TRICK OR TREAT
"Damn it, A.J.! Keep your thumb out!"
A.J. Simon glared on his brother as he walked backwards along the shoulder of the road.
"Rick, of all the lame-brained...I can't believe you ran out of gas! How many times does this make in all your many years as a licensed driver? Ten...fifteen...twenty...thir--?"
"I don't know," Rick shrugged, as he, too, stumbled backwards in gravel. "Somethin' like that."
"And why is that I always have the good fortune of being with you when the engine of one of your vehicles starts to sputter, and cough, and cry out for nourishment?"
"I dunno. I guess that's just the way the ball bounces, as the saying goes."
why is it this ball never bounces, as you put it, when we aren't in a hurry to
"I dunno, A.J. It's just one a' them things."
"One of what things?"
"One of them little inconveniences that occasionally--" Rick stopped in mid-sentence and thrust A.J.'s arm out. "A car's coming! Get your thumb..."
The detectives watched as the headlights of the oncoming car rushed past them. Cold misty water stirred up by the car's tires doused their shoes and pant legs.
A.J. glowered at his brother through narrowed eyes.
"A.J., would you wipe that scowl off your face and quit glarin' at me like an axe murderer! We'll never hitch a ride with you lookin' like that. Smile for God's sake! That's why I got you walkin' closest to the road. If we're gonna get a lift, you gotta turn your charm on some lady motorist." Rick reached over and tried to form A.J.'s mouth into a smile with his numb fingers. "Come on. Let them dimples show."
A.J. yanked Rick's hands away from his face. "Knock it off! I'm in no mood for this crap tonight, Rick." The blond brought the collar of his jacket up closer around his neck. Frigid raindrops ran down between his shirt and bare shoulder blades. This Friday evening was dark, blustery, and a chilly drizzle steadily fell. The only light in the sky came from the full moon. One couldn't have asked for a better night for Halloween to fall. Or at least one couldn't have, if one was at home in front of a warm fire entertaining guests at one's annual Halloween party, like A.J. was supposed to be doing. But no, thanks to Rick and his irresponsible ways, they were now walking along a remote stretch of curving canyon highway hoping to get a ride home before the party ended without them.
"You promised Mom," A.J. reminded through clenched teeth. "You promised her we wouldn't miss this year's party like we've missed the last three Halloween parties we've hosted. More importantly, you promised me we wouldn't miss this party. But, no, once again my house is filled with guests, my kitchen is filled with food and drink, the little neighborhood kids are ringing my doorbell all decked out in their costumes, and where am I, you ask? I'm cold, wet, and mad as hell while walking along a dark stretch of road praying I don't get hit by a car driven by someone taking these hairpin turns like Mario Andretti! And you have the audacity to tell me to smile!"
"Look, A.J., I'm sor--"
"Save it for another holiday you screw up, Rick. I sure don't need to hear it on this one."
"You know, sometimes you're pretty damn uncharitable towards me," Rick complained while pulling up his own jacket collar. "You're always sniping at me like this when things go a little haywire."
"A little haywire! Rick, we're seventeen miles from home, have been attempting without success for over an hour to hitch a ride, and we're late for the party we spent a week cooking and decorating for. I don't call that a little haywire! I call it a lot haywire!"
Whatever protest Rick was about to make, trailed off as the headlights of another car shown from around the curve. The lanky man didn't bother with trying to encourage his brother to hitch them ride, this time he threw his arm in front of A.J.'s chest and stuck his thumb out while bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. On pure, unabashed enthusiasm alone, Rick should have earned them a ride.
And earn them a ride he did.
A sleek black Cadillac Coupe Deville with smoke tinted windows rolled to a gentle stop a few feet ahead of the brothers.
"All right!" Rick exclaimed. "We got ourselves a ride!"
The brothers ran to the vehicle. Rick opened the back door on the driver's side and slid across the seat to make room for A.J. The dim center dome light cast an eerie glow over the rich black leather interior.
"Thanks, mister. I really appreciate you stoppin' for us."
