Chapter 9

 

Monday, January 18th, - Friday, January 29th, 1993

 

 

     Rick left Carson Baily's house that night as quietly as he'd entered it, though considerably quicker.  He estimated he hadn't miss the Bailys' killer by more than a half an hour.  He briefly wondered if the car he'd hidden from could have been driven by the murderer. 

 

     Rick made it back to his truck without further incident.  He didn't call the police when he arrived home.  He didn't even call Abby.  He knew the Bailys would be found sooner or later.  He didn't intend to be questioned as to why he was in their home, nor did he have the desire to be implicated in their deaths.  If what Jose said was true, then Carson Baily got exactly what he deserved.  Rick's only regret was that Mrs. Baily had been murdered as well.  More than likely she was guilty of nothing more than being Baily's wife, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

 

     Rick paced the floor of his houseboat in frustration during the early morning hours before dawn.  He recalled in stark images the murdered couple.  His best hope of getting answers regarding A.J.'s whereabouts was lying in silk pajamas with a severed neck.  Unfortunately, as the old saying went, dead men tell no tales.

 

     Two days later, Carson and Jeanette Baily were found by their youngest daughter.  The woman had grown worried when she was unable to get a hold of her mother by telephone after repeated tries.  

 

     A week after the Bailys' bodies were discovered the La Jolla police were still working with few clues.  They knew the house had been entered through the French doors, and that someone had hidden in the shrubs along the south side of the home because the bark was disturbed.  Other than that, they'd been unable to recover so much as a single fingerprint.  Nothing had been taken nor disturbed that the Bailys' daughters were aware of.  None of the neighbors had seen or heard anything suspicious.  And the extremely odd thing was, as far as the police were concerned, was that no one seemed to know what Carson Baily did for a living.  According to his neighbors he was one of the nicest men around.  The neighborhood kids had an open invitation to use his pool, and if you asked him to borrow a hammer he'd more than likely show up at your house and fix whatever needed fixing himself.   But when questioned as to what the man did that afforded him such a sumptuous four thousand square foot home in ritzy La Jolla no one seemed to know.

 

     According to his daughters, Baily traveled a lot and always had.  If they knew more than that they weren't talking.  Rick guessed they probably did, in fact, know more, but were also wise enough to keep their mouths shut.  Not that Rick could really blame them for that.  More than likely they feared Eduardo Agilar as much everyone else did. 

 

     What the police themselves guessed Rick didn't know.  He suspected they figured Baily was into trafficking drugs, or employed by the mob, or maybe they even had contacts that tied him to the Agilar family.  Whatever the police thought there was no doubt they assumed Baily had gotten himself mixed up with the wrong people and had paid the ultimate price.

 

     Three days after the Bailys were buried, the body of an unidentified Hispanic man approximately twenty-five years of age turned up in a gully along Interstate 5.  He'd been shot once in the back of the head at point blank range. Rick normally wouldn't have paid attention to the small blurb on the news regarding the man's murder, but this time he took special interest in it. 

 

     Rick was now certain word had traveled to Eduardo Agilar that the details surrounding A.J.'s disappearance had been leaked.  The man found dead along the interstate was no doubt the compadre¢ who had been talking to Jose¢.  And Carson Baily had been killed to keep him from talking to Rick. 

 

     Rick didn't know if that meant Agilar knew Jose¢ had come to see him, or if Eduardo Agilar was simply covering all his bases.

 

     Whatever the reason, it made no difference to Rick.  Agilar was Rick's last hope of finding A.J.   If the man thought he could scare Rick Simon off, then he was sadly mistaken. 

 

     The day after Jose's compadre¢ turned up dead, Rick sat at his kitchen table with a map of Mexico spread out before him.  One evening very soon, he would feel the need to make another unannounced late night visit.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

November, 1992 - December, 1992

 

    

     In the three years Dominique Cascia had volunteered her time at St. Jude's Shelter, she had yet to run across a man quite like Jack.  

 

     The day after Malachi brought the blond to Dominique he immediately began working around the shelter to earn his keep.  Without asking anyone, or being given any instructions, he picked up a broom and swept the floors.  When he finished that job he got a bucket and mop out of the janitor's closet and cleaned the floors until they shined. Despite his janitorial skills, Dominique soon learned that Jack’s real talents were culinary in nature.  More often than not she found him in the kitchen when she went in search of him.  Soon the men who took their meals at the shelter were raving about the quiet blond dude who was, "One helluva cook.”  Among other things, Dominique began to wonder if Jack had been a chef at some time in the past.

 

     Unlike the majority of the area's homeless men who showed up to work at the shelter on only a sporadic basis, Jack was there every day from the time the sun rose until it set.  He willingly pitched in and did whatever job needed to be done.  Whether it was taking out the garbage, sorting laundry, or cooking, he never complained.  He simply did what was asked of him, or went in search of things that needed doing.   It was then Dominique began to realize he wasn't a man of the streets.  She got the feeling his daily work routine at the shelter was very important to him.  It seemed to provide him with a sense of security, and a sense of something familiar that he'd recently lost.  The nurse didn't know how she came to that last conclusion.  It wasn't as if Jack ever told her anything about himself.  It was simply the impression she got as he continued to show up promptly at eight a.m. day after day. 

 

     By the time November ended Jack had earned enough work tickets from the shelter to 'buy' himself a pair of tennis shoes, a light weight jacket that instantly replaced the old blue one with the broken zipper, a pair of jeans, and another shirt.  Jack's diligence caused him to accumulate tickets so fast Dominique teased him by telling him he'd soon have enough to buy the shelter out from under her church. 

 

     Two weeks after Dominique had first met the blond man she gave him a follow-up medical examination. The blood sample she'd given one of Mercy Hospital's lab techs showed an elevated white cell count, which was directly related to Jack's bronchial infection.  Other than that, everything was normal and she was thankful he showed no signs whatsoever of the AIDS virus.

 

     Dominique's subsequent examination revealed his ribs weren't nearly as tender as they had been, his lungs were clear, and his temperature normal.  Again she realized what an enigma this strange, quiet man was.  He was one of the few homeless men the shelter had ever provided medication for who actually took it when he was supposed to, and for as long as he was supposed.  Most of them ended up selling what Dominique gave them for what little money they could get for it.  The cash, in turn, went for booze or more potent drugs. 

 

     But not Jack.  He was different.  And as the weeks passed, Dominique found herself thinking about him on a frequent basis even when she wasn't at the shelter.  She often wondered exactly what circumstances had left him without a home and a family.

 

     As well, as the weeks passed the blond man began to open up and talk more.  By no means was he a chatterbox, and around strangers he said virtually nothing.  But at least with Dominique and Malachi he began to willingly carry on conversations.  He seemed to feel a degree of trust with them that he felt with no one else.  The frustrating thing for Dominique was that those conversations only pertained to the here and now.  Jack never revealed anything about his past, or where he'd come from.  When Dominique would ask about those things, such an utter look of panic and fear would cross his handsome face that out of pity she'd quickly change the subject.

 

     Therefore, as much as Dominique wanted to know more about Jack, she'd learned to accept him for who he was.  A kind hearted gentle soul, who seemed to be struggling to survive in a world foreign to him.  When she'd watch him from afar as he cooked a meal or swept the floors, she'd think again of the family she knew he must have somewhere and wonder how they could have abandoned him.  What could he have possibly done that would have caused them to turn their backs on him?

 

     The holiday season was rapidly upon Dominique that year.  Her full schedule kept her in constant motion.  She divided her time between work and the shelter as was her habit, but as well had to squeeze in Christmas shopping and attend the holiday parties to which she'd been invited. 

 

     Dominique didn't have to work Christmas Eve, so chose to spend it at the shelter. A number of parishioners from her church were doing likewise.  They tried to make the evening special for the homeless people who crossed St. Jude’s threshold on that holy night.  There were even a few women and children in attendance.  The ladies from the church served a turkey dinner complete with gravy, rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, and homemade pies.  They fed more people than they did on an average evening, but that had been anticipated and no one went away hungry.

 

     There were two gifts each for the children in attendance, and a young priest from Dominique's church held a short service after the meal was finished.

 

     It was close to midnight when the kitchen had been put back in order and Dominique was gathering up her purse and coat from Father Papanek's office.  As she turned for the door she gasped in momentary fright.

 

     "I'm sorry," Jack apologized softly.  "I didn't mean to scare you.  I just thought...I thought that perhaps you'd like me to walk you to your car."

 

     Dominique smiled at his endearing shyness.  The way Jack stood in the doorway, with his head slightly bowed and his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his blue jeans, gave her the impression he was asking the prettiest girl in the class out for ice cream and was afraid she'd say no.    

 

     But Dominique had no intention of during down the gallant offer made by such a handsome gentleman.  "Thank you, Jack.  That's very kind of you."

 

     Jack helped the woman slip into her coat.  Not for the first time she wondered where he'd come by his ever-present manners.  Again, this was not something she ordinarily encountered amongst the indigent men she ran across at the shelter.  Nor was it something she ran across in an overabundance amongst the men she worked with, or dated.

 

     Dominique slipped the strap of her small purse over one shoulder and smiled up at Jack.  "I guess I'm ready to go."

 

     A few people from the nurse's church gave the woman curious glances as she passed by them with Jack at her side.  She paid no attention to the questions she could clearly read on their faces as she wished them Merry Christmas.

 

     The lateness of the hour, and the fact that it was a holiday, caused even this rough section of town to be unusually quiet and calm.  Thousands of stars were twinkling overhead.  One seemed to stand out from the others and shine with special brightness.  Dominique pointed upward in wonder.

 

"Look, Jack.  That star is just like the star that guided the wise men and shepherds to the manger."

 

     The blond man smiled down at her and saw the childlike rapture that shone from her face.

 

     When she caught a glimpse of his laughing eyes she gave his body a gentle bump.  "You must think I'm silly, acting like a kid over one little star.  It's just that I love Christmas.  It's a very special time to me."

 

     Dominique could hear the sadness in his tone when he said softly, "You're not silly.  Christmas is a special time."

 

     The nurse looked up at her escort, but he offered no more.  When they arrived at her car Jack seemed reluctant to say goodbye to her.  She felt so sorry for him, knowing that while she had a family awaiting her arrival, he would see Christmas Day dawn in a cold alley.  For like Malachi, the blond man rarely slept in the shelter.   As much as was possible, Jack seemed to have found a home in Beulah Land, and friends amongst the people who adhered themselves to Malachi like sheep adhere themselves to their shepherd.

 

     Dominique stuffed her purse underneath the front seat of her car, pocketed her keys, then locked the vehicle once again.  She turned and smiled up at Jack. 

 

     "I don't think I'm ready to go home yet.  Would you like to walk a little farther with me?  Just a few blocks from here the streets and storefronts are decorated with lights and ornaments."

 

     Jack smiled and nodded.  "I'd like that."

 

     The couple proceeded four blocks north where they crossed an invisible boundary that seemed to lead from one world to another.  No longer were the buildings abandoned and marked with graffiti.  No longer were winos passed out in alleys.  No longer were homeless men sleeping on grates, hoping to catch some warmth from the steam that rose up from below. This was the far edge of an area of the city where many of San Francisco's elite shopped.  The stores that lined the sidewalks only carried the highest quality of goods, and bore nationally known names. 

 

     Thousands of tiny white lights shone from every window.  The posts of the streetlights had been wrapped in red and white ribbons. Smiling Santa Clauses and busy elves beckoned from many a window.  Others were filled with miniature Christmas villages complete with trains and fake snow.  From somewhere overhead a sound system softly serenaded the couple with Silver Bells.

 

     As the pair slowly strolled down the deserted sidewalk, Dominique pointed out decorations or storefronts that caught her eye.  Sometimes she'd even make Jack chuckle softly as she ran ahead of him with the enthusiasm of an excited child.  She loved to hear Jack laugh, and he did it so rarely that when he had occasion to Dominique always stopped whatever she was doing and just listened.  At those times rather than laugh with him, the nurse found she wanted to cry for him.  She wished she knew what painful secrets this man was harboring.

 

     When Jack caught up to the exuberant woman it only seemed natural for her to slip her arm through his.  He must have thought it was natural, too, because he didn't pull away from her, but rather looked down and smiled.  They walked on a few more blocks before reluctantly turning around and heading back in the direction from which they'd come.  They crossed the desolate street and ambled on the opposite side so Dominique could peek in those shop windows as well.

 

     "Oh, jewelry," she gasped when she came to a window decked out in gold and red.  The lighted display was like a winter wonderland with mounds of snowflakes billowed around diamond rings, gold chains, and tennis bracelets nestled in red and green velvet boxes.  "I love jewelry.  It's my one and only vice."

 

     Jack was surprised.  He had never seen her adorned in anything but a wristwatch and the kind of inexpensive earrings and necklaces one buys at a discount store.  "Really?"  He questioned softly.  "I didn't know that.  You never wear much of it."

     The nurse had her nose pressed against the store's window.  Jack saw her shoulders shrug underneath the bulk of her coat.  

 

"That's because I can't afford it.  At least not the really expensive pieces.   But that doesn't mean I can't dream."  She slid along the smooth glass and pointed a finger.  "Oh, Jack, look.  Pearls.  They're my absolute favorite.  I've always wanted a string of real pearls."  Dominique turned her head to get a better look at the price tag with its tiny writing.  "One thousand dollars.  I guess that means Santa won't be putting those under my tree this year. They're a little too rich for both my blood and his."

