The Sixties: Alive And Well
*The Sixties: Alive and Well, is an alternate universe story based on the aired episode, Who Killed The Sixties. This story takes place three years later than the above-mentioned episode.
To be honest with ya,’ my eyes barely flicked from the TV screen when I heard the timid knock on the office door. A.J.'s nose was buried in a file folder, so I guess he assumed I'd jump right up to greet our visitor. He assumed wrong. Or assumed wrong until he glanced over and threw me a dirty look.
"Could you possibly tear yourself away from this stupid program long enough to answer the door?"
This 'stupid program,' happened to be Wheel Of Fortune. Aside from the fact that Vanna White and I were havin’ a torrid affair in my ever-fertile imagination, I had always been good at hangman. That game had gotten me through more boring classes than I could count. I figured if I ever had a chance to get on Wheel Of Fortune I'd be able to retire a wealthy man.
I used the remote to snap off the TV and sneered at my brother. "See if I let you share in my Wheel Of Fortune winnings someday."
A.J. sneered back. "I'd be just as happy if you'd answer the damn door."
For once, turning off Vanna White proved to be painless. The lovely young lady awaiting me on the other side of the office door outshone even Vanna's beauty.
I guessed her to be somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one. Comparing her to myself led me to estimate her height at five foot seven. She had the lithe build of a dancer, complete with well-defined calves and a delicate, yet strong upper body. Her eyes were enormous and a startling bright shade of pale blue. Her long mane of thick hair fell to her waist. It was a streaked combination of pale honey gold, ivory, and in places even stark white, making me think of the smooth insides of an oyster shell. Her nose was small, her cheekbones high, and her lips as enticing as succulent cherries. Her pullover cotton dress was the same color pink as bubble gum, the upper portion of it styled like a sleeveless tank top. It flowed freely until it came to a stop two inches above her knees, giving me an appreciative glimpse of tanned thighs. Her earrings and bracelet matched the color of her dress. She wore a pair of white canvas sandals on her feet. In short, she was the most gorgeous creature to cross my path in a long time. A very long time. And since A.J. had made me answer the door she was all mine.
"Can I help you, Miss...uh?"
The girl smiled. "Megan."
Her smile only enhanced her beauty. It was wide, deeply dimpled, and made her blue eyes sparkle.
"Can I help you, Miss Megan?"
She gave a small laugh. "Actually, it's Miss Jennings. Megan's my first name."
"Ey, beautiful, Megan," I crooned in my best Irish accent. "A lovely lass of the bonnie isle, are ye?"
The young woman was a good sport and didn't seem to mind a man twice her age flirtin’ with her. But with her looks, I supposed she was used to it by now.
"I don't know about that, Mr. Simon," she laughed. "About whether or not I'm Irish, I mean. As far as I know I'm Megan simply because my mother liked the name."
By this time A.J.'s curiosity had gotten the best of him. Although he'd been able to clearly hear both sides of the conversation from his vantage point at his desk, he had yet to get a look at Megan.
"Well, Megan Jennings," he stated as he came to join us, "I can hardly allow you to be subjected to my older brother's idea of meaningful conversation while still standing in the hallway. Please, come in."
A.J. flashed a big grin at Megan that wasn't unlike hers, with its deep dimples and sparkling eyes. Right then I knew I'd lost her. She only had eyes for my brother as she allowed him to lead her to one of the chairs that sat across from his desk. I mighta' been pissed about the entire situation - after all, I'd seen her first, but I took comfort in the fact that not only was Megan too young for me, she was too young for A.J. as well. Hell, we were both old enough to be her father, and after she got past A.J.'s good looks and never-ending charm she'd quickly come to realize that. Besides, there was no way a chick as gorgeous as her didn't have a steady boyfriend.
I sat down in the chair next to Megan's. "So, Miss Megan, what can we do for you?"
Megan's eyes flicked from me to A.J. "Actually, you can't do anything for me. But I'd like to hire you to do something for my mother."
Politely, A.J. questioned, "Your mother?"
"Yes," Megan nodded while digging around in her little white purse. She pulled out a picture and a blue ticket of some kind. She held the picture tightly against her chest. All I could see was the yellowed paper of its back, and the scalloped dog-eared edges that indicated to me it had some age on it.
"My mother...for many years my mother has been haunted by the death of her older brother. Her only sibling. My maternal grandmother, who lived here in San Diego, recently passed away. My grandfather's been dead for several years now. Two months ago we were cleaning out my grandparent’+s home in preparation for its sale, when my mother ran across a piece of evidence that sheds a whole new light on her brother's death."
"What kind of evidence?" A.J. asked.
Megan handed him the ticket.
A.J. studied it a moment before passing it over to me. It was ticket to admit one to an event in Balboa Park billed a 'Concert For Peace,' and was dated August 14th, 1967.
My rising eyebrow matched A.J.'s. "A concert ticket that's twenty years old?" I said to the girl. "And why does your mother feel this ticket changes the circumstances surrounding her brother's death?"
"Supposedly my uncle died at that concert. Several people did, as a matter of fact. Accidental deaths due to a riot of some sort."
A.J. and I both nodded our remembrance of the incident.
"While I feel for your mother's loss, Megan," A.J. stated gently, "a riot at a concert that resulted in deaths or injuries wasn't unusual for that time period."
"I know that. We studied the sixties and the turbulence surrounding the end of that decade in history class last year."
I exchanged grins with A.J. "Congratulations, little brother. We're now old enough to be included in the history books."
Megan laughed with good humor. "If it's any comfort to you, neither one of you look that old." She turned to A.J. "Especially not you, Mr. Simon."
"I'm flattered, Megan. Thank you for the compliment. And it's A.J."
"I'm flattered, Megan," I mocked my brother's charm. "Thank you for the compliment."
Megan quickly tried to make amends. "And you don't look that old either, Mr. Simon."