The driver was a well-built, darkly handsome man of six foot three. He wore a hand tailored black suit A.J. recognized as an Armani, a black shirt, and a blood red silk tie. A diamond tie clip held the expensive strip of decorative cloth neatly in place. Matching diamond cuff links glittered from his wrists, and his black shoes were so highly glossed that the moonlight coming in through the window created a glare as it was reflected off them. His hair was the color of coal and slicked back off his wide forehead with styling gel. Rick thought it looked as though his eyebrows had been gelled into odd little points, and briefly wondered if this overly stylish man was gay.
man's voice was smooth and deep.
"You're welcome, gentlemen."
He turned his head and smiled at the shivering brothers. His white teeth gleamed from between scarlet
lips, and his shining eyes appeared to be as black as his hair. "I presume your final destination is
the home on the Grand Canal?"
The Simon brothers exchanged dubious glances.
"Well...yeah," Rick replied. "Yeah, it is. But how did you know that?"
The man looked in the rearview mirror before smoothly pulling the luxury model Cadillac back onto the desolate road. He gave a throaty chuckle. "Let us just say for the sake of conversation, that I know much about you, Richard Simon. And through nothing other than association via Richard, I know much about you as well, Andrew Simon."
Again, the brothers exchanged wary looks, and A.J. began to wonder if accepting a ride from this stranger was such a good idea.
The driver reached over and flipped on the heater. "It's a little chilly in here, don't you think, boys?"
Rick's teeth clattered against one another. "Yeah. Yeah...it is."
The man glanced in the mirror at his passengers. "I hope you both like it nice and hot," he smiled. "I do."
"Yeah...yeah," the cold Rick agreed. "The hotter the better."
The man's laugh was almost evil in nature. "You don't know how happy it makes me to hear you say that, Richard."
"Uh...hey, mister, just how do you know our names? Did our mother send you out lookin' for us or somethin'?"
A pointed eyebrow rose. "Your mother? Oh, no, not your mother. I have no business with your mother. Unfortunately, she is a good woman."
"A good wom...hey," Rick growled with indignation, "just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Funny you should mention hell, Richard. And on this night of all nights. But as to your question, my statement means exactly what it sounds like it means. I have no reason to do business with your mother. But you, on the other hand...you and I might yet strike a deal."
"Strike a deal? Whatta ya' talkin' about?"
"Rick," A.J. hissed under his breath, "just shut up and be ready to jump out at the first stop sign. There's something wrong with this guy."
Rick was in the process of nodding his agreement when the man's voice interrupted the brothers' conversation.
"You always have to ruin things for us, don't you, Andrew? Each and every time your brother and I are about to join forces, you come along and play little guardian angel. I must tell you, I am growing quite weary of your interference."
"My interference?" A.J. questioned. "What do you mean, my interference? Neither Rick or I even know who you are!"
"Oh, but that's not true, Andrew. You may not know who I am, Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes, but Richard certainly does."
"I do not!" Rick declared. "And don't be callin' my brother names!"
"And why not? Isn't that what you have called him on occasion? Think about it, Richard, isn't that what you have thought of Andrew each and every time over the many long years that he's stopped you from having fun?"
Rick cocked his head in contemplation. "Well...now that you mention it--"
"Hey!" A.J. exclaimed in protest.
"Sorry, little brother, but I gotta admit, you can be a wet blanket sometimes."
"That's correct," the driver enticed. "He can be, can't he, Richard? For instance, there was that time when you wanted to soap Mrs. Whitherspoon's windows and fill the locks on her car doors with hot glue. Do you remember that?"
"Sure, I do. She was an old witch. Always yellin' at the neighborhood kids if we so much as set a toe in her yard. And whenever our baseballs or footballs would land on her property, she'd swipe 'em up before we could get to 'em and then refuse to give 'em back to us. Man, I bet I lost fifteen bucks worth a' baseballs to that woman."
dollars and forty three cents to be exact," the driver imparted. "But that's beside the point. Do you recall what little boy stopped you
from extracting the well-deserved revenge you had planned?"