 

     Jack looked down at her tiny form.  His tone was full of shyness and regret.  "If I could, Dominique, I'd buy them for you."

 

     Dominique slipped her arm through Jack's again, and for just a moment rested her head against the sleeve of his maroon coat.  It smelled so clean, as did the rest of him.  Dominique had come to learn he was fastidious about his appearance.  He showered and shaved every day at the shelter.  And even though his thick flaxen hair had grown to within an inch of his shoulders, it always held the faint pleasant scent of shampoo and was neatly combed.

 

     "That's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me, Jack.  As a matter of fact, it's a better gift than the pearls ever could be."

 

     Jack didn't make a reply, but rather returned her soft smile when she lifted her head.  They strolled along in silence for a few blocks with Dominique lost in thought.  If she could only find out more about this mysterious, sad man she might be able to help him.  Jack's voice interrupted her musing. 

 

     "What time is your family expecting you?"

 

     "Whenever I get there.  Don't worry, they'll wait for me."  Dominique brought her wrist up and glanced at her watch.  "They'll just be getting home from midnight mass about now.  Everyone usually goes.  Even my two sisters who are married, along with their husbands and children.  Then my dad cooks a big breakfast for us before we all find places to crash around the house in order to catch a few hours of sleep.   When the sun is just beginning to rise so are my nieces and nephews."

     "How many do you have?"

     "Nieces and nephews?"

 

     Jack nodded.

 

     "My sister Mercedes and her husband Gerard, have two boys and a girl.  Justine and Tom have a girl and a boy.  The oldest amongst all the children is only five, so as you can imagine things are pretty crazy."

 

     Jack smiled.  "It sounds wonderful."

 

     "It is.  Someday I hope to have a few little ones of my own to add to the fiasco, as does my youngest sister Vanessa."

 

     The couple's walk was slowly taking them back to the dreary neighborhood the blond man now called home.

 

     "Jack?"  Dominique cautiously broached.  "What's Christmas like where you're from?  What kind of traditions does your family have?"

 

     For a brief second Dominique actually believed the man was going to answer her.  His mouth opened as if to form an automatic reply.  She found herself holding her breath in anticipation of finding out some small bit of information that might allow her to further help him. 

 

     And in that brief second, Jack saw the image of a man flash before him as clearly as if that man was standing in front of him.  He wore a cowboy hat, sported a moustache, and his eyes bore an ever-present mischievous twinkle.  Next came a woman.  A petite, fashionable lady in her late sixties with neatly coifed hair and a loving smile.  Just as the memories of that man and woman were about to slam to the front of Jack's mind, another image outran them.  A man with eyes that gleamed like a mad wolf's, and with a smile as cold as a rattlesnake's who told Jack he'd better never remember.  Who told the bruised and battered man as he was shooting something in the vein in Jack's right arm, that he'd better never tell anyone who he was or what had happened to him, or that man with the mischievous twinkle and the woman with the loving smile would be killed.  They'd both be tortured and killed, and it would be all Jack's fault.

 

     For just a moment Jack wondered why the deaths of two people he didn't even know should matter so much to him, and in that moment another part of him threatened to surface.  A part of him that he knew had, at one time, gone by another name and lived in another place.  Perhaps another part of him who at one time had known those two mysterious people that so often haunted his dreams at night. A part of himself that Jack instinctively knew was best forgotten. 

 

     A part of himself that Jack truly felt was better off dead.

 

     "Jack?"  Dominique hailed the man in a quiet, worried tone. 

"Jack, are you okay?  Jack?"

 

     The blond man gave his head a slight shake.  His eyes were momentarily vacant.  When life returned to them his words were softly muttered.  "Yes.  Yes...I'm fine."

 

     "Are you sure?"

     "Yes."

 

     "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to bring up...painful memories."

 

     Jack's words were spoken so quietly Dominique almost didn't hear them.  "Don't worry about it.  There are no memories."

 

     The nurse knew that wasn't true.  She had seen the memories all over his expressive face for the few seconds his mind receded to wherever it was his thoughts had traveled.  She was sure she'd seen memories of a place he called home, and maybe even memories a family there who loved him.  Then she mentally scolded herself for her wishful thinking.

 

     Don't be so foolish, Dominique.  You're only seeing what you want to see.  You have to face it.  Jack is just like all the rest of the homeless men you've encountered over the past three years.  Yes, so maybe he keeps himself cleaner and far surpasses most of them when it comes to his work ethic, but the fact of the matter is he lives in an alley, and for all intents and purposes has no family.  Whoever those nameless people are, wherever they might be, they've evidently long-forgotten him.

 

     Dominique bowed her head and brushed at a tear with her free hand.  She didn't want Jack to see her crying for him.

 

     When they came to her car he waited while she unlocked it and climbed inside.  She hated to leave him, but her father would be waiting for her to arrive before starting breakfast.

 

     The idling engine broke the stillness of the night.  "I guess I'd better get going."

 

     Jack nodded.  "Yes, you'd better.  Your family is expecting you."

 

     She looked up into his blue eyes.  She wanted to cry all over again at the loneliness she saw there.

 

     "Jack..."

 

     "Yes?"

 

     A long second passed and then she shook her head.  "Never mind."   She reached up and briefly made contact with the bare hand he had resting on the upper portion of the car door.

 

     "Merry Christmas, Jack."

     She heard his, "Merry Christmas, Dominique," right before he shut the door for her.

 

     Dominique drove slowly out of the shelter's neighborhood that evening.  When she glanced in her rearview mirror she saw Jack walking away from her, headed toward Beulah Land.  She wished it really was a place of peace and rest for him, but in reality it was nothing more than a dirty alley where people with nothing and no one fought to survive another day. 

 

     As Dominique drove up the freeway entrance ramp and north to her parents’ home, tears rolled down her cheeks for the blond man she'd grown so fond of, but didn’t know how to help.

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Wednesday, February 3rd, 1993

    

 

     It was the first Wednesday in February 1993, and Cecilia Simon knew without a doubt her oldest son was planning something he didn't want her to be aware of. 

 

     For close to three full weeks now Rick had been preoccupied and quiet.  That last occurrence wasn't so unusual, Cecilia supposed.  Rick had been quiet ever since A.J. had vanished without a trace the previous March.  It was as if Rick's silence was his way of keeping inside the river of tears he was shedding on a daily basis for his beloved brother. 

 

     But the preoccupation was a new and added dimension to Rick's grieving.  As was his absence from his mother's life.  After A.J.'s disappearance, Rick had fallen into the habit of calling Cecilia every day just to see how she was and to tell her he loved her.  It wasn't unusual for him to stop by the house four or five times a week, as well.  But now the phone calls were slowly diminishing, and Rick's visits had suddenly returned to just Thursday evening's, when he knew his mother was expecting him for dinner.  This past Thursday evening he'd barely said two words to Cecilia the entire three hours he was there.  When she spoke to him, she generally had to repeat herself four times before she got a response.

 

     And now this.  Rick had shown up unannounced on her doorstep a few minutes before seven a.m. with Rex in tow.  

 

     "Hi, Mom.  Uh...listen, I'm sorry to give you such short notice and all, but do you think you could take care of Rex for a couple of days?"

     Cecilia, still in her nightgown and robe, opened the door wide and allowed dog and master to enter.  In the past she might not have been so gracious upon being disturbed at such an early hour by a wayward son with an odd request.  But A.J.'s disappearance had taught Cecilia to value whatever unorthodox reasons might bring her oldest son to her home.

 

     "Sure, honey.  Do you have an out-of-town job?"

 

     Cecilia could hear the hesitancy in his tone.

 

     "No...no.  Just uh...some business that I need to attend to."

 

     Rarely did Cecilia Simon ever question her adult children as to their private business, but for some reason she suddenly felt an urgency to do so.

 

     "What kind of business?"

     Rick's eyes momentarily fled from his mother's.  "Oh...just this and that.  It shouldn't take more than two days.  Three tops.  I won't be gone long."

 

     You're a lousy liar, Richard Simon.  You always have been where your mother is concerned.

 

     Rick's words grew distant as he walked away from Cecilia.  "So listen, I'll just leave Rex’s dog food and leash in the kitchen for you."  When the lanky detective returned it was to give his mother a quick peck on the cheek.  "Thanks again, Mom.  I'll see ya' in a couple of days."

 

     Cecilia's question stopped her son before he could flee across the threshold.

 

     "Where can I reach you if I need you?"

 

     Not once since A.J.'s disappearance had Rick gone anywhere without giving his mother a phone number where he could be reached.  Although with the arrival of the new year they had both privately given up hope of A.J. ever being found, it was still a habit Rick adhered to. 

 

     Rick chewed on his lower lip in the same manner A.J. always had when caught by his mother in a lie.  This was the first time Cecilia could ever recall seeing her eldest do that . 

 

"Well...uh...Mom, that's the thing.  I don't have a number to give you right at the moment.  I'm going to be...in and out a lot.  But it's not really important anyway, 'cause I should be back in a day or two."

 

     "Where are you going?"

 

     When she received no answer, Cecilia persisted.  "Rick?  I asked you where it is you're going."

 

     For a few seconds Cecilia didn't think Rick was going to answer her, and was rather surprised when he did finally speak up.

 

     "Mexico."

 

     "Mexico?  Did someone hire you for a job down there?"

 

     Rick's reply was spoken so softly Cecilia had to strain to hear it.  "Yeah...you might say that."

 

     Before his mother could ask anymore questions, Rick kissed her on the cheek again.  "Bye, Mom.  And thanks a bunch."

 

     Cecilia didn't know why a shiver raced down her spine, or why she suddenly feared for Rick's safety.

 

     To her son's retreating back she called, "Rick!"

 

     Rick had his fingers wrapped around the door handle of his pickup when he turned.  "Yeah?"

 

     "Be careful!"

 

     Even from this distance, Cecilia could see his smile.  "I will be.  And, Mom?"

 

     "Yes?"

 

     "I love you."

 

     Rick was already backing out of the driveway when Cecilia formed her reply.  "I love you too, Rick.  Oh, my precious son, I love you so much."

 

     Rick wasn't even to the end of his mother's block before Cecilia was picking up the phone and dialing Downtown Brown's office number in Los Angeles.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

Wednesday, February 3rd - Thursday, February 4th, 1993

 

 

     The oppressive heat of the day had evaporated rapidly as night descended on the Mexican desert.  A man with dark grease paint on his face, and wearing khaki colored fatigue trousers and a camouflage field jacket, made his way quietly over the uneven sand.  He carried his Magnum in one hand and left the other free.  This time there were no clouds to cover the moon, which was just as well as far as Rick Simon was concerned.  This time he needed the moon's light to guide him.

 

     The small Mexican city of Durango was four hundred miles southeast of Tijuana. When Rick arrived he rented a room at a small motel off the beaten path under the name of Ray Marlowe.  It didn't matter much to him that the air conditioning unit never cooled his room below eighty-five degrees, nor did it make much difference that a flock of chickens belonging to the manager squawked and scattered each time he walked outside.  There was a cantina close by where Rick could get a cold beer, an excellent enchilada, and where everyone seemed intent on minding his or her own business.  If anyone wondered why an American was this far south into Mexico, and such a distance from the normal tourist attractions situated all the way down the Pacific coast, no one asked. 

 

     The sun was beginning to set when Rick exited the bar and walked out to his pickup.  Within a few minutes he had left the city limits and was headed south.  Although Rick hadn't been able to pinpoint the exact location of the Agilar estate, he had a fairly good idea as to how to come damn close to it based on what Jose¢ had told him, and based on what he'd found out in subsequent weeks of investigation work.  He probably could have gotten more specific directions had he been willing to make inquiries in the bar.  But Rick had been afraid to do that for fear somehow news would race back to Eduardo Agilar that there was an Americano in the area who was asking suspicious questions about him. 

 

     Rick took three wrong turns and ended up in a sand dune once.  He thanked God for 4-wheel drive as he easily got himself out of that last predicament.  Overall, he wasn't in any great hurry.  If it took him until dawn to locate Agilar's estate so be it.  He'd simply return to his motel room, sleep the better part of the day, and complete his mission the next night.  Rick was so close to finally having some answers concerning A.J. that he wasn't about to blow it by being careless or impatient. 

 

     It was fifteen minutes after twelve a.m. when Rick turned off a sand packed road to travel a paved one.  He thought it was strange to run across a blacktopped surface out in the middle of the desert.  The realization suddenly dawned that he was probably on a private road.  And who else but Eduardo Agilar could afford a three mile long black top surface in this part of Mexico?

 

     Rick cut the lights on the Dodge and backed the vehicle up until he was once again on packed sand.  He wanted to find a secluded spot for the silver Ram truck that had replaced the Powerwagon a few years back, but didn't have much luck out in this barren part of the country.  He finally settled on pulling it over to the side of the road.  He hadn't met another living soul in the past hour.  Hopefully, his luck would hold.  If not, Rick hoped whomever ran across the vehicle assumed its owner had incurred a breakdown.  And he hoped whomever that person was, he or she didn't work for Eduardo Agilar.  To be on the safe side, the detective had already removed anything the truck contained that identified Rick Simon as its owner while he was still back at the motel.  The verification of insurance, registration, and other miscellaneous scraps of paper had been well hidden in his room. 

