Chapter 20


            A.J. and Rick sat in a back booth at The Hillman House waiting for Brendan to arrive.  Their cousin was twenty minutes late, but neither man seemed to notice.  This was the first time since Rick's recent weekend at Camp Cord that they'd gotten a chance to talk.  Because they had other cases they were involved in, neither brother had been in the Simon office Monday afternoon.  They met in the parking lot at seven that evening and rode together in Rick's Durgano to the restaurant. 


            What little A.J. knew about this meeting he'd gotten in a brief phone call from his brother late Sunday evening.  When he'd tried to question Rick as to why having dinner with Brendan was so urgent, Rick wouldn't say anything other than, "I know we're gonna be working on separate cases tomorrow afternoon, so we probably won't see each other.  Meet me back at the office around seven.  Brendan wants us at a place called The Hillman House by seven-thirty.  We can ride in my truck."


            "But, Rick...wait.  What's this all about?"

            "I have no idea."


            "When did you talk to Brendan?  Did he leave a message on your answering machine?"


            "No.  He didn't leave a message.  I saw him."


            "Saw him?  Saw him where?"



            "There where?  Rick, I feel like Doctor Seuss."


            "You sound like him, too.  So enough with the rhymes."


            "Then answer my question.  Where'd you see Bren? The only place you were this weekend was Camp Cord."




            "What do you mean, yeah?"


            "I mean yeah, that's where I saw him."



            "A.J., it's almost eleven o'clock and I'm beat.  This playin' weekend warrior is wearin’ me out.  Besides, I can't tell you anything more than that because I don't know anything more than that."

            "But, Rick--"


            "Say goodnight, A.J."

            The frustrated blond man had been left holding a phone that buzzed a dial tone in his ear while a hundred unanswered questions swirled in his mind.


            Now the two men sat sipping ice water and munching bread sticks and rolls from the basket a waitress had set in the middle of their table.  Rick filled A.J. in on his weekend, leaving Brendan's name out of the conversation for the time being.  Though the restaurant was almost empty, Rick kept his voice low. 


            "There are guards posted at the camp all week long.  Three guys stay on a rotating basis.  And you can tell Creek I got a good long look at Cord's master plan book."


            "Master plan book?"

            "Yep."  Rick buttered a roll and took a bite.  "Everything he needs is in there from dates, to places, to times.  I memorized it as best I could and wrote it all down last night."  The detective reached into a hip pocket of his jeans and passed his brother a folded slip of paper.  "Give that to Casey and have her get it to Creek.  I know he'll want me to get the actual book to him, but right now I'm not exactly sure how I'm gonna do that."




            "Because Cord keeps it locked up in his desk for one thing.  Picking the lock will be child's play, but the downside to this is he said no one but me knows the book exists."


            A.J. nodded his understanding.  "So as soon as Cord discovers it's missing, he'll know who took it."

            "He ain't no dummy, so I expect he'll have a pretty good idea.  For a lotta reasons Cord's not gonna give that book up without a fight."


            "I've got a feeling that means there's more to this than you've told me so far."


            "Yeah.  More than even the FBI knows I imagine.  December twenty-second isn't only D-Day here in San Diego, A.J.   Cord has himself aligned with paramilitary groups all over the country who are, right now, training for mass carnage on that same date.  When Pellman said we were gonna be thrust into a state of panic and confusion as a result of Cord's plans, he had no idea what he was predicting."


            A.J. shook his head, unable to believe one man could potentially cause that much destruction and death.


            "Therefore, Creek needs to let me know how to proceed," Rick stated.  "I told him that in the note I just handed you.  Plus, I've got a feeling something's up that's gonna happen sooner than the events I saw listed, but I'm not sure what."


            "What makes you say that?"


            "Just some things I overheard when I was in the boys' camp this weekend.  I gotta feeling it's supposed to be top secret, but you know how kids like to talk.  I think, and mind you this is only an assumption based on what I overheard a couple fifteen year olds say, but I think there's gonna be some kinda training run, so to speak ,within the next few weeks.  Something that involves the boys."


            "You mean something to get the kids wet behind the ears before D-Day."


            "Exactly.  But whether that means innocent people will get hurt in the process, or whether it's just something that Cord is planning to stage out at the camp, I don't know.  I'm hoping to find out one way or another this weekend.  I'm supposed to be in charge of the boys again.  I've got a little pal there by the name of Justin Bidwell, who just might be willing to spill the beans to me."


            "Is he the son of the guy you said was Cord's second in command?"


            "Yeah.  Only he's not an asshole like his old man.  Hell, A.J., he's twelve and could pass for nine.  Just a skinny little guy who looks like he should be spending his weekends on a baseball diamond as opposed to being brainwashed with racial epitaphs.  And, actually, I think playing second base is where he'd rather be.  Anyway, me and the kid formed a fast friendship this weekend.  Because he's younger than the other boys by at least three years, they pick on him a lot."


            "So you took advantage of that, huh?"


            "Oh yeah.  You know your big brother, I never was one to pass up on opportunity when she comes knockin'.  But, aside from that, Justin's an okay kid.  I feel sorry for him for a lot of reasons.  Like I said, I don't think he really wants to be a part of Camp Cord, and the other kids tend to make him the butt of their jokes.  So, I simply spent a little time building up his self-esteem.  In part because he needed it, and in part because he's got information I wanna know.  And because of my new found little friend, I did discover that the old maintenance building on the grounds of the boy's camp is filled with guns, grenades, and dynamite, just like the one at the men's camp."


            "Did you get inside of it?"


            No," Rick smiled in a way that indicated to A.J. he was quite pleased with himself.  "I simply asked Justin what was in it.  He was quite eager to tell me."


            "Well, you just better hope he isn't eager to tell his old man you asked."


            Rick shrugged.  "So what if he does?  I didn't indicate to the kid that I knew what was in the same building at the men's camp.  I just posed it as an innocent question.  You know, wanting to know why a boy always stands guard at the building.  The kid didn't seem to think it was out of the ordinary that I'd ask, or that he shouldn't tell me.  But, then, that makes sense.  He's been raised to have respect for anyone he perceives to be in a position of authority.  And believe me, he knows old Sergeant Simon is the authority figure for at least another weekend."


            After having seen Rick in action with teenage boys at Camp Apollo some years back, A.J. could easily picture his brother in the roll of drill sergeant.  His tone was dry and with hint of teasing sarcasm.  "I can just imagine."  The blond man reached for another breadstick while glancing at his watch.  Brendan was now overdue by forty minutes.   "Speaking of your weekend away, what does all this have to do with Brendan?"


            "I don't know.  But the more I think about it, I have my suspicions."


            When Rick didn't offer further explanation A.J. prompted,  "And those suspicions are?"

            The balding man looked toward the door.  "I'd rather wait until Brendan gets here.  There's no use in us sitting here speculating about things that might not even be true.  But I'll tell you this, A.J., if I'm wrong, and that kid has gone and gotten himself mixed up with Cord's group, is a believer of that shit Cord and his buddies spout, I swear I'll kick his ass from here to the moon."


            Before A.J. could make a reply the waitress came back to refill their water glasses. 


            "Are you gentlemen still waiting for someone else to arrive, or did you want to order?"

            "We're still waiting," A.J. replied.


            "Okay.  I'll be back in a little while then."


            A.J. filled his brother in on his recent days with Joey while they continued to wait.  He told Rick of their visit to the university campus, and of his prearranging a meeting between Joey and two professors.

            "I admire what you're doin' for him, A.J., but don't get too involved.  When this whole thing with Cord comes to light you and me aren't exactly gonna be welcome in the Franklin household."


            "I know it.  But if nothing else, maybe I can plant a seed in Joe's mind regarding his future.  God only knows what will happen to him and Logan if their father ends up in prison.  If he just has a chance, Rick...just a chance at college, I know he'll succeed.  With the right income and the assistance of a full-time nurse, it's possible some day he can live on his own.  Even make a name for himself in the scientific world."


            "He's that smart, huh?"


            "Yes.  He's that smart."


            "Speaking of smart, our smart young cousin seems to have forgotten us.  Come on, I'm hungry and I'm sick of waiting.  Let's drive over to his place and see what's keepin’ him."


            "Maybe he got tied up at work."


            "Maybe."  Rick sidled out of the booth, A.J. following suit.  "If he's not around we can leave a note on his door.  He can always give one of us a call tomorrow."


            Rick grabbed two more packets of breadsticks while A.J. threw three singles on the table for the waitress.


            "That's an awful big tip for nothing but bread and water."


            The blond man rolled his eyes.  "It's not for the bread and water.  It's for the fact that we took up their booth space for close to an hour and the woman checked on us four times.  It would be nice if you would contribute, too."


            Rick looked at his brother, fished in his pocket, and tossed down a dollar bill of his own.  He reached in the breadbasket one last time.  "For that I get another roll."


            A.J. followed his sibling out of the restaurant muttering,  "I should know better by now than to take him anywhere that doesn't serve its food through a drive-up window.




            Brendan had arrived home at ten minutes to seven that evening.  He leafed through his mail then stripped off his clothes.  He showered, put on clean jeans and a blue oxford shirt, and by seven fifteen was ready for his evening out.  Since The Hillman House was only two blocks from his apartment he didn't need to leave for another ten minutes.  He sat at his kitchen table and opened the mail.  He put the bills in a wooden slot of a three-tiered holder he had hanging next to the refrigerator. The junk mail got tossed in the garbage can.  He was just about to swipe his car keys off the counter when someone knocked on his door.  Brendan briefly wondered if Rick had misunderstood his instructions, so was half expecting to see the faces of his cousins when he looked out of the peep hole.


            Though it wasn't Rick and A.J. on the other side of the door, Brendan did recognize his visitor.  He didn't hesitate to swing the door open.  "Hey, how's it goin'?  Listen, I was just about to go out for a while, but if you wanna come back later that would be great.  Say around ten o'clock?"

            Brendan Nash never had a chance to defend himself.  The one person at his door was soon joined by three more.  They rushed into the room, ramming into his midsection and throwing him to the floor.  His breath was knocked out of him and his left temple made painful contact with a corner of the kitchen counter top, causing him to black out for a few seconds.  Those few seconds were all Brendan's assailants needed to have his mouth covered with duct tape and his ankles and wrists tightly bound with horsehair rope.


            The memory of a night ten years in the past flashed through Brendan's mind.  There had been another time when he'd been bound like this, too.  A time, just like tonight, when he'd been terrified for his life.  Like that night Brendan struggled and failed against his bonds. 


            And like that night, Brendan Nash was no match for his assailants.           





            The dashboard clock in Rick's Durango read eight forty-five when the detectives hopped out of the vehicle.  Dusk was settling around the brothers as they walked to Brendan's apartment.  They spotted their cousin's Trans Am as they approached the front door.


            "There's his car," Rick pointed.


            A.J. nodded.  "Must have just gotten home."




            Brendan's apartment building had no type of security measures in place.  The two men entered through the main door then walked down the wide hallway.  They took an old fashioned elevator car exactly like the one in their building up to the fourth floor.  They didn't see another soul as they walked down the hallway, but then that didn't surprise them.   Brendan's was the only apartment on this floor.  As he'd told Rick and A.J. when he'd first moved here, he'd got the premium spot when he'd secured the loft apartment.  Of course, he paid more for it, too, but that didn't seem to bother him.


            Rick knocked on Brendan's door.  The brothers waited a few seconds, and then Rick knocked again.  When they could detect no movement from inside Rick's knock turned to a pound. 


            "Brendan!  Hey, Bren, you in there?"


            Again the brothers couldn't hear anything that would indicate Brendan was home.  Rick turned to his sibling.  "Ya' think he could have decided to walk to the restaurant?"


            "Might have."


            "Guess we should have told the waitress to give him a message for us if he showed up."  Rick pounded on the door one last time.  "Brendan!  Bren!"


            "He might be in the shower."


            "Could be."  Rick put an ear to the door.  "But I don't hear any water running or anything."


            "I hate to tell you this, Kemosabe, but at your age I doubt you'd be able to hear the water running from this side of the door."


            "Ha, ha."  Rick reached into his hip pocket.


            "What are you doing?"

            "I'm gonna get us in there."


            A.J. watched as his brother selected a lock pick.  "Rick, we can just as easily leave a note on the door telling him to call one of us.  After we do that we can go back to the restaurant and see if he's waiting for us"


            "Yeah, or we can go inside and see if he's in the shower."


            "Just because you're adept at picking locks, doesn't give you the right to enter Brendan’s home when he doesn't answer a knock on his door."


            Rick swung the door open, placed his lock picks back in his pocket and shined a smug smile on his brother.  "Oh, it doesn't, does it?  Well, I think otherwise, little brother."


            A.J. reluctantly followed his brother into Brendan's apartment.  He didn't know why he was whispering, other than to say he didn't like violating anyone's privacy unless he had a good reason.  And, as far as A.J. was concerned, a good reason had yet to present itself.


            No sound of running water was coming from the bathroom like Rick half expected to hear.  No sound was coming from anywhere in the apartment.  The kitchen and living room were clutter free as was normal for Brendan.  Rick's eyes caught sight of the key ring on the counter top.


            "I wonder how he went somewhere without his keys."


            "We already know how he went somewhere.  By foot obviously.  His car's out front."


            "Yeah, but I'd guess his apartment key is on that ring, too.  How was he gonna get back in?"


            "Maybe he's got another key on a separate ring.  Or maybe he's here right now sleeping, you big idiot, and we're about to make fools of ourselves."


            Rick shrugged.  "I've made a fool of myself before.  I'll live through the misfortune again."


            "I'm sure you will," A.J. drolled as he followed his brother to Brendan's bedroom. 


            Unlike the rest of the apartment, this room was dark save for the red numerals on the bedside clock radio.  Rick halted in the doorway. 


"Brendan?  Brendan, you in here?"

            The detective fumbled for the light switch.  The overhead light illuminated the barren room.  Because Brendan had put his dirty clothes in the hamper before he showered, there was no way for Rick and A.J. to tell what his recent activities had been.


            Rick walked out into the living room.  "Brendan?  Bren?"

            "Rick, come on.  Let's leave him a note and go.  It's obvious he's not here."


            What made Rick climb the stairs to the loft he never knew for certain.  He thought it was because he caught a glimpse of something red.  Later, he would realize it was the corner of a hanging flag. 


            When the detective got halfway up the wooden steps he halted so abruptly A.J. bumped his nose in-between Rick's shoulder blades.


            "What the...Rick, would you let a person know when you come to a stop sign, please."  A.J. looked at his brother's face, only to see the color slowly drain from Rick's features.