I winked at the girl. "Thank you, darlin.’ And it's not Mr. Simon with me either. It's Rick." I sat back in my chair and brought my right ankle up to rest across my left knee. "Now gettin' back to the business at hand. What exactly is it that your mother feels is so suspicious about that concert ticket?"
Megan's eyes widened as if she was shocked she had to explain the obvious to us. "Don't you get it?"
A.J. looked at me and shrugged.
"No, Megan," I shook my head, "I'm afraid we don't get it."
"How could my uncle have been accidentally killed at that concert, if he never used the ticket to get in the concert in the first place?"
Now she had our attention.
A.J. leaned forward in his chair and rested his folded hands on his desktop. "And your uncle's body was found somewhere within the park? Somewhere within the vicinity of the concert?"
"Yes," Megan nodded. "It was. But now Mom found this ticket, and she thinks he never went. She thinks someone might have killed him and dumped his body there long before the concert ever started."
"Why would someone have wanted to do that?" A.J. asked. "Did your mother indicate to you whether or not her brother was in some kind of trouble? Involved with the wrong people? Maybe mixed up with drugs or something?"
"No, none of those things. Mom said he was a good guy. That he'd never been in trouble with the law, and other than smoking a little pot once and a while, wasn't a serious drug user either." Megan hesitantly passed the picture to A.J. "But maybe you'd know the answers to those questions better than I would, A.J."
A.J. shot the girl a puzzled look as he accepted the picture from her. He stared at it for a few seconds, as if he thought he should know the young man in it, but couldn't quite place him. Then I saw recognition dawn as a flood of memories came to the forefront of his mind.
He looked over at Megan as if I was no longer in the room. "This is Larry."
"Larry who?" I asked.
A.J.'s tone spoke his astonishment. "Larry was your uncle?"
Megan bit her lower lip and nodded.
Louder this time, I asked again, "Larry who?"
A.J. finally focused on me. "Anita's brother."
That name brought back a flood of memories for me of a lively little redhead I hadn't seen since the summer of 1967. Anita Cooper was the first girl A.J. had been serious about. Serious to the point that he'd purchased her an engagement ring with money he borrowed from me. Two months after their high school graduation ceremony Anita's older brother was killed in a riot at the Concert For Peace, just like Megan said. Or up until now that's what A.J. and I had both thought, as did everyone else.
Anita had been devastated by her brother's death. She became a virtual recluse those first dark days, cutting herself off from everyone, including A.J. and her parents. A.J. went to Anita's house one day two weeks after Larry's death in another attempt to get her to see him. Anita's mother greeted him at the door with tears in her eyes. She told A.J. that Anita had taken off the day before. Where, neither Anita's mother or father knew. But they'd appreciate A.J. letting them know if Anita contacted him.
A.J. promised the woman he'd do that. And for a little while, he held out the hope that Anita would, in fact, eventually contact him. But summer turned to fall with no word from her. A.J. kept in touch with her parents for a while. I think maybe throughout his entire freshman year of college. But they always claimed they'd had no word from her, and as time passed he moved on with his life. I always suspected he still thought of her now and then, just like all of us occasionally thinks of an old friend with whom we've lost contact. But it had been years since I'd last heard him mention her.
Now A.J. rose from his desk with a smile of delight spreading across his expressive face. "Your Anita's daughter?" He questioned the obvious.
Megan smiled and nodded. She rose to meet him. "Yes, I am."
A.J. reached out his arms to her. She willingly stepped into his embrace. From my vantage point, I could see tears shimmering in her eyes. I wondered what the heck those were all about.
"Why didn't you say something right away?" A.J. asked Megan as he released her. She moved to take her seat once again as he perched on the edge of his desk.
"I don't know. I...I was going to, but I was afraid you wouldn't take my case. I was afraid you'd ask me to leave. You see, I know you and my mother were high school sweethearts, and that after her brother's death she disappeared from your life without any explanation. She told me the two of you were serious. That you had been talking marriage."
A.J. gave a reflective nod. His words were spoken quietly, and tinged with remnants of sorrow. "Yes, we had been. As a matter of fact, I intended to propose to her on the day we found out your uncle had been killed. After that...well, after that I never got the chance."
"I know." Megan's soft tone matched the sadness in A.J.'s voice. "My mother told me."
"What happened to your mother, Megan?" A.J. was anxious for answers to the questions that had evidently plagued him for half his life. "Where did she go?"
"Up to San Francisco. To Haight Asbury."
A.J. nodded. "That's what I had heard at one time."
Megan's explanation was short and vague. "Things was pretty rough on her for a while, but then she met my father, and with his help she turned her life around."
"And where does she live now?" A.J. asked.
"In Hollander. It's a sleepy little town on the coast about fifty miles south of San Francisco."
A.J. chuckled. "Somehow I can't imagine the Anita I knew living in a sleepy little town."
Megan smiled. "That's exactly what Mom said you'd say."
A.J.'s eagerness to know more about his old girlfriend bubbled over in his voice. "But how come your mother didn't come with you? Or did she?"
Megan shook her head. "No, she's not with me this trip. My dad recently had open heart surgery. He's getting stronger every day, but Mom won't leave him. They're inseparable. They have been since the day they married."
"And that's as it should be." A.J. smiled softly. "I'm glad to hear she's happy. I never wanted anything but the best for her."
"She feels the same way about you, too, A.J."
I thought that was odd. That Anita would have expressed such strong sentiments to her daughter about an old high school boyfriend she hadn't seen or talked to in twenty years. Now it was my turn to ask a few questions.
"Does your mother know you want to hire us to investigate Larry's death, Megan?"
