Cord picked Rick up at five on Saturday morning, just like he'd picked Rick up at five a.m. the three previous Saturday mornings.
Rick approached the open driver's window. "You don't need to get out. Just pop the lock on the back. I'll put this stuff in myself."
Cord reached down by his left knee and did as Rick requested. The detective stowed his gear. Rather than slam the cargo hold's door shut. he eased it closed so he wouldn't disturb his slumbering neighbors. He climbed in the passenger side of the vehicle, immediately taking note of a significant absence.
"He's sicker than a dog this morning."
"What's wrong with him?"
Cord glanced to the left and right, then pulled the Ford out of the marina's parking lot and onto the road. "Casey said he’s been throwing up throughout the night, and has chills and a fever. There was just no way I could make him come with me this weekend, even though it's vital he be there."
"Since Vic's supposed to be back, the boys are resuming some practice exercises that were put aside while he was recovering from his surgery. Logan was a key part of those exercises."
"What kind of exercises?"
Cord grinned at his friend while reaching over to pat a knee. "Don't ask me any more questions, Sarge. It's a surprise."
Oh boy. A surprise. As if I hadn't already figured as much. Well, Cord, old pal, I hate to break it to ya,' but I've got a surprise or two up my sleeve this weekend as well.
"Say, Rick, there's no use in you hauling your gear out to the camp every weekend, and then haul it back home. I can make room in my lockers for your clothes. Why don't you plan to leave them out there along with your sleeping bag."
"Sure. Good idea. I'll do that." Rick reached for the thermos that rested between him and Cord. He had no desire to discuss the possibility of future weekends together.
"How about some coffee?"
Lauren stood in the kitchen packing a large cooler with sandwiches, peaches, bananas, cheese slices, granola bars, cookies, soft drinks, and juice boxes. Breakfast had been eaten and the kitchen cleaned up. Tanner was walking Toby around the block while Shane was putting a gym bag filled with jackets, towels, hand wipes, Band-Aids, sunscreen, aspirin, and bug repellant into the mini-van. The last member of Mrs. Simon's household, her husband, was up in the master bathroom taking a shower.
The woman was still trying to figure out how to fit everything in the cooler when the phone rang. She reached for it, tucking the receiver between her shoulder and ear.
Silence on the other end.
This time Lauren thought she could hear heavy breathing. It was a strange sound though. As if air was being pushed in and out of someone's lungs by a mechanical device of some sort.
Now a garbled noise came forth that Lauren could only make out as, "Ug, ug, ug."
"Sorry, fella, I'm not interested." The woman slammed the phone down with all her strength. She hoped the obscene caller was rubbing an aching ear.
Lauren had no time to give the call further thought. Tanner burst through the kitchen with Toby at his heels. "Please give Toby fresh water and make sure his food bowl is full." She craned her neck, looking toward the open door in the den that led to the garage. "Shane, don't forget to put your backpack and your brother's in the van! You guys will be going home with Dad and Kathy after the tournament!"
"I know! I'll get 'em!" Shane ran through the doorway and up the stairs. He met A.J. coming down.
The blond man crossed through the den and into the kitchen. "We ready to go?"
"As soon as I get this lid on.” The woman snapped the big lid in place. “There. Now we're ready." Lauren started to lift the red cooler by its handles.
"Hey, hey," A.J.
negated. "No. That's too heavy. I'll get it."
"A.J., I'm perfectly capable of carrying this cooler to the van."
"And so am I." A.J. leaned forward and planted a kiss on this wife's lips. "You get the boys and make sure the house is locked up. I'll get this."
A.J. hefted the cooler off the counter. He was halfway to the garage when he turned around. "Oh, by the way. Who was on the phone?"
"Crank call." Lauren glanced up at the clock to see they were already running late. "Just some kids goofing around."
The woman locked the kitchen door and then made certain the French doors were locked. "Go on, Tanner," she urged. "You said you wanted to ride with A.J. Hurry now and get in the Camaro." She paused by the stairway on her way to the garage. "Shane, come on! Let's go! We have to leave!"
Lauren had no idea that if she'd only told A.J. more details about her crank call, he would have known exactly who was on the other end.
Joey wanted to cry. He'd struggled so hard to slide the portable phone off the kitchen counter and onto his tray. When he got to his computer he struggled for a full hour to get the phone into the cradle that was hooked up to the computer's speakers. He'd never communicated with the outside world this way before, but he knew it could be done. He'd used his computer to dial up the number he'd found the evening before in the San Diego phone directory provided by the Internet. He'd been counting on his tutor to pick up on the other end. When a woman answered, Joey frantically bobbed his head, trying to get his pointer on the letters A and J. But before his computerized voice told her he wanted to speak with A.J. Simon, she'd hung up on him.
He realized now it had been a stupid plan all along. He should have simply dialed 911. Even if he didn't ‘talk’ to the dispatcher, the dispatcher would know what address the call had come from. Joey knew it was normal procedure in most cities to send a police officer to a home where a silent 911 call originated from. He could do that right now. He could have his computer dial those three simple numbers, then he could be waiting at the door for the cop. Logan and Casey were still asleep. Joey's father was the one who'd gotten him up and dressed this morning when he'd noticed Joey awake before dawn. Joey could get his wheelchair out the door that led to the garage, and be waiting on the sidewalk for the cop. Of course, he'd have to bring him in to the sunroom to communicate with him, but if luck were with him the officer would be sympathetic to his plight and willingly follow him.
With his pointer, Joey indicated to the number 9 and then to the number 1. He was just about to nod to the number 1 again when a hand whipped out of nowhere and pulled the computer's plug.
"I don't think so, sweetheart." Casey smiled down at him as the screen went black. "I do not think so."
The nurse grasped the hose that ran from Joey's respirator to the hole in his throat. With one easy squeeze she kinked it in the middle. As Joey's body fought and struggled for air she said, "You just made your first and last mistake, Joseph Franklin."
At eight minutes to nine the Simon family arrived at the massive park that held four soccer fields. A.J. hustled the boys toward the field where their team was scheduled to begin play at nine sharp. He jogged backwards a moment, calling final instructions to his wife.
"Don't you lift that cooler by yourself! If you can't get someone to help you with it I'll get it when we have our first break!"
Lauren threw her husband a mock salute. "Go on now! Don't worry about me and this cooler!"
Rob swung his white Chevy mini-van into a parking spot next to Lauren's vehicle. The man greeted his ex-wife by taking in her pronounced stomach and teasing, "Looks like you're in charge of all the extra soccer balls today, Mrs. Simon."
Lauren laughed while rubbing her hands over her tight abdomen. "I certainly feel like I'm in charge of all the extra soccer balls." She pointed in the direction A.J. and her sons had just taken. "A.J. and the boys went that way."
Kathy climbed out of the passenger side of the vehicle, while Rob's parents disembarked from the sliding side door. Rob said goodbye to everyone and took off at a run toward the fields.
Kathy helped Lauren transfer the gym bag and backpacks from the Dodge mini-van to the Chevy. Lauren's former father-in-law insisted on carrying her cooler to a set of picnic tables that were under a distant grove of shade trees. Kathy hoisted her own cooler from the back of her van and followed in Bob Albright's footsteps. Before she got very far Lauren's parents arrived. Mac McAllister took the burden from the woman. As Lauren, her mother, her former mother-in-law, and Kathy trailed behind the men chit chatting, Lauren couldn't help but think how thankful she was that the people who loved her boys the most had learned to put aside differences caused by the divorce and come together as a family on days like this.
The group sat together on the bleachers that morning cheering Shane and Tanner on. Cecilia even stopped by for a little while, but because of other obligations couldn't stay long. The morning round-robin tournaments came to an end at noon. Everyone was told to enjoy their lunches, then return to the fields by one o'clock.
The Simons, McAllisters, and Albrights made their way to the picnic tables where their coolers rested. The men pushed the two tables together so they could sit in one big group. The large quantities of food Lauren and Kathy had brought were passed around the table along with cold drinks. When everyone declared they'd had enough the leftovers were put back on ice and covered. Lauren knew by three o'clock all her ‘boys’ would be ready for a snack.
At quarter to one Lauren said her goodbyes. She and A.J. had driven separately because she knew she'd never last all day in the warm sun. Already she was drowsy and looking forward to the nap she planned to take when she got home.
The woman kissed her boys. "You guys have a fun afternoon. Be good for Dad and Kathy."
"We will," Shane promised while Tanner gave his mother a hug.
A.J. walked his wife to the mini-van. She kissed him before she climbed in. "Don't forget our reservation at Le Chateau for your birthday dinner."
"I won't. You said you made it for nine?"
"Yes. I figured that would give you time to get home, clean up, and take a cat nap if you wanted to."
"It should. I'm sure I'll be home by seven, give or take a few minutes either way."
Lauren reached for the sunglasses she had laying on the dashboard. "Oh, and Mom and Dad would like us to come over tomorrow afternoon for a cookout along with Lisa, Jeff, and the girls. They want to celebrate your birthday and Lisa's."
Lauren's sister had turned thirty-six the previous Tuesday.
"That's okay with me."
"We don't have to be there until four, so we'll still have most of the day to ourselves. I asked Rob and Kathy if we could pick up the boys and take them as well. They said that was fine, they don't have any plans."
A.J. nodded his agreement to the arrangements. He shut the van's door for his wife and gave her final instructions as she started the engine. "Drive carefully. And take a nap when you get home. You've done more than enough for one day."
Lauren leaned out the open window and kissed her husband again. "Oh, kind sir, you truly are my knight in shining armor."
A.J. rolled his eyes at his wife's teasing. "Just do as I ask, okay? I have enough concerns on my mind without worrying about you and junior, too."
A.J.'s smile left him. "Yes, Rick."
Although Lauren hadn't been told the details, she was well aware A.J. and Rick had met with Pellman Creek on Monday evening. She also knew both her husband and brother-in-law were hoping whatever was discussed that night brought a culmination to their case over this weekend.
"Rick will be fine, honey. No matter what the circumstances, he can take care of himself."
A.J.'s, "Yes, he can," wasn't spoken with much confidence, and that troubled Lauren the entire drive home.
Rick would have thought it impossible for him and Cord to still find things to talk about on the three hour drive out to the camp. But talk they did, their subjects ranging from Vietnam, to Cord's sons, to sports, to a television program they both enjoyed. Their camaraderie didn't make thoughts of the weekend ahead any easier on Rick, but he did a good job of acting as though he was without a care in the world.
Four miles outside of Camp Cord, Rick glanced up at two telephone linemen perched high on a pole. He couldn't help but wonder if these were already FBI agents Pellman Creek had in position. He wondered that again as they passed three women on bicycles, and again when Cord drove by a man jogging with his dog.
Don't be concerned with it, Rick cautioned himself. If you act interested every time you see a guy out runnin' with his pooch, Cord will know something's up for sure.
The two men entered the camp without incident. As usual, Tom Bidwell approached as soon as the Expedition came to a halt behind the mess hall.
"General." The man's salute was crisp. "Sergeant."
Cord saluted back, Rick merely nodded his head. He didn't miss the heavy scowl Bidwell tossed his way at what the man perceived to be Rick's deliberate insubordination.
Before Cord or Rick got a chance to unload the vehicle a man approached from the compound.
"General, can I see you a minute?" The sandy-headed man held up a notebook. "I have some things to go over with you regarding today's training maneuvers."
"Be right there, Sergeant Nelson. Wait for me in the mess hall."
The man nodded and rounded the corner of the building.
Cord turned to his lieutenant. "Give Rick a hand with our stuff, would you, Tom? Thanks, pal." He shot Rick a parting smile. "I'll meet you in our cabin a few minutes. You go ahead and push some of my clothes aside in order to make room for yours."
Cord followed the same path Larry Nelson had taken. In a matter of seconds, Rick heard the mess hall's screen door bang shut.
As soon as Cord was out of sight, Bidwell slammed a finger into Rick's chest. "You'll do well to remember I outrank you, Simon, and salute me."
Rick walked around to the back of the Ford. "I haven't saluted anyone since I got outta the Corps, and I sure as hell don't intend to start now."
Bidwell stomped after Rick. His hand flew out, snatching the sleeve of Rick's camouflage shirt.
Rick turned. Tom Bidwell's eyes locked with his. For a long moment neither of them would break their stare. Finally, Rick reached up and squeezed the man's wrist with all his strength. A strength that came as a surprise to Bidwell as evidenced by the mixture of pain and astonishment on his face.
"If you know what's good for you, Tom, you won't mess with me."
Rick couldn't quite figure out why the man was smiling as he backed away. Bidwell pointed two fingers at the detective. "No, Rick, you've got that wrong. All wrong. It's you who shouldn't be messing with me."
"Is that a threat?"
Bidwell threw his head back and laughed. "Simon, believe me, I don't need to waste my breath threatening you. One doesn't threaten when one knows the facts."
Long after the man disappeared from sight, Rick couldn't help but stand there and wonder just what facts Bidwell supposedly knew. With a guy like that it was hard to tell. He could be full of hot air; just spouting off because he was angry at the way Rick had humiliated him. On the other hand, his jealously over Rick's friendship with Cord could have prodded him into doing some snooping.
The detective hiked his sleeping bag over one shoulder and his duffel bag over the other. He had a feeling this was going to be one very long day. He'd be glad when the FBI swarmed this camp and his involvement in this case came to an end. Rick glanced at his watch as he walked toward Cord's cabin. Nineteen hours. The raid would start in nineteen hours.
In nineteen hours my life will get back to normal, Rick thought while entering the little house and throwing his things on the top bunk. Back to normal. Damn, but I do like the sound of that.
Lauren Simon arrived home at twenty minutes after one. She grabbed the mail out of the slot by the door and was leafing through it when she entered the kitchen. So A.J. could do the same when he arrived home, she made a neat stack of the envelopes, and then placed them beside the phone that resided on the kitchen counter top. The woman called for Toby. The short-legged dog bumped down from the upper story. Lauren bent and petted the hound, then let him out the French doors. He trotted down the steps of the deck and into the small back yard.
Lauren took her shoes and socks off. She set the items by the stairs and returned to the kitchen where she poured herself a glass of cold orange juice. By the time she'd emptied the glass Toby was barking to be let back in.
