By:  Kenda







Chapter 1



     A.J.'s hand groped for the 'Off' button on his clock radio.  He gave it three whacks before realizing it wasn't his alarm that was ringing, but rather the telephone at his bedside.  As he struggled to raise himself onto one elbow his eyes landed on the bright red digits that told him it was five thirty-seven a.m.


     Who the hell could be calling me this early on a Tuesday morning?


     A.J.'s mouth was dry and his tongue thick with sleep. "Lo?" 


     The voice on the other end was far too perky for the blond man's tastes this early in the day. 


     "A.J.?  Did I wake you?"


     Although A.J. wasn't sure whom the female person was he was now engaged in conversation with, he had the good grace to be polite.  "No, no.  You didn't."


     A melodious laugh tickled the phone line.  "You liar.  I can tell by your voice that you were sound asleep.   What happened?  With me no longer in the neighborhood to be your running buddy have you given up doing your four mile circuit each morning at dawn?"


     A.J.'s brain became more alert upon assimilating the clues the woman dropped.  "Stacy?"


     "Yes, it's me.  Your old neighbor and running partner, Stacy Patterson."


     "How are you?"  A.J. automatically asked.  It had yet to register with the private detective that this early morning phone call was out of the ordinary.  Although he and his former neighbor had indeed jogged together, they had never been more than friends who parted ways each weekday morning as they came to their own doorsteps.  A.J. had been sorry to see Stacy leave the Grand Canal a year earlier.  Among other things, she had been a loyal neighbor who watched over his house whenever he was involved on a job that kept him away several nights in a row. 


     "I'm fine, A.J.  How about yourself?"


     "I'm okay."


     "I read about you and Rick every now and again in the papers.   How is my favorite cowboy?"


     "Rick’s doing good. He'd still be trying to convince you to go out with him if he could get me to tell him your new address."


     Stacy laughed.  "Let's both keep him guessing then.  Especially because along with my new address, there's now a new husband who wouldn't appreciate the undivided attention Rick was always willing to lavish on me."


     "Really?  Congratulations, Stacy.  That's great."


     "Thank you.  Paul and I are very happy.  But now that we've gotten caught up with each other, I need to get to the reason for my call."


     "I was wondering about that."


     "Listen, A.J., do you remember...ooooh, about four years ago when I let you and Rick hide out in my house for a week?"


     A sudden feeling of trepidation overtook the blond man. 


     "Ummm...yes.  Yes, I do."


     “And then that guy shot all the windows out of it when he discovered where the two of you were?"


     "Uh...yes, I seem to recall that incident."


     "And do you remember that, despite the fact I'm deathly allergic to dogs, I allowed Rick to bring Marlowe with him, only to spend the whole week with a runny nose and watery, scratchy eyes?"

     "Well...uh...yeah, I seem to remember you were pretty miserable."   

     "And do you remember how Marlowe chased my cat Pebbles all around the house and worked her into such a frenzy that she spent the next month hiding in my clothes hamper?"


     "Mmmmm, yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that being a problem."


     "And do you recall you and Rick assuring me you'd repay me in any way you could, any time I asked a favor of either one of you?"

     Suddenly, there was nothing A.J. Simon hated worse than a woman calling to collect on a favor.       


     "Uh, yes.  Yes, I do recall Rick saying something to that effect."


     "No, mister, not just Rick.  You said it as well.  You both said it.  Which is why I'm calling.  I need a favor."


     The brightness A.J. managed to muster could have lit up the San Diego skyline.  "Sure, Stacy, no problem.  What do you need us to do?"


     "Substitute teach."




     "Substitute teach."


     Stacy Patterson, now Stacy Patterson Barrington, was the thirty-nine year old principal of a small, private elementary school called Heritage Academy that housed grades kindergarten through sixth.  A.J. was vaguely aware of its reputation based on things Stacy had told him in the past, and articles he occasionally read in the paper.  If he ever married and had children it would be a place he'd seriously consider looking into.  While tuition was fairly expensive, the school prided itself on the small size of its classrooms, the individual attention the teachers were able to give the students, its outstanding academic program, and the standards of discipline set forth by the parents and staff. 


     For now, A.J. wasn't too concerned about those issues.  "Stacy, I'm not a teacher!  And Rick certainly isn't either."


     "You don't have to be a teacher to substitute teach, A.J.  All the state of California requires is that you have a bachelor's degree.  It doesn't make any difference what that degree is in.  It could be in Foreign Cuisine for all it matters in terms of being able to sub."


     "That's fine in regard to myself then, I suppose.  But Rick doesn't have a college degree."


     "I know that.  But if you don't tell anyone, I won't.  Please, A.J., I'm desperate."


     "What do you mean you're desperate?  What's going on?"


     "You’ve heard about the flu virus that's been going around the country, haven’t you?"

     "Yes.  There's been quite a lot on the news about it this past week."

     "More than a quarter of my teachers are out sick with it.  And yet amazingly enough, the kids seem to be fairly resilient to it as very few of them have been ill.  If we had a lot of absences amongst the children I'd close the school for a few days, but since they're healthy and able to attend I hate to force us to deal with make-up days at the end of the year.  Please, please, please, you guys would be doing me a huge favor by showing up in my office at eight o'clock this morning.  And you do owe me one."


     "Yes, we do," A.J. reluctantly agreed.  "All right. You win.  I'll get a hold of Rick and we'll be there at eight."


     "Thanks, A.J.  Thanks a million!  I love you guys!  See you at eight."


     The connection was broken before A.J. could voice the numerous doubts running through his mind.  He laid back against his pillows and punched a number into the pad on the phone's push-button receiver.


     Rick's voice sounded just as sleepy as A.J.'s own had five minutes earlier. 

     "Hey, Rick.  Up and at 'em!  Rise and shine!  I'll be over to pick you up at seven-thirty.  I just got a call about a job.  We've got to be there at eight."

     "A job?"  Rick questioned around what sounded like a mouth full of sock fuzz.  "What job?  I donno nothin' about no job we had scheduled for today."


     "You'd better brush up on your grammar there, big brother.  Double negatives in one sentence will never do for this job."


     "What the hell are you talkin' about?  What job?"


     "Just be ready at seven-thirty."


     Rick was doing nothing more than yelling at a dial tone as he shouted,  "A.J.!  A.J.!   A.J., what the hell is this all about?"   



Chapter 2



     Despite Rick's insistent pestering, A.J. wouldn't reveal any details about their spur-of-the-moment job, nor where they were going.  When they pulled into the Heritage Academy parking lot at seven fifty-five Rick looked around with puzzlement.


     "What are we doin' here?"

     "This is where our job is."


     "Job?"  Rick snorted.  "As what?  Teachers?"


     A.J. shot his brother a sly smile as they climbed out of the Camaro. 


     Rick paused in the act of following his sibling.  "A.J., no.  You're not serious."


     A.J. led the way to the building's main entrance.  Children's shouts and cries echoed from the school's playground.  


"I didn't even say anything."


     "You didn't have to.  What other kinda job could we possibly be takin' in a school?"  Rick's hand shot out to snare his brother by the upper arm.  "Come on.  What's going on here?"


     "You remember my old neighbor Stacy Patterson?"


     Rick's eyes lit up.  "Sure I do.  She was one hot chick.  Man, I tried my darndest to get a date with that woman."


     "Yes, you did.  And if they gave a grade for effort in that area you'd have gotten an A plus.  Regardless, if you recall, she's the principal here."


     "Oh yeah.  I guess she is."


     "Well, at the moment she's in need of substitute teachers."


     "Substitute tea...!  A.J., we're not teachers!  I don't know the first thing about--"


     A.J. freed his arm, grabbed his brother by the shirtfront, and pulled him along.   "Neither do I.  But it looks like we're going to get our first lesson shortly."


     "But I can't--"


     "Rick, think back about four years.  Stacy let us stay in her house for a week.  All the windows were shot out.  She was allergic to Marlowe.  He chased her cat all over and practically gave the poor thing a nervous breakdown, and then--"


     "And then we told Stacy we owed her a favor," Rick finished lamely.  "Great.  How come every time we owe someone a favor it turns out to be something like this?  I mean, we're private investigators for cryin' out loud!  Why couldn't she just ask us to investigate something?"


     "Because this is what she asked us to do, therefore, we're going to do it."  A.J. dropped his hand from Rick's shirt only to turn and give his brother a meaningful stare.  "And to the best of our abilities.  No fooling around on this one, Rick.  I don't want you to be the cause of any trouble for Stacy."


     "Me?  The cause of trouble?  What makes you say a thing like that?"


     "Because ever since you were five years old you haven't been able to enter a school building without causing trouble of some kind."


     "You're right on that account, little brother," Rick smiled in fond memory.  "Did you know my kindergarten teacher took early retirement because of me?"


     "No, I didn't know that.  But for some reason the news doesn't come as a big surprise."


     A.J. straightened the collar of Rick's khaki work shirt in an attempt to make him look as presentable as possible before they entered the building.  "Oh, and by the way, Stacy's married now."


     Rick rolled his eyes as A.J. pulled open the double doors. 







     The brothers entered a spacious foyer that smelled of floor polish and Lysol.  Hallways painted bright yellow branched off in three directions and were alive with children's artwork.   Stacy was waiting outside the school office that was located to the left of the entrance.  She stood five foot six in her low-heeled cranberry pumps, and was just as attractive as Rick remembered her being.  Her platinum hair was naturally curly, falling in tight ringlets to the middle of her back.   Her clear complexion was as light as her hair, and she possessed the high prominent cheekbones and pale blue eyes of her Norwegian ancestors.  She was stylishly dressed in a white silk blouse, and in a long skirt and flowing tunic blazer that matched the color of her shoes.


     Stacy exchanged warm greetings with the two men then led them toward her office.  "I really appreciate you guys showing up this morning.  Especially on such short notice.  I hope it doesn't cause problems at your business."


     "No," A.J. assured,  "it doesn't.  We're between cases right now, and just in the act of cleaning up some paperwork.  School gets out at what?"


     "Three thirty." 


     "Three thirty," A.J. repeated.  "That will allow Rick and me plenty of time to stop at the office and put in a few hours of work if necessary."


     "You gotta be kiddin' me?"  Rick moaned.  "You expect me to work here, and then go to the office, too?"


     Stacy shook her head and chuckled.  "I can tell not a whole lot has changed since the last time I saw the two of you."  She indicated for the brothers to take seats across from her desk as she shuffled through some papers.  "If it helps any, you will of course, get paid for the time you put in here.  The going rate for subs is twelve dollars an hour."


     "Geez, if Id'a known you get paid that good for substitute teaching Id'a looked into it a long time ago."


     The principal glanced over at the lanky detective.  "Don't let yourself be fooled, Rick.  It's not an easy job.  You'll be thrust into a classroom full of little faces whose names you can't remember, while at the same time trying to figure out where they are in their lessons and what their normal routine is."


     "Yeah, well, I kinda figured you wanted me to be the gym teacher, so what's the big deal about havin' a buncha kids do a few jumpin' jacks and take a couple laps around the basketball court?"


     "More than you can imagine, but that's beside the point.  The gym teacher is healthy."


     Rick couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice.  "He is?"


     "She.  Miss Witt is a she.  And yes, she's one of the few healthy teachers I currently have on staff."  Stacy stood back and grinned like the Cheshire cat.  "No, Rick, I have something better in mind for you.  Much better."


     Rick's, "What?"  was wary and small.


     "You're going to take over Mrs. Dunford's class."


     "Mrs. Dunford?"


     "Yes, Mrs. Dunford.  She's one of our first grade teachers."


     "First grade!  Oh, no.  No.  Now look here, Stacy, I don't know anything about first graders.  I mean, they're just little kids."  Rick used a big hand to gesture low to the ground.  "Just tiny little kids.  I might hurt 'em or somethin'."


     "For heaven's sake, Rick, they're children, not china dolls.  You won't hurt them.  Besides, they'll love you."

     "Love me?"


     "Sure, Rick," A.J. grinned as he gleefully agreed with Stacy,  "they'll love you.  All little kids do."


     "I don't need any help from you," Rick growled at his brother.  "And speaking of you..." The detective looked to Stacy once more.  "If I'm teachin' first grade, what exactly is A.J. teaching?"


     "Fifth and sixth grade health classes."


     "Health class?"  A.J. questioned.  "You mean like First Aid, proper nutrition, things of that nature?"


     Stacy's answer was brief and vague.  "Yes, exactly.  Things of that nature."


     "Well...I suppose I can do that." 


     Despite A.J.'s words of agreement, doubt was clearly etched on the brothers’ faces.


     "Look, guys, I realize neither one of you are teachers.  But I also wouldn't have called upon you if I didn't have confidence you could do the jobs I've just outlined for you.  You guys are smart.  You're used to winging it.  Playing all kinds of roles.  Just think of this as another P.I. job.  Please?"


     Neither Rick nor A.J. had ever been able to refuse a damsel in distress.  Especially one to whom they owed so much. 


     "All right," A.J. reluctantly conceded,  "I'll do my best. 


     "Yeah, me too.  I'll give it a go."


