years since you've had these kinda feelings, and if you're honest with yourself, you'll admit they scare the hell outta ya’.
Troya directed the way to the neighborhood she'd grown up in. The homes were similar in architecture and design to that of Cecilia's, though even more pretentious. The area spoke of money, and lots of it.
Rick pulled into the half-moon driveway of a majestic Mediterranean. The house rose two stories high with thick single story wings sprouting from each end. Among other things, one wing housed the three car garage, the other Rick would later discover contained a sumptuous family room outfitted with the latest in home entertainment systems. From there, a patio led to the backyard swimming pool.
Rick eyed the house, rubbing his slightly sweaty palms on his black slacks. One massive, continuous beveled window rose from the first floor to encompass the second, giving the house an almost church-like design.
"Huh?" Rick turned to face his lady. "Who me? Nah."
Troya's laughter filled the cab. "You remind me of Eddie Camdon."
"My date to the senior prom." Troya sat up straight, reciting stiffly, "Edward Orson Mansfield Camdon the fourth. His family owns Camdon Shipping. Eddie and I took a side trip to a local lover's lane on the way home that night. What happened next was so innocent and boring we fell asleep in his car and didn't wake up until three in the morning. Needless to say, by the time I arrived back here my father had half the police department out looking for us. I thought he was going to rip poor scrawny Eddie from limb to limb. If it hadn't been for my mother, he just might have."
Rick gave the woman a wink. "Then you better not share with your dad what we do on our dates."
Troya's eyes twinkled at the teasing. "No, I don't suppose I'd better."
Rick hopped out of the high truck, crossing in front of it. He opened Troya's door and held a hand out to her. She side-stepped down onto the running board with one lavender high heel, then with Rick's assistance, stepped the rest of the way to the blacktop.
The couple walked hand in hand to the front door. Troya didn't bother knocking. She opened one side of the heavy oak double doors with the stained-glass inserts, encouraging Rick to follow her. The foyer looked directly into the formal living room Rick estimated was twenty-five feet wide. Four steps down from the living room was a sunken formal dining room. He looked up, seeing the railing of a balcony overhead. Based on what Troya had told him of her parents’ home, Rick knew the upper story contained a master suite, three bedrooms, and a bathroom. Branching off from the foyer was a hallway sprawling both north and south that led to the first floor wings. The south wing held a guest suite, study, and the family room, while the north wing housed the kitchen, breakfast nook, laundry room, bathroom, and maid's quarters complete with a bathroom and small living room of its own.
"Dad!" Troya called. "Dad, we're here!"
"Be right down, Doodles!"
Rick arched an amused eyebrow. "Doodles?"
"Don't ask me where he came up with it, but it's been his nickname for me as long as I can remember."
Rick eyed the portion of the immaculate house he could see. “Your dad's got a nice place here."
"Thank you. Other than the frequent uprisings between Tad and my father, it was a great place to grow up. I thought he might sell it after my mother died, and move into something smaller, but he doesn't seem to have that inclination, so I don't force the issue. Wouldn't do me any good to anyway."
A short, plump Hispanic woman with heavy breasts and dressed in a black maid's uniform complete with white ruffled apron appeared from the wing that led to the kitchen. She scuttled up to Troya, beaming with delight. She took the doctor's face in-between her palms, kissing each cheek.
"My baby Troya."
Troya returned the woman's warmth
with a firm embrace. "Hello,
Carmina. It's so good to see
"It is good to see you, too, my little senorita." The woman stepped back, patting Troya's flat stomach. "Still too skinny. All the time too skinny. You and Ashton are just alike. No matter how I try to fatten you up, you girls look like little birds. And now Noelle and Colette are just as bad. When they were here for a week at Christmas time not once would they eat a piece of my cake."
Troya leaned over, kissing the woman's cheek. "Then they don't know what they missed. Your cakes are wonderful."
The doctor indicated to her escort. "Carmina, this is Rick Simon. Rick, this is Carmina. She's worked for my parents since before I was born."
"That is true. I was here with Ashton the night Troya and Tad came into this world. Oh, such excitement. We held hands and danced circles around the living room. Ashton was so happy to finally be a big sister, and I was so happy that babies were finally coming to live in this house. It had been too quiet for too long, but the first night Troya and Tad were here that all changed."
Troya laughed, easily imagining the cacophony created by two five-day-old infants. "I'm sure it did. And it stayed pretty noisy for some years to come."
