Every Now and Then



By: Kenda



Every Now and Then is a sequel to the novel, Precious Cargo.                                                     


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


     Although I'm still reluctant to admit it, looking back on it now maybe Rick is right.  Maybe it was a dumb thing to do.  Or at least dumb in the sense that I didn't confide in him as to where I was going.  Nor did I call after I got there and realized I could use his help.  If our positions were reversed, I suppose I'd be pretty ticked off, too.  But, a lot of the reasons he's so upset are exactly the reasons why I couldn't talk to him about the whole thing in the first place.  I knew he wouldn't understand why I so willingly offered her my help.  I knew he'd only give me grief over that decision.  And possibly, he should have.  But regardless of what Rick would have said, I'd have gone anyway.  No argument he could have offered would have changed my mind.  I'd have gone anyway, and the results would have been the same.


     And I suppose that's why he's so angry.



S&S    S&S     S&S     S&S     S&S



     The last person I was expecting to hear from that night in

Mid-January, 1997, was Janet Fowler.  As in Janet Fowler, my ex-wife.  Despite the fact our marriage had more or less ended on amiable terms almost two years earlier, I hadn't seen her or talked to her since I'd departed from Seattle on the Precious Cargo in May of 1995.


     I'd returned to the city of my birth, and the only place I've ever really thought of as home, San Diego, California.  Rick and I reopened Simon and Simon Investigations shortly after my arrival.  The first couple months were lean, but within a short period of time we reestablished ourselves with old clients and old contacts, while successfully seeking out new clients and new contacts.  Our calendar was soon full, and our bank account once again growing. 


     I hadn't had reason to look back in a long time.  Until that night.  Until the phone rang and it was Janet on the other end.


     Her voice was tentative and small, as though she wasn't sure what my reaction would be.




     To be honest with you, she was the farthest person from my mind when I crossed my kitchen floor and snared the phone on the second ring.  She didn't have to identify herself.  Just the way she said my name immediately told me who my caller was.  Despite having lived more of her adult life outside the state of Florida than within its boundaries, she never had lost that hint of a Southern accent that would occasionally slip through on some words.  When she wasn't consciously thinking about it, my name was one of those words.  At those times she would emphasize the second letter, dragging out the J sound in a way that I'd always found amusing...and sexy, back in the days when thoughts of sex and Janet were often one in my mind.


     Although I had no Southern accent to cover, I doubt I was able to keep the surprise out of my voice.



     "Yes, A.J., it's...it's Janet."


     My first thought was something had happened to her father.  Myron had stayed in touch with me since the divorce, calling me once or twice a year to see how I was doing and to shoot the bull about Simon and Simon.  My former father-in-law, as well as one-time boss, hadn't lost his love for the P.I. profession.  Although he now spent more time at the racetrack than he did on stakeouts, he still loved to experience the job vicariously.  Therefore, I was pretty sure Janet would call me if ill health, an accident, or death were to befall the seventy-four year old man.


     "Is everything okay?"  I asked.  "Has something happened to Myron?"


     Evidently Janet's thoughts weren't running in the same direction as mine.  She was momentarily confused.


     "Daddy?  No.  No, nothing's happened to Daddy.  Why would you think something's..."

     She broke off there.  I believe she realized then that I was hard pressed to come up with any other reason for her call.


     "Oh...oh, hum, no.  No, A.J.  Daddy's fine.  As a matter of fact, I just returned from Florida a few days ago.  I flew down and spent two weeks with him."


     "That's nice."  I well remembered Seattle's winters.  "You picked a good time of year to get away."


     She chuckled, and I could almost see her parting the draperies with a hand.   "Yes, I did.  It's snowing out right now. I'd say there's already three inches on the ground."


     Despite the pristine mental picture her words painted, I well remembered having to get up before dawn on many a winter day to shovel our driveway and sidewalks just so we could make it to work on time.  It was abundantly satisfying to know if I walked out my door right at that moment I wouldn't even need to put on a lightweight jacket, let alone a hat and gloves.


     It was almost as if she'd read my thoughts when she added, "But I know you don't miss it one bit."


     It surprised me how much that one sentence hurt.  Hurt because, although we hadn't spoken to each other in almost two years, she still knew me so well.  Sometimes it's comforting to have someone know you in such an intimate way they can anticipate what your reaction will be to every aspect of life.  That's how well Janet had known me.  I don't think I was prepared to find out that's how well she still knew me.


     "No, no I don't miss it," was all I said in return.


     A long, awkward pause followed.  I'd be lying if I didn't admit there wasn't plenty of questions I could have asked, and plenty of topics I could have brought up.  After all, we hadn't spoken in twenty months.  But she was the one who made the phone call.  I wasn't about to give her the impression that in any way, shape, or form did this contact on her part mean anything to me.


     "So, hum...how are things?"  She asked.

     "Fine.  Things are fine."


     "Is your mom okay?"


     "Yeah, she's fine.  Keeping busy with more activities and projects than I can name.  You know Mom."

     I could tell she was smiling when she replied with warmth,  "Yes, I know your mother."


     I suspected Janet and Mom still kept in contact with one another just like Myron and I did, but I never asked my mother about it, and she had never volunteered any information of that nature.  But she and Janet shared a friendship bordering a mother/daughter relationship that went back over twenty years now, therefore it wouldn't have come as a shock to discover the two of them talked on the phone every so often, or exchanged letters and greeting cards.


     "And how's...how's Rick?"

     Rick had long been a sore subject between us, and I suppose even a portion of why we'd divorced.


     "He's fine, too.  Same old Rick."


     She let that subject drop, which was just as well.  I'm sure she could have come up with at least a hundred smart remarks to my, "Same old Rick," statement.


     "And Toby?"  She inquired about our basset hound that had come to live with me after the divorce.  "How's he doing?"


     I glanced down at the sausage-round dog. He was slumbering on the throw rug by the kitchen door.  "He's okay.  Sleeping as usual.  When he's not doing that, then he's eating."


     Janet laughed at the joke we'd so often shared in regards to our unambitious hound.


     "Doesn't sound as though much has changed."


     I looked around my house on the Grand Canal.  I'd done some redecorating since I'd purchased it back from Rick.  As a matter of fact, I had just completed giving every room an overhaul.  I'd started with the kitchen when I'd first returned, worked my way through the downstairs, and had just finished painting and wallpapering the upstairs the previous week.   New carpeting was due to arrive within the coming month, new furniture for the den and living room right along with it.


     "Some things have changed," I said to Janet,  "but I suppose more than not they've stayed the same."


     There was hesitation on her part before she asked her next question.  "And you're...happy?  I mean, things are going good for you?"

     I thought about that a moment.  It's not very often anyone comes right out and asks you if you're happy.  But after a few seconds of reflection I could honestly say I was.  Had I achieved everything I wanted out of life?  No.  Had I met every goal I'd set for myself?  No.  Had I experienced some disappointing failures and painful times?  You bet.  I can't imagine that any of us don't.  But I had come to terms with all those things in recent months and knew that, more often than not, the good outweighed the bad.


     "Yes, Janet, I'm happy."


     "I'm glad," she said, and I could tell she really meant it.  "I never...well I never wanted to cause you pain.  You're the last person I would ever intentionally hurt."


     "I know."


     I didn't tell her she needn't take all the blame for our failed marriage, I had caused us just as many problems as she had.  I suppose I should have voiced that assurance to her, but right at the moment my mind was occupied with other concerns.  It was obvious to me there was more to this phone call than the desire to catch up on old times with the ex-husband.  She sounded tired, stressed, and worried.  As though she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and didn't know where else to turn for help.


     "Janet, what's wrong?"



     "You sound upset.  Are you all right?"


     "Yes, A.J., I'm fine.  I just...I have sort of a problem and I...well the reason I called was because I need you to recommend a good P.I. to me.  One who lives up here in Seattle, of course."


