Love Conquers All


By: Kenda


Love Conquers All is an intense adult drama that includes adult situations and language.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~




June 1997


            He sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, the sand toasting his bare heels.  The man watched his children romp at the water's edge.  The girls squealed and shrieked, making a game out of playing tag with the incoming tide. They clasped hands and raced for the ocean, veering to the left at the last possible second to avoid getting their feet wet.  The seven-year-old led her four-year-old sister back up the beach.  They were giggling and panting for breath as they started the entire process over again, the older girl shouting, "One, two, three, go!"


            The two-year-old boy played far more sedately than his sisters, as was his nature.  He stood in sand made wet by the Pacific.  His pale brows scrunched in concentration as he scooped the thick muck into the red plastic bucket at his feet.  Every so often he'd stop what he was doing to watch his siblings, but never did he waver from his task.  His round, tan tummy ballooned out over the baggy blue swim trunks he wore.  The hem of the legs stopped just above full dimpled knees.


            The boy's father was happy to see the signs of returning baby fat.  The child had been sick on and off ever since he'd been born, though the local doctor was baffled as to what was wrong with him.  The trusted physician had finally concluded the boy had a ‘sensitive system,’ meaning his parents had to be cautious as to the foods he ate, and had to make certain he got a minimum of ten hours of sleep per night.  Recently, things were going better.  The child's father had studied everything he could get his hands on regarding allergies and the delicate digestive systems inherent to some young children.  He'd spent hundreds of hours on the Internet, a technology that was new to this isolated area, and had printed pages of medical information that proved helpful.  No prepackaged foods were allowed in the house any longer.  Everything the family ate was grown in untreated soil and prepared fresh with no chemical or preservative enhancements.   It had been just six weeks since they'd started the experiment, but so far it appeared to be working.  The toddler was regaining his health, and was no longer plagued by mysterious stomachaches that made him curl into a tight ball of misery and scream until he was too exhausted to voice his pain any longer.  The perpetual runny nose and fever had vanished, too, and for that the boy's father was grateful. He loved his daughters with all his heart; referred to them constantly as “my little dolls,” but with the birth of his male heir two years earlier, he'd come to discover how true it was that every man did indeed, want a son.


            As if he sensed he was being observed from afar, the tow-headed boy turned to look at his father.  A smile that outdid the afternoon sun spread across the cherubic face.  There was no doubt the father meant as much to the son as vice versa.  The boy's left wrist flapped up and down in an awkward wave.  Though the ocean breeze carried his words away, the father knew the child had said, "Daddy."   Not "Hi, Daddy," or "Bye, Daddy," but simply "Daddy," as though declaring to the world this was the most important person in his young life.


            The father smiled, mouthing, "Son," in return.  That one word held a wealth of emotion that caused the man to swallow down an unexpected lump in his throat.  Behind his sunglasses his light eyes shifted to his girls.  Just like his son was the spitting image of him, his four-year-old daughter was the spitting image of his wife.  Her honey-dew hair was bobbed to frame her round face, its thin strands constantly tangled by the ever-present Pacific winds.  She'd inherited her mother's eyes as well, gray with flecks of green that sometimes looked blue depending on the lighting of the room.  Mischief constantly shone from those expressive eyes, and in that respect she reminded the man of himself as a child.


            While his younger daughter was cute, his oldest daughter couldn't be called less than beautiful.  Her thick ivory hair fell to her waist, and her eyes were the color of a brand new pair of Levi's jeans.  Her arms and legs were long like his, her bone structure feminine and delicate. Her emotions forever played out on the heart-shaped face, its skin as clear and silky as a pitcher of cream.  She absorbed everything about the world around her, and then lovingly gave it all back.  She was a little mother to her siblings, making sure they brushed their teeth before going to bed and helping them pick up their toys without ever voicing a complaint.  She seemed to be possess a sixth sense where her younger brother was concerned, often announcing the toddler's likes and dislikes before the child himself could do so with a laugh, or cry, or stubbornly declared, "No!"


            Just like the man's sister had seemed to possess a sixth sense about him throughout their shared lives.


            Salt carried by the ocean breeze rained a refreshing mist over the man.  Nine years of casual living had almost made him indistinguishable from the natives.  His skin was dark bronze from the many hours he spent on this beach with his children.  His hair, once ivory hued like his oldest daughter's; was now bleached white from the sun.  He'd long ago adopted the relaxed atmosphere around him.  His mane grew to his shoulders, and something he'd never known he possessed sprung from that thick mass.  Curls.  Shaggy, pale curls that twisted like corkscrews and that no brush could tame.  His beard and moustache were white, too, though he preferred to keep his facial hair short and neatly trimmed.  Despite being the president of the company his semi-retired father-in-law owned on this island, he hadn't worn a suit and tie in years.  And he couldn't recall the last time his feet had been encased in shoes that weren't sandals, or didn't have the Nike logo on the side.


            All in all this South Pacific paradise called Kono had brought him a peace he never thought he'd again obtain.  Or perhaps it was the children who had tamed his soul.  Or maybe the millions of dollars he'd made in 1992, the year he convinced his father-in-law to turn this tropical haven into a pleasure port for those nine-to-fiver's who were always seeking a way to escape the grind of every day living.


             Expanding Emery Dalton's business from one of shipping empire to cruise line had been costly.  And beyond that, large amounts of money had gone to make this island the type of place vacationers would want to inhabit for a forty-eight hour stay when the Island Queen or the Sun Goddess docked at her shores. But, the upside to spending all that money was that now Emery Dalton and his son-in-law were getting it back ten fold.  Due to renovations funded by their capital, there was hardly a business or shop they didn't own.  Few islanders could be found who didn't work for them other than a handful of commercial fishermen.  Dalton, and more importantly his son-in-law, were considered heroes.  Revered as men who had turned this small dot on the map into a money machine.  Granted, some of the older people didn't like the changes tourism had brought.  But, so be it.  For the first time the youth of Kono were finding out what it meant to have money in their pockets and things to spend it on.  The new hospital, the video arcade, the grocery store with wide aisles and modern refrigeration system, the three screen cinema complex, the availability of satellite TV, and even the ability to hook up to the Internet, could be directly attributed to this man with the shaggy curls who could so easily be mistaken for one of the tourists his cruise ships brought in on a regular basis.  


            The sound of a woman's laughter caused him to turn his head.  Far down the beach a couple strolled hand in hand.  The copper headed lady gently bumped her body into her mate's, giving the impression she was on the receiving end of his teasing.   Without letting go of his hand, she scampered into the water, kicking a healthy chunk of the foam at him.  He cried out with mock indignation at the soaking his sunglasses and upper body endured, and then pulled her to him.  He held her close; kissing her full on the mouth for what seemed like an eternity, and for just that reason the observer pegged them as honeymooners recently disembarked from the Queen. 


            If the man hadn't taken off his sunglasses just long enough to wipe the water from the lenses with the hem of his shirt, the observer would have never recognized him.  Time had been kind to him, but then it usually was to those who possess what is often referred to as a ‘baby face.’ That face was leaner now; older, and even from this distance he could see that some gray streaked what once had been corn-silk blond hair.  The body that had been emaciated by injury the last time they'd been together was now filled out and healthy in appearance.  Still thin, but trim and hard muscled in a way that spoke of running, bike riding, and weight lifting.  The type of body other men pushing fifty years old would envy.  There was no trace of the old limp either, and if any other residual damage remained it was not readily apparent. 


            The honeymooners clasped hands once more and resumed their stroll.  They passed within twenty yards of him, stopping momentarily to observe his son at play.  The blue-eyed boy glanced up at the strangers, then returned his attention to his half full bucket of sand.


            They looked over at him, the woman cupping a hand atop her eyes to shade them from the bright sun.  She shouted to be heard over the roar of the surf.


            "Your little boy?"

            He nodded.     


            "He's cute!"


            He smiled with pride and thanked her with another mute nod.


            As the couple moved on, the unsuspecting man lifted a hand in a brief wave goodbye. The observer waved back, his lips curving into a cold smirk.  The feeling of power was awe-inspiring.  His nemesis had been delivered to him by one of his own ships, and the choice of whether that man got off this island alive was in his hands and his hands alone.


            The money, his children, and the passage of time, had caused means of revenge to become distant thoughts.  The daydreams about San Diego and the thoughts of unfinished business left behind there that he'd often submersed himself in when first arriving on Kono had long receded.  Until now.


            His eyes followed the couple until they were distant specks blending in with the horizon.  His thoughts were so far removed that he never heard his daughter's beckoning.  He glanced up when he felt his oldest child tugging on his elbow.


            "Daddy!  Daddy!"


            "What, princess?"


            "It's past Brooks' nap time.   Mommy will be mad if he doesn't get his rest.  You know what Doctor David said about that."


            In contrast to his dark thoughts from a moment earlier, the man reached out a gentle hand and ran it over the girl's soft cheek.  This beautiful child was so like her namesake it caused tears to burn under his lids.


            He cleared his throat, thankful that his sunglasses hid the sudden moisture swamping his eyes.  "You're right as always, princess.  Brooks needs his afternoon nap."  He pulled the child to him, hugging her thin body.  "My sweet little Troya," he whispered, looking down the beach at the back of the departing visitor.  "What would Daddy do without you?"


            Troya squirmed within the confines of her father's arms.  Sometimes his hugs were too tight.  She instinctively knew he would never hurt her; that he had nothing but tenderness and enormous love for her and her siblings.   But every so often he hugged her really, really hard, and pretended he wasn't crying even though she could tell by his voice that he was.  She never quite understood why her father singled her out like this.  She knew he loved Tiffany and Brooks just as much as he loved her, but she'd never seen him hold them and cry for no reason. 


            As always, the seven year old took charge of the situation when it appeared as though her father couldn't.   She squirmed again, pushing down on his arms in an effort to free herself.  "Let's go, Daddy.  We'd better get Brooks home or Mommy will come looking for us."


            The child's words shook the man from his thoughts.   He ran a ticklish hand over her ribs that caused her to squirm harder, then released her.


            "You're right, Mommy will come looking for us if we don't get Brooks home."  He made an exaggerated face of horror that caused his daughter to laugh.  "And heaven forbid that should happen.  We'll all be in trouble then, won't we?"


            "We sure will.  Mommy will ground us from the beach again for a whole day like she did last time we let Brooks skip his nap."


            The man leaned forward and kissed his daughter on the nose.  "Well, we sure don't want that to happen, now do we.  Okay then, get a move on, Lady Troya.  Have Tiffany help you gather up the towels and buckets then we'll head for home."


            Troya skirted off through the sand. "Tiffany!  Tiffany, help me pick up our stuff!  We havta' go home now!" 


            The man smiled at his daughter's back.  He pushed himself to his feet, brushed sand from the seat of his shorts, and headed for his son.  Five minutes later, with Brooks riding on his shoulders and his daughters walking along beside him each hanging onto a hand, Troy Andrews was headed for the hilltop mansion he called home.





            Later that night, in a secluded guesthouse on the other side of this 40 mile wide island, a woman screamed in pleasure as her lover pounded into her for the third time in an hour.  There was nothing she enjoyed more than rough, wild, dangerous sex with a guy so damn good looking he could have been a movie star.   She spread her legs wider, bringing them up to wrap them around his thrusting hips. 


            "Oh God," she moaned, arching her back as he bit her right breast hard enough to make the nipple bleed.  "Oh God, yes!  Yes!"


            Sex with this man had always been a cosmic experience, but tonight it outdid a thousand falling stars.  He'd literally ripped her clothes off the minute he'd entered the posh bungalow, not giving a word of explanation when his tongue plundered the softness of her mouth.  Somehow he divested himself of his own clothing without removing his mouth from her ripe breasts.  Without asking if she was ready, without checking first to see if she was ready, he lifted her lithe form to his waist and plunged inside.  Because they were kindred souls in their taste for violence, her body was more than willing to accept him.  He spun them around, leaning her against the white stucco wall for support.  She rode him like an untamed stallion, never caring that the rough plaster of the wall was tearing open the flesh on her back.  She thought their wild ride would never end, and howled in pleasure when she finally felt his sperm scald her insides.


            They were sprawled out on the floor now amidst scattering clothing, a tangle of legs and arms bumping and grinding.  She looked up at his face to see his eyes squeezed shut as though he was fantasizing about another place and time.  In rhythm with his thrusting hips her, lover chanted,  "I'll kill him.  I'll kill him.  Someday I'll kill him.  I'll kill him.  I'll kill him.  Someday I'll kill him."


            She had no idea what his murmurings were about, but it was obvious his words excited him in a way she'd never seen during the twelve months she'd been his mistress.  His penis was hard and angry, the sex brutal and unforgiving just like she loved it.   She drew him in as deep as she could, unconsciously picking up the chant right along with him.  Their bucking bodies reached orgasm as one.  He spasmed inside her for what seemed like ages before collapsing on the floor next to her.


