In just six days, Rick Simon had fallen into a routine that now seemed normal to him. He left his boat at eight each morning and drove to one of the automobile garages Carlos Escobar owned that was halfway between the marina and the Simon and Simon office. Rick parked the Durango behind the garage in Carlos's employee parking lot, and then entered the shop via a back door carrying a Playmate insulated lunch box just like his ‘co-workers’ did. The similarities between Rick and his co-workers stopped there. While the men sipped coffee, grabbed doughnuts from a box in the break room, playfully hassled one another, and began getting out their tools for the start of the working day, Rick slipped out a side door where Carlos faithfully had a vehicle waiting for him. Aside from owning repair shops and car washes, Carlos also bought older model cars and trucks, fixed them up, then resold them. Therefore, Rick had been driving a vast array of automobiles to the Simon and Simon office since hooking up with Cord the previous Wednesday.
Promptly at five o'clock each night Rick returned, following the same routine he had in the morning. Because the side door of the garage opened onto an alley Rick had the option of entering from the main thoroughfare in front of the shop, or from a maze of other alleys behind it. Because Rick chose the option of leaving and returning via the alleys that dumped him on a side street three quarters of a mile away, he had few concerns about anyone being able to track his movements. If someone were watching from the street as he walked to the parking lot with his so-called co-workers, that person would assume he had been inside working all day.
The men who worked for Carlos didn't question this odd activity on Rick's part. Most of them knew he was an old friend of their boss’s and a private investigator. They'd already guessed he was involved in some sort of job that required him to make use of a vehicle other than his own. Some idle curiosity abounded the first few days of this routine, but like Rick, Carlos's employees had gotten used to the activity. They called out hellos to Rick as he walked through the building each morning, and then started their work without further questions.
One of Carlos's daughters, Magdalene, was employed as the full-time secretary/receptionist/office manager at this location. If anyone called for Rick or stopped in to see him, she was instructed to say he was out of the building for a little while on an errand. If the person was willing to leave his or her name with Magdalene, she was to call Rick at the Simon and Simon office with the message.
For now, Rick thought this plan was
working as expected. He had yet to detect
anyone following him as he left the marina each morning, and his detective's
instincts told him that so far Cord Franklin didn't doubt any part of his
Since the previous Friday evening Rick had spent a lot of time mulling over what Cord had told him. He empathized with his old friend, and could understand why Cord's experiences with Joey could easily make any man resentful and bitter toward the country he had, at one time, so proudly fought for. But, bitter enough that it would turn him into the kind of destructive mass-murderer Creek claimed him to be?
Rick asked himself that question over and over, but no easy answers were forthcoming.
Because Simon and Simon was still taking on new cases, the brothers hadn't spent much time together in the past two weeks. A.J. didn't arrive at the office until one-thirty on most afternoons. Often times Rick was out doing legwork on whatever case they had going at the moment. If Rick didn't need his brother's assistance, then A.J. used the afternoon hours to go through the mail, pay bills, file, input case data on the computer, update client correspondence, and meet with new clients.
It was four-thirty on Tuesday afternoon when Rick walked in. He threw a fat envelope on A.J.'s desk as he passed. The blond man opened it seeing ten, twenty, and fifty dollar bills stuffed inside.
A.J. took the cash out and counted it. "Another case successfully completed, I see."
"Yep." Rick plopped down in his chair. "And the best kind at that."
"The best kind?"
"Yeah. The kind where our client is so grateful she gives me a kiss full on the mouth and adds an extra two hundred bucks to our pay."
"You bet. She even tried to slip me the tongue."
"She's seventy years old for crying out loud!"
"Yeah, and evidently pretty desperate for a roll in the hay."
"I hope you didn't oblige
Rick shot his brother a dirty look. "A.J., I don't plan on rollin' in the hay with a seventy year old broad until I'm seventy."
"Glad to hear it." A.J. counted the cash a second time. He entered the figure on a bank deposit slip he retrieved from his top desk drawer then slid both it and the money back in the envelope. "You're still planning to meet Cord for lunch tomorrow?"
"As far as I know. He hasn't called me to cancel or anything." Rick looked through the mail addressed to him that A.J. had left on his desk. "How'd your day with Joey go?"
"Great. He's very intelligent. It's a shame no one other than his late mother has recognized that."
"Cord seems to think the kid's
done all right what with the tutoring his mom gave him."
"Rick, the kid has done more than all right. And that's part of the problem. He's not a kid. Though his father doesn't seem able to acknowledge that fact."
Rick looked up from the mail. "Hey, give the guy a break. He's been through hell with Joey. He was forced to file bankruptcy twice, and his wife was found murdered along a highway. He hasn't had an easy life, ya' know."
"You're right, he hasn't. But have any of us? None of us goes through life without our
share of tragedies, Rick."
"Don't go gettin' philosophical with me. You know what I mean. I think it's pretty shitty that Agent Orange caused Joey’s disabilities. They assured us that spray wouldn't hurt us, A.J. They assured us it wouldn't hurt us, and now that they've found out it did the government has buried its head in the sand in an effort to ignore us. They hope we'll bottle up all the pain and hurt and go away quietly, just like they wanted us to do twenty-five years ago when we came home. "
"I'm not going to debate with
you whether or not Cord Franklin got a bum deal, because I think he did. More importantly, so did his son. But at the moment, those facts have little
to do with this case. I had a rather
curious conversation with Joe today."
"What kinda conversation?"
"The kind where Joe warned me about his father."
"Warned you?" Rick scowled with disbelief. "Warned you how?"
"It was when we were discussing the possibility of Joe attending some college classes. He told me his father would never entertain such a notion. I offered to speak to Cord for him. That's when he instructed me to stay away from his father. He told me it was best if I didn't get to know his dad too well. He said his father wasn't a nice man."
"Doncha think you might be readin' just a little too much into this? Maybe Joey and Cord had a fight or something this morning. Maybe the kid was still ticked off at his old man when said that to you."
"Rick, I just got done telling you he's not a kid. He's a grown man. I don't think those statements were made out of spite or anger. I believe they were what he intended them to be, words of caution."
When Rick made no reply, A.J. told him of the other piece of information he'd gleaned at the end of his tutoring session.
"When I was getting ready to
leave a message came over Joey's computer for Cord via e-mail. His mailbox address is Uncle Sam. I mentioned it to Casey on my way out. She said she'll let Pellman know."
"Oooooo, big deal, James Bond. A lot of people use e-mail addresses that would make little sense to the rest of us."
"I realize that. I simply find it interesting that a man who has reason to blame our government for his son's disabilities would use Uncle Sam as his e-mail address. I doubt that moniker is out of loyalty to his country."
"Jesus Christ, A.J.! Do you have the noose fitted for Cord's neck or what? At this point we have absolutely no facts to back up the FBI's suspicions. Until we do, I don't plan on looking for the one-armed-man and coded messages around every corner. Or around every e-mail for that matter."
"Look, it's not my intention to judge Cord until all the evidence is in. You know me better than that. I'm simply telling you about some occurrences today that I found odd."
"Okay, fine," Rick spat. "You found them odd. Thanks for letting me know."
A.J. took a deep breath before speaking again.
"Rick, if this case has already gotten under your skin to this degree, then maybe we should--"
Rick's fist slammed down on his desktop. "It hasn't gotten under my skin!"
The blond man didn't so much as blink at his brother's temper. "When you start pounding on your desk like that then I'm forced to disagree. I realize Cord is an old friend of yours. I respect that. If you've decided being put in the position of betraying his trust is not something you want to be a part of, then I'll call Creek and tell him we're backing out of the job."
"You just don't understand, do
"Don't understand what?"
"What it's like for guys like Cord and me. What it's like to be let down by your country."
"Rick, don't start with this--"
Rick jumped to his feet, his chair flying out behind him. He rounded his desk, pointing a finger. "Don't you tell me what to start and what not to start! You don't understand, you've never understood, and you never will understand!"
A.J.'s quiet reply was in sharp contrast to Rick's enraged
shouts. "And just how long do you
intend to go on punishing me for that?"
Rick's fury came out in a guttural growl. He turned on his heel and stomped out the door, slamming it behind him.
The blond detective sat alone in the silent office for another hour. He wondered if taking this case had been such a good idea after all. They weren't even to the heart of it yet, and already he and his brother were at each other's throats.
At five-thirty A.J. stood to go home. He locked the filing cabinets and turned off the computer. He paused by his desk and picked up the phone, dialing his home number. When Lauren answered he smiled. Her voice alone caused the tense knots in his shoulders and neck to melt away.
"Hey, babe. What are you doing?"
"Hi, sweetie. I just walked in. Where are you?"
"Still at the office, but I'm ready to call it a day. How about if I treat my beautiful wife to dinner out this evening?"
Shane and Tanner were with their father that week, leaving the night wide open for A.J. and Lauren.
"I couldn't think of anything I'd enjoy more. I'll take a hot shower and be ready when you get here."
"Sounds good. See you in thirty minutes or so. Love you."
"Love you, too, A.J. Bye."
A.J. shut off the lights and locked the door on his way out. He was too preoccupied with thoughts of his brother to notice the person who stood across the street watching him get into his Camaro.
Rick was glad to have the Simon and
Simon office to himself the next morning.
For reasons he couldn't explain, he was in no mood to encounter his
At eleven thirty the detective locked the office and drove to the Escobar garage where his Durango was parked. He left the little Mazda pickup provided by Carlos that day next to the alley door, walked through the garage, and hopped in his Dodge. He headed to Mama Maria's where he picked up the order he'd called in prior to leaving Simon and Simon. With the warm food on the seat beside him, Rick made his way to Cord's gun shop. By the time Rick put money in the parking meter and retrieved the brown paper bag stuffed with Styrofoam containers the entire interior of the Durango smelled like an Italian restaurant.
The shop was devoid of customers when Rick entered. Cord stood at one of the display cases studying a gun catalog he had spread open on top of the glass. He smiled when he looked up and saw who had just walked in the door.
"Hi, Sarge. Glad you could make it."
"Me, too." Rick shut the door with the heel of his right boot. "I've been looking forward to this all week."
Cord led the way to his office. "Hope you don't mind eating here. I don't close at lunchtime. I usually just bring a sandwich from home and wolf it down between customers. Every so often I'll leave long enough to grab something from the McDonald's down the street, but even at that I bring it back here to eat."
"Eatin' in your office is fine
with me." Rick set the bag on Cord's desk. He began emptying it of plastic silverware, paper napkins, and
Styrofoam containers. "I generally
eat at the garage with the other guys, so gettin' outta there for a little
while today is a treat. Hope you like
"Are you kidding? I love Italian." Cord bent over the small refrigerator he kept on the wall behind his chair. "Wanna beer?"
By the time Cord had the beer bottles open Rick had their meals spread out on the desktop. The detective placed his hat and car keys on top of a filing cabinet. He claimed the same chair he'd sat in a week earlier, while Cord sat down behind his desk. Like the last time Rick had been here, the room was in fastidious order. Not a single piece of paper was lying around, nor could a speck of dust be found. The floor in here and out in the show room gleamed from a fresh mopping and waxing. Rick didn't recall Cord being this neat back in their younger days when they'd shared living space at the house on Pirate's Key.
Rick reached for a slice of warm garlic bread and then forked up some round loops of tortellini smothered in deep red marinara sauce. "You sure keep things spic and span around here."
Cord nodded his head, though whether it was in response to Rick's remark or in appreciation of the food, the detective wasn't sure. "Mmmm...this is good." The man used a napkin to dab at the sauce clinging to the corners of his mouth. "I like things neat and orderly."
"I don't recall you likin’ things so neat and orderly back when we were in Nam. Remember that time General Ames came to inspect the troops? You about drove Lieutenant Fischer nuts with your antics."
Cord laughed. "I thought he was gonna piss his pants
when I showed up for the General's inspection without my shirt, and with my boots
untied and on the wrong feet."
"It was just a good thing you were in the back row in a company of two hundred men. Honest to God if they hadn't needed you so badly to fight Charlie I swear Fischer woulda' had you court martialed."
"As it was, he made me clean latrines for a week. Geez, I hated that man. I thought he was such a hard ass."
"Whatta ya' mean, not really?
You just got done saying you hated him."
"I did, thirty years ago. But you wouldn't believe how much of what he taught us I apply in my life today." Cord waved a hand at their surroundings. "The discipline I learned in the Corps helped me achieve the dream of owning my own business. Let me tell you, Sarge, this is the life. For years I punched a time clock every day and worked until my knuckles were scraped raw by metal. I'd come home at night with an aching back from bending over cars for twelve hours, and I still have problems with my knees."