     Finally something about this phone call made sense.  Naturally she'd turn to me for a recommendation regarding a Seattle P.I. Much to my former wife's dismay, I had gotten involved in private investigation work again while employed at the law firm of Bloomdecker, Hershaw, and Clark.  I had come in contact with a number of Seattle private investigators during that time.  Those that I didn't know personally, I knew by reputation. 


     I was all business now and presumed her need involved some case she was working on for the D.A.'s office, where she was the chief prosecutor.  I'll admit I was a little surprised she'd need to call me for such advice.  Generally attorneys have a pool of two or three reputable P.I.'s they draw from when circumstances warrant such a move. 

     "I assume this is for work?  For the D.A.'s office?  Without breaching any ethics can you tell me what kind of case it's pertaining to?"


     "No, A.J.  No.  What I mean is, yes I can tell you what the case is about, but no, it's not for the D.A.'s office.  It has nothing to do with work.  This is...this is personal."


     "Oh.  Oh, I see."


     I stopped there, waiting to hear what and how much she was going to reveal to me. 


     "I...A.J., I'm being stalked."


     "You're what?"


     "I'm being stalked."


     I rounded the counter and hiked myself up on a stool.  I got the sudden feeling this was going to be a much longer conversation than I had originally presumed.


     "Start at the beginning," I said calmly.  "Tell me everything that's been going on."


     "Oh, A.J., I...you don't know how much I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.  You don't know how much I need...well how much I need a friend right now."

     "Yes I do, Janet," I soothed.  "If you recall, there was a time in my life when I needed a friend and you were the one who was there to listen."


     Her, "I know," was quiet and reflective of all that had caused us to travel full-circle.  She had been the person I turned to when the pain of Erica Garcia's murder threatened to be my undoing.  Our marriage was a direct result of all Janet had so willingly offered me back then.


     "Let me repay you that debt now," I said.  "Tell me what's happening."


     She took a deep breath and began.  "It started this past fall.  On October fifteenth.  I recall the date because I came home late from a banquet given in honor of a retiring judge.  I was about halfway to the house when I thought I was being followed.  I remembered what you and Daddy always told me to do if I found myself in such a situation, so I drove around a little bit.  I took several different routes, but he stayed with me.  I was just getting ready to go to the nearest police station when he passed me and drove off into the night.  I thought then that I was mistaken.  That he just happened to be someone going my way.  But the next morning he was parked outside my house."


     "And it was the same guy?" 


     "At the time I didn't know for certain, but I suspected it was.  From there it's escalated.  Sometimes he follows me to work or from work, sometimes he parks outside my house, sometimes I'll be having lunch with a friend and see him standing across the street from the restaurant, and now...well lately my phone's been ringing at all hours of the day and night.  When I answer it he...he tells me what he's going to do to me."


     I didn't ask her to go into detail.  I could easily imagine what type of threats the man was making.    


     "What happens if you don't answer the phone?"


     "He leaves the same type of messages on the answering machine.  It's gotten to the point where I have no choice but to leave the phone off the hook.  He's even started calling me at work, A.J."

     The guy had to be pretty bold, or absolutely stupid, to be calling a district attorney at work and making obscene threats to her. 


     "What about the police?"  I asked.  "I assume you've talked to them about this?"

     "Yes, I have.  Numerous times.  They think he must have a scanner in his car.  Every time I make a complaint about him he disappears before they get here.  They've had me try calling in on another line so my report won't be broadcast, they've tried staking out my house and office, they've tried everything they can think to, but they just can't seem to catch the guy.  He...he seems to have some kind of sixth sense, some kind of uncanny ability that allows him to know the officers’ every move.  That's why I went to Daddy's.  I thought if I were away for a couple weeks he'd tire of his game and leave.  Pretty naive, huh?"

     "No it wasn't," I assured her.  "If nothing else it was worth a try."   


     "The police have provided me with an escort to and from work, but he never shows up when one of them is with me.  When we call the whole thing off he's back again."


     "And you have no idea who he is?"


     "No, absolutely none.  I've never gotten a good look at his face, but I don't think I know him."


     Although it isn't unheard of, a woman being stalked by a complete stranger is fairly unusual.  Generally such a crime is committed by a former boyfriend or ex-husband who can't come to terms with the end of the relationship. 


     "I'm to the point where I feel I have no choice but to hire some kind of body guard," Janet said.  "As well as someone who can determine who this guy is in a way the police don't seem to be able to.  That's why I called you.  I need to know what P.I. in the Seattle area would be good at this type of job.  I...I'm so scared, A.J.  I'm so scared."


     She started crying then, letting out all the fear and frustration I knew she'd been keeping bottled up for months.  I could easily guess she'd let very few people in on what was happening.  She had always been extremely private about her personal life.  I doubted her father even knew the trouble she was currently experiencing. Later, I would find out I was correct.


     "Janet, don't cry.  Don't cry, babe.  It'll be okay."  I didn't give it any conscious thought when I called her 'babe.’  It was a pet name that went all the way back to our years together in Florida.  For some strange reason using it again didn't seem nearly as out of place as it should have.               

       It took her a while to calm down.  I could hear her blow her nose, then she apologized to me for getting so upset, just as I knew she would. 


     "Don't worry about it," I said.  "Hey, if you can't call and cry on your ex-husband's shoulder, whose shoulder can you cry on?"

     That made her laugh like I knew it would.  "Oh, A.J.," she scolded in jest, "what am I going to do with you?"

     "Probably the same thing you did with me two years ago," I joked.    "Kick me out."


     "I didn't kick you out!"  She protested, and she was right.  She hadn't.  When the time came to dissolve our marriage I left on my own accord.


     "I was teasing you, Janet.  You're right. You didn't kick me out.  I found my way to the door all by myself."


     There was an uncomfortable pause that spoke of the pain we both still carried within over the demise of our marriage.  I quickly used words to cover it over.


     "Listen, Janet, I'm coming up there."


     "Oh, A.J., no.  No.  I couldn't ask you to do that."


     "You didn't ask me, I volunteered.  That is unless...unless you'd prefer I don't."


     "No, no, it isn't that.  It's not that at all.  I just...well it wasn't my intention for you to make such an offer.  I simply called to see if you could recommend someone."


     "I realize that.  And I am recommending someone.  Me."


     "A.J., I--"


     "Janet, I don't mind.  I don't mind at all.  If it's okay with you then I'll fly up tomorrow.  If you'd rather I not, for whatever reason, just say so."


     "I...if you're sure.  If you're certain I'm not inconveniencing you in any way then yes, A.J....yes, I'd like it if you came up."  The relief in her voice was easy to detect.  "But only if you'll let me hire you."



     "No, don't say it.  I won't let you come unless I hire you.  Signed contract and all.  If you're coming up here then it's because you're working for me.  I won't have it any other way."

     I could see the wisdom behind her words, and knew I'd demand the same of her if I were ever in need of her services as an attorney.


     "All right.  Signed contract and all."


     "And no breaks either.  I mean in regards to the fee."


     "Okay, no breaks," I agreed.  How well I suddenly remembered her stubbornness.


     We hung up shortly thereafter.  I could hear her smile when I reminded her to lock all the doors, keep the draperies pulled, set her home security system, and turn on the outside lights.  I told her I'd call her the next morning to let her know what time my flight was arriving.  I planned to rent a car at the airport, then be waiting to escort her home when she came out of work. 


     "A.J., I...I don't know how to thank you."


     "No thanks is necessary, Janet."


     "Somehow I knew you'd say that," she offered right before she hung up the phone.


     And somehow I knew she'd say that.




S&S    S&S     S&S     S&S     S&S



     I stood in my galley starin' at the phone in my hand and hearing the 'buzz, buzz, buzz,' of a line that's been disconnected.   I had no idea what to make of the call I'd received from my brother. 


     I had just poured milk on my Wheaties when the phone rang.  For a brief second I thought of lettin' the answering machine pick it up so my cereal wouldn't get soggy, but at that time of the morning it was unlikely my caller would be anyone other than Mom or A.J. 