            "Oh my Lord," Rick muttered.  "Oh my Lord, no."


            A.J.'s eyes followed the path Rick's had taken. He was forced to reach out and grab onto the railing when they landed on the focus of  Rick's stunned attention.


            Brendan Nash was hanging by his neck from a rafter, his lifeless body swaying back and forth in the breeze that blew in from the open window.


Chapter 21


            Within seconds of absorbing the grisly sight the Simon brothers rushed up the stairs as one.   They picked up the ladder lying haphazardly on the floor and propped it against the beam that held Brendan's body.  While A.J. steadied the young man's legs Rick raced up the ladder and used his pocketknife to cut the rope.  Rick supported Brendan's upper body as he eased both himself and his cousin to ground level.  The detectives laid Brendan flat on his back on the floor.  A.J. flew down the stairs to call 911 while Rick pounded on the young man's chest with his fist.  Because Brendan's body was still warm, Rick tried desperately to get his cousin's heart working again.  Without Rick realizing it, A.J. had returned and was now kneeling at Brendan's side.  They performed two man CPR, Rick pumping chest compressions while A.J. forced breaths into Brendan's mouth.  The minute A.J. put his lips to Brendan's he suspected it was a lost cause.  The young man's limbs might have been warm yet, but his lips were cold as ice.  A.J. knew he'd been dead far too long for any life-saving measures to be of use.  But for Linda's sake he had to try.  He had to be able to tell his cousin that he and Rick had done all they could to revive her only son.  By Rick's tireless efforts over Brendan's chest, A.J. had no doubt his brother felt the same way.


            How long it was before the apartment was filled with paramedics and cops neither Simon knew.  They worked on Brendan until they were pushed out of the way.  Police officers continued to arrive until there was hardly a spot left for anyone to stand either in the loft or on the main floor below.  Rick and A.J. were led down the stairs by two plainclothes detectives they didn't know.  Rick was taken into the kitchen, while A.J. was told to stop in the living room.  Amid the hubbub, they gave their statements as to the facts of the evening.  The detectives who questioned them then compared notes, satisfied that the statements given by the Simon brothers were identical.  A.J. was then allowed to join his sibling in the kitchen.  They watched as Brendan's body was carried down the stairs in a zippered bag that had been placed on a stretcher.  A.J. swallowed hard and turned away, remembering so vividly the eager thirteen-year-old he'd done a black bag job with in what seemed like only yesterday.


            Brendan's body wasn't even out door before Downtown Brown walked in.  Abigail Marsh was still the head of the homicide division, but Town, after moving back to San Diego with Temple in 1993, was in charge of all detectives regardless of what department they worked in.  The man's rank was now that of captain, and he was Abby's boss.  Evidently, Town was taking this case in place of Abby, which spoke volumes to Rick and A.J. about its meaning to the San Diego Police Department.


            Town brushed by the Simon brothers without acknowledgment; though he was well aware they were the ones who'd found Brendan.  He'd already been read their statements over his car phone on his way here. 


            "Town!"  Rick called, taking a step forward.


            Town held up a hand as he took the stairs two at a time.  "In a minute, Rick."


            "Town, wait!"


            A uniformed officer no more than Brendan's age placed a beefy hand on Rick's chest.  Town pointed a finger at the detective.


            "Rick, I said in a minute!  If you fuck with me now I swear I'll have you arrested just to get you out of my hair!"


            Rick and A.J. exchanged glances.  Town's demeanor openly broadcast the tension that had hung in the air since the first cop arrived.


            Town reappeared fifteen minutes later.  He'd been thoroughly apprised of everything that had occurred since Rick and A.J. entered the apartment.  When he came back to the main floor he crossed to the kitchen.  He had no words for his old friends, and refused to answer any questions Rick asked.


            "But, Town," the hot tempered Rick tried one last time, "you know damn good and well Brendan would never kill himself!  I don't care how things looked up there, that's not what happened."


            "I already told you I'm not going to discuss it tonight, Rick."

            "I don't give a shit what you told me!  My cousin's boy is dead, Captain, and I wanna know why!"


            "Well good for you!  I don't even know why, so it's going to be a little difficult for me to pass that information on to you, now isn't it?"


            "Look, Town--"


            "Rick, if you for one minute think I won't have your ass thrown in the slammer you just keep pushing me.  We've got your statements.  I suggest the two of you leave until I'm ready to meet with you."


            "When will that be?"

            "I don't know, Rick.  I'll call you."


            For the first time since their friendship began fifteen years earlier, Rick was sorely tempted to land a punch to the black man's jaw.  But he knew getting arrested for assaulting a police officer would only make matters worse.  Plus, he had a job to do yet tonight.  He had to drive to Linda's and tell his cousin her child was dead.


            Rick locked eyes with his old friend.  "You'll call me.  That's great.  If you can't get a hold of me by phone, perhaps we can chat at Brendan's funeral."


            Town reached out, placing a hand on Rick's arm.          "Rick--" 


            Rick ignored the hand and headed for the door.  "And don't bother sending anyone to talk to Brendan's mother.  A.J. and I take care of our own."


            The black man knew that last phrase was a pointed barb directed at him.  Because Brendan was a police officer employed by the city of San Diego, he was also considered one of Town's own.  Rick was making Marcel Brown painfully aware that he'd failed to keep one of his employees safe, and that Brendan had a family whose grieving would ultimately cut far deeper and last far longer than that of any of his co-workers.


            A.J. followed his brother toward the door.  It hadn't been lost on Town that the blond hadn't said a word since he'd entered the apartment.  It wasn't like A.J. not to intervene when Rick's mouth got the better of him.  Yet, this time, he'd allowed Rick to have his say even when that say came close to landing him in jail.



            All Town saw when A.J. turned to look at him was the bright blue of his eyes.  His face possessed no color, even his lips seemed to have gone stark white.


            A.J. offered his friend a small smile.  "Don't worry, Town.  Rick will calm down given time."

            "I know that.  But what about you?  Are you okay?"


            A.J. took a deep breath to contain the tears that suddenly filled his eyes.  "All that's running through my mind is memories of a boy who wanted me to take him on a black bag job.  Ever since that night, all Brendan talked about was going into some form of law enforcement.  I can't help but wonder if whatever happened here is my fault."


            "Your fault?"

            "For encouraging his dream."

            "A.J.," Town offered quietly, "there's never any fault behind encouraging a dream."


            A.J. pushed himself away from the counter top.  He could barely speak around the lump that had taken up residence in the middle of his throat. 


            "There is when a young man dies because of it."




            The ride to Linda's house was made in silence.  It was almost eleven when the brothers arrived.  Rick pulled the Durango into the driveway next to the 1990 Mustang seventeen-year-old Heather drove back and forth to her part-time job at a clothing store.


            The house was dark except for a sole light in the living room, but past events told the brothers this didn't necessarily mean anyone was awake.  For years, Linda had left a light burn all night for security reasons.  She'd never remarried after her divorce from the man she'd known as Mark Ecklund.  Whether that experience soured her on the thought of marrying again, or whether she hadn't met the right man since, neither Rick nor A.J. knew.  She'd returned to using her maiden name, and was running her parents' business, Palmer Manufacturing, with only a small portion of input from her seventy-eight year old mother, who was still as sharp and spry as a woman half her age.  As far as Rick and A.J. knew, Linda was happy with her life, or so it appeared each time they saw her.  The tragic news they were about to bring her would change all that, however.  Rick spent a moment wondering how he would tell Linda her only son was dead.  He was still wondering that when he opened the Durango's door.


            A.J. slid out the passenger side, closing the door as quietly as Rick had shut his.  There was no use drawing the attention of the entire neighborhood to their presence.  No doubt the morning news broadcasts would be filled with whatever details Town allowed released.  That would be time enough for Linda's friends and neighbors to share in her sorrow.  For tonight, it would be just family.


            Rick rang the front doorbell, A.J. coming to stand beside him.  Rick rang the bell again, and close to a minute passed before he heard someone crossing the living room.  He knew his cousin had a peephole in the front door, so the detective made sure he was facing forward. 


            Linda was still belting her bathrobe when she opened the door.  By the droopy look about her eyes and the hoarseness to her voice there was no doubt they'd woken her from a sound sleep.  Over her shoulder Rick saw Heather coming down the stairs while tightening the belt around her own robe.


            Linda's eyes traveled from one man to the other.  "Rick?  A.J.?  Isn't it a little late to be out playing private detective?"


            Rick bit his lip at the teasing.  The three of them had grown up together, played together countless of hours.  Good natured bantering had always been such a part of their relationship.  For some reason, this reminder hurt Rick.  Hurt him because he wondered if they'd ever be able to tease each other again.


            Rick cleared his throat.  All he managed to do was get out a choked, "Lindy--" before a swell of emotion forced him to stop.


            For the first time Linda Palmer noticed the devastation on her cousins' faces.  The final remnants of sleep were chased away by fear.  Her wide-eyed gaze took in both men, and she seemed not to notice that Heather had come to stand by her shoulder.


            "Guys?  What is it?  Has something happened to Aunt Cecilia?"


            "No, Lindy," A.J. answered in a voice that was barely above a whisper.  "Nothing's happened to Mom."


            "Then what is it?  What are you guys doing here at this time of night?"


            Rick knew he had to plunge in and break the bad news.  Not saying it wouldn't make it go away.  "Lindy, I...I...I'm sorry, sweetheart.  I'm so sorry to have to tell you this.  It''s Brendan, Lindy."


            "Brendan?  Was he in an accident?  Is he hurt?  Where'd they take him?"  Linda turned away from Rick, but not before he saw the denial in her eyes.  His gut told him that somehow she knew the truth, but that her mind wasn't ready to deal with it.  "Heather, run and get my purse.  We have to go with Rick and A.J. to--"


            Rick reached out and grasped his cousin's arm.  Gently, he turned her to face him. 


"Lindy, Brendan...Brendan's dead."


            Before the hysterical sobs had a chance to escape from Linda's throat Rick caught her collapsing body and moved her into the house.  A.J. shut the door behind them in an effort to keep their grief private for as long as possible. 


            Rick comforted the sobbing Linda while Heather cried into A.J.'s chest.  Twenty minutes later, mother and daughter sat side by side on the sofa wanting to hear what had happened to their beloved son and brother.


            Rick stood looking down at the pair feeling so inadequate because he had no idea what to tell them.





            It was twelve-thirty on Tuesday morning when A.J. pulled Rick's Durango into his driveway.  By nature, Rick was a caretaker of those he loved.  Therefore, it hadn't come as a surprise to A.J. when his older brother volunteered to spend the night at Linda's home.  Phone calls needed to be made so family members wouldn't hear the tragic news on early morning radio or TV.  Linda wanted to tell her mother in person before the night ended, so Rick insisted on driving her and Heather to his aunt's house in Linda's car.  At the same time, he sent A.J. home with the Durango.


            The brothers talked quietly in the living room while Linda and Heather went upstairs to change out of their pajamas.  Considering all the unanswered questions surrounding Brendan's death, Rick feared it would be risky for A.J. not to show up at the Franklins' home on Tuesday morning.  Therefore, they agreed that A.J. would leave the Durango at Carlos's shop and drive on to the Simon and Simon office in whatever vehicle Carlos had waiting for Rick.  From there, A.J. would take the Camaro to Cord's house, while Rick assisted Linda in making funeral arrangements.  The brothers assumed that job would be done by early afternoon, so agreed that A.J. would pick Rick up from their cousin's house after his tutoring session ended at one.  It made for a lot of hassles in terms of switching vehicles, but both men agreed it was best to continue the routine they'd begun since taking on the Franklin case. 


            Lauren Simon had gone to bed at nine forty-five with a report she'd brought home from work.  At twenty minutes after ten she'd set the report aside and turned her bedside lamp on its dimmest setting.  She dozed on and off from that time until she heard what sounded like Rick's vehicle pull into the driveway.  She glanced at the clock, not realizing the hour had gotten so late.  A.J. had told her he expected to be home by eleven.  When eleven came and went Lauren didn't worry.  She assumed the men had gone back to Brendan's apartment to visit, and had lost track of time.  She knew A.J. and Rick didn't see much of Brendan these days, but that didn't stop them from looking upon him fondly as both a son and a little brother.  There was even some long standing family joke about A.J. having taken Brendan on his first black bag job when he was thirteen, causing Rick to nearly scalp them both.  What exactly the story was behind that joke Lauren wasn't certain.  She knew it was somehow tied to the severe head injury A.J. had sustained ten years earlier, and tied to the death of Rick's fiancé.  Lauren had long ago picked up on the fact that circumstances surrounding that time were painful for both her husband and brother-in-law to discuss. Therefore, she rarely asked questions about it, and knew few details of that time period in her husband’s life.


            The woman sat up against her pillows when the kitchen door opened and closed.  She heard A.J. throw the deadbolt lock, but didn't hear Rick's voice.  She thought that was odd since she hadn't heard his truck back out of the drive. 


            A.J.'s footsteps were slow and heavy as he shuffled through the den and up the stairs.  The look on his face as he entered the bedroom was enough to tell the woman that something had happened to mar what was supposed to be an uneventful night out with his brother and cousin.


            Lauren struggled with her stomach to push herself to a more upright position. 




            A.J. stepped over Toby and walked around the bed.  The mattress dipped with his weight as he slumped down next to his wife.


            "A.J.?  Honey, what is it?  What's wrong?"


            The blond man wouldn't look at Lauren.  His eyes, fixed and glassy now with fatigue and grief, were focused on the carpeting. 



            A.J. took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair.  When he finally spoke he said simply,  "Brendan...Brendan's dead."


            Lauren watched as her husband dropped his face into his hands.  Sobs racked his body, and she reached out to pull him close.  Silent tears ran down her cheeks as A.J. burrowed his head into her stomach and cried. 


            The baby kicked a mournful rhythm in time to its father's sobs, as though it was crying along with A.J.  As though it knew the series of tragedies its family would face had only just begun.               



Chapter 22



            It was a struggle for A.J. to make it through the next two days in his role as tutor.  Trying to act as though nothing was wrong when he was so deeply mourning Brendan's death was almost impossible for the blond man.  Fortunately, Joey seemed to be content to do research on the Internet while A.J. sat quietly at his elbow.  The detective's mind was on another bright young man whose premature death meant Brendan had lost his opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the world, as A.J. was so sure he would have done.