"From standing on concrete all those
years. And for what? To make some fat cat at Ford's corporate
headquarters rich. Some lard ass who
never stood on a factory floor in one hundred and twenty degree heat in his
life. Some blow hard who didn't know
what it was like to work sixty hour weeks just to watch all the money you'd
earned go to pay your kid's doctor bills.
Then just when you're about to get your twenty years in on the job that
will allow you to retire at any time after that with a full pension, they
conveniently decide to lay you off."
"That happened to you?"
"Yeah. Just a few months before Patty was killed. It happened to a lot of guys that year. We weren't stupid. We knew the score. The American car industry was suffering. Used to be Americans would only buy American. That's why for years the big three, Chrysler, Ford, and GM, made tons of money. So much money that the top executives were taking home in excess of a million dollars a piece just as their annual bonus.
"But some time during the 1980s the tide began to shift. I guess our fellow countrymen were fed up with paying the price a new American built automobile cost, when they could pay half that price for a little Toyota shit box made by the Japs. So those white-collar sonuvabitches who employed me decided I was too expensive to keep on their payroll. It was easier to get rid of me and those like me, then replace us with eighteen year old spics who would work for half our wages." Cord thrust his fork tines into a meatball. "There I was. Forty-five years old with a wife and two kids to support, one whose medical expenses alone took every extra penny that came into our house, and I had no job. No job, and no fucking prospect for one. I went on more interviews, said "Yes, sir," and "No, ma'am," to punks half my age, and never even got one call back. If it hadn't been for Patty I don't know what I would have done. She worked so hard to keep my spirits up. Told me she knew something good was right around the corner for me." Cord looked around the office. "And it was. Only she had to die for it happen."
"This business, you mean?"
"Yeah. Not only did the life insurance money help me buy our house out here and obtain the necessary things to make Joey's life better, but it also helped fund this shop."
Rick dropped his eating utensils in his now empty container. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and tossed it in with them. "If you don't mind me asking, do you own this building?"
"I don't mind you asking. And the answer is no, I don't. I rent this shop, but own all the inventory. Business has been good. I have a long term goal of some day owning the building my shop is housed in, though I'd like to relocate to a better part of town at that time. But that's a few years away yet. Logan plans to come on board full-time after he graduates from high school. When I have him here to help me out on a permanent basis then I'll extend the hours the shop is open. I really need to be open on the weekends, but right now that's not possible. When the day comes that it is, I anticipate making a hefty profit. But hey, for now I can't complain. I make enough money to support my family in the style Patty had always dreamed of, and I don't answer to anyone but myself." Cord disposed of his napkin and utensils in the same manner Rick had. "And I'll tell you one thing, Sarge, ain't no spic or nigger gonna replace me now."
Rick nodded his head as if he were in sympathetic agreement. This side of Cord was in sharp contrast to the young man he'd known so many years earlier. He'd never heard Cord make a prejudice remark back then, and a number of their close buddies in Nam had been of various racial backgrounds, including the two he was now defiling as ‘spics’ and ‘niggers.’
Rick's mind came up with a readymade
excuse. Hell, maybe I'd be sayin'
the same things if I'd walked in his shoes.
The detective disposed of the empty
food containers in the garbage can that sat next to Cord's desk. "So Logan's gonna join you here in a
few years, huh?"
Cord beamed at the mere mention of his younger son's name. "Yeah, I can't wait. We're more like best friends than father and son. Now don't get me wrong, we don't always see eye to eye. He gets upset over how clean I make him keep things around here, and how clean I make him keep his room at home. But I tell him there's no place for slackers in my life. If he's going to make his way in this world he has to discipline himself to do tasks he doesn't like. I'm forever reminding him that life isn't one big party. You know how it is with kids of his generation. They've grown up with televisions the size of movie screens, access to hundreds of channels on those televisions, stereo systems the Beatles would have envied back when they started in the music business, plus computers, video games...instant entertainment at the tip of their fingers. Very few of them know what hard work is. Well, not my Logan. He doesn't always like the rules I impose, but he knows he has to live by them. It's up at the crack of dawn around my house no matter what day of the week it is. He has his share of K.P. duty. and he can clean a toilet bowl until it sparkles. It's "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'am," to all adults he speaks to. It's holding a door open for a woman, or giving his seat up on the bus to an elderly man. It's not using profanity or telling an off color joke in the presence of a lady. It's not questioning someone in a position of authority. You do what you're told to do and you do it right the first time without complaint or you drop and give me fifty push ups."
Rick smiled and teased, "It sounds like you're running a boot camp there, old buddy."
Cord smiled back. "I guess in a way it does. I'll admit that a lot of what I learned in boot camp I apply with Logan. About the time he became a teenager I realized how important it is for boys his age to have direction in their lives while being guided by a firm hand. Admittedly, poor Logan got pushed aside during his younger years because of Joey. The boys are four and half years apart in age, but because of Joey's disabilities it was like having two babies in the house. Patty always said we were lucky Logan had such a pleasant disposition. If I was at work and she got tied up with Joey she could just plunk Logan in the playpen with some toys and he was content to sit there until she got back to him. Because of that we over compensated and spoiled him. We let him get away with things he should have gotten a swat on the behind for. When he turned twelve I realized I had to give Logan some long overdue attention, while at the same time teaching him what being a man is all about. I wasn't going to have my son wasting away his teen years in a video arcade at the mall like my nephew Jason did. What the hell is that going to teach him? Certainly not what the real world is all about. I want a son I can be proud of."
"I think you've done a fine
job, Cord. You've got two sons you can
be proud of."
Cord cocked his head. "You say that almost like you know Joey personally."
Rick had to admit that's how his sentence sounded. He realized his words were a reflection of what A.J. had told him.
"No, I don't know Joey personally. But I know Joey's dad personally, and that's how I know he's a young man to be proud of."
"Thanks." Cord's smile seemed forced. "I love him very much, of course. But it's hard, you know? Not being able to do the same things with him I can do with Logan. I think the worst part is never knowing what's on his mind."
"But I thought you said he had some kinda computer that helped him talk."
"He does. But that's not the same as talking like you and I talk, or like Logan and I talk. Basically he can only formulate simple wants and needs like 'I'm hot,' or 'I'm tired.' We've never really had what you'd call a conversation."
Based on things A.J. had told him, Rick thought Cord's words sounded off-kilter. Was A.J. interpreting thoughts Joey really didn't voice, or was Cord truly that ignorant of his son's capabilities?
Cord shook his head and spoke in a voice thick with sorrow.
"When they place your first born son in your arms, the love and pride you feel threatens to burst your heart right out of your chest. I remember the first time I held Joey. He was just minutes old. I looked down into his little face, completely overwhelmed by this beautiful life I'd helped create. I remember whispering into a tiny ear that was no bigger than the end of my thumb. I told him everything we were going to do together. I promised him fishing trips, and camping trips, I told him I'd teach him to ride a bike and to drive a car. But we've never gotten to do any of those things together, Rick. He's twenty years old and still wears a diaper. And he'll still be wearing one when he's thirty, forty, and fifty years old. Joey will always be just who he is now...Joey. Sometimes I wonder..."
Cord's voice faded as though it hurt to say his thoughts out loud.
The man's blue eyes locked with Rick's. "Why he's lived all these years. We almost lost him three different times before he reached eighteen. Twice to pneumonia, and once to a kidney infection. I find myself spending a lot of time wondering what the point is."
"To Joey's life?"
"Yeah. What's the point to an existence that isn't
really an existence at all?"
"Only God knows the answer to that, my friend."
"Yeah, right," Cord snorted. "God. I stopped believing in such a deity a long time ago, Sarge."
"We all gotta believe in something, Cord. That's how we get through each day."
"Yeah, well the only thing I believe in is myself. And that's just what I'm teaching Logan, too." Cord sat up straighter as though his sixteen year old really was sitting before him. “Believe in yourself, son, because if you think some mighty Being from Heaven's gonna sweep down and fix all the problems in your life you're sadly mistaken. Take it from someone who knows first hand. There is no God. There is no higher entity that controls the happenings here on earth. If there were, He wouldn't have allowed things like Vietnam to happen. He wouldn't have allowed some chemical with a dumb ass name like Agent Orange to be sprayed over us. If there was a God he wouldn't have let my little boy be born any other way than healthy, like all little boys should be born."
Rick had no reply for Cord's bitter words. What could he say? He couldn't blame the man for feeling the way he did. It was easy to understand how Cord came to this point. A person can only be knocked down so many times in life before he grows weary of picking himself up from the ground. Rick had no doubt Cord had been forced to picked himself up numerous times since Joey's birth.
Cord reached over and smacked Rick's hand. "But hey, enough of this kinda talk. How would you like to come with me and Logan this weekend to the property I own over by Beckland? You familiar with the area?"
"I've heard of it, but I can't
say I've ever been there."
"You'll love it, Sarge. My place is nice and isolated in the foothills of the Stone Ridge Mountains. Me and the guys spend the weekend doing a little target shooting, hiking..."
"Some friends of mine. You'll like 'em. Most of 'em are vets just like us. A few of them never served in the military, but are vet wannabes, if you know what I mean."
The word 'radicals' flashed through Rick's mind, but he pushed it aside until he could judge for himself.
"So will you come? I know Saturday's the Fourth of July and you
might have something going already, but the guys would be thrilled if you could
Rick pretended to search his mental calendar for a long moment. "Sure, I can join ya'. I don't have any special plans for the holiday other than dinner out with my lady, but I can switch that to Friday night. I'll have to sweet talk her into keeping Rex for the weekend while I'm at it, but that won't be a problem either."
"Great. We leave first thing Saturday morning. How about if Logan and I pick you up at the marina at five?"
"That's fine. I'll be ready. What do I need to bring?"
"Nothing but a sleeping bag and a change of clothes."
"No food or anything like that?"
"Not this first time. This time you're our guest. If you decide you wanna come back again then you can help contribute to our kitchen."
"Sounds fair. I'll be looking forward to it." Rick glanced at his watch, playing the part of dedicated employee. "I'd better get going. Even though you don't have to punch a time clock any longer, I do. I have to be back at the shop by one." Rick looked at the two closed doors the office contained. "Do you have a john I can use before I leave?"
Cord pointed to the door next to the file cabinets behind his friend. "Right there."
When Rick emerged from the bathroom the office was empty. He could hear Cord talking to someone in the shop. He could pick up enough of their conversation to tell a customer had entered.
Rick was reaching for his keys and hat when the phone on the desk rang. Cord yelled from the shop, "Rick? You in there?"
"Would you get that for me
"Sure thing!" Rick picked up the receiver. "Franklin Gun Shop."
"Yeah, it's me. Everything came in as planned. I'll bring them with me on Saturday."
A pregnant pause prevailed before Rick spoke. "Uh...hold on a minute."
The detective laid the receiver on Cord's desk. He grabbed his hat and keys, then walked out to the showroom. The customer Cord had been waiting on was leaving with a small bag in his hand.
"Have a good hunt!" Cord called after the man who had purchased ammunition for a rifle. He turned his attention to Rick.
"Phone's for you, Cord."
"Thanks." Cord started for his office.
"Listen, I need to get going. I have to get back to work."
"Okay. Thanks again for lunch."
"Logan and I will see you at
five on Saturday morning, Sarge."
Rick nodded. "See you then."
Franklin plucked the phone's receiver from his desk. The cord was long enough that he could walk back to the showroom with it in his hand. He gave Rick a wave as the glass door shut behind the departing detective.
Cord spoke into the phone. "Hello. This is Cord Franklin."
"Who the hell answered the
Those six words barked over the line
changed Cord's entire demeanor. His
face darkened and his brows drew together.
"And just who the hell do you think you are talking to me
The voice went from angry to immediately contrite. "Sorry, Cord. I didn't mean anything by it. The guy just caught me by surprise is all. I thought it was you when he answered."
"What'd you say?"
"Just that everything came in as planned and that I'd bring them with me on Saturday."
"Good. Things are right on schedule then."
"But what about the guy who
answered the phone?"
Cord watched Rick climb in the
Durango. "You don't have to worry
"Yes, I'm sure. He's an old, and very dear friend. I trust him with my life."
"Those are the kind we need in our line of work."
Cord smiled when he heard Rick beep the Durango's horn as a way of saying ‘goodbye’ when he pulled away from the curb. "Yes, they certainly are. As a matter of fact, I have a feeling he just might decide to join our cause."