            After all the moaning and groaning and screaming and cursing, the night time sounds of the island that drifted in through the window screens seemed almost sacred.  The call of the cicadas, the hum of the crickets, and the occasional squawk of a parrot blended with her lover's breathless pants.  Like a racehorse lathered by a straight-away sprint, sweat coated his chest, back, and brow.  She turned on her side and ran a tender hand through his shaggy curls. 


            "I don't know where you got your inspiration from tonight, but please bring it back again tomorrow night."


            Tad Brooks chuckled and rose on an elbow.  He plundered the woman's mouth with his tongue as though they hadn't just made love three times.  Her beauty was so rich and wanton it gave off an almost evil aura, in turn fueling the evil within him.  He ran his hands through the wild tangle of her amber waves, his feeling of power increasing as he held her mouth to his even while she struggled to pull away.  When Tad finally released his lover her lips were bruised and swollen, the lower one bleeding from his rough treatment.   He felt no shame at the sight; she'd long ago shown him she thrived on the brutality.


            For all his mistreatment of her a moment before he now caressed one of her raw, tender nipples with his thumb.  "I saw a man today I haven't seen in many years.  A man I haven't thought of in many years.  I realized what a mistake that's been.  Not thinking of him, I mean.  He took a great deal of happiness from me.  And when the time is right, I will take a great deal of happiness from him."


            "And when will the time be right?"


            "To kill him, you mean?"

            Her eyes lit up and the flesh between her legs rippled with excitement.  Taking a human life wasn't foreign to her and her lover knew that.  "Yes.  To kill him.  When will the time be right?"


            "I haven't decided yet."


            Tad urged her head down toward his hardening penis.  She resisted at first. He well knew her appetite for oral sex didn't match his.  He yanked a handful of her hair and pushed harder on her neck, not caring when she cried out in pain.  Sometimes she needed to be reminded of who was in charge of this relationship.


            When the woman finally started servicing her lover he arched his back and moaned, his dark thoughts more of an aphrodisiac than her skilled mouth ever could be.


            "I haven't decided yet when I'm going to kill A. J. Simon.  But mark my words, my beautiful temptress, when the day comes you'll be the first to know."        




            Out in the darkness a man slipped away from the open window of the bungalow. A frown of disapproval tugged at the corners of his mouth.  He treaded silently, using the moonlight for guidance until the lush foliage of the island jungle swallowed him up.




Chapter 1


One Year Later


June 1998


            The twenty-three year old man stood in front of the bathroom mirror running a razor over his skull like he did before sunrise every Saturday morning.  His hair was thick and grew back quickly, thus the need to shear it on a weekly basis.


            His mother had been mortified the first time she caught sight of his new look.  Admittedly, it dramatically changed his appearance.  His long-time girlfriend, Courtney, hadn't been approving either.  Not to mention what his sixteen-year-old sister had to say about it, which far surpassed his mother's and Courtney's objections in both its intensity and no-holds-barred honesty.  


            He padded barefoot from the bathroom in nothing but his boxer shorts.  The coolness of the hardwood floors chilled his bare feet as he walked through the enormous living room with its forty foot high beamed ceilings.  The room flowed as one into the kitchen, the entire area spanning sixty feet in length and thirty feet in width.  His 'bachelor pad' was nothing more than an old warehouse some enterprising businessman had purchased and converted into unique apartments much sought-after by the twenty-something set.  Not a stray coffee cup or newspaper littered the gigantic space. He entered his bedroom, that room as well so neat and precise it could have passed a drill sergeant's inspection.


            He'd always been considered a bright young man. Straight A's and a driving ambition in high school had allowed him to begin taking college courses when he was just sixteen.  He'd graduated from the University Of Southern California-San Diego at the age of twenty, and had been out of his mother's house and living on his own since then.  This one bedroom apartment was merely a brief stopping point.  Six months from now, on Christmas Eve, he planned to ask Courtney to a marry him.  He'd already purchased the ring and had it hidden away in a dresser drawer.  The dark-headed beauty who had caught his eye their sophomore year of high school had just graduated in May from UCSD with a combined degree in business management and computer science.  She'd started a job two weeks earlier that promised quick advancement and good pay.  He'd been working full-time since he graduated as well, and had packed away quite a nest egg for himself.  He thought if they set the wedding date for October of 1999, that he and Courtney would be able to buy a house as a gift to each other.     


            Courtney was still living with her mom and dad, though not by her choice.  She'd been hinting quite strongly about wanting to move in with him since she'd obtained her degree and was no longer subject to parents’ whims and ways, but so far he'd put her off.  There were parts of his life she couldn't be privy to.  At least not now.  Maybe later, when they were engaged, she'd have to know.  But at the moment she'd never understand.  She'd never understand, and he had no doubt she'd terminate their relationship because of his activities.


            He opened his closet door and reached as far in the back as he could.  He pulled out a hanger and took from it a pair of khaki colored cargo pants and a camouflage shirt.  He tossed the clothes on his bed, returned the hanger to its proper place, then bent and again felt for the rear corner of the closet.  When he emerged he was holding a pair of heavy black storm-troopers boots. 


            He walked over to the bed and slipped the pants on his trim form. The loose fitting shirt went on next, effectively covering well-muscled biceps and a broad chest.  Khaki socks were pulled from a dresser drawer and pulled on his feet, the boots were laced up last. 


            The young man exited his room.  No matter how soft he stepped the boots made a dull thudding sound against the floorboards.  He hoped he didn't wake Jennifer and Scott, the tenants below him. 


            He trotted up the wooden staircase that started in his living room, taking the steps two at a time.  The loft above him covered the exact length as the living area below, but was not quite half as wide.  The ceiling beams that ran from the loft through the living room were another twenty feet above him.  So far he'd kept his girlfriend, mother, and sister from coming up here by claiming it was a mess.  He'd told them it was filled with nothing of interest, just his weight bench, bar bell, cardboard boxes, and other clutter he'd brought from his bedroom at home that he had no place or use for at the current time.  


            But the loft wasn't a mess, or filled with useless clutter.  In fact, it was as neat and clean as the rest of his apartment.  He'd never been a slob.  Not even as a boy. It didn't fit his nature. 


            From the living room floor below a visitor could get a glimpse of his weight bench and the bar bell that hung over it.  Everything else was secreted in the far recesses of the loft making the testimony to his newfound hobby impossible for anyone looking up from the living room to see. 


            Pictures from magazines hung on two walls forming a montage of all that was evil about this century.  Men in white hoods stood watching a cross burn in Mississippi circa 1950.  A black man with a rope around his neck swung from a tree in another photo, the verbiage underneath the grainy image identifying it as a Texas lynching in 1924.  A group of spindly-limbed children dressed in rags and with shaved heads marched toward an Auschwitz gas chamber.  Adolph Hitler stood stiffly above a Munich crowd, right arm extended in the salute he'd become famous for.


            The young man turned and faced a corner.  A gigantic blood red flag hung in a stand.  Two black Z's crossed one another on the flag's surface. 


            The twenty-three year old got down on his knees in front of the flag.  He bowed his head, laced his fingers together, and cupped his hands over his beating heart.   What he was praying for was hard to tell, but slowly he lifted his head and stared up at the swastikas.  Because it was so important to be in the right frame of mind, Brendan Nash's right arm jutted from his body.   In a soft voice he said,  "Hail Hitler."



Chapter 2


            A.J. Simon stood at his kitchen counter slathering grape jelly over peanut butter that had already been spread on white bread.  Though this cuisine was far from being his personal favorite, the two boys whom he thought of as his sons loved it.


            One year earlier, on June 21, 1997, the blond detective had married Lauren McAllister Albright.  He'd begun dating the woman shortly after returning to San Diego from Seattle in 1995.  Their love and commitment to one another had blossomed over the next two years.  Because both of them were scarred survivors of first marriages that had ended in divorce, neither was in a hurry to tie the knot a second time.  But when it came to the point they were spending more time together than apart, and with a lot of not-so-subtle urging from Lauren's young sons, Shane and Tanner, the couple decided they wanted to face the future as husband and wife.


            By A.J. and Lauren's own choosing the ceremony had been casual and unpretentious.  The guest list was small, with only a handful of close family and friends invited.  Rick was his brother's best man, just like he was when A.J. and Janet Fowler had married seven years earlier.  This time A.J. had two additional groomsmen, however.  Five-year-old Tanner and seven-year-old Shane stood tall and proud in white trousers, white shirts, and festive vests brocaded with silver and blue.  The twin grins they wore threatened to split their faces in two as they watched their maternal grandfather walk their mother down the dock and up onto the deck of Rick's boat.  The vessel was adorned with streamers, wedding bells, and banners proclaiming good wishes to the about-to-be-married couple.  Even Rick's golden retriever, Rex, came dressed for the occasion. His collar had been replaced with a black bow tie, a black top hat sat perched on his head, and a sign hung from his neck that read, Congratulations A.J. and Lauren. When the minister pronounced their mother and A.J. husband and wife, Shane and Tanner whooped for joy and tossed birdseed on the newlyweds.


            The houseboat set sail fifteen minutes after the ceremony ended with twenty-five guests aboard.  With help from a caterer hired by the newlyweds, Captain Rick provided a magnificent sunset dinner cruise that was talked about for days to come.  Shane and Tanner spent most of that cruise glued to their new stepfather's side, which came as a surprise to no one. The boys had adored A.J. since the first night their mother went out with him, and in turn, A.J. loved them as much as he could love any children of his own. 


             Like all parties Captain Rick hosted, this one lasted long into the night.  Shane and Tanner remained behind on the docked boat with their favorite new uncle when the other guests departed at one a.m.  The newlyweds returned to the house on the Grand Canal alone.  They made love far into the morning hours, not caring that they were due to sail from San Diego harbor at eight a.m. on the Island Queen.  Their honeymoon promised to be relaxing and restful.  There would be plenty of time to catch up on sleep while the ship glided over the high seas.


            A.J. and Lauren had returned home ten glorious days later.  They quickly settled into the routine of working parents who also shared custody of their children with another couple.


            Lauren and her first husband, Robert Albright, had divorced when their sons were just one and three years old.  Ever since that time the boys had spent one week with their father in his home, then the next week with their mother in hers.  Perhaps if they'd been older when the divorce occurred this arrangement would have been difficult for them, but because of their young ages they didn't remember any other lifestyle than this one that literally gave them two places they called home.  Their father had since remarried, and the relationship the boys had with their stepmother, Kathy, was as amiable as the relationship they had with A.J.  They also shared their father's home with a seventeen-year-old stepsister, Erin.  Other than the typical sibling bickering and teasing, the boys and Erin got along fine.  A.J. attributed this full-circle harmony directly to Rob and Lauren.   Regardless of what disagreements had brought them to divorce, they had worked hard in the intervening years to give Shane and Tanner two stable, consistent environments when it came to both love and discipline.  The expectations in their father's household translated to the same expectations in their mother's.  The boys weren't put in the middle by battling parents, nor were they kept in a constant state of confusion over what rules they were to abide by in what household.   Though A.J. and Rob didn't know one another well enough to consider themselves friends, they didn't compete with one another for the boys' affection, either.  They were both secure in their roles as father and stepfather, and respected the influences each brought to the children's lives.  


            Lauren had filled the dishwasher with the dirty breakfast dishes that morning before retreating to the master bedroom to get ready for work.  The appliance cycled in the background as A.J. reached in an overhead cabinet for the plastic sandwich bags.  He heard a vehicle pull in his driveway, then booted feet on the wooden walkway that led to the kitchen door.  He didn't need to glance up from his work to know who had just entered his home.


            "Mornin', little brother."


            Rick headed straight for the mug tree.  He grabbed a cup off one of the metal spools and filled it with ebony liquid from the coffee maker. 


            A.J. didn't stop his flow of work. "Good morning."  He slapped at a questing hand, but wasn't quick enough to prevent a sandwich from being snatched up.


            "Hey!  Put that back!"


            "Oh, come on, A.J., give a guy a break!  I'm hungry."


            "Why didn't you eat breakfast?"


            "No time," Rick said around a mouthful of peanut butter.  Before A.J. could stop him, the oldest Simon brother pilfered two cookies and a banana to round out his morning meal.


            "And just what all-important worldly causes were keeping you from the kitchen table?"


            Rick waggled his eyebrows.  "Nancy."


            "Oh, I see."


            "Yeah, so except for the skipping breakfast part, I guess you could say my day started off on the right foot."


            A.J. snickered while thinking of the buxom, full-figured brunette who had been Rick's steady girlfriend for five years.  "Yes, I can quite imagine that it did."


            Before any further conversation could take place two sets of feet pounded down the stairs.  The boys' faces lit up with delight when they emerged into the den and caught sight of their visitor.


            "Hey, Rick!"


            "Hi, Rick!"


            "Hey, guys!"


            Eight-year-old Shane and six-year-old Tanner bounded into the kitchen.  A.J.'s pudgy basset hound, Toby, waddled along behind.  He plopped his round body down in front of the French doors where he immediately fell asleep on sun drenched carpeting.