"Too hot for you out there this afternoon, Toby boy?" Lauren shut and locked the French doors. "Come on with me then. Let's go upstairs and take a nap."
The woman laughed at the fat little dog that trotted ahead of her as though he understood every word. She had no doubt he'd spent the entire morning sleeping, and would spend the entire afternoon doing the same if she'd allow it. She picked up her shoes and socks as she passed and followed Toby up the stairs. By the time she entered the master bedroom Toby was curled in his favorite spot on the carpeting next to A.J.'s side of the bed.
Lauren grabbed a light blanket off the closet shelf and lay down on top of the bedspread. She still had on the yellow shorts and white and yellow checked maternity top she'd worn to the soccer field. She spread the blanket over her bare legs and reached for the hardcover book on her nightstand. She made it through one chapter of Sue Grafton's latest thriller before falling asleep.
The pregnant woman didn't stir again until four o'clock. She smiled when she woke to find her open book still balanced on her belly. She removed it and set it back on her nightstand.
I must have really been tired. I never fall asleep when I'm reading. It's usually A.J. who wakes up with an open book on his stomach.
Lauren shifted position and slowly stretched first her right leg and then her left. She'd learned from past experience that rising too quickly this late in her pregnancy almost always prompted painful cramps in her calves. The light exercises felt good, and also helped wipe away the remaining remnants of sleep.
Lauren carefully stood, making sure she had her balance before moving too quickly. She folded the blanket and returned it to the closet shelf, then ran her hands over the bedspread to smooth out the wrinkles made by her reclining body. She made a pit stop in the master bath before stepping into the hallway. She walked down to her sons' room and conducted the quick inspection she'd meant to do before they left the house that morning. Often times a homework assignment, or some other item that would be needed during the week Shane and Tanner were at their father's house, was accidentally left behind. Usually Lauren prevented this situation before it occurred by taking a look in their bedroom prior to the time they had to leave for Rob's.
Lauren saw nothing out of the ordinary when she entered her sons' domain. They'd even done a pretty good job of picking up toys and books that morning, and returning the items to their proper shelves. She found one stray game piece for Operation that she slipped into the box, and a coloring book Tanner had left open on the homework counter. She closed the book and put it in the cabinet. Like she'd done in her own room a few minutes earlier, she ran her hands over the bedspreads that were in need of a woman's touch. The boys made their own beds every morning, but that wasn't to say the bunks still didn't look like someone was sleeping in them when they were finished.
Lauren fluffed pillows, tucked blankets under mattresses, and pulled the spreads taunt until a quarter would bounce off of them. She struggled to get down on her knees and look under the bottom bunk. She pulled out two dirty socks, a grass stained pair of shorts, a T-shirt splotched with grape jelly, and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. She shook her head as she deposited the clothes in the bathroom hamper and headed downstairs to throw away the moldy sandwich. She scolded her youngest out loud as though he was present.
"Tanner Reed, how many times have I told you not to stash things under your bed? When I tell you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper, that's where they're supposed to end up. Ever since Rick told you he used to clean his room in record time by throwing all his things under his bed I've been doing nothing but dig junk out from under yours. I swear, both you and Rick are going to be in trouble when I get my hands on the two of you."
Lauren threw the sandwich away in the kitchen garbage can. She'd have to remember to tell A.J. about Tanner's latest escapade. Her husband was always amused by the whims ands ways of the six-year-old.
The copper headed woman puttered around the kitchen a few minutes. She emptied the clean dishes from the dishwasher, putting plates, bowls, and utensils in the appropriate cabinets and drawers. She hung the coffee mugs on the mug tree by the sink, then walked the garbage can out to the garage where she emptied it into the big plastic barrel that A.J. would set by the curb on Monday morning.
When Lauren's kitchen chores were finished she returned to the upper level of the home. She retrieved a small leather suitcase from the back of her closet and laid it on the bed. The only thing she had left to do in preparation of the baby's arrival was pack her own bag for the trip to the hospital. Provided things went well, she would be released within twenty-four hours of the birth. For just that reason, it didn't take Lauren long to accomplish her task. A pair of tan maternity slacks and a blue, oversized man-style shirt were folded and placed in the bottom of the case. As much as Lauren would have preferred to put in a favorite pair of faded size eight Levi's and a T-shirt, past experience told her it would be twelve weeks after the baby's arrival before her formerly slim figure returned.
Socks, a pair of blue tennis shoes, underwear, and a nursing bra followed the clothes into the suitcase. The expensive silk nightgown, Chinese-style robe, and Chinese slippers A.J. had surprised her with the previous week went in last. When he'd given Lauren the gifts he'd told her to reach in the side pocket of the delicate robe. She'd found two tickets for a November showing of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a theatre in San Francisco. A handwritten note from A.J. was attached to the tickets that told her this would be their first weekend away without the baby. He'd already made arrangements for the newborn to spend that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with his mother, and for Shane and Tanner to spend the weekend with Rick. Lauren couldn't explain to her husband why his thoughtfulness made her cry, she only knew she loved him even more for these precious things he continuously did for her.
Lauren grabbed a piece of paper, a pen, and a roll of Scotch tape from the drawer of A.J.'s nightstand. She wrote herself a note that read; makeup bag, hairbrush, blow dryer, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, book. She closed her suitcase and taped the note to the outside of it. She didn't want to forget these items she used every day in the rush to leave for the hospital. Not that there should be any rush. Especially if her past labors were predictors of this one, as Doctor Hazlett said was a strong possibility. But, knowing A.J., he'd be urging her out the door the minute she felt the first slight twinge that indicated the baby was on its way.
The woman returned the items she'd borrowed from A.J.'s nightstand drawer. She carried the suitcase down the hall to the nursery and placed it on the closet floor next to the car seat and packed diaper bag. There was nothing else she could think of that would be needed in those first twenty four hours. And, if on the off chance there was something she was lacking, Rick or Cecilia could always bring it to her since A.J. wouldn't be leaving the hospital until he brought his wife and child home.
Lauren was pre-registered to make use of a new wing of County General's maternity ward called The Birthing Inn. The expectant mothers
labored and delivered in private hospital rooms that were decorated like a bedroom feature right out of Better Homes and Gardens. The experience was said to be as close to a home birth as one could get, while still having the medical equipment of the hospital readily available should an emergency arise. The baby's father remained in the room throughout the mother's entire stay, as did the baby once it arrived. Aside from the mother's bed, a covered bassinet was part of each room's décor, as was a couch that folded back to make a bed for the father. This would be slightly different than what Lauren experienced when she had Shane and Tanner. Granted, Rob had been with her throughout the labors and deliveries of both boys, but she'd been moved three different times, from labor room, to delivery room, and then finally to the two-bed room she shared with another new mother. That situation meant Rob didn't stay with his wife and child overnight. Nor was he pressed into service by the nurses when it came to caring for the newborn infant as A.J. would be. Both Lauren and A.J. were really looking forward to those first twenty-four hours alone together with their baby. In her mind's eye Lauren could already picture A.J. changing his first diaper and giving his first bath. He'd never complain about such tasks like Rob had. She knew it would be just the contrary. A.J. would relish each new experience with his baby and take great delight in being a daddy in every sense of the word.
The woman rubbed her hands over her stomach as she did a lot now days without even realizing it. She looked down and said, "You don't know yet how lucky you are, little one. You're going to have the kind of Dad every child dreams about. He loves you so much, and he loves your brothers and your mommy with all the love his heart has to give. We're all so lucky, baby Simon. After this weekend is over, and your Uncle Rick is back with us, you can make your premiere any time you feel like it, okay?"
As if in answer to her question, Lauren felt a kick against her hand. She laughed. "Ah, another comedian like your brother Tanner and your Uncle Rick, huh? I don't know if your poor father can take another joker in the family."
The lighthearted Lauren exited the nursery. She returned to the master bedroom where she sat in a chair and put on her socks and shoes. She tied the last lace and stood.
"Come on, Toby. Wake up there you lazy hound dog. It's time for our walk."
Toby yawned, stretched, and then pushed himself to his stubby legs. He followed his mistress down the stairs and stood patiently while she attached his leash to his collar.
Lauren grabbed her house-keys off the counter, locked the kitchen door behind her, and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine with Toby at her side.
Allison Baker dashed through the terminal at San Diego's Lindbergh field. The garment and carry-on bags she had slung over her right shoulder knocked an uneven rhythm against her hip. She skirted around a family that had just arrived from Chicago, barely taking notice that she almost bowled over their four-year-old daughter. Allison ran toward the wide stairway with the blue sign hanging over it labeled LUGGAGE. She silently cursed anyone who got in her way. She weaved in and out of people like a speeding car changing lanes on a freeway. She flew down the stairs with the same reckless abandon. Her eyes scanned more signs until she came to the round turnstile that should deliver her suitcase.
Allison glanced at her watch. "Come on, come on," she urged under her breath. Luggage traveled by her, but none of the bags were hers.
"I don't have time for this." She mumbled with increasing impatience. "I've got to get a hold of A.J."
Nothing had gone right for Allison since the moment she'd left Troy Andrews' house. She'd been unable to contact the pilot who'd flown her to the island, meaning she couldn't arrange for an earlier departure time. When he did arrive on Friday he was three hours late while claiming mechanical problems with the plane. By looking at his bloodshot eyes Allison was more inclined to believe he'd been sleeping off a hangover, but by then she was in such a rush to depart she didn't care. She threw her bags in the back of the little plane and practically pushed the slow-moving man into the cockpit.
His delay in picking Allison up only caused the woman further delays with all the connections she'd made to get her back to California. Based on the phone conversation she'd overheard, Allison knew time was running short.
She flicked a glance at her watch again, and then craned her neck toward the turnstile. When she still didn't spot her camel colored leather suitcase she cursed, "Oh, screw it," turned and raced for the nearest exit. She stopped short when she came to a long bank of pay phones. Her plan had been to see A.J. in person rather than phone him. She knew fully well as soon as she identified herself he'd hang up on her. But now she feared she had no choice but to call him.
After all these years, Allison hadn't forgotten A.J.'s number. She punched it in from memory. She tapped a foot while she counted the rings. One, two, three, four, five, and then an answering machine clicked on. A little boy's voice spoke.
"Thanks for calling A.J.'s house. We're having fun right now and can't come to the phone. But if you wanna talk to A.J., Lauren, Shane, or me...I'm Tanner...leave a message after the beep. Oh, and if you wanna talk to our dog, Toby, bark three times. Bye."
Allison almost did as Tanner requested and left a message, but then thought better of. She slammed the phone down and once again ran for the exit. She'd hail a taxi and go to the hotel suite she kept reserved for herself whenever she was in San Diego. She'd take a quick shower, leave her bags there, and try calling A.J.'s house again. If he still wasn't home then she'd have a cab take her to his house, where she'd camp out on his doorstep until he did arrive.
The woman looked out of the window as the taxi made its way through the city streets. She paid no attention to the passing scenery, the urgent plea inside her head leaving room for little else.
You've got to be home, A.J. You've got to be home, and you've got to be willing to listen to me. Please be willing to listen to me.
Allison tried calling A.J.'s house again as soon as she rushed into her tenth floor suite. Once again all she got was that cute little voice on the answering machine. The woman entered the suite's bedroom and threw her bags on the king sized bed. She stripped off her clothing and headed for the bathroom. She hadn't bathed since her Thursday afternoon shower with Troy. Thirty hours of non-stop travel had left her feeling dirty and tired.
As much as she would have liked to, Allison didn't linger under the hot jets of pulsing water. She soaped up her body and hair, thoroughly washed both, then rinsed off. She stepped out of the tub and grabbed for a fluffy maroon towel almost as long as she was tall, using it to dry her body and hair. She didn't bother to dig her blow dryer out of her overnight bag. Her natural amber curls would spring back into place on their own. She rushed back to the bedroom and retrieved from her zippered overnight bag the only casual clothing she had with her - Wrangler jeans, a pink Oxford shirt, a pair of silk underpants and matching bra, and a pair of white socks. She pulled on her clothing and slipped her feet back in her Nike cross trainers. She wadded up the dirty clothing she had laying on the bed and threw the items in her bag. She didn't bother digging for her makeup. She wasn't out to win a beauty contest, or to win A.J.'s heart. All she wanted was for him to listen to what she had to say.
Allison hurried to the luxurious
living area. Just as she was dialing
the third digit in A.J.'s phone number there was a knock on her door. She put the phone back in its cradle and
called, "Who is it?"
A young male voice answered. "Room service, ma'am."
Although Allison hadn't placed an order for room service, it wasn't unusual for the hotel to anticipate the needs of its wealthy clientele. It was almost five-thirty. Therefore, the desk clerk might have taken it upon himself to send up some sort of meal for her.
Allison bustled over to the door. She didn't even look when she unlocked it and flung it open. She turned her back and headed for the phone again. "Just leave whatever it is right here. Have Martin add your tip to my bill."
Before Allison made it to the phone, an arm hooked itself around her neck. Her assailant's hand shot up to cover her mouth, causing Allison's scream to come forth as a muffled cry. The cold steel of a gun muzzle was jammed against her temple. The person holding her lifted her off the ground and turned both their bodies around.
A second person stepped in the room. The door was shut and relocked. A long knife with a sharp, thin blade was stuck under Allison's chin.
"You do what I tell you to,
bitch, or I'll slice you layer by layer until I hit bone. You got it?"
Allison's eyes widened at the sight of the gleaming blade. Sweat broke out on her forehead, and her heart raced so hard she thought it would climb her throat in an effort to escape.
The knife pricked the bottom of Allison's chin. She cried out at the pain, but because of the hand still covering her mouth the sound went unheard.
The bloodstained blade was held up for Allison to see. "I said, got it?"
Allison swallowed hard and nodded her head.
"Listen to me then, and listen good. We're going to let you loose, but one wrong move and we'll blow your fucking brains out. Understood?"
Again, Allison nodded.
"Good. And here's a little something you're going to need. Think of them as your cue cards."
Allison was handed three index cards with typewritten dialog on them.
"You follow the script and you won't get hurt. You don't follow the script, and you will get hurt. It's as easy as that." The person holding Allison was told to release her. She was shoved toward the coffee table by the knife wielding assailant. "Now get your scrawny ass over to that phone and make a call for me."