Troya could hear the distant roar of the ocean. The wind swirled her hair around her face causing ivory strands to get stuck in her tears. She stood clinging to her daddy's hand in front of the sun washed grave. Her father squeezed her hand while keeping an arm around her sobbing mother. Grandpa Dalton stood on the other side of Troya's mother wearing a black suit similar to the one Troya's daddy was wearing. She'd never seen her daddy in a suit before, and thought that even with his red swollen eyes, he was still the most handsome man on the island.
Grandma Dalton stood next to Grandpa. She was tall and thin and regal, and years ago had been a beauty queen. She'd even won some sort of contest in the United States when she was young. Troya didn't know Grandma Dalton that well. She rarely came to Kono, instead preferring to live in an apartment in New York City in the winter time, and at the Dalton family estate in the Hamptons during summer. Grandma wore a black suit, too, only hers had a skirt instead of pants, and she had a big black hat on her head she had to hold in place to prevent the wind from blowing it away.
Troya turned to look at her sister. Tiffany rested her head against Aziah's plump hip. She refused to open her eyes, as if by keeping them shut the five-year-old could block out the reality she didn't want to face. Aziah hid her face in a black lace hanky. She tried to stifle the flow of her tears, but every few seconds a gasping sob escaped her lips. She rubbed a hand over Tiffany's back, murmuring words of comfort in her native tongue.
The rest of the island population stood behind Troya's family. Or so it seemed to the eight-year-old girl. Anyone who had ever died here was buried in this graveyard. It stood atop a hill that gave it a view of the entire island, as if the deceased were now in a position to watch over those they'd left behind.
Troya looked down at the little coffin that held her brother's body. She wondered if Brooks was watching over them. Grandpa Dalton said Brooks didn't hurt anymore now that he was in Heaven. Troya hoped that was true. As long as she lived she'd never forget his last day on earth. He'd screamed and writhed and cried almost until the moment he died when blood suddenly spurted from his nose and mouth. Troya's mother
became hysterical at the sight, and her father hadn't been much better. If Aziah hadn't been in the house and called Doctor David, Troya didn't know what would have happened. Her father had Brooks in his arms when Doctor David rushed in the front door, but it was too late. The little boy was dead. Brooks' blood had soaked through her father's shirt and dripped down to splatter on the floor. When Doctor David tried to take Brooks from Troya's daddy, the man had gone crazy. It scared Tiffany so much she ran and hid. It took Aziah two hours to find her. Troya didn't hide though. She just watched, wide-eyed, as her father sank to his knees with Brooks cradled against his chest. He sobbed for what seemed like forever and begged Brooks to live again. He finally laid Brooks on his little bed and stroked his hand over Brooks' limp body. But no amount of pleading could bring Brooks back to life, and finally Daddy let Doctor David take him to the funeral home.
Troya heard her daddy breaking things in his study late that night. She went downstairs, but stopped short of entering the room. He was crying and throwing things and yelling, "I'll kill him! I'll kill the sonuvabitch! Because of that bastard my boy is dead! Before this is over I'll kill them all!"
Troya silently backed out of the doorway. It scared the eight-year-old to see her father this way. He was still wearing his blood soaked shirt, his hair stood straight up from his head in sweaty spikes, and his eyes were red and wild with grief. She didn't know whom he wanted to kill and that scared her, too. She thought maybe he was mad at Doctor David for not saving Brooks.
Troya listened now as the minister prayed over Brooks' grave. She looked out at the ocean, seeing the distant beach they loved to play on. She wondered if Brooks' soul was dancing on that beach even as she watched. She hoped so.
When the minister said his final amen, Troya's father let go of her hand and stepped up to the coffin. The miniature mahogany box was still suspended above the hole in the ground, waiting to be lowered to its final resting place after the family left. Troya watched as her father slumped to cradle the casket just as if he were cradling Brooks. Fresh tears ran down his face and she could hear him sobbing, "My boy. My boy. My beautiful boy." He finally had to be led away from the casket by the minister and Grandpa Dalton.
Troya hung back when everyone turned to leave the graveyard. It was easy to get lost in the sea of people. Aziah held Tiffany's hand, and Grandma Dalton held Mommy's, while Grandpa walked with an arm around Daddy. In their grief, none of them noticed Troya was missing.
The little girl stood by her brother's coffin saying her own goodbyes. It was hard to talk through her tears.
"I'll never forget you,
Brooks. We had so much fun
together. Please don't forget me
Troya felt a hand on her back. She didn't have to look up to know who was standing next to her. She knew he would come. He was her special friend. The friend no one but she and Daddy knew about. She leaned into the hem of his dark suit coat and began to sob.
"I miss him so much, Papa Lowell. It hurts my heart ‘cause I miss him so much."
Lowell Brooks bent and took his granddaughter in his arms. "I know, my Troya. I know. But have faith, little one. Papa Lowell promises to make the hurt go away."
Brooks died last week. I cry all the time and so does Tiffany and Aziah. My daddy used to cry a lot, too, but now he just seems very angry. He scares me.
My mommy had something called a break down. I don't know what that means, but Daddy says it's because of Brooks. She went home with Grandma Dalton to their big house at this place called the Hamptons. Have you ever been there? I think it's in New York. Grandpa Dalton went with them. Daddy said Mommy will stay there with Grandma and Grandpa all summer. I reely miss Mommy. Sometimes I cry for her like I cry for Brooks. Aziah is taking care of me and Tiffany, but that's not the same as having Mommy here.
I'm very sad.
Casey arched her back and wrapped her legs around his thin waist. She used her feet to draw him farther in her body. "Harder! Harder!" she urged. Her hands clutched his skinny butt. What Logan lacked in experience he made up for with desire. She'd been his first, and was now his one and only. She hadn't been in Cord Franklin's house more than three days before she'd pushed the sixteen-year-old up against the wall and had his pants down around his ankles. He'd been a novice of the greenest kind, but he was an excellent student and learned quickly.
The woman's bedroom was located on the opposite side of the house from the other three bedrooms used by Cord and his sons. Whenever Cord was away from home for any length of time Casey could count on Logan paying her a visit.
Cord had returned to the gun shop after supper on this Friday evening. He said he had to get caught up on his bookwork before leaving the next morning on their weekend camping trip. Logan hadn't been able to resist pinching Casey's bottom and fondling her breasts as she got Joey ready for bed later that night. She'd tried to tell Logan in the past that he shouldn't make such overt advances in front of his brother, but he'd only laughed and said, "He's just Joey. What does he know?"
Casey and Logan now rolled and jostled on the queen-sized bed, changing positions before starting their escapades all over again. She sat astride his bony hips, riding him like a cowgirl. Right in the middle of their loving he slapped her across the face so hard her head was whipped sideways. She howled at the powerful orgasm the slap initiated. She slapped him back and bit his lower lip until it bled.
They were both bruised and bleeding when they collapsed on the mattress next to one another. She ran a hand down his side, then snaked it over to cup his testicles.
"You know what I like, don't you?"
The panting boy nodded his head. A content smile crossed his face and he spread his legs wider.
She squeezed, causing the smile to turn to a grimace. His eyes flew open and his cried out when she applied more pressure. The pressure increased until he was writhing in her grasp and begging, "Casey, please! Please, that hurts! Oh it hurts!"
With the smile of a Cheshire cat, she slowly released him. She wiped the sweat from his pale face with a corner of the sheet. As she bent to thrust her tongue in his mouth she fondled his testicles again and whispered, "That's right, Logan. Pain. I like pain. And don't you ever forget it."
Joey heard Logan walk past his bedroom. His brother entered the bathroom, flipped on the light, and shut the door. Within seconds, water from the shower was gently thumping into the tub.
Joey's thoughts were filled with amused sarcasm. After all that activity I hope he uses a lot of soap. God knows what kind of diseases that woman possesses.
Just as quickly as it had arrived,
Joey's humor faded. He hated to see
Logan led astray by their father, and now by this woman who was old enough to
be Logan's mother. Joey thought of
their own mother and how different things would be if she were still
alive. He had no doubt she would have
made good on her threat to leave his father if things didn't change. Joey wasn't so certain his father would have
really cared if she had left. It had
been evident there were problems in the marriage for several years prior to his
mother's death. But when she threatened
to take the one thing his father held most dear to his heart - Logan - Joey had
been well aware his mother had crossed the line. He'd seen it in his father's eyes the night she'd screamed,
"What's wrong with you, Cord! How
can you teach your thirteen-year-old such trash? What kind of a man will he grow up to be if all you do is preach
hatred to him? Have you lost your
mind? What's going on inside that head
of yours that's changed you so much?
That's turned you into a man filled with nothing but anger? If you keep this up, if you stay involved
with these people, I swear I'll leave you, Cord. I'll leave you and I'll take the boys with me."
"Fine! Leave!" Cord hollered back. "Leave and take Joey! He's better off with you anyway. But you’re not taking Logan from this house!"
"Yes I am! You're a bad influence on him! Have you listened to your son lately? I was ready to wash his mouth out with soap yesterday for referring to his math teacher as a ‘stupid nigger.’ Then he said I had no right to punish him because Dad was the one who told him that black people were nothing but stupid niggers in the first place. And that doesn't even begin to touch on the times I've heard him use the words faggot, spic, kike, and gook in recent weeks. I don't like it, Cord! I don't like it one bit!"
Joey had been watching from the other side of their small living room when his father crossed the floor and grabbed his mother's face in between his hands.
"You will never take Logan away from me, Patty. Never! If you try to, you'll pay. I swear you'll pay."
And Joey knew his mother had paid. He couldn't prove it, but deep down inside he knew. If only she'd been able to do what she'd desired, divorce his father and gain custody of both him and Logan. Things would have been different had Logan navigated his teen years with their mother's gentle influence. She was so good hearted and sweet natured. She would have never harmed a soul. Although she never said anything to Joey about it, he knew it was tearing her apart to see day by day what Logan was becoming as a direct result of their father's influence. Life had been so much better when they were younger. When their father worked hard at the factory and was gone from early morning until late in the evening. He was a good dad back then, but he didn't have much time for either Joey or Logan. Logan had been an entirely different boy when his main source of guidance was their mother. Joey and Logan had even been playmates during those years. Granted, Joey's ability to play in the traditional sense was limited, but Logan rarely left him out of activities, even if all he could do was sit in his wheelchair and watch a backyard baseball game from the sidelines. With Logan manipulating the game pieces for both of them, they used to engage in hours worth of checkers, and Candy Land, and Shoots and Ladders. Once Logan entered school he used to read out loud to Joey before they went to bed each night. But so much had changed in the intervening years. They hadn't been close, like brothers should be, in what seemed like ages.
That didn't stop Joey from worrying about Logan like any big brother worries about his little brother. He wondered what the future held for Logan, and feared whatever path the sixteen-year-old chose would prove to be one of destruction.
The sound of the ringing telephone caught Joey's attention. Casey must have been in the part of the kitchen that shared a wall with his bedroom because he could clearly hear her voice.
"Hello?" There was a brief pause in Casey's side of the conversation, and then Joey heard her question sharply, "Why are you calling me here? You know you shouldn't...what? What? Oh no. No! I'm so sorry. Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry."
Then she started to cry, though Joey thought the tears sounded forced and phony.
The twenty-year-old couldn't help but marvel at it all. Not ten minutes earlier she was having such raucous sex with his brother he could hear them all the way in here, and now she was calling someone else sweetheart.
As far as Joey was concerned, this woman was nothing but trouble.
Rick rode in the front passenger seat of Cord's big maroon Ford Expedition. Logan was sprawled out on the seat behind them sound asleep. Cord glanced in the rear view mirror and shook his head.
"You'd think that boy had been up all night running a marathon the way he's sacked out back there. I had a helluva time getting him up this morning."
Rick glanced over his shoulder at the sixteen-year-old attired from head to foot in camouflage garb. "Aw, you know teenagers. All they wanna do is sleep and eat."
"Well, Logan can do plenty of both those things, let me tell you. On some days I think he and his friends are gonna eat me out of house and home."
"Yeah, kids his age are like that." Rick looked out the passenger side window. They were already two hours into their journey, and Cord said it would be another hour before they reached their destination. Rick was glad he'd had the foresight to eat a bowl of cereal and piece of toast before Cord arrived to pick him up. Evidently stopping for breakfast, or much of anything else, wasn't a part of the man's itinerary. The Expedition's gas tank had been full when Cord pulled in the marina's parking lot, and a thermos of hot coffee rested on the seat between the two men. Styrofoam cups were in a package at Rick's feet, but so far he'd passed on Cord's offers of the ebony brew. Since making a bathroom stop didn't seem to be in Cord's plans either, Rick decided it was to his benefit not to partake in the morning pick-me-up.