            In what was obviously a long practiced routine the boys turned, presenting their backpacks to A.J.  He questioned them as to whether or not they'd brushed their teeth, made their beds, taken Toby for his morning walk, and had all their homework included in their packs.  Rick smiled as he listened to his brother's recitation.   Shane's dutiful responses came back as "Yes, yes, yes," and "yes."   Tanner, on the other hand, rolled his eyes, and in a voice wrought with long-suffering moaned,  "A.J., why do you ask us these same questions every single morning?"


            A.J. reached out with a thumb and forefinger to lightly pinch the freckled nose.  "Because when I came home one evening and found two unmade beds, plus discovered Toby had done his business on the living room carpeting, I realized you needed to be asked these same questions every single morning."


            Ever the comedian, Tanner heaved a dramatic sigh.  "Oh, A.J., you have a memory like an elephant."


            Rick's full mouth caused him to choke on his laughter.  When A.J. shot him a look that told him not to encourage the child, Rick sputtered, "Well, he's right.  You do have a memory like a godda--"




            "Gosh darn elephant,"  Rick swiftly amended.


            "An affliction that's never plagued you, that's for certain.  It amazes me on some mornings that you remember to put both of your boots on."


            The boys giggled, taking great pleasure from seeing Rick and A.J. bicker with one another just like they themselves sometimes bickered with each other.  The blond detective placed a lunch bag in the auburn headed Shane's pack and then zipped it closed.  To the red headed Tanner he said, "I'll have yours ready in a second, sport.  It was finished, but someone whom I shall leave nameless decided your lunch looked like it would make a good breakfast."


            Tanner wagged a teasing finger up at Rick.  "Naughty, naughty, naughty."


            Rick ruffled the boy's hair as he peeled the banana and took a bite.  "You bet, red.  Naughty to the core."


            "Who's naughty to the core?"   Lauren asked, rounding the wall from the stairs with briefcase, high heels, and purse in hand.


            Tanner was all too happy to supply, "Rick."


            With good humor Lauren intoned,  "Now why doesn't that answer surprise me?" 


            The vivacious copper headed forty-year-old was the marketing director for the city of San Diego.  It was through her work that she uncovered information about the little-known cruise line she and A.J. had honeymooned on.  They'd had a wonderful time.  The ship couldn't have been any more elegant, nor her crew more attentive to the needs of her passengers.  What made this cruise different from most was that its route took them to islands not traveled by other ship lines.  They were able to enjoy the natural beauty of these tropical spots without standing elbow to elbow with throngs of other vacationers.  Lauren got enough of that type of living in San Diego, she didn't want to partake in it when she got the opportunity to get out of the city for a few days.


            The second-time bride couldn't have been more in love with her blond husband, nor happier than she was in her marriage.  She and Rick had been good friends since the first day they'd met, and she thought of Cecilia as a second mother.  In turn, Lauren's family adored A.J. just as much as her sons did.  He got along well with Lauren's younger sister Lisa, and her husband Jeff, had a good relationship with Lauren's mother Annette, and he played tennis once a week with Lauren's sixty-three year old father.  Several times in the past year Virgil McAllister had pulled his eldest aside and whispered,  "You should have found this one the first time around, peaches."


            "I know, Dad," Lauren would agree.  "But you know the old saying, sometimes you have to save the best for last."


            Lauren set her briefcase and purse on the counter top by the stove. She struggled to bend and slip her shoes on her feet while A.J. put together another lunch for Tanner.  He glanced over his shoulder.


            "Don't you think those heels are a little high?"


            "A.J., I have three meetings today.  I can't possibly wear flats with a business suit.  Not even with a maternity business suit.  It looks unprofessional."

            "I just don't want you tripping and falling.  You might hurt yourself."

            "Sweetheart, on my honor, I swear I have never heard of a pregnant woman doing more than twisting an ankle if she trips wearing high heels.  Besides, I have a pair of tennis shoes at the office.  I'll put them on in-between meetings if it will make you happy."


            A.J. patted his wife on the stomach that protruded like a beach ball that had been blown to half its girth.  At seven months pregnant with their first child, the five foot eight inch Lauren was still blessed with a slender figure in every place but around her middle. 


            "Yes, that will make me happy."  The blond man bent over and cupped a hand against Lauren's belly.  "And it will make you happy, too, won't it, junior?"


            Lauren laughed at her husband while running a hand through his hair.  His love for this as yet unborn baby ran so deep it sometimes brought tears to her eyes. 


            "What if junior is a juniorette?"  She teased.


            "That'll be fine," A.J. smiled as he stood up straight.  "I'm not picky.  Boy or girl, there's no way you can disappoint me, Mrs. Simon."


            "Well, I'll be disappointed if it's a dumb old girl," Tanner said.  "Besides, Rick said if you hang upside down with a frog in your pocket when the moon is full and kiss your wife three times fast you're sure to have a boy.  And if you wanna girl then you have ta'--

            A hand shot out to cover the boy's mouth.  "Never mind what I said about that, pardner."


            Tanner squirmed his face from underneath Rick's grasp.  "So I wanna know, A.J.  Did you hang upside down with a frog in your pocket and kiss Mom three times fast?  I sure hope so, 'cause I wanna little brother."


            Lauren had to turn away to hide her laughter at her son's words, her husband's red face, and her brother-in-law's sheepish expression.


            Through gritted teeth A.J. said, "The only person who's going to be hanging upside down around here, Tanner, is Rick."   


            Rick was grateful the subject was dropped when A.J. deposited Tanner's lunch in his X-Men backpack and zipped it closed.  Rick had a feeling this was only a temporary reprieve, however.  The oldest Simon brother had no doubt he was going to hear about his version of human biology as told to a six year old at a later date.  He watched as his brother handed Lauren a paper bag.


            "What's this?"  The woman asked.

            "An apple, a banana, and a pint of milk.  The apple's for your morning break, the banana for your afternoon one.  I don't care when you drink the milk, but make sure you do.  Don't bring it back home like you did yesterday.  The doctor said you need to continue to increase your calcium intake until the baby comes."

            Lauren gave an affectionate roll of her eyes in Rick's direction.  He winked at her in return. 


            "You know my brother, he's not happy unless he's taking care of someone."


            "Then I guess that makes us both pretty lucky doesn't it, Rick." Lauren accepted the lunch bag and kissed her husband on the mouth.  "Have a good day."


            "I will.  You too."


            The woman gave Rick a peck on the cheek and then gathered up her children.  "Tell Rick and A.J. goodbye.  We have to get a move on."


            When the boys lived with their father they were close enough to walk to their public grade school.  Before Lauren and A.J. had married, Lauren had a condominium within walking distance of the school as well.  A.J.'s home was not in that school district, however, therefore when the boys were with their mother someone had to drive them to and from school.  In August they'd get a break from the routine for three weeks.  Like many Southern California schools, the one the boys attended held classes year round.  Short vacations spanning three weeks were given at the end of every three months of attendance.  Although A.J. had found that odd at first, as opposed to the traditional summer vacation he'd been used to during his school years, he was beginning to see how beneficial it was.  Not only was the learning process enhanced because it wasn't interrupted by a ninety day break, but this schedule was also a great help to working parents.  Between A.J. and Lauren, and Rob and Kathy, someone was always able to take vacation time from work that coincided with the boys' school vacations.  And, in the rare event there was a day a babysitter was required, two sets of grandparents and Cecilia, who the boys affectionately referred to as Grandma C., were always willing to make themselves available.


            The boys hiked their backpacks firmly on their shoulders and said their goodbyes.  Tanner, the more openly affectionate of the two, gave Rick a hug around the waist and A.J. a kiss on the mouth that the detective returned with one of his own.


            "Have a good day!"  A.J. called after both children as they scampered through the den toward the door that led to the garage.            


            "We will!"  Shane yelled in return.  The boy turned and backpedaled the rest of the way out of the house.  "And hey, A.J., don't forget you were gonna help me with my pitching when you get home tonight."


            "I won't forget."  A.J. promised.


            The blond man heard the rear panel door slide open on Lauren's dark blue Dodge mini-van, accompanied by the usual morning argument over who was going to sit where within the vehicle.  Before the dispute was settled the door was slammed shut, cutting off the boys' words.          


             Lauren plucked her purse and briefcase off the counter top.  "Will you be leaving the office early enough to get the boys from after-school club, or should I plan to?" 


            "You'd better plan to.  Rick and I have a meeting scheduled for three.  I have no idea whether we'll be done by five or not."


            "Sounds like an important client."


            Rick licked the last of the grape jelly from his fingers, deposited his banana peel in the garbage, then turned to rinse his mug out in the sink.  "The FBI."


            "The who?"


            "FBI, believe it or not.  Some dude calls us yesterday afternoon and says he wants ta' meet with us today."


            "Whatever for?"

            "Don't know."  Rick placed his mug in the drainer before turning to face Lauren again. "Wouldn't say."


            "I hope it doesn't involve anything that could be dangerous."


            A.J. shot his brother a dirty look.  This is exactly why he hadn't told his wife about the evasive phone call they'd received the previous afternoon.


            "Whoops," Rick covered his mouth with a hand.  "Guess I said too much, huh?"


            "When don't you?"   A.J. shot back.  He kissed Lauren on the cheek.  "I'm sure it's nothing.  Probably background info they want on someone we've dealt with in the past.  I highly doubt it's anything to worry over."


            "Yeah, it's probably nothing to get worried about," Rick reiterated as they all walked out to the garage together.  "After all, what would the FBI want with a couple of small-time P.I.'s like me and A.J.?"


Chapter 3



            The three-year-old lay on his side on the bed with his knees drawn up to his chest.  He rocked his little body back and forth, his agonized screams echoing off the jungle green walls.   Not even the colorful African animals his mother had stenciled all around the room could draw the boy's attention from his pain.


            The island's doctor sat on the edge of Brooks' bed.  He pulled the pajama bottoms down enough to expose a pale thin buttocks cheek.  If the insertion of the needle brought the boy any further discomfort it was hard to tell.  His screams didn't stop until the pain-relieving sedative took effect.


            When the blond child had fallen into a deep, drug induced sleep the dark headed man stood.  He stroked a hand over his goatee while heaving a sigh.  He refused to meet the stormy eyes of the boy's father.  He knew they'd only engage in the same battle they'd been waging for the past six months.  He crossed over to the child's dresser and removed the stethoscope from around his neck.  He carefully folded it and placed it in his black doctor's bag.  The needle he had used went in a plastic vile and would be disposed of when he returned to the hospital.  He snapped the bag shut and lifted it by its handles.  Because he couldn't put it off any longer, he turned and faced the man he considered to be a good friend.


            The blond demanded answers with just one word.  "Well?"

            "I can't tell you anything I haven't been telling you since Christmas, Troy."


            "And I told you that's not possible."


            "Then I'll ask again.  Why?"


            "David, our friendship goes back many years, since the day I came to this island.  I'm the one who funded the building of the hospital you now work out of.  I'm the one who bought every piece of equipment you told me you needed.  And, in turn, you've delivered all my children and cared for them when they're sick with as much concern as if they were your own. But there's some things even friendship precludes."


            "And is the life of your son one of those things?"


            Troy looked down at his beloved boy.  The experimental diet that had seemed to bring renewed health last summer had done nothing but fail in the end.  Six months earlier Brooks' health had started to decline again.  The mysterious stomachaches and fevers had returned.


            "I will do anything for my son and you know it."


            "Then get him to the States, Troy.  Get him admitted to a children's hospital.  I can make some phone calls to hurry the process along.  I've told you time and time again, I don't know what's wrong with Brooks.  Whatever it is might not even be that serious.  But for God's sake, man, you can see that he's wasting away before your very eyes.  Since Christmas he's been sick more than he's been healthy.  He's too young to withstand this type of hardship.  He can't afford to lose any more weight.  You've got to get him to a facility that can run tests far beyond what I'm capable of doing here on this island."


            "How about flying someone in?"


            "Pardon me?"

            "Flying someone in.  A doctor.  A pediatrician.  A specialist of some sort.  You know I have the money to offer him or her whatever is necessary."


            "I realize that, but without having a better idea as to the scope of Brooks' problems, I wouldn't even know who to call.  Medicine, especially pediatric medicine, is so specialized these days that first and foremost a team of doctors needs to pinpoint what's wrong with him.  It doesn't matter who we fly here, he or she will be lacking the same things I am to make a correct diagnosis."


            "What do you think it is?"


            "Troy, we've been over this before.  I suspect, with his constant stomachaches, it's an obstruction of the bowel.  But it could be a lot of things."


            "Like what?"


            "Like all the things we've talked of since Christmas."


            The blond man turned away, thinking of all the possibilities they'd discussed.  Everything from leukemia, to colitis, to diseases so rare and obscure most people had never heard of them.


            "All I know for certain is if you don't do what I advise you may well be signing your son's death warrant."


            Troy whipped around.  "I am not signing my son's death warrant, do you hear me?  This child is not going to die!"


            "He very likely may if you don't do something and do it quick.  Look, I have a friend in Nashville who specialized in pediatric medicine.  Let me give him a call and--"


            "See if he can come here."


            "I already told you it would be best if--"


            "And I already told you that's not possible!"


            "Why?" David's next questions were blunt and straightforward.  "Is there a reason why you can't return to the States?  Are you running from the law?"