It came as no surprise to the terrified Allison when the phone number she was told to dial turned out to be A.J. Simon's.
Lauren had just entered the house and released Toby from the confinement of the leash when the phone rang. She grabbed for it, picking it up seconds before the answering machine clicked on.
"Lauren, hello. This is Allison Baker."
"Allison! Hi! I thought you were vacationing at Mr. Andrew's estate this weekend."
"I was there earlier in the week, but Mr. Andrews wanted me to rush right back and get these papers to you."
"That wasn't necessary. It could have waited until your vacation was over."
Lauren thought she detected a nervous tremor behind Allison's laugh. "When you work for Mr. Andrews, you do what he wants when he wants it. And speaking of that, he wants me to meet with you as soon as possible to go over the contract. He made some amendments to it that will, of course, need your approval."
Lauren couldn't imagine what amendments the man could have made to their paperwork, but she knew the rich were fickle, and had long ago learned to handle such people with great diplomacy.
"That's fine, Allison. We can meet on Monday morning if you'd like. Will ten o'clock work for you?"
"I'm...I'm afraid not. I'm scheduled to fly out tomorrow morning on
another trip for Mr. Andrews. I realize
it's Saturday night, and I do apologize for interrupting your evening, but
would it be possible for us to meet?"
"Now? Tonight, you mean?"
"Yes. The business end of our meeting shouldn't take more than thirty minutes. I'd like to treat you and your husband...A.J., is it?"
"I'd like to treat you and A.J. to dinner for the inconvenience. I know a great place right on the ocean. A.J. can sit at a table overlooking the water and enjoy a glass of wine, while you and I review this contract in one of the private meeting rooms. I have it all arranged for seven-thirty. Since I don't have a vehicle at my disposal, I was hoping you and A.J. could pick me up here at my hotel."
Lauren glanced up at the clock. It was quarter to six. "Allison, I'm sorry, but I just don't see how that will work. It's A.J.'s birthday, and we already have dinner reservations for later this evening. Besides, he's not home right now. He's at an all-day soccer tournament with my sons. But, I'll tell you what. If you can meet me at my office at seven-fifteen, and if you promise me this won't take longer than thirty minutes, I'll make the time to see you yet tonight."
There was a long silence with muffled voices in the background. For a brief second Lauren wondered what was going on, but then realized Allison must be thinking her proposal over, and the voices she heard must be coming from a TV set.
"That's...that will be fine, Lauren. Yes. I'll take a taxi and meet you at your office at seven-fifteen."
"Great. See you then. If I get there, first I'll wait in the lobby for you. Just rap on the door. Otherwise, if you beat me there, wait for me in the parking lot. Is that all right?"
"Yes. Yes...that's fine. Thank you."
"You're welcome. I'll see you in a little while. Goodbye."
When Allison broke the connection she turned to plead with her assailants. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. "Please. Please don't make me do this."
A gun butt crashed against her jaw, sending her flying into the wall. Stars swam in front of Allison's eyes as her legs melted underneath her. Her lower lip felt like a helium balloon, and she swallowed blood from three loose teeth. She fought to remain conscious as conversation swirled around her.
"What about Simon? I thought we were supposed to take care of him, too."
"We were, but we'll have to work with the circumstances that present themselves to us. Besides, I have a feeling that given time, Mr. Andrews will decide there's no better way to punish A.J. Simon than to make him live with what fate is about to send his way."
Allison's foggy brain tried so hard to come up with one last way to warn A.J. If she could only get to a phone she'd dial 911. She blindly groped to her right, hoping her assailants were too busy to notice her movement. Before Allison could make any headway she was lifted off the floor. She moaned when she was thrown over someone's shoulder. Her garment bag was unzipped, the clothes it contained tossed on the bed before the bag was fitted around her body. The heat of the leather was suffocating, and Allison finally lost consciousness.
No one even looked twice when Allison Baker was hauled from the room. Her thin form had been concealed so well inside the long zippered pouch that to the casual observer it looked as though clothes were being carried out of the hotel.
A.J. Simon arrived home at five minutes after seven. He immediately noted the absence of the mini-van, but assumed Lauren had gone to the grocery store. It was always necessary to restock the refrigerator and shelves after Shane and Tanner had spent the week with them.
The blond man hit the button on his automatic garage door opener. He pulled the Camaro into the garage, knowing he and Lauren would use the van for their drive to the restaurant. His wife's advanced state of pregnancy now made it difficult for her to get in and out of his low-slung sports car.
A.J. climbed out of his vehicle and reached into the back for the cooler. Not a speck of food or drink was left. He opened the lid and set the cooler on its side in the utility sink. He'd let the remaining ice and water drain from it, and then wash it out with the garden hose the next day.
The detective used his house key to gain entrance from the garage into the den. He slipped off his tennis shoes and bent to pet Toby, who had waddled over to greet him.
"Hey, Toby. How ya' doing, buddy?" The little dog wiggled his butt. "Yeah, that's my dog. Good boy."
With a final pat to Toby's head, A.J. stood. He crossed through the den and into the kitchen. The mail was stacked in a neat pile by the phone, as was a note from Lauren.
I received a call from a very important client, and had no choice but to meet her at my office to go over some paper work. I'm showered and dressed for our dinner out. I'll be home by eight- fifteen so we can leave by eight-thirty. Oh, I finally packed my bag for the hospital so you can quit worrying about that. All systems are now go for the arrival of baby Jackson Richard McAllister Simon, or baby McAllister Cecilia Simon.
All My Love,
P.S. Happy Birthday, A.J. And thank you for making me so happy.
A.J. smiled at the paper. How like Lauren to leave a note that, with its simple message, could so easily send a man's heart soaring. He chuckled as he reread it. They hadn't discussed a boy's name any further since that day in the nursery almost a month earlier. Evidently Lauren was telling him she'd made up her mind on what a son should be called. He still wasn't sure he agreed with the name, and decided it would make for a lively, light-hearted debate over dinner.
Maybe we should just wait and see what he looks like when he's born. That is, if the baby is, in fact, a he. Mom told me that's how I got my name. That she and Dad were still debating the issue, trying to pick a boy's name from a list of four they liked, when she went into labor with me. When I came out looking so much like Dad she wanted to name me John Jr. He wouldn't hear of it, so they settled on his middle name as my first name, and Mom threw in Jackson as a way to honor dad's nickname of Jack.
The blond man looked through the mail and then headed up the stairs to shower. By quarter to eight he was done in the bathroom and dressed in a pair of stone-gray cotton trousers and a sapphire blue shirt with small stripes that matched the gray of his pants and suit coat. He carried his shoes, blue and gray tie, and coat down to the den. The shoes he set by the door leading out to the garage. The suit coat and tie he hung over the back of a chair.
A.J. let Toby out the French doors and sorted the mail while he waited for the little dog to do his business. The detective was throwing the last of the junk mail into the garbage can when the basset hound howled from the deck. A.J. let the dog in, locked the doors, and then sat down in his favorite easy chair in the den. He contemplated turning on the TV, but knew the news was long over, and that the chances of finding anything interesting to watch on a Saturday night in July were slim to none.
The blond man reached for the wooden handle that would bring the footrest up. He reclined back in the chair and closed his eyes. He didn't intend to nap, but the fresh air and long day outdoors had taken its toll. In less than two minutes, A.J. was sound asleep.
Lauren parked the mini-van next to her office building. She left her pale blue pumps in the van, instead choosing to wear her tennis shoes for this excursion since they provided far more comfort and ease of movement. She supposed she looked silly considering she was dressed for A.J.'s birthday dinner. She wore a pale blue maternity dress that had an overlaying knee-length white jacket. A.J. claimed the outfit made her look sexy, which Lauren found hard to believe considering her current state. Nonetheless, his compliments did force her to see her pregnant body in a different light than she had when she was married to Rob and carrying the boys. Rob never made mention of her condition one way or another. But with A.J., as she'd grown larger and rounder, he always made certain to make her feel more special and feminine than she'd ever thought possible. Even though they were no longer making love because of the discomfort it brought her, A.J. still held her in his arms every night and told her how much he loved her and how attractive he found her.
Lauren used her key to gain entrance into the building. She disarmed the security system, but relocked the front doors. She flicked on the lobby lights and took a seat at the receptionist's desk. She hoped Allison didn't keep her waiting long.
As Lauren sat she thought about the things she wanted to discuss with A.J. over dinner. First and foremost, would be her visit to Lowell Brooks' home. Because of Brendan's death, and all the activity going on this past week with Shane and Tanner, she'd never brought the subject of the house up to A.J. Since they'd be alone tonight she thought it would be a good time to discuss it with him. Maybe Mr. Brooks would even be available sometime on Sunday to show it to them.
And then they needed to finalize their decision on a boy's name, though Lauren imagined her husband already realized this was on her mind based on the note she'd left him. She couldn't imagine a little boy looking like anyone other than A.J. Therefore, she thought Jackson was the perfect moniker. But A.J. might feel differently, so together they needed to resolve this minor issue.
Lauren looked down at her stomach. "Jackson or Mac, I guess it doesn't much matter, does it, little one? As long as you're healthy and happy. That's all that really counts."
The red headed woman waited until she could wait no more. She walked over to the lobby windows and looked out, expecting to see a taxi pull up to the curb at any moment. As the hands on her watch inched toward seven fifty-five her impatience grew. She headed for the elevator. Lauren knew her secretary had the phone number of Allison Baker's hotel suite in her Rolodex. She call the woman and see what was keeping her. If she couldn't get a hold of Allison then she'd head for home. She wasn't going to wait around considering this was A.J.'s birthday, and quite possibly the last evening they'd have out alone together prior to the baby's arrival.
Lauren flicked on the lights in her outer office. She crossed to Sue's desk and thumbed through the Rolodex. She dialed the number she found for Allison Baker. It bypassed the hotel's switchboard and rang directly in the room. Lauren let the phone ring ten times then disconnected the call. She began to redial, intending to call A.J. and let him know she was on her way home. She wondered what had happened to delay Allison.
Oh well, she can come by the house in the morning if she wants to. Or she can fax me the papers and we can discuss over the phone whatever issues Mr. Andrews has concerns about.
Lauren cocked her head. She thought she heard footsteps in the hallway. She hung up the phone without punching in the last two digits of her home number. Because she was in a hurry to get this meeting over with and get home to her husband, Lauren completely forgot she'd locked the front doors when she called, "Allison? Allison, I'm in here!"
It wasn't until they stepped into the room that Lauren knew she'd made a terrible mistake. She sat down in Sue's chair, instinctively protecting the baby by hiding her bulk behind the big desk. She only had time to whisper, "No," when she saw the gun raised and pointed directly at the middle of her forehead.
An odd sense of serenity bathed Lauren's soul in a soft glow. For some reason, she knew she had nothing to fear. It was if God was laying a comforting hand upon her, and in that moment she saw all that was to be in the many days that would follow.
The last thought she had that night was, A.J., I love you. Open your heart and listen to the voice of God. He'll get you through everything that is to come.
Two people raced from the building. Darkness had fallen and the night sky, along with their black clothes, helped to conceal their identities. The only bit of color worn by either was the bright gold high top tennis shoes on the woman's feet.
A.J. slowly emerged from his slumber. When he found himself looking up at the ceiling he realized he'd fallen asleep while sitting in his chair. By the dark state of the house, he knew it was well past the time Lauren's note indicated she'd be home.
The blond man put his chair in the upright position. He looked across the room at the numerals on the VCR clock. Eight fifty-eight changed to eight fifty-nine. He stood and walked over to flick on a lamp.
"Lauren!" He crossed to the stairs. "Lauren!"
A.J. opened the door that led to the garage. He turned on the overhead light seeing only his Camaro in its usual spot. The van's spot in the garage, and out on the drive, was empty.
The blond man headed for the kitchen. Perhaps Lauren had called and he hadn't heard the phone ring. That idea was immediately squelched by the lack of a blinking light on the answering machine.
A.J. picked up the phone and dialed the number that would ring in Lauren's office. He wasn't alarmed when he received no answer, instead, assuming she was on her way home. He glanced at the kitchen clock to see it was now five minutes after nine. He dialed the phone again, this time calling Le Chateau.
Because this was a restaurant the detective had frequented for many years, he knew the maitre'd who answered on the other end. He apologized profusely for the fact that he and Lauren were late for their reservation. The man was more than accommodating of his long time patron. In his slight French accent he said, "I will hold the reservation open as long as necessary, Monsieur Simon. Perhaps you and Madame Simon will be able to arrive in the next thirty minutes to one hour, no?"
"That's very kind of you, Phillipe. And yes, please keep it open until ten if that's possible. I'm not certain what's delayed my wife, but if she arrives home by nine-thirty we'll head your way."
"I shall be happy to keep a place for you until ten o'clock, Monsieur. If you cannot make it, perhaps we'll see you on another evening very soon."
"Yes, Phillipe, I'm sure you will. And again, I apologize for the inconvenience, and thank you for your help."
A.J. hung up and tried Lauren's office once more. Again, he got no answer. By nine-twenty he was pacing the kitchen floor. By nine thirty-five he'd called her office two more times.
Not knowing what else to do, A.J. added a note to the bottom of Lauren's telling her he'd gone to look for her, and to stay put should she arrive home while he was out. He grabbed his car keys off the counter and headed for the garage. He'd follow the same route he knew Lauren traveled to and from work. Perhaps she'd had a problem with the mini-van, though if that was the case why she hadn't used her car phone to contact him A.J. didn't know.
A.J. bent and put his tennis shoes on knowing they'd provide more comfort for his feet and legs should he have to stand over the open hood of the van. He grabbed his toolbox and a flashlight from a shelf in the garage. He set both items behind the Camaro's driver's seat and then backed the car out. Darkness had fallen, meaning the detective had to keep a sharp eye on the vehicles that passed him going in the opposite direction. A number of mini-vans zoomed by, but he didn't recognize any of them as belonging to his wife. Nor did he spot any vehicles stalled on the side of the road.
The detective's concern increased the closer he got to Lauren's work place without seeing any sign of her. He chastised himself for his worry.