"Si′, it did, but I never regretted a moment of it, and neither did your mama, God rest her soul." The woman turned her attention to Rick. "You look like you could use fattening up, too, Senior Simon. You come by for dinner some night and I'll make the many fine Mexican dishes of my youth."
Rick surprised and flattered the woman when he replied in fluent Spanish. He told her he'd love to take her up on her offer, and even made a request for a dish he was particularly fond of. Berry stains of delight caused by Rick's easy charm and flattery highlighted Carmina's brown cheeks when she turned to scurry back to the kitchen.
Troya linked her arm through Rick's. "You've won her over."
"Is that important?"
"Oh very. Nothing happens in this household Carmina
doesn't know about and give her consent to."
"She's worked for your folks a
"Ever since Ashton was three. Carmina was a twenty-year-old single mother back then. She has two daughters who were raised by her parents in Mexico. I don't really know what happened between Carmina and her husband, other than I get the impression he simply walked out on her one day when their oldest was a toddler, and the youngest just an infant. She came to America in search of a job that would pay better than those she could find in her own country. For years every penny she earned was sent back to her parents in Mexico. She saw her girls just once a year, when she went home each July for a two week visit. Therefore, in a lot of ways, Ashton, Tad, and I became her surrogate children. I think we filled a very lonely place in her heart."
"So she does a little of
everything around here, huh?"
"You got it. Cooks, cleans, shops, does the laundry, pays the bills, keeps my father on schedule for his appointments, and tends to my mother's gardens now that Mom is no longer here. When we kids were growing up she was even our nanny to a large extent. Her own children and grandchildren live in San Diego now, but she refuses to retire. She claims my father needs her. And, in truth, I suppose he does. If nothing else, the two of them keep each other company."
Rick glanced upwards, hearing feet trotting down the carpeted stairs. Tall, lean, tan, and broad shouldered with nothing other than silver-gray hair and fine lines around his denim eyes to give his age away, Troya's father would have been a commanding presence in any room.
The man walked over to his daughter,
sliding an around her slender waist.
Troya kissed his cheek. "Hi, Dad." She turned to her companion. "Dad, this is Rick Simon. Rick, this is my father, Lowell Brooks."
Rick held out his hand. "Mr. Brooks, nice to meet you."
The man shifted his fedora from his right hand to his left. His grip was firm and tight. "The name's Lowell, my boy. And it's nice to meet you, too, Rick."
Mr. Brooks dug in the pocket of his
dark suit coat. He pulled out a set of
keys, tossing them to the detective.
"You drive, son. Car's
parked right outside the garage. Troya,
let's lead the way for your young man."
Troya rolled her eyes at Rick in apology of her father's old-fashioned ways as she and the man passed. With a final goodbye to Carmina, they stepped into the massive garage. A green Ford Escort, that Rick would later learn belonged to Carmina and had been purchased for her by her employer, sat in one stall. The other two stalls were empty, and only a smattering of the most basic tools like a hammer, screwdriver, and drill, hung from hooks on a wall, causing Rick to conclude Mr. Brooks wasn't what one would refer to as a handyman.
Troya walked beside her father to the black Lincoln Town Car parked in the driveway. The older man paused for a brief moment, squinting as the late afternoon sunshine assaulted his eyes. He cupped his right hand up against his forehead, using it as a shield.
"Where are your sunglasses, Dad?"
"I misplaced them a few weeks back. I keep forgetting I don't have them until I need them. One of the pitfalls of aging, Doodles. The memory is the first thing to go."
"You'd better call Doctor Rempert's office and have them order you a new pair. You know what he said about your eyes – that they've grown especially sensitive to sunlight. You could cause yourself permanent damage."
Rick walked around to the driver's side of the automobile, only half listening to the exchange between father and daughter. Lowell held open the passenger door for Troya, encouraging her to slide to the middle so all three of them could ride in the front seat of the luxury car. He rested his hat on one knee when he was settled in his seat.
"I'm well aware of what Doctor
Rempert said," Mr. Brooks shot back.
"I may be forgetful, daughter, but I'm not senile."
"I'm not implying that you are. I'm simply stating a fact."
Lowell brought an end to the charged
atmosphere by placing a kiss on his daughter's cheek. "And I appreciate your concern. Someone in this family has to worry about old Dad, don't
they?" Lowell looked across Troya
to Rick. "Does my daughter cause
you this much grief, son?"