 

     It didn't take Rick long to smear the black grease paint on his face until only his light blue-gray eyes remained to identify him as a Caucasian.  He exchanged his Panama hat for his camouflage cap and reached under the seat for his gun. He had declared he had no firearms in his possession when entering Mexico.  He knew the boarder guards wouldn't search his vehicle unless they had reason to be suspicious.  He didn't give them any, so they simply waved him on through. It wasn't the first time Rick had thought he could give them a few pointers on how to better carry out their so-called jobs.

 

       Rick outfitted the automatic weapon with the loaded magazine and stuffed another one in the deep pocket on the left side of his field jacket.  In the pocket on the right went a variety of paraphernalia the detective thought he might need, that had been smuggled down in a tackle box including several short lengths of rope, a handful of bandana style handkerchiefs, three pairs of handcuffs, and his lock picks.  He clipped his flashlight to the waistband of his trousers. He debated whether or not to bring along the canteen he'd filled with cold bottled water right before leaving the motel.  He worried it would inhibit his movements, so decided to leave it in the truck.  The night temperature had plummeted with the setting sun and was hovering around fifty degrees.  For now Rick knew he wouldn't need the water.  And by the time the sun was bearing down from the desert sky broiling everything it touched, Rick planned to be long on the road home to San Diego. 

 

     Because it was quicker than treading sand, Rick hiked for two and half miles on Agilar's nicely paved road.   When he reached the perimeters of the estate grounds he left the pavement and stuck close to the eight foot adobe wall that surrounded the large house.  Rick heard not a sound as he approached the home's front gates.  He began to wonder if Eduardo Agilar had foregone keeping the isolated estate guarded with armed men, as his father had been fond of doing at the family's ocean-side estate in San Diego that had been sold a year after the deaths of Androu and Roberto.

 

     Just when Rick thought this might be as easy as walking through the open iron gates and right on into the dark house, he heard voices talking softly in conversational Spanish.  He ducked back around from the wide entrance he'd been about to sneak through.  He secreted himself in the corner where the adobe wall met a square adobe pillar, to which one half of the massive gate was anchored. 

 

     The men stopped and stood just on the other side of the wall from Rick.   They called each other by name while laughing and teasing one another about some senoritas they'd shown a good time up in Durango.  As the laughter and teasing progressed, Rick got the impression they weren't too concerned about their assigned tasks of guarding the estate.  For a moment, he worried the guards’ casual attitude meant Agilar wasn't on the premises.  Agilar's presence, or lack of, was a chance Rick knew he was taking when he embarked on his journey.  

 

     The detective immediately decided there was no use to fret about the issue one way or another.  If Agilar wasn't there, Rick would do everything in his power to find out where he was and then track the bastard down if it took until the end of his days on this earth to find him. 

 

     As men will often do when it's dark and they think they're alone, the guards gave away far too many secrets.   In a short amount of time Rick discerned Eduardo was indeed in the house, and had gone to bed several hours earlier.  They conversed further as to whom was off that night, leading Rick to believe that aside from these two and their boss, there was no one else on the premises.  Rick hoped he'd come to the right conclusion when the men finally moved away from each other and headed off in opposite directions.

 

     Rick waited a full five minutes before trailing the man who'd walked along the wall to the west.  Now he had every reason to hate the moon as he prayed it wouldn't throw his shadow across the sandy yard.  Rick hugged the wall and crept forward.  The guard was easy to see.  He was standing with his back to Rick, staring up at the night sky, seemingly a preoccupied stargazer. 

 

     It was that preoccupation that got him clipped in the head with the butt of Rick's Magnum.  Rick's left hand flew up and covered the guard's mouth so that his moan of pain wasn't echoed throughout the grounds as he crumbled.  

 

     Rick caught the thin guard's sagging body and dragged him over to the wall.  Again, a large adobe support pillar jutted from the smooth lines of the structure, making for fairly good concealment of Rick's fallen prey.  He made quick and efficient work of cuffing the unconscious man's hands behind his back and securely binding his feet together.  A bandana handkerchief was balled up and used as a gag.  Another bandana was tightly tied around the makeshift gag to hold it in place.

 

     When Rick finally stepped back and got a look at the trussed up guard he felt a small dose of regret.  The kid couldn't have been over twenty years old.  Hardly a worthy opponent for a man of Rick's vast experience.  But then Rick thought of A.J. and how this...kid, had very likely taken part in his abduction and the beatings that ensued afterwards.  If nothing else by virtue of being employed by Agilar this young guard had to have known what was going on. 

 

     You had to have known, and you didn't so much as attempt to help my brother, did you, you little son of a bitch. 

 

     That the young man might have been too scared to help A.J. for fear of Agilar's retributions over such an act mattered little to Rick.  His anger was burning deep inside like white-hot flames burn in the belly of an iron cook stove.  If Rick didn't need answers so badly from Agilar, he just might be tempted to kill the bastard the minute he set eyes on him.

 

     Rick turned from his unaware captive and went in search of the other guard.  As Rick expected he was at the opposite end of the grounds, but was not as easy to sneak up on.  Although no overhead lights illuminated the yard's desert landscape, the moon's glow revealed Rick's concealed movements.

 

     When the man turned to face him, Rick bent over at the knees and hugged the wall. 

 

     The guard squinted into the night.  The question he asked was spoken in rapid Spanish.  "Gustavo, is that you?"

 

     In what Rick hoped was a fair imitation of Gustavo's voice, he replied softly in the same language.  "Si¢, Rafael, it is me." 

 

     "What is wrong with you?  You do not sound well."

 

     Rick doubled up even farther and moaned.  "I'm so sick all of a sudden.  I do not know what has afflicted me."

 

     The shadow the massive wall cast was just enough to hide the fact that Rick was a good seven inches taller than Gustavo, twenty nine years older, and wasn't wearing anywhere near the same clothing as the young Mexican guard had been.  By the time Rafael realized that, he was in the same condition as his friend.            

     Rick approached the dark house with caution.  He didn't encounter any more guards, but was not positive as to what he'd find once he entered.  When finally secluded in the shadows of the house he looked up.  It was a large white stucco structure with a tiled roof Rick assumed was red in the daylight.  The three car garage sat at ground level, and no doubt housed expensive foreign cars.  Rising above the garage, as though built on top of it, was the house.  Rick would have to climb a set of stone steps to get to the wide landing that held the front door.  Windows that ran the length and width of the home's rooms surrounded the door, making Rick think twice about attempting to enter through it.  Although the house remained dark, he didn't want to take any chances that Agilar might be lurking somewhere near those windows with a bad case of insomnia.

 

     The lanky man hugged the cool stucco with his body and skirted around back.  There he found another entrance.  This one was at ground level and secreted far under an overhead patio.  It was a simple wooden door Rick guessed might lead into a utility room, or maybe even the back of the kitchen. 

 

     Despite the darkness he was cloaked in because of the patio above him, the skilled detective had the lock picked in less than a minute.  He reached under his jacket and snapped the flashlight from his waistband.  He waited until he'd entered the house to flip it on low. 

 

     Rick found himself in a tiny entryway no bigger than four feet by four feet.  If he walked up two steps to his left he would encounter another door he assumed would lead him into the main part of the house.  Straight ahead of him was a set of wooden stairs that led to the basement. 

 

     Later Rick would wonder what made him explore the damp, underground room.  It was dark and dank, and by the stale stench that wafted up to greet him he doubted anyone was down there.  He sure didn't know why they'd want to be.  But because he didn't trust Agilar any farther than he could throw him, and because he wasn't taking any chances on this night, Rick carefully descended. 

 

     For this outing Rick had worn a pair of rubber soled military style boots, and for that he was thankful.  Like tennis shoes, the boots made no sound against the bare wood of the steps.  When Rick's feet touched the floor he was on concrete.  He let his flashlight travel the basement.  He was rather surprised at its bare, unfinished state.  He didn't know what he was expecting, but from a family as wealthy as the Agilars he supposed a finished recreation room of some sort if nothing else.  But then who the hell did one entertain this far out in the desert?

 

     The concrete floor and cement block walls kept the room cool.  There were no windows, which Rick thought was a little unusual.  They'd spared no expense on windows for the upper stories. 

 

     As Rick circled the empty room he came to a door.  It was made of heavy metal with nothing but a one foot by six inch square opening near the top.  It reminded Rick of pictures he'd seen of doors that lead to dungeons in mediaeval castles. 

 

     Rick estimated the thick steel bar that lay across the door to be seven feet long.  It was secured with a padlock.  Rick holstered his Magnum, and with the aid of his flashlight and a thin pick, made quick work of sliding the lock open.  He slipped it out of the bracket it hung from and shoved it in his pocket. 

 

     Rick lifted the steel bar from its holder next.  He quickly had to shift position to compensate for its unexpected weight.

 

     Geez, this thing must weigh seventy-five pounds.

 

     Rick was careful not to let the steel bar bang against the steel door as he removed it.  Muscle strain caused him to bite his lower lip as he eased the bar down to rest on the concrete floor.  Its weight could easily through him off balance, sending both him and it down with a clatter guaranteed to wake the master of the house.    

 

     Despite Rick's caution the bar lightly hit the floor with an echoing 'ping,' making the detective think of how the high notes on a xylophone sound when struck with a mallet.

 

     Rick crouched over the bar and listened.  Above him all remained quiet.  He supposed the small sound made by the steel coming to rest against the concrete couldn't transcend to the upper floors.  It only seemed obnoxiously loud to him because of the way the 'pings' had been magnified while bouncing off the walls of the empty basement.

 

     Rick crossed the few feet to the metal door.  He depressed the thumb latch on that handle that held it closed.  The door opened without emitting a sound, leading Rick to believe it was fairly new, or the hinges were kept well oiled.

 

     Eight concrete steps descended further underground.  Rick's right hand reached for his gun once more.  When the butt was secure in his palm Rick began a slow descent of the stairs, allowing the flashlight to illuminate the way.  

 

     By the time Rick's right foot hit the second step he knew why a faint stench had greeted him above in the entryway.  Here the smell was overpowering.  There was the sharp, acid smell of ammonia, and the pungent 'bringing tears to your eyes' stinging smell of an unwashed body.  Rick took a moment to acclimate himself to the unappealing odors. He'd smelled far worse in Vietnam and never tossed his cookies.  He wasn't about to start tossing them at this late stage in the game.

 

     Just like he was able to ignore a number of life's inconveniences, Rick steeled himself to ignore the nauseating odors coming from below as his journey continued.  The stairway was narrow, the walls surrounding Rick made of concrete like the basement walls above.

 

     Rick stepped off the last step and onto concrete once more.  Until this moment Rick couldn't have imagined that his fleeting thought of the steel door above leading to a dungeon would prove correct.  The concrete block room was no more than five feet wide by five feet long.  Not even enough space for a grown man to lie down in.  Its ceiling was actually the upper basement floor, making this room, if one could call it that, approximately six and half feet tall.  Like the basement above it, this room had no window, nor any other source of light from what Rick could tell.  His flashlight revealed no wall switches, nor any fixtures in the ceiling above. 

 

     Rick slowly traversed the tiny space.  His flashlight was pointed upward when the toe of one boot sent something soft sailing across the floor like a hockey puck.  It took a moment for the light's beam to track the object.  When Rick spotted it he crouched down and picked it up.  He turned the object over in his hands three times with disbelief. 

 

     It was made of soft black leather.

 

     It was a wallet.

 

     And it was A.J.'s.

 

     Rick had to choke back a strangled cry of both triumph and despair as his brother's face smiled up at him from the photo on his California driver's license.

 

     You're the only person I know who takes a good driver's license picture, kid.  Oh, A.J., where are you? Does this mean I'm close?

 

     A good number of people would doubt that Rick Simon knew God.  But despite his rebel ways, and the wild life he'd sometimes led, Rick Simon did indeed know God.

 

     Please, God, don't tell me all this has been for nothing.  I feel You've lead me here for a reason, and this wallet confirms it even more.  Please don't make me leave here without the answers I came to find.

 

     Rick took a quick look through the wallet before carefully placing it in a pocket of his field jacket.  He hoped against hope this wasn't all he had left to take home to his mother. 

 

     As Rick explored the room further he encountered dark stains on the floor that could only be blood, and other matter that he knew just by the smell was dried human waste.  The floor was damp in another corner of the room, and here Rick correctly identified the ammonia he'd smelled up above as urine.  The detective knew the dampness didn't mean A.J., or anyone else for that matter, had necessarily resided here recently.  Concrete this far underground could take forever to dry out.

 

     Rick couldn't bear to think about the atrocities that had occurred down here at his brother's expense.  He thought again of how easy it would be to put a bullet in Eduardo Agilar's head.

 

     Rick finished his circle around the tiny room.  He encountered no more evidence of A.J.'s stay here as he came back to the stairs, but he didn't need any either.  What he carried in his pocket was enough, and far more than he thought he'd find.

 

     Rick emerged back into the main part of the basement.  He closed the metal door behind, him but chose not to secure it.  He didn't know of any way to get the weighted bar back across the door without making a considerable amount of noise.  He figured it didn't make much difference anyway.  The guards were already aware of his presence, but at the moment incapable of announcing it to anyone.  And long before Eduardo Agilar had reason to come to the basement, he would be aware of Rick's presence as well.        