The words tumbled out of the girl's mouth like marbles spilling from a cup. "No. And I don't want her to." She paused there a second in an attempt to regain her composure. I could almost see her mentally cringe the same way A.J. does when he's berating himself for slipping up and inadvertently revealing more than he intended to. "What I mean is, this is something I want to do for Mom. It's my gift to her, so to speak. If you find something that sheds light on Uncle Larry's death, then eventually I'll tell her what you discovered. If you don't find anything, or if you come to the same conclusions the police did, Mom never has to know. I don't want to bring up painful memories if there's nothing to be gained by it."
"That's understandable," I agreed. "But I'm at a bit of a loss as to why a young girl like you is alone here in San Diego. You must be...what? Eighteen or ninet--?"
With the speed of a running back, the girl intercepted my words. "Seventeen."
"Seventeen," I stated with a nod. "I see. And isn't seventeen rather young to be runnin' around a strange city by yourself? I assume you're still in high school."
"Rick..." A.J. scolded in the tone that told me I was asking questions that were none of my business. But they were my business, as my suspicions lead me to conclude that Megan Jennings wasn't quite who she claimed to be.
Megan looked at me with wary eyes.
"I came back to finish packing up my grandparent’s belongings. My mother was supposed to come along as well, but with my father's health being what it is at the moment, she was unable to. We agreed that I would fly down alone and complete the job. There really wasn't much left to do. We had a rummage sale when we were here in June, and the remaining furniture and appliances have been sold with the house. All that's left now are a small assortment of personal belongings I'm shipping home via UPS."
"And you're stayin' there?" I asked. "By yourself? At your grandparent’s house?"
"No. I'm staying at the Fillmore Hotel. My father is an executive in charge of ad campaigns for the hotel. It's one of the largest chains in the country."
"Yeah, I know. I see their ads on TV all the time." I didn't go on to say what I was thinking. That I still found it hard to believe two responsible parents would allow their seventeen-year-old daughter to travel alone in an unfamiliar city the size of San Diego. True, the girl seemed mature for seventeen...maybe even a little too mature for seventeen.
I changed the subject. "While you'll find the fee for our services comparable to other detective agencies in the area, I can't help but wonder where a young woman of...seventeen, will come up with the money to pay our bill."
Again A.J. scolded, "Rick." He smoothly turned to Megan
with a smile. "You'll have to forgive my brother's sudden rudeness. He didn't get his nap today."
Megan laughed politely before swiveling to face me. "I don't mind Rick's questions, A.J. As a matter of fact, I understand right where he's coming from."
Megan's eyes bore into mine as she continued. "I certainly realize there will be a fee for your services. I wouldn't expect anything less. I've had summer jobs since I was fourteen so I have some money saved up. Plus, my grandparents were generous to me in their will. What they left me is intended to go toward my college education, but I'll use what I need to out of that in order to pay you if what I have saved isn't enough."
"I doubt that will be necessary," A.J. smiled. "We can discuss exactly how much time you'd like us to put in on this case and go from there. Considering you're the daughter of an old friend, you come under the heading of family, which means you qualify for the Simon brothers’ family rate. I think you'll find it considerably less expensive than the non-family fate."
Megan paled at A.J.'s words. The smile she plastered on her face seemed to be put there to hide her unrest. She succeeded in hiding it from A.J., but not from me.
"That's very kind of you, A.J." She turned to look at me once more. "And you too, Rick."
"Don't worry about it, Megan," I dismissed. "After all, like A.J. says, bein' you're Anita's daughter and all...well, that does make you almost like family."
I put a subtle emphasis on the word 'family,' and watched as the girl turned away from me with discomfort.
A.J. led the discussion from there on out. He determined exactly what it was Megan wanted of us, how much time she wanted us to put in on the case, gave her an estimate of what it would cost her, then told her we couldn't make her any promises. He reminded her that we might not discover anything more than the police had in 1967.
Megan nodded her head in acceptance of all this and asked that we try anyway for her mother's sake. A.J. agreed that we would, before rising from the corner of his desk. Megan rose as well, and shook his hand. She turned to me and shook mine too. It was the first time she'd looked at me since we'd been discussing those reasonable family rates the Simon brothers offer.
I could tell Megan was surprised when A.J. impulsively asked her to join him for dinner. She hesitated before answering him, and my brother blushed deep crimson. He evidently assumed she was under the impression he was in the process of making a pass at her.
"I'd just like to ask you some more questions about your mother," he explained. "You know, catch up on her life."
"Sure," Megan nodded. I could see the relief wash over her face. As though she was glad that A.J. hadn’t figured out what it was she was hiding from us. "Sure. I'd love to. And I'd like to ask you some questions about my mother as well. Your parents never seem to tell you much about their teen years. Or at least Mom never tells me much about hers. It will be fun having the opportunity to get to know her in a way I never have before."
A.J.'s smile was wide and genuine. "Great. I know the perfect restaurant. The food is excellent, and we can talk for as long as we want without feeling rushed. After we're finished I'll see you safely back to your hotel."
"That sounds fine to me. Though I'll have to explain to the bellman on duty you're an old friend of my mother's, or he's likely to do you serious bodily harm. All the staff at the Fillmore has strict orders to keep their eyes on me. I can just imagine what a stir it will cause when I'm escorted into the lobby by a such a handsome man twice my..." Megan abruptly broke off her thought as she realized she'd put her foot in her mouth. Her cheeks flushed hot pink. I couldn't help but think she blushed as easily as A.J. did.
"Twice your age?" A.J. finished for her with a good-natured laugh. "I'll keep that in mind. And we'll make sure the bellman knows I have no ulterior motives other than seeing you safely to your room."
My brother turned to me. "Now Rick, on the other hand, the bellman might have reason to hurt. It depends on what mood I'm in, as to whether or not we make my brother out to be as harmless as he really is."
"No need to worry about that, A.J.," I dismissed. "As much as I'd love to join you and Megan for a session of...questions and answers, I'll have to pass. I've already got plans for this evening."