Rick smiled while sliding the key into the ignition. "I wouldn't exactly call it grief, sir--"
"Hey, now, what'd I tell you to call me?"
"Uh...Lowell. I wouldn't call it grief, Lowell, but I have been on the receiving end of some of your daughter's more...volatile lectures," Rick finished with a teasing note to his voice. He knew Troya was well aware he was referring to the first run-in the two of them had regarding A.J.'s problems with Mr. Middleton.
"And did you win?"
Rick gave Troya a sideways glance. He caught her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. "Let's just say I held my own and leave it at that. After all, if I had lost, I don't think I'd be here tonight."
Lowell threw back his head, laughing. "No, I guess you wouldn't be, Rick, now would you. There's no one I admire more than a man who can hold his own while embroiled in a disagreement with my daughter. And, I should know, since she gets her cantankerous nature from her old man, or so her mother was often fond of telling me."
Mr. Brooks relaxed against his seat
and dished out a final compliment as Rick turned the Lincoln onto the
street. "Bully for you, son. Bully for you."
Later that night, the gentle rocking of Rick's boat lulled the detective into a state of half awareness. He and Troya had lingered over dinner with her father, then, returned to the Brooks' homestead for coffee and dessert served by Carmina. It was eleven-thirty before the couple made their leave. Because Marlowe's needs had to be tended to, they spent the night at Rick's where they made playful love before Troya fell into a light doze with her head resting on the detective's chest.
Rick thought back to their evening. Troya's father was a nice enough guy he supposed. A bit full of himself, and liked to hear himself talk, that's for sure, but overall, Rick could put up with the man as long as he wasn't expected to entertain him for lengthy periods of time. Which he truthfully doubted would ever happen. First of all, he and Lowell Brooks were too different to ever form a close attachment, and second of all, Rick got the impression that Brooks didn't even form close attachments to his children. Yes, his love for Troya was obvious, but so was his distance. He was wrapped up in himself and his work, and from what Troya said, had been his entire life.
As if she could read his thoughts, Troya stirred against her lover's chest. The pearl hair clasp had been removed shortly after they'd entered Rick's bedroom. Her ivory locks lay full and mussed around her shoulders. Rick smiled down at her, running a hand through the hair made wild and tangled by their passion. Tapered fingertips traveled a lazy pattern over his chest in return. Her voice was soft and husky in the way that always caused desire to flame deep in Rick's soul.
"It's ironic, isn't it?"
Rick kissed the woman's hair. "What's ironic?"
"How that vacant coroner's building intertwines us."
Rick shifted on his pillows so he
could get a better look at Troya's face.
"Whatta ya' mean?"
"What about your dad?"
"Didn't you hear him say at the restaurant that...no, I guess you didn't. You were bringing the car to the door. While you were gone, Dad mentioned he's got a deal in the works regarding the sale of that building."
Rick tried to keep the curiosity in his head out of his tone. "A deal? What kind of a deal?"
"I don't know really. I didn't ask him any questions about it. Evidently he's got a client who's interested in buying it. Dad's acting as the go-between for his customer."
"Oh. I see." Rick gazed up at the ceiling. "Troya?"
"If you don't mind me asking,
how much money does your dad stand to make on a sale that size?"
"Without knowing the exact asking price of the building, I can only guess."
"That's good enough."
"Two hundred thousand dollars, three hundred thousand, somewhere in that range I suppose. Why?" Rick could feel the woman smile. "Are you thinking of giving up the P.I. business and going into real estate?"
Rick chuckled. "Might not be a bad idea. As you can tell by my humble home, this P.I. has never made that kinda money in his life."
Troya squeezed the detective to her, wrapping her legs around his, feeling his course dark hair rub against her smooth calves. "Doesn't matter to me. I'm happy with this P.I. just the way he is."
Long after the woman fell back to sleep, Rick laid awake, troubling thoughts churning the half digested food in his stomach. Was it nothing but a coincidence that Troya's father was involved in the potential sale of the morgue? Was it nothing but a coincidence that he favored the type of hat Rick had seen on the head of the man who fled from that building two months ago? And, the most troubling of coincidences, his name. Lowell Brooks. Meaning his initials were L.B. L.B. Those same two damn annoying letters that seemed to keep popping up in every direction Rick turned. What did that signify? Anything? Or nothing?