     "Great," Stacy smiled.  "And really, I promise, it won't be difficult.  On the whole, our kids here at Heritage are very well behaved.  I don't foresee them giving you too many problems."


     Stacy looked up to see more substitutes milling in the outer office amongst the secretaries.  "Listen, guys, I hate to rush you like this, but I've got other people I have to talk to before classes start at eight-thirty.   I need to show you to your rooms.  You'll find the teacher's lesson plan book in the top desk drawer.  That should give you a good start in terms of what things the class is currently working on."


     Stacy ushered the hesitant men out the door.  With a quick glance over her shoulder Stacy told her secretary,  "I'll be right back."


     Rick and A.J. asked a few hurried questions as they scampered along behind the woman.  She quickly answered their inquiries while indicating where the rest rooms were located, and in which direction the cafeteria could be found.   She left Rick outside his classroom, and did no more than point the way down the hall for A.J. 


     "Hang a right at the end of this hallway, A.J., then a left at the next corridor.  You want room 203.  It will be the third one on your right.  The fifth and sixth graders rotate classrooms like kids do in junior high and high school, so you don't need to go get them, they'll come to you.  However, you do have a homeroom."


     "You mean a group of kids who will report to my class first thing for attendance?"


     "That's correct.  They will also be your first class of the day."  Stacy gave both men an encouraging smile.  "I need to get back to the office.  Good luck."


     "Wait, Stacy!"  Rick called.


     "Stacy!"  A.J. echoed.  "Stacy, wait!"


     The woman waved over her shoulder before turning a corner and disappearing from sight.  The detectives stared after her in dismay.


     Right before he stepped into his classroom Rick said,  "A.J.?"




     "The next time your phone rings early in the morning?"




     "Don't answer it."


     With a heavy sigh, A.J. turned and headed for his own classroom.




Chapter 3



     The girl's agitation was plain to see as she twisted a long strand of her thick, walnut hued hair around one finger and brought it to her mouth.  The powerful gasoline fumes caused her head to ache and her stomach to roll.


     "Bobby...Bobby, please let me open the garage door."


     The wiry man's dirty blond hair stood up on his scalp in greasy spikes.  A three day growth of beard circled his mouth like fuzzy caterpillars, and his eyes were puffy and rimmed red from lack of sleep.  He was bent over a workbench in the narrow garage, carefully transferring gasoline from a bright red container to an empty plastic gallon milk jug.   


     "No, goddamn it!  How many times do I have to tell you no!"


     Bobby's fury caused the girl to take a step back.  She rubbed a hand over the small protrusion around her midsection.  "Please, Bobby, the baby."


     Even the mention of his unborn child couldn't bring serenity to the thirty-three year old man.  "Then git your ass in the house for all I care!  Git the hell outta here!  I'll do this myself if I have to!  Dammit, the last thing I need is you whinin' at me right now, Geneva!  You got that?"


     Geneva Masters reached out a tentative hand and lightly touched her husband's shoulder.  "Please, sweetheart.  Come inside and get some rest.  Just take a little nap.  You'll feel a lot better if--"


     Bobby jerked away of his wife’s hand. "Leave me alone!" His arm swung up so fast Geneva didn't have time to duck.  The back of his hand crashed against her cheekbone, causing Geneva’s vision to blur.  At five foot seven inches tall and one hundred and thirty-five pounds, Bobby Masters was far from a large man.  But years of hard labor in factories had left him lean and strong.  His powerful blow sent Geneva reeling into his tool bench with a pain-filled cry. The wrenches that fell to the concrete floor with a resounding clatter seemed of more concern to Bobby Masters than the fact that he'd just struck his pregnant wife.


     Bobby looked up from where he was crouched down gathering the tools and pointed a stern finger.  "Now don't you go cryin.’  I don't wanna hear it, Geneva.  I warned you!  You made me do that, dammit!  I warned you to leave me be, but you didn't listen, did you?  The Lord sayeth, Wives obey your husbands.  Now git yourself in the house like I said and leave me the hell alone!"


     Geneva cupped her swelling cheek as she scampered out of her husband's sight.  She ran into the one bedroom bungalow they were renting through the door that connected the home to the garage.  When she reached the safety of the bathroom she slumped down on the lip of the tub and began to sob.  She massaged her belly as though trying to offer her five-month-old fetus solace from all that was going wrong in their world.


     "He...he...he told me things would be different," the girl confided to her child in a voice made uneven and shaky by her tears.  "He said he was go...go...go...going to take me a...a...away from the beatings my step...stepfather was always giving me and the...the...the things he was always make...make...making me do.  But no matter how hard I try to a good wife to him noth...noth...nothing changes.  He's...he's...he's just like Hank."


       When she'd cried until she had no tears left, Geneva rose to wash her face over the white sink stained orange from rusty water.  She studied herself in the mirror, seeing the ugly discoloration of her cheek.  She wondered how at just nineteen, she could look so old.  She'd been pretty once.  Or at least she remembered thinking she was until her mother married Hank when she was eight.  From then on she'd simply felt dirty.  Dirty and cheap, just like Hank was always telling Geneva she was whenever he made her come into his bedroom while her mother pretended to be ignorant of what was going on behind the closed door.


     Bobby had promised Geneva he'd make her feel pretty again, and sometimes he did.  But lately, the temper he'd always possessed had a frightening edge to it, and seemed to have magnified itself into proportions even he couldn't control.  He went around the house mumbling strange things, too, verses from the Bible he claimed, while talking of things called the Apocalypse and Armageddon.


     Geneva ran a hand over her stomach one last time and felt the baby kick.  Despite the pain radiating from the right side of her face, she smiled at the little life that meant so much to her.


     "It's okay, baby, your mama's here.  Mama loves you, baby.  Mama loves you.  Mama’s love will always be enough to get us through the difficult times, sweetie. Mama’s love will always be enough."


     Geneva’s words of assurance caused tears to trickle down her face again because, deep inside, she was well aware that even a mother didn’t always have the power to keep bad things from happening.



Chapter 4



     Rick laid his cowboy hat on a corner of the teacher's desk, then stood outside his classroom awaiting the arrival of his little pupils.  At eight twenty-five a bell rang that echoed throughout the hallways and onto the playground.  In short order Rick could hear the children spilling into the building.  Like well-trained cattle, the kids herded themselves in the direction of their classrooms.  If need be, they broke off from various friends with a quick goodbye and a promise to see one another at lunchtime.


     Rick hadn't gotten any farther into Mrs. Dunford's itinerary than to determine he had twenty six-year-olds in his charge.  He stood tall and straight against the open door leading to his classroom.  The first of the children slowed as they approached this strange man, who looked so much different from the elderly teacher they were used to.  Mrs. Dunford barely tipped the scales at ninety pounds, and in her orthopedic shoes stood no more than four foot ten.  At sixty-four years old she still possessed a rich peaches and cream complexion, and was as soft spoken and proper as an English nanny.


     Three little girls grouped themselves in a tight triangle as though they had Velcro sewn on their clothes.  Their eyes rose with trepidation. They slid past the unsmiling Rick, then raced for their desks as if being chased by the big bad wolf.  They cupped their hands around their mouths and whispered to one another. 


     "He's a man."


     "He's a giant."


     "His hair's not white like Mrs. Dunford's."


     "He doesn't have any hair, and I think he looks mean."


     The other children arrived in two's and three's as well.  They all blended together in Rick's mind in a blur of confusing brown faces and yellow faces and white faces.   Eyes in all shades of blue, brown, green, and hazel had looked up at Rick with a mixture of fear and curiosity.


     As the last child scampered past the detective, the eight-thirty bell rang signaling the start of classes.  Rick nervously cleared his throat and glanced down the hall two more times with the hope Stacy would magically appear and tell him he could go home.  When that action was not forthcoming, Rick had no choice but to enter the classroom and close the door.


     Rick crossed over to the teacher's desk and stood behind it.  He looked out over the classroom.  The children stared back at him in silence, their little hands folded on top of their desks like Mrs. Dunford had taught them to do while awaiting her instructions. The tiny children seated before him in their miniature desks made the six foot two inch Rick feel like a giant among the Lilliputians.


     The detective was finally forced to break the unnerving silence.  He cleared his throat one last time.  "Uh...uh...good morning, class."


     As one, the children chorused,  "Good morning, Mr..."


     That was as far as they got before trailing off in confused chaos.  Some of the children stopped there for lack of knowing what else to say, while some kept repeating the word mister, as though trying to give Rick the hint that he needed to supply them with his name. Two children simply finished their greeting by calling him Mr. Dunford.


     Giggles erupted amongst the children at that guffaw, and for the first time Rick smiled and relaxed a bit.  "No, no," he said. "My name isn't Mr. Dunford.  My name is Rick."


     Before Rick could say anymore a little girl's hand shot up in the air. 


     It took Rick a moment to realize she was waiting for him to call on her.  He pointed a finger.  "Uh...yes?"

     "Mrs. Dunford says it's not polite to call adults by their first names."


     "Oh...uh...she does, does she?" 


     "Yes," the pigtailed blond nodded authoritatively, "she does.  So you need to tell us your last name."


     Rick Simon wasn't much on formality, and hardly thought he could stand having twenty six-year-olds referring to him as Mr. Simon for the remainder of the day.  But on the other hand, he didn't want to get Stacy in any trouble, so reached a happy medium.  He walked over to the blackboard and picked up a piece of clean white chalk. In large block letters he printed, Mr. Rick.


     "There."  Rick turned around, wiping his hands together to free them of chalk dust.  "How about if you kids call me Mr. Rick while I'm here today?"


     Some of the children gave eager nods, while others exchanged confused glances or dubious shrugs.  But since Rick heard no protests he concluded all were in agreement.


     The detective leaned back against the desk and crossed his long legs in front of him, only to see another hand fly up in the air.  He pointed to a redheaded boy in the third row.


     "Yes, son?"

     "Are you a real cowboy, Mr. Rick?"


     Rick chuckled.  "No, I'm not a cowboy."


     Another hand shot up.




     "Then how come you wear cowboy boots and have a cowboy hat, Mr. Rick?"


     "'Cause I like 'em, that's how come."


     A black girl raised her hand next.



     "How come you don't wear a tie, Mr. Rick?  I thought all man teachers wore ties."


     "I don't like ties, that's how come."


     Before any more questions could be asked, Rick took charge of the room.  "Okay, now you guys know my name, so it seems only fair that I get to know yours."    


     The detective indicated to the first child in the first row.  "We'll start here and go around the room.  What's your name, sweetheart?"


     The ebony skinned little girl dipped her eyes and barely above a whisper answered, "LaKesha."


     "LaKesha," Rick repeated.  "Okay.  Next."


     The boy behind LaKesha said, "Stanford."


     "Stanford," Rick echoed.  Mentally he repeated, LaKesha and Stanford.


     "Okay, next."




     LaKesha,, it wasn't Samuel, what was it?  Stanley?  Damn!  Oh, well, I just won't call on the kid.  LaKesha and Emily.


     "Next.  Just keep going, kids. Don't wait for me to ask you."






     LaKesha, Emily, Zeke...wait a second. I'm missing one.  What did she say her name was?  Spring...Summer...Fall?




     LaKesha, Emily, Zeke I think, and...Amy?





     Great.  Just what I need.  Identical twins.






     LaKesha, Emily, Zeke, or maybe Zack, the twins, Chance...Charles...?  Jessica...




     Soon the children got in a rhythm that Rick's brain had no hope of keeping up with. 












     Rick's head was spinning and he waved his hands in defeat.  "Hold it, hold it.  Stop right there." 


     Geez, don't people give their kids normal names anymore?  


     Rick looked around the room until he spotted a grouping of brightly colored plastic trays stacked on top of one another and lined up on a shelf by the windows.  Each tray was filled with paper.  Some trays contained lined writing paper, while others contained construction paper, while others held paper of various colors, textures, and thicknesses.  Rick walked over until he found what he was looking for.


     The little pigtailed blond who first pointed out to Rick that it was disrespectful to call adults by their first names, and whose name Rick thought was Emily, raised her hand.




     "That's Mrs. Dunford's special paper.  She doesn't let us use it."


     Rick eyed Emily as he began laying a sheet of the thick white paper on each desk.  It had a glossy finish and was sturdy, yet flexible like thin cardboard. 


"You know, Emily, you keep this up and you'll make a great snitch for the CIA some day."


     Rick's words were lost on the little girl, which he thought was just as well.  "Look, kids, I want you to take out your crayons.  You do have crayons, don't you?"

     Twenty little heads nodded and a smattering of, "Yes's," were given. 


     "Good.  So anyway, I want you to take out your crayons and write your names--"


     A familiar hand was raised.  Rick sighed. "Yes, Emily?"


     "We don't know how to write."


     "You don't?"


     "No.  We only know how to print."


     "Okay, then print your names on the paper and decorate it any way you want.  Then we'll fold it over and set it on your desks like this."

     Rick demonstrated by folding the paper in half and setting it on the child's desk he was standing nearest to.  The sturdy paper held its shape and gave the appearance of a makeshift nameplate.