Rick watched as Cord exited the four lane interstate highway they'd been traveling. They passed through the outskirts of a town where the detective spotted numerous fast food restaurants and gas stations as are often built around interstate exit ramps, but Cord kept on going. Within a few miles they were traveling a two lane highway that was desolate of traffic at this early hour on a Saturday morning. Houses were few and far between, until they were in nothing but farm country. Rows upon rows of lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, and tomatoes sprouted from the flat ground. Their leaves glistened in the sunbeams, and irrigation systems sprayed a fine mist of water from overhead. Every so often Rick would spot a set of farm buildings in the distance, or see a pickup truck meandering down a long gravel lane, but other than that there wasn't a soul in sight.
The detective enjoyed the passing scenery. Years earlier, when Rick was still young enough that he sometimes thought of marrying and raising a family, this was just the type of area that would have appealed to him to settle down in. But, a lot had changed since then. His home was on the water, and his life's work was with his brother. He certainly didn't foresee himself raising children at this stage in the game, and as much as he loved Nancy, he had no desire for a wife. That dream had died with Troya Yeager.
Twenty minutes later the flat land gave way to rolling hills. The road they were traveling rose to a peak, then fell to a valley, rose to a peak, then fell to a valley, until it felt like they were on a roller coaster. Rick could see the mountains in the distance. Their peaks were covered with foliage so thick and full that seeing anything that resembled a stone or a ridge, as in the Stone Ridge Mountains, was impossible.
Cord turned off the highway, traveled another paved road lined with pine trees and dotted intermittently with houses, then turned again. The road they were on now held no homes or signs of life other than the thick forest that seemed to grow straight up the mountain's side. Had Rick been driving he would have passed the narrow lane without ever seeing it. Trees, bushes, and wild grass grew so close to it that it appeared upon first glance to be nothing more than a dirt walking trail a smart person wouldn't risk exploring for fear of encountering poison ivy, brier bushes, rattlesnakes, or a hungry black bear.
Leaves swept the Ford's sides like a car wash brush. The trees were clustered so tall and thick they blocked out the sun. The vehicle rocked back and forth on its axles as it bounced over rocks, potholes, and small logs. Rick felt like he was in one of those TV commercials depicting the ruggedness of a four wheel drive. He hated to break the news to the automobile manufacturers, but the ride wasn't nearly as smooth as they'd like you to believe. He grabbed onto the dash with one hand just to keep himself upright in his seat. He was amazed Logan could go on sleeping.
The road wound up and around like a crooked ribbon climbing ever higher. At times the path was so narrow Rick half expected the Expedition's wheels to slip off and send the vehicle skidding down the mountain on its side.
"Boy, when you say your place is isolated, you mean it, don't you?" Rick commented while hanging on for dear life.
Cord laughed. "Yeah, I do. It's nice to get away from city living. This is the perfect place to come and hang out without being disturbed."
"I can see that." Rick looked out at the dense foliage. "But it looks like some of your friends have come to greet us."
Cord leaned forward, glancing around Rick. "Where?"
"Right in there." Rick pointed into a thick grove of pine trees growing on the mountainside and touring a hundred feet above them. "There's three of 'em. And another one about forty yards behind them, hunched down in those bushes. See him?"
Cord didn't have to see the men in camouflage with their green grease-paint streaked faces to know they were there. He looked at Rick in a cross between amazement and open admiration. "I can't believe you spotted them."
Rick gave a nonchalant shrug to go along with his modest reply. "I probably wouldn't have except one of 'em moved. You better teach your guys what it means to be on reconnaissance duty, Cord."
If Cordell Franklin thought anything of that remark it didn't show on his face, or in his voice. He simply smiled and shook his head. "I should have known if anyone could root them out it would be you. You're still as sharp as you were in Nam, Sarge."
Cord didn't hear Rick's murmured reply. "Sometimes I have to be."
As they climbed and dipped with the rugged unstable terrain, Rick wondered if Pellman Creek had his information correct. He couldn't imagine a school bus loaded with kids entering a summer camp on a road like this. He wondered if this was the original entrance to the establishment, but through years of nonuse and neglect had come to be in this state, or if this so-called road was never intended to be a road at all, but something Cord had manufactured knowing fully well few vehicles would be able to navigate it, and even fewer people would be aware it existed.
The big Ford crested a hill then teetered from side to side, its nose pointed straight down. They descended into what Rick would have referred to as a valley, only it wasn't a valley in the true sense, but rather a section of level ground in the middle of the mountains. He realized now that they had indeed entered the camp from the rear. Buildings dotted the flat area below them. In the distance Rick could see a wide, paved patch of ground where he could envision buses unloading scores of excited children many years in the past. Beyond that was a paved lane that Rick guessed was the private road that lead into the old camp from state Highway 37. If he had his bearings correct that particular stretch of two lane road ran north and south, perpendicular to what was most likely the front of the camp.
The detective pointed toward the paved lane. "It was nice that you wanted to bring me here via the scenic route, Cord, but my butt woulda' appreciated you making use of that smooth road I see down there."
"No one comes in that
"Using this old hiking trail is more private."
"Yeah, it keeps people from snooping around."
"Why would people be interested in snooping around?"
"Aw, you know how some of the liberals are these days. They go crazy if they hear so much as a gunshot. Me and my buddies come up here to have a good time the way men were intended to. We don't take too kindly to being bothered by those who don't belong."
Rick tried not to read a multitude of meanings into those few sentences. He didn't want to jump to conclusions regarding his old friend, but already his investigator's instincts were causing a sinking feeling in his gut. Those same instincts had been causing a sinking feeling since he'd first reunited with Cord, though that was something he'd done an excellent job of not admitting to anyone, least of all himself.
Rick was relieved when the Expedition took its last bounce and landed on level ground. It took his body a moment to adjust to this now smooth ride. Cord headed toward a cluster of buildings. One was long and sprawled in two directions, the others short and square. When Rick was a kid, he and A.J. had spent two weeks each summer at a camp in the woods of Northern California. Therefore, it was easy for him to identify the long building with the fresh coat of dark green paint as being the camp's original mess hall. The clusters of buildings around it, also freshly painted, would have been the cabins the campers bunked in. Judging from the size of these cabins Rick guessed they held six sets of bunk beds, meaning twelve people could sleep within. He counted twenty cabins flanked all around the mess hall. He wondered if it were possible for Cord to have that many ‘friends’ coming here on the weekends.
The blacktop pavement that had once bridged the space between the mess hall and cabins was now cracked and faded gray with age. Rick didn't care. At least it was a far cry from bouncing over downed trees. The flag pole that stood in the center of the cluster of buildings was naked, as were the flower beds formed by railroad ties that lined the outside of the mess hall.
Rick looked down the row of buildings as Cord drove past. He spotted a square structure made of concrete block half hidden by the mess hall and knew it had to be the bathroom/shower room. Or at least what had been the bathroom when this camp was open to children.
Cord steered the Expedition behind the mess hall. A row of automobiles, all pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, branched left and right. A parking space had been left open right in the center of the vehicles, almost as if Moses himself had parted them just for Cord. Rick wondered if this had been done on purpose, or was a mere coincidence.
Cord parked the Ford and shut the engine off. He leaned over the seat giving Logan's leg a swat. In a voice devoid of teasing or humor he barked, "We're here, private!"
The bleary eyed Logan coughed and pushed his body upright. "Huh? What?"
"I said we're here!"
"Okay, Dad. Okay. You don't have to yell."
"Who am I?"
The commanding voice caused Logan to erase the last remnants of sleep.
"General. Yes, General."
Rick got the impression the boy would have saluted his father had Cord
"Get your gear and get out of here, private. And I'd advise you to double time it. Sergeant Vickers will be waiting for you."
Logan glanced at his watch to see it was three minutes after eight. "Oh, Dad...General. I'm already late for roll call. You know what Sergeant Vickers will do me."
Cord winked at Rick. "A few pushups never hurt anyone, private. Sergeant Vickers will make a man out of you yet."
Logan scrambled out of the Expedition and ran around to the wide cargo hold. Cord popped its lock from the control panel in front of him so the teen could retrieve his sleeping bag. Neither Cord nor Rick saw the slight smile on Logan's face, or heard his muttered, "Casey already has made a man out of me."
The teenager took off running up a nearby hiking trail with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm. Within seconds the thick woods swallowed him up. Cord didn't offer any explanation as to where the young man was going, and for now Rick didn't ask. His mind was still too busy absorbing the odd exchange that had just taken place between father and son.
Rick and Cord exited the vehicle as one. After three hours of sitting, Rick was grateful for the chance to stretch his legs. He was walking around to the back of the Expedition to grab his own sleeping bag when a man approached Cord from the corner of the mess hall. He wore a starched khaki shirt and a pair of khaki slacks so freshly pressed the center seams that ran down the front of his legs stood at attention. A green beret rested at an angle on top of his closely cropped salt and pepper hair, and his shiny black boots reflected the sun, causing Rick to squint when he looked at him. The man ignored Rick. When he came face to face with Cord he stood at attention and saluted.
"General. Welcome, sir."
Cord saluted back. "Lieutenant. It's good to be here. At ease." Cord held out an arm to Rick, motioning him forward. "Rick, come here. I'd like you to meet the man who's in charge of things when I'm not around." For the moment the military facade was dropped. "Rick, this is Tom Bidwell. Tom, this is Rick Simon."
The two men shook hands while Cord practically glowed with the opportunity to speak of Rick's accomplishments. "Believe it or not, Tom, Rick was my sergeant in Vietnam. And a better man I couldn't have asked to fight along side of. One tour of duty over in that hell hole wasn't enough for this fool, he turned around and signed up for another a week before he was due to come home."
"I seem to remember another
fool signin’ up with me, even though I told him he was a horse's ass if he
"Hey, wherever my Sarge went back then, I went." Cord draped an arm around Rick's shoulders and turned to Tom. "Rick was awarded a purple heart, a silver star, and the medal of valor."
Tom nodded, clearly impressed with the man in their midst. "That's quite a list of accomplishments, Sergeant."
"It was a long time ago. And as I told Logan a few weeks back, I haven't been called sergeant for a good number of years now. Rick will do."
"Everyone goes by a rank of some sort around here, Rick," Cord explained. "You know, just for the fun of it. But, for now, if you're more comfortable with just being called Rick, that's what we'll do."
"Uh...yeah. For now that would be fine."
The camaraderie in Cord's voice left as he turned back to Bidwell. "Lieutenant, which men are patrolling the western quadrant?"
"That would be Holmes, Manfred, Satterson, and Donnel, sir."
"Then you'd better get out there and give them a lesson on what it means to blend in with their surroundings. Rick immediately spotted them. All four of them. I believe a five mile run at noon with full packs would be an appropriate place to start your training."
Bidwell saluted. "Yes, sir." He turned to head up the trail the Expedition had just traveled. Cord called him back.
"Oh, and Lieutenant Bidwell?"
Bidwell swiveled. "Yes, sir?"
"You're included in that run. Maybe next time you'll be more dedicated to your job as trainer."
Although the man kept his face a neutral mask, Rick could feel the dirty look he was getting.
Again, Bidwell saluted. "Yes, sir."
As with Logan had earlier, the thick foliage soon obscured Tom Bidwell from view.
Cord and Rick walked together to the back of the vehicle. "I thought you said you and your friends came here to have fun," Rick teased. "I don't think that guy looks like he's havin' such a good time."
Cord picked up his shaving kit and a cardboard box of food. Rick slipped his sleeping bag's strap over one shoulder along with the strap of his duffel bag. Together, the two men used their free hands to lift out the cooler Cord had brought that was stuffed with meat and other perishable items.
"To be honest with you, Sarge, we're not just about good times and fun up here. Oh sure, we have both those things now and again, but we stand for other things as well."
"By the time the weekend's over you'll see." Cord started toward one of the cabins. "And I hope you come to agree with our philosophy and join us."
Now that he was here, Rick was wondering if there was any other choice. "It sounds like it'll be an interesting weekend if nothing else."
Cord grinned like a little kid about to enter a candy store with a twenty dollar bill in his hand. "That it will be, Sarge. That it will be."
Cord led Rick to the end-most bunkhouse east of the mess hall. They set the cooler down outside before entering.
An old wooden desk sat against one wall, two seven foot tall brown lockers were off to the side of it. A double bed rested against the wall opposite the desk, a military issue foot locker residing at the end of it. Rick assumed the three lockers explained why Cord hadn't brought any clothes along.
On the wall directly across from the door was a bunk bed framed with the same weathered pinewood the double bed was fashioned from. The scuffed wood floor still held the brackets where the rest of the original bunk beds had been mounted. Rick surmised this cabin must have been specifically remodeled with Cord in mind. Cord's next words further cemented that assumption.