I coulda' swore I heard Megan heave a sigh of relief. "That's too bad, Rick," she said politely. "I wish you could join us."
I gave her a pointed look. "Maybe some other time, Megan. But thanks for thinkin' of me."
Megan and A.J. left the office right after that. I watched from the window as A.J. opened the door on Megan's rental car for her. She waited until he started the Camaro, then followed him as he led the way to the restaurant.
I sat at my desk a long time afterwards, recalling events from twenty years in the past. I attempted to put two and two together where A.J., Anita, and Megan were concerned. Trouble was, I kept comin' up with four, and I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit. Even though it was after five, I picked up the phone and made a call to the courthouse. I was in luck. A woman I was...friendly with, was workin’ late. I briefly outlined what information I was looking for, and promised her dinner on my boat in return for her help.
She snickered seductively. "If I know you, Rick Simon, dinner's not the only thing you're promising."
I snickered back "Well, you know, darlin', I do strive to please the ladies."
"And you do, Richard," she laughed. "Believe me, you do."
We broke our connection and I rose to head on home. I spent the night looking through a photo album that vividly recorded 1967. The pictures brought a smile to my face, and caused me to remember a lot of things I thought were long forgotten. When I came across pictures of A.J. and Anita I wondered if there were some things better off forgotten, or if in fact, our past indiscretions always return to haunt us.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
A.J. and I spent the next week pursuing the events surrounding Larry's death. In a way, it was like taking a bittersweet trip down memory lane. We talked to a lotta people we hadn't seen in twenty years, and visited a lotta places we hadn't been in just as long. The week brought back a lot of good memories, and a few bad ones, too, I suppose. I was crushed to discover my old biking buddy, Paz, had died in 'Nam. I hadn't even known he'd been drafted. After I left for boot camp I lost track of him. For twenty years I'd assumed he'd settled down somewhere and was probably the father of three by now. Instead, I found out he hadn't lived past his twenty-fourth birthday.
A.J. had to deal with the ghosts from his past, as well. The more we dug into Larry's death the less we liked what we found. In the end, after a week of almost 'round the clock investigation work, we discovered the then seventeen-year-old Anita had found herself pregnant in January of 1967 by the boy she was seeing prior to A.J. A sleazy gas pump jockey A.J. and I had both known by the name of Carl Bernadini who, has it turned out, had grown up to remain a sleazy gas pump jockey. According to Anita's best friend Margo, Anita never told her family she was pregnant. Nor did she tell them when she had the baby aborted in February. A month after that abortion she started dating A.J.
Our investigation led us to discover that Larry somehow found out in early August of 1967 about Anita's abortion. Rather than confronting Anita, Larry confronted Carl. Evidently he blamed the youth for having gotten his baby sister in trouble in the first place. We could only speculate that the hot-headed Larry was threatening to bash Carl's skull in, when Carl picked up a pipe wrench and started doing some bashing of his own. He covered up his crime by dumping the body at Balboa Park where the Peace concert was held later that evening. Whether it was intentional homicide, or whether it was self-defense, will be left to a jury to decide. A.J. and I brought the evidence we had to Abigail Marsh. The case was reopened and Carl was arrested three days later.
Megan came to our office the day after Carl's arrest to settle up her bill. A.J. told her this one was on the house for old time's sake, but she wouldn't hear of it. In the end, he didn't charge her nearly what we would have collected on such an involved case, but I didn't say anything. The past seven days had been hard on him. I wasn't gonna make them harder by bein' a shit about what Megan owed us. I know A.J. found out a lotta things about Anita he never knew. Certainly he had never been aware of the abortion. He'd always been under the mistaken notion that when they slept together for the first time in June of 1967, Anita had been a virgin just as he had been. I think it made him wonder how he could have been so easily fooled by a girl he loved so much. I think it made him question her honesty and her motives. I think it made him realize for the first time in twenty years, that they really had come from two different sides of the tracks, as the old saying went. I know Mom always thought that, and I guess I kinda did too. I always liked Anita's spirit, but she was a little too wild for A.J.'s more sedate tastes. And I always suspected she might be involved in things he knew nothing about. I guess the past abortion proved that.
I subtly studied Megan as she sat across from my brother's desk. She was listening intently as A.J. summarized the case for her. He was vague about the details surrounding Larry's confrontation with Carl. He felt it was Anita's place to decide whether or not she wanted to tell Megan she'd had an abortion. Therefore, he didn't even tell the girl Carl was one of Anita's old boyfriends. He just said Carl was a kid all of us went to school with who tended to be mired in some pretty shady situations. He told Megan we weren't sure what had happened between Carl and her uncle that ultimately resulted in her uncle's death, but perhaps one day that would be revealed to all of us.
Megan accepted A.J.'s explanation with only a few questions of her own. She didn't seem to care too much as to why Carl had killed her uncle, but was simply happy the police had resurrected the case and that Carl was now awaiting trial for Larry's murder.
"And you're going to tell your mother what we've found out?" A.J. asked her.
Megan gave a slow nod of her head. "Yes. Though I'm sure it will be difficult for her at first. Even though she's recently begun to suspect Uncle Larry was murdered, it won't be easy for her to come to terms with that fact, or with the fact that his murderer walked the streets a free man for twenty years."
"No," A.J. agreed quietly. "It won't be easy."
"Nonetheless, Mom will be very grateful to both you and Rick for all you've done. I know I am."
Megan stood to leave, A.J. rising with her. She held out her hand to him. "Thank you, A.J. For everything."
"Thank you, Megan," he smiled. "For just a little while, you've allowed me to go back to a time that was very special to me. A time I never thought I'd have the chance to revisit."
"I hope the memories weren't too painful," the girl said.
"No," A.J. shook his head. "They weren't. And please, tell your mother I said hello. Tell her she raised a daughter she can be proud of."