     Emily's hand wasn't even all the way in air this time. 


"Yes, Emily?"


     "Micah eats his crayons."


     Rick looked around.  "Which one of you is Micah?"

     The children pointed to a cherubic boy in the second row who was all blue eyes and thick white hair.  Rick couldn't help but think of A.J. at the same age.


     "Don't eat your crayons, Micah," Rick instructed.


     As little heads bent diligently over their desks, Rick turned toward the front of the room with the intention of parking his butt in Mrs. Dunford's comfortable looking chair and putting his feet up.  Maybe he'd even take a little snooze.  Now that he had the kids occupied, they'd probably never notice.


     I ain't gonna say nothin' to Stacy about it, but heck, twelve bucks an hour seems like a lotta money to pay a sub.  All you gotta do is keep the little buggers busy and it's a piece a' cake.


     Rick hadn't even reached the front of the room before finding out his thoughts were laughingly naive.  In a matter of seconds, the detective discovered that what seemed like a simple project to him, was a major undertaking for six year olds.  They slowly and laboriously worked at printing their first names while constantly looking to him for guidance.   


"Mr. Rick?  Mr. Rick?"


     The detective swiveled around until he found the source beckoning him.    




     "Can I print some of my name in capital letters, and some of it in small letters?"


     "Sure, I guess so."


     "Mr. Rick?"


     Rick didn't even have to turn around to know who was hailing him now.  "Emily, we've got to quit meeting like this."



     "Never mind."  Rick turned and faced the child.  "What did you need?"

     "Mrs. Dunford says capital letters are only for the first initial of our first names, middle names, and last names.  The rest should be in small letters."


     "Emily, do I look like Mrs. Dunford to you?"


     The girl gave her head a solemn shake back and forth.


     "That's right, I don't.  'Cause I'm not.  So as far as the letters go in your names, you guys do whatever your little hearts desire."


     "Mr. Rick?"  A another girl questioned.



     "Can we put our middle names on the paper, too?  Can I print Autumn Nicole on mine?"

     "Fine by me.  You can print George Washington on there if you want to, kiddo, just as long as you answer me when I call on you."


     Rick attempted to make it to the teacher's chair once again, only to be called upon by a boy in the back of the room. 


     "Mr. Rick?  Mr. Rick?"




     "Can I make every letter of my name a different color?"


     "Sure, kid.  You do what you want.  You can make it every color of the rainbow if the mood strikes ya.’"


     "Really?   Neat!"


     "Mr. Rick?  Mr. Rick?"

     Rick did a three hundred and sixty degree turn.  "Yeah?"


     "Can I make my name different colors, too?"


     "Yeah, that's fine."  Rick looked out over the classroom.  "You can all make your names different colors if you want.  Whatever.  It makes no difference to me."

     "Mr. Rick?"


     Rick refrained from rolling his eyes.  "Yes, Emily?"

     "But will we get a better grade if we don't use a lot of different colors?  Don't you think our names will look better if we just use one color?"


     "Emily, don't get your knickers in a knot over this, okay?  It's just for fun.  Just so I can learn your names.  I'm not going to give you a grade."


     "You're not?"


     "No, I'm not."


     The little girl's pale brows drew together and her eyes narrowed in suspicion.  "Just what kind of a teacher are you if you're not going to give us a grade?"


     "The kind every kid dreams of, Emily.  The kind every kid dreams of."


     Emily eyed the detective a few seconds longer before reluctantly returning to her work.  Rick got the feeling that before the day was over she was going to march down to Stacy's office and report him as an imposter.


     The children finally seemed satisfied with their assignment, allowing Rick to give an internal sigh of relief as he headed for the chair behind Mrs. Dunford's desk.


     "Mr. Rick!  Mr. Rick!"


     Oh, no.


     An elfin, dark headed beauty that Rick thought might be Jessica, but then again she could be Olivia, pointed toward a classmate.


     "Micah's crying."


     Rick walked toward the blond boy he had earlier instructed not to eat his crayons.  The child's head was bent down so low over his desk that Rick had to crouch on his hunches in order to see the boy's face.  He looked around and noticed the other children staring.


     "The rest of you get back to work," Rick ordered sternly.  "This doesn't concern you."


     The detective waited until the children did as ordered.  He then brought a gentle hand up and laid it on the boy's arm.  "Micah?"  He softly beckoned.  "Micah, what's wrong?  Why are you crying?"


     A small hand reached up to swipe at a stray tear. 


     "Micah?  Come on, buddy, tell me what's the matter."


     The boy pushed out between the sobs he was trying to contain, "I...I...I printed too big my name won...won' on the paper."


     Rick smiled and reached out to tousle the boy's thick hair.  "Is that all?  Well, that's nothing to cry over.  I'll just get you another piece and this time you can print a little smaller."


     "But...but...but it's Mrs. Dunford's spec...spec...special paper."


     "That's okay.  I'll buy Mrs. Dunford more paper when she gets back."


     Rick patted the boy's back as he rose and crossed over to the shelf where he retrieved another piece of sturdy paper.  He laid it on Micah's desk.  "There you go, buddy."


     The boy sniffled away his remaining tears and looked up with admiration.  "Would you help me this time, Mr. Rick, so I don't do it wrong again?"


     Rick dropped to his knees beside the small desk with a smile.  "Sure I will.  We'll do it together."


     It was thirty minutes later before all the children were finished creating their nameplates.  Rick quickly discovered he needed to have other assignments prepared for those who finished early, otherwise they tended to get up and wander the room, talk, giggle, and engage in horseplay.


     I guess six-year-olds don't have a very long attention span.  Geez, who woulda' thought they have so much damn energy.


     Rick's first attempts at gathering up his class and getting the wanderers back to their desks failed.  He'd no more than get one seated, when another one would be on the move.  He finally clapped his hands together three times and barked orders like a drill sergeant.  "Everyone back to their seats now, or you guys can forget about recess today!" 


     The children pushed and shoved as they scampered to their desks in fear of Rick's wrath. 


"Hurry!  Hurry!"    

     From there, Rick had to demonstrate how to fold the paper so the names showed.  He soon found himself occupied with helping those children who didn't quite understand what he meant.


     Ole' Mrs. Dunford's gonna blow her cork when she finds out these kids spent all day making nameplates for me.  Oh well, it ain't like I'm gonna be here to deal with it.


     The detective glanced up at the clock when he was finally able to reach the teacher's desk.  He looked down at her lesson plan book to see he was already an hour behind schedule.  The children were to say the pledge of allegiance right after attendance was taken, then the day began with math class.


     "Okay, kids, we're gonna get our day started.  Everyone stand and face the flag."


     The children rose with practiced ease and faced the stars and stripes that hung from a pole in the upper front corner of the room.   


     "Mr. Rick!  Mr. Rick!"


     What now?


     "Yes, Emily?"

     "It's Jeremiah's turn to lead us in the pledge."


     "Thanks for the pointer, kid."  Rick's eyes scanned the papers perched on the front of the desks until he came to Jeremiah.  "Okay, Jeremiah, you start us off."

     The children put their hands over their hearts as Jeremiah's voice began.  "I pledge allegiance..."


     Rick and his little class joined in as one.  Some of the boys copied Rick's movement when they saw that, rather than place his hand over his heart, the former Vietnam veteran chose to salute the flag.


     As the pledge drew to a close, Rick looked out over his classroom of twenty. 


     It's times like this I know what I was fightin' for, was Rick's brief thought before instructing the children to pull out their math workbooks.   





     Upon the clanging of the bell signaling the start of the school day, A.J.'s class filled with students just as Rick's had.  Though at twelve years old, the blond detective's students were far less intimidated by the presence of a strange man. 


     A.J. well remembered his own school days and the pandemonium that often ensued as a result of a substitute teacher.  Therefore, it didn't surprise him when a portion of his eighteen students refused to settle into their desks.  Loud talk and laughter dominated the classroom, prompting A.J. to immediately close the door.  Wads of balled up paper flew back and forth across the room as four boys engaged in battle.  Three girls giggled together in a tight knot, their eyes never leaving the handsome detective.  A paper airplane took off from the back of the room and landed neatly on the middle of A.J.'s desk, much to the delight of the air traffic controllers who launched it.  They clapped and cheered as though they'd just landed a 747 on a rooftop.


     A.J. folded his arms over his chest and watched as the adolescents frolicked liked hyperactive monkeys just released from the zoo.  Five minutes passed in which they chose to ignore his silent presence.  When he decided it was time to show them who was really in charge, A.J. placed the thumb and forefinger of his right hand between his lips.  The whistle was shrill, piercing, and prolonged. 


     "All right, everyone, you've had your fun!  Now take your seats."


     The kids took in A.J.'s stern stance and did as they were told.  The detective made no reference to their misbehavior as he came to stand behind the teacher's desk. 


     "Good morning.  I'm Mr. Simon, and I'm here today in place of Mrs. Tarsetti, who's ill.  I'll take attendance, then we'll spend a few minutes getting to know one another before we begin class."


     A.J. went down the attendance roll he'd already pulled out of Mrs. Tarsetti's desk drawer.  He received well-mannered 'here’s' in response to his calling out the first five names on the list.  When he came to number six he said, "Tyler Graffton?"


     A gangly brunette with braces answered a little too politely. "I'm here, Mr. Simon!"


     "Jake Hanley?"


     A blond boy wearing wire rimmed glasses responded with a prompt,  "Here!"


     A.J. looked up at the two boys.  His words were pointed and stern.  "Unless you two have a good reason for assuming one another's identity, vast experience will lead me to tell you such a move is not wise.  I'd also advise you to switch seats so that you, Jake," A.J. looked at the brunette, "are sitting in the correct place."  The detective next turned to the blond.  "And as well, you, Tyler."


     The boys exchanged glances that clearly said, ‘How'd he know?’ while in the process of switching desks.  A.J. smiled inwardly at their naiveté.  Out of the corner of his eye he'd seen them snickering during the earlier mayhem while they'd traded seats.  He didn't have to be a private detective in order to surmise what they were up to.


     A.J. didn't comment when he saw two other boys on the opposite side of the room discreetly changing seats as well. 


     Role call was finished without further incident.  A.J. stepped out from behind the desk to perch casually on its left front corner.  With a nod of his head he indicated to the first child in the first row.  "Carrie, we'll begin with you.  Tell us something about yourself."


     "Like what?" 


There was no doubt the mossy-headed girl was in the throes of adolescence.  Her facial features were nondescript and braces filled her mouth, giving her lips the puffy appearance of having gone five rounds in the boxing ring.  She was skinny as a mop handle, with no indication that womanhood was going to grace her doorstep anytime soon.  Even at a distance A.J. could faintly detect the antiseptic smell of Clearasil, and he wondered how much attention, good or bad, Carrie received from her classmates.


     "Anything at all.  Perhaps something no one else knows about you.  A hobby you enjoy, or something about your family that you wouldn't mind sharing with the class."


     The girl hesitated a long moment.  A.J. flashed her a reassuring smile.  "It doesn't have to be anything profound, Carrie.  Just whatever comes to your mind.  Just so I can get to know each one of you better."


     "Weeeell, I like to draw pictures of horses.  And...and someday I'd like to travel the country and make my living as an equine artist."


     "That's great." A.J praised.  "Good for you.  I have no talent whatsoever when it comes to art, so I envy you your ability.  Keep up the good work."


     The florescent lights gleamed off Carrie's braces as she threw A.J. a one-hundred watt smile of appreciation.   He smiled back before his eyes traveled to the boy behind her.  With just a little mental searching, he came up with the kid's name.  "Matt, how about you?"


     The pattern continued until A.J. had learned at least one thing about all the children in his homeroom class.  Some didn't offer anything other than, "I like to play baseball," or  "I baby-sit for my little brother every day after school," but regardless of what was said, A.J. made a positive comment and showed genuine interest.  Without realizing it, he was already endearing himself to the kids.


     When the last child was finished, it was A.J.'s turn.  "Now that I know something about each one of you, I'll tell you something about myself.  My name is A.J. Simon, and your principle, Mrs. Harrington, used to be my neighbor.  When we're not...uh...substitute teaching, my brother and I run a private detective agency called Simon and Simon."


     A.J.'s class was impressed.  The girls found the notion of a private investigator for their teacher to be a romantic one, while the boys found it exciting.


     "Wow!  A real detective!  Just like on TV!"


     "Mr. Simon, have you ever been shot at?"


     "Mr. Simon, have ever been in a car chase?"


     "Hey, Mr. Simon, have you--"


     A.J. held up his hands.  "That's enough for now.  We need to start our day.  I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have after class, or during lunch break."


     The blond man picked up Mrs. Tarsetti's spiral bound lesson planner.  "All right.  To begin with I can see that last night you were to read chapter six in your health books, which we're going to discuss today.  Now since Mrs. Tarsetti evidently has her book at home, I'm without one.  Therefore, I need to ask one of you to tell me what chapter six is about."


     The kids looked from one to another.  Some let forth nervous giggles, some bowed their heads in embarrassment, while some willingly volunteered their friends.