Rick looked at his brother with disgust. "Yeah. Now that you mention it, I do."
A.J. scowled at the man in the front seat. "I stopped him because what he wanted to do was wrong. Granted, Mrs. Whitherspoon was not a pleasant woman, but it was her property, and she had the right to make the rules." A.J. turned his attention to Rick. "And rather than be angry with me for that, you should thank me. It wouldn't have taken Mrs. Whitherspoon, or Dad, long to figure out just who had caused the damage. You wouldn't have been able to sit down for a week by the time Dad was finished with your behind."
Rick reluctantly conceded A.J.'s point. "That's true."
Sensing he had lost a minute bit of ground, the driver quickly brought up another incident. "Then, Richard, there was the time you and Carlos stole twenty dollars from the school's drama fund so you could buy beer, cigarettes, and dirty magazines."
Rick smiled at the memory. "Yeah, we did. That was the first beer I ever drank." He laughed. "Made me sicker than a dog, too."
"It's a pleasant memory, isn't it?" The man smiled. "Or at least a pleasant memory until Mr. Do-Gooder sitting next to you there convinced you what you had done was wrong. Do you
recall how you ended up rectifying the
"Yeah," Rick stated as once again he looked at A.J. "Yeah, I do. I gave up the next four Saturdays in order to mow yards for people just so I could earn that twenty bucks back and return it to the fund."
A.J. didn't let either man's gaze waver his convictions. "I was ten years old, Rick. You were my hero, and what you had done was wrong. You and Carlos stole money. Something I never could have imagined you doing, and something our parents had taught us was a crime."
"That's true," Rick agreed, now embarrassed by the memory. "Everything A.J.'s sayin' is true. I was his hero. He looked up to me, and I let him down. Somehow, I had to make it right with him again. And to be honest with you, I guess I didn't mind mowin' those lawns all that much. It was worth it when I saw the smile on A.J.'s face the day he and I snuck into the school and put that money back where it belonged."
"Rubbish," the driver dismissed. "Pure and simple rubbish. You let all your good times be ruined by him."
"Well, not exactly all of them," Rick negated. "There have been a few others."
"But none that were as glorious as they could have been had you not been worried about what your brother would say, or think, should he find out."
"Well...no. I suppose not. But on the other hand, he's kept me out of a passel of trouble over the years."
"And for what?" The driver asked with disdain. "What purpose does that serve?"
"The purpose it serves," A.J. replied in a tight, barely controlled tone, "is that it's given him a full rewarding life. It's enabled him to be a partner in a business he's proud of, and enabled him to be well-thought of by his family and friends."
"Well-thought of? Is that what you want, Richard? To be well-thought of?" The man smiled and an inviting twinkle lit his dark eyes. "Or would you rather have fun?"
"Fun is nice," Rick wholeheartedly agreed. "And I guess I never have cared too much about what people think of me."
"No, you never have," the driver stated. "With the exception of what your Mary Poppins baby brother thinks, that is."
"Yeah, maybe," Rick admitted. "Sometimes anyway."
times that matter, Richard. Always the
times that matter. For instance, think
back to your service in Vietnam."
"I'd rather not," Rick stated dryly.
The man laughed with pleasure. "Yes, it was a rather hideous place, was it not? I couldn't have better engineered that event. But, for the moment, we won't talk about the delightful horrors of war, but rather we'll talk of a card game in a back street bar in Saigon. A card game you and your friends were winning. There was over three thousand dollars in the pot, and you and your two buddies stood to collect it all. But then you realized your friends were cheating. No one else knew. No one else would have ever found out. Take it from me, Richard, you would have walked away a wealthier man that night. But instead you folded your cards, stood up, retrieved all the money from the center of the table, and without a word of explanation gave every man back what he had contributed."
From the back seat Rick shrugged his indifference. "I wasn't gonna walk away from that table with money I didn't rightfully win. And I wasn't gonna associate with cheaters."