 

     As quietly as he'd crept down the wooden steps to the basement, Rick now crept up them.  The detective was correct in his assumption that the door in the entryway would take him into the house.  Rick tried the knob.  The door was unlocked, allowing him easy entrance into the dark kitchen.    The room was large with rough stucco white-washed walls and a beamed ceiling.  Two electric fans were suspended from the ceiling, heir wooden blades twirling at a slow, lazy pace.  A modern oven was set in the middle of the wall and surrounded by red bricks.  The six burner range top was built into the ceramic tile counter. A twenty-six cubic foot side-by-side refrigerator/freezer kept Eduardo Agilar in fresh food and cold drinks even this far out in the desert. 

 

     To the left of the kitchen was the dining room.  Its walls and ceiling were also of rough stucco and painted white.  The two rooms flowed smoothly into one another, leaving no space for any additional rooms at the back of the house.   Rick cautiously moved forward across the hardwood floors with drawn gun in hand.  He could see the front of the house was dominated by the living room that stretched its full length.  It was the living room windows that looked down upon the gates Rick had entered through when first arriving.  A spiral staircase curved tightly to the upper level where he assumed he'd find the bedrooms.

 

     Rick's foot was about to land on the first step of that staircase, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a faint orange glow.  Standing on the stone patio that stretched out over the back door Rick had used to gain entrance was Eduardo Agilar.  The glow that had caught Rick's attention came from the cigarette he'd just lit.

 

     The man's back was to Rick as he stood at the white railing that overlooked the yard.  He had evidently been in bed at some point as he was wearing pajama bottoms and a silk dressing gown.  Possibly he was wondering where his guards were.  Or maybe he was just restless and in need of a smoke. 

 

     Rick's Marine Corps training, though so long ago now, had not left him.  Like a panther, he stalked his prey.  He hid in the shadows when necessary, and slowly advanced forward with silent stealth when it was safe.  Agilar had left the sliding glass door open that led out to the patio from the dining room, and the sliding screen as well.  Maybe he wanted the night air to circulate through the house.  Or maybe he was just lazy when his maid had the night off and wasn't around to close doors behind him.  Either way, it made no difference to Rick.  The open door only made it easier for him to creep up behind the Salvadoran.

 

     Eduardo Agilar sensed a presence on the patio with him.  He was in the process of turning to face the person he assumed was one of his hired help, when a garrote slipped around his neck as though it was custom made to fit.  His cigarette sprang from his fingers and fell to burn itself out against the rocks.

 

     The leather thong was yanked so tight Agilar's tongue reflexively thrust itself from his mouth as his body was momentarily lifted off the ground.  Just when he thought he was going to pass out from lack of oxygen, the thong's grip loosened by a mere fraction.

 

     Eduardo's hands automatically went for his throat.  Rick pulled back on the thong like he was training an unruly colt.  When he spoke it was in a guttural hiss.  "Don't touch it, Agilar."

 

     Agilar tried to turn around, but Rick's hold was too strong.  The Salvadoran was left staring at the side of the house and wondering where his guards were.  For the moment, diplomacy seemed in order.

 

     The wealthy young man, who looked remarkably like his older brother Roberto, apologized with all the charm he could muster considering the circumstances – and his voice made raspy by the pressure of the garrote.

 

"I am sorry, Senor, but I do not know what it is I have done to make you so angry.  And I am at a disadvantage.  Obviously you know my name, but I am at a loss as to yours."

 

     "Can the sugar coated shit, Agilar.  I don't need it.  What I need are answers, and you'd damn well better give 'em to me or so help me God I'll choke the life out of you here and now."  Rick smiled just a little as he added, "Oh, and I guess if it's a proper introduction you're lookin' for, the name's Simon.  Rick Simon."

 

     Eduardo Agilar attempted to whip his body around, as if to prove to himself that his attacker was who he claimed to be.  Agilar’s attempts did him no good, as he was left twisting and turning like a fish caught on a hook. 

 

     Again the garrote was tightened.  "Knock it off, Agilar.   At this point it won't take much to convince me to pull back on this handy little strip of leather until your mangy neck snaps."

 

     "Then I ask you again, Senor," the voice rasped. "What is it that I have done that has made you sneak on my property in the middle of the night and threaten me in such an unspeakable manner?"

 

     Eduardo realized the mistake behind his question when he was dragged across the patio like dog on a short leash.  His bare feet scraped painfully against the uneven rocks of its surface.  His legs and upper body were bounced carelessly off or over any furniture that got in the way. 

 

     "What have you done?"  Rick roared in echo of Agilar's words at the body he was recklessly towing  "What have you done?  Why you pompous asshole. I oughta'...what you've done is orchestrated my brother's kidnapping, then had him held here for I don't know how many months while he was beaten, and drugged, and denied food and water, and--"

 

     "Senor Simon, stop!  Stop!"  One of Eduardo's hands snared a patio table while the other held onto the leather at his neck.  He had no choice but go where Rick hauled him.  "I know nothing of the things of which you speak!"

 

     Rick yanked on the thong with all the strength his right arm possessed, and in so doing brought Eduardo to his feet once more.  He pulled the man's head back until he could growl in his ear.  

 

"You don't, do you?  Well, I'll tell you somethin', Eddie, I'm mighty disappointed in your maid.  Her cleaning skills just aren't up to par.  If they were, I wouldn’t have found my brother's wallet in your goddamn dungeon not more than twenty minutes ago.  Now would you mind fillin' me in on how it got there?"

 

     Disregarding the garrote encircling his neck, Eduardo shook his head.  "I do not know.  Perhaps one of my men robbed your brother and left the wallet down there.  If you will only let me loose I will talk to my men.  Perhaps we can get some answers from them."

 

     If nothing else Rick had to admit the guy was smooth, just like his old man had been.  Despite the circumstances, Eduardo Agilar was keeping his cool and looking for a way out.  A way out Rick wasn't about to give him.

 

     "Eduardo, Eduardo," Rick clucked in a soft tone full of mocking sweetness. "Now I apologize for sayin' this considering your hospitality and all, but I'm havin' a hard time believin' one of your men robbed my brother.  Or at least, if one of 'em did, he sure went about it in a strange way.  You see, my brother's wallet still contains all his credit cards and two hundred dollars in cash."

 

     Before Eduardo Agilar had a chance to form a reply he was dragged the length of the patio again.  Rick had about as much regard for the man as he'd had for the old teddy bear he used to bump up and down the steps at his mother's house when he was three.  Probably even less.  Eduardo's scraped feet had begun to bleed, and he was getting only minimal amounts of air.  It was hard for the wiry young Salvadoran to believe one old man could possess such strength. 

 

     Rick wrenched the man's motion to a violent halt of whiplash proportions and crouched down on one knee.  He brought his mouth to Agilar's left ear.   "Now you listen to me, you bastard, and you listen good.  You're gonna start talkin' right now.  Where's my brother?"

 

     "I do not know."

 

     Rick jerked Eduardo to his feet like a puppeteer jerks his marionette into action.   He pulled the garrote tighter.  "Okay.  We'll try again, asshole.  Where's my brother?"

 

     Eduardo's eyes bulged from lack of air.  "I do not know."

 

     Rick twisted the thong back until Eduardo was sure his spine would snap.  "Where...is...my...brother?"

 

     As though it were his dying breath, Agilar rasped weakly in the same spaced cadence Rick had used.

 

"I...do...not...know."

 

     The man's stubbornness infuriated Rick beyond all reason.   For the moment, he forgot that above all else he'd come here for answers.  For the moment, his mind only pictured what A.J. must have gone through in that tiny dark space below.  For the moment, his mind only pictured what A.J. was still going through, if he was even yet alive.

 

     And in those moments, Rick Simon knew was going to kill Eduardo Agilar and walk away with absolutely no regrets.

 

     Rick pulled back on the garrote for what would be the last and final time, when a soft voice spoke from behind. 

 

     "Don't do it, Rick.  You're not going to get answers this way."

 

     It wasn't easy to catch Rick Simon by surprise.  The detective didn't so much as let go of his victim by a fraction of an inch when he pivoted. 

 

"Town?  How the hell--"

 

     Downtown Brown stepped out from the shadow of the doorway.  "It doesn't matter.  Let's just say a concerned friend called me and leave it at that."  Town nodded toward Agilar, whose knees had buckled.  "Let him go now, Rick."

 

     Rick looked down into Eduardo Agilar's arrogant brown eyes.  "No.  The sonuvabitch won't tell me what I need to know, so I'm gonna kill him.  No one can stop me.  Not even you."

 

     Town walked up and placed his revolver against Agilar's temple.  "I don't intend to stop you.  I just intend for us to get the answers you came for."

 

     Rick met Town's gaze.  Before he could decide whether or not his friend was bluffing, or would really pull the trigger if Agilar didn't talk, a voice in heavily accented English broke the stillness of the night.

     From below the patio Rick heard, "Officer Brown!  Officer Brown!  One of Agilar's guards has regained consciousness!  He says the man you are looking for - Senor A.J. Simon - was taken to San Francisco!"

 

     The hold Rick had on the garrote no longer mattered.  It slackened, and Agilar crumpled forward coughing and gasping for air.  Two Mexican police officers appeared on the patio and handcuffed the Salvadoran.  As Agilar was led back into the house, Rick leaned heavily on a table.  With hardened eyes of stone he stared out over the dark landscape.  Town reached up and gave Rick's shoulder a strong squeeze. 

 

     "It's over, Rick.  It's over."

 

     Rick turned and looked at his old friend.   "No, Towner, it's not.  It's not over at all.  After eleven long months of hell, I'm afraid it's only just begun." 

    

 

Chapter 13

 

February, 1993

 

 

     As January turned into February, the winter rains ceased to fall and spring came early to San Francisco.  Since Christmas, Dominique had added several more interesting facts about Jack to the mental index card she found herself compiling on him. 

 

     Much like Malachi, Jack hated to see injustice or cruelty inflicted upon others.  He became as fierce a protector of the people who dwelled in Beulah Land as the black man was.  Two different times Jack showed up at the shelter to work that winter with a black eye and scraped knuckles.  He wouldn't explain his appearance to Dominique, but Malachi told her in one instance he fought off a man who was trying to rape a woman, and in another he took on a gang of teenagers who were deriving pleasure from beating a mentally ill homeless man.  Malachi also told Dominique he suspected Jack was a skilled boxer, and at one time had been a student of the marital arts. 

 

     Jack also loved to read.  Dominique often found him with his nose buried in the daily newspaper one of the volunteers invariably carried in, or reading old magazines someone had left lying around. As well, she had come upon him in the office one day reading a book from the small collection Father Papanek kept on a crooked shelf there.   

 

     "I hope it's okay that I took a book off Father's shelf," Jack had apologized upon Dominique's entrance.  "I suppose I should have asked first."

 

     Dominique smiled her reassurance.   "That's okay.  And no, you don't have to ask first.  I'm quite certain Father Frank will be more than happy to share any of his reading material with you."  Dominique walked over and lifted the hardcover book away from his hands just enough to see its title.  She laughed.  "But I can't imagine that you're getting much enjoyment out of, How To Raise Catholic Children In A Society Run Amok.

 

     Jack laughed with her.  "Well, not that much enjoyment, I don't suppose.  Admittedly, Father's titles are rather limited."

 

     "I'd be happy to bring you some books, Jack.  I'm an avid reader myself, and have an extensive personal library.  If I don't have anything on my shelves at home that interests you, I can certainly check some books out of my local library for you."

     Dominique was touched by his reaction.  He acted as though she'd just offered him a million dollars and a Rolls Royce to go along with it.   

 

"You'd do that for me?  You don't mind?"

 

     "No," the nurse shook her head.  "I don't mind at all.  And of course I'd do that for you."

     Dominique soon discovered Jack's taste in literature ran the gamut from popular fiction authors like Grisham and Clancy and Crichton, to authors of what was now considered classic literature like Hemingway and Steinbeck. It didn't matter what she brought him, fiction or non-fiction, he read every word with a passion that astounded Dominique.  From then on she kept Jack well stocked in books.  Each and every time she brought him one he was so appreciative and grateful, that once again Dominique found herself wishing she could do more for him.     

 

     Another interesting fact Dominique filed away regarding Jack, was that he seemed to have a vast knowledge of police procedure.  One day while she was taking inventory of her medical supplies in Father Papanek's office, and Jack was sweeping the office floor, Dominique mentioned that one of the nurses who worked for her had been notified the previous day that her sister, who lived in Boston, had been found murdered in her apartment.  As Dominique talked with sorrow of what she knew about the situation, Jack very knowledgeably informed her as to what the Boston police were most likely doing in an effort to solve the crime.  He spoke of investigation techniques, lab reports, coroner's reports, and the lifting of fingerprints.  He used slang terms and other vernacular Dominique recognized as being inherent to someone in law enforcement. He reeled off statistics as if they were second nature to him regarding how many people are murdered by someone they know, as opposed to it being a random act of violence.

 

     "It's funny you should say that," Dominique commented as she paused and turned from her work.  "Jennifer, the young woman who works for me, has told me off and on in recent months how her sister has been having trouble with a former boyfriend.  Evidently he hasn't been able to come to terms with the relationship being over and has been stalking her.  Jennifer was really worried about the situation, as was her entire family."

 

     Jack nodded as he continued sweeping.  "If Jennifer's family has told the police that, which undoubtedly they have, then the former boyfriend is the first guy they'll pull in for questioning. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that he’s the one who killed her."

 

     Dominique eyed the blond with unconcealed curiosity. 

 

     "Jack?"

 

     The motion of the broom stopped, and Jack looked over at her with a smile.  "Yes?"

 

     "How do you know all those things about how a murder investigation is conducted?"