Just like the first day in our office, Megan's eyes suddenly filled with tears. She swallowed hard. "Thank you, A.J. I will."
The girl moved forward and wrapped her arms around my brother. He reciprocated the hug in kind, but seemed a little puzzled as to why she held on to him so tightly, and for so long. She brushed at her eyes when she finally released him, then turned to me.
"And thank you, Rick. I appreciate everything you've done for me as well."
I shrugged. "Like A.J. said the first day, you're the daughter of an old friend. That makes you like family in my book."
Our eyes locked for a long minute before Megan gave a little nod of her head. Something passed between us at that moment. Something that in a way included A.J., and in another way didn't.
Megan left our office soon thereafter. She promised A.J. that someday soon she and her mother would be in touch with him. A.J. smiled and said he'd look forward to hearing from both of them.
A.J. was quiet after Megan was gone. But then, so was I. At five o'clock we went our separate ways. A.J. pulled out of the parking lot, headed in the direction of the Grand Canal. I pulled out of the parking lot, headed in the direction of the Fillmore Hotel.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
The clerk behind the desk eyed me with suspicion when I asked him for Megan's room number.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't give out our patrons' room numbers."
"Then could you call her please? I need to talk to her."
"And whom should I say wants to speak with her?"
I mimicked his haughty tone. "You may say Richard Simon wants to speak with her."
The guy gave me a frosty nod and picked up the phone at the far end of the counter. He spoke quietly, making it difficult for me to overhear his words.
He put the receiver back in its cradle. "Miss Jennings will be right down."
"Thanks." I walked toward the bank of elevators. Within a minute's time a door slid open and Megan appeared. Even in faded blue jeans, a T-shirt, and with her hair pulled up in a ponytail, she was drop dead gorgeous.
She nodded her greeting. "Rick." It was as though she knew why I was there, and had long ago come to terms with facing the inevitable.
My greeting back was equally succinct. "Megan."
Megan hadn't been kidding when she'd said the staff of the Fillmore was watchin' out for her. I counted three guys givin' me the evil eye from various places around the sumptuous lobby.
"Is there some place we can talk privately?" I asked.
"There's a solarium that overlooks both the indoor and outdoor pools. It's usually pretty quiet in there. Especially throughout the week."
I jerked my head toward the lobby. "How about lettin' your father's watchdogs know I'm harmless."
Megan chuckled. "I'll do that." She walked over to the desk clerk. "It's okay, Nick. Mr. Simon is an old friend of my mother's, and the brother of the other Mr. Simon you've seen in here on occasion this past week."
The desk clerk nodded and even tossed me a smile. The other men returned to their assigned tasks without giving me a backwards glance. Megan led the way down a hall and through two doors until we came to a glassed-in solarium. She was right. It was quiet. No one else sat at the wrought iron tables. Potted ferns hung overhead, and from the left side we could see the outdoor pool. To my right was the indoor pool and game room. Nothin' was going on inside, but outside a few vacationing families were takin' advantage of San Diego's ever-present sunshine. The room was soundproof enough to muffle the shrieks of the kids.
I walked over to the soda machine. "You want something? I'm buyin.’"
"Thank you. I'll have a Pepsi."
I fished around in my pocket until I'd come up with the right amount of change for two Pepsi’s. I handed Megan hers as I joined her at a table. Neither one of us said anything until we'd drained our cans to the halfway mark. I sat mine down then and pushed it aside. "So, Megan, what's the real story here?"
Usually I can count on my abrupt, matter-of-fact manner to crack even the most stubborn of client. Megan was another story, however. Her stubbornness, so like A.J.'s, only confirmed what I suspected was fact.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I want the truth. I mean that you're no more seventeen than I am. You're story's so full of holes, kid, it looks like a piece a' Swiss cheese from where I'm sittin.’"
She smiled at my analogy. "You think so, huh?"
"I know so. For one thing, I know you weren't born Megan Jennings, but rather, you were born Megan Andrea Cooper. I also know the name of your father was left off your birth certificate. And you were born on April 5th, 1968, which means you're a helluva lot closer to twenty than you are seventeen. And because I'm fairly good at arithmetic, that means your mother was pregnant with you when she left San Diego in August of '67. Now I suppose she coulda' been seein' someone else besides A.J., but just by lookin' at you I know that's not the case. You're the spitting image of my brother, and you have a hell of a lotta his mannerisms besides."
Megan cleared her throat. "How...how did you find these things out?"
"I haven't been a private investigator all these years for nothin', kiddo."
"I realize that," Megan said. "I mean about your skills and all. But how did you know? What made you decide to look into my story in the first place?"
I shrugged. "A lot of things, I guess. First of all, I was fairly certain you were older than seventeen. Secondly, as I started puttin' two and two together I began seein' how much you look like A.J. And I also noticed how difficult it was for you to be around him at times. How much it seemed like you wanted to tell him something. How many times your eyes would well up with tears when you looked at him and you thought no one was watching. And how hard it was for you to say goodbye to him today.
"So, kid," I finished. "What's the scoop? Just why did you show up here in San Diego and only tell A.J. half the truth?"
Megan sat a long time in silence, fiddling with her Pepsi can. I finally reached over and gently extracted it from her hands. That seemed to bring her out of her trance. She gave me a slight smile.
"I came to your office last week for two reasons. One was to indeed, hire you and A.J. to see what you could find out about my uncle's death. The other reason...well, the other reason was to see my father."
"A.J.," I stated quietly.
"Yes," she nodded. "A.J."
"Have you always known he's your father?"