"These are my private quarters." He set his shaving kit on the knotty pine nightstand by the bed. "I left one set of the bunk beds intact in the event that I ever had reason to invite someone to stay in here with me. You're the first person I've ever asked."
"You deserve such an honor, Rick. Despite the years that have gone by without contact between us, you're the best friend I ever had. I don't know how many times I've thought of you over the years. Wondered how you were and what things, good or bad, life had brought you. I even thought of trying to track you down on Pirate's Key once or twice, but with Joey's problems we just never had the money to take a real vacation."
"Good thing you didn't try, 'cause I probably wouldn't have been there."
"No, you wouldn't have been. I don't know why I didn't think to look you up when I first moved to San Diego. I remembered that you were born and raised there, but what with getting my family settled and starting my business, I guess it just slipped my mind."
"That's understandable." Rick tossed his sleeping bag on the naked mattress of the bottom bunk and his duffel bag onto the top bunk. "Between the boys, your business, and this place, you've been plenty busy. I'm just glad I stumbled into the shop. To tell ya’ the truth, I didn't even know it was there."
"No. I was driving by when I spotted it. I needed some ammo for a couple of my guns and thought, what the heck, I'd go in and see what you had and what your prices were. Then you recognized me and I left without buying what I went in there for in the first place."
"Well, I'm glad you found me.
And I'm glad you agreed to come up here with me." Cord looked at his watch. "I have a staff meeting scheduled at O
nine hundred, but until then I can show you around if you'd like."
Rick acted as though it was normal for people on weekend camping trips to hold staff meetings. He made no comment other than to say, "That's fine with me."
The men started their tour in the mess hall. They carried Cord's cooler through the double doors where two young men in their mid-twenties wearing camouflage garb saluted Cord and called him general while taking the cooler from him. Cord introduced Rick to the pair just like he'd introduced him to Tom Bidwell. He made a point of telling the men Rick was a decorated Vietnam veteran, and would go on to tell that to every man Rick was introduced to for the rest of the day. For whatever reason, Rick got the impression your past laurels meant a lot around ‘Camp Cord,’ as he'd come to mentally refer to the property, regardless of whether those deeds took place more than a quarter of a century ago.
The mess hall was just like the one Rick remembered from the camp of his youth - long, wide, and filled with cafeteria tables each capable of seating thirty people. The front of the hall contained the kitchen. An open counter ran along the wall where the cooks could serve the food while you shuffled past in a line carrying your tray.
Cord led Rick to the whitewashed south wall. From this distance Rick could see the wall was covered with framed photos in all sizes and shapes, but couldn't discern what they depicted.
"I call this our Wall Of Pride. I asked all the guys, or at least the ones who have been in some branch of the service, to bring in pictures. I think it's important for us to honor each other, and to be proud of ourselves and what we stood for even though our country has forgotten us."
Rick's eyes roamed the photos. Many were black and white and dated back to the Vietnam era, though some were in color and more recent. Cord pointed those out.
"Some of the guys that come here fought in the Persian Gulf." He lowered his voice as he looked toward the kitchen where the two young men who had taken his cooler were busy unpacking it. "Of course, their war wasn't really much of a war at all. Not when you compare it to what we went through in Nam. Still, some of them are real kick-ass in-your-face fighters."
"So not all the guys who come here
are Nam vets?"
"No, not all of them. Like I told you the other day, there's some who never even served in a branch of the military. But if they want to be a part of this and can make the grade, that's fine with me. I can use all the good men I can get."
"Use them for what?"
Cord smiled, but refused to answer. He motioned Rick farther down the wall with a crook of his finger. He didn't have to point out a cluster of photos that Rick immediately recognized. They were all shots of Cord taken in Vietnam, and Rick himself was in every one of them, too.
"Geez, I didn't even know half of these pictures existed." Rick's eyes traveled from one photo to the next. "You amaze me."
"I don't know." Rick indicated to the Wall Of Pride with a
sweep of his right hand. "This.
The importance that you give to a war most people have forgotten. The reverence you're paying to the men who
served over there. It's a noble cause,
Cord. A real noble cause."
Cord clapped a hand on Rick's shoulder and squeezed. "Hey, we deserve to be told thank you by somebody, don't we?"
Rick looked into his old friend's eyes and nodded his head. "Yeah, Cord, we sure as hell do."
"So, I finally came to the conclusion that if no one else was gonna thank us, we might as well thank ourselves."
"That's why you bought this
place and invite your buddies to come out here on the weekends?"
"That's part of the reason." Cord didn't elaborate further, nor did Rick expect him to. "Come on. Let me show you the rest of the camp before I have to start my meeting."
The remainder of the tour didn't take long. As Rick had suspected, the buildings surrounding the mess hall were cabins filled with bunk beds. Rick's estimate that each cabin held six sets of beds was correct, three on one wall and three on the other. The block building he'd seen from afar was indeed a combination bathroom/shower room that could service up to twenty men at one time. Two metal doors led into the building, one from the front and one from the back.
Another building sat behind the shower room that was square and painted green like every other building Rick had seen so far, save for the concrete block bathroom. Cord didn't point that building out to Rick, so the detective didn't ask about it. Rick guessed it might have been used to house lawn mowers, tools, and other maintenance equipment back when this summer camp was in its prime of activity, but now whatever it housed evidently needed to be guarded. A man who looked to be in his early thirties stood watch outside the building with a rifle in his hands. He saluted Cord as they passed, but no verbal exchange was made.
Rick and Cord walked east until they were clear of the cluster of buildings. As Rick had assumed when he'd first arrived at the camp, the road they were on now led to what once had been the main entrance. A totem pole carved with the smiling faces of children rose twenty feet in the air. On top of it was carved, Camp Oh-Be-Joyful, in letters that had weathered and faded with the passage of time.
Maple and pine trees grew along the roadway. Waist-high grass and wild flowers swayed in the mountain breeze. Rick could easily guess this overgrowth at one time had been kept cut and manicured by the camp's grounds keepers, but again, years of neglect had allowed the grass to return to its natural state.
There was no doubt the cyclone gates that rose thirty feet over Rick's head were new. Their silver metal bars and thick meshed woven wire were free of paint chips, dents and bird shit. The gates were closed and secured with a heavy padlock. Two men who saluted Cord stood on guard duty here as well.
"This is the old entrance to the camp," Cord explained what Rick already knew was the obvious. "If you exit the gates the road curves for about a mile or so, then dumps you out on Highway 37."
Rick kept his tone light when he
asked, "What are the guards here
for, Cord? You afraid a roving band of
campers are gonna try to crash your party?"
Cord took Rick's question with good humor. "No, no. Nothing like that. Believe me, Rick, most campers would not find my brand of summer fun to be to their liking. It's as I said earlier; we just want our privacy. A weekend place where we can do what we want to and not be bothered. I own this land. I have the right to keep people off of it."
Rick nodded toward the armed guards decked out in military garb. "I would say those two do an effective job of that."
"They'd better, or they'll be joining their buddies on that five mile run today." Cord put a hand on Rick's shoulder as they turned around to head back the way they came. "Seriously though, I have the lane posted with no trespassing signs where it butts up against the highway. We've actually had very few problems with anyone ever coming back here. The guards are just an extra precaution."
Rick wanted to ask a precaution against what, but held his tongue.
Cord looked at his watch. "I need to change my clothes and organize my notes for the meeting. You don't mind being on your own for a while, do you, old friend?"
"No, no. That's fine," Rick replied evenly as adrenalin pumped through his system. It was a private investigator's dream to be asked if he minded being left alone when he was working an undercover job. "Is it okay with you if I look around some more? Maybe take a little hike?"
"That's fine with me. If you end up some place you're not supposed to be, someone will point that out to you."
Rick resisted looking over his shoulder at the armed guards standing in front of the gates. "I'm sure they will, Cord."
I'm sure they will.
There was nothing in the way of additional buildings for Rick to poke his nose into, so he meandered behind the row of parked vehicles and headed for the woods. Men decked out in camouflage and grease-paint began immerging from those woods as though they'd been somewhere on military maneuvers. Rick watched as they headed for the mess hall. He assumed that must be where the meeting was to take place.
He counted fifty vehicles parked behind the mess hall, and saw a number of others parked behind various cabins. Just from what he'd seen so far he roughly estimated seventy-five men to be present. A number of the cabins he and Cord had stepped in had been devoid of anything but empty bunks, leading Rick to believe there wasn't enough men on the premises to fill them all.
By the time Rick got to the woods he had the entire outdoors to himself. Or so it seemed. He surmised the guards were still on duty at the front gate, along with the guard outside the building behind the bathroom. He suspected there was also a guard or two of some sort hiding in the woods near the path Cord had used to enter the grounds.
I'd better steer clear of them. If they're the same ones I spotted who are now gonna be runnin' five miles at noon, they probably won't appreciate makin' my acquaintance.
For just that reason Rick headed in the opposite direction from which they'd originally traveled in the Expedition. Curiosity got the best of him as he climbed the hiking trail he'd last seen Logan traversing. The woods and brush were thick here, almost obscuring what had once been a groomed pathway. Rick was glad he'd worn his field jacket. At least between that, his jeans, and his thick soled hiking boots the briers and thorny vines didn't hinder him much.
Although Rick would be the first to acknowledge he wasn't in the type of physical condition A.J. was, he knew he was in pretty good shape for a fifty-four year old man. The nature of his business demanded he keep active, therefore he took daily walks with Rex that often spanned four miles along the Pacific shoreline, and he rode his bicycle with Nancy on the weekends. The two of them also line-danced one evening a week at the Dusty Spur, and from September through May bowled on a league with Carlos and Eva. And despite A.J.'s teasing, Rick was even making use of his brother's weight machine that sat in a corner of their office. If nothing else, he'd completely lost the small paunch he'd begun to acquire after he'd hit his fiftieth year, and he noticed his upper body strength had reverted back to what it had been ten years earlier.
Because of those activities the rugged climb barely caused the lanky Rick to draw a deep breath. He had to keep a careful eye on the ground so he didn't trip over exposed roots or get tangled in a web of vines. Several times he had to veer off the trail so he could travel smoother ground. The trees kept most of the sunlight out and kept a cool breeze flowing, so despite the fact it was early July Rick was quite comfortable in his long sleeved jacket.
The detective estimated he'd hiked two miles when he heard the distance thunder of footfalls and voices all barking in rhythm. Rick hadn't been out of the military so long as to forget what cadence was. He crested a steep hill and stopped, parting vines and branches to stare at the scene below him.
Another camp, identical to the one Cord resided in, was on the property as well. Rick immediately surmised that Camp Oh-Be-Joyful had been run like many children's summer camps of the 1950s and 60s, meaning the boys were housed in one area, the girls in another. Since he'd already seen the bathroom in Cord's camp and taken note of the urinals mounted in the walls, he knew that must have originally been home to boys. He now guessed this twin camp below him must have been where the girls bunked.
Six rows of camouflage clad young men ten deep jogged through the center of the camp calling off words in time to their footsteps. Rick was too far away to clearly discern what they were saying. At the head of their platoon was a man of approximately forty-five in fresh khaki garb wearing a wide brimmed drill sergeant's hat. He signaled for the boys to stop, then shouted for the start of calisthenics. He paced in front of them, inspecting as they did well-coordinated jumping jacks. Rick assumed this was the Sergeant Vickers he'd heard Logan refer to earlier.
Because of the baseball style caps on their heads it was hard for Rick to determine the ages of the boys below him. He moved forward as far as he dared and crouched down in the brush. He squinted, finally able to pick Logan out of the crowd. He scanned the faces around Cord's son. From this distance it was difficult to make out individual features, but all of them were white, and he doubted any were over eighteen. The youngest looked to be no more than twelve, a little boy in a sea of young men, drowning in an oversized camouflage shirt that had no hope of fitting the seventy pound body that wasn't even five feet tall yet.
Rick watched the boys go through a twenty minute workout directed by their drill sergeant. Just like Rick's long ago days in boot camp, no slackers were allowed here either. If a boy faltered or made a misstep that threw the rest of the company off, Vickers got in the offender's face and screamed until he was hoarse, then the guilty party was made to drop to the ground and do pushups. Rick could only shake his head when the youngest boy amongst them was forced to endure this type of humiliation. He was sure the kid was crying while struggling to do the required twenty-five pushups, but the boy did a good job of hiding that fact.
The calisthenics were finally called to a halt. The boys stood at attention, awaiting their next order. Vickers started marching in place, his young company following suit. He led them toward the mess hall, shouting in cadence, "An All-White Nation is the best! We are better than the rest!"