            Rick struggled through the next two days as well.  He became surrogate husband to Linda, and surrogate father to Heather.  The three of them alternated between shedding tears and laughing as time and time again they brought up memories of Brendan.  Rick had taken Linda to break the tragic news to her mother, and had stood by her side as she phoned her sisters, brother, and ex-husband, during the early morning hours on Tuesday.  Late on Wednesday afternoon Brendan's father, Greg Nash, and his family arrived from Montana.  They rented a room in a hotel just a few miles from Linda's home.  Friends and relatives brought food that filled Linda's kitchen, so she had Greg's family join her and Heather for dinner, along with Brendan's brokenhearted girlfriend, Courtney.


            In addition to ten and a half year old Alex, Greg Nash now had another son, six- year-old Austin. Austin seemed unaffected by the goings on, but that didn't surprise Rick.  He doubted the boy had seen Brendan more than a few times in his young life.  Alex was the one who was having a difficult time dealing with Brendan's passing.  He'd been going on an annual camping trip with his father and Brendan since he was four.  Between that, phone calls, and e-mail communications, Alex had grown quite close to the much older half-brother he greatly admired.     


            Though Rick had been invited to join the group for dinner, he left before the families ate that night.  He'd barely had a minute alone since Brendan's death, and was in bad need of the solitude his boat would provide.  He'd stayed with Linda and Heather for two nights now.  In the past forty-eight hours he'd been home only long enough to get a change of clothes, bring his mail in, and ask his neighbor, Clarissa, to take care of Rex.  He was looking forward to a night's rest in his own bed, even though he knew he'd toss and turn until it was time to rise for Brendan's funeral.


            Brendan Gregory Nash was laid to rest at noon on Thursday, July seventeenth.   A.J. called the Franklin home after he knew Cord and Logan would be gone for the day.  As he expected, Casey answered.  He hadn't mentioned a word to her about Brendan for the simple reason that he and Rick didn't know for certain why their cousin was spending time in Cord Franklin's camp.  Until they talked to Downtown Brown, both Simon brothers were keeping mum.   When A.J. told Casey he was ill and needed to cancel his session with Joey, she said,  "I thought you were coming down with something.  You haven't been yourself the last couple of days.  What is it?  A cold?  The flu?"


            "The flu, I think," A.J. replied, not even having to pretend to sound tired.  Like Rick, he hadn't slept more than a few hours since Brendan's death.   "I'll try to be there tomorrow.  If I can't make it, I'll call about this same time.  Tell Joe I'm sorry."


            "I'll give him the message, Dan.  You take care of yourself now.  Joey and I don't want anything to happen to our favorite tutor."


            "Thanks.  I will."


            Lauren and A.J. walked out of the house together at nine-thirty that morning.  Rick picked Nancy up at that same time. There would be a closed casket wake from ten to twelve, with the funeral service to follow immediately thereafter.


            The Methodist church Brendan had attended as a boy was overflowing with people.  Rick took immediate note that none of Brendan's co-workers came in uniform.  He thought that was odd.  Usually a slain police officer was put to rest with military-like honors.  Rick and A.J. had also noticed that none of the press releases about the death mentioned the fact that Brendan was employed by the San Diego Police Department.  Nor did they mention his name, but simply that a white male had been found dead Monday evening, the victim of an apparent suicide.  The tragedy hadn't been broadcast on TV either, leading the Simons to believe that as soon as the 911 operator had announced Brendan's address over tactical airwaves, someone had immediately issued an order for radio silence.  The two detectives, recalling Town's demeanor from Monday night, made a pretty good guess as to who that someone might be.


            Whatever the reason that Brendan's colleagues were unable to honor him with an open display of respect, didn't mean they hadn't found another way to salute his memory.  As the church filled to standing room only Rick took note that every man and woman in attendance who were employed by the police department were dressed in black, and had small white ribbons pinned to their chests. 


             Brendan was carried to his grave by four young men he'd gone to the police academy with, his two closest friends from his boyhood years, and the two men his mother knew he quite likely admired even more than he admired his father, Rick and A.J.   


            The folding chairs lined up before the grave were filled by the time the pallbearers placed the casket on the bier.  The Simon brothers stood to one side with the rest of the attendees who hadn't gotten a seat.  A.J. scanned the crowd and saw his mother, Nancy, and Lauren sitting together in the fourth row.  Linda, her former husband, and their immediate families filled the first two rows.  Greg Nash sat between his current wife and his ex-wife, holding on to both their hands.  Heather and Courtney sat on the other side of Linda.  The two young women comforted each other through their tears. 


            The graveside service was brief, ending in ten minutes.  But that was more than enough time for pictures to be snapped through a telephoto lens from a vehicle parked across the street.


            As the crowd began to disperse, Tom Bidwell put his camera on the seat of his pickup truck.  He hadn't necessarily been expecting to spot Rick Simon at Brendan Nash's funeral, but then again, he wasn't surprised to see him here either. 


            Bidwell smiled as he pulled away from the curb.  He'd sure enjoy seeing the look on Cord Franklin's face when he handed him a picture of Simon unloading that Nash kid's coffin from the back of the hearse.  Exactly when Tom Bidwell was going to do that, he didn't know.  He was in no great hurry.  The timing would have to be just right.  Like when Cord was bragging on Simon in front of all the other men.  Wouldn't that be a kick to old Cord's ass.


            Yep, Bidwell thought as he made a right turn at the first intersection he came to.  A kick to old Cord's ass, and a kick to Rick Simon's as well. A whopping kick to Rick Simon's ass.





            A catered luncheon was awaiting Brendan's family and friends at his Grandma Joan's house.  A.J. and Lauren were among the first to make their leave that afternoon.  The blond man was so choked up when Linda moved to give him a goodbye hug that he was unable to speak.  He simply held her close, conveying in that one act all the love he'd had for her son. 


            Rick hung around another hour after his brother left, hoping to get the opportunity to talk to Town.  But the black man didn't show up, and neither did Abby or anyone else from the department who Rick knew well enough to corner in an attempt to get some answers.  At three-thirty Rick decided to head home.  He said goodbye to his mother and his aunts who were gathered around the kitchen table.  He hugged Linda, promising to keep in close touch.             


            The detective dropped Nancy off at her bungalow, then steered the Chrysler LeBaron he was driving toward the marina.  This was the car Carlos had waiting for him on Tuesday morning that had A.J. picked up.  For the time being, Rick had left the Durango parked at Carlos's shop. Again, wanting things to appear as normal as possible should Cord be keeping an eye on him for any reason.


            Rick loosened his tie as he walked onto the deck of his boat.  He let Rex out for a run, grabbed his mail from the holder by the patio doors, and pitched his black suit coat over the back of the couch.  He thumbed through the mail before tossing it on the kitchen counter.  The blinking light of the answering machine caught his attention.  He flipped a button back and listened to the only message awaiting him.  When it finished playing he picked up the phone and dialed A.J.'s number.  The phone on the other end of the connection was answered so quickly Rick wasn't even sure it had rung.  His sister-in-law's voice came over the line.




            "Hey, Lauren.  Whatcha' ya' up to?"

            "Hi, Rick.  What am I up to?  Well, I'm sitting at the table on the deck doing the paper work I would have been doing had I gone to the office today."


            "Doesn't sound like fun."


            "It's not.  But, then, no part of this day has been fun."


            "You can say that again, sweetie.  Say, is A.J. nearby?"

            "He's upstairs taking a nap.  Do you want me to get him?"

            Now Rick realized why the phone had been answered with such speed.  Lauren evidently had the portable out on the deck with her to prevent any calls from waking A.J.  


            "No, no.  That's not necessary.  I take it he's pretty wrung out, huh?"

            "Yes, he is.  You know how much he thought of Brendan.  He's hardly slept at all since the two of you found him.  But, then, I could tell by looking at you today the same applies."


            "It does.  As a matter of fact, I was just thinking how good a nap sounded."


            "Then you'd better take one."


            "I probably will.  Or if nothing else conk out on my couch while I'm watching the news.  Anyway, would you give A.J. a message for me?"



            "Tell him Town was on my answering machine.  He wants us to meet him at his office at three tomorrow afternoon.  Has A.J. mentioned whether or not he's going to Joey Franklin's in the morning?"

            "He said he was planning to."


            "Okay, then tell him to swing by our office and pick me up when he's done there.  We can grab a bite of lunch somewhere and then head to the police department."


            Rick could tell Lauren was writing down what he'd said.


            "Got it.  I'll give him the message."


            "If there's something about this that won't work for A.J,. have him call me.  Otherwise, tell him I'll see him tomorrow afternoon."


            "Will do."


            "Oh, and Lauren?"



            "Exactly when is my niece or nephew gonna arrive?"

            "I saw the doctor again yesterday afternoon.  She's still saying somewhere in the vicinity of August tenth.  Why?"

            "No reason.  I was just thinking that, after today, the Simon family could use a little cheering up.  A new baby should do the trick just fine."


            Lauren smiled.  "I hope so, Rick.  This baby's daddy is sure in need of some cheering up right about now."


            "Don't I know it, sweetie, don't I know it.  'Cause that baby's uncle is in bad need of the same thing."



Chapter 23


            Troya and Tiffany were sitting on the deck outside the formal dining room playing with their Barbie dolls.  From this vantage point high above the island the blue of the ocean and the blue of the sky seemed to blend together as one.  Troya watched through the screens of the bank of open French doors as Aziah poured her daddy and his visitor more coffee.  When the maid returned to the kitchen the men resumed their conversation.


            "Troy, as your lawyer I'd advise you not to pursue this right now.  I think you're making a hasty decision.  You and Hillary have been through a lot in recent weeks.  I don't think you should be so quick to instigate a divorce."


            "I appreciate your concern, Jules, but I'm not making a hasty decision.  Hillary and I were having problems long before Brooks...long before we lost Brooks."


            "But, Troy, think about what you're proposing here."  The lawyer, who had flown on a four-seater Cessna from Figi where he maintained his practice, looked down at his papers.  "You want sole custody of the girls, granting Hillary limited visits at Christmas and during school breaks.  You don't want her to be able to take the girls off the island.  Not even to visit her parents in New York."


            "That's correct.  Look, I know it sounds harsh, but you don't know Hillary like I do.  She's been mentally unstable since before Brooks was born.  His illness and subsequent...death pushed her over the edge.  She's had a complete break down.  She's not capable of being a mother to Troya and Tiffany.  You know perfectly well I own those guest bungalows on the other side of the island.  Aziah will prepare one for Hillary when she visits.  I'll allow the girls to go see her there, but that's it.  If she wants to bring her parents along, too, that's fine.  But my daughters are not leaving their daddy, and they're not leaving this island.  This is their home.  They're happy here.  They rarely even bring Hillary's name up anymore."


            The balding lawyer with the long, mournful face raised a skeptical eyebrow as though he doubted that could be true.  He kept his opinions to himself, however, and referred to his papers once again. 


"I must warn you, Troy, all of this is going to be the fodder of a lot of gossip.  Your father-in-law put the shipping and cruise businesses solely in your name shortly before Brooks passed away.  Now for you to divorce Hillary...well, it looks as though you planned to completely break away from the Dalton family all along."


            "That's as far from the truth as a person could get. Emery has been talking of retiring for some time now.  You know his health isn't what it used to be.  He promised my mother-in-law he'd give up the business this year in order to spend more time in New York with her, and to be nearer to his cardiologist should anything happen.  He's not a young man anymore, Jules.  He'll be seventy-six in November.  Our fiscal year ended in April.  That just seemed like the appropriate time for him to turn things over to me.   He was the one who suggested it, not me."


            "I understand that, but you're a well-respected man here.  I'm simply pointing out to you how all of this will be perceived by your friends and neighbors."


            "I don't care how it will be perceived.  What's going on in my home is no one's business but mine.  I don't have to run around this island advertising that my wife's a mental case. The only things I care about are my girls.  Troya and Tiffany are my life now.  They're precious beyond anything words can describe.  Their well-being is my utmost concern."


            "If that's so, then I think you should reconsider this proposal regarding Hillary's visitation schedule."


            "I'm not going to do that!  You file those papers just the way I dictated them, or I'll find myself another lawyer."




            "I mean it, Jules.  You've been a valuable advisor to me for the past ten years, but I can find another valuable advisor if need be."


            Troya pretended to be dressing Malibu Barbie for a big date with Life Guard Ken, while at the same time watching Mr. Amstead chew his lower lip.  He finally gave into her father's demands. 


            "All right.  I'll do what you've requested.  But if you change your mind we can always--"


            "I'm not going to change my mind.  Hillary will never again be a mother to my baby girls in the true sense of the word."           





Dear Shane,


I’m glad you had a good time seeing fireworks with your family on the 4th of July.  I've only seen fireworks on TV.  I wood like to see them for reel some time.  That's neat that those ladies gave your mommy a big party for her baby.  Babies are lots of fun.  I remember when Brooks was a baby.  He was so cute.           


Shane, I did something today that I know was very wrong.  I listined to my daddy and his loyer talking.  Daddy wants to deevorce my mommy.  He doesn't want Mommy to be able to see me and Tiffany except at Chrissmas and during summer vacation.  Daddy told Mr. Amstead, his loyer, that me and Tiffany don't talk about Mommy anymore.  That was a lie.  We talk about Mommy all the time and we miss her a lot.   Aziah keeps saying Mommy will come home soon, but now I wonder if that's true.  I talked to Mommy on the phone last night, but Daddy woodn't let me tell her I miss her and want her to come back.  He says it will make her sad.  I think he's lying about that, too. 


Sometimes I wish I could come to San Diego and visit you, Shane.  You sound so happy. 


Your good friend,



Chapter 24



            A.J. left the Franklin home promptly at one on Friday afternoon.  He didn't even have to go into Simon and Simon to get his brother. Rick was waiting for him in the office parking lot.  The two men agreed on a restaurant where they stopped and had lunch.  At five minutes to three they were walking down the long corridor that would lead them to Marcel Proust Brown's office.


            Town now resided on the eighth floor at the San Diego Police Department's main headquarters.  Nothing but administrative personnel were housed up here, meaning the hustle and bustle that was associated with the squad rooms was notably absent.  The brothers traversed the hall without running into another person.  They could hear fingertips flying over a keyboard as they rounded the open door that led to Town's outer office. His full-figured fiftyish black secretary looked up from her work. 


            "Hey, Udella," Rick greeted.  "A.J. and I have a three o'clock with Captain Brown."


            The woman smiled at the familiar visitors and flicked a thumb to the closed door behind her.  "Hi, boys.  Go on in.  He's waiting for you."