Come on, Simon, if you're gonna be suspicious of every guy in San Diego with the initials L.B., this case will follow you to your grave and still won't be solved. Let it go, Rick. Just concentrate on helpin' A.J. get well and let it go.
But the detective in Rick Simon wouldn't let it go. He was like a dog gnawing on a festering sore. As many times as he mentally slapped his own nose, his mind traveled right back to the troubled spot.
It was almost dawn before Rick finally slumbered. He pulled Troya tightly against himself without waking her. Despite his love for the woman, Rick was going to do the one thing he didn't want to. He was going to investigate Lowell Brooks.
And God help the man if Rick discovered he had anything to do with A.J. getting hurt.
A.J. Simon sat at a round table with Doctor Yeager in a small, private therapy room. Together they were working on the sounds that were still difficult for him to pronounce correctly, as well as on word identification. They had made the subtle transition from patient/therapist to friends in recent weeks. If Troya's warmth toward the blond man was a direct result of her relationship with Rick, A.J. was ignorant to it. For a variety of reasons, Rick had yet to tell his brother he and the doctor were dating. When Troya questioned him about it late one night while they were sharing her bed, Rick had replied by teasing, "I don't want the other patients makin' fun of him. You know, calling him doctor's pet and all."
As always, Troya recognized Rick was hiding deeper meaning underneath his ever-present sense of humor. "Come on, Mr. Simon, it's me you're talking to here. Why are you so reluctant to tell A.J. we're seeing one another?"
"I don't know really. I guess...I guess because I feel guilty about all this."
"All of what?"
"Us. What we have together as a man and woman. The little things we enjoy, like stopping at Marty's for a late night cheeseburger, or walking hand in hand on the beach, or sharing a tub of popcorn at a Sunday afternoon movie, or comin' here, or to my place, for a quiet evening. I...I spend a lotta time wonderin' if A.J. will ever know these types of simple pleasures again."
"And you spend a lot of time blaming yourself when you fear he won't."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do."
Troya didn't belittle Rick's feelings by reminding him once again that the accident wasn't his fault, or by telling him bad things happen to all of us that are beyond our control. Instead, she kissed the side of his face while snuggling closer, respecting both his choices and his desires when he made love to her again. With as deeply as she was falling in love with Rick Simon, and with as deeply as he was falling in love with her, she knew there would come a day when he'd have to reveal to A.J. they were seeing one another. But she'd leave it up to Rick as to when that day arrived.
Now the doctor held up flashcards with words printed on them. The words got harder as the cards progressed, until A.J. was accurately reading at a fourth grade level. Troya bestowed bountiful praise while placing a light hand on A.J.'s arm. She'd been forced to stop him a few times to correct his pronunciation, but other than that, he'd done an outstanding job.
Her voice was alive with pride and enthusiasm. "Great, A.J. That was just great! We'll have you reading Shakespeare again in no time."
From the doorway a voice exclaimed with distaste, "Shakespeare! Spare me, please. If that's the type of literature my sister recommends, I feel sorry for you, fella."
Troya turned in her chair. It was obvious she and her visitor were
close by the way her face lit up when she caught sight of him. "Tad! What are you doing here?"
The well-dressed man bent, holding his tie in place inside his suit coat while kissing his sister on the cheek. "I was in the neighborhood on business. I thought I'd drop by and take my favorite girl to lunch."
Troya introduced the two men. "Tad, this is A.J. Simon. A.J., this is my brother Tad."
Though it took A.J. a moment to
rise, he stood and offered Tad his hand.
Tad's smile matched his sister's in both its warmth and sincerity. "A.J., it’s nice to meet you."
When the handshake came to an end,
A.J. looked down at the still seated doctor.
Troya nodded, impressed by A.J.'s observation skills. "You're very perceptive. Yes, Tad and I are twins. Do we really look that much alike?"
With a hand A.J. indicated to
various parts of his own face.
A.J. was right. Troya and Tad did share a number of similar features. Aside from their hair color being alike, their eyes were shaped the same, though Tad's, rather than being bright denim blue, had a faded luster about them. His face was as handsome as his sister's was beautiful, his bone structure strong and masculine, his shoulders wide and solid. He and Troya shared the same stubborn chin as well, though Tad's was fuller and more square. Like his sister, Tad was tall, standing six feet three inches in height. His body was lean and muscular, finely honed from the hours he spent lifting weights in the private gym his ocean-side mansion possessed.