The ridiculous rhyme might have been funny if sixty boys hadn't echoed every word of it with an intensity that sent shivers up and down Rick's spine. Regardless of what else he might discover during his stay here, he knew he'd just seen the worst Camp Cord had to offer.
Rick backed out of the overgrowth, turned and headed down the trail. He blocked out the words that were carried to his ears on the wings of the wind. Words filled with hate, violence, and racial slurs that were at odds with a camp once called Oh-Be-Joyful.
The detective was out of sight when Brendan Nash looked up at the spot where Rick had just been standing. The young man didn't know why he suddenly had the feeling he and his friends were being watched, but instinct told him something, or someone, had been observing from afar.
He squinted into the mid-morning sun, but could detect no unusual movement or shadows. He shook off his premonition when he felt Logan poke him between the shoulder blades. Before Sergeant Vickers spotted him lagging behind, Brendan picked up the pace of his feet and his voice until his enthusiastic shouts drowned out those of the other boys.
"An All-White Nation is the best! We are better than the rest! No Jew will take what's ours away, we defend our freedoms every day!"
Brendan no longer thought about the meaning behind the words he was miming. Nor did he allow himself to think of how broken hearted his mother would be if she ever had a clue as to where he spent his weekends.
By the time Rick returned from his hike, Cord's staff meeting was adjourning. The dark headed man, now dressed in military garb like the rest of his troops, caught sight of Rick and waved him over. As men spilled out of the mess hall Rick was introduced. He knew the wide smiles and hearty greetings bestowed upon him were given for no other reason than because he was a personal friend of Cord's. If anyone had any doubt as to the depths of their bond, Cord made it clear from the start that their friendship was a very old and very dear one. The tone he used when speaking of Rick contained nothing but the utmost respect.
Because Rick knew the fastest way to gain Cord's trust was to be truthful with him, the detective waited until the last man was out of ear shot and then said, "I took a hike while you were in your meeting. I ran across the camp where Logan is. I hope that's okay. I mean, there was no around to tell me it was off limits to be there or anything, so I figured you wouldn't mind."
"That's perfectly fine. As a matter of fact, I'm glad you found our ‘junior camp’ as I refer to it. If you hadn't, I would have taken you over there this afternoon." Cord rocked back and forth on the heels of his black boots. "So?"
"What'd you think of it?"
"Your junior camp?"
"Reminds me of boot camp."
Cord laughed. "It's supposed to."
Rick floundered for something positive to say, when all immediate thoughts were only negative in nature. "The boys appear to be a well-disciplined unit. Though personally, I think that Vickers guy is a bit of sissy."
Cord threw back his head and laughed again. How like Rick to make a sardonic statement about a man as huge, ugly, and intimidating as Vic Vickers. Cord wiped a tear from his eye. "Oh, Rick, you really crack me up. I swear it was because of you that I came home from Nam with my sanity intact."
Cord led the way from the mess hall,
Rick falling into stride beside him.
"So other than Vickers, what do you think?"
"I'm impressed, Cord. Really impressed. You've got yourself quite an operation here."
"Thanks. And I think you'll be even more impressed when you see what we're doing from now until chow is served."
"Follow me to my cabin. We need to get some things there first."
Rick did as he was told. Cord opened his footlocker and threw a camouflage shirt Rick's way while digging out one for himself as well. "Maybe you'll feel more like one of us if you wear this."
"Yeah, I will. Thanks."
While Rick exchanged his field jacket and blue chambray work shirt for the camouflage shirt, Cord opened one of his lockers. Rifles lined the space within, while handguns and ammunition were bedded on the top shelf above them. Cord grabbed two rifles and two handguns. He slipped the heavy camouflage shirt/jacket over the khaki shirt he was wearing and filled the deep side pockets with ammunition. He handed a rifle and a gun to Rick.
"See how these suit you."
Rick checked to make certain the firearms weren't loaded, and then sighted each of them as best he could within the confines of the cabin. Both felt comfortable, neither being too heavy or too light for a man his size and age.
"They feel great."
"Good. Next weekend...if you want to come back that is, you can bring some from your own collection if you'd like."
Rick smiled at his friend for the invitation he appeared to have already garnered for a return visit. "I'll be sure to do that."
The detective followed Cord out of the cabin. They walked several hundred yards behind the cluster of buildings until they came to an open field. In the distance Rick could see paper targets shaped like the human body hanging from a rope strung between two trees. The men Rick had just met were gathered around, all carrying whatever brand of firearm they personally favored. Now that the majority of Cord's friends were in one place Rick realized for the first time that, just like the boys he'd seen earlier, everyone present was as white as ‘apple pie, baseball and Chevrolet.’ The silent message that fact evoked came through loud and clear to the private investigator.
The next two hours was devoted to target shooting. Individual contests ensued as did team efforts. It came as no surprise to Rick when the five-man team he was recruited for was headed by Cord.
Rick's shooting skills gave Cord something else to brag about regarding his old sergeant. The detective won every individual contest they engaged in regardless of whether he used the rifle or the handgun, and fired the winning shots through the heart of every hanging target for his team.
Cord clapped Rick on the back when the activities came to an end. "Geez, Sarge, I knew you were good. But I didn't recall you being that good."
Rick shrugged while dumping shell casings in a nearby garbage barrel. "I've gotten into target shooting pretty heavy over the last few years."
Rick didn't go on to tell Cord that he and A.J. belonged to a local gun club where they made use of the firing range every few weeks to keep their skills honed. He allowed Cord to believe his interest in guns and target shooting was nothing more than a hobby, as opposed to being a part of his profession.
"Well, I'm impressed. And so are the other guys. You really could be an asset to my cause, Rick."
"We'll talk more about it later. For now let's put these guns away and get in line for chow."
Rick's friendly nature and sense of humor quickly ingratiated him to the other men. He and Cord shared a long table with twenty-eight others. The food was far better than any Rick ever remembered being served while he was in the military, and for that he was grateful. By the time he'd gone through the chow line and his plate was filled he was starving.
Someone from across the room called, "Hey, Simon! I hear it's because of you that Bidwell and his boys aren't dining with us today!"
The entire group of seventy-some men burst into laughter. Cord lifted his can of Coke in a toast. "Yep, that's my old Sarge. Still got the eye of an eagle."
Rick felt himself blush at the praise and attention. He had a feeling Bidwell and company weren't finding any humor in the situation right about now.
The men were allowed thirty minutes of rest after the meal was over. Most of them sat around the tables talking, while a few went outside to smoke. Rick tuned into various conversations and quickly concluded that a fair number of the boys he'd observed at the junior camp that morning were the sons of many of the men seated around him. No one seemed to have any concern over what the boys were being taught, or the physical paces they were being put through. If anything, the fathers seemed to take pride in it.
At one-thirty Cord led everyone out of the mess hall. A four mile hike ensued that made Rick grateful he was used to walking this distance with Rex. When they returned to the base camp Lieutenant Bidwell and his wayward soldiers were waiting for them. Rick had heard Cord tell the cooks that Bidwell and the four men accompanying him weren't to be given any lunch. By the glare Rick got as he passed Tom Bidwell the detective could easily guess he was on the guy's shit list.
Cord led the way back to the open field where they'd earlier engaged in target practice. Paint guns, and grenades filled with colored smoke, were laid out for everyone. They were instructed to pick up the firearms then break off into their squads, units of men that numbered ten. At Cord's insistence Rick stayed with him.
As long as he lived, Rick Simon never thought he'd again see the day when he was engaged in battle. But that's exactly what happened as every squad took off for the woods. Cord explained that for the remainder of the afternoon they'd engage in maneuvers. Rick nodded as though this was how he spent every Saturday afternoon.
The detective was at a disadvantage because he didn't know the woods or the rules of the game they were playing. The rules he learned quickly, however. It wasn't hard to figure out ‘kill or be killed.’ If you were struck with a streak of red paint that hit you anywhere above the waist with the exception of arms you were considered dead. If the colored smoke from a grenade painted your clothing you were also considered dead.
Rick could see how a man could easily get caught up in the excitement of this so-called game. It was like being a little boy again playing war, only this time you had guns and grenades that really worked, but in a way that was fun as opposed to deadly. Rick clamored through the woods with the same amount of enthusiasm as the other men, forgetting for the moment that this was more than an innocent weekend away with the boys.
Trees, rocks, and bushes were soon spattered red. Anyone who was ‘dead’ was forced to leave the game and sit in the clearing. The last squad left with the most living men would be declared the victor. Rick's leadership skills asserted themselves without conscious effort on his part. Without intending to, he was soon leading Cord's squad through the tangle of overgrowth. He didn't take notice at how easily he and Cord had reversed roles. Suddenly Rick was the leader and Cord the follower, which seemed to suit Cord Franklin just fine.
Three hours into the game Rick's squad was left with seven men, and Bidwell's with four. Rick silently led his men through the woods in search of the enemy. Cord fanned off to Rick's left, while everyone else remained crouched down behind him. A flash of something straight ahead caught Rick's eye. He dove for Cord as though a real grenade was coming the man's way.
Rick landed on top of his old friend, the two men rolling down an incline of dirt, rocks, and tree roots. By the time they were on their feet again and clawing their way upwards their squad was engaged in battle with Bidwell's. The element of surprise had turned on Lieutenant Bidwell, leaving him and the three men with him out in the open. They dove for tree trunks and rocks, but it was too late. Two of them were spattered with paint from head to toe. Rick and Cord took off after the remaining two, one of whom included Bidwell. Their fleeing backs made an easy target. Rick ‘killed’ Tom Bidwell, while Cord got the other man.
Cord shook his head as he approached the dead. He held out his hand to Bidwell. When the man grasped the offered hand Cord pulled him to his feet. "Tom, Tom, Tom," Cord shook his head like he was scolding Logan. "How many times do I have to tell you to use your head? You have to stay cool in the heat of battle like my friend Rick here."
Tom spat in an effort to clear his
mouth of dirt and grass. "Yeah,
well I guess I'm just not a war hero like Rick, General."
Bidwell brushed past Rick and Cord, stomping toward the distant clearing. The man Cord had ‘killed’ stood up, gave Cord a little shoulder shrug that indicated his puzzlement over Bidwell’s attitude, and then followed the lieutenant.
"Maybe you should ease off Bidwell," Rick said to Cord when they were alone. "I don't think he likes me too much as it is. I don't wanna come between you two guys."
"You won't come between us. He's a good friend, but you're my best friend. It's not your fault your skills far outweigh his. I think you'll be good for him. A little competition never hurt anyone, and it might spur him on to improve where he's lacking."
"I just don't want him pissed with me. I mean, after all, I am the new guy around here."
"He's not pissed with you, he's just moody. Don't worry, by suppertime he'll have forgotten all about the indignities of the day. And speaking of supper, let's head back. First, as the winning squad, we get to spend a good thirty minutes bragging about our exploits while we all share a few beers. Then it'll be time to eat."
"Sounds good to me. All this activity has made me hungry."
Cord and Rick picked their way down the steep trail Bidwell and his man had just traveled. Cord turned and smiled at his friend. "I forgot to say thanks."
"Saving my life back there."
Rick laughed. "Cord, it was just a phony grenade. Just a game. I don't think what I did falls under the same category as saving your life."
"But you would."
"Save my life. If, say for instance, we ever got ourselves in a situation where I needed you, I know without a doubt you'd come through for me, Rick. You did when we were in Nam, and you still would today."
Rick hated the trust he saw in the dark blue eyes that gazed up at him. It made him feel like a traitor of the worst kind.
The same afternoon Rick was playing weekend warrior with paint guns, A.J. was putting the finishing touches on a paint job of his own. Lauren had chosen a delicate shade of peach for the baby's room called Soft Seashell, to be complemented by a wide wallpaper border with ponies riding an old fashioned carousel. A.J. had painted the room three weekends earlier and had pasted the border on the previous Sunday, while Lauren hung the curtains that matched it pony for pony. The couple had done some shifting of furniture in the master bedroom so A.J. could move the desk and computer from this room. Their bedroom would be cramped for a while, but with plans to buy a larger home in the near future this arrangement was manageable. The double bed that had resided in the guestroom/office had been dismantled and was in storage in Cecilia's large attic, as was the double bed that had sat in the room Tanner and Shane now shared. A.J. planned to take those two items off his mother's hands as soon as his family moved into their new home.