 

     There it was again.  The look of panic and fear that fleetingly touched his eyes each time she asked him a question about himself.

 

     Finally, he shrugged and turned his back on her as he continued sweeping.  "I don't know.  I just do."

 

     Dominique silently studied the blond man as he went about his work.  Later, after he'd moved on to another part of the building, she took a piece of paper and a pen out of Father Papnek's desk and jotted her thoughts down.  When she was finished she was forced to laugh at herself.  She had listed possible scenarios for Jack's past life, and come to the conclusion he'd been a janitor, chef, professional boxer, karate instructor, college literary professor, and a police officer. 

 

     She sat back in her chair and idly doodled on the paper.  None of it made any sense to Dominique, and every bit of it left her frustrated.  Of all the men she'd encountered in the past three years, Jack was the one she wanted to help the most.  She couldn't really explain why, not even to herself, other than to keep maintaining that he just didn't belong on the streets.  Dominique knew a psychiatrist who was well versed in hypnosis, and had been mulling over talking to the woman about Jack.  She hadn't done so yet, simply because she was fairly certain Jack would never agree to undergo such a procedure.  For whatever reason, he became terrified when questioned about who he was and where he came from.  As long as Jack let his fear rule him, Dominique knew she'd never really be able to help him.  She often asked herself if she could accept that.  And she often found herself saying no, she couldn't. 

 

     For the time being, Dominique crumpled up her piece of paper and tossed it in the garbage can.

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

Friday, February 5th & Sunday, February 7th, 1993

 

 

     It was on a Friday in early February when Dominique invited Jack to her parents’ home.  The blond man was in the shelter's kitchen by himself beginning dinner preparations, when the tiny woman bounced into the room.

 

     "Hey, Jack, my folks are having a family cookout at their house this Sunday and I could really use a handsome escort."

 

     The blond wrinkled his nose as Dominique had come to learn he often did when faced with indecision.  "Mmmm...I don't know, Dominique.  I don't think I should."

 

     She followed him as he walked over to the bank of three used refrigerators a man from Dominique's church was forever nursing back to life. 

 

"Why not?  It’ll be fun for you, I promise.  And I'd love to introduce you to my parents and sisters.  It's nothing formal or anything.  Dad's just going to grill out some steaks."

 

     Jack turned with a restaurant size jug of ketchup in his hands.  "I just don't....I just can't imagine that your parents or sisters would want me there."

 

     Dominique put her hands on her thin hips.   "Are you trying to insinuate that my family is uppity, mister?"

 

     Jack's face tinged pink.  "No, no.  Not at all.  But let's face it.  Their world and mine...well, I just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

 

     "The only one who is going to be uncomfortable is you, Jack.  But that's only if you allow yourself to be.  My family would love to have you join us.  I've already asked, and I can assure you they've extended you an invitation.  But if you really don't want to come that's okay, too."  Dominique's brown eyes danced.  "But you don't know what you're missing.  My dad might even be a better cook than you are."

 

     Jack knew he was being teased, and to a certain extent challenged.  He gave her a sly look out of the corner of his eye.  "Oh, yeah?  This I have to see."

 

     Dominique smiled at what she knew was his acceptance of her invitation.       "Good.  I'll pick you up here at eleven on Sunday morning.  Dad's planning lunch for noon."

 

     Jack nodded his agreement as Dominique turned to go upstairs.  She wondered if he'd be waiting for her as promised, or if at the last minute he'd back out.  She truly hoped he'd come.  She hadn't lied when assuring Jack her parents had extended him an invitation.  Dominique had spoken quite often of this odd man, Jack, to both her mother and father.  Strangely enough, even they had taken an interest in him.  

 

     Somewhat to Dominique's surprise Jack was waiting for her that Sunday morning out on the sidewalk in front of St. Jude's.  It didn't surprise her, however, that he was fresh from the shower. The faded, second hand jeans he wore were clean, and he had on a new shirt.  Or at least new in the sense that Dominique had never seen it before.  It was a short-sleeved red polo shirt that emphasized his broad chest and well muscled arms.    

 

     "I like your shirt," Dominique commented as he climbed in the car.  "But you didn't have to get a new one just to go to my parents for a picnic."

 

     Jack smiled and gave a good-natured shrug while teasing her.  "I wanted make a good first impression.  Besides, it's as you're always telling me, I've got plenty of tickets to spend in return for the work I do around the shelter."

 

     "And we appreciate that, Jack," Dominique returned.  "You've been a big help these past few months."

 

     Jack turned and looked out the car window at the passing scenery.  His words were quiet and hard to hear.  "No, Dominique, it's you who have helped me."   

 

     It couldn't have been a better day for a picnic.  The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was seventy-five degrees.  Dominique's parents lived in an affluent suburb twenty miles north of the city.  Her father was a successful pediatrician, and it was at his knee his oldest daughter had nurtured her love of the medical profession. Despite his towering stature, Dr. Cascia was a gentle man whom his young patients adored. They climbed on his lap with no hesitation and affectionately referred to him as Dr. Tony. 

 

     Dominique's mother had made her family her career until her youngest daughter graduated from high school.  Then she returned to school herself where she earned a degree in business management.  Now she ran a busy insurance office in the same efficient manner in which she'd run her household.

 

     Dominique's parents had taught their daughters by example when it came to volunteering time and talents to their community and church.  Dr. and Mrs. Cascia were kind, generous people who never took for granted their many blessings. 

 

     The nurse turned down a quiet street lined with sprawling old trees.  Three blocks later she pulled into the crowded driveway of a two story colonial style home painted bright clean white.  The shutters that graced every window were a brilliant red, as was the front door.  Tall trees shaded the front of the house.  A comfortable looking glider rested on the concrete porch along with potted plants.  A roof protected the porch and its users from the elements, and was supported by three round white pillars.  Red window boxes overflowed with ivy vines and flowers of every kind and color.  More flowers and shrubbery grew from the beds that bordered the house all the way around. 

 

     Jack studied the home and yard from the safety of the car.  "It's very nice."

 

     Dominique smiled with pleasant memories.  "It was a wonderful place to grow up.  We had a lot of good times in this house.  We still do."  She pointed upward.  "Do you see the window up there on your left?"

 

     Jack nodded. 

 

     "That was my bedroom.  I climbed out that window one night when I was sixteen long after my curfew.  I jumped over to the roof of the front porch and slid down a pillar like a fireman.  It's a wonder I didn't kill myself.  My boyfriend picked me up a block away and off we went on a joy ride in his '66 Mustang.  My father was waiting for me at the front door when Pete brought me home two hours later.  I thought he was going to kill me, he was so furious.  He grounded me for life that night."

 

     Jack smiled.  "I see he must have relented at some point in time."

 

     Dominique laughed.  "About two weeks later.  But believe me, I never pulled that little stunt again."

 

     Dominique climbed out of the car.  When Jack didn't follow she bent down and urged, "Come on.  I'm sure everyone is around back."

 

     Just then a dark headed boy of five years old came racing around the house with his arms outstretched.  "Aunt Dommy!  Aunt Dommy!"

 

     Dominique met the boy halfway.  She bent down and accepted his enthusiastic hugs and kisses.  She asked him how his week in kindergarten had gone, then inquired as to where his younger brother, sister, and cousins were, before turning to introduce him to the blond man.

 

     Jack hung several paces back.  Dominique walked the boy over to him.  "Jack, this is my oldest nephew Quentin.  Quentin, this is Jack."

 

     Quentin wasn't in the least bit shy, and stuck his hand right out to the stranger.  "Hi, Jack.  Put 'er there, pardner."

 

     Dominique laughed at her nephew and his antics.  Her family long ago had decided he'd surely make his living as a stand-up comedian someday. 

 

     For just a second, Dominique thought Jack was going to refuse her nephew's offer of friendship.  She saw him tense before visibly relaxing and taking Quentin's sturdy hand in his.

 

     "Hi, Quentin," he said softly.  "It's nice to meet you."

 

     If Quentin noticed the man's unease or shy demeanor, he didn't comment on it.  He didn't drop Jack's hand either, as he pulled him toward the backyard. 

 

"Do you like to play baseball, Jack?  I sure do.  Maybe you could pitch to me for a while, huh?  My dad and grandpa and Uncle Tom are already sick of me buggin' 'em.  They told me so.  And Grandma and Mom and Aunt Justine are busy.  They told me to get outta their hair.

 

     "Hey, are you my Aunt Dommy's new boyfriend?  I hope so.  I don't like that other one she brings around sometimes.  He's no fun."

 

     "Quentin!"  Dominique shrieked in horror as she walked along beside her nephew and Jack.  "You don't have to tell everything you know.  And please, give Jack some breathing room.  I'd like to at least introduce him to the rest of the family before you draft him as your star pitcher."

 

     "Okay, okay," Quentin agreed while dropping Jack's hand. He took off running as fast as he short legs would carry him.  "Hey, everybody!"  He hollered at the top of his lungs.  "Aunt Dommy's here with her new boyfriend!"

 

     Dominique blushed crimson.  "I'm so sorry.  I love that little boy dearly, but he does tend to speak out of turn now and again."

 

     Jack smiled.  "Don't worry about it.  I hardly think being your boyfriend could be the worst thing I've ever been accused of."

 

     Before Dominique could form a reply her mother appeared from around the corner of the house.  It was easy to see where the nurse came by her petite build and dark beauty. 

 

     Rosa Cascia made Jack feel right at home, as did her husband Anthony.  Dr. Cascia was a large man of six foot three who carried two hundred and thirty pounds on his big frame, off which he was forever trying to lose twenty-five.  Sprigs of his bushy black hair were always standing on end like unruly soldiers who had broken rank.  His tousled hair, dark eyes, thick brows, baritone voice, bulky build, and ever-present smile made one think of a big friendly bear.  He was so large, and his wife so tiny, that the Cascia daughters often teased the couple by referring to them as Mutt and Jeff.

 

     Dominique's sisters, Mercedes and Justine, were equally as welcoming as were their husbands.  Justine and Dominique looked enough alike to be mistaken for twins, while Mercedes took after her father in both her facial features and stature.  The only member of the Cascia family missing was Vanessa, who was away at school.

 

     All of Dominique's family knew about Jack to varying degrees based on what she had told them on occasion over the past few months.  Therefore, each one of them was careful not to pressure him into talking about anything he didn't want to, and no one asked him any questions regarding his past or where he'd come from.  As Dominique had expected him to be, Jack was quiet, and for a long while seemed ill at ease.  But then her father got him involved in a lengthy drawn-out conversation concerning the best ways to grill a good steak, and that got him to open up a bit.  It was Jack who finished cooking the steaks, and everyone declared they were far better than any Dr. Cascia had ever made.  The doctor accepted his family's teasing with good nature, and told Jack he guessed that meant he'd have to join them every time they wanted a meal cooked on the grill.

 

     Jack was the only man to rise from his seat and help the women as they began clearing the picnic table.  Rosa shooed him from the kitchen a few minutes later.  She told him to go out and make himself comfortable in a lawn chair. 

 

     Mrs. Cascia watched from the window as Quentin intercepted the blond before he could sit down.  Within seconds, Jack was pitching a baseball to her energetic grandson. 

 

     Rosa Cascia turned to her oldest daughter.  They were alone in the kitchen.  Justine was upstairs changing her eight-month- old son's diaper, while Mercedes swept the patio free of all the food the children had dropped.   

 

     "He seems like such a nice man, Dommy.  He's so different from most of the people who use the shelter."

 

     Dominique turned from where she'd been storing leftovers in the refrigerator.  "I know it, Mom.  I know it.  I just wish I knew how to help him."

 

     "Help him?"

 

     "Yes.  Help him rediscover who he is, and where it is he belongs.  He must have a family somewhere."

 

     "Not necessarily, dear.  It's unfortunate, but true, that not everyone has someone."

 

     "I realize that.  But for some reason, I don't believe that holds true for Jack."

 

     Dominique crossed to the window.  Sunlight bounced off of Jack's head.  His blond hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes made him stand out amongst the sea of dark Italians.  As she watched him play baseball with the children and her brothers-in-law, Dominique could now add to her mental list that he was a skilled athlete.   "I really think there's someone out there somewhere waiting to hear from him, Mom."

 

     "Don't get your hopes up, sweetie," Rosa stated practically as she loaded the dishwasher.   "I know you've grown fond of Jack in the past few months, and to tell you the truth that worried me at first.  But now that I've met him I can see why you've become so attached to him.   He's a very pleasant, well-mannered man, and yet there's something about him that speaks of volumes of sorrow.  I can understand why you want to help him in whatever way you can, Dominique, but please, honey, don't set yourself up to be hurt.  You really don't know anything about him.  Someday the police may show up to arrest him.  Or someday he may just disappear from your life as quickly and quietly as he came into it."

 

     Dominique turned from the window to face her mother. "In other words, you're telling me to be prepared to let him go."

 

     Rosa shut the dishwasher and started it cycling.  "Yes, Dominique, I am.  Be prepared to let him go, and be prepared to accept whatever you may someday find out about him.  And please, for my sake, exercise caution when you're alone with him.  Despite his good manners and pleasant nature, Jack's past may turn out to be considerably more jaded than you currently think."

 

     "I know it, Mother.  And believe me, I've thought a lot about that."  Dominique shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her blue jeans as she turned to look out the window once more.  Her three-year-old niece, Ariel, was giving Jack a hug.  "I just want some answers, Mom.  More than anything else, I want some answers for both Jack and myself."