            "No, I'm not running from the law!"  Troy shoved a hand through his shaggy curls.  A lengthy silence filled the room as the man paced between a giant rocking giraffe and a four foot tall stuffed lion.  "But yes, there's a reason why I can't return to the States."


            "And that reason is?"


            Troy hesitated before finally making a quiet admission.


            "I witnessed a crime there ten years ago.  If I return, my life and the lives of my family would be in grave danger."


            There was a long pause.


            "Does Hillary know this?"

            "No.  No one does.  And I don't intend on telling Hillary, so you'd better not either."


            "Quite frankly, Troy, this comes as a shock. Can you tell me more about it?"


            "Just that I'm in the FBI's witness protection program.  Have you heard of it?"


            "I have vague knowledge of it.  That's where they spirit you away, change your identity, and hope to God they can keep you safe for the rest of your life in exchange for your testimony."


            "You hit the nail right on the head.  The crime I was horrid.  A tragic and brutal murder.  A beautiful...truly beautiful woman lost her life. The memory of it still haunts me to this day. The scum involved, two brothers, - they're bad news.  Real bad news.  Cold blooded murdering sonsuvabitches both of them.  That's in large part why I came to live on this obscure piece of ground.  It's one of the few places the feds thought I'd be safe."


            "Can you contact them?"


            "The feds?"




            "About Brooks, you mean?"




            "I...I suppose I could.  I don't know.  I've never had to get in touch with them before.  I don't know for sure that they'd be willing to help.  It's been a decade since I came here.  I'm not certain how far they'll go to offer me assistance now."


            "If it would be of a help, I'll talk to them with you.  Explain about Brooks and why I think it's imperative he be flown to the States."


            I'll see what I can do," Troy nodded.  "Make some phone calls and such.  I'll let you know."


            "All right, just do it soon."  The doctor glanced down at the slumbering boy.  "I have a bad feeling about us waiting on this issue for any great length of time."


            Troy stepped over to the bed.  He fought back tears as he ran his fingertips through his son's pale locks.  "I know.  I have a bad feeling about it, too."


            The doctor moved to exit the room. 




            The man turned.


            "What I told you...about my past?  That's just between you and me.  No one else knows.  No one else can know.  If the secret got out it could put Hillary and the children in great peril.  You understand that, don't you?"

            "Yes, Troy, I understand.  Believe me, I won't tell a soul."


            "Thank you."  Troy laid a hand on the man's shoulder.  "You're a good friend, David."


            Troy led the doctor down the wide staircase to where an overwrought Hillary was waiting with her father in the living room. Neither man saw eight-year-old Troya slip from the curve of the hallway and into Brooks' room.  She perched on the edge of the toddler's bed.  Like the little mother she was, she ran a hand down the boy's clammy cheek, stroking back and forth in comforting rhythm.


            "Don't worry, Brooks, you're going to get better, she whispered.  "Daddy's going to get help.  He knows someone at the FBI.  I don't know what FBI stands for, but I know they're real important policemen in America.  Mommy and Daddy were born there, you know.  In America.  That makes us Americans, too.  Daddy's from Minnesota and Mommy's from New York.  Mommy showed me those places on the map.  Maybe we'll be taking a trip to America soon so you can get better."


            The little girl's concern about Brooks was overshadowed by the exciting secret she'd just learned.  Her daddy had witnessed a crime a long time ago in the United States.  She wondered if he was a hero.  She was sure he must be.  He was so brave and strong.  He carried both her and Tiffany on his shoulders, while at the same time Brooks clung to his back like a little monkey.  And Daddy always chased the centipedes and spiders out of their house that were forever scaring Mommy and their maid, Aziah.  He was never afraid when the violent tropical storms of October blew in, and he hadn't even jumped that time a poisonous snake slithered out of a packing crate in his office.  He'd simply swooped Troya up into one arm while grabbing one of Grandpa Dalton's machetes with his free hand.  With one clean swipe he'd beheaded the offending reptile.  Daddy took care of all of them, and promised Troya night after night when he tucked her in bed that he always would.  


            Troya covered her brother more securely with his blanket.  She stood on her tiptoes and reached into the fishing net that hung above his bed.   Brooks loved animals and had a vast collection of stuffed toys.  His chimpanzee, Charlie, was his favorite.  Troya placed the beloved monkey next to her brother, bent and kissed Brooks’ temple, then slipped from the room.  Unlike her younger sister Tiffany, she knew how to keep a secret.  She had heard her father tell Doctor David that no one could know he witnessed that crime committed by those two bad men.  She wouldn't tell anyone.  Not her mother, or her best friend, Neesha, nor her beloved Grandpa Dalton, or even her special friend who came to visit every so often that no one knew about except Troya and her daddy.  Though maybe it would be an exciting story to share with her pen pal.


            Troya's teacher at the island school had acquired pen pals from the United States for every one of the pupils regardless of grade level.  The woman thought it would be a good cultural exchange for all involved. Young Troya hadn't been too happy when her pen pal turned out to be an eight-year-old boy, but she'd made the best of it.  Like most boys, he was always bragging.  Always yapping on and on in his letters about his stepfather and uncle.  About how they were heroes and solved crimes and put bad men in jail.  She didn't believe half of what he said.  But now she sure had a story to tell him, didn't she.  And the neat thing about it was, this story was true.  Her father was a hero, too, and that boy was going to be told all about it in her very next letter.  He could make up fibs about his wonderful stepfather for a million years, but he'd never be able to top what Troya's father had done.


            Troya went into the pale blue corner bedroom that was hers.  Her mother's artwork was evident in here as well.  Troya loved everything about the ocean. The seashells, starfish, and seahorses Hillary had painted on the walls were a reflection of that passion. 


            The eight-year-old sat at the white desk that was positioned so she could look out the long wide window that faced the Pacific.  She pulled a writing tablet from a drawer and in her neatest hand  she began.




Dear Shane,


My father is an even BIGGER hero than your stepfather.  So big that he's in something the FBI has that’s called the witniss protection club.  A long time ago in America he saw two meen brothers kill a beautifal lady.  She was very pretty.  I think maybe my daddy was in love with her.       



Chapter 4


            It came as no surprise to Rick when a firm knock sounded on the Simon and Simon door at precisely three p.m.  He'd had enough encounters with FBI agents throughout his career as a private investigator to know they never deviated from their planned arrival time.     


            A.J. could make out the shadow of one man through the textured privacy glass of their door.  He opened it, nodding,  "Good afternoon.  Please come in."


            The blond stepped aside to allow the African-American man to pass through the doorway.  Rick stood and walked around his desk.  The agent pulled a black wallet from the inside pocket of his suit coat.  The Simon brothers looked at the badge, taking note of its authenticity.


            The man pocketed his badge with one hand and held the other out to Rick. 


"Pellman Creek."


            Rick shook the man's hand, all the while thinking that Pellman Creek sounded more like the name of a town, than the name of a person.


            "Rick Simon."


            "Yes," Creek nodded with a confidence that said he'd known this fact all along.  He turned to the blond man.  "And you're A.J."


            A.J. shook the offered hand.  The rough skin on the palm indicated the man worked with tools and wood when he wasn't on duty for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


            "Obviously, you've done your homework," A.J. said in response to the man's knowledge of which Simon brother was which.


            Agent Creek cocked an eyebrow that could have signaled anything from amusement to arrogance.  By the tone of his voice, A.J. assumed it was a bit of both.  


"It is a wise man who does."


Rick didn't attempt to hide his sarcasm.  "And I suppose you expect us to be impressed by that."


            "My intention wasn't to impress you, Mr. Simon," the man intoned in a bass voice so rich it sounded like his throat was coated with honey, "but rather to simply state a fact." 


            In an effort to put to rest the tension between his brother and their visitor, A.J. indicated to the grouping of four chairs circling the round coffee table.  "Well, now that we've all exchanged facts and impressions, why don't we sit down.  May I offer you anything, Agent Creek?  Coffee, a soda?"


            "No, thank you."  Pellman Creek folded his long lean body into a chair.  He crossed his right leg over his left knee, swinging one shiny black shoe back and forth.  Aside from the speckles of gray in his closely cropped ebony hair, the only color standing out from his dark skin and well-tailored black suit came in the form of his shirt pinstriped in white, emerald green, and pale pink, and complemented by an emerald tie so bright it appeared it be glowing.


            When everyone was seated Rick and A.J. were forced to endure a long uncomfortable silence.  By the way Creek's eyes traveled from one Simon brother to the other Rick got the impression he and A.J. were being sized up as to the amount of adversity they'd be willing to face.   But why, the oldest Simon had no idea.


            The black man didn't waste any time getting to the point of the visit.  He reached into the side pocket of his suit coat.  He brought out a picture and handed it to Rick.


            "Do you recognize this man?"


            Rick studied the photograph.  You could tell the person in it had no idea his picture was being taken.  You could also tell, if you had used cameras the way Rick and A.J. did in their line of work, that it was taken from a distance with a zoom lens.  Again, to ensure that the object of the photographer's interest didn't realize his photo was being snapped.


            "No."    Rick shook his head.  "Don't know the guy." He tilted the photograph so A.J. could see it.  Before the blond had a chance to reply Pellman intervened. 


            "Your brother won't recognize the man."


            Rick looked over at the agent, whose age the detective estimated to be near his own.  He didn't attempt to keep the puzzlement from his features.  Creek pulled a second photograph from his pocket. 


            "Perhaps this picture is more familiar."


            The balding detective reached for the black and white photo.  He stared down at it, momentarily stunned.  His features hardened when he finally made eye contact with Creek.  "How'd you get this?  And don't smirk and give me that 'I'm FBI' horseshit."


            "If you're worried that I acquired it from your own private collection, Mr. Simon, don't be.  As to how I got it or where it came from, doesn't matter.  All I'm concerned with is whether or not you recognize the man in that picture."


            A.J. leaned on the arm of his chair, eyeing the photograph that had suddenly caused his brother so much upset.  He was as surprised as Rick to see a much younger version of Richard Simon smiling up at him.  Just by the way Rick was dressed, in combat fatigues and with a rifle perched on one thigh, A.J. knew the picture had been taken in Vietnam.  There was another man in the photo posing in similar fashion.  The two young Marines had their arms slung around each others shoulders, for the moment laughing for the camera as though death was not a mere walk into the dense jungle that made up the background behind them.


            Rick spoke from some place far away and far removed from San Diego.  "Yeah."   He looked up, cleared his throat, and spoke louder.  "Yeah, I recognize him.  That's Cord Franklin."


            "And when was the last time you had contact with Mr. Franklin?"



            "When was the last time you spoke with Mr. Franklin?"


            Rick didn't even have to think about his answer.  "Twenty-six years ago.  The fall of 1972."


            "Under what circumstances?"

            "Whatta ya' mean, under what circumstances?  And what the hell business is it of yours, anyway?"


            "Humor me, Mr. Simon.  I served my time in Nam, too.  I know what it was like, and I know loyalty to a fellow vet.  But right now I need to know about the last time you were with Cordell Franklin."


            Rick eyed Creek, then gave a slow nod of his head.  "Okay.  The last time I saw Cord Franklin was at my place on a key off the Miami coast.  I'd been out of the Corps for three weeks when I hit the road.  Took off from my mother's home here in San Diego for parts unknown.  Cord more or less did the same from his home in...Ohio, I think it was.  We hooked up in Arizona.  Then just bummed the country together workin' odd jobs until I decided to set down roots of sorts in an old house my grandparents had left me and A.J.  Cord stayed with me there...oh...two months.  Maybe three.  Then one morning he said he had the itch to go traveling again and took off."


            "And you never saw him after that?"



            "And you haven't spoken with him since then?"



            "And you have no idea where he lives or what's become of him?"

            "If I said I haven't seen him, and I said I haven't spoken to him, it would be kinda hard for me to know what's become of him, now wouldn't it?"

            "I don't know.  You tell me.  You're a private investigator.  And a good one from what I'm told.  If you really wanted to know where Cordell Franklin was you could no doubt find him."


            "Yeah, I suppose if I really wanted to know where he was I could.  But to tell ya’ the truth, a lotta water has passed under the bridge since me and Cord knew one another.  My life has changed in a lotta ways, as has his, I suspect.  There's just never been a reason for me to try and contact him."


            "Do you ever think of him?"


            Rick looked down at the picture a long moment, then back at the federal agent.  


"Yeah, Creek, I think of him every so often.  Just like I'm sure you think of the guys you served with in that hellhole thirty years ago who you called your buddies.  But I doubt that means you go lookin' up every one of 'em each time his face pops up in your brain.  Or in your nightmares.  More than likely you've learned over the years that the key to surviving Nam is not reliving her."


            "I've learned a lot of ways to survive Nam," Pellman stated flatly.  "But apparently some of our fellow vets haven't."


            Silence filled the room until Rick heaved a heavy sigh.  Somehow he knew what was coming.  "And I suppose one of those vets is Cord Franklin."