For the moment, the detective concentrated on the house he currently called home. He walked around the perimeter of the baby's room with his paint can in one hand and paintbrush in another. He touched up areas that had been nicked with all the moving and rearranging that had gone on in recent days. When he was satisfied the job he'd done would make a professional painter proud, he headed down the stairs and out to the garage. He tossed his brush into the utility sink next to the washer and used a hammer to secure the lid on the paint can. He stored the gallon container in a metal cabinet that held other cans of paint in various shades of the rainbow, and then washed both the brush and his hands. A.J. wiped his hands on the towel hanging from the rack above the sink. The damp paintbrush went handle-first into an old Foldger's can so it, too, could dry.
The detective walked over to the opposite side of the garage where baby furniture brought the previous summer from the storage unit of Lauren's condo sat covered with sheets. A.J. removed the sheets, folded them, and placed them on top of the washer. He grasped one side of the oak crib, carrying it into the house and up the stairs. He came back for the other side, then for the headboard and footboard.
A.J. was careful not to nick his freshly painted walls as he placed everything in the baby's room. He returned to the garage to carry up the changing table that had been stored with the crib. At least this didn't require as many trips; the table was in two pieces as opposed to four. The expectant father grabbed his toolbox on the last trip to the garage, carrying it in one hand and the reminder of the changing table in the other.
The crib and changing table had been brand new when Shane was born. The instructions that would aid A.J. in putting the furniture together were misplaced years ago. Lauren didn't know if they'd been thrown away by Rob, or lost when he and Lauren divorced, split their belongings, and went their separate ways. At least Lauren had known where the screws and brackets were. Her father had helped her take the furniture apart when Tanner was two and ready to move from the crib to a bed. Lauren had collected all the hardware and stored it in a square Rubbermaid container. A.J. retrieved the container off the closet shelf and opened it. Using two fingers he sifted through its contents.
Without an instruction sheet to follow it took the detective two hours to put both pieces of furniture together. That didn't bother A.J., however. This was just the type of job he enjoyed doing when he had the house to himself and wasn't pressed for time. He stood back, admiring his handiwork for a long moment before studying the layout of the room.
This third bedroom in A.J.'s home was long but narrow. It was located at the end of the hallway and ran the width of the entire second floor. There was a window on the west wall that faced the canal, and a window on the east wall that faced the street. The north wall was taken up by a long, deep closet that opened with a big set of bifold doors, while the south wall was bare. A.J. decided to put the head of the crib underneath the west window and the changing table along the south wall. If Lauren wanted a different arrangement he could always move things around later.
The detective collected the tools he'd used and returned them to the box. He carried it back to the garage, then retrieved two clean rags and a bottle of Old English. He spent the next thirty minutes polishing and buffing the furniture until both pieces attained their original luster. When he was finished, the soft brown oak looked new. He tried raising and lowering the crib's right side next. When he found the springs were stiff with age he trotted down the stairs for a can of oil. Once that problem was resolved A.J. gathered up all his paraphernalia and made one last trip to his garage. He put everything back in its place, then threw the rags and old sheets in the washer. He added laundry soap, set the dials and started the machine cycling.
The blond man stopped in the kitchen and poured himself a cold glass of orange juice. When he'd drained the tumbler dry he returned upstairs to finish his afternoon project.
It took A.J. only a few minutes to wrestle the crib's mattress out of the closet and put it in place. The pad for the changing table was retrieved next and laid on top of the smooth wooden surface. He'd just returned the empty Rubbermaid container to the shelf of the now barren closet when he heard a vehicle pull in his driveway. He looked out the east window and caught a glimpse of Lauren's mini-van.
A.J. jogged down the stairs and out through the garage. He wasn't surprised to see the van's interior piled high with gifts. He opened the driver's side door for his wife and helped her step out. She kissed him on the mouth while waggling a finger at him.
"You knew all along, didn't
A.J. smiled at the delight he saw
shining from Lauren's blue eyes.
"That Lindy was hosting a surprise baby shower for me this afternoon."
"Nope. Didn't know a thing about it."
A.J.'s innocent face didn't fool the woman. It was obvious he'd known all along, but the secret had been well kept from her. Considering this was her third child, Lauren hadn't been expecting a shower of any kind from either side of the family. Cecilia had gotten her to A.J.'s cousin's home that afternoon under the pretense that she and Lauren were going shopping for some things for the baby. Lauren didn't think anything of it when Cecilia asked if they could swing by Linda's so she could retrieve something from her niece for the upcoming Simon family reunion.
Because everyone had parked in a local grade school's lot and walked to Linda's, no cars were in the driveway. Lauren almost fell over when sixty women shouted "Surprise!" as she walked into Linda's living room. Not only was the room overflowing with female relatives from A.J.'s side of the family, but Lauren's mother, sister, a flock of aunts and cousins, and three of her closest girlfriends were present.
The pregnant woman walked around and unlocked the mini-van's back doors. The vehicle was bulging with so many gifts there had barely been room for Cecilia to sit for the trip home. Despite the overload, Lauren had to admit she was grateful to the women for their generosity. Other than the crib, changing table, and a few of her sons' baby clothes that held special meaning to her, Lauren had given all the other things they'd used away to friends and co-workers in need. Long gone were the playpen, car seat, diaper bag, walker, stroller, and a multitude of other items she hadn't thought she'd ever use again. Now all those items had been replaced and then some.
"Your mom offered to come help me unload, but I told her I was fairly certain you'd be here. She said she was fairly certain you'd be here, too." Lauren poked a playful finger into her husband's chest. "That's how I knew you were in on the secret all along, mister."
"I'm a private investigator. We're good at keeping secrets."
Before A.J. had a chance to grab anything from the cargo hold Shane and Tanner came running up the sidewalk. Lauren and A.J. had brought them home after their soccer game that morning because this was the beginning of the week they'd spend with their mother. While Lauren was at the shower, her sons had been down the street at the birthday party of a neighborhood playmate.
"Wow!" Tanner raced up to the van. "There's hundreds of more presents in
here than Ben just got! Where'd they
all come from?"
Lauren smoothed her son's sweaty hair into place. "A.J.'s cousin Lindy threw Mommy a shower."
"She made you take a shower? Why? You don't smell, Mom."
Lauren and A.J. laughed at the comical boy.
"No, sweetheart, it's not the type of shower where a person gets wet. In this case, the word shower means to ‘shower someone with gifts.’ To throw someone a party in order to help her get started on a new venture in her life. Showers are commonly given to a man and a woman when they're getting married, and then again when they have a baby."
"Oh." Tanner poked his nose through the gifts like
a beagle hunting for a rabbit. "Is
there anything in there for me?"
"There might be. And there might be something for Shane, too." Lauren said as her older son joined them. "But, before I give either of you any surprises you have to help A.J. and me carry these things up to the baby's room."
Since Lauren knew where everything was at, and what was breakable and what wasn't, A.J. had her hand things out of the van to him and the boys. A.J. and the boys made twelve trips each, and when they were done there was hardly a path left to walk in the little nursery.
Tanner's eyes were wide with wonder. "Man, look at all this stuff! The baby isn't even born yet, and already its got more junk than me."
A.J. ruffled the boy's hair. "Don't feel bad, pal. This baby's got more junk than me, too."
Lauren pulled four wrapped gifts out of a plastic bag she'd carried in. "And these are for you boys from Grandma C. She thought you might like something special to open, too."
In less than ten seconds the wrapping paper was torn from the presents. Each of the boys got a hand-held electronic game and a Disney children's movie.
"You guys will make good use of those games in the car next month when you go to Arizona with your dad and Kathy," Lauren said in reference to the week during the boys' August school break that was going to be spent at the Grand Canyon and surrounding destinations with their father and stepmother.
The boys exclaimed over their new treasures for a few seconds, and then Shane remembered what they'd come home for in the first place.
"Mom, can we go back to Ben's
and swim in his pool?"
"Isn't the party over?"
"Yeah, but his mom said anyone who wanted to could go home and change into their suits and then come back to swim. So can we?"
"His mother's going to be there
"Yeah. And his dad, too. So please? Can we?"
Tanner had to get his two cents
worth in. "Please, Mom."
"I guess that would be all right. I'll walk down to get you at suppertime unless Mrs. Tummel sends you home first."
The boys raced for their bedroom so they could change into their swimming trunks.
"Yeah, Mom, thanks! One hundred million times I thank you!"
Lauren went to the doorway. "Don't throw your dirty clothes on the floor! Put them in the hamper on your way out, please!"
Shane answered for both boys. "Okay!"
"Your beach towels are in the linen closet in the hallway! Take them with you! And tonight after supper you can both plan to sit down and write Grandma C. a thank you note before we leave to see the fireworks!"
Tanner's red head appeared from the bedroom. "Can't I just call her and say thanks over the phone? It'll be a lot easier."
"You may call her, but you'll write her a note, too."
"Oh, geez. Between you and my teacher at school my hand's gonna fall off before I'm seven."
A.J. was laughing when Lauren finally turned and came back in the room.
"Is it just my imagination, or
does my six-year-old sound more like Rick with each passing day?"
A.J. bent to kiss his wife. "Believe me, sweetheart, it's not your imagination."
"Hey, Mom!" was shouted from the bedroom down the hall.
Lauren reluctantly pulled her lips from A.J.'s. "What, Tanner?"
"It's pretty neat that Ben was
born on the Fourth of July, don't you think?"
"Yes, honey, I think that's pretty
Tanner appeared in the doorway,
tying the drawstring at the waist of his swimming trunks. "He had a red,
white and blue birthday cake shaped like the American flag with sparklers as
candles. And besides singing happy
birthday to him, Mrs. Tummel had us sing, “I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,”
too. So what do you think about having
the baby today? Now that it’s got all
these presents, you don’t need to keep it in your tummy any longer. Do you think you could have it sometime
between now and when we leave for the fireworks tonight?"
A.J. couldn't help but laugh again at his stepson. Lauren choked back her own laughter, as she looked down at the earnest little face.
"I hate to disappoint you, sweetie, but the likelihood that your brother or sister will be born today is very remote. Just because the baby has presents doesn't mean its ready to arrive. It needs to grow inside me a little longer yet so it'll be healthy and strong when it joins our family."
"Oh, all right," Tanner gave an exasperated sigh. "But this baby doesn't know what it's missing by not showing up today. I'm tellin’ you, those sparklers on that cake were outta this world."
At Shane's beckoning Tanner disappeared again. A.J. was still laughing when Lauren said, "See, just like I was telling you. He sounds more and more like his Uncle Rick every day."
Lauren and A.J. heard, "Bye, Mom! Bye, A.J.!" right before two sets of feet pounded down the stairs. The door between the den and the garage was slammed shut, then the faint sounds of tennis shoes thundering on the sidewalk drifted up to the couple before fading completely.
Lauren's middle had expanded to the point that she had to flex her knees and bend down sideways to pick up the discarded wrapping paper from her sons' gifts. She stuffed the paper in the bag she still held, and then placed the bag on top of one of the boxes that had been carried in from the van.
"Your mother is so sweet. It wasn't necessary for her to buy presents for Shane and Tanner. She spoils them terribly."
"I know," A.J. smiled. "But she loves every minute of it."
"And she's already starting to spoil her unborn grandchild as well."
"Her present to us was a gift certificate to Lullaby Land for an extravagant amount of money. We'll be able to get the highchair we still need, and the dresser we wanted for in here, plus have money leftover to start the baby's bank account with."
"I guess I'd better sit down
and write Grandma C. a thank you note tonight, too, huh?"
Lauren wrapped her arms around her husband's waist. "I think you can be excused from that duty and phone her instead. You know how much she loves to hear from her own baby."
"That's true." A.J. kissed his wife on the nose. "She still spoils me, too."
"Not that I hear you complaining," Lauren teased.
"No," A.J. chuckled. "That's one thing you definitely won't hear me complain about."
Lauren released her husband, and for the first time since entering the room took note of his handiwork. "You've been busy this afternoon. I thought you were going to wait to put the crib together until Rick could help you. Wasn't it a challenge to brace all those pieces together by yourself?"
"A little bit," A.J. shrugged. "But I managed."
Lauren eyed her husband with open skepticism. "Rob cussed up a storm when he put it together before Shane was born, and I was helping him. My dad wasn't much better when I helped him take it apart after Tanner was ready for a regular bed."
"Like I said, I managed." A.J. focused his attention on the piles of presents surrounding him, turning circles as he studied the gifts. It wasn't lost on Lauren that he appeared to be intent on shifting the subject away from Rick.
"The fumes aren't bothering you, are they? I did some painting earlier, then used Old English to polish the furniture and squirted some oil on those crib springs. Maybe you shouldn't be in here right now."