 

 

Chapter 15

 

Sunday Evening, February 7th, 1993

 

 

     It wasn't lost on Dominique that Jack was unusually quiet on their drive back to St. Jude's early that evening.  They'd stayed at her parents’ all afternoon and then eaten a simple supper of sandwiches, leftover salads, casseroles, and desserts Mrs. Cascia had insisted on serving everyone before allowing any of them to leave. 

 

     More than once during the afternoon Dominique was aware of Jack just sitting back and watching her family interact.  That was another trait she'd come to notice about him in recent weeks.  He was an astute observer of his surroundings, and days later could recount everything he'd seen and heard with complete accuracy.  Even seemingly insignificant details most people would have long forgotten.  At those times the nurse thought of the skills police officers are trained in, and wondered again if Jack had some type of background in law enforcement. 

 

     Dominique looked across the seat at her silent passenger.  "Are you okay, Jack?"

 

     The blond man gave her a soft smile meant to hide his sorrow.  Dominique's loving, close knit family had made him feel, for some odd reason, as though he had lost something that was once very precious to him. "Yes, I'm fine.  Thank you for asking me to come with you today.  I had a very good time.  Your family's wonderful."

 

     "You're welcome.  I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.  We'd love to have you as our guest again."

 

     He smiled before turning to look out the window.  "Thanks.  That means a lot to me."

     "Jack..." Dominique hesitated until he finally looked at her again.  "If there's ever anyone...anyone at all, whom you'd like me to contact for you, all you have to do is say so.  You know that, don't you?"

 

     "Yes, Dominique, I know that.  But there's no one."

 

     "You're sure?"

 

     Again the man with the mischievous eyes, and the woman with the loving smile, danced at the front of Jack's mind.  He mentally screamed at them, telling them they had to go away and leave him alone for good if they had any hope at all of remaining free from harm.

 

     "Jack?"

 

     The blond man's attention focused itself out the window once more.  "Yes, I'm sure."

 

     "Jack...Jack, maybe you and I should go to the police

and--"

 

     He shook his head.  "No.  No police.  I don't have anything to tell them anyway."

 

     Dominique sighed.  They'd had similar conversations in the past.  Each time she had brought up the police, Jack was adamant in his refusal to meet with an officer.  Dominique wondered if he had reason to fear the law, or if it was as he said, that he had nothing to tell them. 

 

     As Jack silently sat staring out the window he seemed so bereft and alone that Dominique couldn't bear the thought of dropping him off in an alley.

 

     The nurse glanced at her passenger as she flowed with traffic through a busy intersection.   "Would you like to come to my house for a while?  I'd love to show you where I live, and introduce you to Adeline.  You can pick out a couple of books from my collection to take back with you if you'd like.  Plus, I have something there I've been meaning to give you."

 

     That caused him to turn and look at her.  "What?"

 

     "Oh, just a little something I think you can use," Dominique answered mysteriously.

 

     "That would be all right," Jack finally agreed.  "If I wouldn't be intruding, that is."

 

     "You're not intruding.  If you were, I wouldn't have asked you, now would I?"

 

     Jack couldn't help but smile.  "No.  I don't suppose you would have."

 

     Dominique's neighborhood was as quiet as her parents’, though far less pretentious.  Her street, too, was lined with old trees, but the houses were all single story brick bungalows built on small lots during the 1940's and 50's.  The lawns were well taken care of, as were the homes.  It was easy to tell it was a working class neighborhood filled with young people who took pride in the first homes they were able to afford.

 

     Dominique pulled in the narrow drive of a well-kept brown brick home whose windows were trimmed in white.  Two round wooden whiskey barrels stood on either side of front steps and overflowed with petunias.  Dominique drove the car under the shelter provided by the carport.  From there it was just a few steps to the side door that entered into the kitchen.

 

     As Jack trailed along behind her, the thought crossed the nurse's mind just briefly that she might be taking a foolish risk.  After all, in many ways she really didn't know Jack.  As her mother had said, he might even be wanted by the police.  Dominique was well aware many women had lost their lives when putting their trust in the wrong man.  As quickly as those concerns washed over her, they rolled back out of her mind.  Somehow Dominique instinctively knew Jack would never hurt her.  She truthfully doubted he was capable of hurting anyone. 

 

     Adeline, the lively cocker spaniel, greeted Dominique with enthusiasm.  She was a good guard dog and barked ferociously at Jack until Dominique assured her he was a friend.  The golden dog with the long ears finally allowed the blond man to bend down and pet her.  He talked softly to her for a long time and even called her Rex once, which he didn't seem to notice.  Dominique was sure his slip of the tongue was an important clue, the first he'd ever given her in all these many months, but she was at a loss as to what to make of it. 

 

     When Adeline had been given all the attention one cocker spaniel needed, Dominique let her out into the backyard that was surrounded by a cyclone fence. 

 

     The nurse gave Jack a tour of her small, neat home.  Aside from the kitchen and dining area into which they'd entered, there was an average sized living room where two walls were lined with bookshelves that overflowed with books.  A TV sat on a wooden stand with a VCR on the shelf below it. A comfortable looking couch and two chairs rounded out the room's basic decor.  Down the hallway from the living room was a bathroom, a linen closet, and two bedrooms, both twelve feet by fourteen feet in dimension that sat in opposite corners of the house.  The one Dominique used overlooked the backyard and contained a sturdy oak double bed, nightstand, and dresser.  The spare bedroom was across the hall from hers and was outfitted with a daybed for those times a niece or nephew was invited to spend the night.  As well, the room contained a desk that held Dominique's computer.  Next to the desk was another shelving unit that was full of nursing manuals and other educational books pertaining to Dominique's career.   She had told Jack she supplemented her income by conducting training seminars for the hospital, as well as editing a newsletter for nurses.    

 

     Adeline was barking at the back door just as the home tour was drawing to a close.  Jack followed Dominique back down the hallway, through the living room, and into the kitchen.  At the far end of the kitchen was a door that led to the small laundry room.  It was here that Dominique let Adeline back into the house.  

 

     Every room was clean, orderly, and carefully decorated.  Jack complimented Dominique on her home's appearance. 

 

"You have a very nice place here."

 

     "Thank you.  I worked hard for it.  I hated living in an apartment.  I scrimped and saved until I could afford to buy this.  I moved in two years ago.  My sisters gave me Adeline as a housewarming gift a week later."

 

     Jack smiled as he stood in the laundry room and watched Dominique go about filling the dog's bowls with food and fresh water.

 

     "It seems like a nice neighborhood."

 

     "It is.  Nice, as well as quiet the majority of the time.  And everyone looks out for everyone else.  We have an excellent neighborhood watch program."

 

     Dominique left the little dog to her supper.  "Come on."

 

     Jack pushed himself away from the washer he'd been leaning against.   "Where are we going?"

 

     "Don't you remember that I told you I had something for you?"

 

     Jack didn't reply to the question that was more rhetorical in nature than anything else.  He followed Dominique back to her bedroom.  She opened her closet door and pulled out a new dark blue backpack.  She held it out to the blond man.

 

     "Here you go."

 

     Jack looked at the zippered pack with multiple pockets but didn't reach for it.  "What's this for?"

 

     "To put all your stuff in.  You know, your clothes, and toothbrush, and razor and things.  I thought by now you must be sick of carrying everything around in that bag I gave you a few months back."

 

     Jack shook his head.  "No, Dominique, I can't accept this.  It's too expensive."

 

     "If you're worried that buying this for you is going to keep me from eating this month don't be.  It didn't set me back that much.  And besides, it's a gift, so it's really none of your business how much it cost."

 

     "But, Dominique—-“

 

     Dominique's eyes flashed her stubbornness. "Jack, I'm not going to take no for an answer.  I don't intend to return it, and I certainly don't have any use for it.  Plus, if you don't take it, you'll hurt my feelings terribly."

 

     Jack was forced to smile as he reached for the large pack that would not only hold everything Dominique mentioned, but as well was big enough to contain even his bulky winter coat and hiking boots.  "In that case, I guess I have no choice," the blond said. "But I will pay you back one way or another just as soon as I can, gift or no gift.  I've been thinking that I'm going to get a job.  A real job.  I don't want to just work at the shelter anymore for tickets to be exchanged for second hand clothing."

 

     "That's wonderful, Jack," Dominique praised.  It never dawned on the nurse how much she had attributed to Jack's newly acquired self-confidence.  All she knew was that by him taking the first step toward seeking outside employment, he was also taking the first step toward broadening the circle of those few people he trusted and felt comfortable with.  When Dominique thought back to the silent, battered man she first met in November, she realized how far he'd come.

 

     "What kind of job are you going to look for?"

 

     He shrugged.  "I don't know yet."

 

     She wanted to ask him what type of work he'd done in the past, but she knew he'd simply tell her he didn't know.  And in truth, maybe he didn't.  Malachi had long suspected he might be a Vietnam veteran whose scarred mind had completely blocked out his past.  For some reason Dominique didn't think that was true.  For one thing she thought he was too young to be a veteran of the Vietnam war, though Malachi tended to debate her on that point.  Regardless, she had always thought Jack's mental wounds seemed too recent and close to the surface.  She was beginning to doubt that either she or Malachi would ever find out the truth.

 

     Dominique smiled up at the man and the uncertainty she saw in his eyes.  "I know whatever you chose to do you'll succeed.  You know, they're always looking for help in the kitchen of the hospital where I work.  They might not have an opening right now, but I could mention you to the supervisor and ask her to tell me when she's looking to hire someone."

 

     "Thank you.  I'd appreciate that."  Jack's eyes fell to the floor.  He had no idea how to express the gratitude he was feeling.   "You...you've done so much for me, Dominique.  I don't know how I can ever repay you."

 

     Dominique reached out and lightly touched his bare forearm.  "Jack, I don't expect you to repay me.  I didn't extend my hand in friendship to you because I expected repayment of any kind.  I extended my hand in friendship because you're a nice guy.  And you're a pretty good friend, too, so don't sell yourself short."

 

     Jack seemed so unsure of himself and the validity behind Dominique's words that she moved forward and embraced him in a strong hug.  Her head barely reached high enough to rest against his chest.  His body tensed at the contact.  The woman wondered how long it had been since someone had held this man and let him know he was loved.  She wondered how long it had been since someone had touched him without inflicting physical pain on him.     

 

     A minute passed before she felt the rigidness flow from his muscles, and heard the soft 'plunk' of the backpack as it hit the floor behind her.  He returned her embrace, holding onto her as if he was on a sinking ship and she was his life ring. 

 

     Later Dominique would wonder who initiated their first kiss.  She just remembered him pulling away from her only far enough to look down into her eyes.  What he was looking for she didn't know, but she imagined it was her permission to act on his feelings.  She had no doubt she gave it as his lips met hers.

 

     Dominique had no idea how long they stood in the middle of her bedroom floor kissing and hugging, and then gently caressing first on top of clothing, then underneath it.  She did recall pulling the window shades right before their clothing began to slowly fall to the floor.  When she finally found herself lying naked underneath the covers of her bed he was beside her.  Although Dominique knew his was body was physically ready to make love to her, Jack didn't enter her.  Instead, he gently kissed and nipped and fondled until she couldn't stand it anymore.  Never had she had a more attentive lover.

 

     Jack didn't question Dominique when she paused their activities only long enough to reach over to open a drawer of her nightstand.   Nor did he ask her why she kept a box of condoms there.  If he had asked, her answer wouldn't have been because she had a steady stream of men who shared her bed with her.  She didn't.  Her husband had been the first man she'd ever slept with, and there had only been one since then.  And that one had departed from her life more than a year earlier when he'd taken a teaching position in Europe and she'd chosen not to go with him.  The condoms were simply a precaution Dominique knew every woman and man should take when engaging in sex in the 1990's.

 

     Jack took the blue foil wrapped package from her and slipped it underneath the pillow before returning his attention to her body.  She couldn't do more than groan helplessly and tell him she was ready. So ready she was about die and go to Heaven in a most shameful condition.

 

     He chuckled softly and ignored her pleadings.  It was when her hands and mouth started doing some roaming of their own that he finally gave into her desires and retrieved the condom from its hiding place.  She rolled it on him, and watched his eyes close at the stimulation her fingers provided. 

 

     When their lovemaking reached its peak she screamed his name in overwhelming satisfaction.  By the smile on his face when he finally moved to lie beside her, she knew he'd been saturated with pleasant sensations as well.  He pulled her against his strong body and she rested her head on his chest.  She fell asleep to the comforting thump, thump, thump of his heart. 

 

     When Dominique awoke it was dark outside.  She was still wrapped loosely in Jack's arms, though he was sleeping now as well.  She could hear Adeline snoring softly from where she was slumbering on the floor at the foot of the bed.  Neither the dog nor Jack woke up when the nurse clicked her bedside light onto its lowest setting.

 

     Dominique studied the handsome man sleeping beside her and marveled once again at his gentle, loving ways.  She lightly ran her fingers through his long blond hair.  As she did so, she noticed for the first time the strands of gray at his temples.  Because his hair color was so light the loss of pigmentation was impossible to see from a distance.  She briefly found herself wondering once again how old he was.  She'd always assumed him to be in his mid-thirties, but now she wondered if Malachi could be correct when he guessed Jack was closer to forty-five than

thirty-five.  If Jack was that old then he hid it well, Dominique thought as she looked down at the youthful face relaxed in sleep.  She bent and kissed his temple.  It was that kiss that caused him to stir.  He looked up at her and smiled.  Before he could say anything her lips traveled to his mouth, then headed south.  This time Dominique made love to him.  She wouldn't allow him to touch her, and repeatedly told him it was his turn to be pleasured.  It was a long time later when they both shuddered through mutual release.