            "That's a strong possibility."  Creek reached over and plucked the old photo from Rick's fingers, returning it to his pocket.  "We have reason to suspect that Cordell Franklin is the leader of a large paramilitary group."


            "You mean like one of those right-wing militias that have been the focus of so many news stories since the bombing in Kansas City?"  A.J. asked.


            "That's exactly what I mean."


            "So what does that have to do with us?"  Rick wanted to know.


            "Franklin is living here in San Diego, Rick.  He has been for the past two years.  His name has been on the FBI's list of suspects in regards to being the possible mastermind behind the bombing of the Kansas City Federal Building three years ago.  We've known for quite some time that neither Michael Hale nor Donald Marshfield, were the brains behind that tragedy.   We've long had reason to suspect both men have ties to Franklin, but we can't prove that."


            "Wait a minute."  Rick held up a hand.  "Hold on.  Granted, I haven't seen or heard from Cord in a good many years, but there's no way the man I used to know would ever, ever plot an act of terrorism against his own country.  For god's sake he was nothing but a small town boy from the Midwest!  Just a guy who wanted to come home, get hitched, and raise a houseful of kids.  While the rest of our platoon spent their off-duty time carousing in Vietnamese bars and takin' a roll in the hay with the hookers they picked up there, Cord was helping the nuns at a local orphanage fix and patch and repair whatever had been destroyed by our bombers just so those little kids would have tolerable living conditions.  You never saw him when he wasn't passing out a candy bar to some kid, or cradling a half starved kitten he'd found somewhere, or crying...crying over a man he'd been forced to kill, even though that man woulda' killed Cord first had he gotten the opportunity."


            Creek absorbed all this information with almost casual indifference.  "As you said, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.  A lot of years have gone by since you last saw Franklin. People change."


            "No.  No, not Cord."  Rick shot to his feet and stomped over to the window behind A.J.'s desk.  "Not to the point that he would blow up a building filled with his own countrymen.  Filled with children.  No!"  Rick slammed a fist down on the sill.  "No, he wouldn't do it."


            "The FBI is not in the habit of pulling names out of hats and putting them on our suspect list.  There is a reason why Cordell Franklin appears there."


            Rick whipped around.  "But is it a valid reason?"

            "I don't know."  Pellman shrugged.  "That's what the bureau was hoping you and your brother could find out."

            Rick's eyes flicked to A.J.'s.  In a voice filled with quiet reasoning the blond said,  "Let's at least hear what Agent Creek wants to propose to us, Rick.  After that…well, after that if it's not something you feel we should take on, then the call is yours."


            With a growl of disgust at the agent, and a growl of disgust at his own acquiescence, Rick clopped over and retook his seat.  A.J. rose and went to the small refrigerator behind his desk.  Without asking anyone he pulled out three Cokes, popped the tops and handed them out to the seated men.  Ice cold beers imported from Germany would have done a better job of breaking the tension and giving them all an erroneous feeling of friendship, but he didn't keep alcohol at the office so this would have to do.


            Pellman Creek understood the need for this refreshment break and honored it.  He waited until his can was half drained before setting it on the coffee table and continuing the meeting.


            "Cordell Franklin is not a stupid man.  He has surrounded himself with loyal friends and allies.  He seems to have a sixth sense where law enforcement officials are concerned.  As of yet, none of our undercover agents have been able to break through to his inner circle."


            "Maybe that's because he doesn't have an inner circle," Rick pointed out.


            "Maybe," Pellman nodded.  "Though I doubt it.  And so do the agents who have been tracking his movements for the past three years."


            "Just where do me and A.J. fit into all this?"

            "The bureau was hoping the two of you would agree to do some undercover work for us.  You'll be paid quite handsomely of course.  Far more than you make off your business in a six month time period.  Though along with that pay will come a vow of silence on your parts."


            A.J. drained the last of his Coke, placing the empty can on the carpeting beside his chair.  "What exactly does that mean?"

            "It means you'll never be able to publicly acknowledge you were hired by the bureau.  It means that if you do uncover information about Franklin that leads to his prosecution, you will not be allowed to cash in on any publicity the case generates.  That includes a complete news blackout.  If your names are ever linked to the case, and in turn a reporter contacts you, the only answer we'll allow you to give to any question asked is, "No comment."  And that includes any questions asked by your friend at San Diego's Channel 3, Temple Hill Brown."


             The Simon brothers exchanged glances. The man hadn't been in their office more than fifteen minutes and already he'd revealed that he knew them by name, knew Rick was an old friend of Cordell Franklin's, knew how much money their business earned, and knew they had ties to a popular and well-respected local news woman.  They wondered just what the FBI didn't know about them. 


            Rick absorbed Pellman's words before forming his answer.  "I don't know that I wanna take money to be a nark.  Especially since I'm not convinced there's anyone to nark on. "


            "What if I told you we suspect Franklin is planning something big here in San Diego?  An apocalypse that would make what happened in Kansas City look like a day at the circus."


            When Rick refused to rise to the bait A.J. spoke.  "What is it you think he has planned?"


            "We've intercepted a number of e-mail communications, coded of course.  If we've interpreted the code correctly D-day, so to speak, is December twenty-second of this year.  Right when the entire city will be awash with Christmas cheer and holiday shoppers.  At a time when people quite often have their guard down, even those hired to protect and serve, simply because their minds are absorbed with other affairs.  That's the day when bombs are expected to go off in four San Diego schools, five shopping malls, one of the federal buildings, three post offices, six grocery stores, and God knows where else that we haven't heard of yet.  From what we know, the bomb blasts will be spaced just far enough apart to throw this city in a state of panic and confusion, the likes of which has never been seen anywhere before.  The disaster will put such a drain on the fire and police departments that it will be a miracle if they'll be able to efficiently come to anyone's aid."


            The Simon brothers sat in stunned silence. It was difficult to believe that such mass carnage could happen in their country.  Yet, they'd seen small examples of it throughout the past decade. Bombings at abortion clinics, shooting sprees in public schools, the explosions at the World Trade Center in New York and in Atlanta's Olympic Park, not to mention the vengeance of the Unabomber, and of course the catastrophe in Kansas.  For as hard as it was to absorb, they knew all too well that it could come true given the right man with the right motivations.  Rick just wasn't ready to buy into Cordell Franklin being that man.


            "What type of undercover work are we talking about here?"  A.J. asked.  He shifted in his chair, straightening his cobalt tie back inside the folds of his gray suit coat.   "Granted, it's been years since Franklin has seen Rick, but he'll surely recognize him."


            "Yes, he will.  And that's just what we want."

            Rick already knew what was coming.  "You want me to rekindle my friendship with him.  You want me to gain his trust.  You want me to see if there's any validity to your suspicions.  You want me, through the guise of friendship, to become a part of his inner circle."


            "That's exactly what we want."


            "And A.J.?  What's he supposed to be doing while I'm gettin' paid to tattle on an old buddy?"


            "A.J.'s role is two-fold really.  He's going to be working with an agent we already have in place within the Franklin household."


            "I thought you said none of your guys had broken through Cord's inner circle."


            "I wouldn't say our agent is a part of Mr. Franklin's inner circle, but rather she is on the very fringe of it.  She is employed by Mr. Franklin as a nurse for his oldest son.  A.J., likewise, will be employed as the boy's tutor."


            "Tutor?  I'm not qualified to be anyone's tutor."

            "You greatly underestimate yourself, A.J.," Pellman said.  "A number of the jobs you and your brother have taken on over the years have put you in the classroom.  For example, the case involving Phoebe Cates.  Or the job you took as counselors at Camp Apollo.  Or the time the two of you worked as substitute teachers for your friend, Stacey Harrington, at Heritage Academy."


            The brother's exchanged glances before A.J. formed an answer. 


            "Yes, Rick and I have done the jobs you mentioned.  But, by far, I'm not qualified to work with a child who has special needs.  If the Franklin boy has a nurse, he obviously has some sort of problems that extend beyond the abilities of a typical school teacher."


            "You're correct, he does.  And that's exactly why you are qualified."


            A.J.'s pale brows meshed.  "How so?"

            "The help Joseph Franklin needs from a teacher is not that dissimilar from the help you received when you were a patient at San Diego Rehabilitation Center ten years ago."


            A.J. sat back in his chair expelling a heavy sigh.  Rick hazarded a glance at his brother before guilt forced him to look away.  It had not been an easy time in their lives.  As a matter of fact, it had been sheer hell.  Rick had accidentally hit A.J. with his truck while they were working on a case, causing the blond detective to suffer severe head injuries.  Those injuries earned the youngest Simon a three week stay at County General Hospital, and from there a three month stay at the rehab center where A.J. worked hard to regain all that had been taken from him in a fateful second. 


            Though to this day A.J. remembered very little about his time spent at County General, and remembered next to nothing regarding the day of the accident, he had strong memories of his stay at San Diego Rehab.  He vividly recalled what it was like to learn to talk again, to walk again, to read, and to write   He remembered the humiliation of not being able to print the alphabet in its entirety because his brain couldn't bring forth an image of the proper letters.  He remembered the embarrassment he felt at not being able to pronounce words correctly, or to recall the name of a close friend.  He recalled what it was like to be so uncoordinated that he couldn't get his food to stay on his fork, or couldn’t take a swing at a punching bag, without falling on his butt due to the lack of proper signals his injured brain was sending his limbs. 


            But time and determination had healed A.J.'s impairments.  Now, a decade later, he was one of the lucky ones.  He had triumphed over all those adversities with no residual side effects except an occasional limp when he over-worked the muscles of his right leg. 


            A.J. looked at Rick to see his brother staring at the far wall as though he'd mentally removed himself from the room.  That act didn't surprise the blond man.  They rarely talked about the accident and all that had happened because of it.  For a lot of reasons, it was too painful for Rick.  Aside from the guilt he still needlessly carried inside himself over the fact that he'd hit his little brother with his truck, Rick's heart had yet to fully recover from the death of Troya Yeager.  The image of a beautiful ivory haired woman came to A.J.'s mind.  She had been the director of the rehab center, as well as A.J.'s speech therapist.  But, more importantly, she had been Rick's lover and his fiancé.  Her death had been tragic and violent, and was something the Simon brothers hadn't spoke of in many, many years now.


            Pellman Creek finally broke the silence that had ascended upon the office.  He knew far more about the Simons than either brother could ever fully imagine.  He was well aware he'd brought up a painful subject.  He could easily guess it was one that was rarely mentioned between them.


            "Joey Franklin's neurological impairments were not caused by an accident, but rather, have been present since birth.  Therefore, his ability to function at a normal level is extremely limited.   The time he has spent in school over the years has been almost non-existent.  The story is sad, but typical.  The Franklins' didn't have the money to send Joey to a private facility. Financial aid from the state was hard to come by and when, on rare occasions, they did receive a check, it fell far short of the boy's needs.  They tried enrolling him in public school for a period of time, but that was a disaster.  Even the teachers provided by the public school system for special needs children couldn't be of much help to Joey."


            "Why's that?"  Rick asked.


            "His health problems are many.  Far too many for one teacher with nine other handicapped children to handle by him or herself.  Joey requires the full-time devotion of one teacher."


            "Okay," A.J. slowly nodded as he thought all this through.  "Let's say I can somehow manage to pull off the act of being Joey's teacher, while at the same time providing the boy with some much needed help.  How are you going to get me into the position of his tutor in the first place?"


            "Part of the reason we suspect Franklin has relocated to California is because of your state's more liberal laws regarding aid to the handicapped.  In Ohio, where Franklin is from and where he lived until 1996, he fought for years to try to get help for his son.  To get not only financial aid for his family, but as well a private, state-paid tutor for Joey.  Not until Franklin came here to California did that dream materialize."


            "So if Joey already has a tutor, how do I fit in?"  A.J. asked.


            "Joey doesn't have a tutor."

            "But you just said Franklin was able to--"


            "He was.  But through my many...contacts, shall we say," a sly smile touched Creek's lips, "that tutor is no longer available.  She's been reassigned to another child.  That's where you come in, A.J.  If you and Rick agree to take this case, you'll go into Franklin's home under the guise of the new tutor provided by the state."   


            "And you mentioned a female agent," A.J. reminded.  "A woman who is posing as Joey's nurse?"          


            "Yes.  And she does, in fact, have a degree in nursing."


            Rick couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice when he spoke.  "Her name wouldn't happen to be Dagmar Finster, would it?"


            Pellman smiled.  He knew much of the story surrounding A.J. Simon's stay at San Diego Rehabilitation Center.


            "No, Rick, her name isn't Dagmar Finster.  Nor is she Shannon O'Brien.  Though Ms. O'Brien, who is now Shannon O'Brien Delanney, is still a federal agent.  But no, this is not her case. The agent who is in place as Joey's nurse is calling herself Cassandra Kenner.  That's all either of you need to know about her.  Likewise, what she knows about the two of you will be limited."


            "Why is that?"  A.J. inquired.  "Are you concerned about her trustworthiness?"

            "No, not at all.  She's been with us for ten years now, and she has an exemplary record. It's simply that with a case of this magnitude we want to ensure everyone's safety.  The less Ms. Kenner knows about you the better, and likewise.  This way there will be little chance for slipups that might be overheard by a member of the Franklin family.  It's of the utmost importance that Cord Franklin believes you are who you say you are."