            Rick opened the door and stopped so abruptly that once again A.J. practically had his nose jammed in-between his brother's shoulder blades.  From his vantage point, A.J. couldn't see what had caused Rick to put the brakes on.  He was still ignorant to the reason when he heard Town's voice. 


            "Come on in and close the door behind you."


            When Rick finally moved A.J. saw what had caused the upset.  Sitting in one of the leather chairs across from Town's desk was Pellman Creek. 


            Town indicated to the two remaining chairs.  "Have a seat, gentlemen."


            A.J. closed the door like he'd been instructed to and followed his brother to a chair.  Rick glared at the FBI agent when he passed by him, then turned his glare on Town. 


"If you two tell me that, unbeknownst to Brendan and me, you placed both of us right smack in the middle of Cord Franklin's buncha loonies, I swear I'll rip this office apart with my bare hands."


            "First of all, Rick, sit down," Town ordered. 


            Rick contemplated that instruction until A.J. gave a tug on the hem of his field jacket.  "Do what he says, Rick.  We're not going to get our questions answered if you blow your stack."


            Rick's glare was transferred to his already seated sibling, but he finally did what A.J. requested of him. 


            Town did nothing but hand a piece of white paper across his desk to A.J.  The blond man looked down at it, read the words printed there by means of a computer, then passed it to his brother.


            Rick read the words out loud.  "I can't stand what I've become."  He looked up.  "Where'd you get this from?"

            "Brendan's apartment," Town replied.  "Taped to his weight bench."

            "So you're tellin' me Brendan's death has been ruled a suicide? Town, that's impossible.  That boy would never kill himself!"


            "No, that's not what I'm telling you.  Brendan's death was made to look like a suicide.  Agent Creek and I have no doubt that Brendan was murdered."


            Rick handed the paper back to Town.  "I think you'd better start at the beginning."


            Town nodded.  "The beginning goes back six months.  The Gang Prevention Unit was getting reports of a new movement going on at Hillcrest High School among a large group of boys.  At first the teachers identified these kids as ‘skinheads.’  In other words, they suspected the boys belonged to some type of white supremacist group.  But then they began to overhear talks of military maneuvers and bombings, which caused us great alarm.  Because of his youthful looks, we sent Brendan undercover at Hillcrest as a senior who'd recently moved to the area with his divorced mother.  Within a week's time he formed a friendship with a boy named Logan Franklin."


            Pellman Creek cleared his throat and took over.  "When I came to you about infiltrating Franklin's camp, Rick, I had no idea that the San Diego Police Department was more or less doing the same exact thing.  And I most certainly had no idea that your young cousin was already involved in the same type of work I was asking you to do.  Of course, the bureau would have never risked putting you in place had we realized what was already occurring."


            Rick's eyes traveled from one dark skinned man to the other.  "Well, that's just dandy.  Because you two boys didn't know what the fuck was going on in your own little corners of law enforcement, Brendan was murdered.  I hope you plan to explain this to his mother, Town, because I'm sure as hell am not gonna do your dirty work for you."


            "I'll talk to Linda," Town said softly.  "I've got an appointment to speak with her this evening."


            A.J. could feel the tension that existed between his brother and the two black men.  He could also detect a separate tension radiating between Town and Pellman Creek.  He could easily imagine the fireworks that had gone on in this office prior to his and Rick's arrival. 


            "Just fill us in on what the two of you know for the time being," the blond mediator requested.


            "We suspected the FBI had paid you and Rick a visit a month ago, but we weren't sure what it was pertaining to," Town explained. 


            "How'd you know that?"  A.J. asked.


            "Because Brendan saw Pellman leave your office.  He'd stopped by to shoot the bull with the two of you one afternoon, and spotted Pellman.  He came right over here to tell his supervisor and me about it, but there wasn't much we could do at that point.  Brendan had already worked his way inside Franklin's camp, but he didn't have enough of the information we were seeking yet, so we didn't want to pull him out.  We did give him the choice to drop the job, but he wouldn't do it.  He was upset about the messages of hate and violence being preached to those young boys.  He wanted to be a part of putting an end to it."


            "Why did Brendan come tell you when he saw Agent Creek leaving our office?"  A.J. asked.  "Okay, fine, he suspected the man was an FBI agent.  But he knows we've dealt with the bureau on a few cases in the past.  Why would that occurrence raise suspicions in him this time?"

            "Because through Brendan’s friendship with Logan Franklin, he'd discovered that Rick and Logan's father had served together in Vietnam.  For whatever reason, seeing Pellman come out of your office that afternoon gave Brendan a gut feeling that you guys were somehow going to get involved in the same case.  Don't ask me how or why he knew that, but it just demonstrates what a helluva detective he already was."


            "I know how good of a detective he was," Rick snapped. "And now I wanna know what you did when Bren came to you with this information.  Did you try to contact the FBI?"


            "Yes, I did.  But I wasn't able to find anything out."


            Pellman Creek took over the conversation.  "Rick, as you've known right from the start, there's a lot of dangers attached to this case.  I was ordered by my superiors not to talk to Captain Brown.  It was only this morning that I was notified about your cousin's death.  I've been in this office ten minutes longer than you have.  This is the first I've heard about your cousin's undercover work."


            The four men fell into a brief silence, each wondering how different things might have turned out if only the lines of communication between the police department and the FBI had been open.


            The ever-practical A.J. was the first to speak again.  "I'm sure we're all in agreement that we can't go back and rectify the tragedy that's occurred.  So let Rick and me focus on seeing that it doesn't happen again.  You said you're certain Brendan was murdered.  I assume that means you've got the autopsy reports back from the medical examiner's office."


            "We have," Town nodded.  "Fibers from duct tape were found on Brendan's mouth.  Rope fibers were embedded in his wrists and socks.  As both of you know, there was no sign of forced entry into the apartment, meaning one of two things.  Either Brendan didn't have his door locked, or he recognized the people on the other side of it and let them in.  Personally, that's the theory I subscribe to.  I believe had someone just walked into the apartment on an unsuspecting Brendan we would have seen signs of a struggle."


            "There must have been some kinda struggle though," Rick commented.  "I mean, there's no way Brendan would have allowed someone, or several someones, to bind him like that without puttin' up a fight."


            "There were traces of blood on one corner of the kitchen counter that corresponded with a small cut on Brendan's left temple.  So yes, I would say there was a struggle, but it was brief.  We surmise Brendan's assailants carried him up to the loft and hung him with the aid of a ladder they had taken from the janitor's closet."


            "I don't suppose there were any prints on that ladder other than mine and A.J.'s?" 


            "There weren't.  I'm sure it was wiped clean prior to the assailants exiting the apartment, just like I'm sure his computer was wiped clean."


            "So that's where the note was made?"  A.J. asked.  "On the computer in Brendan's bedroom?"


            "Yes, that's where it was made.  Or at least it came out of a printer that's the same model as the one Brendan owned."  


            A.J. thought a moment before voicing his next question.  "If the men who murdered Brendan are associated with Cord Franklin, why did they go to all the trouble to make this look like a suicide?  I mean, if they knew he was an undercover cop, why not just shoot him in the back of the head as he gets out of his car one night?  They took a big risk of being spotted with the amount of time they must have spent in that apartment.  And speaking of that, I assume you have no witnesses since you didn't mention any."


            "No, none.  No one saw or heard anything other than the neighbors one floor below.  They heard what they thought was Brendan dropping one of his weights, then the sound of several pairs of feet moving around.  But they didn't think anything of it.  They just assumed he had company."


            "What time was this?"  A.J. asked.


            "Around seven thirty.  The medical examiner places the time of death at ten minutes to eight.”


            A.J. hated to ask his next question but he had to know the answer. "Was he conscious when he died?"


            Town's eyes flicked to Pellman Creek, then back to the Simon brothers. 


            "If you're asking me was Brendan incapacitated due to a blow on the head, or by some other means that would have prevented him from knowing what was going on, then the answer is no.  I'm sorry, guys...but no."


            A.J. leaned back in his chair.  The week had been difficult enough.  Finding out Brendan most certainly suffered prior to his death from asphyxiation was not what the blond detective needed to hear right now.  But then he did ask the question and he knew he wouldn't have wanted Town to give him anything less than an honest answer.


            "So what's the plan now?"  the blond man asked Pellman Creek in a voice he almost couldn't locate.  "Are you pulling Rick out?"

            "That's up to Rick."


            "No," Rick declared.  "No one's pullin' me out."




            "A.J., no.  The bastards who did this to Brendan are part of Cord's little circle of friends.  I know they are.  I intend to find every last one of them and see they pay for what they've done.  And besides, I don't have Cord's book to turn over to the FBI.  If I pull out now then Brendan would have died for nothing.  These guys have to be stopped, A.J."


            "I'm not saying they don't.  I'm just not certain you're the man who should be the one to do that."


            The FBI agent jumped into the conversation.  "Rick, has there been any happenings this week that would indicate to you that Cord Franklin has suspicions about you?"

            "No.  None whatsoever.  I haven't been followed anywhere, and no one's tried to contact me at Carlos's shop.  I've left my vehicle parked there all week just in case Cord drove by, but nothing out of the ordinary has happened."


            "And what about you, A.J.?"  Creek asked.  "Despite what's happened to your cousin have you been tutoring Joey Franklin?"


            "Except for yesterday, the day of Brendan's funeral, I have been.  And no, nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I mean, it’s not like Cord or Logan have been hanging around the house waiting for me to arrive, or anything.  It's been business as usual.  I haven't even mentioned any of this to Casey.  I simply said I was sick with the flu when I called her Thursday morning to tell her I wouldn't be able to make my session with Joe."


            "Good," Creek nodded.  "At this point there's no reason to tell her anything about your cousin's death.  She's not involved in this end of the case anyway so it's just as well you don't risk Joey overhearing the two of you discussing Brendan.  It's my understanding from Captain Brown that Brendan was in the Franklin home on several occasions. Therefore, it's quite likely that Joey knows him.  Or would at least recognize his name if he heard it mentioned."


            "So what's the plan now?"  Rick asked.


            "If you're still game I want you to go out to the camp this weekend and act as though nothing has happened.   Casey gave me the note you wrote on Monday evening that A.J. passed to her on Tuesday.  I've been in meetings all week regarding it.  This business about attacks planned in other parts of the country is news to us.  We're assembling a large task force right now that will be working with local law enforcement officials in the targeted cities.  Of course, if things go as I hope, we'll have this bottle corked long before any civilians get hurt.  Your note mentioned that you also suspect something's going to happen sooner than December?"


            "Yeah, based on what I overheard a couple kids say.  But right now I don't know what or when."


            "Then you need to find out what and when.  And you need to get your hands on that strategic plan book."


            Rick couldn't help but shoot a weak grin in the black man's direction.     "That's what I love about you feds.  You make it all sound so damn easy."




            Nancy was spending that Friday night on Rick's boat.  She'd rise the next morning sometime after Rick left with Cord Franklin and from there, take Rex to her house.  It was eight o'clock and the couple was just sitting down to dinner.  The ringing phone interrupted Rick's first forkful of food.  The detective contemplated letting the machine pick the call up, but reached over to the counter from his seat at the table and grabbed the receiver.




            "Hey, Rick.  It's Cord."


            "Cord.  Hi."  The detective held a finger up to Nancy indicating he'd make the call brief.  He turned in his chair and stood.  "What's up?"


            "Not much.  I was just calling to make certain you were coming out to the camp with me this weekend."


            "Wouldn't miss it.  You gonna pick me up?"

            "Sure thing.  Logan and I will be to your place at five sharp."


            "Great.  I'll be waiting."


            "Good.  Hey, I missed seeing you on Wednesday.  I've gotten used to our mid-week lunches."


            "Oh, sorry about that.  We were swamped at work all week.  I had a couple big jobs to supervise and just couldn't get away.  I guess I should have given you a call."


            "No big deal.  I mean, it's not like we made it a standing date or anything.  I just enjoy spending time with my old friend, that's all.  Hey, Rick, did you hear about the Nash boy?"


            Rick swallowed, then worked hard to keep his voice neutral. "Nash boy?"


            "Yeah, you know.  The kid you gave hell at camp last weekend.  Brendan Nash?"


            "Oh.  Oh him.  No, I didn't hear about him.  What's goin' on?"

            "Get a load of this.  He committed suicide on Monday night."


            "Really?  Where'd you hear that at?"


            "Logan.  I guess it's been the talk of his school all week long."


            "Do the kids know why he did it?"

            "Not that I've heard.  Or at least not that Logan's said.  That's too bad, huh?  And here he was gonna make one helluva soldier."


            Rick said his goodbyes, promising again to be waiting for Cord in the marina's parking lot at five the next morning.  His thoughts were dark and heavy as he hung up the phone.


            Brendan already was one helluva soldier, Cord.  He already was.





            The alarm system wasn't that sophisticated.  In ten minutes time it was circumvented.  A flashlight led the black-clad perpetrator down the clinic's hallway.  The file room was locked, but that wasn't a deterrent.  A lock pick resolved that obstacle in less than twenty seconds.  From behind black grease paint a pair of eyes scanned the labels on the ends of metal file shelves.  When the eyes landed on the appropriate section of the alphabet the perpetrator grabbed a handle with one black glove and rolled the units that covered A through Q toward the far wall.  The person slipped in between two now open units and used the flashlight to aid in the search.  When the beam landed on the file that was needed, the red folder was pulled from its slot. A roll out metal ledge was secreted underneath the plastic file buckets. The perpetrator pulled it out and rested the open file on top of it.  Papers were scanned until the person came to the one that held the information that was desired.  It was read, then returned to its proper place in the folder.  From there the folder was slipped back into its slot.


            Things were left exactly how they'd been found.  The file units were rolled back to where they'd been and the door to the room relocked.  The alarm system was then rewired, leaving no indication that the clinic ever had a late night visitor.


            Leaving no indication that someone had just been looking through Lauren Simon's medical file.




Chapter 25


            Rick was waiting in the marina's lot at five the next morning with duffel bag, sleeping bag, and cooler at his feet.  Cord had yet to meet Nancy, and with the way things were heating up Rick intended to keep it that way.  He was thankful now that right from the beginning his instincts had told him not to mention Nancy's last name to his old friend.  Rick was also thankful that, back when he’d accepted this case, Pellman Creek had suggested Rick tell Cord that his mother and A.J. no longer lived in San Diego.  Of course, that didn't provide his family one hundred percent protection, but it went a long way in helping Rick sleep at night.