Don't borrow trouble, A.J. There may have been an accident that's got traffic stalled. If that's the case and the cops are all over the airwaves, it's a possibility that Lauren couldn't get a call through to me on her cell phone. Or maybe she's still tied up with her client, but they're not in her office. I should have called the main switchboard number. I think that rings throughout the building when the receptionist is away from her desk.
A.J. was three blocks from Lauren's office building when he smelled it. The night sky almost camouflaged the thick black smoke that billowed into the air, but it seeped in through the Camaro's air conditioning vents. For just a moment a rush of relief swept over the blond man. A fire in the area could very well mean streets were blocked off and Lauren was unable to get home. But, as the Camaro moved closer to the source of the smoke, A.J. saw no flashing lights nor heard any sirens. He pressed down on the accelerator, cursing the fact that he didn’t have a cell phone of his own. A block later he could see the orange flames shooting into the air. He traveled one more block and saw the source of the inferno.
The detective swung the Camaro to the curb. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out without removing the keys from the ignition or closing the door. He raced for the burning building. His throat closed and his heart stopped when he saw Lauren's mini-van sitting in the parking lot.
A.J. yanked on the front doors. "Lauren! Lauren!" The metal knobs were already so hot they burned the detective's hands. He paid no attention to the pain when he cupped his hands over his eyes and peered in through the glass. All he could see was a fog of thick smoke. Over the roar of the fire he screamed again. "Lauren! Lauren!"
The blond man made a fist and smashed it through the thick, ornamental glass of one of the door panes. He blindly fumbled until his right hand came in contact with a lock. Again, he paid no attention to the hot metal searing his fingers, or to the blood running down the arm that had been cut by jagged, broken glass.
A.J. ran into the building and was immediately engulfed by heat and dark, arid smoke. Yellow and orange flames danced from down the hallway, but had yet to reach the lobby. They climbed upwards, burning away the floor above them.
The blond man raced for the stairs. "Lauren! Lauren!" By the time he rounded the curve to the second story he could barely breathe. He was forced to bend over at the waist in an attempt to fill his lungs with air that didn't scorch, burn, and choke.
A.J.'s hand left a bloody trail on the stair railing. "Lauren!" The smoke was getting darker and thicker. He could hear what sounded like the angry winds of a hurricane and knew he was getting closer to the source of the fire. He passed the third floor and headed for the fourth where his wife's office was located. The heat got worse, causing A.J.'s clothes to stick to his body and his hair and eyebrows to feel as dry as straw. Flames engulfed as much of the fourth floor hallway as A.J. could see. With total disregard to his own safety, he jumped through a wall of fire, all the while screaming for his wife.
The roar of the fire prevented A.J. from hearing anything. Wood crackled and split all around him. His mind was too full of frantic worry for Lauren to wonder why the overhead sprinkler system hadn't come on, or why the alarm system hadn't registered smoke and heat in the building and blared a cry for help at the nearby fire station.
Dense smoke disoriented the detective. He covered his mouth with his arm, trying in vain to keep the stuff from pouring into his lungs. His cries for his wife were punctuated by choking coughs. He ran from room to room until he finally got his bearings. The glass pane in Lauren's outer office door was melting, blurring the carefully lettered, LAUREN J. SIMON, MARKETING DIRECTOR.
Fire burned hot and wild in the area where Lauren's secretary normally sat. "Lauren!"
A.J. ignored the flames licking at his tennis shoes and the legs of his pants. He could feel the hairs on his arms singe from the heat. "Lauren!"
With that last desperate cry, A.J. saw her. He peered through the heavy smoke with watery eyes. She was lying on her back behind Sue's desk. He fell to his knees and crawled to her body.
Lauren Simon's face was gone, melted and burned almost to the bone in a grotesque mask of horror. The abdomen that had been so round with child was now nothing but a charred, gaping hole.
All A.J. would remember later was screaming a pain-filled "No! Lauren, no!" He collapsed beside his wife with no intention of saving himself. Lauren was dead. Their child was dead. A.J. would die with them. For without the life he and Lauren had shared together, A.J. had no desire to go on.
The detective was on the brink of being unconscious when hands grabbed the back of his shirt. He was urged to his feet and forced from the room. His brain was so full of smoke and the sight of death that he didn't have the presence of mind to fight the one who was trying to save him. He didn't have the presence of mind to tell his benefactor he wanted to die with his wife.
With strength eighty-year-old Lowell Brooks didn't know his body still possessed, he got the semi-conscious A.J. Simon out of the building and a safe distance from the fire. He left the man on the sidewalk and ran for the nearest pay phone. He reported the fire and hung up the moment the dispatcher asked for his name. By the time the first fire trucks and police cars arrived, the elderly man was gone.
Awareness slowly seeped into A.J.'s brain. Before his eyes were able to open he knew he was lying on a hard surface. His back and arms burned as though he'd been out in the sun too long. Sirens and air horns blared all around him while men shouted instructions to one another. Something had been placed over A.J.'s nose and mouth that was pushing clean air into his lungs, and he could hear someone calling his name.
The first two times A.J. tried to open his eyes he failed. They stung and immediately filled with water.
Finally, the dazed blond was able to respond to the voice. He pried his eyes open and for a brief second wondered where he was and what was causing the commotion happening around him. But then he saw the fire trucks and that's when he remembered.
A.J. shot up and tore the oxygen mask from his face. "Lauren!"
The strong hands of a young paramedic, combined with the hands of Downtown Brown, kept A.J. in a seated position on the sidewalk across the street from the burning building.
"A.J., what are you doing here?" Town shouted over the sounds that threatened to drown his voice.
All A.J. could shout in return was, "Lauren!"
"Lauren's in there?"
"Yes! Yes, she's in her office!"
Town turned, frantically signaling to a fireman. "There's a woman in that building! On the fourth floor!"
The fireman nodded his head and ran to report the news to his chief. He didn't tell Downtown Brown that the fourth floor no longer existed, and that if there had been a woman in there she was dead long before the first fire truck arrived.
Burnt hands clutched Town's shirt. Blood shot blue eyes looked up to his face. "Lauren's dead. She's dead! I saw her, Town! She's...the baby...oh, God, no. No!"
Town crouched on his knees. He pulled the sobbing A.J. to his chest while his heart sank to his stomach. He'd suspected this when he'd arrived at the scene to find a paramedic working on the unconscious A.J., and had spotted the charred remains of the mini-van in the parking lot across the street. Now A.J.'s words confirmed his worst fears.
Oh, Lord, no. Town prayed. No. He doesn't deserve this tragedy.
Town got a gentle hold of A.J.'s upper arms. He pushed the blond away from his body just enough so he could talk to him. "What was she doing here at this time on a Saturday night?"
"I...she left me a note." A.J. was wracked by a series of violent coughs. The paramedic tried to fit the oxygen mask back over his face but he shoved it aside. "She was meeting a client. When she wasn't home...wasn't home when her note said she would be, I came looking for her."
"And you went in the building?"
"Yes...yes, but I was too late, Town. I...I couldn't help her. She...Lauren and the baby...I--"
Tears welled up in A.J.'s eyes again. Town cradled his friend until the paramedic said, "We really should get him to the hospital, Captain. He's got second degree burns on his hands and back, deep lacerations on his right arm that are going to require stitches, and he's suffering from smoke inhalation."
Town nodded. A.J.'s face was paper white where it wasn't smudged with black patches from smoke. He had no doubt that aside from the injuries the medic had just reeled off A.J. was, as well, going into shock.
The black man knew Rick was working with the FBI this weekend to put a stop to Cord Franklin's activities. Therefore, Town took it upon himself to take Rick's place in A.J.'s life that night. He patted the blond on the shoulder. "I'll see you at the hospital as soon as I can, A.J."
A.J. didn't respond to his friend. He sat on the curb with a blanket now thrown over his shoulders and watched the fire burn through dull eyes. He didn't flinch when the paramedic started an IV line in his left arm, nor did he react when the man slipped the oxygen mask back over his face.
Town shook his head in despair. He trotted down the block to where his car was parked. He opened the door and reached for his cellular phone. He dialed Abigail Marsh's home number. In less than a minute, he'd briefed her about the tragic happenings of the night. Abby immediately volunteered to go to Cecilia's home and break the news to her, then take her to County General Hospital to see A.J.
The black man stood with one foot inside his car, the other braced on the curb.
He watched the flames dance up high into the sky. He knew it would be inching toward dawn before the fire was out. It might be days after that before the remains of Lauren Simon and her baby could be found and removed. He swallowed his grief and resumed his conversation with Abby. "I'll go to the McAllisters' as soon as I leave here. I'm sure they'll want to be with A.J. tonight as well."
Abby asked Town a few more questions about the fire, none of which he could answer at this time. How it started and why Lauren got trapped inside the building would have to be discovered by the experts assigned to study the fire's cause.
In the years since Town had known Abigail Marsh he'd never seen her cry. But he heard the tears in her voice that night when, right before they broke their connection she said, "Tell A.J...tell him I'm thinking of him."
Town squeezed his eyes shut to keep his own tears from falling. "I will."
The black man weaved in and out of trucks and stepped over hoses as he made his way back to the fire. The ambulance was still sitting at the curb. Town immediately noticed the confused look on the face of the paramedic who had been treating A.J. The man stood turning circles as though he was looking for someone.
Town didn't have to ask. He already knew.
He ran up to the young man. "What's wrong? Where's A.J.?"
"I don't know! He was just here. Just sitting right here on the curb not ten seconds ago! My partner and I went to get the gurney out of the ambulance, and when we turned around he was gone."
Town raced down the street in search of the blond detective. When he didn't spot him in one direction he ran in another. When there was still no sign of A.J., he raced back to his car. He grabbed the radio's mike and spoke to the dispatcher.
"I want an APB put out on A.J. Simon. That's Andrew Jackson Simon, a forty-eight-year-old white male, six feet tall, one hundred and fifty-five pounds, blond hair and blue eyes, wearing a bright blue shirt and gray pants. Both articles of clothing are liberally smudged with soot and smoke. He might be on foot, or he might be driving a '94 red Camaro. I don't know the number of the tags, you'll have to get that."
A muffled voice responded. "Roger, Captain."
"He's not a suspect in any
crime, but he's a personal friend of mine and was injured tonight in the fire
on San Clara Street. When he's found, I
want him taken to the nearest hospital, and I want to be notified at that same
instant. Got it?"
"Yes, sir, got it. I'll put it over the airwaves immediately."
Town listened as the information he'd just relayed was broadcast. A minute later the dispatcher came back over the radio with the Carmaro's license plate number, and rebroadcast her original information along with it.
There wasn't anything else Town could do now but wait. He placed another call to Abby and caught her just as she was walking out her door. He apprised her of the current situation. She said she'd stay with Cecilia until they heard from Town regarding A.J.'s whereabouts.
The man hung up and climbed into his car. There was nothing left for him to do but break the news of Lauren's death to her parents. As he pulled away from the curb the black man thought of how much he hated this part of the job.
And, for some reason, that's when he remembered today was A.J.'s forty-ninth birthday.
The Camaro raced through the streets. A.J. ignored the pain in his hands as he clutched the steering wheel in a death grip. Without conscious thought the detective drove to the marina where Rick's houseboat resided. The blond man was out of his mind with grief and seething rage. He knew exactly who had killed his wife. While the paramedics were tending to him, he'd seen a young police officer walking away from the parking lot where the melted mini-van sat with a camouflage jacket in his hands. The rookie stopped three feet in front of A.J. to show the jacket to his partner. Because of the deafening noise, A.J. couldn't hear many of the words the two cops exchanged, but he saw the young man point to a name patch over the right breast pocket and he heard him say, "Franklin."
The sports car fishtailed its way into the marina's lot. A.J. didn't bother to look for an empty parking spot. He brought the vehicle to a crooked halt just beyond Rick's Durango. He jumped out and ran for his brother's truck. Based on what Rick had told him, A.J. would need something with four wheel drive capabilities to get him where he was headed.
Without even looking, A.J. plucked the necessary key on his ring that would gain him entrance into the locked Dodge. He gunned the engine, and with a squeal of tires backed it out of its assigned space. He paid no attention to the crunch of metal caused by the big vehicle smashing into the driver's side of the Camaro. He put the Durango in gear and flew toward the road. He didn't stop before barreling the big vehicle onto the street. He ignored the angry horn that blared at him and pressed the accelerator almost to the floor.
Four miles later the detective steered the Dodge up an Interstate on-ramp. He pointed it northeast and pushed the speedometer to one hundred and twenty miles an hour. He was headed for Camp Cord.
And when he got there, A.J. Simon was going to kill the man who had so brutally taken his wife and child from him.
The active day at Camp Cord had given way to darkness. It was close to one a.m., and Rick sat around the bonfire with his fellow companions. Usually the Saturday night parties had ended by now, but for whatever reason Cord allowed this one to extend beyond his normal midnight curfew. Perhaps the man was trying to boost morale, or perhaps the party was lasting so late for no other reason than to drink the abundance of beer that had been brought along this weekend. Rick wasn't too concerned as the hour grew later. He realized that would probably work in his favor. By the time the men stumbled off to bed they'd be so drunk that it was quite likely they'd never hear the FBI enter their camp until it was too late to try to defend it.
Although Rick had only drank two beers he acted as though he was half blitzed. He giggled at things that weren't funny, slurred his speech, and in general worked hard to fit in with those around him. Cord laughed at him on several occasions throughout the evening while clapping him on the back.
"I'm glad to see you're finally loosening up, Sarge. You deserve all the fun you can get when you come out here on the weekends."
Rick grinned a goofy smile and laid an unsteady hand on Cord's arm. "And thanz to my bess friend Cordell Franklin, I have a damn good time when I come to this camp."
Cord smiled as Rick weaved his way to the table for more beer. The man didn't realize Rick never actually took another bottle every time he walked over there, but rather had been nursing the same beer for the past three hours.
As the clock struck one, Cord appeared to be ready to call it a night. He stood, signaling for silence. It took the boisterous drunken men a long time to comply. When all that could be heard was the crackle of wood in the fire Cord indicated for Rick to stand beside him. He draped an arm around Rick's shoulders.
"Men, I have an announcement to make that I think will please each one of you. In a short period of time, you've all come to know and like my old buddy, Rick Simon."