            "And just who am I?" 


            "A divorced man who's the father of two grown daughters."  Creek rattled the facts off as if he'd long had them memorized.  "Neither your ex-wife nor children live in the area.  Due to the bitterness of the divorce, you have little contact with your daughters, not your choice of course, but rather, theirs.  You are also the grandfather of one little boy, age three.  Again, you rarely see the child."


            Rick couldn't help but choke back his laughter.  He reached over and patted his brother on the back.  "Hey, Gramps, how's it goin'?  I knew that gray hair that's taken root at your temples lends a more mature look to ya', but I never thought it was that mature."


            A.J. shot his brother a glare at the teasing.  Granted, he'd soon be forty-nine years old.  Certainly that was old enough to be a grandfather.  The detective knew some of his classmates from high school and college were already grandparents, but considering he was still on the way to becoming a first-time father, grandparenthood seemed decades down the road yet.


            Creek continued his recitation.  "You've been a teacher since you graduated college, but in recent years have become disgruntled with the public school system.  Therefore, you quit your job and decided to give private tutoring a try.  This is all you need to tell the Franklin family, and all you need to tell our agent.  She will know that you're really an undercover agent employed by the bureau, but it's not necessary for her to have knowledge of your private life."


            A.J. nodded his understanding.  From his years of private investigation work he knew that when you immersed yourself in an undercover role you had to be careful just what fictitious background you created for yourself.  You didn't, for example, want to tell someone you were an avid scuba diver if, in fact, you had never engaged in such an activity.  Sure enough your bluff would be called and you'd find yourself with an oxygen tank strapped to your back while hanging off the side of a boat in the middle of the ocean.  Finding a clever way to back out of that situation would be taxing at best. At worst it would blow your cover. 


            "I take it my primary role is to get information from Rick regarding Cordell Franklin and his movements, then in turn, pass this information onto your agent."


            "That's correct.  As I said, Franklin's a smart man.  It's too risky to have Rick meet directly with me or any of my agents. Again, like I mentioned earlier, Franklin seems to have a sixth sense where the law is concerned."


            "So how do you know he won't have a sixth sense about me?"  Rick asked.  "A lot of people consider private eyes one step below the law.  They know we gather information for a lot of reasons.  In the case of A.J. and me, many times those reasons have put people behind bars."


            "I realize that.  But I'm counting on the nostalgia of friendship and Vietnam to bring Franklin's guard down."  Agent Creek looked Rick in the eye.  "Cordell Franklin respected you, Rick.  He looked up to you like a younger brother looks up to an older brother.  Now you know that's not unusual in the heat of battle.  You were a level-headed, fair commander.  You were well thought of by all the men who served under you."


            Rick's cheeks took on a red tinge at the praise. "I suspect there were one or two who thought I was cocky, smart-ass son-of-a-bitch."


            Creek nodded.  "One or two.  But they were few and far between."


            "You actually talked to all those guys?  Guys I haven't seen in thirty years?"

            "I didn't necessarily talk to all of them, but let's just say I've done my homework and leave it at that."


            Rick rubbed his hands over the legs of his jeans, a sure sign to A.J. that his mind was working in high gear.  Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Rick was interested in this case.  Not because he was ready to believe that Cordell Franklin could ever be guilty of what Creek was suggesting, but because he wanted to prove the exact opposite. 


            "Okay, let's say me and A.J. agree to take this job.  There's one big problem."


            "And that is?"

            Rick waved a hand at the room they were sitting in.  "This.  Simon and Simon.  Now I can buy A.J. using an assumed name and showing up at Cord's house as the new tutor.  I can't recall if Cord ever saw a picture of my brother when we served together, but even if he did, the likelihood that he'd remember that and recognize A.J. this many years later is pretty remote.  But I can't believe that Cord wouldn't be suspicious of me by virtue of my profession.  And if he ever followed me to this building without my knowledge, there's a good possibility he'd spot A.J.  Then we'd be in a helluva fix.  If, on the off chance, Cord Franklin is now who you claim him to be, the leader of a right-wing group that preaches violence, I sure ain't gonna put my brother's life at risk."


            "We've already thought of that.  We don't want you to tell Franklin you're a private investigator.  We don't want you to mention this business.  For the safety of your family, it would be best to simply say A.J. doesn't live in San Diego any longer, nor does your mother.  How much you want to elaborate on that with Franklin is up to you.  But we think it's best if he believes you have no close ties here in the city.  We can only hope, because of the friendship the two of you once shared, that he won't doubt your story."


            "In other words, that he won't go pokin' his nose around tryin' to find out if what I tell him about myself is the truth."




            "And just what am I supposed to tell him?"

            "I'm leaving that up to you."  Creek uncrossed his legs and briefly shook out the foot that was falling asleep.   He sat back in his chair and tugged down on wrists of his suit jacket.  "Obviously, there are some details you and A.J. need to hash out together.  Yes, it's imperative that Franklin not find out about Simon and Simon Investigations.  For a lot of reasons I doubt he will.  Because of your past history together, I believe he'll take the facts you give him at face value, Rick.  I don't think he'll question them, or look into your background.  Another positive is that he lives and works on the other side of the city.  We've been watching him for a long time now.  We've never seen him in this section of town, which is part of the reason we felt it was safe to propose this case to you.  But you and A.J. need to decide how best to go from here.  A.J.'s job as tutor for Joey Franklin is only a four hour a day commitment.  That should enable you to effectively keep your business running.  If you, Rick, do manage to gain Franklin's trust, then I suspect the majority of the time you spend with him will be on the weekends.  That's when he hightails it to the camp he has set up outside Beckland."


            "That's a small town built on a lake, isn't it?"  A.J. asked.  "On Highway One Fifteen?"


            "That's the place.  He's found the perfect spot for his ‘weekend warriors’ as we refer to them.  It's in the foothills of the Stone Ridge Mountains.  The area is secluded, hard to reach with anything other than a four wheel drive vehicle, and well away from residential areas.  It's so remote most local residents don't even know it exists."


            "What exists?"  Rick asked.


            "The old camp that Franklin bought."

            "Old camp?" 


            "An old summer camp.  I interviewed the elderly man who sold the property to Franklin.  He assumed Franklin wanted to use it for investment purposes.  You know, tear down the buildings that had served as the mess hall and cabins for the kids, and then start selling parcels off for housing development."


            "But that's not what Cord did,"  Rick stated, as if he knew it was fact. 


            "No, that's not what he did.  He kept everything intact.  Even made some long necessary repairs like putting new roofs on buildings and modernizing the defunct plumbing in the bathrooms."


            "So this is where Cord and his buddies hang out on the weekends?"




            "Doesn't sound like such a big deal to me," Rick said, though his gut told him differently.  "Maybe it's just a place where he kicks back and gets away from it all.  You know, kinda like havin' a second home in the mountains, or a houseboat for the weekends, only on a more eccentric scale."


            Pellman cocked a disbelieving eyebrow.  "Or a place where he whips his troops into military precision and plots ways to kill innocent children."


            Creek's words caused heavy silence to prevail.  He had no intention of saying anything further.  He wanted the proclamation about the killing of innocent children to be the last thing that echoed in Rick Simon's ears when the detective tried to sleep that night.


            The black man stood.  "Gentlemen, I'll show myself out.  I realize the two of you have a lot to discuss before you'll be ready to give me an answer to my proposal.  If you say no, then you say no.  I won't lie to you.  If Franklin's activities are as we suspect, this could be a dangerous job."  Creek's eyes bore into Rick's.  "Don't fool yourself into thinking otherwise.  However, if you say yes, then we'll meet again in a week and work out the final details."


            "And what if I don't find anything?"  Rick challenged.  "What if I discover Cord Franklin isn't guilty of any of the things you're accusing him of?"


            Doubt turned the corners of Creek's mouth down, but he left it unvoiced.  "If you can prove that to me, Rick, then the bureau will close its file on Cordell Joseph Franklin."


            "That's a promise?"


            "Yes,"  Pellman nodded, "that's a promise."


            "I'll prove it to you then."


            Creek raised a skeptical eyebrow, but said no more.  He turned for the door, A.J.'s voice stopping him.


            "Agent Creek?  You never told us how Franklin came to be under investigation by the bureau in the first place."                        


            The black man faced his audience once more.


            "It was his wife who initiated contact with us shortly after the Kansas City bombing in 1995.  Although it was difficult for her to come to me regarding her suspicions of her husband, she felt she had no choice.  She was our primary source of information until February of 1996."


            "What happened in February of 1996?"


            Though the question had been asked by A.J., Pellman's gaze took in both brothers.


            "She was found murdered along a desolate roadside in Ohio five miles from her home."


            The FBI agent offered no more.  He turned and walked out the door, quietly closing it behind him.  




            Brendan took the stairs two at a time on a dead run.   His weekend activities made it imperative to be in top physical condition.  His trim body barely sucked in air as he took the curve of the second floor landing, raced up twelve steps, skirted over the next landing and ran up twelve more.


            The building that housed the Simon and Simon office was like a second home to him.  He'd started working part-time for Rick and A.J. when he was in high school.  At that time, due to his mother's unwavering directive, his employment didn't involve more than filing, answering phones, sorting mail, and inputting case data into the office computer.  But once he entered college and was legally an adult, he started tackling cases with his mother's cousins.  At one time he'd thought of pursuing a career as a private investigator, but had since changed his mind.   Still, he liked to come back here and visit whenever he got the opportunity.  Despite the fact that their lives traveled different paths now, Rick and A.J. were good friends of his.  The accident that had almost claimed A.J.'s life had forever bound the three of them together.  Brendan thought of the two men as mentors and surrogate fathers, and gave them the respect those positions deserved.


            Between his job and his weekend commitments, Brendan hadn't seen the Simon brothers in over a month now.  For obvious reasons he didn't want them stopping by his apartment.  He could only imagine what they'd both have to say to him if they ever caught a glimpse of his loft.  Besides, some of his friends might be visiting.  He knew between their shaved skulls, the insignias on their clothing, and the tattoos many of them sported, that Rick and A.J. would easily figure out what causes they stood for.  Brendan had no desire to be on the receiving end of the lectures he was bound to get from both men.  Besides, he had no explanations he could offer them, and nothing they could say would change his position. 


            The young man slowed to a walk when he came to the final landing.    He started to open the door and emerge into the hallway that led to the Simon and Simon office.  Just as quickly he pulled back.  Without making a sound he allowed the door to ease itself closed on its vacuumed hinges.  He hugged the cement block wall, peering out through the small square pane of glass located in the center of the door.  He watched the black man head for the old-fashioned elevator car.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally heard the rubber cables squeak, indicating the car's descent to the first floor.


            Everything about the impeccably dressed man screamed federal agent.  Brendan wondered what the motivation was behind the FBI paying a call on his mother's cousins. 


            The young man turned and headed back down the stairs, though this time at a much slower pace.  He didn't want to risk running into the agent in the parking lot. 


            The twenty-three year old looked out on the busy street before exiting the building.  He watched Pellman Creek pull a pale blue Buick LeSabre into late afternoon traffic.  When the man was out of sight, Brendan headed for the small parking lot that butted up against the office building Rick and A.J. owned.  He climbed into his black Trans Am, brought the engine to life, and backed out of his parking spot.  When a stoplight caused a break in traffic Brendan turned left.  He forgot all about his intended visit with his cousins.  He had something else to do now.  He had to report what he'd seen to his superiors.  It might mean absolutely nothing, but then again, it could bring the whole plan tumbling down around them.  He had great loyalty to Rick and A.J., but he had other loyalties now as well.


            Brendan picked his sunglasses up from the passenger seat and fit them over his eyes, his fingers brushing his hairless skull.  As he drove his car in the opposite direction of the Simon and Simon office, Brendan reminded himself that he had no choice but to do what his head told him, even if his heart beckoned him to do otherwise.


Chapter 5


            The last rays of summer sunshine bled through the clouds, staining them orange.  A.J. enjoyed the smell of freshly mowed grass as he walked home from the park with Tanner and Shane at his side, all three of them carrying their baseball mitts.  After supper he'd made good on his promise to help Shane perfect his pitching skills.  Despite his mind being firmly entrenched with thoughts of Pellman Creek's visit, the blond man could still taste the bitter disappointment from almost forty years earlier when his Uncle Ray had made a similar promise, but then broken it.  A.J.'s ten-year-old self had made a vow that he'd never grow up and do the same thing to another little boy.  So although the tired detective would have rather stayed home with his wife and relaxed on the deck with a cold lemonade in hand, he'd trouped off with Shane and Tanner as soon as the evening meal was over.  Lauren had shooed all three of them out of the kitchen, saying she'd handle clean up by herself. 


            Shane's voice broke into A.J.'s thoughts as the trio slowly made their way home. 


"A.J., do you think I'm good enough to be the starting pitcher for my team some day?"