            If Cord had connected Brendan to Rick, or had any clue that Brendan was an undercover cop, as opposed to an eighteen-year-old high school senior, he did a good job of hiding those facts.  His demeanor wasn't any different than it ever was when he was with Rick.  As a matter of fact, he seemed even more enthusiastic than usual, which Rick assumed was because they hadn't seen each other all week.


            Logan was awake for the first twenty miles of the trip, but then put the earpieces of his Walkman in and closed his eyes.  Even with the road noise Rick could hear the deep thump of a bass guitar drifting forward from the back seat.


            It'll be a wonder if the kid's got any hearing left by the time we get to the camp.


            Cord and Rick chatted back and forth throughout the drive.  When they exited the expressway for the last leg of their journey, Rick reached for the thermos and covered mugs Cord had brought along and poured them both a cup of coffee.


            Cord accepted the white plastic Phillips 66 mug that was passed to him.  "Thanks."


            "No problem.  Say, how are things going with Joey?"

            "About the same.  Unfortunately, that story will never change.  But, he seems happy these days.  Casey's been good for him.  She's so...alive, Rick.  That's the only way I can describe her.  She's like having a living Tinkerbell in the house.  She makes everything fun.  I'll tell you, she was a God-send."  Cord took a sip of hot liquid through the narrow opening on the mug's red lid.  "He really seems to admire Dan, too.  His tutor.  Though I think I need to have a talk with the guy."


            "Why's that?"

            "From what Casey tells me, Dan’s putting ideas about college in Joey's head.  Can you believe that?  They even visited the San Diego U. campus a week ago."


            "That doesn't sound so bad.  I mean, really, what can it hurt?"

            "It can hurt Joey, that's what it can hurt.  Joey and college?  It'll never happen, Rick.  He doesn't have the intellectual capacity to even begin to entertain the notion of college."


            "This Dan guy must think so."


            "I guess, but I sure as hell don't know why.  The only thing I can figure is it's a trip he decided to take on a lark.  Just about every day Casey and Dan take Joey somewhere. And I'm glad of that, I really am.  Joey needs the stimulation, and I'm sure it's good for him to get out of the house.  God knows between my business and my weekends away I never have the time to take him anywhere.  So I don't really care if Dan takes Joey to the college campus just so they can walk around the grounds and enjoy the scenery, but if what Casey says is true, and Dan really is giving Joey the impression he can attend college...well, I'll have to put a stop to it.  I've only met the guy once, but he seemed okay.  And like I said, Joey thinks the world of him, so it's not like I want to fire him or anything.  I'm just going to tell him to back off on the college issue."


            "Well, Joey's your son, so you have to do what you think is best.  I'm sure Dan will respect your wishes," is how Rick ended the discussion.  He looked out the window at the farm fields they passed. 


            I'll have to tell A.J. to let the idea of college drop for now.  There's no use in getting Cord riled up over it.  Plus, we need A.J. in Cord's house so he can maintain contact with Casey.


            Upon arrival at the camp, Cord and Rick unloaded the back of the vehicle.  Cord turned to his son.  "You run on ahead and tell the other boys Sergeant Simon and I will be there shortly."


            "Yes, sir."


            As soon as the Expedition's cargo hold was empty and everything it held was put away, Cord and Rick climbed in once more.  They bumped over back roads, taking the same route through the woods to the boys' camp that they'd traveled the previous weekend.  Ward Konroy had the boys standing in neat rows in the center of the compound.  Rick was surprised to see Tom Bidwell standing next to him.  By the way Cord raised an eyebrow when he caught sight of his lieutenant, Rick knew his friend was surprised to see Bidwell here, too.


            Cord parked the truck.  He and Rick exited as one and crossed the compound.  Before Cord had a chance to speak, Bidwell approached. 


            "With your permission, General, I'd like to talk to the boys about Private Nash."


            As soon as Logan entered the gun shop after school on Tuesday with the news of Brendan's death, Cord had picked up the phone and called Bidwell.  Cord himself had been planning to speak to the boys, but if Tom wanted to do that uncomfortable job, Cord was only too willing to let him.


            "Go ahead," Cord nodded.  "But keep it brief.  I'm sure most of them know by now anyway."


            "Yes, sir." 


            Bidwell turned and addressed his troops. The young men were so quiet every word the lieutenant spoke rang through the compound.


            "Boys, a tragedy has occurred this week.  Brendan Nash chose to end his life at his own hand, rather than to face whatever challenges the world was presenting him with.  Only a coward deals with his problems in this manner."  Bidwell's eyes slid to Rick.  "This is not the mark of a soldier, or of a man."


            Rick stared straight ahead.  If A.J. had been with his brother he would have immediately noticed the vein twitching on the underside of Rick's clenched jaw.  That pulsing vein was the only visible sign of the detective's rage over Tom Bidwell's words. 


            Bidwell turned toward his truck.  Rick merely nodded when he heard Cord say, "I'll pick you up at five."


            The boys remained standing at attention as two vehicles fired to life and then disappeared over the rugged hills. Rick waited until Ward Konroy disappeared into his cabin.  When he was alone with his young troops Rick said,  "It's not for us to decide what actions make a soldier, or a man.    Especially when we don't know the circumstances that instigated those actions.  Out of respect for our fallen comrade and friend, let's bow our heads and share a moment of silence."


            Whether the boys believed Tom Bidwell's words, or whether they believed Rick's, didn't matter.  Because Rick was their sergeant they did as he instructed.  A minute later Rick called Justin Bidwell out of the ranks.


            "Lead your platoon in morning calisthenics, soldier."  Rick patted the boy on the back and walked off to the side.           


            Just like the men in Cord's camp, the boys got an hour rest period at noon.  In small groups they drifted out of the mess hall.   Someone had brought along a football and a game ensued in the middle of the compound.  Those who chose not to participate sat on the ground talking with a buddy, or napped under a shade tree.  Twelve-year- old Justin Bidwell sat in the dirt, leaning against the mess hall.  Rick spotted the boy and did an abrupt about face before exiting the building.   He walked to the second hand refrigerator in the kitchen and retrieved two cold orange sodas.  The three teens on clean-up duty barely took notice of him.


            The detective walked outside, the hot sun scorching the skin of his bare arms.  He turned to where Justin was seated, and with a groan dropped his butt to the ground. 


            "I'm gettin' too old to sit like this, kid."  Rick handed the boy an Orange Crush.  "You just might have to help me up when it comes time to hit the hiking trail."


            The boy was eager to please his commander.  "I can do that, sir."


            Rick smiled.  "Thanks, Justin.  It's good to know I can count on you."

            The blond beamed around his soda can.  He was so hungry for praise it was almost heartbreaking.


            Rick's eyes followed the movements on the improvised football field.  Over the players' shouts he asked,  "So, how come you're not out there with the other guys?  Don't you like football?"

            "I like it all right, sir.  It's just that...well..."


            "Well what, kid?"


            The boy was reluctant to admit to Rick what he knew he'd be chastised for admitting to his father.  "Those guys pick on me if I play with them.  You know, because I'm the youngest and smallest."

            "I hear ya', kid.   It's not easy being the youngest and smallest in a group this size, is it?"


            "No.  Actually, it really reeks sometimes."  The boy remembered whom he was speaking to and quickly rectified with,  "It really reeks sometimes, sir."


            "When we're just sittin' here like this, Justin, - talkin' friend to friend - you don't need to call me sir."


            "I don't, sir?"

            "No.  How about if you just call me Rick."



            "Yeah.  That's my name, so it would be pretty stupid if I asked you to call me Bill, now wouldn't it?"

            Justin grinned.  "I guess it would...Rick."


            "That's better.  I get kinda sick of all this ‘sir’ crap, how about you?"

            "Yeah, a lot of times I do.  But don't tell my dad I said that, okay?"

            "I won't.  Anything you say stays between us.  After all, that's what friendship's all about."  Rick raised his soda can.  When Justin realized Rick wanted him to do the same and followed through with that action, the detective clinked the aluminum containers together to signify the new bond that had been formed.


            Rick took a long swig of the sweet liquid.  "So, kid, what would you rather be doing on the weekends?"


            Justin's eyes slid from side to side as though he feared someone might overhear.  "This is another one of those things you can't tell my dad."


            "I won't. Believe me, I kept secrets from my dad when I was your age, too."


            “What I’d rather be doing is playing baseball.  I was in a league until this summer.  Dad pulled me out of it and made me start coming here."

            "You any good?"

            "Pretty good.  I was the starting short stop."


            "I can see why you'd miss it.  I used to play a little ball myself when I was your age."


            "What position?"

            "Center field.  'Course I gave up my aspiring career the day Margie Morgan caught my eye."

            "You gave up baseball for a girl?"


            Rick smiled with fond memory.  "Not just any girl, kid.  The best lookin' girl in the entire eighth grade.  Take my word on it, one of these days it'll happen to you, too."


            "I hope not." 


            Rick chuckled at the conviction in the boy's tone.  He looked around, making certain no one else was paying attention to the conversation he and Justin were having.  "So, you don't like comin' here, huh?"

            The twelve-year-old looked up at Rick as if to gauge whether or not he could say what he really felt inside.  Rick picked up on the boy's hesitation and the reasons behind it.  He smiled and nodded his head.     "You can be honest with me, Justin.  Like I said, friend to friend."


            Justin's eyes dropped to his combat boots.  "No, I don't like coming here.  I think it's pretty stupid.  Playing baseball was a lot more fun.  Besides, most of these guys are mean to me.  Brendan was about the only nice one, and now he's dead."


            "You liked Brendan?"


            "Yeah.  I guess if I had a friend here at all, it was him.  He never picked on me, and if he was around when the other guys were gettin' on my case he made them stop."        


            "That's quite a compliment to Brendan."


            "I suppose.  Like I said, he was a nice guy."


            "Seemed to be," was all Rick would say on the subject.  "You understand, don't you, that the other guys don't pick on you because they don't like you.  They pick on you because it makes them feel better about themselves.  It's not right, but that's how it often is when a guy is twelve and thrown together with boys three or four years older than himself."


            "I know.  Survival of the fittest and all that.  Still, I don't think it's right.  What about you?"  Justin pinned his gaze on Rick.  "Do you think it's right?"


            "Remember how your dad was talking about cowards earlier today?"




            "Well, in my opinion the people who are truly cowards are the ones who pick on, or hurt, those who can't defend themselves."


            Justin seemed to mull Rick's words over while he drank the rest of his pop.  When he'd drained the can dry he put it under the heel of his boot and smashed it.  He picked up the flat aluminum and tossed it like a Frisbee into a nearby garbage barrel.


            "If I tell you something else, Rick, will you promise it stays just between us?"



            "I think the same way you do.  That hurting people who can't defend themselves is wrong.  That's why I don't want to go on that mission General Franklin has lined up for us in a couple of weeks."


            "What mission is that?"

"We're supposed to blowup some man's car shop.  Sergeant Vickers is gonna take some of us late on a Friday night in two weeks.  After the bombs are set we're heading here in his van.  Sometime Saturday morning the explosion will happen.  But I don't like it.  I think people work there on Saturday.  It's one thing to blow up a building, I guess, but it's another to...well, to kill people we don't even know.  But my dad says the guy's just a stupid spic and deserves what he's gonna get."


            The words ‘car shop’ and ‘spic’ set alarm bells ringing in Rick's head.  He strove to keep his tone calm and nonchalant.


            "A spic, huh?  Gee, I don't know of many spics who own car shops.  Do you

know who this guy is?"

            "I've never met him if that's what you're asking, but his commercials play on the radio all the time.   I think his last name is Escomar, or Escolar, or Escobar...something like that."  Justin stood when he saw Ward Konroy gathering the troops for the afternoon hike.  He brushed the dirt from the seat of his trousers.  "I hope you don't think less of me because of what I told you about how I feel.  And I hope we're still friends."


            Rick looked up at the boy.  "No, Justin, I don't think less of you.  And yes, we're still friends."   


            Justin smiled at Rick, then trotted away to take his place in line.  Rick stood and followed the twelve-year-old. 


            Yep, kid, we're still friends.  As a matter of fact, you're turnin' out to be the best friend a man in my position could have. 





            The Andrew Simon home was dark and quiet at ten-thirty on Sunday night. Shane and Tanner had been asleep in their room since A.J. had closed the pages of The Hobbit at nine.  Lauren, who was beginning to feel the effects of advanced pregnancy, had fallen asleep shortly after her sons.  A.J. was the sole member of his household still awake.  Wearing only pajama bottoms, he lay on his right side snuggled against his wife's back.  The blond man's left arm was draped over the slumbering Lauren's middle, his hand rubbing light circles around her tight abdomen.  The baby didn't move nearly as much now as it had just a few weeks earlier, but Doctor Hazlett assured him this was nothing to worry about.  It simply meant the baby was rapidly running out of room to do cartwheels and somersaults, as the woman had phrased it.


            Despite being mired in concerns over Brendan's death, A.J. had met Lauren at the clinic that past Wednesday for her weekly appointment.  In the end, he was glad he hadn't canceled on his wife, even though Lauren told him she understood if such a move was necessary due to other family obligations.  Listening to the baby's heartbeat brought the first smile to A.J.'s face since he and Rick had found Brendan's body.   Having Doctor Hazlett tell A.J. both his wife and child were brimming with good health brought the blond man a deep sense of peace.


            For Brendan's death had unnerved A.J.   Even more so after the discussion he and Rick had engaged in with Downtown Brown and Pellman Creek.  The reason A.J. wasn't sleeping right now was because of the enormous concern for his brother that he couldn't push out of his mind.  Not even a busy weekend with Shane and Tanner could quite keep his worries at bay.  A.J. knew without a doubt Cord Franklin had something to do with Brendan's murder.  He didn't like the thought of Rick being with the man at that isolated camp.  As far as he was concerned, it was time to let the FBI step in and take over, evidence - or lack thereof - be damned.


            A.J.'s felt the baby nudge its feet against his fingers.  He smiled and allowed his worries to leave him for the moment.  He softly kissed the back of his wife's head.  This spunky lady had brought so much love and joy into his life.  He admired her for all she was, from respected and competent career woman, to a mother who kissed away the hurt of a scraped knee, to a first baseman who could hurl a baseball like a Major Leaguer.  Lauren's mothering skills reminded A.J. of his own mother, which was a compliment to both women.  Despite the demands of her job, Lauren was always attentive to her sons' needs, was a willing playmate who enjoyed her children and took part in their activities, and yet was a firm disciplinarian when need be.  Like Cecilia Simon, Lauren didn't believe in the old adage, "Wait till your father gets home."  If Shane or Tanner disobeyed she handled the misdeed without getting either Rob Albright or A.J. involved.  Much like A.J.'s own mother had handled misdeeds when he and Rick were growing up.