     Jake half rose in his seat and indicated to Tyler by shaking a pointed finger at the top of his head.  "Mr. Simon, Tyler wants to tell you what chapter six is all about!"


     "I do not!"  Tyler turned around and swiped an arm at his friend in protest.   "Jake does!"


     "Oh no, I don't.  Brett does."


     "Huh uh," came the denial from the back of the room,  "Jonathan does."


     Before the dark skinned Jonathan could pass the buck, A.J. put a stop to the nonsense that he realized could take up the remainder of the thirty-five minutes left in the period.


     "Okay, okay, that's enough.  Now would someone please tell me what's so difficult about giving me an answer to my question?  Matt?"


     A.J. waited expectantly, but Matt did no more than gnaw on his lower lip.








     When A.J. still received no response, he glared out over his students and played his trump card.  He picked up Mrs. Tarsetti's grade book and a pen.  "Evidently none of you has completed your assignment.  Therefore, I'm going to have to give all of you F's, leave a note for Mrs. Tarsetti, and send notes home to your parents."


     A.J. surreptitiously watched through his eyelashes.  Like a series of falling dominos, one child nudged the next in an effort to convince at least one classmate to speak up.  He had to hide his smile as he listened to their frantic whispers. 


     "You tell him!"


     "No, you tell him!"


     "Come on!  Go ahead, Matt, you tell him.  You're the one who gets straight A's.  You don't want him to give all of us F's."


     "I don't care if I get an F or not!  I'm not gonna tell him, have Lindsay do it.  She blabs everything else."


     "I do not blab!  And just for that remark, Matthew Meiers, I'm not going to tell him either.  Have Sarah do it."


     "I'm not going to do it!"


     A.J. let them wage their hushed battle until finally one hand was reluctantly raised at half-mast.  All eyes in the room turned to the girl A.J. called on.


     "Yes, Carrie?"


     "About...about chapter six, Mr. Simon?"

     "Yes, Carrie."


     "We read it."


     "I see.  All of you?"

     Eighteen heads nodded up and down. 


     "Good.  Then perhaps you, Carrie, would like to fill me in on behalf of your classmates.  What is chapter six about that's causing such unrest amongst you?"








     "Yes, Carrie?"

     "It's about safe..."


     "Safety in the home?"  A.J. guessed.


     Carrie shook her head no.


     "Safety at school?"

     Carrie's head moved in a negative direction once more.


     "Fire safety?"




     A.J. gave the girl a reassuring smile.  "Come on, Carrie, you can tell me.  Safe what?"

     A.J. had to strain to hear Carrie's last word on the subject.  The girl's head was bowed, her cheeks aflame, and her voice barely above a whisper.




     The blond detective sank back against the desk.  "Oh.  Safe...oh.  I see."


     When A.J. looked out over his class he saw eighteen pink tinged faces that he knew matched his own.


     Thanks, Stacy.  Thanks a lot. 


     A.J. lips curved in the best smile he could manage considering the circumstances.  ", that's a good subject for us to discuss today.  I'm glad each one of you read the chapter.  I...uh...I...I..."


     A vague idea suddenly formed itself in the back of the detective's mind.  He clapped his hands together with satisfaction.  "Okay, everyone, we're going on a little field trip."


     The children echoed their bewilderment.  "Field trip?"


     "Yes, a field trip.  We're going down to the cafeteria, so I expect you to be quiet and orderly in the hallways so we don't disturb the other classes."          


     The kids shrugged with confusion, but did as they were told.  They grouped together with their friends and walked behind A.J. as he led them to the cafeteria with an odd spring to his step.


Chapter 5



     Geneva sat on the chenille bedspread allowing her eyes to briefly fall to its surface. The worn fabric had at one time been white, but was now the dingy gray spoken of in laundry soap commercials, a victim of too many washings.   She'd gotten it at the second-hand store where she purchased all their clothing and household items.  She was living far from the luxury her husband had promised her so many months before.


     A violent round of lovemaking had left her sore and fearful that Bobby had damaged the child growing inside her.  Now he paced back and forth in front of her, naked, with a closed Bible in his hand.  Like a perverse version of a TV preacher, he thumped and pounded and jumped up and down for emphasis as he quoted what Geneva believed were passages made up by no one other than himself.


     "And the Lord God has spoken to me saying, Bobby, you are to go forth and spread my message.  Disciples of Satan are poisoning the minds of our children and our children's children!  You must rise up and slay them even as they stand before the innocent.  Let no more evil words spew forth from their throats!"


     Geneva's mind wandered as the man rambled on.  When Bobby got like this he expected her to be an attentive audience until he was finished.  That could be minutes, or it could be hours.   Sometimes he 'preached' until he lost his voice, or until he collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.  Sometimes it seemed to work him into such a sexual frenzy that he forced her to make love again.   If she were lucky, that wouldn't happen today.  She didn't think her body could accept anymore of his careless bruising thrusts.  She wrapped her bathrobe more firmly about her nakedness as though the thin cloth would somehow shield her from his desires.


     Bobby turned so his back was to his wife, and made a round of the room preaching to an audience Geneva couldn't see.  Her eyes traveled the small interior.  She wanted to paint the walls before the baby came.  They were lime green and smudged with dirty fingerprints and scuffmarks from the previous tenants.  She thought bright yellow would be a nice color.  It reminded Geneva of the sun, warm and friendly.  She wanted to let the baby know it was welcome in its new world, and repainting the walls seemed as good a place as any to start.


     She hoped by then she could convince Bobby to get rid of the guns.  Much to Geneva's displeasure, the bedroom had taken on the look of an arsenal.  Handguns littered the top of the dresser like discarded change, and rifles were lined up like soldiers along two walls.  Bobby had even gotten hand grenades from somewhere.  For now they were safely cocooned in a drawer amongst his socks, but Geneva shuddered to think as to what might happen if a toddler accidentally stumbled upon them someday. 


     Geneva had tried to point that out to Bobby two weeks ago, at a time when he appeared to be calm and rational.  In short order she discovered her mistake.  He struck her again and again and told her such concerns were not for women.  The bruises were still evident when she went to the free clinic three days later for her monthly doctor's appointment.  Geneva could tell Dr. Qualyn didn't believe her when she said she'd slipped on the wet kitchen floor after mopping it, but there wasn't much else he could do as long as she stood by her story.  In the end, he gave her arm a sympathetic pat and handed her a small business card with the name, address, and phone number of a women's shelter on it. 


     "If you ever feel the need to...leave your situation, Mrs. Masters, the Horizon Center is open twenty-four hours a day.  They'll offer you a place to stay and give you whatever help they can."


     Geneva had dropped her eyes as she accepted the card.  She stuffed it deep in a side pocket of her sweater, then hid it underneath the tissue paper lining of shoebox in a far dark corner of the bedroom closet.  A year ago the idea of leaving Bobby would have been foreign to her.  But a lot had changed in twelve months time, and now Geneva caught herself wondering if she wouldn't be better off to get out before the baby was born.  Bobby no longer had a job. They were living on welfare and food stamps, just the same as she'd be living if she were alone with a newborn child. 


     Geneva thought back to the day two months earlier when her husband had called her from work and told her to come pick him up.  His shift didn't end until five, but it was only a few minutes after two when the phone rang.  He sounded upset and furious.


     "Geneva, I need you to come get me right now."


     "What's wrong, Bobby?  Are you sick?"


     "No, I'm not sick!  Just git your ass down here and pick me up!"


     "Okay, I'll be--"


     The connection was broken before Geneva had a chance to finish her sentence.  She'd grabbed her purse and rushed out to their dilapidated 1972 station wagon, the only car they owned.  When she arrived at the factory where Bobby worked he was pacing the loading dock.  As soon as he saw her he jumped down and marched toward the car.  By the cuts above his left eyebrow and the bruises on his right cheek, Geneva knew he'd gotten into another fight.  She also knew he'd been warned just four days earlier if it happened again he'd be fired. 


     He threw his jacket and metal lunch bucket in the back seat as he slid in on the front passenger side.  His order was short and succinct.  "Drive."


     Geneva knew better than to ask for any details.  She watched as Bobby repeatedly squeezed his hands into fists while staring tight lipped out the window.  She drove toward the open gates made of silver cyclone fencing.  As she applied the brake and paused to look for traffic, she overheard through her open window the conversation of two men she recognized as Bobby's co-workers.  They were on their afternoon coffee break, leaning against the fencing smoking cigarettes.  One nodded toward the car. 


     "That Bobby Master's is a frickin' kook.  Mark my words, he's gonna hurt somebody someday."


     "No kiddin', man.  I've never been around anyone as nuts as him."


     Before their conversation could go any farther Geneva pulled onto the road.  Bobby never spoke of that day, and didn't seem inclined to look for work.  He'd faked a limp and complained of excruciating back pain when he'd gone to the free clinic to get medical papers to certify he was disabled so he and Geneva would qualify for welfare.  Things had only gone from bad to worse since that time.


     Bobby now had the Bible open and appeared to be reading from it, though Geneva knew that wasn't so.  Amongst other things she'd come to discover about him recently, was the fact his reading skills weren't above the second grade level.


     "And ye, I shall send to you a son who shall sit at the right hand of God, and you shall call the child Gabriel."


     He looked up and pressed a finger into the delicate tissue paper page.  "Do you hear that, Geneva?  God has spoken to me.  We are to call our son Gabriel, and he is to be the right hand of the Lord."


     "But, Bobby, you know I plan to name the baby after my father if it's a boy.  I'm going to call him Thomas Ross."


     Geneva's father had died when she was just four years old leaving behind her mother, older sister, and two younger brothers.  Although her memories of the man were vague, her heart warmed each time she thought of him.  She knew he had brought happiness into their household and could recall weekends at the beach with a big strapping man who loved to run with his children into the surf.  They were the only happy times she'd ever known, and were now a distance memory.  She'd hoped by naming her child after her father she could somehow recreate those sunny days.


     Bobby's hand flew out and snared Geneva by her upper arm.  He yanked her off the bed and held her so tight and close she could feel his hardness against her thigh.  "Our Lord has decreed the child be called Gabriel Emmanuel, Geneva.  Gabriel, because the name means ‘God's messenger.’  Emmanuel because it means ‘God is among us.’  Therefore Gabriel Emmanuel, or the Lord's messenger is among us.  That is what we shall call him, Geneva, for I have said it is so."


     Geneva wanted to ask Bobby just who he thought he was telling her what she was going to name the child she carried within her, but the crazed look in his eye and the bruising grip on her arm made Geneva think better of it. 


     "And God tells me our Gabriel shall lead the little children out of bondage."


     Bobby rubbed a tender hand over Geneva's abdomen, and for just a moment she saw the man he used to be.  But just as quickly his mood changed.  He shoved her down on the bed and ripped her bathrobe from her body.  The Bible came to rest beside her head as he savagely thrust himself between her legs.


     Geneva turned her face away from Bobby to hide her tears.  She reached out and laid a hand on the Bible, while silently asking God why.



Chapter 6



     By ten fifteen that morning Rick's young class was so devoted to him they would have followed him to hell and back without questioning where he was leading them.  Dull old math had come alive under Mr. Rick's tutelage.  When he made them each take a turn at coming up to the chalkboard to work their sums he showed them how to make animals out of otherwise boring numbers.  The number 10 was transformed into an owl, a 6 became an ape hanging upside down in a tree, and a 9 was the beginnings of a puppy with a happy face. 


     Phonics was fun, too, when taught by Mr. Rick.  He looked in Mrs. Dunford's workbook to see what sounds and new words the kids were learning.  From there, he incorporated those things into the kind of silly limericks and rhymes young children immediately fall in love with and quickly memorize.  As his little class delightfully recited a slightly dirty ditty that was beyond their understanding, Rick briefly wondered if he made an error in judgment, then just as quickly dismissed the thought.


     Aw, who cares?  It ain't like I'm gonna be here after today anyway.


     Rick looked through Mrs. Dunford's plan book to see what the next subject was to be covered while his students finished their phonics lesson.  He smoothly moved them on to their reading textbooks, while taking minimal notice of a lot of squirming bodies and dancing feet.  He shrugged it off as childhood wiggles until Emily's hand went up.  Rick attempted to ignore her as Jessica read out loud, but the blond girl grew more and more insistent until she was practically jumping out of her seat.  Emily's movements only distracted the rest of the class, causing Jessica's voice to die away.


     "Emily, what is it?"  Rick questioned crossly.  "We're behind schedule, so make it quick."


     Whatever it was Emily needed to tell Rick, she evidently deemed it be done in private.  She walked up to the front of the room and indicated to him to bend over by crooking her finger at him.  He felt her warm breath flutter on his ear.  "We go to the bathroom when the big hand's on the 12 and the little hand's on the ten, then we get a fifteen minute recess.  The little hand's on the ten right now, but the big hand's on the 6, and sometimes Nicholas wets his pants."


     Suddenly the squirms, and wiggles, and dancing feet, made sense to Rick.  He eyed the little boy named Nicholas and could tell the child was in obvious discomfort.  "Thank you, Emily," he whispered back before straightening to his full height.