Brother and sister talked a few seconds before Tad gracefully apologized for interrupting A.J.'s session.
"I'll wait for you in your office, Troy. You wanna run a few miles on the track out back before we eat? I've got some clothes in the trunk of my car I can change into."
"Sure, that'd be great. A.J. and I will be finished here in about ten minutes. I'll
see you then."
"See you then." Tad threw A.J. a big grin. "And, A.J., again, it was nice meeting you."
When the stroke of noon arrived Troya and A.J. parted ways, he to eat lunch, she to meet her brother. A.J. left the cafeteria at twelve-thirty. Rather than return to his room, he chose to exit the building and walk the grounds with the aid of his cane. He watched as Troya and Tad ran slow, lazy laps around the cinder track. He could hear the crunching sound their shoes made against the track's base, and though couldn't discern their words, easily picked up the rhythm of their light-hearted conversation. Like conversations he and Rick used to share when making conversation came easy for him.
Watching the blond headed fraternal twins run was like watching two elegant graceful snow leopards bound in sync. Tad turned to his sister issuing a teasing challenge. With a roar, he kicked his heels into high gear, leaving the woman behind.
Like an annoying itch A.J. couldn't quite satisfy by scratching, there was something familiar in a nagging way about watching Tad run. His arms and legs pumped strong and fast. He reached one hand up to firmly hold in place the baseball cap he was wearing. That small insignificant movement meant something to the detective, but what? For a few brief seconds his mind transported him to another time, to another man running while being forced to hold a hat on his head. But, who that man was, and why observing Troya's brother in the simple act of blazing down a straightaway would cause A.J think of him, the detective didn't know.
Before the twins finished their run, and before they saw A.J., the detective tottered toward the building. He didn't do nearly as well in his afternoon sessions as he had that morning, a fact Troya would share with Rick later that night.
"A.J.'s therapists said he seemed preoccupied this afternoon. As if his mind was somewhere else." Troya kissed the worried frown that turned Rick's mouth down at the corners. "Don't worry, hon. I'm sure it was nothing. We all have the right to daydream now and again."
Before he went to bed that evening, A.J. added a new word to his list of clues.
Two nights later, Rick, Brendan, and A.J. were swimming together in the rehab's pool. When A.J.'s required number of laps were complete, Rick retrieved an eight foot long by two foot high net that was held upright in the water by small buoys. A heated game of water volleyball ensued, Brendan teaming up with A.J., while Rick was left to defend his side of the net alone. The losers had to buy the winners candy bars from a hallway vending machine. Brendan and A.J. were triumphant the first match, Rick came back to win the second, only to be defeated by one point in the third. Rick loudly accused his opponents of cheating while he and Brendan put the net and ball back where they belonged. With good-natured grumbling, the lanky man grabbed a towel, patted himself dry, then headed to retrieve the promised pay up.
A.J. and Brendan sat with their legs dangling in the pool, thick white towels draped over their shoulders. Unlike the incident a few weeks earlier, A.J. easily removed his life jacket this evening. His right hand was beginning to gain strength and dexterity, as was his leg. His therapists planned for him to begin boxing and running the following week. He had already prepared himself for the fact that both feats would be difficult at first. He hoped that, given time, the physical skills necessary to master those endeavors would come back to him.
The blond man lightly kicked his legs back and forth in the water, creating small ripples. "You----mom-----okay----now?"
"Yeah, she's fine," Brendan said. "The bruises are gone, and it doesn't hurt her to move around anymore."
"She's handling it pretty good, I guess. I think she felt kinda stupid after it all first happened. You know, 'cause of the way the jerk took her for a ride. But, I keep telling her it's not her fault. That we all make mistakes sometimes."
"And....uh...A.J.," the boy stammered, "speaking of mistakes, there's...uh...uh something I've been wanting to say to you for...for a while now."
Puzzlement was plain to read on the blond man's face over Brendan's reluctant demeanor. "What?"
"I...um...I...well, it was because of...because...because of me that Rick...that Rick hit you with--" Brendan's sentence ended with a cry of "Ha!" and a splash. Rick had run up behind him, pushing the boy into the pool in what appeared to be a gesture of playfulness. Rick dropped the candy bars on his towel and then jumped in himself, dunking Brendan three more times for good measure.