     "Yo?"  I said in way of greeting around my spoon.


     "Rick, it's me.  Sorry to interrupt your breakfast."


     "No big deal.  Just don't mind me if I keep right on eating. You know how I hate soggy cereal."


     "Go ahead, eat," A.J. said. "This won't take long anyway.  Listen, I'm going to be gone for a few days so--"


     I had to admire the way he tried to breeze on through relayin' that information.  As though I wouldn't find it odd that out of the clear blue he suddenly felt the need for a little vacation.


     "Where you goin'?"  I asked as I bent over my bowl.


     "Uh...to visit a friend.   We don't have much happening at the office right now so I don't think--"


     "When are you leavin'?"


     "Hum...in a couple hours."


     "A couple hours?"




     His 'yeah,' was nonchalant and carefree as if he always called me on a moment's notice to say he was leaving in a couple hours and would be gone for a few days.


     In my best, demanding big brother voice I barked,  "A.J., what's goin' on here?"


     And in his best, innocent little brother voice he answered,  "Nothing.  Nothing's going on.  I'm just going to be gone for a few days, that's all."


     "What about Toby?"


     "Mr. Gorman's going to take care of him for me."


     "Mr. Gorman?"




     "You can bring him over here.  He can stay with me and Rex, ya' know."


     "Yeah, I know.  And thanks for the offer, but it's not necessary.  Mr. Gorman walks three or four times a day ever since he had that heart bypass surgery last year, so he said taking Toby along was no trouble. He’ll fill Toby’s food and water dishes every day for me, too."


     Now that was weird.  Not that old man Gorman wouldn't take good care of Toby, and overall Toby doesn't need much taking care of to begin with, but it was weird that A.J. wasn't bringing the dog over to my place.  He always had before whenever he was going to be out of town.  I got the distinct impression my sibling didn't want to see me face to face before he left for wherever it was he was going.  That impression was hammered home even more when A.J. quickly said his goodbyes.  It was as if he didn't want to be on the phone with me any longer than necessary for fear I'd ask him questions he had no desire to answer.


     I hung up the phone and pushed my cereal bowl aside.  I mentally reviewed what little I had learned from our brief conversation.  A.J. was leaving in a couple hours to go visit a friend and would be gone a few days.  Period.  And every single bit of this sudden trip was so far out of character for him I began to wonder if it really had been my brother I was just talking to. 


     I mulled over gettin' in my truck and driving to his place before he left, but what the hell was I gonna say?  "Hey, A.J., you can't leave until you tell me where you're goin'!" 


     No, I couldn't say that.  In the first place, I had no right, and in the second place my brother was forty-seven years old.  Not exactly a kid anymore, and certainly not obligated to answer to me for any reason.  Plus we had always respected each other's privacy.  Running Simon and Simon like we do means we're together more than we're not during some weeks.  Now we've always been close, so that's not necessarily a bad thing, but we'd both be lyin' if we didn't say we need some space from each other as well.  And to that extent we rarely intrude on one another's time away from the office, or pry into one another's personal affairs.


     I tried to shrug the whole thing off by tellin' myself A.J. would explain everything once he returned from wherever it was he was goin.’  The nagging questions stayed with me, however, as I washed my breakfast dishes, made my bed, and showered. It's as I was shaving that revelation dawned.


     A.J. had been dating a hell of a sexy gal by the name of Lauren Albright for a little more than year now.  She had two young sons from a previous marriage who were crazy about my brother.  For some reason I was suddenly certain this mysterious trip had to do with Lauren.


     I bet he's takin' her away somewhere to ask her to marry him.  He always has been a romantic.  Or maybe he's already asked her and they're goin' outta town to get hitched.  That'd be somethin' A.J. would do considerin' both he and Lauren have already been married once.  Yeah, I can picture it now.  Some quiet little seaside town, just the two of them for the

next few days, and then when they come back he'll tell me and Mom they tied the knot.


     I reached for my toothbrush, totally at peace with my self-made explanation.


     It all makes sense.  With Mom bein' gone right now on that cruise to the Bahamas, and then plannin' to visit relatives in Florida for another three weeks, A.J. can go off and get married without her bein' the wiser.  Not that Mom won't be thrilled.  She loves Lauren, and is nuts about Shane and Tanner, but she'd want to make a big deal over the whole thing and throw 'em some kinda reception filled with family and friends.  I know A.J. wouldn't want that the second time around.  I've got a feelin' he just wants something quiet and unobtrusive.  Regardless of what he might say, I know he's still smartin' from everything Janet did to him.  The last thing A.J. would want is to have some big deal made over another marriage.


     I can honestly say it didn't bother me in the slightest that A.J. didn't confide his plans in me.  I couldn't blame him and Lauren for wantin' to make this a private affair.  Once Mom got back from her trip we'd take them out for a nice dinner.  Maybe she and I could get them a gift certificate to some hotel or resort somewhere, and I'd offer to take the boys one weekend so they could make use of it. I briefly wondered what their plans were in terms of whose house they were gonna live in and the like, then pushed those thoughts aside as I left for work. 


     A.J. and Lauren crossed my mind on several occasions that day.   Each time they did I mentally wished 'em good luck.


S&S    S&S     S&S     S&S     S&S



     I've always hated parking garages.  These modern multi-level structures with their thick concrete support pillars, deep blind corners, and dim lighting seem to be a breeding ground for men bent on violent assaults of women.  For just that reason Rick and I continuously caution our mother to avoid making use of them, especially at night.  When Janet and I were married I passed the same cautions on to her.  Unfortunately, that ominous structure I dislike so much is the only available vehicle accommodation for employees of the District Attorney's Office of Seattle.    


     The afternoon was giving way to early evening by the time I wound my rental car seven stories up tight curves and sharp bends. 


     My plane had touched down at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, referred to as Sea-Tac by the locals, at ten minutes after one.  I called Janet from a pay phone to let her know I'd arrived, and to ask what time she planned to leave work. 


     "I should be done around six," my ex-wife told me. 


     I glanced at the people rushing by me laden with suitcases and carry-on bags.  "I'll be waiting for you.  What level are you parked on?"



     It seemed strange to have to ask her the next question.  "You still drive the BMW?"


     "I still drive a BMW," she acknowledged,  "but not the one you're familiar with.  I sold it last year."


     I knew the mileage had to have been getting fairly high on Janet's ten-year-old silver luxury sedan.   Sounding more like a husband than I intended to I said,  "Smart move."


     If she thought anything of my tone or words she didn't mention it. "It was giving me problems on occasion.  Anyway, I'm driving a black one now.  Black with brown leather interior.  It's a '96.  Parked in section D."


     "I'm sure I'll find it.  See you then."


     "Okay.  And, A.J.?"



     "Thanks again.  For everything."


     I smiled.   "Don't thank me yet.  I haven't done anything."


     "Yes you have," she responded softly before breaking our connection.                            


     Forty-five minutes later I was leaving the airport's parking lot in a deep blue Ford Contour GL.   I didn't want anything too flashy, or too expensive, so settled on the comfortable new-model sedan that offered plenty of leg room.  I stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant I'd been fond of when I'd lived up here.


     The Soup Kitchen was decorated in warm wood tones and dotted with small tables that sat no more than four.  They catered to the noontime crowd from local offices with twenty-five different homemade soups on their menu and a variety of cold sandwiches.  It was two-twenty when I walked in.  There couldn't have been more than seven people scattered throughout the dining area.  I placed my order at the cafeteria-style counter.  By the time I walked to the other end to pay the cashier my cream of broccoli soup, turkey sandwich, and a Coke were waiting for me on a red tray. 