            A.J. put an arm around the boy's slender shoulders.  Though the children weren't his biological sons, he often saw shades of himself as a child in the reserved, eager-to-please Shane, and shades of Rick in the outgoing, outrageous Tanner.  Maybe that's why he and the boys had always gotten along so well.  Without even trying, A.J. instinctively understood them.


            The detective watched Tanner scamper off ahead of them to inspect a bug crawling across the sidewalk.  Toby waddled after the boy, his short legs trying in vain to keep up with his young playmate. A.J. voiced his confidence to the boy remaining at his side.  "Sure I do.  All it's going to take is a little hard work and a couple more years of growing.  Right now your main problem is one that's out of your control."


            Shane looked up at his stepfather while kneading the baseball into his mitt.  "What's that?"

            "You're just like me when I was eight.  Short and skinny.  That means you don't have the strength to get the ball over the plate on a consistent basis.  But a couple of more years of growing will make all the difference in the world.  Right now you're an excellent first baseman.  Be proud of that, keep doing a good job for your team, and in the mean time, we'll keep practicing your pitching a couple of nights a week.  By the time you're ten or eleven you'll be ready for the Major Leagues, slugger."


            Shane smiled.  This is what he liked so much about A.J.  His stepfather always made time for him no matter what the circumstance.  Not that Shane didn't think his own father wasn't a pretty terrific dad.  Far from it.  But sometimes, after a long day at work, his father was tired and didn't want to play with Shane or his little brother.  A.J. was never like that.  He always made time for them no matter what.  And he only raised

his voice at you if you'd done something wrong and you deserved it.  That was different from Shane's dad, too, who sometimes yelled just because he'd had a bad day at the office and his sons were getting on his nerves with their 'shenanigans,' as Rob Albright phrased it. 


            Shane had mentioned all this to his mother recently.  She'd simply smiled that special smile that indicated she loved A.J. a lot, and told Shane that she thought A.J. was attentive to him and Tanner in part, because he loved them like they were his own sons, but as well, because he'd been just a young boy when his father died.


            It had been Shane's night to set the table for dinner and his mother paused in the act of handing him the silverware.


            "I don't know if A.J. has ever told you this or not, Shane, but his dad died when he was ten years old."


            Shane was shocked.  He knew, of course, that A.J.'s father was deceased, but he'd had no idea that A.J. had been a boy not much older than himself when that happened.  He tried to picture how he'd feel if his own father died, and couldn't imagine how he'd bear the pain of never being able to see the man again.


            " I didn't know that.  A.J.'s never said anything about it."


            Shane's mom had run a hand through his hair while offering him a sad smile.  "I think that's because it still hurts him to talk about it, sweetheart.  Grandma C. has told me it was a difficult time for A.J.  He was very close to his father and missed him so much after he was gone.  So see, A.J. knows what it's like to grow up without a daddy.  To not have a dad around to help you learn how to pitch a ball, or to swim, or to come to your soccer games, or just to listen to you when you want to tell him about your day at school.  I think you and Tanner have helped ease some of that pain for him.  He wants to give you boys what he didn't have when he was growing up."


            "A dad?"


            "Yes.  A dad."


            Shane thought a moment.  "Even though me and Tanner already have a dad, A.J.'s a good dad, too.  Maybe I should tell him that sometime, huh?"

            "Yes, sweetie, I think you should."  His mother kissed him on the forehead before returning to her dinner preparations.  "That will make A.J. very happy."


             But although Shane often felt it inside, he hadn't come right out and told A.J. that yet.  It was hard to voice your feelings sometimes.  So instead of wondering how to do that now, Shane simply eased his hand up and clasped it in A.J.'s.  He looked up into his stepfather's face and was rewarded with a gentle smile that told him A.J. knew all Shane had left unspoken.


            Their quiet moment together was interrupted by Tanner, as was often the case.  The red head ran back to them.  "Hey, A.J., tell Mom I don't need a bath tonight, okay?  Pretty please."


            A.J. laughed, taking in the smudgy patches of dirt from the ball diamond on the six year old's bare knees and elbows.  He reached out and rubbed two fingers across a line of gravel dust that ran from Tanner's right cheek to his chin. 


            "Even on my best day I wouldn't be able to win that argument with your mother.  Besides, you can't climb into bed dirty like that."


            "Aw, why not?  Rick goes to bed dirty sometimes.  He told me so."

            "Tanner, you need to learn that Rick often tells tall tales."

            "Tall tales?  What are those?"

            "Stories where he drastically stretches the truth."


            "Drastically," the boy repeated.  "I like that word.  What's it mean?"


            "In this case it means he exaggerates."


            Tanner's eyes grew round.  "You mean kind of like lying?"


            "Yes, kind of like that."


            "So Rick's never gone to bed dirty?"


            A.J. chuckled.  "I wouldn't say that.  But let's put it this way, not when he was your age and living in our mother's home."  The trio turned to head up A.J.'s driveway.  "Therefore, it's bath time for both of you boys, and then off to bed.  You have school in the morning."


            A.J. held the kitchen door open for the boys and Toby, never noticing the car that slowly drove past the house in the fading light of day.  The same car that had been pulled up to the curb across the street from the park, its occupant watching A.J. play ball with his stepsons.




            Shane and Tanner had been sound asleep for an hour in their room down the hall when A.J. joined his wife in their queen size bed at ten o'clock that night.  Shortly before Lauren and A.J. married the boys had loudly voiced their objections over the prospect of rooming together.  They had their own rooms at their father's home, and likewise had possessed separate bedrooms at their mother's condo.  They tried their best to argue for the same arrangement in A.J.'s three bedroom home, but Lauren wouldn't entertain their pleas.  The third bedroom upstairs had long been set up as A.J.'s home office.  She didn't feel it was fair to her new husband to disrupt this arrangement.  Besides, unbeknownst to her children, Lauren and A.J. were planning to have a child of their own as soon as possible.  That little bedroom would be a cute nursery until Lauren and A.J. were ready to make other decisions.  The pleas and arguments all came to an end when Rick told the boys that he and A.J. had always roomed together during their growing up years.


            "Okay, sure, it was kind of a pain sometimes," Rick had lamented over pizza one evening shortly before Lauren and A.J.'s wedding day.  "I mean, A.J. could snore like an old rutting bull.  But if I hurried up and got to sleep before him it wasn't a problem. And besides, you know what the best thing about roomin' with your brother is?"


            Both boys shook their heads no, hanging onto Rick's every word.          "Gettin' to stay up real late and whisper all kinds of secret stuff to each other after your parents are in bed."


            Lauren didn't know if her sons stayed up late ‘whispering all kinds of secret stuff to each other’ as Rick had put, but she was grateful to her brother-in-law for winning them over to the idea of sharing a room.  And even more grateful when he'd given up a weekend to help A.J. install two shelving units for games, books, and toys, plus a pantry-style cabinet that reached all the way to the ceiling, and a ten foot length of Formica counter top that held the boys' computer and made a great homework station.


            Lauren herself had painted the formerly white room All-Star Blue, then added blue and red quilted bedspreads and curtains sporting baseball bats, basketballs, soccer goalie nets, and football helmets.  New bunk beds cast from a sturdy red iron frame, and a tall red dresser, rounded out the room's decor along with two blue chairs that sat at the homework station.  Wall hangings that reflected each boy's interests and a big toy chest that had come from Lauren's condo added the final touch.


            The pregnant woman sat up against two pillows, an open newspaper in her lap.  A.J.'s slid in bed beside her, his hair still damp from his shower.  He took off his watch and set it on his nightstand, then double checked to make certain the clock radio alarm was set for the right time.  The household always had to get moving thirty minutes earlier during the weeks the boys were with them.


            A.J. leaned back against his own pillows.  Out of the corner of her eye Lauren noted that he didn't pick up the book he had left on the nightstand from the evening before.  It was unusual for her husband not to read for at least ten minutes before falling asleep.  It was also unusual for him not to talk to her about his day, and in turn, listen to her relay the happenings at her work place.  This was generally the time of night when they unwound, spending a little quiet time together before making love, or simply turning the lights out and going to sleep while wrapped in each other's arms.


            Lauren often thought she had the best of both worlds.  When the boys were with them, A.J. couldn't have been more attentive to their needs.  He helped with homework, shuffled them back and forth to school when necessary, packed their lunches, supervised baths, read to them, was an assistant coach for Shane's baseball team, went to karate lessons with Tanner, rode bikes with them, and in general assisted Lauren with the parenting duties in whatever capacity she needed him.  Yet every other week when the boys were with their father, she and A.J. had the luxury of playing newlyweds.  Their time was their own, and they could selfishly pursue whatever endeavors they chose.  Long walks, quiet talks, and back rubs, as Lauren was often fond of saying.  The evening meal was lingered over with a glass of a wine, or at least a glass of wine prior to Lauren's pregnancy, and often times afterward they made love far into the night. 


            Lauren smiled when she thought of how all that was soon to change.  Come the middle of August there would be one child in this home that didn't have to be transferred between two households.  And though Lauren knew she was lucky in that she and Rob had a good relationship all things considered, and that the boys were well adjusted to their lifestyle, and that they had two loving stepparents in A.J. and Rob's wife, Kathy, Lauren was grateful things would be different for this baby.  This baby would stay in the same house week after week and be doted over by the same mommy and same daddy.


            She rubbed a hand over the roomy yellow pajama top she wore, caressing the roundness that was the baby.  Like her previous pregnancies, this one had been easy.  She'd had no morning sickness, and hadn't experienced any days where she could honestly say she hadn't felt good.  As a matter of fact, her energy level seemed to be at an all-time high, which came as surprise to the forty year old woman considering she was going through this pregnancy at an age when most women had long ago given away their maternity clothes. The extra weight gain, which was becoming more noticeable now that she was in her last trimester, hadn't slowed her down at all.  Even as a child she’d been on the go constantly much like Tanner.  Lauren’s mother often teased and said she was into mischief at every turn, which in truth, she had been.


            The baby kicked at Lauren's hand, then repositioned and kicked again.


            "I definitely think you've got yourself a boxer in here, Mr. Simon." 


            Lauren glanced at her husband when he made no reply to her words.  Ever since they'd found out she was expecting he'd been fascinated with every stage of her pregnancy.  Now that the baby was moving around he loved to put his hands on her stomach and track its activity.  But tonight he didn't seem interested in the baby, or in anything else.  He sat with his hands folded behind his head staring at the darkness through the French doors.


            When two more sound kicks came the woman shifted on the bed, trying to accommodate whatever it was her unborn child needed.   Even her change in position appeared to go unnoticed by A.J.  When the child in her womb finally quieted down Lauren returned to her paper.  With pencil in hand she resumed circling things of interest.


            "Now here's one that sounds like it was made for us," Lauren announced.  "Large two story home built for a growing family on spacious lawn. Paul Bunyan sized kitchen, twenty by twenty great room with stone fireplace, master bedroom with vaulted ceilings and adjoining bath with whirlpool tub, small room off the master suite can be used for a nursery, sewing room, home office, or workout room, formal living room and dining room for weekend entertaining, plus three additional bedrooms and a bath on the second floor.  Attached two car garage includes a laundry room and a workshop for your favorite handyman."


            Lauren turned to her husband.  "So what's my favorite handyman think of that?"


            When A.J. didn't answer, Lauren nudged his arm with her elbow. 

"A.J.?"  After a pause, her second nudge was a bit more forceful.  "A.J.?"


            "What?"  The blond man turned his head on the pillow.  "Did you say something?"

            "I've said several things in the past few minutes actually."


            "Sorry."  A.J. hiked up on an elbow and leaned sideways.  He planted a contrite kiss on Lauren's cheek.  "My mind was somewhere else."


            "The boys behaved themselves at the park, didn't they?"


            "Huh?"  It took A.J. a moment to tune in to Lauren's thoughts.  "Oh yeah.  They didn't give me any trouble.  They rarely do."


            "I'm glad to hear that."


            "Now what was it you were saying?"


            "Well, first of all I told you your child is trying to box his or her way out of the womb."


            A.J. smiled, reaching out a hand to caress it over Lauren's now quiet midsection.  A recent ultrasound had indicated a healthy baby was on its way to join the Simon family.  However, both Lauren and A.J. chose not to know the sex of their child, though it was plainly clear to the technician.  As A.J. had said that morning, he had no preference.  He'd waited a long time to become a father, and would eagerly welcome either a boy or a girl.  Lauren had no preference either, which didn't make sense to some people who assumed that after having two boys she'd be hoping for a girl, but it truly made no difference to her.  All she wanted was a healthy, happy baby, and to share the joy in raising this child with A.J.


            The blond man bent closer to Lauren's stomach.  "You behave yourself in there and don't hurt your mother."


            "Oh, A.J.," Lauren laughed, "You're so sweet.  So different from Rob when I was carrying the boys."


            "Different?"  The detective resumed his former position against his pillows.  "How?"


            Lauren turned to face A.J., leaning against her pillows on her left hip with her legs curled up behind her.  She finger combed her husband's damp hair into place.