"Oh, bother," the driver dismissed. "The only reason you partook in such a noble gesture was because you thought of the Golden Boy and what he would say if he found out."
"Maybe," Rick agreed.
"Not maybe," the man negated, "definitely. And you certainly recall the incident last year when you were enraged. So wildly enraged you wanted to kill a man. You would have, too, had your brother not interfered. Oh, but you were ready to. You could smell death's sweet scent, you could taste its forbidden fruits, and you were reveling in it. You wanted to do it. You had your gun to the man's head. You were just about to pull the trigger, when your brother stopped you. When your brother prevented your much deserved moment of revenge."
"He didn't stop me," Rick said with quiet reflection. "He asked me not to."
driver scoffed. "And there is a
"Yes," Rick nodded. "There is. That man you're talkin' about almost killed A.J. Almost beat him to death with the butt of his pistol. And you're right. I wanted revenge. And you're right, too, it was probably much-deserved. The man had hurt a lot of other people."
With a mocking sneer the man reminded, "But The All-American Boy wouldn't let you extract your revenge."
"No, he asked me not to," Rick maintained. "I still don't know all the reasons behind his request, but that doesn't matter. What matters is, A.J. asked me not to."
"And that was enough? Just because he asked you not to, you abided by his wishes?"
Rick nodded his confirmation. "That was enough."
"Oh, but, Richard, without your brother to weigh you down, without him as your ever-present conscience, we could do glorious work together." The man threw back his head and laughed until saliva ran out his mouth and trickled down his chin. "But quite glorious!"
"Look, mister, I don't know who you are, and I don't care. Just stop this car and let me and my brother out."
The man turned around, but oddly enough the car maintained a straight and steady course on the road. A strange red glow lit the driver's features and his pupils completely disappeared within his ebony eyes. "You mean I have been remiss in properly introducing myself?" He reached out a hand. "My name is Lucifer, Richard. Lucifer."
As one, Rick and A.J. exchanged wide-eyed looks of terror. A.J.'s eyes flicked to the door as the man's crazed laughter filled the automobile. Rick nodded his understanding and sat ready for when A.J. gave the word. The car slowed around a narrow bend. A.J. yelled, "Now!," flung the door open, and rolled out onto the wet pavement, Rick right behind him.
The Cadillac sped off into the night until all that could be seen was its red taillights glowing ominously in the distance.
An hour later the two soaking wet detectives finally made it to the house on the Grand Canal. Carved jack-o-lanterns glowed from every window, and bundles of Indian corn were tied on the lights mounted outside the garage. A.J. could hear voices raised in laughter and rowdy talk as he and Rick weaved in and out of parked cars on their way to the kitchen door.
"And I'll never ask to borrow another dime from you, A.J., I swear it. And I'll never play hooky from work again. And no more wild nights at Ollie's Bar when you have to come pick me up 'cause I'm too drunk to drive home. And from now, on I'll make sure my gas tank is always full. And..."
Rick Simon was still reciting solemn vows to change his ways as A.J. opened the kitchen door. Cecilia, decked out as a 1920's flapper, was adding food to various trays.
She turned as her bedraggled sons entered the house. Over the loud noise dominating the downstairs rooms she exclaimed, "There you two are! It's about time! Where have you...Rick...Rick, honey, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Rick stood pale, shivering, and glassy-eyed in the middle of the kitchen floor. "And the next time you want me to work on your car, Mom," he said in a vacant monotone, "I'll do it right away. I promise. You won't have to ask me twice."
Cecilia glanced at A.J. before allowing her eyes to travel back to her eldest. "That's nice, Rick, but--"
"And I'll come over and fix that leaky faucet like you’ve been asking me to. Tomorrow morning. First thing. I'll be there."
"I appreciate that, sweetheart, but it can wait until at least tomorrow afternoon. We'll all be tired in the morn--"
"And I'll mow your lawn and clean out the garage while I'm there."
Cecilia molded Rick's hands around a steaming mug of hot apple cider. "Here, Rick, drink this. Then I want you to go upstairs and take a long hot shower. I laid your costume out on the bed in the guest room, and A.J.'s out in his bedro--"
"No!" Rick exclaimed with sudden terror. "I don't wanna wear my costume!"