     I chose an empty table in front of the wide picture window that faced the sidewalk.  I took my time eating while watching white wet stuff spit, and drop, and flutter, as though it wasn't quite sure if it was supposed to be snow or rain.  The sky was a deep slate gray, the afternoon already growing dim.  How well I remembered the perpetual gloom and precipitation of Seattle in January.  It had been sunny and sixty-eight degrees when I'd left San Diego that morning.  Why in the world anyone would want to make his home in a northern climate was beyond this Southern California native.


     Businessmen and women rushed by on the sidewalk hunched into their nondescript trench coats while clutching briefcases to their sides as though their lives depended on all that was contained within.  I smiled slightly as I glanced down at my blue jeans, maroon ski sweater, and tennis shoes.  When I lived up here I was one of them.  One of those nameless, faceless people in an all-weather trench coat.  An all-weather trench coat that if it had gotten mixed up in a group of trench coats I'd have had no hope of identifying again as mine.  God, I had been so unhappy.  So unhappy, and in so many ways unsuited to the white-collar, nine to five lifestyle.


     I realize now that revelation came as much a surprise to me, as it did to everyone else.  Especially my wife.


     I wiped my mouth with a napkin and left my dishes stacked neatly on the tray.  I grabbed my bulky jean jacket from the back of my chair, slipped into it and snapped it closed.   When I stepped out into the cold I berated myself for not having brought a winter parka and hat.  Granted, the jacket fell almost to my thighs, and with my heavy sweater underneath provided enough warmth for short excursions between the car and buildings.  If I found I was going to be out in the elements for long, however, I knew I'd need to stop somewhere and buy something warmer.  I'd been in such a hurry to leave the house that morning I never thought to reach in the far recesses of my closet for the winter coat I rarely had a use for.  By the time I realized my error the Boeing 767 was passing over Portland.  A little too late to ask the pilot to turn around.


     The clock in the Contour registered fourteen minutes after three when I slid in.  With almost three hours to kill before Janet got out of work I drove around, not really caring too much as to which direction I headed in as I re-familiarized myself with the city.  I flicked on the windshield wipers and let them swish slowly back and forth.  By four-thirty I was fumbling for the switch that would cause the headlights to awaken from their resting place in the car's streamlined frame.


     At five I paid the parking attendant at the garage that housed Janet's car.  I tried to recall the man's name. He was the same hulking African-American who'd held the position back when Janet and I were married.  I had always wondered how his bulk fit in the narrow booth that protected him from the weather.  I smiled at him when I handed him my dollar.  I never did come up with his name before he allowed the wooden rail to raise that otherwise hindered my path.  I guess it didn't make any difference one way or another.  He didn't seem to recognize me, nor did he return my smile.  I suppose I was just another face in the sea of faces he'd seen every day for twenty years now.


     I was lucky and found an available spot on level seven.  Although I had hoped for something close to Janet's car, I was several sections away.  But beggars can't be choosers, so I was satisfied to park and keep a careful, yet subtle watch. 


     I propped the folded Seattle Sound I'd purchased out of a news box at the airport on the car's steering wheel.  I perused the front page without losing sight of what was going on around me.  All was quiet in the damp concrete space for the moment.  I didn't see anyone loitering about.  As a matter of fact, no activity whatsoever was occurring in the garage until I heard a car engine purr to life about ten minutes after I'd arrived.  I thought that was rather odd since I could see the elevator from where I was and no one had disembarked from it.  But then there was a stairwell around the corner.  I knew it was possible someone had come up that way.  My current vantage point wouldn't have allowed me to see a person entering in that manner.


     With as dangerous as parking garages are known to be I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to make use of an isolated stairway, but certainly the person might have gotten mixed up and exited the elevator on the wrong level, then chose to race up the stairs to the correct one.  Rick's great for doing that.  Regardless of whether it's a parking garage with brightly numbered levels, or the vast flat parking lot with neon letters that identify each row at Jack Murphy Stadium where the Padres play, the man can never find his way back to his vehicle.  I learned a long time ago to pay careful attention to whatever section, level, or block, he leaves his truck in.  If I don't, we spend hours walking around in circles looking for it, arguing the whole while as to where we each think it's located. 


     None of that mattered anyway.  The smooth sound of what I identified as a Chrysler moved away from me.  I turned to get a glimpse of no more than its taillights before it vanished around a corner and headed down the ramp that would eventually take it to the street. 


     The elevator dinged to life shortly after that and kept on dinging as file clerks, secretaries, and clerical workers ended their day.  For the most part they were women in a variety of ages, sizes, and colors.  They usually walked off the elevator in groups of twos or threes, but every so often one would exit alone.  Darkness had fallen around us now.  The dull yellow lights recessed in the low ceiling cast too-short patches of illumination about the area, leaving a fair amount of cars and corners in menacing shadows. 


     I sat the paper on the passenger seat and watched.  No one paid any attention to me.  Not one woman noticed the lone man observing her.  That scared me.  It scared me on Janet's behalf, on my mother's behalf, and on behalf of every woman I had ever known and cared about.  I realize it was the end of a long working day.  Their minds were on picking this kid up from basketball practice, and this one up from day-care, while somehow getting another one over to the library so he could get his school project done before the next day's deadline.  In-between all that she needed to stop at the grocery store, put gas in her car, get supper on the table, supervise homework, and do a load of laundry before collapsing in bed to share some quiet time with her husband - if she didn't fall asleep first.


     Obviously the last thing any of these women were worried about was me.  Which was why it was good my reasons for being there had nothing to do with committing a crime against any one of them.  All of them would have made for vulnerable, easy targets. 


     It was getting close to six p.m. when I once again took a closer look at my surroundings.  This time I didn't care if I was subtle or not as I turned my head and craned my neck.  I still didn't see anyone sitting in a vehicle as though on the lookout for Janet.  Nor had any cars entered this level since I'd arrived.  At this time of night people were more interested in going as opposed to coming.


     Men began exiting the elevator now.  I recognized a few as being colleagues of Janet's.  I hunched down in my seat a bit, not having any desire to encounter those I knew.  First of all, I didn't want to go through the endless uncomfortable questions that were bound to be prompted by my presence.  Generally a former husband doesn't show back up in his ex-wife's life two years after the divorce.  Especially when the union had produced no children, therefore giving the man little, if any reason, to stay in contact with the woman. 


     Secondly, it was quite possible Janet's stalker was someone she worked with.  As much as I hated to acknowledge that fact, it's highly unusual for a woman to be shadowed by someone she doesn't know. Yes, in the case of celebrities it happens on an all-too-frequent basis, but in the case of private individuals the occurrence is rare.  Granted, there are a lot of nuts in this world, but most of them aren't going to make a full-time job out of stalking you just because he or she admired you from afar in the produce section of the grocery store.


     At the moment, however, Janet's male colleagues didn't appear to be interested in anything other than going home.  Engines turned over one after another until a fine fog of exhaust fumes settled around me like damp mist off a bay.


     It didn't come as a big shock when Janet's predicted six o'clock quitting time stretched to six thirty.   While staring at the silent elevator door I told myself, No doubt she's still as absorbed in her work as she was when I was married to her.


     I briefly wondered where that bitter thought had rooted its way up from, but decided some things are best left unpondered.  Especially the painful happenings that eventually tore our marriage to mix-matched shreds of cloth neither one of us had any hope of piecing together again.


     By the digital clock in the Ford it was six forty-seven when she finally emerged from the elevator.  Other than appearing to be a bit rushed, she was as together at the end of the day as I knew she must have been at the beginning.  Not a hair was out of place, and her predictable tan trench coat was precisely buttoned and belted.  A silk scarf swirling with bright reds, golds, and greens lay within the folds of the coat's lapels.   Her makeup appeared fresh, but like always, never overdone.  I knew no matter how closely I observed, I wouldn't find a run in her stockings or a scuff mark on her expensive high heeled shoes.   


     Her head turned toward me when she heard the buzz that indicated I'd opened the car door but left the keys in the ignition.  She paused and offered me a small, uncertain smile.  The same small, uncertain smile I offered her in return as I, too, paused.