            "So attentive.  So concerned.  So...loving.  You make the whole experience of being pregnant that much more enjoyable for me.  It's like you're opening my eyes for the first time to the fact that there's a life growing inside of me.  I know that sounds silly, but I never expected to be so excited over this pregnancy.  I mean, I've already had two children. I just assumed it would be old hand.  But you've made it special.  You've made me enjoy it in a way I never thought I would."

            A.J. reached up and took his wife's hand.  "That's because you've brought me a joy I never thought I'd have.  After my divorce from Janet...well, to tell you the truth I couldn't imagine that I'd ever marry again. And I certainly didn't think I'd ever get to witness the miracle of my child growing within the woman I love more than I love life itself."


            Lauren's teasing hid the tears swelling in her throat.  "Rick's right.  You are a hopeless romantic."


            "I know."  A.J. kissed each of his wife's fingers one by one.  "And I'm not ashamed to admit it."


            Lauren freed her hand, folded the paper, and set it and her pencil on her nightstand.  She raised her knees to her chest as best she could considering the girth around her middle, and then crossed her arms over her shins.  "So, what do you think?"

            "About what?"


            "About the house."


            "Oh, the house.  You mean the one for your favorite handyman?"

            "Yep, that's the one."


            "Sounds great."


            The woman snatched a pillow from underneath her husband's neck and bopped him over the head with it.  "You weren't even paying attention when I read you the description of it."


            A.J. laughed, carefully tussling with his wife.  He pinned her to the bed and rained quick, furtive kisses over her face before settling his lips on hers for a more passionate exchange.   When he finally released her, Lauren scooted back up against her pillows while A.J. rearranged his and did the same.


            The detective pulled the sheet and light blanket over them once more.  "You're right.  I wasn't paying attention.  But you contact the realtor and we can go look at it this weekend if you want."


            Lauren nodded her agreement.  Though the little bedroom/office down the hall had been painted pale peach just this past weekend by A.J., and would soon hold the crib and changing table Lauren had out in the garage that her boys had used as infants, the couple had decided the house on the Grand Canal was too small for their expanding family.  They both wanted the luxury of a master bedroom on the main floor to allow them some measure of privacy from the children, and neither felt A.J.'s yard was big enough to accommodate the needs of a toddler.  There was always the danger the canal presented that was no more than three feet off A.J.'s deck, and there was virtually no front yard, causing Lauren concern at the thought of how easy it would be for an energetic two year old to wiggle from her grasp and run out in the street.  It was even a problem for Lauren's boys, who only had the narrow side yard to play in that used to house Rick's boat.  Granted, A.J. had fenced it in and put a swing set, wooden fort, and jungle gym out there, but that left little room for Shane and Tanner to run wild and play with their friends, meaning they generally went to the park down the street where A.J. had taken them earlier this evening.


            In deference to her husband's earlier preoccupation, Lauren said, "We don't necessarily have to go look at the house this weekend.  We had already agreed we won't deal with the hassle of selling this home and moving into a new one until after the baby comes."


            "Whatever you prefer."


            A.J.'s reply, with its lack of an opinion and seeming indifference, was out of character for him.


            Lauren studied her husband a long time before speaking again.  She

laid down and turned on her side, caressing the hairs on his arm with her fingertips.


            "A.J., if nothing happened at the park this evening with the boys, then what did happen today that's got you a million miles away?  Does your preoccupation have something to do with that visit from the FBI that Rick mentioned this morning?"


            A.J. smiled at his wife's perceptiveness.   He shifted, worming an arm underneath Lauren's upper back.  She nestled as close as her pregnant stomach would allow, resting her head in the hollow between his collarbone and chin.  A.J. stroked a light hand through her shoulder length hair.


            "Yes, my preoccupation has everything to do with the visit from Pellman Creek."


            "Pellman Creek?  That sounds like the name of a town."


            "That's just what Rick said.  But no, it's not the name of a town, it's the name of a person.  Creek's the FBI agent who came by our office this afternoon."


            "What did he want?"

            "To hire us."


            "Hire you?"  Lauren tried to lift her body up so she could look A.J. in the eye, but he wouldn't break his hold.  "The FBI?  Whatever for?"


            A.J. gave his wife a brief overview of the request Pellman Creek had made of Simon and Simon, as well as the reasons behind it.


            Lauren had dated A.J. long enough to know what she was getting into when she married a private investigator.  Early in their relationship she'd recognized A.J.'s love of his profession.  Never was it her intention to interfere with that love, nor come between A.J. and Rick in regards to the daily operation of their business.  She was well aware other women, including Janet Fowler, had been guilty of that exact crime, and in so doing had hurt A.J. in a way Lauren vowed she never would.  Therefore, she didn't complain about the odd hours her husband sometimes worked, nor about the unconventional cases he and Rick sometimes took that had forced her to bail the two men out of jail on one occasion since her marriage.  Lauren took it all with the good humor she was known for, but this was the first time A.J. had shared with her details of a job that caused her concern.  She remained snuggled in her husband's arms, quiet and pensive a long time before breaking the silence.


            A.J. thought his wife had fallen asleep, but realized that was foolish.  It was her nature to mull over something that was bothering her before confronting him with it.


            "A.J., when I made that comment to Rick this morning about hoping the FBI didn't want you guys for anything dangerous it was said half in jest.  The last thing I expected was for you to tell me they want to hire you and Rick to play James Bond with what sounds like a seriously deranged man."


            "I know.  Believe me, the proposal Creek made of us was the last possibility on my mind, too."


            "So do you think this Franklin guy is planning to blow up half of San Diego?"


            Lauren felt her husband's shoulder lift in a shrug.  "I don't know."


            The woman squirmed out of A.J.'s arms, but remained on her side.  She bent an elbow and placed her palm under the side of her head so she could see A.J.'s face.  "By the sound of that ‘I don't know’ I get the impression the answer is yes."


            The man gave a playful roll of his eyes.  "You know me too well."  A.J. shifted on his pillows so his body language copied Lauren's.  "To be honest with you, I find it hard to believe the FBI is wrong.  From the sounds of things, they've been watching Franklin for several years now.  I don't think they'd invest that much time and energy into the man if they weren't fairly certain he's up to no good."


            “But Rick doesn't believe it.” Lauren stated. “Or at least he doesn't want to believe it.”

            "How do you always do that?"


            "Do what?"


            "Know exactly what I'm thinking even if I don't voice it?"


            Lauren ran a teasing hand down A.J.'s bare chest.  "If I tell you, that then it won't be my little secret anymore, will it?"  The woman turned serious.  "So what are you and Rick going to do?"


            "I don't know yet.  We didn't talk about it after Creek left the office.  Rick didn't seem to be in the mood to discuss it further, so I thought it was a subject best left alone for a while."


            "I imagine he needs time to think it all through on his own.  After all, it's not every day someone shows up in your office and tells you an old friend is planning to stage Armageddon."


            "True.  And this isn't just any old friend.  It's a friend Rick served with in Vietnam."


            "That makes a difference?"


            "A big difference.  Rick has a deep and unwavering loyalty to the men he fought with over there.  I suppose it's understandable considering what they went through together, but sometimes that loyalty can blind my older brother to the truth of the situation."


            "And you believe that's what's happening now?"


            The blond man thought a moment before answering.  "I guess I'm not really being fair to either Rick or Cord Franklin.  Despite what Agent Creek told us today the bottom line is, even the FBI isn't one hundred percent certain about Franklin and his supposed activities. After all, if they had the evidence they needed they would have arrested him long ago."


            "Which is where you and Rick come in."




            "When will the two of you decide whether or not you take this case?"


            "We have to give Creek an answer by next Wednesday.  But I don't know when we'll have time to discuss it.  We're booked solid with cases both tomorrow and Friday that will have us going in two separate directions.  I doubt we'll see each other for more than ten minutes either day."


            "Then why don't you suggest to Rick that you guys take the houseboat out this weekend?  You know, mix a little fishing in with some good old-fashioned brotherly conversation.  At least that way you won't have to worry about any interruptions."


            "That's not a bad idea, but the boys have their soccer game on Saturday."


            "Sweetheart, you can miss one soccer game.  The boys understand that  you sometimes have to work on weekends.  I'll just tell them that you and Rick are busy on a case.  Heaven forbid if I tell them a part of this case involves the two of you going fishing. We'll never hear the end of it from Tanner."


            A.J. laughed.  Tanner loved to fish as much as Rick did.  The little boy and Shane had been included on several fishing excursions with Rick and A.J. since the blond man had married Lauren.


            "No, we'd better not tell Tanner.  I hate his temper almost as much as I hate Rick's."  The blond man ran the back of his hand over the plains of his wife's face.  "You're sure the boys won't mind me missing their game?"


            "They'll miss you being there to cheer them on, but like I said, they'll understand.  You can make it up to them by taking us out for pizza on Friday night."  Lauren brought A.J.'s hand to her mouth, placing soft kisses on his knuckles.  "And besides, Rob will be at the game.  He'll be taking the boys to his place afterwards for their week with him and Kath."


            "Oh,"  A.J.'s  eyes lit with mischief,  "so that means you'll be here all alone waiting to greet your old man when he returns from the sea, huh?"

            Lauren gave a seductive wink.  Her hand rose again to caress A.J.'s broad chest.  "Yes, I'll be here just pining with loneliness, whiling away the long hours thinking of new and exciting ways to pleasure my sailor when he pulls into port."


            "Perhaps your sailor should give you reason to pine with loneliness," A.J. teased while slipping the buttons on Lauren's pajama top from their clasps.  He massaged the breasts made full by pregnancy before sliding the oversized shirt off her shoulders.  He cradled her body to him, bringing them both to the mattress on their sides and facing one another.  He bent his head to nuzzle her swollen offerings.  "This sounds like one fishing trip I'll look forward to coming home from."


            Lauren moaned as A.J.'s tongue flicked against her sensitive nipples.  Before their passion could go any farther she placed a hand on his head.  He looked up into her eyes. 


            "Promise me one thing, sweetheart."


            "Lady, right now I'd promise you the moon."  The detective's mouth roamed from one breast to the other.


            "Put sex aside for just a moment please," Lauren laughed.  "I'm serious, A.J."


            "Putting sex aside is a little difficult considering the beautiful woman in my bed.  But okay."  A.J. lifted his head, giving Lauren his full attention.  “Promise you what?"


            "Before you and Rick make a decision, please consider the dangers.   To both of you."

            "The danger to me will be almost nonexistent."


            "But not to Rick."  Lauren stated what she already had guessed was fact.


            "No.  Not if Franklin would discover Rick's employed by our government to spy on him."


            "So please, as a favor to me, and as a favor to your mother, remind Rick of that fact."


            "I'm sure he already knows it."


            "Remind him anyway.  Tell him I don't want this baby growing up without an Uncle Rick, anymore than I want it growing up without a daddy."


             "Don't worry."  A.J.'s left hand rubbed Lauren's protruding belly.  "Neither one of those things will happen.  Regardless of what decision we make, we'll both be careful.  We've been at this profession too long not to be."


            "Is that a promise?"


            "It's a promise."


            For some reason she couldn't put her finger on, Lauren had a foreboding about this pending case.  She wanted nothing more than to forbid A.J. to accept it, but that wasn't the type of wife she was.  She'd told him how she felt about it, from there the decision would be his and Rick's.    


            As A.J. resumed the exploration of Lauren's body the woman's ardor burned strong and hot.  She divested her husband of his pajama bottoms, drowning in the luxurious feel of his strong body.  Despite being on the high side of forty-eight, he was still so trim and muscular.  Lauren loved to run her hands over his flat stomach, narrow hips, and firm rear-end.  His biceps and chest remained prominently developed from the time he spent lifting weights and boxing, yet A.J. possessed not a hint of ego.  He never appeared to have a clue as to why he still turned the heads of women half his age, nor did he reciprocate their interest.  And all those things, plus so many others, made Andrew Simon that much more appealing to Lauren, made him sexy to her in a way no other man had ever been. 


            All concerns regarding Cordell Franklin were chased from her mind as A.J. entered her while they still lay side by side.  His lovemaking had always been tender and gentle, but had become even more so since she'd announced her pregnancy.  He was so respectful of her that even now, in the midst of his passion, he was asking if she was all right.  If their joining was bringing her pleasure. The only answer the inflamed Lauren could give was a deeply moaned, "Yes, A.J.  Oh, A.J., yes!  God yes." 


            Long after their lovemaking had climaxed Lauren was wide-awake.  She was content to lay wrapped in her slumbering husband's arms while she stared at the dark ceiling above.   For some reason a strong sense of unease prevailed within the woman as she thought over all A.J. had told her about the case proposed by Pellman Creek.  As sleepless minute after sleepless minute rolled by, Lauren tried to convince herself any worries she had were simply magnified by the hormonal changes pregnancy brought.


            You're being silly, Lauren.  Rick and A.J. won't take this case without giving it careful consideration.  Regardless of whether they accept it or not, nothing will happen.  They're pros.  They know what they're doing.


            Lauren ran a hand over her stomach as though the life within was a guarantee nothing bad would happen to her husband or her brother-in-law.  Another hour passed before she, too, finally joined her household in peaceful sleep.      



Part 2