            The blond man thought of how his life had come full-circle.  Just three years earlier he'd returned to San Diego from Seattle, emotionally reeling from the pain of his divorce.  When he and Janet had married in 1990 he could have never foreseen where they'd end up.  He'd fully expected it would be with Janet that he'd have a family and go on to live happily-ever-after, as the old cliché went.  But a variety of circumstances had caused him and Janet to realize they were not meant to be husband and wife.  Their parting was difficult, but in the intervening years they'd both come to terms with it.  A.J. had last seen the woman in January of 1997.  She'd sent A.J. and Lauren a note of congratulations shortly after they were married, and a card this past Christmas.  She was still living in Seattle, and the last A.J. had heard was seriously involved with a career-driven lawyer twelve years her senior who was a widower, and whose marriage had never produced children.  A.J. could picture such an arrangement working out for Janet, and hoped she'd finally found the happiness she deserved, just like he had.


            In the final irony of this existence called life, the baby Lauren was now carrying was due on the same date as the baby Janet had miscarried back in 1993.  The pain of that time had healed with the passing years, but that didn't mean A.J. had forgotten that child.  He still mourned its passing to some extent, and had only just begun to realize that the impending birth of this baby was God's way of showing him that the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.


            The ringing of the telephone brought A.J. out of his musing.  He hitched himself up on his right elbow and reached with his left hand for his nightstand.  He snatched the receiver from its cradle before a second ring could awaken his household.  He pitched his voice low, already fairly certain who his caller was.




            "Yeah, A.J., it's me.  Sorry it's so late.  I just got in."


            "That's okay, I was awake yet.  I figured you'd be calling."


            "Listen, I think you'd better bypass communicating with Creek through Casey tomorrow and call him directly."

            "Why's that?"

            " 'Cause I gotta feeling we're now outta the frying pan and rapidly moving into the fire."


            "How so?"


            "I found out where this baptism by fire is gonna be that they're takin' the boys on."




            "Escobar's Garage."


            A.J.'s head fell to his pillow.   In a voice his brother could hardly hear he whispered,  "Oh, shit."


Chapter 26


            The Simon brothers rode together on Monday evening to the address provided to them by Pellman Creek.  They were meeting the agent at the home the bureau was renting for him in San Diego.  The neighborhood Rick entered was upscale, professional, and bordered the ocean.  He turned his Durango into the driveway of a sprawling white brick single story home with smokey-blue shutters and trim.  No vehicles sat in the drive and the wide garage door, also painted grayish blue, was shut. The lawn sported a recent military-style buzz cut, and multi-colored petunias lined the walkways.


            "If I'd known this was the kinda place the Feds rent for their visiting agents I woulda' demanded more money for this job."


            A.J. nodded his agreement.  "No kidding." 


            The brothers climbed out of the vehicle.  The smell of salt water gently washed over them from the rolling Pacific a mere three blocks away.  They followed the sidewalk to the front door that was painted the same color blue as the rest of the exterior accents.  Before Rick could ring the bell Creek appeared from around the corner of the house. 


            "Gentlemen, hello.  Please, follow me around back."


            A.J. and Rick did as requested, rounding the two car attached garage until they came to a cement patio.  They could still smell remnants of a dinner cooked outside, and when A.J. passed the covered grill he could feel heat radiating from its metal.


            Creek indicated for the men to seat themselves at a round concrete picnic table.  Four short concrete benches circled the table.  Rick sat at the one that looked through the patio doors into the dining room, while A.J. sat on the one next to it.  Before the agent had a chance to seat himself a black woman, who appeared to be in her early fifties, came to the screen doors.


            "Pellman, would your guests like something to drink?"

            Creek looked from Rick to A.J. Both men declined the woman's offer. 


            "Not right now.  If we decide we want something before our discussion is through I'll come in and get it."

            "All right."


            The woman disappeared as quickly as she'd arrived.  A.J. could hear dishes clinking against one another and assumed the woman was cleaning up after dinner.  He could almost picture the layout of the home in his mind, and guessed the kitchen resided right next to the dining room they were sitting outside of.


            "Your wife?"  Rick asked the agent as Pellman took a seat that faced both Rick and the fenced-in back yard.

            "Yes.  Gloria.  Now that our two children are grown and on their own she travels with me when my job requires I be away from our home for more than a few days."


            "And where is home?"  A.J. asked.


            "In recent years, Virginia.  Not too far from headquarters at Quantico.  While our girls were growing up it was whatever city the bureau assigned me to.  We spent a couple years in Milwaukee, several in Memphis, three in Miami, four very cold ones in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two in Kansas City, which is how I got involved on this case to begin with.  Through it all, Gloria has never complained.  Nor complained when I'd be gone for weeks at a time, leaving her to be both mother and father to our daughters.  I promised her when the girls graduated college and were on their own I'd never travel again without taking her with me if at all possible.  Our youngest is twenty-five now with a career of her own, and a new house to go along with it.  Over the past two years Gloria's come with me to whatever cities my long-term assignments take me."


            "A nice perk," Rick said.


            "Yes," Creek agreed.  "Especially after all the nights my job forced us to spend apart." 


            The blue wooden fence that surrounded the yard was eight feet high and afforded the men the privacy they needed.  A.J. saw Mrs. Creek pass in front of the patio doors, then disappear into another part of the house.  He could vaguely hear voices drifting out of the screens, which caused him to surmise the woman had turned a television on.


            The three men spent the next thirty minutes discussing the most recent revelations coming from Camp Cord.  Or rather, Rick and Pellman discussed them. A.J. simply sat and listened.


            "There's no way I can let this happen," Rick said as their conversation drew to a close.  "If Carlos or one of his employees is hurt because of me, I'll never forgive myself.  I wouldn't have used his place of business as part of my cover if I woulda' had an inkling something like this would be plotted against him."


            "And just why do you think this plan was hatched against Carlos?"  Creek asked.


            "I don't know.  I think for no other reason than his heritage.  I've been very careful not to say anything about him as my so-called employer that isn't complimentary.  But it's been evident almost right from the start that Cord believes anyone who isn't Caucasian is expendable.  I imagine he thinks he's doing me some kinda favor by hurting Carlos."


            Creek rose.  "Excuse me a moment."  He entered the house and was back within thirty seconds carrying a notebook, two rolled up maps, and three red pens.  He slid the rubber band off one of the maps and spread it out on the table.  Rick and A.J. immediately recognized the lines and squiggles and blue water to represent the city of San Diego.


            "Here, Rick," Creek turned the map to face the oldest Simon and handed him a pen.  "Circle all the locations of Carlos's shops."   He passed A.J. a pen and the notebook.  "While your brother does that, write down the street addresses of those shops for me, please."


            Creek thought out loud while the brothers did as he instructed.  "I fully intend to put an end to all of this before the plot against your friend can be acted on, Rick.  But, in the meantime, I'll get undercover agents to keep an eye on his places of business."


            Rick finished circling the fifteen locations around the city that held Carlos's car washes and garages.  He turned the map so A.J. could see the street names.  Though the blond knew where most of the businesses were located, there were a few he'd never been to.


            A.J. paused in his writing to look across the table at the black man.  "Just how do you intend to put an end to all this?"

            "The other members of the ‘Franklin Task Force,’ as we refer to it, and I have spent many hours behind closed doors since Brendan Nash's death engaged in heavy debate.  This latest news you bring us indicates we need to act fast.  Granted, we could wait and attempt to catch the boys and Vickers in action, but that won't get us who we really want."


            "Cord," Rick stated.


            "Exactly.  So with your help, Rick, we'll plot a raid on the camp."

            "Scheduled for when?"

            "After the news you've just brought me, scheduled for as soon as possible.  If I can get clearance from those above me, it will happen during the early morning hours this coming Sunday."

            Rick nodded his agreement.  From his years spent in Vietnam he knew a pre-dawn raid was the best time to catch an encampment of men unaware and without their firearms close at hand.


            "From what you've told me via the notes A.J.'s passed to Casey, a lot of heavy drinking goes on out there on Saturday nights.  I'm guessing no one will be moving too fast about three-thirty on Sunday morning."

            Rick smiled.  "No.  Most of those guys aren't moving too fast about that time all right."

            "Good."  Pellman took the rubber band off another map.  This one showed the woods around Camp Cord and the compound itself.  "Based on our own surveys, and based on what you've told me, we had a computer program design this map."


            A.J. watched for the next hour as the two men poured over the intricate drawings, discussing every detail about the layout of Camp Cord.  When it began to grow dark Pellman opened one of the sliding screen doors, reached a hand inside the house, and flicked on an outdoor floodlight secreted in the eaves above the patio.


            When the black man reseated himself, Rick pointed to the building where he'd discovered the firearms, grenades and dynamite.  "Aside from the main gates, this building is guarded all night.  You can't let Cord's men get into it.  If you do, you're gonna have a real fire-fight on your hands."


            "We'll take care of it," Creek assured without giving any details. 


            Rick pointed to the boys’ camp next.  "And you're gonna have to immobilize these kids.  If you don't, I guarantee you they'll come running, fully armed, to help defend the men's camp.  I don't want any of them getting hurt or killed."


            "Neither do we.  My people and I have already discussed this.  You said the only two adults who stay at the camp with them overnight are Vickers and Konroy?"

            "Yeah.  And lately, because of Vicker's surgery, it's just been Konroy."  Rick indicated to one of the tiny cabins in the boys' camp that had been reproduced by the computer and colored green by its programmer.  "This is the cabin the two of them share.  It's my understanding that Vickers is supposed to be back this weekend, but I don't know that for certain.  I imagine it'll depend on how he's feeling."


            "For the time being, we'll assume both men will be there."


            "And one of the kids stands guard all night in front of their arsenal, too."


            Creek nodded.  "Our first course of action will be to grab that boy, then incapacitate the two men.  From there, we'll launch a well-orchestrated silent raid on the cabins and get the kids. Is there any way they can contact the main camp?"

            "No, not that I've seen.  There's no telephones out there, and I've never seen a walkie talkie around or any type of radio."




            "But if the kids make a lot of noise - you know, shout a warning, it might be heard by the guards on duty at the men's camp."

            Without expanding on what he meant, Creek said,  "Don't worry, they won't have a chance to shout a warning."


            Rick used the non-serviceable end of his pen to indicate to the woods.  "There's usually a few sentries posted in here all night as well. Mostly in the area of the dirt trail Cord and his guys use to travel in and out of the camp.  But, how vigilant they are after the amount of beer most of them consume, I don't know."


            Again, Creek assured,  "We'll take care of them."


            For the first time in an hour A.J. spoke up.  "Pellman, between these two camps we're talking roughly two hundred men and teenage boys.  Just how can you be so certain your people will be able to take care of all of them?"

            "This is no small-time FBI raid, A.J.  The government is pulling out all the stops on this one.  After what happened in Kansas City they want Franklin bad.  Very bad. The night Patty Franklin was murdered she was returning home from meeting with me.   The information she gave me would have sent Franklin to prison had she lived to testify against him.  She was a brave woman.  She had loved her husband very much at one time, but because of the crimes he'd orchestrated she no longer had any loyalty to him.  Her sons were the foremost concern on her mind.  She wanted what was best for them.  She especially wanted to get Logan out from under his father's influence.  She didn't live to do that, but if I can, I'll do it for her."


            "So you think Cord killed her?"  A.J. asked.

            "Killed her or had her killed."  Pellman shrugged.  "Does it really make a difference?"


            "No," A.J. said quietly, "No, I guess it doesn't."


            Creek turned his attention to Rick.  "Your job in all this chaos, Rick, is actually two jobs."


            "And they are?"


            "When my agents pour into that camp you get your hands on that strategic plan book of Franklin's and then get your ass outta there.  Head for the woods behind the cabins as fast as your legs will carry you.  I'll have a vehicle waiting by the side of the road to pick you up.  In the confusion I doubt Franklin, or any of his men, will notice you're gone."


            "And will your agents know enough not to blow my head off when they see a guy in camouflage running for his life?"


            Creek smiled at the hint of humor he heard in Rick's tone.  "Don't worry, every single one of them will know what you look like.  Above all else, stay away from that arsenal.  Because of the evidence it contains the last thing I want to do is blow it up, but if some of Franklin's men get inside it, I'll do just that if I have to."


            "Don't worry, I'll stay clear."


            Both men looked up when A.J. spoke as if they'd almost forgotten he was still present. 


            "I'm coming, too."


            "Pardon?"  Creek said.


            "I'm coming with you when you launch this raid."


            "No," Creek negated.  "I can't be worrying about a civilian--"


            "You didn't seem to think of Rick and me as civilians when you hired us for this job six weeks ago," A.J.'s words were sharp and pointed.  He toned them down to ones of reason.  "Look, I'm not asking to be part of the contingent that rushes the camps.  I can wait in the vehicle that's supposed to pick Rick up.  I can drive the vehicle that's supposed to pick him up, so you don't have to use one of your agents for that chore."


            Pellman seemed to be considering that possibility when Rick spoke, putting an end to A.J.'s proposal. 


            "No, A.J.  Absolutely not."


            "What do you mean, no?"


            "Just what I said.  Not with the baby due in two weeks.  I won't risk it.  I don't want you out there in any capacity that night."




            As much as Pellman could have used A.J. for just the job the blond proposed, he sided with the eldest Simon.


             "I didn't realize your wife was about to have a child.  In that case, I can't help but agree with Rick.  You've done your part for us by passing Rick's information onto Casey.  I have no intention of letting any harm come to your brother.  So please, A.J., do as he requests and stay here in San Diego next weekend with your family.  I know enough about babies to tell you that if you've got one due in two weeks it could come at any time now.  You wouldn't want to miss things if your wife should go into labor on Saturday night.  Besides, by noon on Sunday Rick will be sitting safely on his boat enjoying a cold beer.  I promise."


            A.J. looked from one man to the other.  When he spoke his words were directed at both his brother and the FBI agent. 


"That had better be a promise you keep."




            The remainder of the week progressed without incident.  On the drive to Pellman's home Monday evening Rick told A.J. to back off the college issue with Joey Franklin for the time being.  When he explained why, A.J. agreed to let the subject drop.  With as close as they were coming to the end of this case they couldn't risk Cord having a change of heart and firing Joey's tutor.  Messages flew back and forth all week between Creek and Rick via Casey and A.J., meaning the blond man needed to be in the Franklin home each day.  Despite A.J.'s ever-growing friendship with Joey, he was looking forward to this weekend, and this case, being over.