     Those first few seconds were awkward, uncomfortable, and painful, just like I had known they'd be.  We finally moved toward one another like two twelve year olds being forced to cross a school gymnasium and dance.   Our steps were small, stiff, and most of all, surprisingly enough, shy.


     She appraised me from head to toe while nodding.  "A.J."


     "Janet," I nodded in return.  "You look good," I complimented, and I meant it.  Actually, she was gorgeous like she always had been.  Time hadn't marred her natural beauty, I doubt it ever will.  My mind drifted back over twenty years.  I could see both of us the first day we'd met in the Peerless Detective office in Miami.  It's an overused cliché I know, but I fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her.  It had only turned me on more, and made me more determined to win her favor, when she played hard to get in the coming weeks.  My tenacity served me well.  We'd become engaged the following year.


     I reached toward her head, then drew my hand back realizing I no longer had the right to make such a gesture. 


     "You cut your hair," I stated the obvious.  Her long chestnut locks were gone.  Instead her hair was short, styled close all around her head, fitting it snug and neat like a bathing cap.  It would take me a while to get used to it, but I had to admit it looked good on her.  It was chic, fashionable, and easily took ten years off her age.


     She raised a self-conscious hand, running it over her skull.  "Thanks.  It took me a long time to decide to do it.  But once I finally took the plunge I was thrilled with the results.  I should have had it cut years ago.  The mornings are a lot less hectic now."


     I smiled with memory.   Her hair had always taken the better part of her preparation time each weekday morning.  Which meant she usually raced out of the house with a half-eaten bran muffin in one hand and a battered banana peeking up from a compartment of her purse as though begging to be rescued.    


     I guess since we were talking hair it was only fitting her next comment was, "You shaved off your moustache."


     Much like she had brought a hand to her head, my fingers rose to briefly brush across my bare upper lip.  "It's been gone for quite a while now.  I got rid of it the day we set sail for home."


     I didn't think about how damning those words might sound.  As though I was telling her the minute I was free of her I had gotten rid of something she'd liked.  Something she'd encouraged me to grow.  Granted, it was a small thing.  Just a moustache.  But even small things signify special times in our lives.


     Something momentarily flickered in her eyes, but whether it was hurt, regret, or just plain weariness, I'm not sure.  As quickly has it arrived, she chased it away.


     "You look great," she said.  "Still as boyishly handsome as I remember."


     She laughed when I blushed.  It's hard to imagine after our long history together she could yet evoke that type of reaction from me, but she could and she knew it.  She was perfectly aware there's nothing that causes me more discomfort than to have my looks commented on or fawned over.  My parents always taught me one's looks, be they attractive or otherwise, are simply the superficial trappings of all human beings.  What really counts is who we are inside, and how we treat those around us.  When I reached my teen years and it became apparent the face I'd inherited from my father was an instant attractor of girls, my mother often reminded me, "A.J., the man who builds his life around a handsome face builds that life on unstable ground.  His looks can be destroyed in an instant by an accident of some sort, or ravaged by an obscure disease.  If that person's whole life has been about nothing more than an attractive face, he won't have very much left to rebuild with, now will he?"


     I don't know how much of that I understood when I was sixteen, but by the time I was graduating from college it made a lot of sense.  


     I shrugged a shoulder in Janet's direction.  "Boyishly handsome, maybe," I reluctantly conceded,  "but not for much longer.  My part's shorter than it used to be."


     I bent my head just enough so she could see what I was talking about.  I'd kill myself before I'd acknowledge it to Rick, but indeed the natural part of my hair on the left side of my scalp was beginning to recede.  I'd first noticed it about a year earlier when I was showing Shane and Tanner, the children of the woman I'm currently seeing, some old pictures of Rick and myself when we lived down in Florida.  It was then I realized a

number of years had passed since that portion of my hair had grown of its own will all the way over my forehead.


     Janet laughed again at my words and at the forlorn expression that accompanied them. 


     "Oh, A.J., if you live to be one hundred you'll die with a full head of hair.  Don't worry, there's plenty up here yet."


     I knew she wasn't giving it conscious thought when she gently ran a hand through my hair, ruffling it slightly as though it had just been kissed by a gentle summer breeze. 


     We offered each other an apologetic smile when I stepped away from her.  At the same time she allowed her hand to fall back to her side. 


     I covered the awkward moment for both of us by reaching for her briefcase.  I escorted her to her car while scanning the surrounding area.  Unless her stalker was hiding outside his vehicle there was no one present but the two of us. 


     "Has he ever been waiting for you up here?"  I asked quietly as I took her keys from her and unlocked the driver's door.


     She looked around as if she expected him to jump out from behind the nearest pillar.  "Not that I'm aware of.  He seems to be on my tail once I'm on my way home."


     "I don't imagine I need to ask this, but have you changed the route you take?"

     "Yes.  Many times.  Dozens as a matter of fact.  He...somehow he just always seems to know."


     "Okay," I nodded,  "we'll talk more about it later.  You're tired.  Let's head home."  I swiftly corrected myself.  "To your house, I mean."


     "Yes, I know what you mean."  She paused in the act of getting in her car.  "There's not much there in the way of food.  I haven't had an appetite lately, so it seems rather pointless to go to the store."


     So it wasn't just my imagination. Her frame did appear too slight underneath her heavy coat.  "Janet, you can't quit eating," I scolded.


     She dismissed my words in the same manner a woman dismisses any unwanted admonishment from her ex-husband.


     "I know.  I haven't.  I just don't have much there right now other than some fruit and lettuce.  Where do you want to go?"


     "I don't care.  Some place close is fine."


     She suggested a restaurant we used to frequent on occasion.  The food was good, the service quick, and except on weekends, the atmosphere quiet.  I nodded my agreement, stood by her car until she'd locked the door and started the engine, then made quick strides to the Contour.  I was right on her bumper as we wound down seven levels to the street, but then I didn't have much choice given the tight confines of the garage.


     Once we were on the road I stayed several car lengths back.  No one appeared to be tailing her.  I even turned down some side streets Janet didn't take, knowing I'd pick her up again in a few blocks on the main thoroughfare.  Again, no one seemed to be doing anything out of the ordinary, or taking special interest in the snazzy attorney in the BMW.


     Janet had practically grown up at Peerless Detectives, not to mention having been Myron's office manager for ten years before obtaining her law degree.  Therefore, she knew the P.I. business inside and out.  She never looked over her shoulder when she exited her car and crossed the well-lit street to the restaurant.  She didn't have to look to know I was there.


     I pulled the Ford in several parking spots behind Janet's German made car. I sat there a couple of minutes just watching.  Once again I couldn't detect anything suspicious.  Two more cars pulled up shortly after I did. Four women on a 'girls night out,' disembarked from one, and an elderly couple, the man shuffling along behind a walker, from another.  Obviously none of these people were giving Janet trouble.


     A full ten minutes went by before I exited my vehicle and jogged across the street.  I found Janet waiting in a secluded corner booth.  She'd already been given menus.  She was sipping a glass of deep red wine, another one sat across from her.  Unless her alcohol consumption had vastly increased since we'd been married, that second glass was intended for me.


     "Did you see anyone?"  She asked as I slid into the wide plush booth.  Its back rose up behind me several feet affording us the privacy we needed.


     "No, nothing.  Unless your stalker is eighty-five and uses a walker, that is."

     "No," she smiled slightly,  "he's not.  I don't suppose I'd be so damn scared if he was."


     I started to reach across the table to offer her a touch of comfort, but just as quickly snatched my hand back.  I wrapped it around my wine glass instead.  God knows things were safer that way for both of us.


     "Don't worry.  We'll get to the bottom of this." 


     I took a long sip of the bitter liquid.  I'm not any more of drinker than my ex-wife, but I will admit a chilled glass of wine and a good meal are often just what the doctor ordered after a long, tiring day of travel.


     Janet nodded toward my glass.