     "Okay, kids, let's hit the johns and then go outside and play for a while."


     Emily helpfully offered,  "Mr. Rick, Mrs. Dunford's makes us line up boys on one side and girls on the other.  Then we file out in an orderly line."  She pointed a stern finger upward.  "No talking in the hallways either."


     "You know what, Emily?"




     "Mrs. Dunford sounds like a real drag."


     The children lined up just as Emily described.  The blond girl pushed Rick toward the front of the two lines before taking her own place with the girls.  


     "You have to lead us there.  That's how Mrs. Dunford does it."


     "Lead you there?"


     "Yeah, you know, lead us there.  Like soldiers."


     "Oh, like soldiers, huh?  Sure thing, kid.  You got the right guy for this job 'cause I do know a thing or two about soldierin'."


     Rick stood ramrod straight at the front of the children in-between their two lines.  "All right, troops!  Ateeeeeeention!"


     Giggles burst forth as the children copied Rick's body language.  Stomachs were sucked in and little chins and chests jutted out. 


     Rick turned toward the door and marched in place until twenty pairs of feet picked up his rhythm.  "Hup two three four,  hup two three four, hup two three four."  He looked over his shoulder.  "You guys ready?"

     "Ready, sir!"  Emily barked, much to Rick's amusement.


     "Okay, troops.  Let's move out!"


     The children brought their knees up high and their feet down hard as they followed Rick out of the room.  The detective well remembered from his long ago days in the Marine Corps how words were said in cadence to a march.  His quick mind made some up to fit this particular moment.  "All right, troops, repeat after me.


     "Now it's time to go and play!"


     Twenty voices called back in unison,  "Now it's time to go and play!


     "On this good and quite fine day!"


     "On this good and quite fine day!"


     "We will run and have some fun!"


     "We will run and have some fun!"


     "Beneath the California sun!"


     "Beneath the California sun!"


     Rick and the children were able to repeat the rhyme three more times before reaching the bathrooms.  Other teachers, curious to see what the commotion was all about, came to stand in their doorways.  A few smiled with amusement, while others shook their heads and shut their doors on the disturbance.  Stacy peeked her head out of the second grade classroom she was substituting in.  She couldn't help but laugh at Rick and his little army, then gave him a ‘thumbs up’ before returning to her own duties.


     It took more time than Rick would have thought possible for all twenty of his kids to make use of the facilities.  But when they were finally all present in the hallway once again, he led them out to the playground at a full gallop with a cry of,  "Yay!  Recess!"


     The detective played ball, and jumped rope, and threw stones for hopscotch right along side his charges.  He let the fifteen minute recess stretch to twenty-five minutes before gathering up his group and heading them indoors.  They clung to his hands and waist, pushing and shoving as they all tried to jockey for a coveted position next to Mr. Rick.


     Stacy was waiting for them at the building's main entrance.  "Hurry, children!  You're ten minutes late for lunch period."


     The kids dashed off in the direction of the cafeteria.  Chandler turned around and tugged at one of Rick's hands. "Come on, Mr. Rick!  Aren't you going to eat with us, too?"

     "I'll be there in a minute, pal.  You go on ahead."


     "I'll save you a seat!"


     "You do that."


     Stacy smiled and arched an eyebrow.  "Mr. Rick?"


     Rick waved a hand in dismissal.  "You know me, I don't take to that formal jazz too much.  So the kids decided to call me Mr. Rick."


     "You're a hit with them, that's for certain."


     "Anyone can be a hit with little kids for one day.  It's bein' able to do it year round like your teachers do that takes skill."


     "If nothing else, you'll get your chance for a few more days."


     "Whatta ya' mean?"


     "While my class is at lunch I've been making phone calls to my sick staff members to see if I can get an idea as to who will be in tomorrow and who won't be.  Mrs. Dunford went to see her doctor this morning.  He's given her orders that she's not to return for the rest of the week."


     "I see."


     "Likewise, I've talked to Mrs. Tarsetti, the teacher for whom A.J. is substituting.  Not only does she have the flu, but her three-year-old son broke out with chicken pox a few hours ago."


     "So she won't be in the rest of the week either, huh?"

     "That's about the size of it.  Therefore, I hope you don't mind me asking you and A.J. to stay with us until Friday."


     Rick was surprised to discover how willing he was to meet Stacy's request.  "I guess that would be okay.  I mean, it's not like we have anything else goin' right now, and what the heck, twelve bucks an hour is twelve bucks an hour.   But as far as A.J. goes, I can't answer for him.  You'll have to check with him yourself."


     "I already have.  I caught him between classes a few minutes ago.  He basically said the same thing you did."


     "Okay, then it looks like we'll both be back tomorrow morning.  And hey, how's A.J. doin' anyway?"


     Stacy shook her head and smiled.  "Let's just say that like his older brother, A.J. has a teaching style all his own."





     A.J.'s homeroom class returned with nine fresh white eggs donated to them by the cooks in the cafeteria.   The blond knew he was lucky in regards to this class.  It possessed an equal number of boys to girls.  How he'd deal with his two other sixth grade classes that were bound not to have the sexes matched up so perfectly he'd worry about later. 


     The children showed A.J. where the school supply/storage room was on their return trip.  He had the kids help locate two dozen small cardboard boxes not much bigger than his hand.  His eyes scanned the shelves until he came across unopened rolls of paper towels.  He grabbed one of those, then led the way back to classroom.          


     The kids piled the boxes on top of his desk.  A.J. placed the paper towels and carton of eggs next to them.  He looked out over his dumbfounded class.


     He cleared his throat and plunged right in.  "All right, everybody, you're about to have your first lesson in safe sex."


     A.J. ignored the laughter that rippled through the classroom.  "I'd like to tell you the decision to have sex, or not to have sex, is strictly one made after you reach adulthood.  Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Before most of you are out of high school, you will encounter situations that force you to make the choice as to whether or not to engage in sexual activity.   Now, can anyone tell me what you learned about safe sex in your textbooks?"


     The ease in which A.J. approached the subject, and his class's curiosity in regards to the eggs on his desk, caused a few hands to be raised. 


     "Yes, Brian?"

     "We learned that unprotected sex can cause AIDS."


     "And can anyone tell me what AIDS is?"

     From there, the discussion picked up steam with the kids volunteering what they'd read the night before, or what they knew from watching television or reading the newspapers.  Not having seen the children's textbook caused A.J. to be careful about what he said.  By far, he didn't want to engage in a discussion of morals that was bound to enrage some parents. 


     The bell was due to ring shortly, causing A.J. to regretfully wrap up the productive talk.  "I don't know whether I'll be back again tomorrow, but in the event I'm not, I trust you'll fill Mrs. Tarsetti in on what we talked about today."


     The class nodded their agreement and there were smatterings of "Yes, Mr. Simon," and "Sure thing, Mr. Simon."


     "Now, as for your assignment.  I'm going to call you up in pairs to retrieve some paper toweling, a box, and an egg."


     The kids were too busy wondering what A.J. had up his sleeve to ask any questions as they were called up two by two, a boy always matched with a girl.  The detective had been watching his class interact during the discussion period, and was quickly able to pick out the popular kids from the unpopular ones, and the studious ones from those more lax regarding their schoolwork.  He paired them up accordingly, forcing them to move outside their normal circles of friends.


     The popular Matt was called to come forward with the awkward Carrie.  A.J. gently cradled an egg in a nest of paper toweling and placed it in a box.  "Congratulations Matt and Carrie.  You're married, and have just become the proud parents of a bouncing baby egg."


     Both students blushed as their classmates catcalled and teased.  A.J. let the kids have their fun for a few seconds then held up a hand.  


"All right, that's enough now.  Don't give Matt and Carrie a hard time, because each one of you is going to become parents before you leave here today.  We've talked about many of the consequences of sex this morning, all of them very real, and some of them deadly.  Well, another consequence of sex is an unwanted pregnancy.   These eggs will represent the result of that fictional pregnancy.  They're fragile, just like real babies are.  If you drop them you'll hurt them, or worse, kill them.  They have to be taken care of and taken everywhere you go.  I expect you boys to take as much responsibility for the eggs as the girls do.  You can draw a face on them, name them, dress them, do whatever you want with them.  But most of all, think of them as a newborn baby who depends on you to provide for its care."


     Despite the fact some of the children weren't thrilled with the 'husband' or 'wife' A.J. paired them with, they all showed enthusiasm over this unique project.  They spent a few minutes working together to make their babies comfortable in the boxes that were meant to represent cradles, and with the paper towels meant to be used as cushioning and blankets.  A.J. set aside the remainder of the boxes and paper toweling with the intention of using them for his other classes.  He'd already been promised the remainder of the eggs he needed by one of the women on the kitchen staff.  


     A.J. glanced at the clock and saw he had just one minute left before the bell rang that would signal his students were to move on to their next class.  "When we come together again tomorrow we'll talk about your first day with your new babies.  Whoever amongst you takes care of the baby today gets tomorrow off.  That means your partner takes over when you walk in the building tomorrow morning."


     Some of the boys groaned.  "That's right, guys," A.J. stated,  "I meant it when I said you're going to take responsibility as well.  If I hear differently from your ‘wives’ I will personally rectify the situation."


     Jake's hand went up and A.J. nodded at him.  "But what if you're not here tomorrow, Mr. Simon?"

     "Don't worry, Jake, I'll be sure to let Mrs. Harrington know what your assignment is.  I have a feeling she'll see you properly carry it out."




     "Well, Jake, that's the price you pay for Jake Junior over there."


     Jake blushed as his buddies laughed.


     The bell rang, causing the children to gather up their books and their eggs.  A.J. smiled as he watched the new parents carefully juggle their little charges amongst their other possessions.  He wondered how long it would be before the novelty wore off and the eggs were nothing more than yolks. 


     By the time the bell rang again three minutes later, A.J.'s classroom was filled with fifth graders.  Although he thought his impromptu discussion on sex went well, he was thankful to learn this age group was studying the effects of exercise and a healthy diet versus a sedentary lifestyle and a diet saturated with fats and sugars.  That subject matter gave A.J. an excuse to take his class out in the sunshine for a few minutes and allow them an impromptu recess.   When one boy helpfully pointed out to him that fifth and sixth graders don't get a morning recess like the younger children do, A.J. smiled.


     "This isn't a recess, Tim.  This is class.  You're learning about the healthful benefits of exercise.  Now come on, pass me the basketball."





     It was late in the school day when Rick's little ones gathered around him on the floor.  Emily informed him this was story time, and provided him with the book Mrs. Dunford was reading to them.  The detective flicked through it, then tossed it over his shoulder.  "Boring."


     The children giggled at this funny teacher's ways.        


     "But this is our story time, Mr. Rick," Emily stated with a hint of annoyance.




     "I know, I know.  Don't get my knickers in a knot."


     Rick laughed, then reached out and gently pulled on one pigtail.  "That's right, kiddo.  Unknot them knickers.  You're gonna get yourself a story all right.  A story Rick Simon style."


     Rick paused in thought a moment, then began weaving a tale filled with princes named Jeremiah and Jedidiah, knights named Zeke and Nicholas, and a king named Micah.  There was a queen named LaKeshia, and ‘Princesses Three,’ as Rick put it, named Olivia, Autumn, and Jessica. A little girl named Lady Emily lived way up in the tallest tower in the land, and oversaw all that went on there and reported those events to the king.   Every child in the room fit into Rick's story somewhere.  Each one listened with rapt attention and smiled every time his or her name was mentioned.  The bell rang signaling the end of the school day long before Rick finished. 


     "But you're not done," Emily moaned,  "and we hafta go."


     "Yeah," other little voices echoed in despair, "you're not done and we hafta go home, Mr. Rick."


     "That's the best part of a story like this, guys.  It's continues day after day.  We'll hear more of it tomorrow."


     Emily leaned forward and stared up into Rick's eyes.  "Promise?"


     "Sure thing, kiddo.  I promise."  Rick pushed himself to his feet, his class following suit.  "Okay, guys, gather up your things so you can get to your buses."


     Rick envied the dexterity of the young ones as they ran with ease to their desks and began filling backpacks.  He limped behind them until his legs were once more accustomed to supporting his weight.  He helped those children that needed assistance so everyone could get out of the door on time.  He didn't know if it was necessary to walk them out to the front of the building or not.  He supposed by now, two months into the school year, they were used to the routine, but he followed them anyway just to be on the safe side.  The children waved and called goodbye to him as one by one they climbed on the bright yellow buses that would take them home.


     Fifteen minutes later A.J. found his brother picking up stray pieces of paper and straightening desks that sat askew from an active day.


     "Gee, I could never get you to pick up around my place when the Hole In The Water was anchored in my yard and you practically lived on my couch.  I guess until now I never knew the secret.  I should have filled my home with a class full of six year olds."


     "Don't count on it, little brother.  Believe me, the thrill woulda' worn off fast."    


     Rick placed a hand at the small of his back and grimaced as he stretched.  "I'll tell ya' something, kids can do a guy in.  I'm ready for a nap."


     "Well, you're not going to get one.  We're going to the office for a couple of hours."