The twelve-year-old forgot the apology on his mind as he and Rick roughhoused and wrestled in the water like dolphins. When Rick tried to get A.J. to join in the fun the blond man refused. He remained seated on the side of the pool, his mind attempting to finish Brendan's sentence.
That Rick hit you with..that Rick hit you with...that Rick hit you with....
Later that evening, Brendan sat watching television in the lounge, waiting while Rick said good night to A.J. Rick idly rested against the side of A.J.'s bed. The blond man was in the shower washing the smell of chlorine from his body. A.J. appeared in his pajama bottoms a few minutes later. He was leaning heavily on his cane as he often did when he was tired, but he stood up straight, looking Rick right in the eye, when he stopped just a foot away from him.
The lanky man pushed himself
off the bed frame. "Ready to call it a night?"
Rick had a feeling he knew what was coming, but filled his voice with nonchalance while turning his back on his sibling. "Sure, go ahead. Ask away."
"A.J., you had an accident," Rick snapped his reply. "I've told you that before."
With more strength than Rick
realized his brother currently possessed, A.J. reached out his left hand,
grabbed Rick by the arm and spun him around.
"No! No mo------lies! How------this-------hap---happen?"
Rick jammed his hands in his back pockets. Whether Rick knew it or not, that small gesture indicated his level of frustration to his younger brother.
"A.J., look, it's late. I'm tired, you're tired, and I've gotta get Brendan home. We'll talk about this another time. I promise."
The blond man pounded his cane on the floor. "No! Now!"
"No," Rick countered through clenched teeth, each word carefully spaced and measured in the same way one might speak to a misbehaving child. "Not now. Another...another time."
The look on A.J.'s face spoke of a storm of emotions. Rage, confusion, hurt, and betrayal being the most obvious to Rick. And, the one he didn't see when A.J. turned away from him, stubborn determination.
"Look...I know you're pissed at
me, and I'm sorry. I just...tonight's
just not the time to get into it."
With his back to his brother A.J. demanded, "Then------when?"
Tense silence stretched between the two men when Rick wouldn't give A.J. an answer. The blond man's shoulders finally heaved up and down with a heavy sigh. Rick almost didn't hear his mumbled, "Get it," which Rick’s mind translated as "Forget it."
Not knowing what to say, and knowing he didn't have it inside himself to tell his brother the one thing A.J. so desperately wanted to hear - the truth about the circumstances surrounding the accident, Rick moved forward without a word. When he gently laid his hands on A.J.'s naked shoulders they were shrugged off in angry dismissal. Rick dropped his gaze, heading for the door with a quiet, "Good night."
A.J. turned around, his voice
stopping Rick as his hand reached for the knob. "Kee?"
Rick paused a long second. Without replying to his brother's pointed question, he pulled the door open and walked out of the room.
A.J. wasn't sure if he was being chased, or if it was him doing the chasing. Pounding footfalls echoed all around him. Even while his feet flew forward he kept looking over his shoulder, but if someone was after him he couldn't see the pursuer. A person with the plastic face of a mannequin ran past through the intersecting hall in front of him. One plastic hand was on his head, holding a fedora in place while his tie flew out behind him. Three more faceless people passed dressed in baggy clothes and high-top sneakers, these mannequins the size of adolescent children. One of them was wearing a T-shirt A.J. recognized as Brendan's. He called the boy's name, but the mannequin didn't turn.
It was like being caught in an episode of the Twilight Zone, where everything is twisted and bizarre. Where things aren't what they appear to be. Where you have to dig deep to find the real meaning.
A.J. was running so fast he almost tripped on the body sprawled in front of him. He bent beside the man, turning him over. His plastic face had no features at all, as if the mold that cast him had been without eyes, nose, or mouth. White hair that felt like straw was sewn into his head. Blood poured from his plastic chest, staining his crisp white shirt dark red. Even though the man had no mouth, A.J. heard his message.
A.J. stood, staggering backwards in fear and confusion. He ran blindly ahead, his heart and lungs pumping like a steam engine. His hand hit a set of double doors, and he flew between the opening he'd made for himself. He heard the high-pitched screech of automobile brakes being applied and looked to his left. A mannequin sat behind the wheel of a black Ford pickup, its plastic mouth screaming a frenzied plea of, "Noooo!"
As A.J. felt his body connect with hard metal, he wondered why Rick's cowboy hat was sitting on top of the plastic man's head.