Cecilia gave a slow nod as if she understood perfectly well why Rick was refusing to wear the costume he'd been so excited about for the past month. He had planned to dress as the Devil this year, and had bought a new pair of black pants, black shoes, and a black dress shirt for just this occasion. He'd even paid a seamstress, who resided a few blocks from the Simon and Simon office, seventy-five dollars to make him a splendid deep red velvet cape that hung to his shins and was lined with shiny black satin.
Cecilia kept the worry out of her voice, but couldn't completely keep it from her face. "Okay, honey, if you don't want to wear your costume, you don't have to. That's up to you. But at least go upstairs, take a hot shower, and put on some dry clothes. I'll have a plate of food ready for you when you come back down."
Rick nodded his head in agreement and sat his half empty mug on the counter top. Cecilia watched him traverse the crowd of party attendees. Completely out of character for him, not once did Rick stop and visit with anyone, nor did he return greetings when hailed by various friends and relatives.
As he passed Downtown Brown, Rick’s mindless recitation started again, much to the puzzlement of the black man. "I promise I won't cause you anymore trouble. I won't ask Nixon to run anything on the department's computers. I won't ask you for anymore favors. I won't--"
It was then that Rick saw him. He was dressed all in black, the red strip of cloth encircling his throat was the only bit of color he wore. His hair was slicked back off his face, and his eyebrows tufted up in odd little points. He had a drink in one hand as he stood leaning against the fireplace where, appropriately enough, a blazing fire roared within.
"Why you...!" Rick carelessly shoved costumed guests aside ignoring their startled cries and inquires, as he charged across the room. He grabbed the man by the lapels of his suit coat and threw him against the wall. The man's drink flew out of his hands and landed to stain A.J.'s beige carpeting a deep orange.
"What the hell are you doin' here?" Rick growled. "Get outta my brother's house right now! And you better not have laid so much as a slimy finger on my mother!"
"Rick! Cecilia cried from the kitchen. "What are you doing?"
Rick ignored his mother, as well as his brother, who was maneuvering through the crowd with as much haste as possible.
"Rick, stop it!" A.J. commanded. "Stop it now! Leave him alone!"
"Leave him alone?" Rick shouted as he drew back his fist. "A.J., you know who he is! We gotta get him outta here before somethin' awful happens."
A.J. grabbed Rick's cocked elbow to prevent his knuckles from making contact with their guest's jaw. In a quiet voice he ordered, "Rick, let him go, please."
"Let him go, Rick."
Rick took one last look at the man whose suit coat he still held firmly in his hand. For some reason he didn't look nearly as evil as Rick remembered, and actually appeared to be quite frightened, which the detective found slightly odd for one who professed to be the Prince of Darkness.
"Rick, let him go," A.J. commanded one last time.
"Rick, it was joke," A.J. was forced to confess. "Nothing other than a practical joke."
“Yes,” A.J. nodded. “A practical joke."
hands dropped away from the man.
"A practical joke that you played on me?"
glanced at the relieved man he'd just released. "So this guy's really not the Devil?"
Although the Simon brothers' guests were still far from sure as to what was happening, they all burst into laughter at Rick's words. Their jocularity only further fueled his embarrassment over having been so thoroughly duped by his little brother.
A.J. could hardly keep the smile off his face. "No, Rick. He's really not the Devil."
"Then who is he?" Rick challenged. "And how did he know so much about us? And how did he just happen to come along on the exact stretch of highway where we ran out of gas?"
A.J. turned and made proper introductions. "Ken, this is my brother, Rick. Rick, this is Ken Michaels."
Ken held a tentative hand out to Rick. A hand that, for now, was ignored.
"Who is he?" Rick repeated.
"He's the older brother of a college buddy of mine. I ran into him a couple of weeks ago not that far from the office, and found out he's an actor and tours with a national theatre company. One thing led to another during the course of our conversation, and I...I hired him to play a little joke on you at the party tonight."