"No,” Megan shook her head. “My mother married the man I know as my father, Michael Jennings, when I was three years old. When I was four he legally adopted me. I don't remember life without him. Which my mother says is just as well. Mom had me in a commune north of San Francisco. We lived from hand to mouth during those years, barely surviving from day to day. You see, Mom had a drug problem. An extensive one. By the time I was two we were living on welfare in a rat-infested apartment building, and my grandparents were trying to obtain custody of me. Mom said that's what finally caused her to go clean. She loved me very much. I was her whole life. She wasn't going to allow anyone to take me away from her."
"Did your grandparents know you were A.J.'s daughter?"
"I wonder why they never told him?" I mused out loud.
"Mom told me it was because they were afraid he'd try to obtain custody of me as well. And with the way my mother was living at the time, there was a good chance he'd have gotten me, despite the fact he was male and still in college. Especially because Mom says your own mother is well-off financially, as well as has influence among important people."
I smiled. "I wouldn't put it quite that way. I mean, it's not like we grew up in the lap a' luxury with chauffeurs, or maids, or anything like that. But yes, we lived comfortably, and yes, my mother would have done anything in her power to help A.J. obtain custody of you if she thought that's what was best for you. She’d be thrilled to find out she has a granddaughter, Megan. She'd love you to pieces."
"Thank you for telling me that. Maybe someday I'll get to meet her."
"So it's not your intention to meet her now? Or to tell A.J. who you really are?"
"No. It wasn't my intention at this time to tell anyone who I really am. You see, Rick, Michael Jennings is my father. No, he's not my biological father, but he's the father who read me bedtime stories, cheered the loudest at my soccer matches, worried about me when I was sick, taught me how to drive a car, and waited up for me when I was sixteen and out on my first date. He loves me very much, just like I love him. He and my mother have never been able to have children of their own. I'm the only child he's got. To this day, Dad doesn't know that I know he's not my real father. It would break his heart to find out any differently."
"How did you find out, Megan? Did Anita tell you?"
"No. Or at least not until I confronted her about it. One rainy Saturday when I was fifteen Mom and Dad were gone for the day and I had the house to myself. I started snooping around in their bedroom - going through Mom's jewelry and bureau drawers, not really looking for anything or intending to pry, just whiling away the hours more or less. In a far back corner of Mom’s closet, behind some long skirts and shoeboxes, I found a metal filing unit. One of those small, portable ones that latches in front, but doesn't lock and has a handle on top. My curiosity got the best of me. I lifted it out of the closet and sat it on the bedroom floor.
"The first thing I ran across was my birth certificate. Naturally I was confused as to why my last name was listed as my mother's maiden name, and as to why the line for my father's name was left blank. Then I took out an envelope that contained Mom and Dad's marriage license. It showed a wedding date of June 22nd, 1971, as opposed to June 22nd of 1967, like I'd always been led to believe. Tucked behind the marriage license were my adoption papers. It was then that I realized the man I'd always known as Dad, wasn't my real father. I suppose a lot of kids would have started crying at that point - crying because they'd found out they weren't really the person they'd been led to believe they were.
"But oddly enough, I was more curious than upset. Even though I was only fifteen, I was firmly grounded as to who I was. I was secure in Dad's love for me, and the love of his extended family as well, so I guess that's what made it easy to keep digging. That, and the fact that my real father is a private investigator." She smiled slightly and her eyes twinkled. "I guess some of A.J.’s skills and inquisitiveness have rubbed off on me."
I smiled back. "Sounds like it."
"The next thing I did was read through a stack of letters Mom had kept that A.J. exchanged with her during their school days. From those letters I could tell he was different from most high school boys. More mature and thoughtful. The last letter I read was heartbreaking. It was dated November of 1967. He had given it to my grandmother with the hope she'd eventually see Mom again and be able to pass it on to her. In it, he wished Mom well, and told her he stilled loved her and thought of her all the time. He ended it by saying he'd always be there for her if she ever needed him. I guess it was that letter that gave me my clearest picture as to what kind of guy he was.
"From there I came across pictures from Mom's high school days. They were the first ones I'd ever seen. Whenever I'd asked in the past to see pictures of her teen years, Mom always said they must have gotten lost in one of our moves. Now I knew why she'd never shown them to me. A.J. was in almost every one of them. As soon as I saw him I knew he was my father. It was like seeing a masculine version of my own face. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought I was looking at my twin brother. I even got out my most recent school picture and studied the two of us side by side. It was weird, Rick, to finally discover why I didn't look like either my mother or father. To discover I looked like a young man I never even knew existed. And his name, Andrew...I knew then, that's where my middle name came from. Mom had always told me Andrea was in honor of an old friend of hers. I thought it was odd I never met that old friend. You tend to assume if you're named for someone, then at least once in your life you'll get to meet that person. I even asked my grandmother about it one time. About Mom's old friend from high school, Andrea, and why I'd never met her. Grandma got kind of a funny look on her face and finally stammered, "Oh...Andrea...yes, well I think her family moved away a long time ago, honey," then she changed the subject."
Megan reached for her soda can and took a long swallow.
"After I put the pictures away I found newspaper clipping upon newspaper clipping about you and A.J. and your business. My grandmother had been sending them to my mother all these years, keeping her abreast of A.J.'s life with the hope that someday Mom would tell me about him."
"So your grandmother felt you should know that A.J. was your real dad?"
"As I grew older, yes she did. She had wanted Mom to tell me for a number of years. But Mom wouldn't do it for several reasons. For one my dad...Michael, didn't want her to. For another, both Mom and Dad feared A.J. would try to take me away from them. Though Dad had legally adopted me, they feared A.J. would have a strong case against them in court, considering Mom never told him about me.
"Looking back on it now I realize Grandma almost told me herself several times. I always spent two weeks with her and Grandpa here in San Diego every summer. She used to take me by A.J.'s home on the Grand Canal, by your mother's home, and by your office. She'd drive slowly, and time after time almost came to a stop. I never thought too much of it. I just thought she was showing me the scenery. But now I think Grandma really wanted to tell me, but just didn't know how, as well as knowing it wasn't her place."