            On Wednesday, Rick lunched with Cord in the gun shop.  Nothing out of the ordinary occurred or was said, nor was Cord's demeanor any different than it ever was around Rick.  The two men visited between bites of the Big Macs Rick had brought along.  Nothing was said about the violence planned against Carlos, but Rick hadn't expected there would be.  He assumed Cord planned to ‘surprise’ him with the news after the damage was already done.  When Rick rose to leave a few minutes before one o'clock, Cord expressed his delight over his friend's visit.


            "When you didn't show up last Wednesday I thought maybe you wouldn't come at lunch time again.  I'm glad I was wrong.  I really look forward to our mid-week talks."


            Rick's words sounded sincere even to his own ears.  "Yeah, me too, Cord.  See you Saturday?"


            "You bet.  Logan and I will be at the marina bright and early to pick you up."


            Rick's "Great," was said with a good deal more enthusiasm than he was feeling inside.  Like A.J., he wished the weekend were over, though for different reasons.  Rick wasn't particularly concerned about any danger to himself.  He knew Creek would have the raid planned to perfection, and was fairly certain in the chaos that would ensue he could indeed, get Cord's book and get out of the camp without harm coming to him.  It was the betrayal of an old friend that still gnawed on Rick's insides.  Granted, that old friend deserved to be betrayed for both his past actions and his future ones, but still, it wasn't something that was easy for Rick Simon to be a part of. 


            That same Wednesday afternoon A.J. met Lauren at the clinic.  Once again both mother and unborn child were given a clean bill of health.  As A.J. and his wife parted ways in the parking lot he thought ahead two weeks.  By then the Franklin case would be over, and he'd be a new daddy, or if nothing else he'd be close to being a new daddy.   He had to admit he'd sleep a lot easier at night when both those events were behind him.  All he asked God was for his brother, his wife, and his child to come through all their milestones unscathed.


            On Wednesday night Shane and Tanner spent a few hours with Rick on his boat while Lauren and A.J. attended their last Lamaze class.  Rick never accepted any money for his babysitting services, so A.J. paid him like he always did.  He stopped at Baskin Robbins and bought two half gallons of ice cream.  As usual, Rick insisted everyone share the ice cream with him before he allowed Lauren and A.J. to take the boys home.  


            On Thursday evening A.J.'s family scattered after the supper dishes were stacked in the dishwasher.  Shane was sent upstairs to do homework while Tanner, who had no school assignments to complete for the next day, went down the street to play with Ben.  Lauren sat at the computer in the master bedroom completing a report for work, while A.J. went a long round with his punching bag in the garage.  At seven-thirty his wife emerged from the house dressed in a navy blue cotton maternity top, white shorts, and sturdy New Balance walking shoes.  She had Toby on the leash.


            "I'm taking my walk, sweetie.  I'll swing by and pick up Tanner on my way home."


            The blond man stopped his workout long enough to kiss his wife.  "Be careful.  Don't overdo in this heat."


            Lauren smiled at her husband's concern while wiping the light sheen of sweat from his bare back.  "I should say the same to you.  Your face is as red as a tomato."


            "Is Shane still doing homework?"


            "He's just finishing up.  I told him where I was going, and that you were out here."




            Lauren and Toby disappeared down the sidewalk.  A.J. was dabbing his face with a towel and pulling on a blue Escobar Body Shop T-shirt when Shane appeared with a cold Pepsi in one hand and a basketball in the other.  He handed the unopened drink to his stepfather.


            "Thanks, kiddo."

            "Welcome.  You wanna play some ball?"

            "Sure.  Just let me drink this and bring the cars into the garage."


            Shane waited while A.J. drained the can and then went in the house to grab his key ring off the hooks mounted on the wall by the refrigerator.  The boy stood on the sidewalk while A.J. pulled the mini-van in the garage, then repeated the procedure with the Camaro.  


            When A.J. and Lauren married one of the things Shane and Tanner brought to the home on the Grand Canal from their mother's condo had been a basketball hoop mounted on an adjustable metal pole.  The pole screwed into a plastic base with wheels that could be locked in place.  The wheels made storing the contraption easy if need be, and the adjustable pole meant the hoop could be raised as the boys grew.  For now it sat a mere six and a half feet off the ground, meaning it was easy for A.J. to dunk shot after shot.  That made no matter, however, as he and Shane didn't keep score when they played.  Usually they just passed the ball back and forth, aimed for the hoop, and talked about whatever came to mind, as occurred on this night.


            Shane made two baskets in a row, then tossed the ball to his stepfather.  A.J. stood as far away as possible without being in Mr. Gorman's lawn, aimed, and swished the ball with all the skill of Michael Jordan.  Shane jumped to retrieve it and made another shot using the backboard for assistance.  He missed this time and had to run to the sidewalk in order to get the ball before it bounced into the street.  He aimed again and let the orange sphere fly.


            "Hey, A.J., would you wanna be on a basketball league with me this fall?"

            A.J. caught the ball that was tossed to him. "Basketball league?"

            "Yeah.  At my school.  They have a father-son league that plays in the gym on Wednesday nights.  This will be the first year I'm old enough to join."


            The blond man aimed for the net and fired a shot that bounced off the rim.  Again, Shane retrieved the ball.  A.J. watched as the boy lined up to make his shot. 


            "It sounds like fun, but wouldn't you rather play with your dad?"

            "He doesn't like basketball.  Besides, Dad and me swim together at the Y on Monday nights during the winter.  This is something I wanna do with you."


            A.J. was touched by his stepson's thoughtfulness.  "I see.  Well, yes.  If you're sure your dad won't mind, then I'd like to play in the league with you."

            "He won't mind."  The boy made another shot.  "I'll get a sign-up sheet from school tomorrow.  It doesn't start until September, but we have to be registered by the beginning of August.  On the Wednesdays I'm not here with you and Mom, you can pick me up at Dad's house just like Dad picks me up here on the Monday nights we go to the Y."


            "That sounds fine to me.  You bring home a sign-up sheet and we'll fill it out."


            "Great," Shane beamed his appreciation.  "Thanks, A.J."


            A.J. smiled at the boy while tousling his hair.  "You're welcome."


            The pair played another ten minutes, then walked around to the back of the house and took long gulping drinks of cold water from the garden hose.  Shane sat on the top step of the deck, A.J. coming to sit beside him after rolling the hose around its reel. They sat in silence, looking out over the canal at the fading daylight.   


            Shane let the basketball he still carried gently bounce across the deck, watching until it came to rest under the table.  He turned back around and looked up at his stepfather.


            "A.J., what's a breakdown?"

            "That term can encompass a lot of meanings.  Can you define it better for me?"


            "I have a friend whose mother had a one."


            "A breakdown, you mean?"



            "Oh.  Well, in this case it means your friend's mother experienced some event that was very upsetting to her, which in turn caused her to have a hard time coping with the little things life throws our way on a day to day basis.  Things as simple as making breakfast or choosing what clothes to put on. When that happens to some people it causes them to lose their emotional health."


            "You mean because they feel sad inside all the time?"

            "Exactly.  Do you know what happened to your friend's mother?"

            "Yeah.  My friend's little brother died."


            "That's too bad," A.J. said with genuine sympathy.  "Do you know why?"


            "Not for sure.  He'd been sick for a long time, I guess. He was only three years old."


            "The loss of a child is very difficult for any parent to endure.  I'm sure your friend's mother is heartbroken, which probably explains why she's had a breakdown."


            "Yeah."  Shane was careful not to refer to his friend by gender as the conversation continued.  The last thing he wanted A.J. to know was that he was writing to a girl, and writing to her long after the school assignment that had required him to had ended.


            "I feel bad.  My friend's mother was sent to New York to get better, and now my friend's father wants a divorce."


            "I'm sorry to hear that.  I'm sure your friend is going through a hard time because of all these changes.  Is this friend someone you go to school with?"


            Shane thought a second before deciding it would be okay to tell A.J. that his friend was a girl named Troya who lived on an island in the South Pacific.  "No, she lives--"


            Before the boy finished his sentence Tanner came tearing around the corner.  The little red head threw himself in A.J.'s arms with a playful growl.  The two roughhoused until Lauren appeared with Toby.  She ushered all her men in the house so showers could be taken, bed-time snacks could be eaten, and a few pages of The Hobbit read before the clock struck nine.


            Shane never thought to mention his friend Troya again that night, and A.J. never thought to ask.





            The plane Allison Baker hired touched down on the island's dirt landing strip on Tuesday afternoon.  For the first time in her two year acquaintance with Troy she stayed in his home, rather than in the guest bungalow miles away.  She didn't ask where Hillary was and she didn't care.  Her long experience with men caused her to deduce the woman was gone from Troy's life.  The how and why meant little to Allison.


            The woman doted over Troya and Tiffany with genuine affection, though she sensed Troya disliked her and resented her presence.  Nonetheless, in time the child would grow to love her.  Though Allison had no children of her own, she was good with kids.  Good with them because she spoiled them just like she'd been spoiled as a child. 


            On Wednesday Troy had his maid pack a picnic lunch.  He and Allison then spent the afternoon on the beach with the girls.  That night after supper they went back to the water's edge with Troy's daughters and built a bonfire. After the sun went down they toasted marshmallows.  Little Tiffany even climbed in Allison's lap and fell asleep.  Allison stroked a hand through the honey-beige hair. It was so easy to imagine Tiffany was her daughter and not the child of another woman.


            When they returned to the mansion Aziah took charge of the girls and saw them off to bed.  After the maid herself retired for the night in a wing of the house behind the kitchen, Troy and Allison treaded up the steps to the master bedroom just like they had the previous evening when the rest of the household was asleep.  Like a couple of teenage lovers, they tried in vain to smother their giggles as their hands pinched, fondled and roamed while they walked.


            The sex was wild and passionate, just like it always was when the two of them joined.  Even though the bedroom door was closed, and the master suite was housed by itself down a short hallway, Allison worried that their ardor might carry to the children's rooms.  As Troy plunged into her body for the third time that night he crushed his lips against her bruised ones and assured Allison the thick adobe walls prevented sounds from traveling.  Allison knew that was a good thing when minutes later she was screaming in a cross between pain and pleasure. 


            The next morning Allison's hair was tangled like a lion's mane after a night spent fighting in the jungle.  Her inner thighs and breasts were bruised and sore from Troy's violent love making.  She placed a light kiss between the sleeping man's shoulder blades and smiled as she rose silently from his king-sized bed.  A little pain was worth it to be able to call this blond god her own.


            The woman belted a pink satin robe of Hillary's over her nudity and went in search of coffee.  She shuffled bare footed across thick carpeting and quietly opened the bedroom door.  As she turned from shutting it, a pair of accusatory eyes confronted her.


            "I need to see my daddy."


            Allison hunched down on her knees so she was eye level with the eight-year-old.  "Daddy's still sleeping, sweetie.  Can't it wait until he wakes up?"

            Troya didn't answer Allison's question.  Instead, her eyes traveled the woman from bare toes to the hint of bare cleavage peeking from the dressing gown.  "That's my mommy's robe."


            "I know it is, Troya, but your daddy said it would be okay for me to wear it since I forgot mine at home.  What do you think about that?  Is that okay with you, too?" 


            Troya wanted to tell the woman that no, it wasn't okay with her.  She also wanted to tell Allison that she didn't like finding her coming out of Daddy's bedroom wearing Mommy's robe, and with no clothes on underneath.  But most of all, Troya wanted to tell the woman to leave.


            Because the little girl had been schooled to respect adults and talk to them with a polite tongue, she kept her thoughts to herself.  She turned on one bare heel and stomped away from Allison.  The woman ran to her side and tried to take Troya's hand, but the eight-year-old pulled away without a word.  Rather than follow Allison to the kitchen, Troya made an abrupt turn into her bedroom.  She shut her door in their visitor's face.


            Allison smiled from the other side of the door.  She gave a quiet chuckle and whispered,  "A formidable opponent, aren't you, little one?  No matter.  Whether you realize it or not, Troya dear, you're a child after my own heart.  In time, you and I will come to understand each other.  In time, we'll grow to be friends."  Allison walked away from the door and headed down the stairs. 


            "In time, little Troya, you'll come to call me mommy."





            On Thursday afternoon Troy gave Aziah money and told her to take his daughters to see Disney's Hercules.  While that film had been enjoyed by children stateside the previous summer, it was just now making its way to Troy's tiny Mecca.  Aziah asked, and was granted permission, to take the girls to her son's home for a few hours after the movie ended.  The maid had four grandchildren close in age to Troya and Tiffany, whom the girls enjoyed playing with while Aziah and her daughter-in-law chattered back and forth in the island's native tongue like a pair of hyperactive cockatiels.


            Troy and Allison took advantage of the empty mansion.  The front door had barely closed behind Aziah and the girls before Troy was clawing Allison's clothing off.  He made love to her on the living room sofa, on the kitchen floor, and in a final act of bravado, out on the deck off the dining room.  Of course, he lived so far from everyone else, and so high above everyone else, that unless someone was watching the mansion with binoculars Troy and Allison would be impossible to spot.  Still, the boldness of the move ignited a passion between the two lovers that caused them to scream as one when their bodies reached the ultimate peak of pleasure.  Allison collapsed on top of the man who lay panting beneath her.  Panting, but not yet satisfied.  Troy crushed Allison against him by wrapping one arm around her back.  She was beyond being able to do more than cry "Ow!" when his free hand smacked her bare bottom ten times in a row as hard as it could.  When he was through she voiced no objections because she knew better, and in truth she loved him even more when he hurt her.  She'd always been a bad seed.  Her mother had first told her that when she was just a little girl.  Allison knew she deserved to be punished in any way Troy deemed necessary.


            The couple showered together, dressed, then headed for the kitchen.  They stood at the center work island feeding each other fruit Aziah had picked just that morning.  They laughed as mango juice ran down their chins, each reaching out a hand to wipe the other clean.


            After their snack, Allison and Troy retreated to his study.  For the first time since the woman had arrived two days earlier they got down to business.  She lifted her briefcase to Troy's desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers.  Troy sat in his chair while Allison stood beside him.  She went over the city of San Diego's contract with Troy, pointing out the same things to him that Lauren Simon had pointed out to her when they'd met again this past Monday.  Troy asked a few questions, then signed where Allison indicated.  When they were finished, she returned the papers to the grey leather case and latched it. 


            Recalling her latest visit with Lauren also made Allison recall the envy she'd felt at the woman's advanced state of pregnancy, and the idea that had formed from her encounters with A.J.'s wife.  She sat down in Troy's lap, smiling when she felt his strong arms wrap around her tiny waist.