"That still doesn't explain how he ran across us out on the road," Rick stated with skepticism.
Ken spoke up and offered the explanation A.J. knew nothing about. "I was on my way to your party when I ran across the two of you hitchhiking. I recognized A.J., so I stopped. Rather than ruin the joke he worked so hard at setting up, I simply went ahead and played it out in the car."
Rick's eyes narrowed with menace and he advanced on his sibling. "Why you little..."
A.J. raised his hands in a gesture of truce, and stepped back for every step Rick took forward. "Hey, you've played enough practical jokes on me over the years. Come on, Rick, one good turn deserves another."
The crowd chimed in in support of A.J.
"Yeah, Rick!" A Simon cousin yelled. "One good turn deserves another!"
As one, a group of cops whined in chorus, "Was poor Ricky scared by the Devil tonight?"
"Hey, Rick, I've got some repairs that need to be done
around my house!" Town yelled. "As long as you suddenly feel the need to straighten out your life, maybe you could stop by my place tomorrow, huh?"
Rick growled at the crowd of teasers, then bent his head and shoulders like a football player ready to make a big tackle and rushed his brother. He caught A.J. in the mid-section, causing the blond's breath to rush out of him in a loud, "Oooof!" A.J. fell forward, landing across his brother’s shoulders, which enabled Rick to pick him up in a fireman's carry.
"Somebody open the French doors for me!" Rick shouted. "I'm gonna dump this no-good worthless brother of mine in the canal."
A.J. struggled, but was unable to break Rick's hold. All the guests followed Rick down the steps of the deck and to the edge of the canal. No one, not even Cecilia, seemed intent on stopping Rick. As usual, everyone was enjoying the show the Simon brothers were putting on.
"Mom! Mom, help!" A.J. yelled with mock desperation as his legs flailed in the air. "Mom!"
"Sorry, A.J., but you're on your own!" Cecilia called in return. "I made a vow a long time ago not to interfere in the squabbles you boys occasionally engage in."
"But he's going to drown me!"
"I don't think so, dear," Cecilia chuckled. "I don't think so."
Once Rick arrived at the canal his intention was to make A.J. think he was going to dump him in the murky water, only to deposit him on his feet on the edge of it. He didn't explain this to A.J., however, so in a last ditch effort to free himself from Rick's hold, A.J. ended up toppling both of them into the water. The brothers surfaced to clapping and laughter from their audience. They playfully splashed one another, then Rick put a hand on the top of A.J.'s head and dunked him three more times for good measure. When they finally climbed out, Rick and A.J. had their arms around each other's shoulders and were laughing right along with the crowd.
The party went on until long after midnight, and was deemed the best the Simons had ever hosted. Rick was continuously teased about falling for A.J.'s practical joke. He was a good sport about the ribbing he received, and deep down knew A.J. deserved a little retribution now and again for big brother's continuous pranks and schemes.
The Simon brothers slept late the next morning, ate a quick breakfast, and then drove out to retrieve Rick's truck. They returned to A.J.'s house shortly before ten-thirty and worked together at restoring the home to its usual impeccable state.
Rick was on his hands and knees scrubbing at the stain on A.J.'s carpeting made when Ken Michaels' drink was spilled.
"I gotta hand it to ya', little brother, that was a heck of a joke you played on me last night." Rick caught A.J.'s eye from where the blond stood in the kitchen wiping off the stove and counter tops. "But just remember. Paybacks are hell."
A.J. rolled his eyes with dread, knowing fully well someday Rick would, indeed, make him pay for last night's scam. "I'll keep that in mind."
"But there's one thing I still can't figure out," Rick said as he pushed himself up off his knees. "How did Ken know about that card game in Nam? I never told you about that."
A.J.'s brows drew together in puzzlement, and a slight frown touched the corners of his mouth. "No, you didn't, did you?"
"No. So how did he find out about it?"
A.J. chewed on his lower lip with confusion. "I honestly don't know, Rick."