All the men, save for Tom Bidwell, broke into applause and shouted drunken catcalls.
"Whoo, whoo, whoo, Rick!"
"Way to go, Rick!"
Rick had no idea what the accolades were for, but then he doubted most of the men shouting them did either.
Cord held up a hand and waited for the men to quiet down. "It's my right as general of this camp to promote who I see fit. Well, I think you'll all agree that Rick more than deserves a promotion."
Again, the men broke into applause.
"Therefore, Rick will now be referred to as Lieutenant Simon, and will be share the duties of my second in command with Tom Bidwell."
From somewhere a voice shouted, "Hey, General! Why not demote that ole' hard-ass Bidwell and let Rick stand alone as your second?"
Good natured shouts seconded the motion, though Rick knew the majority of the men were only teasing Bidwell. The fury on Tom Bidwell's face said he thought otherwise. When things quieted down again Bidwell stepped forward. There was no mistaking the tension in the air when the man stopped in front of Cord Franklin. He stared at his general long and hard, then pulled a packet from his shirt pocket. He raised his voice to a level that would allow everyone to clearly hear his words.
"You've been lax in your duties, General Franklin."
"What? Tom, what the hell has gotten into you?"
"I'm telling you, General, that you're in the process of promoting a traitor."
Cord's hands balled into fists. "A traitor? Why you--"
"You don't believe me, huh? Then fine. Take a look at these! I took them at Brendan Nash's funeral."
Bidwell shoved the packet of pictures into Cord's chest. Cord glared at the man and turned them over. The glow from the bonfire provided him enough light to see by. He slowly flipped through the pictures. He didn't need to ask Rick any questions. The pictures themselves told the story.
Cord's eyes locked with Rick's. All the detective could see on his old friend's face was hurt and betrayal. Without saying a word, Cord passed the pictures to Rick.
Rick leafed through the packet. There was a shot of him hugging Brendan's mother, and another shot of him hugging his Aunt Joan. The remaining six shots showed him carrying Brendan's coffin, first from the church to the hearse, then from the hearse to the gravesite. At this very moment, when Rick Simon knew his life would most likely end, he thanked God for one thing. He thanked God Tom Bidwell had used a telephoto lens and had only focused on him. A.J. was nowhere to be seen in any of the shots. Despite what fate would bring Rick's way tonight, A.J. and his family would still be safe.
"Why, Rick?" Cord asked.
"Because Nash was his cousin," Bidwell answered. "Or his cousin's kid rather. And I found out some other interesting things this week about your friend here, General."
Cord could barely force out his, "What?"
"He's no car mechanic. He's a private investigator. And Brendan Nash was an undercover cop."
Again, no mention was made of A.J., meaning Tom Bidwell either hadn't thoroughly done his homework, or he naively assumed A.J. had no role in this scam.
Not a sound was heard in the camp other than Cord's voice. The other men listened with rapt attention to this unexpected story that was slowly unfolding.
"So is that it,
Rick?" Cord asked. "You and Brendan were working together
with the cops to frame me. Is that the
Rick offered no explanations. His silence infuriated Cord. The man cocked a fist and slammed it into Rick's jaw. The detective fell to the ground on one knee.
"You fucking bastard! You fucking bastard, I thought you were my friend!"
Rick pushed himself to his feet. In a quiet voice he said, "At one time I was your friend, Cord. But regardless of what we went through together in Nam, I can't let you kill innocent men, women, and children because of some cockamamie vendetta."
Cord grabbed Rick by the shirt collar and rammed a knee into his stomach. The detective bent over at the waist as air was pushed from his lungs with a painful, "Whoooosh!"
Two fists slammed against the back of his neck and Rick fell to the dirt, but he didn't lose consciousness. Cord yanked Rick to his feet. The detective found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. Complete silence still reigned over the campsite, as though the other men were waiting to see how Cord would reinstate himself as their leader.
"I'm going to kill you, Rick. I'm gonna fucking kill you, and I'm gonna fucking enjoy every second of it!"
The hammer was cocked back, and Rick fought the urge to close his eyes. He'd go to his grave without giving Cord Franklin the satisfaction of seeing his fear.
Rick saw Cord's finger ease back on the trigger. Just when he was certain he was about to meet his maker, a resounding clatter came from the front gates. Cord's concentration on the task at hand momentarily wavered when Rick's Durango barreled into the camp.
One hundred and fifty of the best trained FBI agents had been in place around Camp Cord since eleven p.m. on Saturday night. Shortly before one a.m. a group of agents silently moved in and immobilized the slumbering boys' camp, including the only two adults present, Vic Vickers and Ward Konroy.
Creek was contacted of this first accomplishment at the base camp he'd set up three miles down the road. The black man was pleased, but he knew the more difficult task was yet to come. He had agents posted in the woods overlooking the men's camp who'd reported the heavy partying in progress. Again, he knew that was in their favor, but his gut told him things were going too easily. His agents had accosted the guards Cord had posted in the woods, but who was to say someone wouldn't wander out to give them a few beers before the time of the raid, and subsequently discover them missing.
Creek cautioned his people to sit tight and keep their eyes and ears open. He knew his words were unnecessary. The group he'd handpicked for this job certainly knew what needed to be done. Nonetheless, Pellman was on edge, as though his instincts as a twenty-five year veteran of the bureau were telling him something was going to happen this evening that he hadn't thought to plan for.
At fifteen minutes after one that unplanned for occurrence materialized. Pellman was leaning on the hood of the Chevrolet Suburban issued him by the FBI. He held a flashlight over the map he had spread out in front of him. He was going over the assault one last time, looking for any possible loopholes he might have missed. He knew there were none, but when all was said and done, and the dead and injured were accounted for, he knew it would give him some peace to be able to say he couldn't have staged the assault in any other manner.
It was as Creek was folding his map that he looked up to see headlights racing his way.
"Hey!" He shouted to the agents milling around. "Stop that truck! How the hell did he get past our roadblocks!"
No one even had time to draw a gun. The Durango flew by them still going in excess of one hundred miles an hour.
Creek recognized the vehicle, and he'd caught a brief glimpse of the man behind the wheel. He ran after the fleeing Durango as though he could stop it. "What the hell is that crazy fool doing?"
Pellman's walkie talkie squawked. He plucked it off his belt and barked, "What?"
The information that came back to him about the Durango's destination only caused a further flurry of curses to sting the night air.
Creek turned to the agents who were still with him. "Get in place! We're going in now!"
The black man shouted similar orders into his walkie talkie. He jumped in the Suburban and threw the gear shift in drive.
"I don't know what the hell A.J. Simon thinks he's doing, but I'll see to it he spends the rest of his life in federal prison for this stunt."
The reflection of the flames from the bon fire prevented Rick from seeing inside the windows of his vehicle. His mind swirled with possibilities. He realized Creek had men and women posted in the woods by now who might have seen the danger he was in and radioed for Pellman to create a diversion. But how the hell did they get his vehicle up here, and why?
It wasn't until the driver's door flew open that Rick's last question was answered. A disheveled A.J. shot out like a rocket and headed straight for Cord in total disregard of the gun the man carried. The blond man's singed hair stood on end. Blood still dripped from the cuts on his arm and his clothes were burned, torn, and stained with smoke and blood, but it was his eyes that captivated Rick. His brother's eyes had taken on the look of a wild, rabid animal.
The only thing that saved A.J. Simon's life right at that moment was the fact that most of the men were too drunk and too confused to arm themselves and defend their camp. Cord, one of the few present who was sober, was as dumbfounded as Rick by A.J.'s sudden appearance. He couldn't figure out how Joey's tutor had gotten past the guards at the front gates, let alone why he was here in the first place. It was then, when he took a good look at the man, that panic set in. Something had happened at his home. A fire perhaps. A fire and Joey, because of his disabilities, hadn't been able to get out.
Cord ran forward. Rick mistook the man's action and raced in front of him. Why Cord didn't shoot him in the back Rick never knew. He tackled A.J. around the ankles, bringing them both to the ground. A.J. fought like a caged tiger to free himself from his brother's grip. Rick looked into the blond's face and knew it wasn't registering with A.J. as to who had knocked him down and why.
"A.J., stop it!" Rick ordered. "Stop it!" He clawed at his brother's trousers in an attempt to pull him back to the ground.
"You bastard!" A.J. screamed at Cord Franklin while struggling to shake Rick loose. "You bastard! I'll kill you! I'll kill you with my bare hands!"
"Dan...what's going on? Has something happened to Jo--?" It was then that Cord realized what Rick had called the man standing in front of him. He looked down at his old friend, his face a mask of fury. Over A.J.'s frenzied shouts he said, "This is your brother, isn't it? This is A.J. The brother that lives in Sacramento. The brother who's a lawyer and doesn't give a shit about you. I should have known better. You two were too close to ever have a falling out like you described. I shouldn't have been so damn stupid, but I trusted you, Rick. I trusted you! But now I find out that trust has been betrayed in the worst way. Well, you're going to pay for your betrayal, Judas. You're going to pay."
The gun was raised again, only this time it was pointed at A.J.'s head. Rick was well aware Cord was going to make him watch his brother die before he turned the gun on Rick and killed him, too. With one last desperate surge of strength, Rick grabbed A.J.’s belt and yanked the crazed blond to the dirt.
The shot that rang through the night didn't come from Cord Franklin's handgun. A bullet from a high powered rifle entered the general's skull. Brains and bone flew in every direction.
And that's when all hell broke loose.
FBI agents swarmed the camp from the north, south, east and west. Cord's men scattered, some running for the guns that were in their cabins, some scrambling for the arsenal, while others simply fled toward the woods unarmed.
Rick grabbed A.J. by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. No longer did getting his hands on Cord's strategic plan book matter to Rick. First of all, the man was dead so what difference did it really make anyway? Besides that, Rick knew Cord’s cabin would be the first one three or four FBI agents raided. And secondly, he had to get himself and his brother to safety before they got caught in the middle of a gun battle.
"Run, A.J.! Dammit, run!" Rick urged, pulling the stumbling A.J. along. The lanky man had enough presence of mind to stay away from the side of the camp where the arsenal was located. He headed for the cabins and tucked himself and A.J. behind one of the little buildings. For now, this was the best place for Rick and his brother to sit tight and wait.
Bullets whizzed all around. making Rick wish he were armed. If one of Cord's men came upon them Rick knew they'd be sitting ducks. He flattened A.J. to the ground and lay on top of him. He couldn't figure out why his brother wasn't struggling or yelling at him to get off. This compliance wasn't like A.J., but then so far no behavior since A.J.'s sudden appearance was like A.J.
Rick peered out from the corner of the cabin and watched the action in the center of the compound. Just like he knew would happen, a fierce gun battle ensued. A deafening explosion rocked the earth beneath Rick, followed immediately by a series of smaller explosions. Flames shot into the night and Rick knew; whether by accident or design, the arsenal had been blown up.
A.J. lifted his head. When he saw the fire reaching for the sky he was filled with hysterical fright. He fought to crawl out from under Rick's body, screaming, "Lauren! Lauren!"
It took all Rick's strength to keep his brother from running to the center of the compound. "A.J., stop it! Stop it! What's wrong with you? Stop it now!"
The only response Rick received was a mournful wail of, "Lauren!"
What the hell is going on here?
Rick never knew how long he struggled to keep control of his brother. It might have ten minutes, it might have been an hour. All he knew was that when the gunfire died down a furious Pellman Creek appeared out of the darkness carrying an industrial sized flashlight.
Rick slowly sat up, bringing A.J. with him. The fight seemed to have gone out of the blond man. For the first time since A.J. had arrived Rick fully assimilated his brother's demeanor. With increasing confusion and concern he took in the tattered clothing, bloody arm, singed hair, red-rimmed blood-shot eyes, chesty choking cough, and discolored blotches that could be bruises or could be smudges from smoke.
"What the hell do you think you were doing, Simon!" Pellman screamed at A.J. "You're damn lucky none of my people were killed tonight because of your asinine behavior! I ought to have your ass hauled to--"
A.J. emerged from his seemingly catatonic state. He launched himself at Pellman Creek's legs, toppling the man to the ground. Before Rick could get a grip on his brother, A.J. was pounding the black man's chest with his fists.
"He killed my wife! The bastard killed my wife and my baby! He killed them! Do you hear me? He killed them!"
Rick finally succeeded in pulling A.J. off Creek's body. Both Rick and the FBI agent were stunned into silence by A.J.'s distraught cries. The blond man collapsed against his brother's chest, his sobs coming hard and heavy.
"He killed them, Rick. He killed them."
Rick brought a trembling hand up to A.J.'s hair. He stroked his palm over his brother's head, and for the first time smelled the smoke that clung to A.J.'s body and noticed the angry, red skin on A.J.'s hands. He looked over the blond man's head and met Pellman Creek's eyes. The black man was as shocked as Rick by the evidence to A.J.'s words. He pushed himself to his feet.
"You stay here with your brother, Rick. I'll be right back."
Rick watched Creek run for the distant road. He held A.J. tighter when the sobs increased. The only comfort he could offer was to rock A.J. back and forth in his arms while the blond pleaded over and over, "No. Not my wife. Not my baby. No. No. Please no."
Shock and pain had taken their toll on A.J. Simon by the time Pellman and Rick got him into the back of the black Suburban. Creek helped Rick remove what was left of A.J.'s shirt. His back was as red and hot as his hands were.
"Second degree burns," Creek assessed. He stood outside the vehicle, leaning his upper body in. Rick was sitting on the back seat with the semi-conscious A.J. cradled against his chest.
Pellman reached over the back seat to the cargo hold. He grabbed a clean sheet, blanket, and small towel. "He's in shock, Rick. Lay the blanket over his legs and drape the sheet over his back and shoulders."
Rick nodded his understanding. The scratchy fiber of the blanket would only cause A.J. more pain if it came in contact with the burned skin on his back, where as the cool cotton of the sheet should provide some relief.
The black man opened the driver's door and leaned toward a cooler he had sitting on the passenger seat. He plucked two cold plastic bottles of Evian water from the ice. He handed one to Rick while screwing the cap off the other. "Here. See if you can get him to drink some of this. He's badly dehydrated."