     "I hope you don't mind that I ordered that for you."


     I smiled as I took another sip and turned my attention to the menu.  "Do I look like I mind?"

     I couldn't see her smile, but I knew it was there.  We made quick work of ordering when our waitress returned.  I think Janet expected me to question her more regarding her recent troubles, but I decided to forego that until we got back to her home.  She needed some distance from the situation so I kept the conversation light.  We talked a little about her work, a little about Simon and Simon, a little about her father and my mother, and I told a few amusing anecdotes about Toby.   By the time we rose to leave it was nine o'clock and she looked beat.  I was glad her home was only a few blocks away.


     I reached for my wallet as I stood, but she laid a hand on my arm to stop me.       


     "No, A.J.  I'm paying."




     "Don't," she ordered.  "Don't start some trip down ego lane.  I told you I'd only allow you to come if I could hire you.  You're on the clock now.  This was a business dinner."


     "Janet, no, I--"


     She shook her head.  "Forget it.  If you want to argue you'll have to pick another opponent.   If part of playing security guard for a client means eating dinner out, then you bill that client for the meal.  You know you do."


     "Not always."

     She rested a hand on her hip.  "Like when?"

     I almost said, "Like when the client is an old friend, lover, and my former wife to boot."  I had a feeling that wouldn't be too wise, however, especially the lover part, so I cracked,  "Like when Rick forgets to save the damn receipt, that's when."


     Janet laid down enough cash to cover our bill plus seven dollars for the tip before leading the way to the door.  "Then it's a good thing you left Rick home this trip."


     Knowing fully well how infuriated Rick would be if he found out where I was and why, I couldn't help but think, In more ways than one, as I followed her out of the building.


     Once again, nothing out of the ordinary aroused my suspicions as I trailed Janet to the house.  There were a few brief moments when I thought we'd picked up a tail.   A car well behind me took every turn we did until we came to Janet's block.  The vehicle finally turned in the opposite direction and disappeared, causing me to assume the driver was one of Janet's neighbors headed to his or her own home.


     Janet hit the button on her garage door opener and guided the BMW to its usual spot.  I pulled the Contour in beside her.  I had debated leaving it at the curb, but decided against that for now.  If Janet's stalker watched her every move as precisely as she claimed, he'd soon enough be aware of my presence.  But since, because of his absence this evening, we seemed to have an advantage over him, I chose to keep it that way.  I wanted nothing more than the satisfaction of sneaking up from the rear of his car, grabbing him by the throat and scaring the hell out of him, just like he'd been scaring her.  And while I was at it I'd be obtaining his license number, taking note of his physical description, and letting him know quite firmly it would be in his best interest to never be seen by the lady again.


     The garage door was already easing its way down behind me as I exited my car.  For a moment twin 'ding ding dings' sounded as I reached into the back of the Ford for my suitcase, and Janet reached into the back of the BMW for her briefcase and purse.  We slammed our car doors one after the other, the sounds echoing off the walls of the nearly empty garage like gunshots. 


     A broom was propped up in one corner, a city recycling bin and a plastic garbage can on wheels lined the north wall.   Other than those few items the structure was bare of anything that would indicate a man resided in the house.  There wasn't even a lawn mower anywhere to be seen, leading me to conclude Janet hired someone to do her yard work now.  When we'd been married we'd done that job together.  While I mowed our big lawn Janet tended to the trimming, edging, and flower beds.  Or at least early in our marriage she did.  As time went on and her job took up more and more of our personal lives, she began leaving all the outside maintenance to me.  Eventually that became another issue in a long line of issues we fought over.   How well I could still recall the senseless arguments that only served to pull us farther apart.


     "A.J., it's not worth fighting over!  We'll hire someone to do the yard work for heaven's sake!"


     "No!"  I had hollered back from my position on the other side of our kitchen table.  "I don't want to hire it done!   We already have a cleaning lady for chrissake!  What the hell's next, Janet?  A goddam chauffeur?"


     "You're being ridiculous and you know it!"  She accused.  "You tell me you don't want to spend your entire Saturday working in the yard, so I tell you we'll hire a lawn service.  But then you refuse to entertain the notion!  I don't know what the hell has gotten into you!"


     "Gotten into me?  Nothing's gotten into me!  It's you and that damn job of yours that's causing us problems.  It's not the yard work I'm griping about, Janet, it's the fact that it's something we used to do together. Something we enjoyed doing together, that you can no longer find time for!  Just like you can no longer seem to find time for a multitude of things we used to enjoy doing together."


     "You're not a child, A.J.  You certainly should be able to entertain yourself without me by your side every minute of the day."


     "Oh, I can, Janet.  Believe me, I can," I answered bitterly.  "But I shouldn't have to.  We're married, dammit!  I thought spending time together was what marriage was all about.  Or at least it used to be what this marriage was all about until someone decided to rewrite the book without asking me how I felt about it first."






     My ex-wife's beckoning brought me back to the present.  She didn't question me regarding my momentary lapse of attention.  Instead, she unbugged her security system and unlocked the door that led into the house.


     She paused in the wide back hallway and took her shoes off.  She bent down to pick them up, carrying them the rest of the way.   I took my shoes off as well, but left them on the rug she had sitting below a row of thick oak hooks.  I hung my coat up on one of the hooks, left my suitcase on the floor next to the wall for the time being, and followed Janet into the main part of the house that was lit up with assistance from automatic timers.  I tried not to be too nosey as we strolled down the long hallway, passing a large bathroom and then a modest sized laundry room during our journey.  We emerged together into the vast living room/formal dining room.


     Janet had rented this home for several months after the home we owned together sold.  Once our divorce was final she purchased this two-story house that was situated in a quiet, upscale neighborhood full of professional people just a few blocks from the quiet, upscale neighborhood we had lived in as husband and wife.  I had been in the home a couple of times back when we were separated, but never for very long, and never beyond the living room. 


     Janet laid her briefcase and shoes by the stairs that led up to the bedrooms.  She took off her coat and placed it over the railing. 


     She turned and offered me a smile. "Would you like some coffee and dessert?"

     "Dessert?"  I echoed with gentle teasing tone to my voice.  "I thought you said you didn't have anything in the house."


     "I don't.  Or at least not much anyway.  I did manage to make a run to the bakery before work this morning to pick a few things up.   Just because I'm not eating doesn't mean you don't have to."


     I chuckled a bit at that.


     "Anyway, I have a small cake here.  Would you like a piece?"


     "Sure," I agreed.


     I trailed her into the kitchen and helped as best I could considering I didn't know where anything was at.  We carried our plates and coffee cups out to the living room.  I sat in one of the easy chairs; Janet sat on the couch.  She placed her dishes on the nearby end table and curled into the corner of the sofa, bringing her long legs up to tuck them underneath her.  Her movements were inhibited by her skirt, but she made a few adjustments and soon appeared to be comfortable.


     I watched her pick at her cake.  She never really did anything other than move crumbs around the plate, reminiscent of what a three year old does when she's more interested in playing with her food than eating it.  I didn't comment on her actions while I ate my piece and drank my coffee.


     When I was finished I set my dishes on the end table Janet's now resided on.  I'd spent most of the day mentally reviewing everything she'd told me on the phone the previous evening.  I now had some additional questions for her.


     "Janet, have you ever gotten a good look at the guy's face?"

     "No, not really.   The few times he's come close enough for me to see his features he's always wearing sunglasses and has the hood up on his coat.  Otherwise, it's been at night and too dark for me to see much of anything."


     "What about his size?"  I pressed.  "Is he a tall man?  Short man?   Fat, thin, does he limp, does he--"


     "He's tall," she immediately acknowledged.  "At least six foot four.  And he appears to be have a big build."


     "Big?  Like how?  Heavy set?"