Rick walked into the kitchen and threw away the wad of paper towels he'd been using to clean the carpeting. "A.J., come on. Quit goofing around. How did he know?"
A.J. shrugged his shoulders and appeared to be a bit unnerved. "I don't know. Really, I don't. I mean, I told him about the other things he relayed, but you're right, I didn't tell him about that card game, because until last night, I was never aware such an incident occurred."
Rick's mind cast about for logical explanations. Unfortunately, he couldn't come up with any. He hadn't had contact with the two so-called buddies who had been involved in the card game with him since he'd returned from Nam. He had no idea where either of them lived, or if they had even made it out of Vietnam alive.
"You're sure I haven't told you about that card game at some point in time?" Rick asked with false hope, because he knew perfectly well what A.J.'s answer was going to be.
"No," A.J. vowed with sincerity. "You never told me."
"A.J....this is weird."
"Yes," A.J. agreed as his blue eyes grew rounder, "it is."
"And you're sure that guy – Ken - is your friend's brother?"
"Sure I'm sure!" A.J. exclaimed with indignation. "Or at least, I think I'm sure."
Rick's eyes narrowed. "Whatta ya' mean, you think you're sure?"
A.J. shrugged. "Well, it has been twenty years since I last saw him. But who else could it have been? He immediately acknowledged he was Ken Michaels when I ran into him on the street a few weeks ago. And we talked about Brian - his brother - for quite a while."
Rick walked over to the phone. "Call him."
"And say what?"
"Just ask him if his brother Ken still lives here in San Diego. Ask him if the guy's an actor like Ken told you he was."
"Rick," A.J. attempted to reason, "Brian will think I'm nuts if I call him and ask him that. Besides, I haven't seen him in at least fifteen years."
"So what?" Rick thrust the phone's receiver at his brother. "Call him anyway."
A.J. sighed, shook his head in exasperation, and did as his brother requested. He pulled the phone book out of a kitchen drawer, found Brian's number, and dialed.
A young child answered on the second ring. There was a pause as she ran off to get her father. Out of curiosity, Rick picked up the phone in the den so he could listen to both sides of the conversation.
"Brian?" A.J. tentatively questioned. "This is A.J. Simon."
"A.J.!" The other voice exclaimed in delight. "How are you?"
"I'm fine, Brian. And how are you?"
The two men exchanged pleasantries and caught up on old times until Rick began waving his hand in a circular motion, indicating to A.J. to get to the purpose of the call.
"Uh...listen, Brian," A.J. said, "I have what may sound like a strange question to ask you. I ran into your brother, Ken, a few weeks back and..."
A strange silence filled the other end of the phone line.
A.J.'s eyes met Rick's at the unease both brothers detected behind the man's tone. "Yes. Ken. I saw him—-“
"A.J...Ken has been dead for twelve years now. He died in a house fire."
"Oh." A.J. paused uncomfortably. "Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
"Thank you," Brian said quietly. "As much as I hate to say this, it was probably for the best. He...well, let's just say that my brother had gotten mired in some very...evil things."
"Evil things?" A.J. stated in an open-ended manner.
"Yes, evil things. A year or so before he died, Ken got involved with a Satanic cult. Don't ask me why. He had aspirations of becoming a stage actor, and was really quite talented. I don't know what happened that caused him to steer his life down such a...destructive path."
"I...I don't know either," A.J. said for lack of knowing what else to offer. "But I’m sorry to hear that, Brian. I must have made a...mistake. Uh...what I mean is, the man I saw a few weeks ago must have looked like Ken."
"I'm sure that was it," Brian agreed. In a lighter tone he finished with, "You know, they do say each one of us has a twin somewhere in the world."
A.J. swallowed hard. "Yes, they do say that, don't they? Well, uh...thanks, Brian. Thanks a lot. And I'm sorry to have bothered you. Maybe we can get together for lunch some time soon and hash over old times."
"I'd really like that, A.J. I'll give you a call in a couple of weeks and we'll set something up."
"Great. I'll look forward to hearing from you. Bye."