"And so you confronted your mother with all the information you'd found," I guessed.
"Not right then I didn't. Not that day. I needed time to absorb it. To come to terms with how I felt about it. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was upset with my mother for not being honest with me all those years. But two weekends later, when my dad was gone on a fishing trip, I took that file box out of Mom's closet and confronted her. We both cried for a long time. But slowly then, Mom told me the story of A.J. and my uncle's death, and why she left without ever telling A.J. she was pregnant."
"Why did she?"
"She was scared, of course. Scared of what the news would do to her parents so soon after her brother's death, and scared of what they would say. And of what your mother would say. She had always been a little afraid of your mother. She said your mother intimidated her."
I wished I coulda' denied that, but I couldn't. Mom had never liked Anita much, and while she'd always been pleasant to her, it was a distant sort of pleasantness that obviously Anita had read through.
"And Mom didn't want to force A.J. to marry her. She knew that's what her parents and your mother would have insisted upon. And that's what A.J. would have insisted upon, as well. She was afraid he'd never be able to finish college with the responsibilities of a wife and baby, and she didn't want to do that to him. She didn't want to take away his chances at being somebody. And she said, deep down, she knew a marriage between herself and A.J. would never work. That they were too different to have a good life together. Or at least right at that time they were. So Mom left without telling A.J. she was pregnant. My grandparents didn't even know where she was, or that she was pregnant, until she called them one day when I was six months old. Even then, it was another four months before they knew who my father was."
"Anita told them?"
"No," Megan shook her head. "It was never her intention to. But that's when they saw me for the first time. Grandma said she knew the moment she laid eyes on me that I was A.J. Simon's daughter. But by then Mom was so strung out on drugs, and bogged down in so many other problems, that Grandma and Grandpa were afraid to tell A.J. for the reason I mentioned earlier."
"That he'd try to get custody of you," I said.
"Yes, and in so doing take me away from them. Possibly not ever allow them to see me."
"A.J. woulda' never done that, Megan. I want you to know that. Yes, if he was concerned for your well being he woulda' tried to get the courts to give him sole custody of you. But he never, never would have robbed your grandparents of the opportunity of being a part of your life."
"I know that now, Rick. After meeting A.J., after being with him this past week...well, I know what kind of a man he is, and I know he'd never intentionally hurt anyone."
"No, Megan, he wouldn't."
She took another swallow of soda before completing her story. "Mom and I talked about a lot of things throughout that weekend. We both agreed that for the time being, I wouldn't let on to Dad that I knew he wasn't my real father. She told me she had intended to tell me the truth when I turned eighteen, despite Michael's wishes. Mom and I decided then, that when I did turn eighteen, the three of us would sit down together and discuss it. I remember thinking that was a long time to wait. I'll admit I was kind of anxious to meet A.J., but I didn't want to hurt my dad either. Somehow I managed to push it all to the back of my mind so I could keep going from day to day. Then right before my eighteenth birthday our lives took a nosedive. Dad started having episodes of shortness of breath. Then he started tiring easily and losing weight. That went on all last summer and into the fall. By November he had grown so weak he couldn't get out of bed. The doctors said he'd contracted an unusual viral infection that was causing his heart to die. His only hope of survival was a transplant. He was put on a waiting list until four weeks ago when he finally got his new heart. So far things have gone well, but the doctors won't give any guarantees. Things could turn sour tomorrow and we could lose him. Or we could have him with us for many years to come. It's just too early to tell."
"And that's why you've never told him what you know?"
"Yes, Rick, that's why. I just can't right now. I can't do that to him."
"But you came here," I pointed out. "You came to San Diego and sought out A.J."
"Yes, but not with the intention of telling him who I was. Just with the intention of seeing him...meeting him...and for a little while having the chance to know my father. Dad's illness and Grandma's death simply afforded me the opportunity I needed to get here alone. Without Mom."
"So Anita really doesn't know you came to me and A.J. asking us to look into Larry's death?"
"No, she doesn't. She would have forbid me to had I even suggested it. Coming to see you and A.J. was my idea. There are a lot of private investigators in this city, Rick. I could have hired any one of them to investigate Uncle Larry's death. But instead I chose A.J."
"So where do we go from here, kiddo?"
She looked at me through hooded eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Look, Megan, while I respect your feelings for Michael, the truth of the matter is, A.J. is your father. You and Anita are doing him a disservice by not telling him that. Do you have any idea how much he'd want to be a part of your life? Do you have any idea as to how difficult this is all gonna be for him when he does finally discover the truth?"
She gave a small nod. "I know. I can't deny any of what you're saying. But please...please try to understand. With my dad's health the way it is, now is just not the right time."
I wasn't gonna let her off the hook that easily. "When will the time be right?"
"I've been thinking a lot about that in recent days, and I'm going to make you a promise."
"And that promise is?"
promise is, provided my dad's health improves in the next six months like the
doctors are hoping it will, then I'll tell him. I'll tell him that I've known for almost five years that he's not
my biological father. But you see,
Rick, I have to make him understand that fact will never change my love for
him. I have to make him understand that
while A.J.'s my father he...Michael, is my daddy. There is a difference you know."
"Yeah, kiddo," I stated softly. "I know. So will A.J."
"My dad's a good man, Rick. One of the best. As a matter of fact, I think he and A.J. will get along great if they both just give it a chance. Ironically enough, they share many of the same interests. What I'm hoping is that once Dad has a chance to assimilate all I have to tell him, he'll agree to Mom and me flying down here to see A.J. Obviously my mother has a lot of explaining to do to him."
"Yes. She certainly does. And I'm not gonna kid ya' about that, Megan. It won't be easy. A.J. can have a helluva temper when riled, and he is gonna be upset. He'll be furious at your mom for keeping you from him all these years."