     A.J. put a hand on his brother's back and led him out of the room.  "If nothing else, we're going to look through the mail and listen to our messages."


     "Man, this having two jobs is for the birds.  You know, I've been thinking, this teacherin' thing might not have been such a bad profession to pursue.  Heck, you get three months off every year and all major holidays."


     A.J. gave his brother a sidelong glance.  "So you really like it, huh?"


     Rick shrugged.  "It has its moments, both good and bad.  How about you?  How did your day go?"

     "Pretty good.  I wasn't exactly ready to engage in a discussion on safe sex with a bunch of twelve year olds, but I got through it, I guess."


     "You're kidding?"


     "No, I'm not."


     "Man, I woulda' liked to have been a little mouse in that class."


     "And I would have gladly traded you classes at that moment, believe me."


     "I'm sure you would have, little brother," Rick chuckled.  "I'm sure you would have."


     The men exited the building after saying goodbye to Stacy and promising they'd see her the next morning.  They put an hour and half in at the office, then A.J. bought them both dinner at the restaurant housed on the ground floor.  The blond dropped his brother off in front of the houseboat at seven thirty.  Neither of them could help but laugh when A.J. promised to pick Rick up for school the next morning.



Chapter 7



     Wednesday was an easier day for both Rick and A.J., and by Thursday they were practically old hands at the teaching profession.


     Rick possessed almost as much energy and enthusiasm as his six-year-olds.  He was forever coming up with innovative ideas that ignited the learning process within their little minds.  He brought his guitar to school with him on Wednesday and made use of it during the daily phonics lesson, much to the delight of the children.  When he decided the kids had earned a well-deserved break from their studies later in the day, he pulled the instrument out again.  The children sat around him in a semi-circle and called out song requests.  Rick played while the kids sang everything from Michael Row Your Boat Ashore, to Puff The Magic Dragon, to Bingo.


     The class had been studying the animal kingdom prior to Rick's arrival.  He'd got permission from Stacy to have Cecilia bring in Rex after lunch on Wednesday.  The gentle young dog stayed forty-five minutes and was lavished with more hugs and attention than one animal deserved.  Although Rex's array of tricks didn't extend beyond sitting on command, coming when Rick called him, and begging for a Milk-Bone, the kids claimed he was as smart and well-trained as Lassie. 


     On Thursday, Rick arranged for a friend who owned a bird and reptile store to come in with a parrot, a cockatiel, a boa constrictor, and an iguana.  Those children who wanted to got to help hold the twelve foot boa constrictor named Milo, while Rick's buddy told the children all about snakes. The parrot, Odie, had five phrases he could say.  The kids never seemed to tire of hearing him repeat them over and over while they fed him crackers and sunflower seeds.


     By the time Rick's third day drew to a close he had even won over the formidable Emily.  As the children were getting ready to board their buses she ran up to him and threw her arms around his waist.  A gentle hand patted her back in return.


     "What's that for, kiddo?"

     A little heart shaped face gazed upward.  "Cause the week's almost over."

     "That it is," Rick smiled.  "But we've got one more day yet.  I'll be back tomorrow."


     "But after that you'll be done.  Mrs. Dunford will be back on Monday."


     "Yep, she will be."


     "But I don't want her to come back.  I want you to be our teacher.  Everyone does."


     Rick bent his knees and hunched down in front of the girl so they were eye level.  "And as much as I'd like to go on being your teacher, Emily, I can't.  I'm just substituting while Mrs. Dunford is sick.  Remember how I told you guys yesterday that my brother and I are private investigators?"


     Emily nodded.  "Yeah.  You said you find things for people, and sometimes you help put bad men in jail."


     "That's right, that's what we do.  And that's what we have to go back to doing next week."


     Emily's eyes dropped so Rick wouldn't see her tears.  A small hand reached out to idly play with a button on the front of his shirt.  "But why?"


     "Because for as much as you've enjoyed me bein' your teacher this week, and for as much as I've enjoyed bein' your teacher, I'm not all that good at it.  I'm better at bein' a private investigator, just like Mrs. Dunford is better at bein' a teacher."


     "But you're a good teacher, Mr. Rick.  You're the bestest teacher I ever had."


     "Well, thank you, Emily," Rick chuckled, "that means a lot to me.  But I'm really not as good as you make me out to be.  I haven't gotten you guys to lunch on time yet, which is pis...tickin' off the cooks to no end, and according to Mrs. Cameron across the hall it sounds like Mardi Gras is goin' on in here on a daily basis.  And Mrs. Whithers says I let you guys take too long of a recess, causing her class to be mad at her and demand the same amount of time, and Mr. Samuels says we disturb the other classes when we take our bathroom breaks.   Plus, I forgot to find out if anyone was allergic to dogs before Rex came to visit us yesterday.  Micah ended up sneezing all night long and his mother wrote me a pretty nasty note about the whole thing."


     Emily rolled her eyes.  "Take it from me, Mr. Rick, I've been goin' to school with Micah since kindergarten, and he's got lots of problems.  What do you expect from a kid who eats his crayons?"


     Rick couldn't help but laugh as he drew the child to him.  He gave her a quick hug.  "Emily, you're quite a girl, you know that?"  He released her and tousled her long thick locks.  "You may not realize it now, but you'll enjoy the peace and quiet Mrs. Dunford is gonna bring back to your classroom.  And hey, listen, I'll talk to Mrs. Harrington about you guys taking a field trip to the office where my brother and I have our business."


     "Really?  You promise?"


     "Sure I promise.  It won't be all that exciting I don't suppose, but A.J. and me can show you guys first hand what private investigators do.  Then maybe we can go on a picnic at the marina where I live."


     "Wow!  That would be great, Mr. Rick."


     Rick rose and gently pushed the little girl on her way.  "Okay, it's a deal then.  You go on now.  You don't wanna miss your bus."

     All traces of tears were gone.  A smile now dominated Emily's face.  "Bye, Mr. Rick.  See you tomorrow!"


     "Bye, Emily.  See ya' tomorrow."


     Halfway down the hallway the little girl turned around and scampered back into the room.  "Hey, Mr. Rick?"


     Rick pivoted from where he'd been straightening desks.  "Yeah?"


     "If I get my mom to make cupcakes and cookies tonight, can we have a party in here tomorrow?  You know, 'cause it's your last day."


     "Sure, kiddo, why not?  Everyday's a party in here anyway.  If you get your Mom to do that, I'll spring for the apple juice, how's that sound?"


     "All right!  But you'd better bring some grape too, cause Micah's--"


     "Don't tell me, let me guess.  Micah's allergic to apple."



     "Okay, apple and grape it is.  Now go on with you.  It sounds like you have a lot of baking to do."


     "I do!  Bye!"


     Rick shook his head and chuckled.  "Bye, Emily."







     A.J.'s popularity with his students mirrored Rick's.  Because of the 'learning recess' he was allowing all his fifth grade classes, he gave up wearing a sport coat and tie on Wednesday in favor of a casual shirt, cotton trousers, and deck shoes.  As well on Wednesday, he brought two electric skillets from home and the necessary ingredients to make a low fat chicken and rice dish.  His three fifth grade classes thought it was great to get the opportunity to cook and eat during the school day.  In contrast on Thursday, A.J. brought in homemade brownies and a cooler full of soft drinks.  The kids talked and laughed with the blond man as they ate their way through the treats.   They gave good natured moans when, as he licked chocolate frosting off his fingers, A.J. told them,  "Okay, you guys, now you've had a day of low fat, nutritional dining, and a day of high fat, high sugar dining.  I want everyone to go home this evening and write me a two page report on both these experiences.  There's no right or wrong answer.  I just want to know what you liked about our chicken dish versus our brownies, and vice versa.  As well, you can tell me what the health benefits are to eating a diet low in fat, versus the health detriments of a high fat diet."


     A hand went up in the back of the room.


     "Yes, Derrick?"

     "But, Mr. Simon, if brownies and soda are so bad for us, how come you brought them in today?"

     A.J. grinned and waggled his eyebrows.  "Because they're fun."  When the kids finished laughing at that remark the investigator grew serious.  "Although your health books may disagree, I believe there's a place for 'fun eating’ in all of our lives.  What's important is that we temper the urge to eat too many sweets and, as well, offset that urge by eating lean meats and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables."


     One overweight boy cupped his full double chin in his pudgy hand and groaned.  "But I like the sweets best."


     A.J. laughed.  "Believe me, Sean, so does my brother."


     A.J. made sure he'd brought enough brownies and sodas to share with his sixth graders that Thursday.  While the students ate and drank they reported to their classmates and A.J. their latest triumphs or woes in parenthood.


     One baby had become the victim of an after-school football game.  His father had sat him on the sidelines thinking he was out of harms way, only to have a defensive lineman fall on him in the process of making a tackle.  No not only did Jake have to report the mishap to A.J., but as well, his 'wife' was no longer talking to him.


     A.J. chuckled as the boy related the story.  Across the aisle Jake's 'wife' sat half turned in her seat with her back to him and her arms folded over her chest.  Her posture was as unforgiving now as it had been on the bus ride to school when Jake explained where their child was.  


     "Although I'm sorry to hear about the demise of Jake Junior, that's a good lesson for all of us.  Like eggs, babies are quite fragile.   As Jake learned, it wouldn't be wise to bring one to a football game and leave it forgotten on the sidelines."


     "But it was my turn to take care of him, Mr. Simon, and I didn't want to miss the game," Jake defended himself.  "I tried to get my mom to watch him for me, but she said no, that he was my school project and my responsibility."


     "And he was," A.J. agreed.  "If he'd been a real child, Jake, you would have had to make the choice to miss the game if you couldn't have found someone else to care for him.  Or at least that's what I hope you would have done."

     "Yeah, I guess so.  'Cause otherwise he'd have a cracked skull right about now."


     "So did you learn anything from this?"

     Jake gave an emphatic nod of his head.  "You bet.  I sure don't want to be a dad for a long long time to come."


     A.J. smiled.  "Good for you, Jake."  He looked around the room for volunteers.  "Does anyone else want to fill the class in on how your parenting duties are going?  Carrie, how about you and Matt?  How are you two doing?"


     Carrie's artistic skills were evident in the bright blue eyes she'd given her baby and the fringe of blond hair painted on his elongated head.  A.J. had been surprised to learn Matt had gone over to her house on Tuesday afternoon and helped her fashion a bonnet out of some material scraps.  The next morning she had shyly asked A.J. what his initials stood for.  In short order Carrie and Matt's offspring was christened Andrew.


     "We're doing fine, Mr. Simon," Carrie reported.  "Matt and I take turns with Andrew.  We take him everywhere we go."


     "What about when you had basketball practice after school yesterday, Matt?  What did you do with him?"


     "I paid my little sister two Hershey bars to take care of him for me."


     "Very ingenious of you, Matt.  I'm glad to hear Andrew's got two such attentive parents."


     A.J. polled the remainder of the class.  One egg had a Band-Aid running its length that covered a crack caused by jostling on the school bus. Another student was forced to report that her father had scrambled her baby for his breakfast, not realizing it was part of her homework assignment.


     The girl finished with a downhearted,  "My mother says he took just about as good a' care of me and my sister when we were babies." 


     A.J. couldn't help but chuckle.  "That's okay, Sarah.  This isn't for a grade.  It's just for the experience."


     By the end of the day A.J.'s homeroom class was as morose over the thought of Friday being his last day, as Rick's first graders were over his impending last day.  A.J. was flattered by the kids' compliments, but as much as he was enjoying his teaching experience, he was ready to get back to the Simon and Simon office full time.  As he told Rick later that afternoon when they were going through their business mail,  "This teaching stint has been interesting, but I miss the excitement of P.I. work."


     Rick arched a skeptical eyebrow.  "What excitement?  All we were gonna be doin' this week was paperwork."

     "I know.  But it's not like that every week.  I'm looking forward to a real involved missing persons case or, heaven forbid I should say this, maybe a repo job or two."


     "You?  Wishing for a repo job?  A.J., I think bein' stuck in that classroom all day is affecting your thought process."


     "No, it's not.   It's just too repetitious, that's all."


     "Too repetitious?"


     "Yeah.  I mean I've got three classes of fifth graders to whom I teach the exact same things, only to do the same with three classes of sixth graders.  There's not enough variety for my taste.  So like I said, I'm in need of a little excitement."

     Rick shut the door behind them as they exited the office and headed for home.  "I sure never thought I'd live to see the day when A.J. Simon said he was in need of excitement.  Usually you're screamin' the exact opposite when we're in the middle of a high speed car chase, or runnin' for our lives from some maniac wavin' a gun."


     "Usually," A.J. conceded,  "but not at the moment so enjoy it while it lasts."


     "I plan to," was the last thing Rick said before the brothers climbed in A.J.'s Camaro.  Twenty minutes later A.J. was dropping Rick at his boat, with the promise of picking him up the next morning for what would be their last day of school.



Chapter 8



     Geneva had never seen her husband so agitated.  He worked with reckless abandon in the garage that entire day, mumbling incoherently as he did so.  She wasn't sure what he was doing, but he seemed to be intent on building something.  Geneva gone to the door to check on him several times, but on each occasion he yelled and cursed and told her to get out.  She hadn't even been able to get him to stop for a sandwich at lunchtime, or to come in and eat the supper she'd prepared.