 

     When their loving was through Jack held her in his arms once more.  At first Dominique didn't notice the silent tears that trailed down his face.  It wasn't until one softly splashed onto her temple that she opened her eyes and looked up at him. 

 

     Dominique pulled out of his embrace and struggled with the mattress a moment before resting her weight on her elbows.   "Jack, what's wrong?"

 

     The only answer she got was a shake of his head.  That pitiful movement poignantly reminded her of how he was when she'd first met him.  It also brought home the realization that he was far from healed.

 

     "Jack?"

 

     He rolled over on his side and huddled under the covers like a child who'd been abused one too many times.   "I'm okay," came his soft, choked reply.  "It's just that it's been so long...so long since someone has cared about me.  I guess...I guess I forgot how it feels to be loved."

 

     With that, Dominique could do no more than hug him tightly and cry with him.  She felt so sorry for him. 

 

     Why?  She found herself asking God later that night when Jack finally fell into an exhausted slumber.  Why are You making this man suffer so?  And where is his family?  Don't they care about him?  Don't they love him? How could they have forgotten him?  Oh, Lord, I'm afraid Jack needs so much more than I can ever give him.  I...I'm falling in love with him, Lord, you know that, but yet I truly believe there's someone out there who can do a better job of helping Jack heal than I can.  Please, Lord, send that person to me. Please just send him or her to me.  I...I can let Jack go if I know I'm putting him in the arms of someone who loves him. 

 

     Dominique had believed in the power of prayer ever since she could remember.  But that night, as she gazed upon the sleeping man with dried tears on his face, Dominique wondered for the first time in her life as to whether or not God really did listen to her pleadings.  

    

 

Chapter 16

 

Saturday, February 20th, - Thursday, February 25th, 1993

 

 

     Two weeks after the man Dominique knew as Jack had spent the night at her house, Rick Simon and Downtown Brown were combing San Francisco's streets in search of A.J.  Town figured their chances of finding the blond man were slim to none, but he couldn't bring himself to tell Rick that.  On the other hand, Town firmly believed something other than luck had been guiding both Rick and himself as of late.

 

     The black man still didn't know what made him act on Cecilia Simon's frantic phone call that came to him on the morning of February 3rd.  Cecilia admitted she had no more than a bad feeling about Rick's trip to Mexico.  A mother's bad feeling surrounding her grown son's need to get away for a few days didn't normally cause Downtown Brown to charter a plane at his own expense for regions south of L.A.  He told his superior he had a personal emergency to attend to, and was fortunate enough to be granted time off.  Next he placed a quick call to his wife, giving her a brief explanation as to where he was going.  Temple was left staring at the phone when Town cut her off in mid-sentence with a rushed, "I'll call you as soon as I know what's happening.  I love you.  Bye."

 

     The last call Town made before dashing to the small private airport from which he'd hired the plane went to Abigail Marsh.   When he hung up after talking to Abby, she placed an all-points-bulletin on Rick Simon's truck.  Abby wouldn't say what he was suspected of, nor did she mention his name.  She simply gave a description of the vehicle and its license plate number.  Her instructions were that she was to be notified as soon as the truck was spotted, and in no way had anyone better screw this up so that the driver knew he was being tailed. 

 

     Within ten minutes Abby got a call from a young cop in a black and white unit.  She knew she could lose her job for what she was about to do next, but that didn't stop her.  She radioed two detectives she trusted with her life, who were out on the streets in an unmarked vehicle.  She told them what highway Rick was traveling on and that she wanted him followed no matter where he went.

 

     Town used the plane's radio to have himself patched through to Abby as he flew over San Diego.  Although their connection was poor and they had to shout in order to hear one another, the black man found out what he needed to know.  His next call went to a Mexican law enforcement official who owed him several favors.  It was through this man's efforts that Town tracked Rick all the way to Durango, and then farther south to the Agilar estate. 

 

     Now Eduardo Agilar was in jail in San Diego, and Abigail Marsh was doing all she could to persuade a judge not to let him out on bail.  Two detectives, as well as Abby herself, were working overtime along with the La Jolla Police Department in an attempt to connect Agilar to the murders of Carson and Jeanette Baily.  There was also the murder of the unidentified Hispanic male that Abby was certain was connected to Agilar based on what Rick had told her.  Abby didn't know if Agilar pulled the trigger in that case or just ordered it done, but for some reason both she and Downtown Brown felt he'd killed the Bailys himself.  Normally a man like Agilar didn't do his own dirty work, but if it was important to him that the job be done right then he might have. Certainly Carson Baily wouldn't have been an easy man for an amateur to sneak up on. 

 

     The one promising turn of events was that the young guards Rick had accosted outside Agilar's house couldn't talk fast enough.  They were scared they'd be charged with someone's murder before all was said and done, so were more than willing to tell what they knew.  Even more so once they realized El Lobo Negro was safely encased behind bars for the time being.  Their story didn't differ greatly from Jose's in regards to A.J.'s kidnapping and subsequent treatment while being held in Agilar's basement, though they vehemently denied taking part in any of it.  Both men maintained Carson Baily had indeed taken A.J. to San Francisco in September of 1992, pushed him out of the vehicle late one night on a desolate road, and drove off without ever looking back. What had ultimately happened to the blond man, the two guards swore they didn't know.  They told Abby they were certain no one knew, not even Eduardo Agilar.

 

     This time Rick didn't take off without telling his mother where he was going.  Two days before he and Town left for San Francisco he sat down with Cecilia on her living room couch.  Rick took his mother's hands in his and told her everything he knew, starting with the details Jose¢ had revealed to him back in January.  When Rick's story came to an end, Cecilia couldn't allow herself to hope A.J. might yet be found.  San Francisco was a big city.  Rick and Town could cover every inch of it ten times over and miss A.J. every single time. Or he might not even be there any longer.  If his state of mind was what Jose¢ Baronez and Agilar's guards claimed it to be, he might have wandered many miles away by now. 

 

     Or he might be dead.

 

     It broke Cecilia's heart to let herself acknowledge that last fact, but deep down inside that's what she thought.  She couldn't imagine how her youngest son had survived the brutal treatment he'd received.  She doubted a man who didn't know who he was, who had lost his ability to communicate with others, and who was in need of medical attention, could live for long on the streets.  She internally wept for A.J., but didn't share her thoughts, or her tears, with Rick.  She couldn't dash the hope she saw in his eyes.  Soon enough she was certain he'd be returning to her empty-handed and mired in despair.  Somehow she was going to have to help him come to terms with the fact that A.J. was gone from them forever.  But until Rick returned from San Francisco she'd allow him his dreams.

 

     Rick had five hundred flyers made up that included a grainy photo of A.J., and brief details about his possible state of mind.  Rick's name and phone number was listed on the flyers, as was Abby's number at the San Diego Police Department.  Rick had the same photo used on the flyer reproduced one hundred times.  It was armed with these flyers and photos that Rick and Downtown Brown conducted their search.

 

     Rick and A.J.'s cousin, Elizabeth Charles, was a native of San Francisco and a great help to Rick and Town.  It was through her efforts prior to their arrival that the two men obtained lists of all the homeless shelters in the city, and maps with streets highlighted where the homeless were known to congregate.

 

     The only draw back was that the shelters on Elizabeth's list were all run by either the city, or the Salvation Army.  Those that were run by private parties, churches, and special interest groups were missing.  According to the woman Elizabeth had spoken to at the Chamber of Commerce the city didn't keep track of those shelters, though she assured Elizabeth that there couldn't be more than a handful.

 

     Upon their arrival in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon, Rick met with Elizabeth while Town spoke with a lieutenant at the police department.  The man attentively listened to Town's story and accepted two dozen flyers to circulate amongst his officers.  He promised Town he'd have his people keep an eye out for anyone matching A.J.'s description, but then added, "You know, Lieutenant, this is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Even if your friend was here in the city at one time, if his condition is as you describe, quite frankly, I don't see how he can still be alive."

     Town nodded.  "I know.  I don't see how he can be either.  But I'd appreciate any help you can give me.  A.J. Simon has left behind a heartbroken mother in San Diego, and an older brother who's slowly self-destructing in an effort to find him."  As Town turned to leave his tone voiced his defeat.  "These people are my friends, and I just don't know how to help them anymore."

 

     Elizabeth Charles voluntarily joined forces with Town and Rick early on Sunday morning, their first official day of searching.  But even with all three of the detectives spending eight to ten hours a day on the streets, at homeless shelters, and in business establishments showing A.J.'s picture and asking questions, they had no luck. 

 

     It was Thursday now, and the week was rapidly drawing to a close.  Town had no choice but to return to work on Monday.  He knew Rick had yet to decide as to whether he was going to stay an additional week or not.  Town privately concluded that would be an effort in futility.  He couldn't imagine what area of the city his friend thought would be left uncovered by Friday night.  By the way the balls of his feet stung every time he slipped into or out of his shoes, Town knew he, Rick, and Elizabeth, had looked everywhere they possibly could since starting their search on Sunday morning.

 

     The Traveler's Rest Motel, where Rick and Town rented a room, was old and possessed few amenities.  That was fine with the two men who simply wanted a clean, affordable room to return to at night that held two double beds and a bathroom with working plumbing.  Rick was walking out of that bathroom now, having just finished showering and dressing.  His short hair was still damp has he pocketed his wallet, the room key, and slipped into his field jacket.  He carried his Panama hat in one hand, and

picked up the box that contained the flyers and photos with the other.

 

     Rick turned to Town, who was sitting in a jungle green vinyl chair sipping coffee and reading the morning newspaper. 

 

"Ready, Towner?"

 

     Town folded his paper and stood.  "Yep, I'm ready."

 

     Rick led the way out the door and down the stairs from their second story room.  He had driven as far as Town and Temple's home in suburban L.A. in his pickup.  From there they'd driven the rest of the way in Town's white Jeep Cherokee.  In the event they did find A.J., the Jeep would provide more comfortable seating for three men than Rick's truck.  Rick waited beside the vehicle while Town unlocked the driver's door then flipped a switch that unlocked the remaining doors.

 

     Before he started the engine Town turned to his friend.  "Which direction are we headed in today?"

 

     Rick glanced out the passenger window. 

 

     "Rick?"

 

     Town saw his friend's head shake slowly back and forth. Rick's voice was tight, as if he was holding back tears.   "I don't know, Town.  I just don't know.  I'm beginning to wonder if there's anywhere left to look."

 

     Town reached over and gave Rick's knee an encouraging pat.  "I think there's a few places yet.  Pull out Elizabeth's list and map, and let's take a look."

 

     Rick retrieved the requested items from a pocket of his field jacket. He unfolded them and laid them across the front seat so both he and Town could study them.  They pinpointed two city-run shelters they had yet to visit, as well as one run by the Red Cross.  Town indicated to a name Elizabeth had scribbled on the bottom of the list in blue ink.    

 

     "What's this?"

 

     Rick turned his head so the writing wasn't sideways.  "St. Jude's Shelter.  She added that last night at the restaurant where we were eating supper.  I think you were on the phone to Temple then.  Someone at a shelter Elizabeth visited yesterday gave her the name of this place.  It's run by some Catholic church."

 

     Town took note of the address Elizabeth had scrawled below the shelter's name.  He picked up the map and searched for 7th and Hallwell.  It took him a minute to locate the cross streets.  When he did, Town could tell they were on the other side of the city.  He folded the map and Elizabeth's list, and handed both items back to Rick.

 

     The policeman turned the Jeep's ignition key, causing the engine to softly purr to life.  "We can stop at the other places that are closer first.  Then we'll swing by there this afternoon.  Is Elizabeth joining us sometime today?"

 

     Rick shook his head.  "She has to be in court for some case she worked on a while back.  She probably won't be with us tomorrow either.  She feels bad about it, but I told her I understood.  She's already done far more than I expected her to.  Everyone has.  That goes double for you, Town.  In the past year you've taken vacation time twice now to help me look for A.J.  Not to mention all the other things I know you've done, like that emergency trip to Mexico that you could have lost your job over if you'd gotten caught."

 

     Town shrugged.  "You'd have done the same for me, so don't worry about it.  And I wouldn't have done any of those things had I not wanted to."  Town clapped his friend on the knee again.  He hated seeing Rick Simon so devoid of his natural exuberance.   That outgoing, quirky, endearing nature of Rick's had been missing for almost a year now.  If they didn't find A.J., Town truly doubted it would ever return.

 

     "Come on now," the black man said as he backed the Jeep out of its parking space.  "Let's get some breakfast and then hit the road."

 

 

Chapter 17

 

Thursday Evening, February 25th, 1993

    

    

     By the time the two men worked their way over to 7th and Hallwell it was five o'clock in the afternoon.  If nothing else, Town realized they were in a part of the city where a large number of the homeless dwelled.  It was a rundown, abandoned area whose alleys and sidewalks were full of dirty men in ragged clothing, most toting a bottle of cheap liquor.

 

     Town parked his Jeep in a vacant spot across the street from the old storefront that was labeled, The St. Jude's Shelter For The Homeless.  He took one of A.J.'s pictures out of the box and a handful of flyers. 