"I realize that. And truthfully, I don't blame him. I was furious at her for a while, too"
"But he'll get over it," I promised. "Once he's had a chance to calm down, he'll be able to come to terms with the decisions Anita made. A.J.'s a fair man, and is pretty good at seein' both sides of the story. It's gonna take him some time, but eventually I think he and your mom will even be friends again. And someday...well someday he might even want to tell Michael thank you for being your dad, and for raising such a fine daughter."
Megan reached across the table and took my hand in hers. She squeezed hard and said through her tears, "Thanks, Rick. For everything."
A long moment passed before her hand slipped out of mine and she wiped her eyes. "The one thing I don't understand is how come you figured out so easily who I was, but A.J. hasn't?"
"Well, darlin,’ that just goes to show ya,’ that I'm the one with the brains in the family."
My niece already knew me too well. I felt a light kick to my shins. "Rick..."
I smiled. "You sound just like your old man when you scold me, you know that, sweetie?"
Megan smiled in return, but didn't let me off that easily. "Really, Rick. I'm serious. How come? When I realized you probably knew, I was so afraid A.J. was going to come to the same conclusion."
"A.J. tends to take people at face value, Megan. Maybe he's even kinda innocent that way. Unless someone's story sounds too outlandish to be true, he believes what people tell him. I guess that's 'cause he's such an honest man himself that the idea of someone purposefully deceiving him doesn't cross his mind."
"Yes, but you knew just by looking at me that I was A.J.'s daughter."
"That's true, but it's easier for someone like me, who's on the outside lookin' in, to see the resemblance, as opposed to A.J., who's on the inside lookin' out. Besides, to him you're simply a beautiful young woman who happens to be the daughter of an old girlfriend. A.J. doesn't see himself as good looking, and has never really understood why women are always making such a fuss over him. I suppose that's what makes him so appealing to the fairer sex. And, I also suppose, that's why he doesn't look at you and see himself."
"I suppose you're right," Megan shrugged. I could tell she still didn't fully understand, but someday I knew she would. Someday when she'd had the opportunity to really get to know A.J.
We both sat in silence for a few minutes each, lost in our own thoughts.
I'd been staring out at the kids playing in the pool. "Yeah?"
"I know I'm asking a lot of you, but you won't tell A.J., will you? That I'm his daughter?"
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was right. She was askin' a lot of me.
"Megan, overall I don't feel I have any more right to tell A.J. who you are, than your grandmother felt she had the right to tell you who he was. Therefore no, I'm not plannin' on telling him any time soon. But eventually he has to know. And I don't mean ten or twenty years from now. He has the right to know you now, Megan. Before anymore time slips away from both of you."
She smiled at me as we bartered. "So how long will you give me?"
"The six months you told me you'd need at the start of our conversation. Then I want to hear from you one way or another. I'm not sayin' I'll go ahead and tell him if the time still isn't right. I respect the fact that your dad's having some major health problems right now, and neither A.J. nor I would want to be the cause of more trouble for him. But you and your mother need to discuss this. You need to tell her what you've done and what I know. I have a feelin' that will make Anita realize neither of you has a choice anymore. It’ll make her realize that, as soon as possible, Michael has to know what's goin' on...and so does A.J."
"I don't disagree with you, Rick. And I promise I'll keep in touch with you. If things go as I hope they will, I'll see you again some time early next year."
As I got to my feet I told her, "I'm holdin' ya' to that, kid."
She stood as well, but made no move to follow me.
"I'll walk you up to your room."
Megan shook her head. "Thank you, but I'd like to sit here by myself a little while longer."
Suddenly she looked like she had the weight of the world on
her shoulders, and I remembered how young nineteen was.
"You're sure you don't want me to stick around a while?"
"No. I'll be fine. Really."
"Okay," I reluctantly agreed. "If you're sure."
I held my hand out to her. She shook it, then just held on to it for a moment and gave it a little squeeze.
When she released me I turned and walked toward the door.
I smiled, and turned back to face her.
She walked over to me and wrapped her arms around my neck. "I've never had the opportunity to call anyone that," she said softly. "You're the only uncle I've got. I kind of like how it sounds."
I chuckled as I held her against me. "I like how it sounds, too, sweetie. I like how it sounds, too."
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
It's been seven months since Megan's visit. I've kept my promise to her and never let on to A.J. that she was anyone other than Megan Jennings, the daughter of Anita and Michael. I've talked to my niece three times since then. Her father's health has continued to improve, and two months ago he returned to work. Last week when Megan was home from college on spring break she and Anita told Michael what Megan had known since she was fifteen. That he's not her biological father. Megan said he cried at first. They all did. But she feels confident that she's made him understand he will always be her daddy, and that no man can ever take his place in her life, or in her heart.
Not even A.J.
Now, with Megan's twentieth birthday rapidly approaching, she and Anita are making plans for their upcoming trip to San Diego. I know everything they have to tell A.J. is gonna come as shock to him. There's gonna be a lot of anger, a lot of regrets, a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of tears. But given time, I know he'll work through it. It's my hope that the three of them, A.J., Anita, and Megan, will work through it together. No, make that the four of them - A.J., Anita, Megan, and Michael, the man who helped raise Megan and calls her daughter.
Of course, it's a given that I'll be there to help A.J. over the rough spots. As will Mom, once she gets over the astonishment the news is bound to cause her.
I thought the turbulent sixties were dead. Long dead and buried somewhere deep in the memories of the baby boomers who had lived through those times. But looking at the beautiful young woman I call niece, who's an indirect product of those times, I realize the sixties are very much alive and well, and were never meant to be forgotten. And when I look into Megan's face and see my brother's eyes and his smile, I know that's how it should be.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*The sequel to this story, Daddy’s Little Girl, can be found in the Simon and Simon Library under California Dreamin.’