     The sun had long since given up its position to the moon.  Geneva sat on the one cushion of the old battered sofa that would support her weight and knitted by the dim light of a nearby lamp.  Her maternal grandmother had taught her what was now becoming a lost art among most young women her age.  But Geneva enjoyed the soothing 'click click click' the smooth steel needles made as they lightly tapped against one another.  A neighbor had given Geneva a discarded box of yarn from which the girl had picked out the blues, and pinks, and yellows, and greens.  She was now in the process of knitting her baby an afghan.  She couldn't afford to buy a pattern so drew what she pictured in her head on a piece of paper and copied it as best she could.  She wanted her baby to have something pretty and new to come home from the hospital in, and not just the second hand clothing she knew she'd be forced to buy from the Thrift Shop down the street.


     Her hands paused in midair, her needles silent, when she heard Bobby come in the house.  He walked down the hall to the bathroom and turned the water on at the sink.   When he appeared in the living room he was still wearing his grease stained shirt and trousers that reeked of gasoline.  Geneva gave an inward groan when she saw he had his Bible in hand.


     She attempted to sidetrack the sermon she had no desire to partake in.  "I've been keeping your supper warm in the oven, Bobby.  Let me fix a plate for you."

     Bobby held up a hand like an authoritative minister and indicated for Geneva to remain where she was.  He opened the Bible and began crisscrossing the room.


     "The Lord has said for they that spread evil are evil!  For they that lie are liars!  For they that curse Him shall be cursed!  For they that dare to defy the word of the Lord shall die at the hand of Gabriel!"    Bobby's voice softened for dramatic effect.  "And Gabriel shall set the children free.  For the vermin influence the children in the ways of Satan, and the Lord has decreed this disgrace unto Him shall be halted."




     "It shall be halted, and Gabriel shall sit at the right hand of God."


     Geneva's mind wandered as Bobby rambled on about things that made no sense.  When he was done he threw his head back and spread his limbs, the image reminding Geneva in an eerie way of pictures she'd seen depicting Christ hanging on the cross.  Bobby remained in that position a long time before allowing his arms to drop to his sides.


     "The Lord has told me tomorrow is the day, Geneva."


     "The day for what?"

     "That is not for you to know.  The Lord has told it to me and only me, his faithful servant and the father of Gabriel.  But you will come with me, for the Lord has said it is so."  He held a hand out to her.  "Come."


     "Where are we..."


     His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened indicating to Geneva now was not the time for questions.


     She left her knitting in a pile on the couch and reluctantly took her husband's hand.  He led her to the bathroom where he stripped her of her clothing, then did the same to himself.  He turned the faucet on in the bathtub then pulled up the knob that would activate the shower.  He regulated the water until billows of scalding steam rose from behind the vinyl curtain.  He climbed in, then held out a hand to Geneva.  She drew back when the first droplets singed the skin of her right foot and splotched it with fiery red dots.


     "Bobby, this water is too ho--"


     He yanked her forward, her shins connecting with the side of the porcelain tub with a dull ‘thud.’  Geneva had no choice but to climb in before Bobby toppled her over headfirst.  Her shins were alive with biting pain and already beginning to bruise.


     Geneva stood in front of her husband with her back to him.  She sucked her breath in-between in her teeth as the scorching water pelted her rear-end.  Bobby was standing closest to the showerhead, receiving the full force of its flow, yet not indicating in any way that it bothered him.  Geneva wondered how he stood it, and hoped he wasn't stupid enough to be giving himself first-degree burns. 


     Bobby picked up a washcloth and lathered it with soap.  Geneva jumped when she felt him run it between her legs.


     "We must purify ourselves for the Lord tonight, Geneva."


     The act of him washing her was not sexual in nature, though there was not one part of her body he didn't touch and linger over.  When he was through, Bobby made her do the same to him.  Geneva was surprised when her washing didn't cause him to become erect.  In fact, completely uncharacteristic for him, he seemed quite proud of his self-control. 


     When Bobby decreed them finished he methodically brushed his teeth and shaved.  Geneva couldn't recall when the last time was he'd been so concerned about his personal hygiene.  She would have welcomed this change had it not been accompanied by so many other bizarre behaviors.  


     Bobby led her to the bedroom and pulled back the spread and sheets.  When Geneva moved to retrieve her nightgown he stopped her.  "The Lord has said we must sleep tonight as we came into the world.  We must be as pure and innocent as newborn babes, just as His son was pure and innocent.  Just as innocent as our own son will be."


     Out of fear, Geneva did as her husband instructed.  She knew to defy him was to invite a beating.  She had to think of the baby.  It was getting too big now to withstand his brutal treatment of her. 


     The young woman didn't know what to expect when her naked husband climbed in beside her.  She assumed a round of unwelcome rough sex was to follow, but that was not to be the case. 


     "The Lord has said we are not to come together has husband and wife tonight, Geneva.  I am not to be influenced by Eve."


     "Bobby, what--"


     He clamped a crushing hand over her lips and pressed her head into her pillow.  "Shut up, woman!  Since the day of Creation you are all alike!  But there will be none of your tricks tonight.  None of your harlot ways, Eve!  Do you understand?"


     When Geneva didn't answer he applied more force until she feared the act of him pushing her head against the pillow would break her neck.  She gave a tight nod.


     "Good.  For it is imperative you understand and obey.  For the Lord God has said, women obey your husbands and you shall be rewarded in Heaven."


     Bobby didn't seem to want a response, and Geneva couldn't have given him one had he asked it of her.  Everything she wanted to say, every question she wanted to ask, would only work him into a frenzy.  At least he was relatively calm at the moment and no longer hurting her.


     Sometimes, that's all Geneva could ask for.



Chapter 9



     The sun was trying to outshine itself in the Southern California sky on Friday morning.  Rick's class was absorbed in their mathematics, all twenty heads bent diligently over their workbooks.  Pencils scratched against paper as Rick strolled the aisles offering help to those who had questions.  The detective looked over the work when a child indicated he or she was finished.   The reward for a good math paper was being allowed to draw pictures on the chalkboard with the colored chalk Mr. Rick had brought in.  That was something Mrs. Dunford never allowed them to do, as she liked her boards clean and free of childish scribble.  Under Rick's tutelage no child went without at least a few minutes to draw on the board.  He coached those who got hung up on their problems until the correct answer was finally given.


     Rick glanced out the window to see A.J.'s second hour class of fifth graders on the playground.  His brother had evidently borrowed a bat, mitts, and a baseball from the gym teacher, and now had a game underway.  A.J. was up to bat, and although the kids' shouts were far away and vague, Rick could tell they were teasing him as one of the girls pitched to him.


     The lanky detective smiled as he turned away from the window.  Although he hadn't started this job with much enthusiasm, it had proven to be an enjoyable week.  The table in the back of the room was lined with the cupcakes and cookies Emily had promised to bring.  Added to that were another four dozen cupcakes and cookies Rick had purchased at a bakery the evening before.  He figured he needed to make amends to the other teachers in his wing of the school who had complained about his unorthodox ways all week, so had brought enough treats for all the kindergarten and first grade youngsters.  He planned to invite the classes in shortly before the school day ended.  In a cooler underneath the table Rick had the promised grape juice and apple juice.  Two packages of paper cups rested on top of it.


     It'll be a good time, Rick thought.  The kids will really enjoy it.  Maybe I'll even let 'em skip their afternoon lessons so we can do some singing and then finish the story I've been tellin' 'em all week.  I suppose that'll get ole' Mrs. Dunford's girdle in a grip, but what the heck, these are a buncha' A-one little kids in my opinion.  They deserve a fun afternoon free of schoolwork once in a while.






     Geneva sat on the passenger side of the station wagon, her eyes averted.  Her lower lip was split open and she was certain Bobby's handprint was still discernible on her left cheek. 


     She didn't know if he'd slept at all the night before.  In-between bouts of her own restless sleep, Geneva was aware of him tossing and turning and mumbling as though troubled by fever.  It was midnight when he rose and left the bedroom.  For the remainder of the early morning hours Geneva heard him pacing between the kitchen and the living room while preaching to the vacant furniture.  She had no idea what was going on in his mind, but she possessed an ominous feeling about the day ahead.  When Bobby's voice began to rise and fall in the same wild rhythm made by a roller coaster while he preached to no one but himself, Geneva quietly slipped out of bed.  Without turning on a light she crept over to the closet.  She waited until Bobby's shouts grew thunderous in proportion then eased the door open.   She crouched down on the floor and carefully felt for the shoebox in the far back corner.  She stayed like that, with her hand on the box, until his voice picked up again.  She used his volume to mask the rustling of the tissue paper as she dug for the card Dr. Qualyn had given her. 


     It was too dark in the bedroom for her to read the writing on the card, but she could feel the raised letters that spelled out Horizon Center in gold.  Silently, she closed the closet door and made her way back to the bed.  Geneva shoved the card under her pillow for the time being.  When the day was fully underway she'd pack a bag and sneak out of the house.  She wasn't quite sure how she'd do that, Bobby hardly let her go anywhere these days without him, but maybe she could feign illness and convince him to go to the drugstore for her.  Without Bobby's knowledge, she had managed to put away a little money.  It wasn't much, but it was enough for bus fare and a few meals.  She could certainly get as far as the Horizon Center.  After that, well after that she'd just have to see what kind of help they could give her.  She'd do anything, work any kind of a job to pay her way if they'd just offer her shelter and protection until after the baby came.


     Despite Bobby's roars coming from the other room, Geneva finally dropped off to sleep.  The sun was just lighting the eastern sky when she felt his tug on her arm.


     "Wife!  Wife, get up I command thee!"


     Now what?  Geneva couldn't help but inwardly moan as she buried her face into her pillow.


     "Rise yourself from thy bed, woman!  We have the Lord's work to do today!"


     Before Geneva could fully get to a sitting position on the mattress Bobby yanked her to her feet.  Her pillow skidded across the bed, leaving in its wake the business card with gold letters that now seemed to be flashing brighter than a neon sign.  Geneva's eyes fell to it, then quickly flicked away.


     Bobby reached around her.  "What is this?"


     "It's nothing."  Geneva made an aborted attempt to snatch the card from.  "It's just the card they give me at the clinic that tells me when my next doctor's appointment is."


     Bobby's cold eyes studied the card.  She hoped his reading skills wouldn't allow him to discern what it said. 


     "This doesn't look like no doctor's appointment card, Geneva.  I've seen them before.  You always hang them on the refrigerator."


     Geneva hoped her voice sounded steady and matter of fact.  "Well, that's what it is."


     His hand flew up with the speed of a striking rattlesnake.  "Don't lie to me, woman!"


     The force of Bobby's slap threw Geneva into the nightstand.  It tumbled sideways taking the lamp and alarm clock with it.  The girl was vaguely aware of the bells on the clock ringing with the same intensity the bells were ringing in her skull from Bobby's blow.  Before she was able to recover he had her back on her feet.  He gave her a series of violent shoves, causing her to stumble into and over furniture.


     "Bobby...the baby!  Please, Bobby, the baby!"


     He grabbed her bare arm and twirled her into the wall.  "Shut up!  Shut up you disciple of Satan!  Now tell me what that card says!"


     Geneva's arms came up to cradle her head in protection as she sobbed. 


     "Thou shalt not lie, Geneva!  Thou shalt not lie!  Now tell me what that card says!"


     When Geneva didn't answer a fist slammed into her stomach.  She doubled over and felt the baby kick in protest.


     "I already told you!"  She cried.  "The doctor's office gave it to me!"


     He grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her into an upright position.  "I know better, woman!  Why would you hide a card from the doctor's office unless it had something on it you didn't want me to see?"


     "I wasn't hiding it!"  She pleaded.  "It must have gotten left in one of my pockets and fell out while I was folding clothes on the bed the other day."


     Even to Geneva’s own ears the excuse sounded lame.


     Bobby’s eyes were wild and the whites streaked with angry red as he came nose to nose with her.  "That's blasphemous, spawn of Eve, and you know it!  What does it say?"


     Geneva's steady sobs prevented her from answering Bobby, which only further enraged the man.  When his fists began to pound into her abdomen again like a boxer's going after his opponent she begged,  "Please, Bobby, please!   Stop it!  Please!  You're hurting the're hurting Gabriel!  You're hurting Gabriel, Bobby!"


     As quickly as his rage had overtaken him, it now vanished.  Tranquility bathed Bobby's features and his hands grew gentle.  He caressed his wife's naked bulging abdomen, and even bent and gave it a kiss.


     It was as though Geneva was no longer present as his lips traveled over her belly.  "My Gabriel," he crooned,  "the right hand of God.  God's messenger.  The son God has sent to me."


     When he was finished loving the child he had only seconds earlier been harming, Bobby rose to his full height.  The business card and the uproar it had caused was now apparently a thing of the past.


     "Get dressed, Geneva.  The Lord has spoken to me, telling me today is the day of deliverance."