 

     "I'll hit the streets if you wanna go talk to the folks in the shelter."

     Rick nodded his agreement as he slid out of the vehicle. 

 

     Town walked several blocks, but had little luck.  Most of the men he ran across were too drunk, or too stoned, or too mentally ill, to be of any help.  He finally found one wizened old man in an alley who seemed coherent enough, but he shook his head when Town showed him A.J.'s picture, and told the lieutenant he'd never seen the guy before.  Town left a flyer with the man like he'd done with so many other men in the past week, and asked him if he'd show it around.  The old man nodded, though Town imagined it would end up in a gutter in a few short minutes.

 

     Will watched as the lanky black man walked away from Beulah Land.  When he was out of sight, Will went in search of Malachi.

 

_______________

 

 

     Rick didn't have any better luck inside St. Jude's.  The receptionist that greeted him, whose nametag proclaimed her Mary Ellen, was a pleasant enough woman of about forty-five.  She studied A.J.'s picture longer than most people had whom Rick had encountered in recent days.

 

     "He's a very handsome man," she smiled up at Rick.  "I'm sure if I would have seen him here I'd remember, Mr. Simon.  But I only volunteer my time a day or two out of each month, depending on what activities my children have going.  If you'd like, I could leave the picture with Father Papanek.  He knows most of the men by name who use the shelter.  And there are a number of other volunteers who are here more frequently than I am. Perhaps one of them has seen your brother."

 

     Rick didn't know why the woman gave him hope.  Maybe it was just her sympathetic attitude and her willingness to help.  He took out one of his business cards and wrote the name of his motel, his room number, and the phone number on the back of it. 

 

"I can be reached here until at least ten o'clock Saturday morning.  Otherwise, I can be reached at the number in San Diego on the front of the card.  I'd really appreciate it if everyone who works here would take a look at that picture."

 

     Mary Ellen nodded.  She felt sorry for the man.  He looked exhausted and seemed so desperate.  "I'll make sure everyone does."  Mary Ellen glanced furtively over her shoulder.  "Although it's against the rules, you're welcome to make a fast trip downstairs.  Supper will be served in a little while.  A lot of the men are lined up waiting to eat.  Maybe you'll spot your brother in the crowd."

 

     "Thanks," Rick smiled.  "I really appreciate it.  And I'll make it quick like you said."

 

     Mary Ellen pointed the way to the stairs that led to the basement.  She returned to her work as though she never saw the tall man with the moustache walk by her.

 

     The din of voices led Rick to the cafeteria without any trouble.  Like Mary Ellen had said, men were lined up along its rough, concrete block walls, waiting to be served dinner.  Rick stood on the bottom step and carefully scanned all sixty faces.  His shoulders slumped in defeat.  He didn't know why he'd had his hopes up.  Maybe it was simply because Mary Ellen had been the first person he'd run across in days who seemed to care that he was searching for his brother. 

 

     Rick slowly climbed the stairs and made his way to the front door. 

 

     "No luck?"  Mary Ellen asked his retreating back.

 

     The detective turned long enough to offer her a small, sad smile of thanks.  "No.  No luck.  But thanks anyway."

 

     The door shut behind Rick just as Jack walked out of the kitchen carrying a deep tray of steaming chicken.  He sat the tray on a table bearing other trays of food, and indicated to the first man in line that he could start filling his plate. 
    

 

Chapter 18

 

Friday, February 26th, 1993

    

 

     Dominique arrived at St. Jude's a few minutes before ten, just like she did every Friday morning.  Her tote bag was stuffed with books for Jack.  She also had some good news she wanted to share with him as soon as she got settled.  Like she promised three weeks earlier, she had spoken to the supervisor of Mercy Hospital's kitchen staff.   The woman was suddenly down two employees and wanted to interview Jack as soon as possible. 

 

     The nurse's thoughts lingered on the blond man as she put her purse in a drawer of Father Papanek's desk, hung her jacket over the back of his chair, and sat her tote bag on the floor.  By looking around the room she knew Jack was somewhere in the shelter as well.  The blue backpack she had given him was sitting against the wall in a far corner. 

 

     Dominique had been thinking quite frequently in the past three weeks about her feelings for Jack.  In thinking about her feelings, she had come to the realization that she loved Jack, and not just in the way a person loves a good friend.  She loved him in the way a woman loves a man she wants to make a life with.  And Dominique had a strong suspicion Jack reciprocated her feelings in kind. 

 

     In the almost three weeks since their first night together, Dominique had invited Jack over for supper four times.  Each time he'd spent the night.  Their passion for one another only increased, each joining more special than the one before.  He was a skilled and attentive lover, never taking pleasure unless he was sure she had received it first. 

 

     Now, more often than not, Dominique spent her days asking herself some tough questions.  Had she crossed the line of professionalism when she, as a nurse, had fallen in love with one of her patients?  And one who was particularly vulnerable at that.  Did she really know what she was opening herself up for by nurturing a relationship with Jack?  On some days her mind scolded her vigorously.

 

     Dominique, are you nuts?  What in the world will your friends say?  Not to mention your parents.  Yes, Jack's a nice man, but you really don't know anything about him.  To most people he's nothing more than a vagrant.  A homeless man without the ability to earn a living.  He could be running from the law, for all you know.  Let's face it, the man denies knowing anything about his past.  Is he telling the truth?  For some...strange reason, does he really not know who he is and where he came from, or is he a sweet talking con artist?  Or are you taking advantage of him, and his willingness to shower you with undivided attention?  Apparently Jack has no one else in his life but you and Malachi.  What woman wouldn't want a man as handsome and thoughtful as Jack tending to her every need?

 

     Those questions and more plagued Dominique on a daily

basis.  But regardless of their persistence, Dominique couldn't stop herself from doing one thing.  She couldn't stop herself from loving Jack. She just hoped the love she gave him didn't ultimately hurt him, for Dominique had grown to realize that Jack had been hurt about as much as he could tolerate.  He'd been unusually quiet on and off since that day he picnicked at her parents’ home.  Dominique was beginning to think it had been a mistake to invite him.  She'd spent a lot of time since then wondering what memories of his own home and family had been stirred up by visiting hers.  Dominique even forced herself to ponder the possibility that he might have a wife and children somewhere.  She warned herself then, not to get too close.  Warned herself to keep her distance.  But she couldn't.  The attraction between herself and Jack was too strong.   She wondered if that attraction would someday be their downfall, or would it eventually sore to heights she didn't dare allow herself to dream possible?      

 

     Dominique pushed her muddled thoughts aside for the time being.  She had been praying for herself and Jack every single night.  She had to have faith that God would guide her in the right direction.  And speaking of God guiding her, she knew it was through His intervention that she now had this good news to share with Jack about the opening in the Mercy kitchen.  Although his quietness might hamper his interview somewhat, Dominique was confident her recommendation, as well as Father Papanek's, would get him hired.  She knew Jack would never give her reason to regret sticking her neck out for him.   

 

     Dominique opened Father's middle desk drawer in search of a pen and blank sheet of paper.  She intended to leave the priest a note, asking if he'd write a letter of recommendation for Jack as soon as possible.   

 

     When Dominique pulled out the yellow tablet something fell to the floor.  She picked up a small, white card with what looked to be a man's handwriting on the back listing the name of a motel, a phone number, and what she guessed was a room number.  Something was attached to the card with a paper clip.  She turned it over to see a handsome man smiling up at her.

 

     Dominique never knew exactly what it was that made her study that picture so long. Had she glanced at it briefly and tossed it aside she would have never known who he was.  But something about the man it contained caught her eye.   His hair was short and blond, the color of sun bleached oats.  His eyes were a startling shade of sky blue.  He was seated behind a wide desk wearing a plum colored dress shirt with a tie patterned in plum and gray.  A pair of suspenders that matched his tie rose up his broad chest and circled his shoulders.  By looking more closely, Dominique could tell a gray sport coat hung over the back of his tall chair.  Behind him was a row of windows that looked out over the sky, leading Dominique to believe he was in an office several floors above the ground.  Between the way he was dressed, and his striking good looks, he could have been a cover model for Gentlemen's Quarterly.  But beyond all those things, it was his wide dimpled smile that caught Dominique's attention. 

 

     Dominique tried in vain to still the sudden trembling of her hands. "Jack," she whispered at the smiling face. 

 

     The nurse unclipped the picture so she could read the front of the business card.

 

"Simon and Simon Investigations."  

 

Down in the lower left corner she saw the name, Andrew J. Simon.  In the right corner was the name, Richard L. Simon.  An office phone number was listed between both men's names.

 

     This was it.  The day Dominique had been dreading had finally arrived. Jack was in some kind of trouble, and these men on this card were looking for him.  Why else would private investigators be poking their noses around a shelter for the homeless?

 

     Dominique rushed down the hall to the receptionist's desk.  A thin, bird-like lady in her seventies was manning it today.

 

     "Grace, where did this picture come from?"

 

     The woman peered over the top of her bifocals.  "Oh, that.  Mary Ellen left it in Father Papanek's desk.  I meant to tell you about it.  She said a man came in here last night around supper time asking some questions."

 

     "Questions?  What questions?"

 

     Grace shrugged her bony shoulders.  "I haven't the foggiest notion.  You'll have to ask her.  She just mentioned the picture was in Father Frank's desk, and that we should all take a look at it.  I didn't recognize the man so I left it there."

 

     Dominique pulled open one of the desk's side drawers.  She frantically clawed through the items it contained.

     "What are you looking for, dear?"

 

     "Don't we have an address book around here some place that lists all the volunteers' home telephone numbers?  I want to call Mary Ellen."

 

     Grace opened a drawer on the opposite side of the desk.  "It's right here.  Do you want me to write it down for you?"

 

     "Please."  Dominique glanced around while she waited.  She didn't want Jack walking up behind her and catching her unaware.

 

     She took the slip of paper Grace handed her.  "Thanks, Grace.  And...uh...have you seen Jack this morning?"

 

     "I believe he's in the kitchen cleaning out the refrigerators and scouring the sink."  Grace looked off in the distance with a dreamy expression on her age-lined face.  "My, my, my, what I wouldn't give to have that man around my house for a few days, if you know what I mean."      The elderly lady returned her attention to Dominique.  "Do you want me to get him for you?"

 

     "No, no," Dominique shook her head.  "I'll catch up with him later.  Thank you."

 

     Dominique ran back to the office and shut the door behind her.  She prayed Mary Ellen would be home as she dialed her number.  The woman answered on the third ring.

 

     "Mary Ellen?  Hi.  It's Dominique Cascia."

 

     "Oh, Dominique, hello.  What can I do for you?"

     Dominique tried to sound nonchalant.  "Listen, I just ran across that picture you left in Father's desk.  You know, the one of the blond man?"

 

     "Yes?"

 

     "Can you tell me who it was that dropped that picture off here?"

 

     Mary Ellen Burnett was not destined for a life of crime, as her sins spewed forth like Holy water from a fountain.   

 

"Oh, Dominique, I'm so sorry.  I know I shouldn't have let him go to the cafeteria.  I know ever since those men got in that fight last year Father Frank said no one's to be down there who doesn't belong, but it's just that I felt so bad for him.  It was obvious he was beside himself with grief and worry.  I wouldn't have done it otherwise. Really I wouldn't have.   It's  just--"

 

     "Whoa, Mary Ellen, slow down.   Who did you let go to the cafeteria?"

     "The man who brought the picture in."

 

     "And just who did he say he was?"

 

     "I don't remember his name now, but I think it's on the front of the business card he left."

 

     Dominique flipped the card over.  "Andrew Simon?"

 

     "No, I'm sure that wasn't it."

 

     "Richard Simon?"

     "Yes, that's it!  He said his name was Rick Simon, and that he was looking for his brother."

 

     "And the blond man in the picture is supposedly his brother?"

 

     "Yes, that's what he said."

 

     "Did he say anything else? Anything at all?"

     "No, Dominique, he didn't.  He wasn't there very long, honest.  I did let him have a look in the cafeteria like I said, but he wasn't down there more than two minutes.  Oh, I hope Father's not upset with me."

 

     "No one's upset with you, Mary Ellen.  And don't worry, I won't tell Father Frank you let Mr. Simon have a look around."

 

     "Oh thank you, Dominique.  Thank you.  Oh...and, Dominique?"

 

     "Yes?"

 

     "I did think of one other thing Mr. Simon said.  He wrote the name of his motel on the back of the business card.  He said he can be reached there until ten o'clock on Saturday morning."

 

     "Thanks, Mary Ellen.  You've been a big help."

 

     Dominique hung up the phone and thrust her arms into her coat.  She still held the picture and card in her right hand as she sprinted for the door.  When she pulled it open she came face to face with Jack. 

 

     He smiled down at her.  "Grace said you were looking for me?"

     Dominique never had been a skilled liar.  She felt her cheeks grow hot and hoped her olive complexion hid her blush.  She slowly allowed her right hand to fall to her side.  As unobtrusively as she could, Dominique slipped it into her jacket pocket.  "I was, but I have to go out for a little while.  We can talk later."

 

     Amiably Jack agreed, "All right," as Dominique rushed past him.

 

     "I brought you some more books!" She called over her shoulder.  "They're in my tote bag by the desk."

 

     He smiled after her.  "Thanks."

 

     Dominique was forced to turn away from Jack and keep on running.  She didn't want to see the dimples, and the beautiful smile, that had identified him as the man in the picture.     

 

 

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