            Allison ran her hands over the man's chest.  "You know, Troy, I've been thinking ahead to the day when we get married."

            Troy arched a white eyebrow.  "Married?" 


            "Yes.  I realize we'll have to wait for your divorce to be final, and maybe even a month or two after that in order to allow the girls time to fully adjust.  But once the wedding is over and we're all settled here together, don't you think it would be nice if we had a little boy?"


            "A little boy?"

            "Yes."  Allison's hand continued to massage the outside of the man's jungle green polo shirt.  Her thumbs worked tiny circles over his nipples.   "I suppose I should have told you this a long time ago, but please understand how difficult it is for me, honey.   I'm...I'm sterile, Troy.  I'll never be able to give birth to a child." Allison dropped her eyes in shame of her body's shortcomings.  Her words gained speed and her tone rose in pitch, giving the indication she was nervous about how her next proposal would be received.  "But, I was thinking that we could hire a surrogate mother.  It's a fairly common practice in the States now.  We could find a woman who's similar to me in terms of height, weight, and coloring.  Then we could use your sperm.  That way the baby will even look like the two of us.  And I've been reading a lot about some new breakthroughs in the medical field that will allow us to choose the sex of the baby.  There's a doctor in New Orleans who's had success with the procedure ninety-nine times out of one hundred.  So see, if we go to this man we'll almost be assured of a boy." 


            Before Troy could make a reply Allison slid to her knees and mouthed his crotch with her tongue.  He looked down at the woman with disgust as her fingers fished for the zipper on his jeans.  He grabbed her hand by the wrist and jumped to his feet, bringing her with him.


            Allison kept her head bowed as though she was a loyal servant awaiting her master's answer.  His lip curled at the pitiful sight and he dropped her arm.  When he spoke he didn't mince words.


            "Allison, I have no intention of marrying you."


            The woman's head shot up.  "What?"


            "You heard me.  Where you got this crazy idea from...about marriage and a child, I don't know, but you sure didn't get it from me."


            Allison launched herself on the man with a crazed scream.  The chest she'd just been caressing was now pummeled by clenched fists.  "You bastard!  You fucking bastard!  You're just like all the rest of them!  You take me to bed, make me your whore, then kick me out on the street like a dog who has no new tricks to perform!"


            Troy grabbed the thin wrists, easily thwarting their violence.  The smile that touched his lips was cold and cynical.  "It's you who made yourself a whore, my dear Allison, not the other way around."


            Allison drew a foot back and aimed it at the man's shin.  Before she had the opportunity to let it fly he twirled her around and shoved her toward the living room.


            "Go!  Pack your things and get the hell out of my house now!"  Troy turned, snatched the briefcase off his desk and threw it after her.  He smiled sweetly when he said,  "And please, Ms. Baker, finish my business in San Diego for me.  After all, that is the only way I ever intended for you to serve me.  Need I remind you, the rest was your idea."


            Allison wanted to throw the briefcase back at the man. Better yet, she wanted to tear his house apart with her bare hands.  But there was a spark of evil in his eyes that told her she'd be wise to leave the premises as soon as possible.  Never one to be completely bested, Allison snarled,  "You'll pay for what you've done to me, Troy Andrews," right before she ran up the stairs. 


            Troy threw his head back and laughed.  "I doubt it, Allison.  I highly doubt it."


            Fifteen minutes later, Allison marched down the stairs with suitcase in one hand and briefcase in the other.  She had a car parked outside that had been provided by Troy's company.  She'd drive it to the island's tourist district where she'd rent a hotel room for the night.  The pilot who brought her here was scheduled to pick her up at ten the next morning.  She'd call him when she got to the hotel to see if he could make it any earlier.  She wanted to get off this island as soon as possible and never come back.


             Troy's voice drifted out to Allison from the study.  She paused on her way through the living room and listened.  When she heard no one answer Troy, she realized he was on the phone.


            His conversation went on with no apparent end in sight.  Allison's ears perked up when she heard him say the name Simon.  To the best of her knowledge, she'd never mentioned Lauren Simon to him by name.  There hadn't been any reason to.  Allison was, or had been rather, the front man for Troy's company.  Lauren was the marketing director for the city of San Diego.  Mentioning her name was neither here nor there. Troy didn't care who Allison was dealing with in San Diego as long as the job got done.


            Allison's eyes widened at the rest of the words she heard.  She knew now the spark she'd seen earlier was but a small hint of the evil that resided within this man's soul.   Not that evil hadn't resided in her soul at one time, but years of therapy had at least taught her how to control it.  And how to do the right thing. 


            I've got to get back to San Diego!  I've got to warn to A.J.!


            Allison slipped soundlessly across the carpeting and out the front door.  She didn't even start the car when she slid behind the wheel, but rather put it in neutral, pressed the clutch, and allowed it to roll down the long winding drive to the main road far below.


            Troy Andrews watched the woman from the window of his study.  If she thought she could outsmart him, she was wrong.  He'd been well aware she was eavesdropping on his conversation. 


            The blond man spoke into the mouthpiece of the phone.  "It looks like we've got another problem I need you to take care of."


            The man paused while the person he was talking to made a reply.


            Troy nodded his head as if he and his caller could see one another.  "Yes.  Correct."  His eyes followed Allison's car until it was out of sight.   "Just like you took care of Brendan Nash." 


Chapter 27


            A.J. slowly drove down the residential street that led to his home.  It was almost six o'clock on Friday evening.  He had wanted to talk to his brother before they parted ways for the day, but Rick hadn't been in the office all afternoon. 


            He must have gotten tied up on the Sazman case.  I guess I'll have to give him a call after supper.  It was nothing important anyway.  I just want to tell him to be extra careful this weekend.  For what seemed like the thousandth time since their Monday evening visit with Pellman Creek, A.J. thought, Damn, but I'll sure be glad when this weekend is over.


            A.J. swung the Camaro into his driveway and parked it next to Lauren's mini-van.  He climbed out of the sports car, taking a moment to stretch when he got to his feet.  He shoved his keys in the front pocket of his blue jeans and strode up the sidewalk to his kitchen door.  The blond detective was happy the busy, but relatively quiet week, had finally come to an end. 


            Now if the weekend passes just as uneventfully, were A.J.’s hope-filled thoughts as he opened the kitchen door.


            When six people jumped up from behind the kitchen counter and yelled "Surprise!"  the startled A.J. realized uneventful was not to be.  At least not yet.


            A.J. stepped the rest of the way into his home.  He looked around the kitchen, then beyond into the dining room.  Blue and yellow streamers were strung from the ceilings, and a computer-generated banner hung between the two rooms that read, Happy Birthday, A.J.!   The dining room table was set for seven with blue and yellow paper plates and napkins that proclaimed, It's Your Special Day!  Helium balloons in the same colors rose from the middle of the table and also expressed birthday sentiments.  Wrapped presents were piled high at one end, residing next to a bakery-decorated cake.


            The detective looked from his wife, to his mother, to his brother, to Nancy, to Shane, and finally to Tanner.  "What's all this?"

            Tanner ran to A.J.'s side and took him by the hand.  He pulled his stepfather toward the dining room.  "It's your birthday party!"            


            "But my birthday's not until tomorrow."


            Lauren kissed her husband's cheek as he passed.  "We know.  But since Rick will be away for the weekend, and the boys will be headed to Rob's, Shane and Tanner thought we should celebrate as a family tonight."


            "Yeah!"  Tanner agreed, leading A.J. to his place of honor at the head of the table.   "Me and Shane told Mom we wanted to have a party for you, A.J.!   We even made the invitations on our computer one night when you weren't home.  And I was the one who told Mom we had to buy blue and yellow decorations.  I remembered that you said those are your favorite colors.  No one else knew it but me!  Not even Mom or Rick."


            A.J. bent and gave the boy a hug.  "Thanks, Tanner."  His eyes traveled to his wife and brother.  He gave them a teasing glare.  "It's nice to know someone around here listens to what I say."


            "Oh, geez, Tanner," Rick moaned.  "You just had to get him started, didn't ya'?  Now this is all we're gonna hear for the rest of the night."


            Everyone laughed at Rick before moving into the kitchen to offer a hand in getting supper on the table.  A.J., who remained in the dining room with Tanner snuggled against his left side, held his right arm out to Shane.  When the boy was within his embrace he said, "Thank you for remembering me, buddy."


            For the first time since A.J. had married Lauren, Shane gave his stepfather a kiss on the cheek.  "You're welcome.  I wanted to do it 'cause...well, because of all the nice things you do for me. "


            A.J. recognized how difficult it was for Shane to express such deep emotion.  Rather than say anything, he simply squeezed the boy a little tighter, then released both his stepsons and stood.  The boys held onto A.J.'s hands and guided him to his chair.  Rick watched from the kitchen where he was pulling Italian food from steaming aluminum containers.


            "Yep, you boys are gonna have to give A.J. a lotta help now.  The poor old man will be forty-nine tomorrow."


            "Oh, Rick, leave your brother alone," Cecilia scolded while unwrapping warm loaves of garlic bread.  "It seems like only yesterday Bob Barton was putting him in my arms for the first time."


            "Well, it wasn't yesterday, Mom.  It was close to half a century ago now."


            "Hey, hey, hey," A.J. said,  "Let's not mention this half a century thing until next year."


            Rick waggled his eyebrows.  "Oh, it'll be mentioned next year, all right."


            A.J. could only imagine the party plans Rick already had up his sleeve for July 26 of 1999, when the blond would turn fifty.  What big brother didn't know was that A.J. was already plotting to outsmart him by holding a joint birthday party for the two of them when Rick turned fifty-five in April of that year.


            For the time being, thoughts of future birthdays were put on hold.  One of the Simons' favorite restaurants, Mama Maria's, had cooked tonight's dinner.  Lasagna, manicotti, ravioli, and garlic bread were carried to the table.  There was more than enough for everyone, and something among the selection that everyone liked, even the picky Tanner.  Conversation buzzed around the table as plates were refilled.  Rick ceased his participation for a few moments, to instead absorb the activity around him.  His family had for so long been the center of his world.  That hadn't changed since A.J. and Lauren had married.  In fact, he thought the meaning of family had even been enhanced more for him since Lauren and her boys had come into their lives.  He listened to his mother, Lauren, and Nancy laugh together like old friends.  He watched as A.J. wiped Tanner's red-rimmed mouth with a napkin, while simultaneously answering a question Shane had asked him. 


            Rick glanced down the table at his sister-in-law.  It seemed as though her pregnancy had blossomed overnight.  Just three weeks ago she hadn't been very large. Rick had even begun to worry that something might be wrong.  But now it seemed as though the baby was growing by leaps and bounds. Lauren's pronounced middle, and the way she'd suddenly begun waddling when she walked, brought it home to Rick just how quickly his family was going to be welcoming a new member.


            I know poor Lauren's probably ready to have it over with, but I'm glad the baby isn't due for another couple of weeks.  I'd hate like heck to be a hundred and fifty miles away when the baby comes, like I'm gonna be this weekend.


            With all the helping hands the table was cleared of debris in no time. Over A.J.'s good-natured protests the boys insisted on poking forty-nine candles in the cake Rick had ordered and brought.  Of course, a simple Happy Birthday spelled out in blue icing would have been too boring for Rick Simon.  Instead, the cake read, You're Only Young Once And That Was A Long Time Ago. 


            Once the candles were in place Rick fished for the Bic lighter he still carried in the front pocket of his jeans.  He'd quit smoking fifteen years earlier, but to this day never left home without a working lighter.  He floated the flame over the cake, lighting the candles one by one.  When the entire masterpiece was aflame A.J. claimed it was fire hazard.  An off-key rendition of Happy Birthday was sung, and then the boys helped A.J. douse the flames.


            Long after the cake was eaten and the presents opened the adults sat around the table visiting.  The boys drifted away as soon as the conversation no longer interested them.  Tanner asked his mother if he and Shane could watch a movie.  Lauren nodded her head.  She watched while the boys argued a moment in front of the entertainment center in the den before finally settling on Free Willy.


            It was nine-thirty when the guests rose to leave.  Rick had to be up early the next morning, and so did A.J.'s household.  Lauren's boys were playing in an all-day soccer tournament that would mark the end of their season.  The man who coached their team had asked Rob and A.J. to give him a hand, meaning the blond detective would spend most of his forty-ninth birthday pointing six, seven, and eight-year-olds in the direction of their goal.


            Cecilia gave A.J. a kiss and wished him a final happy birthday.  Nancy did the same.  The boys were called over to tell Grandma C. and Nancy good night.  Lauren put the leash on Toby.  With the dog on one side of her and her sons on the other, Lauren walked beside Cecilia and Nancy as they made their way down the block.  Cecilia's Mercedes and Rick's Durango had been parked at the curb several houses away so A.J. wouldn't spot the vehicles when he arrived home. 


            Rick headed out the door after the women.   Before he could be swallowed up by the darkness, A.J. called his name.  When Rick turned he was engulfed in a tight hug.  A.J. said no more than, "Be careful this weekend."


            The lanky man patted his sibling on the back.  "I will, kid.  I promise I will."


            As the men parted, Rick said,  "I'll call you when I get home on Sunday."


            "Do that.  I'm not going to sleep worth a damn until I hear from you."

            Rick reached out and tousled the blond hair.  "I figured as much.  And at your age, little brother, believe me, you can't afford to be losin' any sleep."

            A.J. had no desire to make a flippant remark in reply.  As a matter of fact, one didn't even come to mind.  All he thought as he watched his brother walk out into the night was, Just be careful, Rick.  Please, be careful. 





            Joey Franklin positioned his wheelchair in front of the fifty gallon aquarium.  His eyes tracked the movements of the colorful fish.  Back and forth.  Up and down.  Back and forth.  Up and down.  The fish dove to the bottom, swam to the top for food, then treaded side to side.


            The fish in the tank mirrored the confinement Joey felt.  Once again they'd forgotten he existed.  They talked freely on the sofa as though he wasn't even in the room.  He swayed side to side in his wheelchair, seemingly mesmerized by the movements of the fish.  They didn't realize he was listening.  They didn't realize he understood every word that was said. 


            Joey Franklin didn't sleep at all that night.  The conversation he'd overheard kept swirling around in his brain. So many bad things were going to happen.  Bad things, just like the bad things that had happened to his mother.  But how was he going to stop any of it?  What could he do to prevent more people from being hurt?


            As dawn was breaking that morning, Joey finally came up with an idea. 


Part 6