     Her eyes lifted to the ceiling in thought.  "No.  Not heavy set as in fat, if that's what you mean.  Just big.  A sturdy build, I guess you'd call it.   But again, it's hard for me to say because the few times I've seen him standing outside his car he's always had on a bulky winter coat.  I don't know if all the bulk is his, or if he's got himself layered in clothing to mask his true size." 


     "And you don't recognize him at all?"

     "No.  I don't have any idea who he is."

     "Think, Janet.  Think hard.  Could he be someone you tried?  Or a family member of someone you tried?  Could he in any way be related to a past case?"

     "The police have asked me those same questions, A.J.  I can't tell you anything other than what I've told them.  If he is someone I've run across in the capacity of my work I don't remember him."

     "Which probably means you never had reason to personally meet him," I concluded.


     "Probably," she agreed.  "But again, I've never gotten a good enough look at him to really know who he might be."


     "And you have no idea where you might have first seen him?  Or rather, where he might have first seen you?"


     "What do you mean?"

     "You said you first noticed him when he followed you home from the banquet you were attending.  Was he at the banquet?"


     Her brows came together with concentration.  "No.  No, I don't think he was.  But then there were so many people there.  Close to two hundred.  And the tables we sat at only held eight.  I suppose it's possible he could have been somewhere else in the room and I never noticed him."

     "Would anyone have a list of people who were at the banquet that night?"


     "Oh, I don't know, A.J.  That's been over three months ago now.  I suppose it's possible Judge Sheridon's secretary might still have a list.  She's the one who worked with his wife to arrange the whole affair.  The RSVP cards were mailed to her home.  I could ask her if she still has a list."


     "If she doesn't, then ask her if she can put a list together by memory.  Possibly between herself, the judge, his wife, and you, the four of you can reassemble everyone who was in the room that night."


     She appeared dubious.  "I'm not certain we can.  I doubt that even between the four of us we'll come up with all two hundred names."


     "More than likely you won't.  But I bet you'll come close.  Now what about the police?  What do they think?"


     "They're frustrated, the same as I am."


     "Do you feel they've been doing everything they can to help you?"


     "Yes," she nodded.  "They've been wonderful."


     That didn't surprise me.  Janet did, after all, hold an important position within their city government and legal community.  They certainly didn't want to be on the receiving end of the kind of publicity that would be generated if Janet's stalker did manage to hurt her, or worse. 


     "But they've never gotten close to this guy, you said?"

     "No, never.  As I stated on the phone, he always seems to be one step ahead of them.  They assume he has a portable police scanner, but what other types of access he has they don't know."  She dug her fingers into the arm of the couch.  "He's smart, A.J.  He's very smart.  They have a trace on my phone, but he never stays on the line long enough for them to garner anything from it."

     And if they were able to trace it, they'd probably discover he's calling from a pay phone, was the pessimistic thought I left unvoiced.


     "What about his car?  What type of car does he drive?"


     "It depends on what day of the week you're talking about."



     "He keeps changing vehicles.  Sometimes he's in a car, sometimes he's in a truck, sometimes he's in a sports utility vehicle.  Sometimes they're old, sometimes they're new."

     "Any particular make or model?"

     "No," she shook her head.  "Not that I've ever noticed anyway."

     "I don't suppose you've written down what he's driving on what days?"

     "No, I haven't."  The regret in her voice was plain to hear.  "I should have been though, shouldn't I?  That information might have been a help to you."

     I shrugged.  "It might have been, then again it might not have been.  Don't worry about it.  Just start doing it from tomorrow forward.  Write down everything.  If he's following you, write down the day and time and the route you're taking.  If he calls, record that as well.  If you notice him someplace, in a restaurant or store, write it down."


     "I should have been doing that all along," she berated herself.  "I would have advised a client in this same position to do it.  I know better than to be so careless."

     I leaned forward and touched her knee.  "Hey.  Stop it.  We can't go back and reconstruct what's already happened, but we can start keeping track of what happens from now on.  Maybe something will make sense once we see it on paper."


     Her hand came down to briefly cover mine.  Her flesh was warm and inviting.  Too inviting. 


     "A.J., do you think...do you think there's any hope of catching this guy and getting him out of my hair?"

     I smiled at her words, while at the same time sliding my hand out from underneath hers.  I sat back in my chair, knowing it was best to keep some space between us.  "Janet, I promise you, before I leave here I'll have this guy out of your hair."

     "Really?"  The hope in her voice was strong and impossible to ignore.  "Do you really think so?"


     "Yes, I really think so.  He may be able to dodge the police, but he won't be able to dodge me.  In the first place, as far as we know, he's not even aware I'm here.  In the second place, he's not going to be able to monitor my every move like he seems to be doing with the cops.  If he wants to play cat and mouse, he's going to find out soon enough he's playing the game with the wrong guy."

     Janet smiled.  She well-knew my tenacity and stubbornness.  If I said the guy would be out of her hair before I left for home, then I meant it. 


     Despite my assurances that it could wait until morning, she made me retrieve from my suitcase the contract I'd brought along.   We went over it together just like I would have with any client.   Janet reminded me of what I'd agreed to on the phone the evening before, and wouldn't allow me to give her any breaks on the fee.  She signed and dated the contract at the bottom, then I carefully separated the two-part form.  The white top copy I would return to a thin, zippered compartment in my suitcase.  I handed her the bottom yellow copy, which she slipped into the pocket of her suit jacket for the time being. 


     When our business was finished being conducted I rose and gathered up our dishes.  "Why don't you get ready for bed.  You look wiped.  I'll take care of these things."


     "You don't have to do that," she protested as she stood.


     "I know I don't, but I'm going to anyway."

     She didn't argue with me further, simply pointed through the kitchen doorway to the built-in dishwasher.  "Just put everything in there.  You don't need to cycle it.  I'll take care of that in the morning after we've had breakfast.  The garbage can is in the cabinet under the sink."


     I scraped her cake into the garbage, poured the remainder of her coffee down the sink, then lined everything up in the dishwasher.  She was still standing in the doorway when I turned around. 


     "I'm going outside for a few minutes," I told her.  "Do you have a back door by chance?"


     "Just the one that steps out into the backyard from the garage."


     "That will do."



     I started down the hallway that contained my coat and shoes.  "Because I don't want to walk out the front if the guy happens to be parked at the curb."


     Janet turned into the laundry room, flicked on a light and opened a drawer.  "I have an extra set of keys I was going to give you!"  She called.  "I might as well do that now, then you can let yourself back in without knocking."


     "That's fine."


     I slipped on my coat then took the key ring from her.  She quickly showed me which keys would get me in which doors, and told me the four digit code for her home security system.  She also handed me a small, square device with a button on top that was her spare garage door opener.


      I shoved my feet in my shoes without untying them, then bent to straighten the backs.


     "Do you want me to turn on an outside light?"  She asked.


     "No.  Just leave everything as it is.  Go on upstairs and get ready for bed.  I'll be back in a few minutes."

     I opened the door that would lead me into the garage.



     I turned.  "Yes?"

     "Be careful.  Please."


     If we'd been married I would have kissed the fear away I saw in her eyes.  But we weren't married, so I settled on giving her a smile and a promise. 

     "I will be."


     I walked out and heard the lock click behind me.  I turned to my right, unlocking the service door that lead into the backyard.  I relocked it before shutting it firmly, yet quietly, behind me.  I shoved Janet’s house keys in a pants pocket and clipped the garage door opener to the waistband of my jeans.  I'd deposit it in the Contour when I came back from my late evening promenade.


     The night was cold despite my jacket and heavy sweater.  I shoved my hands deep into the denim pockets and hunched my shoulders up close to my ears, berating myself for not bringing proper winter attire.


     I really should stop somewhere tomorrow and pick up a hat and gloves, I told myself as my shoes crunched softly in the brittle snow. 