Rick pulled the cap up that would allow water to be squeezed down A.J.'s throat if necessary, similar to the way sports-drink bottles worked. He cradled A.J.'s head against his chest, tilting it up far enough so the blond wouldn't choke. "Here, A.J. Take a drink of this."
A.J.'s eyes were glazed and unfocused, but he did as Rick requested. His thirst seemed unquenchable, and he drained half the bottle of cold liquid before turning his head away.
Pellman doused the towel he was holding with water, then passed it and the second bottle to Rick. "You might want to alternate this between his hands and his back if he complains about the pain."
Rick nodded, though as of yet A.J. hadn't indicated he was feeling pain of any kind. For now, Rick laid the cold cloth against his brother's forehead. He rested it there a moment, then gently ran it over A.J.'s dirty, sweat-streaked face.
The black man left the meager first aid supplies with Rick. He climbed in the front of the big Suburban, put it in drive, and headed through the main gates that had been torn from their hinges when the Durango crashed through them two hours earlier. Pellman wheeled the Chevy onto Highway 37 and hit the gas. He picked up his cellular phone and began making calls as quickly as his fingers could punch in numbers.
Fire trucks with screaming sirens headed for the blazing Camp Cord passed the men. A.J. flinched at the sound, but said not a word. Despite the carefully orchestrated plan going haywire with A.J.'s sudden appearance, Pellman's agents had done their job and overrun the camp. Four agents had been injured, but none of them seriously. Besides Cord Franklin, five of his followers had been killed. Those that hadn't been arrested had fled into the woods, including Tom Bidwell. Creek expected to have most of them rounded up come daybreak.
Pellman glanced over his shoulder at Rick. A.J. was still cradled in his brother's arms, but hadn't made a sound since they'd put him in the vehicle.
"I've called for a medical chopper. She'll touch down in an open field ten miles from here. If the doctor on board thinks A.J. can hold on until they get him to County General, that's where they'll take him. We've already contacted your physician. He'll be waiting for us."
Rick nodded. He'd given Creek Joel Lankey's name as soon as they'd exited the camp.
Creek punched in another number. Rick only half listened to the conversation. He was too busy worrying about A.J. Despite the heat radiating from the blond man's body, he'd begun to tremble and his teeth were chattering. A sure sign to Rick that shock was wrecking havoc with A.J.'s internal thermostat.
Five minutes later, Pellman broke his phone connection. He looked at Rick via the rear view mirror. "I just spoke with Captain Brown."
"I...I'm sorry, Rick. But yes, it looks as though A.J.'s wife and unborn child were...were killed in a fire earlier in the evening at her office building."
Rick's mind swirled with questions. "But how? Why? They were supposed to go out to dinner. She'd made reservations weeks ago. It was his birthday. A.J.'s birthday. What the hell happened, and why did A.J. think Cord had something
to do with it?"
"They found a camouflage jacket at the scene. The name patch read Franklin."
Rick sat in silence, his confusion only growing. He offered A.J. more water and ran the towel over his hot forehead. Right at the moment he knew of no other way to help his brother.
"Captain Brown will be waiting for you at County. I'm sure he'll be able to answer your questions better than I."
Rick merely nodded. He felt like someone had torn his heart out. His sister-in-law was dead. Her baby was dead. And the man left behind that Rick was cradling in his arms, while still living and breathing, was dead in spirit, of this Rick was certain.
It didn't take long for the doctor sent with the medical chopper to determine A.J. could make the trip to County General Hospital in San Diego. With the help of Rick and Pellman, the man laid the unresponsive A.J. on a gurney. He started an IV to replace the fluids the blond had lost, and placed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. The rest of the aid he had to offer could be done in the helicopter.
Because of the circumstances, and with added instance from Pellman Creek, room was made for Rick in the cramped chopper. He sat by A.J.'s side the entire flight, his hand resting on his brother's head. Twice A.J. turned to look at him. Rick did his best to muster a reassuring smile that was lost on his shell-shocked brother.
Forty minutes later, they touched down on the landing pad at County General. Joel rushed out a set of double doors with a medical team at his heels. Rick helped the doctors lift the gurney out of chopper and lock its legs in an upright position. A.J. was wheeled into the building at a run. Rick followed blindly, tears stinging his eyes. When he entered the brightly lit corridor he walked into the arms of his old and dear friend, Downtown Brown. It was then that Rick Simon allowed his tears to flow for the sister-in-law he had loved, the baby he had anxiously awaited, and the brother whose life had been torn apart in the second it took to strike a match.
Abigail Marsh, Cecilia Simon, Virgil and Annette McAllister, and Lauren's sister, Lisa, were waiting in a hospital conference room when Town arrived with Rick at four that morning. The two men answered the questions asked of them as best they could. At this point Town was far from ready to pin the blame of Lauren's death on anyone. A jacket left at the scene bearing a common last name wasn't enough proof to come to any type of conclusions. The fire marshal estimated it might be two or three days before Lauren's remains were found, therefore the only answers he had to offer the family were vague and inconclusive.
A.J. was now the foremost concern on everyone's mind. Rick put an arm around his mother and assured her A.J.'s injuries were not life threatening. He didn't tell her or the McAllisters that he was beside himself with concern that A.J. might succumb to shock before the long night drew to a close.
Joel Lankey entered the room an hour later. He went over the blond man's injuries with the grieving families.
"We're treating A.J. for second degree burns on his back and hands. Fortunately, no nerve damage was done, meaning the discomfort he'll feel for the next couple of weeks will be equal to that of severe sunburn. While not pleasant, it could have been a lot worse. His right arm had a number of deep cuts from what looks like jagged glass. We've cleaned them and sutured the ones that required such action. We're also treating him for dehydration and smoke inhalation. The issue that worries me most is the state of shock he's in. He hasn't said a word since he arrived, and won't respond to me, or to anyone else. Given the nature of the evening as told to me by Captain Brown, I can understand why. All of you have my deepest sympathies."
Joel turned to Rick. "Considering the situation, I believe it would be best if a family member stays here with A.J. throughout the day."
Rick nodded. If Joel hadn't requested this of him, he would have insisted upon it.
"He's being moved to a double room as we speak. The second bed is empty, Rick. You're welcome to make use of it. I've sedated A.J. for the time being. He's sleeping right now, and should continue to well into the morning."
Within ten minutes everyone but Rick was making their leave. Abby was driving Cecilia to A.J.'s house in order to pick up Toby, from there Abby would take Cecilia home, while Town drove Lauren's distraught family back to the McAllister residence. Mac McAllister laid a hand on Rick's shoulder as he passed. He could barely force out the words he wanted to say.
"We won't...we won't make any arrangements until A.J.'s stronger. Until he can tell us how...tell us how he'd like Lauren..." The man took a deep gulping breath, "How he'd like Lauren and our grandchild to be remembered."
Tears trickled down A.J.'s father-in-law's cheeks. Rick reached up and squeezed his hand. The detective nodded, not trusting his own voice with a verbal response.
"Let us know when he's ready for company, Rick. Tell him we don't blame him for anything that happened. From what little Captain Brown told us, we know A.J. did all he could to get Lauren out of that building. Remind him he's still a member of our family, and always will be."
Rick swallowed the lump in his throat caused by the sincerity in Mac's voice. "I'll tell him. Thank you. It will mean a lot to A.J. to know that's how you and Annette feel."
"It is, and it always will be," Mac stated as he gathered his wife in one arm and his youngest daughter in the other. They huddled together in grief and followed Town out of the room.
Rick hugged his mother, promising her he'd call when A.J. was awake. After everyone left Joel led Rick to his brother's room.
The curtains were drawn at the window, keeping the early morning sun out and leaving the room bathed in dim shadows. A.J. was lying on his back in the bed farthest from the door.
Joel didn't step into the room with Rick. From the doorway he quietly said, "I'll leave you two alone for the time being. Try to get some sleep, Rick. I'll be back later in the morning to check on A.J. If he wakes up and needs anything before then just ring for a nurse."
"I will. Thanks for everything,
Rick turned to face the stocky man. "Yeah?"
"I'm terribly sorry about what's happened to Lauren. I wish I knew how to convey that to A.J."
"I'm sure you've conveyed it already. Just by being willing to meet us here and be the doctor who took care of A.J., you showed him both your sympathy and compassion."
"Thanks. But I wish I could have done more."
"Don't we all, Joel," Rick looked at his slumbering brother through tear-filled eyes. "Don't we all."
The door closed behind Joel. Rick didn't bother to turn on any lights. He threw his camouflage cap on the empty bed and stripped off his field jacket, tossing it on the mattress as well. He crossed to A.J.'s bed and stood gazing down at the blond. Someone had washed the dirt and sweat from A.J.'s face, and he was dressed now in a white hospital gown, but until he took a shower he'd continue to smell of smoke. His arms were wrapped from elbows to knuckles with bandages. Rick could see the sheen of a glossy substance on A.J.'s fingers and assumed correctly when he guessed it some sort of burn ointment. He also assumed correctly when he guessed the ointment was spread on the portion of A.J.'s hands and arms that were hidden by the bandages. He wondered if A.J.'s back had received the same treatment, but until his brother awakened, or until Joel stopped in again, Rick had no way of knowing.
An IV line rose from the needle inserted beneath the bandages in A.J.'s left arm. The line flowed with a clear solution that Rick knew was there to combat the dehydration Joel had spoken of. Oxygen prongs were inserted in the blond's nostrils, and the head of his bed was raised to a forty-degree angle. Every few seconds A.J. would let forth a series of harsh coughs, but for now they didn't seem to be disturbing his sleep.
Rick ran a light hand through his brother's hair. It felt like dry straw, another result of A.J. having been surrounded by a blazing inferno.
"I'm so sorry, A.J.," Rick whispered. Tears spilled over from the lanky man's eyes and fell on A.J.'s bandaged arms. "I'm so sorry we ever took this case. If I had ever...ever thought this is how it all would end I...you know I would have never accepted it. You know I would have told Pellman we didn't want the job. I...God, A.J., I'm so damn sorry. I'm just so damn sorry, little brother."
As sobs began to wrack Rick's body he bent and buried his face in his brother's hair. He held onto the unaware A.J. and let his sorrow flow freely, knowing that once his tears ended he'd have no choice in the days ahead but to be strong for his baby brother.
When Rick had no more tears left, he swiped at his eyes and brushed a light kiss on A.J.'s temple as he stood. He moved over to the empty bed and lay down. He didn't expect to sleep, but within a few minutes Rick's body gave way to the exhaustion prompted by the tension of the entire week.
Sunlight was streaming in the room when Rick woke at eleven that morning. It took him a moment to get his bearings, but within seconds the events of the early morning hours came rushing back to him. He turned his head and looked over at A.J. Now he knew who had opened the curtains. The blond man was sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to Rick, staring out the window.
Rick swung his legs over his own bed. Through the ties on A.J.'s gown Rick could see bandages covering his burnt back. The lanky man stood and walked over to his brother's side. Without saying a word A.J. moved over, giving Rick room to sit on the mattress next to him. Rick took A.J. up on that invitation. He studied his brother a long moment before speaking.
"I don't think Joel's gonna be too happy to discover you've removed your IV and the oxygen."
A.J.'s voice was hoarse and low, as though he was speaking around a raw, dry throat. "I don't need them. I'm ready to go home."
Rick wasn't going to argue with his brother. Instead, he replied, "Joel will be in to see you in a little while. We'll see what he says then."
Evidently A.J. wasn't planning to wait around for his doctor to release him. "Call Mom and have her bring me some clothes. And I'll need you to help me take a shower."
"I'll do both those things just as soon as Joel gives his okay to you leavin' here."
Rick was surprised when his brother didn't balk at that statement, or make any type of response to it. A.J.'s gaze never wavered from the window and the tops of the palm trees beyond. "Has someone...has someone told the McAllisters?"
Rick's voice was soft and full of sympathy. "Yeah, Town talked to 'em. They were here early this morning when we brought you in. Mac wanted you to know that they still consider you family, A.J. He, Annette, and Lisa wanna see you as soon as you feel up to it. They don't want to make any arrangements for Laur...any arrangements without your input."
A.J. merely nodded. His eyes were red and swollen. Rick didn't know if that was another result of the fire, or was from tears shed while Rick was still asleep. He imagined it was a bit of both.
"Mom was here, too. Abby took her to pick up Toby around
five-thirty this morning. She wanted me to call her as soon as you woke up."
"Have they found..." A.J.
stopped and swallowed hard. "Have
they found my...my wife and my baby yet?"
"No, kid. No, they haven't. The fire marshal told Town it could take several days."
"When they do," The blond man drew a deep, shuddering breath, "when they do find them I only want Jerry to...just Jerry. No one else."
Rick nodded his understanding of what A.J. couldn't say. Their friend Jerry Reiner was now the chief medical examiner for the city of San Diego. In A.J.'s eyes Lauren had been violated enough. He didn't want some stranger autopsying her remains, but rather wanted that job entrusted to someone who had known her. Someone who had been in attendance on the day A.J. had married Lauren thirteen short months ago.
"I'll talk to him this afternoon," Rick said. "I'm sure he'll honor your request."
Before the conversation could go any farther, Joel entered the room. He scolded his patient over the removal of the oxygen and the IV, just like Rick had predicted he would, but after a brief exam agreed to release A.J. later that afternoon provided the blond ate the noon meal that was just about to be served.
A.J. didn't get much food down, but he ate a few bites of everything on his tray just to satisfy Joel. Rick put a call into their mother, who arrived an hour later with toiletries and clean clothes for both her sons. She tried to be strong for A.J., but ended up breaking down in his arms while Rick was making use of the shower. A.J. held her and comforted her, but wouldn't allow himself to cry with her for fear his tears would never stop.
Rick helped his brother remove his bandages and take a cool shower. Once A.J. had his jeans on a nurse entered the bathroom and re-bandaged his back and arms for him. She had Rick help her so he'd know how to do this for A.J. at home. Fortunately, Joel said the bandages had to stay on only a few days. As soon as the burned skin started to blister the bandages would be discontinued in favor of just the burn ointment.