"Bye," Brian said before breaking the connection.
As one, A.J. and Rick hung up the receivers they held in their hands. A.J. looked across the room at the brother whose skin had taken on a distinctly gray cast.
"Rick, just drop it," the blond advised. "There's got to be a logical explanation."
what is it?"
"Right off the top of my head, I don't know. But give me some time to think of one."
"Make one up in order to make me feel better, is more like it," Rick said as he stood. "A.J., you heard what Brian said. His brother was involved with a Satanic cult, and died in a house fire twelve years ago. Yet you know the guy you hired to play that joke on me was Ken Michaels."
"Well...maybe it's like I said to Brian. Maybe he just looked like Ken."
"A.J., he told you he was Ken. You said yourself that you guys talked about Brian the day you ran into each other. Now come on, do you really think he was anyone other than who he claimed to be?"
"Well, no," A.J. stated uncomfortably, "no, I don't. I know he was Ken."
"Then there's only one explanation."
"And what's that?"
Rick glanced around the room as if fearful he would be overheard. In barely more than a whisper he stated, "The guy was a demon."
"He was, A.J.! Look, all the signs are there as plain as the nose on your face. He was foolin' around with a Satanic cult, he died in a fire, and at one time he wanted to be an actor. Then all of a sudden a guy who's been dead for twelve years shows up in your life that you recognize as the brother of an old friend, and who claims to now be in show business. You hire him to play a joke on me, and it turns out he knows something about me I've never told anyone."
A.J.'s eyes flicked about the room in fright, touching on every place Ken had been the evening before. "You really think so? You really think the guy was a demon?"
Rick swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, A.J., I do. I really do."
The brothers stood in silence in A.J.'s kitchen for a long time that morning. Whatever thoughts they each had regarding the events of the evening before they kept to themselves. When they returned to their tasks of righting A.J.'s household, the work was done with subdued quiet. A.J. offered to make Rick lunch when they were finished, but in an uncharacteristic gesture, Rick refused.
"I think I'll head back to the marina," he stated as he picked up his hat and field jacket. "I...I think I'm gonna lay down for a while. I don't feel very good."
Rick gave a half-hearted shrug. "I don't know. My stomach kinda hurts, and I'm gettin' a headache. I...well, I guess what happened last night kinda has me upset, ya' know?"
A.J. nodded. "Yeah, I know. I don't feel very well either, all of a sudden."
Rick patted A.J.'s arm as he passed by on his way to the door. "Take care of yourself, little brother. I'll call you later to see if you're feeling any better."
"All right," A.J. agreed. "And you take care of yourself, too."
will." Rick stopped in the doorway
and turned. "And A.J.?"
"Maybe we should both swear off the practical jokes for a while, huh?"
A.J. nodded. "I think that would be a good idea, Rick."
"Yeah, I think it would be a good idea, too."
It wasn't until A.J. heard the Powerwagon's engine roar to life that he collapsed in laughter across the kitchen counter. When he had composed himself, A.J. ran upstairs and retrieved his jacket and wallet. He'd have to hurry, or he'd be late for the lunch he'd scheduled weeks earlier with Brian and Ken. As A.J. trotted down the stairs, he thought of Rick's confusion over how Ken could have known about that card game in Saigon. Rick was right, he never had told A.J. about it. And as far as A.J. knew, he'd never told anyone else about it either. But there had been other friends of Rick's present in the bar that night and Rick had evidently forgotten that fact. One of those friends had told A.J. that little story several years earlier, and for whatever reason, A.J. had filed it away in the back of his mind.
As A.J. walked out of his house he chuckled as he thought of Rick on his boat nursing a headache and upset stomach. The blond man might have felt sorry for his brother, had it not been for the fact that he'd been on the receiving end of a number of headaches and stomachaches over the years thanks to Rick and his ever-present schemes and irresponsible ways.
"Never underestimate how far little brother will go to pull a practical joke on you, Rick," A.J. said as he unlocked the Camaro. "After all, I learned from the best."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~