"I'm fine. Can't smell a thing." Lauren walked over and tried lowering the right side of the crib. It slid down so easily that a five-year-old child could have mastered it. She slid it back up in the same manner. "You've got the windows open. Between the breeze and fresh air everything has probably dissipated."
"Just be sure. I don't want you in here if there's any chance of harm coming to you or the baby."
The woman hugged her husband from behind, her rotund belly bridging the space between them. "A.J., I love you so much."
A.J. turned around, placing one hand
on Lauren's stomach and the other on her cheek. The smile he gave her was soft and gentle, clearly broadcasting
his own love for her. "Why the
"No special reason. You simply do so much to make me happy. Not only did you put this furniture together all by yourself without the help of an instruction sheet or your brother, but then you polished everything so it all looks new again. Not to mention oiling those springs. I must have asked Rob to do that a hundred times after Tanner was born, but it was never a priority for him. As a matter of fact, I think that's why I divorced him."
A.J. laughed at his wife's dry sense of humor. "Good reason. Any man who doesn't oil crib springs for you deserves to be kicked out on his butt."
The blond man released his wife to begin pawing through boxes. If there was anything left their child would need he couldn't imagine what it was. Blankets and unisex clothes overflowed from box after box. A diaper bag and diaper pail given to Lauren by one of A.J.'s cousins were both loaded with baby shampoo, baby wipes, baby oil, Q-tips, lotion, a tiny comb and soft bristled hair brush, laundry detergent made just for infants' clothing, socks, nightshirts, undershirts, burping cloths, bottles and rattles. More of the same was found in other boxes and in the seat of a pre-assembled stroller. Every guest had brought a box of disposal diapers; meaning sixty packages of Huggies in sizes from newborn to toddler were piled along one wall. Lauren's sister Lisa had given her a mobile to hang over the crib that had carousel horses dancing from it just like the ones on the wallpaper. Lisa had also provided the remainder of the accessories that matched the chosen carousel theme. A bumper pad and skirt ruffle for the crib, sheets, receiving blankets, a quilt, and a small lamp with the carousel pattern on its shade that would eventually sit on the dresser. Bigger boxes held a playpen, car seat, Rock-A-Roo infant carrier, a walker, a Johnny Jump Seat, and a swing.
A.J. took the bumper pad out of its carton and with Lauren's help lined the inside of the crib with it. When the protective pad was in place the blond man pawed through the large boxes he'd carefully leaned against the only bare wall left in the room.
"What the heck is a Johnny Jump
"It's a canvas seat that has cords running through each side not unlike bungee cords. When the baby's about eight months old and able to sit up by himself you hang it in a doorway, put him in it, and gain a good thirty minutes of peace while he entertains himself by jumping up and down. Shane loved the one I had when he was a baby."
"And a Rock-A-Roo?"
Lauren smiled at her husband's back. At nearly forty-nine years old and a first time father, all this baby paraphernalia was new to him. She loved him all the more for the interest he was taking in it.
"A Rock-A-Roo is a padded infant carrier. It looks similar to a car seat and is made for the baby to sit in when he's a newborn. It has little rollers on the bottom so you can set it on a counter top and rock it back and forth with one hand while you're making dinner with the other. Believe me, it was a lifesaver with a colicky baby like Tanner. It also has a handle on the top so you can pick it up and carry it to another room or around a store without taking the baby out of it."
"Ah," A.J. nodded, studying the picture on the outside of the box. "Kind of like a portable rocking chair."
"Very much like a portable rocking chair actually."
"What do you want me to put together first?"
"You don't have to put anything together today, sweetheart. You've been working up here all afternoon. Take a well deserved break and go sit out on the deck with a book if you'd like."
A.J. started opening the box that contained the swing. "No, I'll put some of these things together. Just tell me where you want me to start."
"That's as good a place as any. That'll be one of the first things we make use of. Believe me, those swings are as much of a lifesaver as the Rock-A-Roo can be."
A.J. shot his wife a teasing grin from his bent position. "No baby that I helped make will be colicky."
Lauren laughed and swatted her husband on the seat of his Levis. She stood for moment, watching while A.J. removed the swing from the box. He left the room only long enough to get his toolbox from the garage. Within five minutes he was absorbed in silent concentration, alternating between reading the instruction sheet and screwing pieces into place.
Lauren marveled at this wonderful man who had come into her life at a time when she was least expecting to fall in love again. Rob had procrastinated until weeks after Shane was born before putting any of the necessities together for her. She remembered the fight they'd gotten into over a swing just like this new one, and how she'd ended up slamming their bedroom door and crying while thinking this wasn't how she'd envisioned life with her husband and her newborn. She and Rob definitely hadn't been candidates for a Gerber Baby Food commercial.
The woman smiled at her husband's back, and then set about doing her own tasks. A.J. glanced over his shoulder and suggested she lie down and rest for a while, but Lauren would have no part of that. She'd be eight months pregnant on Friday. She was due on August tenth and her energy level remained at an all time high. From her past pregnancies she knew this was when the urge to nest kicked in. She decided she'd take advantage of it before it was time to make supper.
By nature Lauren was as neat and meticulous as her husband. While A.J. put the swing together, then moved on to the walker, Lauren took inventory of the mountain of boxes. She sorted out all the clothes and blankets, knowing everything would have to be washed in the gentle baby detergent before any of it was worn. Everything else she organized neatly on the wide wing of the changing table, the shelves below it, or on the closet shelf. The newborn sized diapers were stacked under the changing table, the bigger sizes stored in a far corner on the closet floor. She folded the stroller and put it in the closet as well. When she was done, A.J. turned around to see stacks of miniature clothes, socks so small they'd barely cover two of his fingers, and blankets adorned with teddy bears, bunnies, blocks, and trains.
"We'll go pick out that dresser and highchair Monday night so you'll have a place to put all those things." A.J. quickly retracted that idea. "On second thought, that won't work. Shane has a baseball game that evening. Let's do it Tuesday instead. You and the boys can meet me at the office. We'll ride together to the store and then go out to dinner."
"That's fine. As it is, I'll need to wash everything before we can put any of it away. I plan to do that tomorrow in-between writing thank you notes."
A.J. sat on the floor, turning the walker upside down on his lap so he could screw the wheels on the bottom of the legs. Lauren watched him from across the room while folding another blanket.
"I haven't seen hide nor hair
of my favorite bald brother-in-law this week," she commented
casually. "This case you guys have
taken on must be keeping him pretty busy."
A.J.'s concentration never wavered from his task. "Yep."
"It's unusual for him not to pop in for coffee and whatever breakfast he can mooch at least one morning out of the week."
"Guess it is." A.J. flipped the walker over and stood. He rolled it across the carpeting, eyeing the wheels to make sure they'd give the baby a smooth ride. He ignored the eyes he felt on his back as he read the outside of the reminder of the boxes. The playpen, car seat, Rock-A-Roo, and jump seat needed no assembly. He decided to remove the items from their boxes anyway so he could store them in the closet and carry all the trash out to the curb for Monday morning's garbage pick up.
Lauren watched as her husband struggled to slide the playpen out of its big box. Each time he got it halfway free of its confinement the padded sides would get caught, halting all movement either up or down. She walked over and held the container steady. With one easy motion A.J. now pulled the playpen free. He carried it to the closet and leaned it against the back wall. He crossed the room and repeated his actions, pulling open the flaps on the box the car seat was in. Again, Lauren held the box in place for him.
"A.J., if you and Rick have had words, the two of you better patch things up."
A.J. eyes met his wife's before he turned to put the car seat in the closet. "You sound like my mother."
"When Rick and I were kids and would get into a spat she always told us, ‘If you've had words with your brother you'd better patch things up before the tear grows bigger with time.’”
"Sounds like good advice to me."
"I've employed it a time or two. Now it's Rick's turn."
Lauren scolded her stubborn husband with no more than her tone of voice. "Aaay Jaay."
"Don't lose any sleep over it," the detective advised at the same time he opened another box. "We'll work it out. We have a million times in the past."
A.J. got the Rock-A-Roo free of its confines without Lauren's help. While he put it in the closet she opened the last box. "I'm glad to hear that. I'd hate to have to explain to our son why his daddy never speaks to the uncle whose name he carries as part of his."
"Don't worry," A.J. assured. "By the time McAllister Richard Simon makes his debut, if in fact the baby is a McAllister Richard, Daddy and Uncle Rick will be back on speaking terms."
Before Lauren was even three months pregnant she and A.J. had names chosen for their child. However, those names were being kept a secret until the baby made his or her premier. In honor of Lauren's father’s surname, McAllister was going to be used regardless of whether the child was a boy or a girl. Richard would be used for a boy's middle name, Cecilia for a girl's. If the baby was a boy, he'd be nicknamed Mac, just like Mac had been Virgil McAllister's moniker since he was in high school. If it was a girl, she'd be called Mickie.
"Speaking of McAllister Richard," Lauren said, "I've been giving the name second thoughts. I feel bad that we're not using your dad's name in there anywhere. I know he meant the world to you."
A.J. put the jump seat away Lauren handed him and closed the closet door. Together the detective and his wife began gathering up all the smaller boxes, folding them, and stuffing them into the bigger ones along with the discarded wrapping paper and ribbons.
"Your dad means a lot to me, too," A.J. stated. "Mac's a good friend. And like you said when we discussed names, neither Shane nor Tanner, nor Lisa's two girls, carry any part of his name as theirs. You know how happy it will make him."
Lauren acknowledged to herself how true A.J.'s statements were. Lisa's daughters, seven-year-old Samantha Kate and three-year-old Brittany Suzanne, weren't named for anyone. Shane's middle name was Robert after Lauren's ex-husband and his father, Robert Albright senior. Tanner's middle name was Reed, in honor of Rob's grandfather. She recalled the choosing of Tanner's middle name as being another argument her and Rob had engaged in. She'd wanted to name him Tanner McAllister, while Rob insisted he be called Tanner Reed. She and Rob had fought about it until two days before Tanner was born. When the senseless fight threatened to rear its ugly head again late one night the weary woman with the swollen middle had given in with a yell, "Fine! Use Reed as his middle name! Let's forget I have a father who would be thrilled to have just one of his grandchildren named for him!"
Like most of their arguments, Lauren could look back on it now and see the stupidity of it, yet it also emphasized how unconnected she and Rob had been as husband and wife. They couldn't even compromise over something so simple as a middle name for their baby. It was no wonder they ended up filing for divorce when Tanner was only eight months old, and after just five years of marriage.
"You're right," Lauren said now. "Dad will be thrilled to have the baby named for him. But I was thinking that maybe we'd like to shift things around a little if it's a boy."
"What do you think of Jackson
Richard McAllister Simon?"
A.J. laughed. "I think I'll have a heck of a mouthful to get out when I'm mad at him." The blond man stacked the last of the garbage near the nursery door. "Besides, what's with Jackson? My dad's name was John."
"I know. But I've been trying to figure out how I can not only honor my dad and your dad, but the baby's daddy as well. And since you already told me months ago that you didn't want an Andrew Simon junior, this is the best I can come up with."
"Jackson, huh?" A.J. cocked a playful eyebrow. "Sounds like the kid will grow up to be a chauffeur." The detective snapped two fingers in the air and spoke in a haughty British accent. "Jackson, bring the car around. Jackson, take Fifi to the vet. Jackson, see that Mrs. Simon makes it safely to the salon. Jackson--"
"Oh you." Lauren swatted her husband's arm then wrapped herself around his middle. "Stop with the teasing. I like it. And we can call him Jack, just like your dad was called."
"I don't know." A.J. crinkled his nose with indecision. "I liked the name we originally had picked out. Let me think on it a while."
"You do that." Lauren took A.J.'s hand and rubbed it over her stomach. "Believe me, it will grow on you with time."
A.J.'s lips met his wife's. He ran one hand through her soft hair while the other continued to massage his unborn child. The passion in his heart came out clearly in his voice. "Lady, you grow on me more and more each day we're together. I love you, Lauren. I love you so much."
Lauren didn't know why she felt the sudden urge to cry. She blamed it on her fluctuating hormones, but deep inside she knew the tears were caused by the devotion of the man whose arms she was resting within.
She turned sideways so she could lay her head against her husband's chest. She had no idea where her next words came from. They were so out of character for the independent woman she had always been.
"I feel so safe when I'm with you, A.J. So safe and loved. Don't ever let me go, sweetheart. Please, don't ever let me go."
A.J. rained gentle kisses into his wife's hair. "Never," he promised. "Never will I let you go, Lauren Janay McAllister Simon. I'll always keep you safe."
As the July breeze gently billowed the ruffled curtains at the windows, A.J. whispered his final promise. "I will always keep my family safe."