At three that afternoon Cecilia pulled her Mercedes into A.J.'s driveway. The blond man climbed out from the passenger side while Rick emerged from the back seat. One of Creek's agents had driven the Durgano to San Diego for Rick. It was parked next to Shane and Tanner's basketball hoop, the keys hidden under the driver's floor mat. Rick's duffel bag and sleeping bag were even setting in the back seat. Town had discovered the badly damaged Camaro the previous night. That morning it had been towed to one of Carlos's body shops and was parked there, waiting for instructions regarding repairs from its owner.
Rick's big vehicle had, surprisingly enough, come through its eventful night with few scars. Several long scratches marred the paint on the front where the Durgano had plunged through the metal gates at Camp Cord, and there were two bullet holes in her driver's side, but other than that she looked pretty good considering her adventures. As they passed the Dodge on their way into the house A.J. said, "I'll pay to have the damage fixed. Or if you want a new one just say so. I'll pay for that as well."
Cecilia and Rick exchanged a look behind A.J.'s back.
"A.J., I'm not gonna let you fork over thirty thousand dollars for a new vehicle. That'd be stupid. There's nothing wrong with this one that one of Carlos's guys can't fix. And my insurance will cover it so don't worry about it. Besides," Rick added in an attempt at levity, "no vehicle of mine would be complete without a few bullet holes in her side."
The blond man ignored his brother's humor. "I don't want your rates going up because of me," he said. Using two awkward fingers, A.J. inserted his house key into the lock on the kitchen door. "So just let me know how much it's going to cost, and like I said, I'll pay to have it fixed."
Rick emitted an internal sigh.
So this is how you're gonna play the game, huh, kid? Everything's gonna be business as usual. In the space of a few short hours you've decided that by not mentioning Lauren or the baby, and that by pretending everything's normal, you can deny the grief that's eating away at your insides.
A.J. headed straight for the stairs. "I'm going to lie down for a while. I'll call the McAllisters when I get up."
Cecilia and Rick were left standing in the kitchen. As soon as Cecilia heard A.J.'s bedroom door close she fell into Rick's arms and cried for her youngest son and the pain he was trying so desperately to hide from.
When Cecilia dried her tears she made a trip to the grocery store. By the time A.J. appeared back downstairs at six that evening, his mother had a meal on the table. Again, the blond detective didn't eat much, but neither did Cecilia or Rick. A.J. had put a call into the McAllisters before supper. They were surprised to hear he was out of the hospital, and agreed to meet with him that evening if he was up to it. Mac offered to drive his family to the house on the Grand Canal, but A.J. insisted the meeting take place at the McAllisters' home.
Against Rick's better judgment, he allowed A.J. to borrow the Durango and drive to the McAllisters' alone. He didn't like the idea, but considering Joel had put no restrictions on A.J.'s driving, and considering A.J. was on no medication that prohibited driving, Rick was hard-pressed to stop his brother short of getting into a full blown argument with him. Cecilia had no better luck when she tried to convince her youngest son that either she or Rick should accompany him on the trip to his in-laws. The worried mother left shortly after A.J. departed to return to her own home for the night.
A.J. arrived home at ten o'clock, pale and unsteady with exhaustion. The discussion regarding the funeral arrangements had been hell for him. Rick asked his brother no questions, and immediately steered him up the stairs to his room. He helped A.J. get undressed and turned the bedcovers back for him. The blond man climbed in without a word, turned his head away from Rick, and closed his eyes.
It was after Rick went back downstairs that he discovered the real source of A.J.'s demeanor. When he picked the jacket up off the counter top that A.J. had been wearing he smelled smoke. And when he bent to grab the tennis shoes that had been kicked off in the kitchen he saw the tell-tale signs of soot on the toes and in the treads on the bottom.
He must have stopped by the scene of the fire on his way home from the McAllisters. Rick could picture his brother standing alone in that burnt out building looking for someone he'd never find again. Oh, A.J., why'd you do that to yourself? Why?
Rick was still holding A.J.'s shoes when the phone rang. Virgil McAllister was on the other end, wanting to make certain the blond detective had gotten home all right.
"Yeah, Mac, he just walked in a little while ago. He went right to bed, but if you wanna talk to him I'll wake him up."
"No, no. That's not necessary. We were just worried about him, that's all. He...we're all having a hard time getting through this as you can imagine, Rick. My wife...well, to tell you the truth the only thing that's holding Annette together is the thought of needing to be strong for Shane and Tanner. It's just that A.J. looked so lost tonight. He didn't give us any input at all as far as the funeral arrangements go. Just kept telling us whatever we wanted to do was fine with him. Quite frankly, I was surprised that he came alone."
"I know. And believe me, I didn't want him to. We practically got into a fight about that
fact as he was headed out the door, but there wasn't much I could do to stop him
short of not letting him use my truck."
Rick looked down at the tennis shoes he still held. "And now I think I know why he insisted
on going to your place by himself."
"I'm sure he drove to Lauren's office building tonight. Based on the way his jacket smells and the soot on his shoes, I think he walked through the rubble."
There was a long silence on the other end before Mac spoke again. "Don't let A.J. torture himself this way, Rick. He can't blame himself for what's happened."
"I know, Mac, I know. But there's nothing you or I can do about how he chooses to grieve. As much as I hate to say this, a good portion of this heartache A.J. will have to get through on his own."
As Rick said those words he thought of Troya Yeager, and remembered the time he was forced to work through the biggest heartache of his life. Certainly he had the support and love of his mother and brother, yet essentially a person treads through a tragedy of that magnitude by himself.
"As will we all, I suppose," Mac responded. "But I'm going to tell you what I told A.J. earlier this evening as I held him in my arms. Though God's intervention in our lives is often beyond our understanding, Annette and I know the deaths of our daughter and grandchild were part of His plan. That doesn't mean we don't cry, that doesn't mean we don't grieve, that doesn't mean we don't get angry, and that doesn't mean Lauren's passing won't leave a gaping hole in our hearts for the rest of our days. But I have faith in the Lord, Rick, and I know Lauren and her baby are now bathed in His light and have found a peace and happiness we here on Earth can't fully comprehend. Whether the fire was caused by someone seeking revenge against you and A.J., or whether it was nothing more than faulty electrical wiring, or combustible materials left in a janitor's closet, does not change the fact that God doesn't make mistakes. He called Lauren home when her time here on Earth was through. It's a horrible tragedy and shock for all of us, but I have faith in the fact that one day I will see my daughter again, and that I will be Grandpa to the child we never got to know."
Rick couldn't help but admire the McAllisters' rock-solid faith. His spirit had always been too restless for him to accept the pitfalls of life with such quiet reasoning. However, he greatly appreciated the love and support Mac and Annette were extending to A.J. A terrible situation would have only been made worse for A.J. had they placed the blame for the deaths of Lauren and the baby at his feet.
"Thanks, Mac, for saying those things to A.J. I'm sure your words brought him comfort."
"Maybe not tonight, Rick. Tonight he's still hurting too much to fully absorb what anyone offers him. But someday, someday soon perhaps, he'll recall what I told him and maybe it will bring him some comfort."
"I hope so, Mac. I hope so."
"Rick, while I've got you on the phone, Annette and I would like to make a request of you."
"We'd like you to be one of the pallbearers for...for our daughter and her child."
Rick felt tears sting his eyes. Please, Mac, anything but that.
"Mac, I'm honored that you'd ask. I really am. And I hope you know how much I loved Lauren. How much I thought of her as the sister I never had. But I'm gonna have to say no. I have a feelin' A.J.'s gonna need me by his side throughout the entire service."
"I understand. And Lauren would, too. I'm sure that's where she'd want you to be."
The men said their goodbyes. Rick hung up the phone, and still with A.J.'s shoes in his hand, walked over to sit in the easy chair. It was well past midnight before Rick put those shoes on the floor and went up the stairs to bunk down for the night on Tanner's bed. He stopped for a moment in the doorway of A.J.'s room. Though the only light in the house was the one Rick had flicked on for the upstairs hallway, the detective could immediately tell A.J. wasn't sleeping. He was in the same position Rick had left him over two hours earlier.
A.J. turned his head toward his brother. "Yeah?"
"You okay? Can I get you anything?"
"Nothing that I want."
"I want my wife. I want my child. And you can't get those things for me, so no, there's nothing else I need."
A.J. turned his head away once more. With a heavy sigh Rick moved on, headed for a sleepless night down the hall.
What little was left of Lauren Janaye McAllister Simon was found in the rubble of her office building on Tuesday afternoon. As hard as that was for A.J. to hear, Rick knew such news eventually had to come. He felt it was for the best, because now the funeral could be held and a small portion of closure could envelope their lives.
On Friday, August 1st, those who had loved Lauren said their final goodbyes. The Congregational Church Lauren had attended as a child, and where her boys still attended Sunday School when it was in session from September though May, was filled to standing-room-only capacity. Lauren knew many San Diego business people through her line of work, and all were in attendance. Likewise, Rick and A.J. had many connections through their business, so a large number of Simon and Simon clients came to pay their respects along with countless family members and friends of both Lauren and A.J.
The one memory Rick would take with him to his own grave was the huge number of flowers overflowing the front of the church. Because the casket was closed, Annette McAllister and her surviving child, Lisa, had gone to great lengths to set up photo collages of Lauren amongst the foliage. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to Rick that the sunny Lauren should be remembered by the smile on her face and the smell of sweet flowers in the air. An eight by ten inch framed photo of Lauren and A.J. from their wedding day sat on the casket in the middle of a spray of fifty red roses A.J. had purchased.
Rick stood by his brother's side as A.J. accepted the sympathies of each guest who passed through the receiving line in front of the coffin that bore the remains of his wife and child. Rick knew this had to be the most difficult day of his brother's life, but A.J. held up remarkably well until Janet Fowler appeared and moved to hug him. Whether A.J. felt emotionally safe with Janet, or whether he was deeply touched by the fact she'd traveled down from Seattle to come to the funeral of a woman she'd never met, or whether it was just the poignancy of A.J. seeing his former wife, while in the process of burying the woman who had made him so happy, Rick didn't know. A.J. broke down in Janet's arms, crying, Rick suspected, for all he'd wanted so badly over the years that continuously seemed to be taken from him.
Linda Palmer was devastated by Lauren's death and the death of the baby. So much tragedy had come so quickly. It had been only two weeks since they'd buried Brendan. And now for Lauren to lose her life to possibly the same people who had killed Brendan, was almost more than Linda could bear. If she hadn't been so close to A.J. she wouldn't have attended this funeral. But he'd helped her in so many ways over the past ten years. She had no choice but to pay her respects to the memory of his wife and unborn child.
The visitation lasted three hours. When it was time for the service to begin, A.J. sat in the front pew between his mother and Rick. Nancy, Lauren's parents, and Lisa and Jeff shared the pew with them. Rob and Kathy Albright, Kathy's daughter Erin, Shane and Tanner, and Rob's parents sat in the pew across the aisle.
A man Lauren had worked with for eighteen years gave the eulogy that day. Duane Colson had been Lauren's boss, mentor, and friend. He was an eloquent speaker and did a touching job of capturing Lauren's character with his words. He spoke of the day he interviewed the twenty-two year old Lauren back in the spring of 1980, and told several stories of their years together as co-workers. He talked of her enormous love for A.J. and for her sons, and of her excitement over the impending birth of her third child.
Rick watched his brother out of the corner of his eye. A.J.'s face was pale and drawn, but whatever emotions he was feeling prompted by Duane's words he kept well hidden.
The blond man didn't have near the same strength when Lisa rose to read two poems. The first one she dedicated to the memory of her older sister.
"When I am gone, release me, let me go.
"I have so many things to see and do.
"You mustn't tie me to you with tears,
"Be happy that we had so many beautiful years.
"I gave to you my love.
"You can only guess, how much you gave to me in happiness.
"I thank you for the love you each have shown,
"But now it's time I traveled on alone.
"So grieve for me a while if you must,
"Then let your grief be comforted by trust.
"It's only for a time we must be apart,
"So bless the memories within your heart.
"I won't be far away, for life goes on,
"So if you need me, call me and I will come.
"Though you can't see or touch me, I'll be near,
"And if you listen with your heart, you'll hear
"All my love around you soft and clear.
"And then, when you must come this way alone,
"I'll greet you with a smile and say,
By the time Lisa read the last stanza silent tears were trickling down A.J.'s face. Rick reached up and put an arm around his brother's shoulders. Cecilia, who was crying as well, gently intertwined her fingers with those of her youngest son.
Lisa's next poem caused A.J.'s tears to change to sobs. She'd written it herself the day before and dedicated it to A.J.
"I am your child, I felt your love.
"Though we never touched, or looked into each others eyes,
"I am your child, I felt your love.
"I'm the gentle breeze that cools you on a hot summer day, I'm the
delicate butterfly whose beauty you pause to appreciate.
"I am your child, I felt your love.
"I'm the spirit of the little boy up to bat, the dancing feet of the little
girl who pirouettes in a ballet.
"I am your child, I felt your love.
"You cherished me and made a place for me in your heart,
"I am your child, I felt your love.
"And though our parting seems premature, I'm an angel now, Daddy,
"And it's my turn to watch over you.
"For I am your child, I felt your love."
When Lisa stepped from the podium A.J. leaned forward and cried into his bandage-covered hands. Rick moved with him, tightening the arm he had around A.J.'s shoulders. The detective shed silent tears as he held onto his distraught brother. Rick Simon couldn't imagine a bigger heartache than the one he was experiencing right at this moment.
The minister allowed the congregation a minute to compose themselves. Lisa's heartfelt soliloquy had moved so many in attendance to tears. When the only one left crying was A.J., the minister signaled for the choir to sing Lauren's favorite hymn, “Softly and Tenderly.”
Rick was glad he'd turned down Mac's request of him to be a pallbearer. He'd been correct when he'd suspected A.J. would need him at his side. Rick supported his brother by hanging onto his right elbow as they followed the casket down the long aisle. A.J.'s eyes never strayed from the oak box. Rick knew his brother was unable to deal with the sympathy and tears on the faces of those in attendance.