     "Where are we--"


     He pressed her back into the wall with promises of more rough treatment to come if she didn't comply.


     "Silence, woman!  Obey me now!  Git yourself dressed.  We have much work to do!"


     The girl cried as she slipped into the first set of maternity clothes she'd had to wear.  A neighbor lady had recently given Geneva the clothing she used during her pregnancies.  Geneva had been grateful for the gifts of oversized slacks, tops, and two dresses, and couldn't wait until she was big enough to have to wear them.  Rather than this being the happy day she'd envisioned, however, Bobby had turned it into a nightmare.  Another nightmare in what was becoming a succession of nightmares.


     Geneva's thoughts were gray and full of despair as she ran a finger over the word BABY that was stitched in happy quilted letters on the pale blue shirt.  A large arrow pointed downward to her protruding belly.  


     The girl didn't even shudder when she found herself wondering if both she and her child would be better off dead.





     It was as though Geneva Masters’ mind had removed itself from her body as she helped her husband load the old station wagon that morning.  She didn't question him about the unfamiliar paraphernalia he carefully laid in the back, nor about the loaded rifle he carried from the house.  His pockets were bulging with ammunition, and hand grenades were clipped to the waistband of his Army issue trousers as though he was about to overtake a small country. 


     Geneva could hardly bring herself to care anymore.  Her face hurt, her lip was so swollen she wouldn't have been able to eat had she wanted to, and she hadn't felt the baby move since she'd gotten dressed an hour earlier.


     Geneva paid only a minimal amount of attention as Bobby drove them through one neighborhood and into another.  What or who he was looking for she didn't know.  It wasn't until after the third time they slowed to almost a stop in the middle of a residential street, did Geneva take notice of the fact that for some odd reason his attention seemed to be focused on school buildings.


     He looked at the sign with the large black cat on it poised to strike.   Home Of The Grant High School Panthers, it read.


     "No good," Bobby shook his head and mumbled as his foot pressed down on the gas pedal once more.   "Those kids are too old.  They might cause us trouble."


     Geneva wanted to ask Bobby what kind of trouble he was referring to, but her split lip made her think better of it.  An elementary school a few blocks away caught his interest next.  He parked at the curb and stared at it a long time.  But then what seemed like the entire student body spilled out its doors.  Bobby waited until it became apparent this wasn't recess, but rather some type of track and field day in which the children were going to be allowed to remain outdoors until it was time to go home.


     Bobby's head gave a negative shake again as he eased the car back into the flow of traffic.    


     Several miles later he spied a junior high school.  For a brief moment he became engrossed with its façade, only to keep on driving when he realized it was across the street from a police station.


     They drove for another twenty minutes.  Geneva couldn't see any particular pattern to Bobby's route, and the schools they came upon seemed to be more by chance than by plan.  It was when he turned the corner of a residential street in a well-to-do neighborhood that he spotted it.  The building looked new and clean, less than ten years old, and made of white brick.  Its playgrounds were wide and filled with the type of equipment children love to swing and slide and climb on.  Its playing fields were lush green and well manicured.   The Plexiglas sign in the front read, HERITAGE ACADEMY.  GRADES K To 6TH.  THROUGH LEARNING THERE IS KNOWLEDGE.


     "Yes, yes," Bobby whispered.  He drove past the front of the quiet school three times.  He reached across the car seat and gave Geneva's hand a squeeze.  "This is it, Geneva.  This humble place is the center of God's plans for us today."


     "What plans?"


     He brought a finger up to her lips.  "Shhh.  It is not for you to know all that God has told me.  Suffice to say, this is the beginning of Gabriel's reign."


     "Gabriel's reign?  Bobby, what...?"


     He ignored her as he parked the car in the visitor's lot.  He motioned for Geneva to get out and help him.  When he started to unload the rifle Geneva's eyes widened with fright.  She turned to look at the building that housed so many innocent children, then looked back at him.


     "Bobby, you can't!  You--"


     The barrel of the rifle was jammed into the young woman's sternum.


     "You'll do as I say, woman, do you hear me?  You'll do as I say, for this is what God has commanded."


     "But the children--"


     "No children will be hurt here today, Geneva.  No children will be hurt unless they do not do as I instruct.  For it is not the children who the Lord is angered with.  His wrath is with their teachers.  The Lord has sent me to spread His message, before I rid the earth of these misguided leaders of Satan."



Chapter 10


     Rick Simon looked up at the clock to see it was nine forty-six.  Most of the children were at the board drawing.  The detective was helping the last few who remained in their seats yet so they, too, could have a turn before it was time to move on to phonics. 


     "Hey," Rick warned two of the boys at the chalkboard,  "no fighting up there or you'll both come back to your seats."


     "But I want the blue piece, Mr. Rick, and Jeremiah won't let me have it."


     "But I had it first, Mr. Rick, and Jedidiah keeps trying to take it away from me."


     "Then break it in two and share it."

     "But Mrs. Dunford gets mad when we break chalk."


     "Well, I don't.  I only get mad when you guys fight.  So go ahead, Jeremiah, break it in two and give half of it to your brother."


     The chalk was broken in two pieces like Rick instructed.  Calm was soon restored, and the boys were best friends once more.


     Just like me and A.J. when we were kids.  Bickerin' one minute, and each other's best buddy the next.  Rick chuckled to himself.    Hell, just like me and A.J. now.


     Rick was hunched down on his knees absorbed in helping Autumn and Chandler with their last two problems.  In a preoccupied sort of manner, he was aware of a clattering in the hallway, but between the children talking at the front of the room, and his concentration on the two he was helping, Rick dismissed the noise as a janitor's cart.  Even when he heard the first shouts Rick didn't rise, nor did any of his students seem disturbed by them.  The detective assumed the gymnasium doors were open, and what he was hearing was the sound of a class in session. 


     What finally caused Rick to focus in on the shouts he didn't know.  Perhaps it was the duration of them, or the fact he finally heard them clearly enough to realize they weren't the shouts of children at play, but rather the agitated cries of a grown man. 


     Rick spoke to Autumn and Chandler as he rose.  "I'll be right back.  You guys work on that last problem together."


     The detective walked to the door.  Perhaps if he'd heard the children's screams prior to stepping out in the hallway he would have realized something serious was amiss and could have gotten his class to safety.  Rick never had the chance to find that out, however.  As soon as he stepped out his door he saw Stacy coming toward him.   Her eyes were huge blue orbs turned dark with fright and set within a face now bleached as white as the chalk each classroom contained. 


     "Stacy, what the heck is goin'--"


     It was then that Rick became aware of the man behind her.  The space that separated the principal's body from the man's was occupied by a rifle the detective recognized as a high powered Winchester.  A sight he never expected to see after leaving Vietnam, were the grenades he spotted clipped to the waistband of the gunman's pants.


     Rick held up his hands in what he hoped the guy interpreted as a gesture of peace.  "Look, buddy, you don't wanna do this.  There's little kids--"


     "Shut your goddamn mouth!"  Bobby rammed the gun into Stacy's back.  "Tell him what he needs to do."


     "Rick, please get all your kids together and take them to Miss Balinski's and Mrs. Zumeda's room."




     The woman's eyes pleaded with the detective.  "Rick, please.  He's got most of the kids and staff in there now, and there's a woman in there with a bomb.  They're going to blow up the school if we don't do as they say."


     Rick eyed the man one last time, only to be shouted at with impatience. 


     "Do what the lady says or I'll kill her right now!"


     By this time the man's shouts had drawn the other two first grade teachers to their classroom doorways, as well as the kindergarten teacher.  Stacy repeated her instructions and pleaded with everyone to hurry.


     For now, Rick had no other choice but to gather up his students.  A few had been drawn to the doorway by the commotion, but most were as he had left them.


     The detective remained calm and matter of fact.  "Everyone line up at the door.  Pick a buddy and take his or her hand."


     "But it's not recess time, Mr. Rick."


     "No, Emily, it's not."  Rick hurried amongst the children helping the stragglers to quickly pair up with someone.  "We're going down to Miss Balinski's and Mrs. Zumeda's room for a while.  Now come on, let's hurry.  But no running in the hallways and stay with me."


     By the time Rick's class entered the hall in the fashion he instructed the remainder of the classes in his wing of the school were doing the same.  Stacy led the way followed by her assailant, his firearm never leaving the space between her shoulder blades.


     Rick stayed ahead of the children, hoping his body would block their view of what was happening up ahead.  Whether he accomplished that, or whether they were just too young to absorb what was going on, Rick didn't know.  He was simply thankful all of them, his class as well as the others, didn't cause any problems and did as their teachers told them.  The last thing he wanted was this guy shooting Stacy, or turning on one of the kids.


     The classroom they were ushered to was the biggest room in the school outside the gymnasium and cafeteria.  Sixty third and fourth graders shared it, along with two teachers in a combined effort of team teaching.  The desks had already been moved out into the hallway on the instructions of Bobby Masters, which leaving the floor space wide open. 


     Rick walked into a sea of faces awash with fright.  A young woman stood at the front of the room.  Now Rick knew what the clatter was he'd heard early.  A two wheeled metal cart rested next to her.  It was silver and a cross between a dolly and a grocery store cart.  A clear gallon jug that Rick could see was filled with gasoline stood on one of its shelves.  Elaborate wires and a blasting cap confirmed Stacy's words regarding a bomb.  It was crude and homemade, but Rick had seen too much of the same sort of thing in Vietnam not to have a healthy respect for its potential power.  The young woman was attached to the cart by what looked like a severed electrical cord encircling her right wrist.  Rick thought that odd at first until he saw the other end of the cord was attached to what he guessed was the device's detonator.  A jerk of her wrist would cause the thing to explode.  Her other wrist was chained to the cart with handcuffs.  By the look on her face alone Rick knew she was an unwilling victim in the gunman's scheme.


     Her soft brown eyes looked to the man.  "Bobby, please--"


     His rifle moved from Stacy's back to be aimed at his wife's head.


     "Obey me, woman, or you die now!  I don't need you in order to free these children!"


     He whipped around to Rick.  "You git your kids over there and have 'em sit down.  The rest of you fill in to the side of him."


     Rick laid his hands on little backs and guided them to where the gunman pointed.  He hated the fact that his children were seated closest to the bomb, but had no choice in the matter.  The classes that had arrived ahead of his had already filled up the room starting at the back, for which Rick couldn't blame them.  If he'd been one of the first teachers in here he'd have wanted his kids in the back as well. 


     Rick's class sat down in the front of the room only feet away from the woman and explosive.  The other first graders and the kindergarten class crammed in on the west side of him, until they could go no farther because of the wall and windows above it.  The detective sat down in front of his students, deliberately placing his body between the bomb and the children.  The gunman pushed Stacy in Rick's direction, indicating she was to sit next to him.


     The lanky man's eyes scanned the room.  As near as he could tell most of the teachers and their classes were present, as were the school's two janitors, three secretaries, and four cooks.  The fourth grade gym class that had been in session was there as well, the children still in their uniforms of shorts, T-shirts, athletic socks and shoes.  Some were shivering, though Rick didn't know if it was from the perspiration that was drying on their bodies or from fright.  The murmur of children's voices filled the room as some talked to each other, some asked their teachers what was happening, and some cried.


     Rick turned so he was sitting sideways and gathered Micah, Jessica, Chandler, and Autumn, in his arms.  Tears streamed down their faces, and by looking at his other children Rick knew it was only a matter of time before mass hysteria ran through the room like a rampaging bull.  The last thing they needed was the kids upsetting the gunman and the woman with the bomb.


     Rick rocked back and forth with the children who sat in his lap.  His hands reached out to give encouraging pats on the head or a light caress of a cheek to the remainder of his class.  "It's gonna be okay, guys.  No one needs to cry," he crooned softly.  "Everything's gonna be okay."


     Emily's eyes met her teacher's.  "What's going to happen to us, Mr. Rick?"           


     "Nothing's gonna happen to us, Emily.  Absolutely nothing at all.  We just need to stay calm and quiet, and pretty soon we'll all get to go home.  Can you guys do that for me?  Can everyone dry their tears and calm down?"


     One by one Rick's class gave tentative nods.  He could tell they were valiantly trying to do as he requested, but how long they'd be successful at it was anyone's guess.  All the other teachers had their hands full with upset children as well.


     To all appearances Rick remained attentive to his class, while he mentally calculated how many people were in the room.  He knew the school had a student body of three hundred pupils and guessed that including secretaries, cooks, and janitors, the staff totaled somewhere around thirty to thirty-five members.  He wasn't quite sure if the gunman had everyone present yet or not, but was certainly aware of one notable absence, A.J.  Rick hoped that meant his brother had somehow realized what was happening within the building and managed to get himself and his fifth graders to safety.


     If A.J. knows what's goin' on then he's already got the cops on their way.  If he doesn't...well, if he doesn't, then he'll realize something's wrong as soon as he enters the building.  He'll get his kids out of here before this guy knows what's happening.  Rick's mind was pleading with itself as his thoughts finished with, A.J.'s gotta realize something's wrong when he comes back in.  He just got to.



Part 2