A strong wind blew in off the ocean as Lauren's coffin was carried up a steep hill to the gravesite. Lauren's paternal grandparents rested on one side of her, her parents owned two plots on the other. It would be several weeks before the large black granite stone the McAllisters had ordered would be put in place. Though A.J. chose not to go with them to pick it out, he'd agreed to the wording they wanted on it. Lauren's full name and dates of birth and death would be included along with the words, ‘Loving Wife of Andrew, Cherished Daughter of Virgil and Annette, Beloved Sister of Lisa, Adored Mother of Shane and Tanner.’ In an engraved heart would be the verse, ‘A Mother And Her Child Gone Home To Heaven,’ which would be the only mention made of the baby.
Like Brendan's had been, this final service was brief, lasting twelve minutes according to Rick’s watch. A.J. lingered after everyone began to disburse from the folding chairs. Rick allowed him the time he needed to say goodbye to his wife and baby. No words were spoken on A.J.'s part, and no more tears were shed. He simply stood staring down at the casket. Right before he walked away he ran two fingers over the polished oak as though touching Lauren for the final time.
Lauren's boys sought A.J. out when he emerged from under the tent that had been set up to protect those seated from the strong mid-day sun. Shane was crying when he threw his arms around A.J.'s waist. A.J. bent and hugged him as tight as he safely could. When Shane was able to speak he said, "Please find the person who killed my mom, A.J. Please. Please find him."
It was all A.J. could do to choke back his own tears. He nodded his head in response to Shane's words and promised, "I will, Shane. I will."
Tanner took his turn at hugging A.J. next. He wasn't crying, and A.J. was left uncertain as to how much the six-year-old really comprehended about the recent events. The boy fidgeted with the buttons on A.J.'s black suit coat and wormed his way around until he was seated on the detective's bent knee.
"Does this mean we can't come to your house anymore, A.J.?"
A.J.'s voice was soft and gentle. "No, Tanner, no. You can come visit me any time you want to. Maybe on another day we'll talk to your dad and see if you boys can stay overnight one weekend. But just because you won't be with me as often as you used to, doesn't mean I won't be thinking of you, okay?"
"Okay. And I'll be thinking of you, too, A.J. And Toby. I'll miss him 'cause he was my friend." Tanner's eyes locked on A.J.'s. "A.J., when is our baby gonna come home?"
"Our baby. Dad told us Mom's in Heaven now, but where's our baby?"
A.J.'s father-in-law was standing nearby and heard Tanner's question. He could see it brought A.J. to the brink of tears, so stepped over and playfully swept his grandson off A.J.'s knee and up to his hip.
"Come on, partner. Come with Grandpa. You can ride to Aunt Joyce's house with me and Grandma."
A.J. wiped the tears from his eyes as stood. He shook hands with those people waiting to offer him their final condolences. The crowd was so large no one noticed when, a few minutes later, A.J. quietly slipped away.
The funeral luncheon was being hosted at the home of Mac's sister, Joyce. Rick searched for his brother by looking over the heads of those still milling about. Rick, Cecilia, and A.J. had come to the funeral together in Rick's Durango. Nancy had met them at the church in her Bonneville.
Rick walked around the immediate area, still seeing no sign of A.J. He asked a few people where his brother had gone, but no one seemed to know. The last anyone claimed to have seen of him was several minutes earlier when A.J. was busy shaking hands.
The detective made his way back to his mother and Nancy. "No one seems to know where A.J.'s at. I'm gonna go look for him."
"I'll come, too," Cecilia insisted.
"No, Mom," Rick negated, "You go on to Joyce's." Rick looked at his girlfriend. "Do you mind taking Mom there?"
"No, hon. That's fine."
"A.J. and I'll come by as soon as I find him," Rick told his mother. "If we're not there before you two are ready to leave, have Nancy take you to your house. I'll call you later."
Cecilia reluctantly nodded her
consent. Her face was tight with worry
when she asked, "Where do you think he is, Rick?"
"I don't know, but I imagine he just needed to get away from everyone for a while. He probably took a walk." Rick kissed his mother on the forehead. "Don't worry. I'll find him."
"Call me as soon as you do."
The strong winds ruffled what little hair Rick had left as he made his way to the Durango. He took his black suit coat off and laid it on the back seat. His tie followed. He climbed in the vehicle and started the engine. He followed the twisting, winding road that led out of the cemetery all the while keeping a sharp eye out for his brother.
Rick cruised the nearby residential streets. When there was still no sign of A.J., he wished he'd stopped and talked to Town before leaving the graveyard. With the two of them out looking their chances of finding A.J. was that much better. And if nothing else, Town could have put an APB out on him.
The detective was running out of places to look when his eyes caught sight of the ocean. If A.J. had gone anywhere to grieve alone it would be to the water, of that Rick was certain.
Rick parked his vehicle in a spot at the beach several blocks from where Lauren was buried. Children played in the surf while sunbathers lay on towels. Rick's eyes scanned the area, but saw no sign of a blond man in a dark suit. He saw an outcropping of rocks in the distance and suspected a secluded cove would be found beyond. Instinct told him that's where he'd locate his brother.
Sand blew in Rick's face as he walked. The winds churned the Pacific, making her waves strong and choppy. Rick made his way over the wet rocks, spray from the surf dousing his pant legs with water. He slipped twice and came to the conclusion black dress shoes weren't made for this type of adventure.
When Rick climbed over the last rock he spotted A.J.'s dress shoes sitting in wet sand, his socks, suit coat, and tie laying on top of them. Rick's heart skipped a beat as he placed a hand over his eyes and looked out at the water. Sure enough, a blond head bobbed in the distance.
Rick cupped his hands around his mouth. "A.J.! A.J., swim back here! A.J.!"
Either A.J. didn't hear Rick, or he was choosing to ignore him. Rick watched as the waves pulled A.J. farther out to sea. The dark ominous blue of the water caught Rick's attention. He studied it a moment, then watched again as A.J. was carried another ten yards.
A rip current! The damn fool swam right into a rip current!
Rick knew his brother was too skilled of a swimmer to have not seen the signs of the powerful current that drowned roughly thirty people a year along California's coastline. A.J. had been a lifeguard. A.J. had been a surfer. A.J. had been a medallist on the college swim team. If A.J. had waded into a rip current, then he'd done it on purpose.
The detective kicked off his shoes and peeled away his socks. He added his shirt to the pile and raced for the water. He didn't physically exhaust himself by trying to fight the strong currents, but rather allowed them to propel him toward his brother. Rick looked to the left and right, mapping his strategy. A rip current was rarely more than twenty feet wide. If you swam sideways you could swim out of it. There, to Rick's right, the water was a lighter shade of blue. He knew if he could get A.J. to swim in that direction he could then get them safely back to shore.
A.J. wasn't even trying to swim by the time Rick reached him. He was simply allowing the water to take him where it willed. Rick grabbed his brother by the arm.
"Come on, A.J.! Head to your right!"
A.J. refused to do as Rick bid. He jerked his arm from Rick's grasp and shoved his brother away.
"A.J., knock it off! Now come with me!"
"Go! Just go! Leave me alone!"
Rick spit out a mouthful of water. "No, I'm not gonna leave you alone!"
The lanky man hooked his left elbow around his brother's shoulders. A.J. kicked and fought, but Rick had the advantage because his body was positioned behind A.J.'s. A.J. clawed at Rick's arm, but with hands encased in soggy bandages he couldn't get the grip he needed to break free.
Using his right arm, Rick headed them both toward calmer waters. He didn't let A.J. go when he got him there, but continued to hold onto him while he turned for the desolate shoreline where their clothes sat. By the time Rick's feet hit sand he was feeling every one of his fifty-four years. He dragged A.J. up to the beach. The two men collapsed together in a tangled heap of arms, legs, and soggy, unraveling bandages.
A.J. coughed up water while tears poured down his cheeks. He beat his fists against Rick's chest and shouted in rage and grief in order to be heard over the roar of the wind and the pounding of the waves.
"Why did you come, dammit? Why couldn't you have left me alone? I want to be with her! Don't you understand I want to be with her?"
Rick grabbed his flailing brother and cradled A.J.'s wet head tightly against his bare chest. "I do understand, A.J. I do! But this isn't the way, little brother. It isn't the way! It's not what Lauren would want you to do."
A.J.'s fists ceased their violence. He allowed his body to sink into Rick's torso. Rick had to listen hard to understand the words A.J. pushed out between his sobs.
"You can't make this better, Rick. You can't make it better. Don't you understand? I promised her I'd keep her safe. I promised her I'd always keep her safe and I failed her. I failed." A long pause followed, then A.J. asked his final question. "Why, Ricky? Why can't you make it better? Please, Ricky. Please make it better."
The last time A.J. had called his brother Ricky had been the night their father died thirty-nine years earlier. Rick didn't know why such a simple thing could bring tears to his eyes, but for whatever reason the name Ricky, when used by his brother as it was being now, broke Rick Simon's heart in two.
The wind seemed to mourn with A.J. that afternoon as he clung to his big brother and called him Ricky while mist sprayed over their bodies like tears.
Rick called his mother from A.J.'s home early that evening. His brother was up in the master bathroom taking a shower. The only thing Rick told Cecilia was that he'd found A.J. at a beach. He gave her no further details of the state A.J. had been in, nor did Rick tell his mother that he was certain had he not come along when he did, A.J. would have allowed himself to drown.
"He's awful tired, Mom," Rick said as their conversation wound down. "I'm not sure he'll call you tonight, but why don't you come by sometime late tomorrow morning. I'll take both of you out to lunch if A.J. will go. And you might as well bring Toby home. I think it'll be good for A.J. to have him here."
The phone call ended with Rick promising to tell A.J. good night for their mother.
The detective poked around in the refrigerator that was now overflowing with food. Friends and neighbors were keeping A.J.'s kitchen well stocked. Rick took out a chicken and rice casserole Mr. and Mrs. Gorman had dropped off the previous day. He put it in the oven and set the dial to warm. He didn't immediately go upstairs when he heard the cessation of thundering water from overhead. He set the kitchen table for dinner and opened the door to grab A.J.'s mail. He put the envelopes on the counter and waited. He allowed ten minutes to pass before going in search of his brother.
Rick poked his head in A.J.'s bedroom, then in the boys' bedroom down the hall where he was still bunking. When Rick didn't find his brother in either of those places, he headed with a heavy heart to the nursery.
To the best of Rick's knowledge, A.J. hadn't been in this room since the day Lauren died. Cecilia had shut the door to it the morning she'd stopped by with Abby to pick up Toby. Now the door was open and the light was on. Rick stepped in the room to find A.J. leaning against one of the crib's railings.
The blond man's hair was still wet from his shower. He was barefoot and bare chested, dressed only in a pair of red New Balance sweat pants. Rick came up behind his brother and rested a light hand on A.J.'s back. The skin was now starting to blister, as was the skin on A.J.'s hands and arms.
"You want me to bandage you up pretty soon?"
A.J. shook his head no while one finger reached out to start the mobile in motion. "Joel talked to me after the service today. He said I didn't need to any more. He wants me to stop by his office next week so he can take the stitches out."
"Then how about supper? I put Mrs. Gorman's casserole in the oven. Despite the woman's shitty taste in men, she sure can cook."
That remark got a tiny smile out of A.J. "Maybe in a little while."
"I talked to Mom while you were in the shower. She's gonna bring Toby home tomorrow morning. I told her I'd treat the two of you to lunch somewhere."
"You don't have to do that."
"I know, but I want to."
A.J. ran a hand over the crib's gleaming headboard and down to a bumper pad. He swallowed a gulping sob. "I hurt so much inside, Rick. I didn't think it was possible to feel this kind of pain."
"I know, A.J." Rick spoke around the lump in his throat while giving his brother's shoulders a light squeeze. "Believe me, kiddo, I know."
Rick guided his brother out of the room a few minutes later. He shut the light out and softly closed the door behind them, effectively hiding the empty crib and smiling carousel horses that were waiting to greet a baby who would never come home.
Rick wasn't certain what woke him up at two the following morning. He listened a long moment, unable to identify the distant noise that was drifting up to him.
The lanky man unfolded himself from Tanner's bed. He used caution when he sat up, having learned his first night here that he'd knock his head against the upper bunk if he wasn't careful.
Rick didn't bother to pull his jeans on over his boxer shorts as he padded out to the hall. He and A.J. had eaten supper together at six, then watched TV. At eight o'clock A.J. headed up the stairs to bed. When Rick checked on him before going to bed himself at ten, A.J. appeared to be sleeping.
The detective flipped on the hall light and poked his head in his brother's room. A.J.'s bed was empty, the sheet and blanket a tangled heap in the center.
Rick followed the rhythmic ‘whack, whack, whack,’ coming from below. Before his foot hit the second step he knew what he was hearing. He opened the door that led to the garage. A.J. still wore his sweat pants, but now had tennis shoes on his feet as well. He danced in front of his punching bag, his bare fists flying left and right. A.J. had broken open the blisters on his hands and Rick could see the raw, bloody knuckles scraped of their skin because of the harsh treatment they were being subjected to. How long A.J. had been out here Rick didn't know, but sweat was streaming down his face and chest, and he looked on the verge of collapse.
As Rick approached his brother his senses were assaulted by the overpowering smell of alcohol. He moved behind A.J. and grabbed him around the arms. "A.J., that's enough. That's enough now. Come on, let's both go back to bed."
With a savage growl A.J. shook himself free of his brother's grasp. His fists became a blur of motion as the drunken blond man took out all his pain, anger, and despair on the swinging punching bag before him.
For several long minutes Rick stood watching his brother. When he finally came to the conclusion A.J. had no intention of halting the beating, Rick turned and walked into the house. He was lying awake in Tanner's bed when an unsteady A.J. weaved his way up the stairs an hour later. The gulping breaths Rick heard coming from the master bedroom could have been from physical exertion, or they could have been uncontrollable sobs.
Rick spent the remaining hours until dawn staring up at Shane's bunk, wondering how the hell he was going to give A.J. the help he needed.
I have a new brother. Daddy says we adopted him. He has white hair and big blue eyes and came to live with us when he was only one day old. Daddy says his birthday is July 26th. He kind of looks like Brooks did when he was a newborn baby. Me and Tiffany already love him a hole lot. Has your mommy had her baby yet?
Your friend Troya
P.S. Our new baby’s name is Tad.
*The poem included in this section entitled, Welcome Home, was written by Nellie Smith.