     The only light coming from Janet's backyard neighbor's home was a muted glow shining through the closed curtains of an upstairs bedroom window.   Other homes around the area were in various states of illumination, a living room light on in this one, a bathroom light in that one, a porch light on down the street.  One thing was for certain, Janet's neighbors were sedate people who worked hard and minded their own business.  Not one person was about as I strolled around her home then down the sidewalk.  Her stalker had evidently chosen to take the night off, or perhaps he had several women on his list that he emotionally terrorized and it just wasn't Janet's day.  I didn't know and I didn't care. I simply pitied the man when the time came I got my hands on him. 


     Janet was waiting for me when I returned fifteen minutes later.  I left my shoes and coat in the hallway and reset the security system.  I picked up my suitcase, carrying it to the living room where I found her bundled up in a thick, ankle-length plum robe.  The slippers she wore matched the robe's color and looked warm enough to ward off an Arctic chill.  I assumed she had a nightgown or pajamas on underneath, but couldn't tell because of the way the robe enveloped her.  I quickly decided the nightgown and/or pajama issue was not one an ex-husband has any business pondering.


     "A.J., your hands and ears are bright red!"  She scolded.  "Don't tell me you didn't bring a hat or gloves!"


     With all the sheepishness of a six-year-old boy who's been out to play without dressing as his mother told him to I admitted,  "I didn't think to."


     She shook her head with an exasperation I knew was greatly exaggerated.  "You'll never change.  You think if you dress as though it's seventy degrees outside, it will magically be seventy degrees outside."


     It was rather strange, in an oddly comforting sort of way, to be engaging in the same playful argument about me under-dressing for Seattle's weather.  We had often engaged in this exact same exchange during the winter months when we were married.  I think Janet was having the same thoughts, but wasn't as nearly at ease with them as I was.  She quickly shifted the subject, rising from the chair she'd been sitting in.  


     "Come on.  I'll show you to your room."


     "No," I shook my head.  "I'll sleep down here on the couch."

     "But why?"  She pointed the way upstairs.  "I have a guest room, A.J.  I got it ready for you this morning before I left for work."

     I was well aware the house contained three bedrooms and another bathroom, all on the upper story.  For some reason I still can't explain, I felt it best if our sleeping arrangements maintained some distance between us. 


     "Thank you.  I hope you didn't go to any trouble."


     "It wasn't any trouble.  I simply moved some things aside in the closet so you could hang your clothes up, and I put an extra blanket on the bed.  I know how you hate to be cold when you sleep."

     I smiled at her, but didn't budge from where I stood by the couch.  "I think it would be best if I slept down here."


     "It just would be.  This way if the guy is poking around outside I'll hear him.  Or if a car pulls up to the curb in the middle of the night it might wake me up and I can go check it out."


     "But what about your back?  You won't be able to move after a night on the couch."


     I was beginning to hate how well the woman knew me.  Hadn't she been so hurt and angry after the divorce as to forget a single thing?

     "I'll be fine.  My back hasn't given me trouble in years."

     She threw me a skeptical look, but shrugged her shoulders.  "Okay.  Have it your way."


     She walked down the hallway I'd just emerged from.  I assume she went to the linen closet because when she returned she was carrying a pillow and two blankets.  I sat my suitcase down and took them from her.


     "Will you be warm enough?"  She passed the bundle over to me.  "I can bring another blanket down from upstairs."

     "This'll be fine.  Thanks."

     She watched as I put the pillow in place at the head of the couch, then spread the two blankets out.  She nodded toward the hallway.  "You should find everything you need in the bathroom.  Don't hesitate to make yourself at home."


     "Okay.  Thanks."


     She lingered a moment as though not really certain what she was supposed to do next.  I wasn't exactly certain as to what I was supposed to do next either.  Our relationship went back too many years to ignore the intimate times and act like strangers.  Maybe this was a bad idea.  Maybe I should have stayed in a motel.  Though that would have hardly proved beneficial considering what Janet had hired me to do.


     "Well...good night," she said when she finally turned for the stairs.


     "Good night, Janet," I called after her.


     I watched until she disappeared from sight.  The hall light was extinguished right before I heard the soft 'click' of her bedroom door shutting.


     I made use of the bathroom then turned out the living room light.  I took off my socks and sweater, folding them neatly and laying them in my open suitcase.  I padded over to the front window and parted the draperies.  It was eleven fifteen now, and the street in front of Janet's house was dark and quiet. 


     By feel alone I found my Smith & Wesson underneath my clothes.  I knew it was loaded, and knew the safety was on.  I left it that way, placing it on the coffee table next to my head. 


     Just walking around shirtless and barefoot for that small length of time had given me the chills.  Leaving my jeans on, I burrowed under the blankets and rested my head on the pillow.  Between the current situation and being in a strange house, none other than Janet's house to boot, I assumed I'd have trouble falling asleep.  But the lack of sleep I'd gotten the night before caused by her troubling phone call, combined with rising early that morning to make preparations to catch a plane, had done me in.  I was as tired as my ex-wife looked to be.  In five minutes I was asleep. 


     Despite my words to Janet of the contrary, if anyone nosed around her house in the middle of the night I never heard him.






     The mahogany smell of perking coffee woke me at six-thirty the next morning.   The nearby sound of a heavy metal blade dropping with a hallow 'thump', then scraping against blacktop led me to conclude Janet hired her driveway plowed during inclement weather, which explained the absence of a snow shovel in her garage.


     I rubbed a hand over my eyes and emitted a groan of surprise when I tried to sit up.  I couldn't.  Sit up that is.  At least not on the first try.  I was finally forced to grab the back of the sofa with my right hand and painfully pull myself to a seated position.


     The muscles in the small of my back bit with protest.  I leaned forward and rubbed a hand over the tight knots. 


     A voice emoted from above wrought with teasing sarcasm.


     "Backache, huh?"    


     I turned as best I could to see Janet coming down the stairs.  I assumed she was fresh from the shower as her hair and makeup were done, though she was still wearing her bathrobe.  She padded over to me.


     "Scoot forward," she instructed.



     "Scoot forward."


     I did as she requested, making enough room on the couch for her to sit.  Before I had time to turn or stand her warm hands found my lower back.  I closed my eyes at the firm massage that kneaded the kinks out and brought the muscles back to life. 


     "I'm not hurting you, am I?"  She asked when I groaned again.


     "No, no.  You're not hurting me."


     The heel of her right hand was now moving from place to place, pressing and turning. 


     "Are you seeing anyone, A.J.?"

     Her question took me by surprise, and for a moment I couldn't help but wonder why she asked it.  After all, I was sitting half-naked on her couch while she gave me a back rub.  I glanced over my shoulder to see her preoccupied with what she was doing.  Her expression was a mixture of innocence and concentration. As though her only intention was to make small talk while she worked.


     "Uh...yes.  Yes, I am."

     I pulled away from her and turned so I was leaning against the cushions, my back no longer available to her.  If she noticed the abruptness of my movements she didn't comment on them.


     "Who is she?"

     "Who is who?"


     Janet laughed.  "You sound like an owl.  Who is the woman you're seeing?  Anyone I know?"

     "I don't think so.  Her name is Lauren Albright.  She's the public relations director for the city."

     "Mmmm," Janet nodded, impressed.  "Important job."


     "Yes," I agreed,  "it is."


     She brought her legs up and bundled them under her robe as though we were exchanging pajama party gossip.


     "So, tell me about her."


     "Tell you about her?"


     Admittedly, the last thing I'd expected to find myself doing on this trip was discussing my current lady with my former wife.


     "Sure, tell me about her.  Tell me everything there is to know.  I want to be certain she's treating you right."

     I couldn't help but laugh.  "Okay.  Everything there is to know.  Well, she's thirty-nine--"


     "Oh, a younger woman," Janet teased.


     "Somewhat," I responded.  "But not so young I can't keep up with her."


     "I can't imagine you not being able to keep up with anyone.  Rather, I'd picture it to be the other way around."


     I shrugged.  "I don't know, Lauren's very active.  But then she has to be.  She's got two young sons.  Shane and Tanner.  They're seven and five."




     For reasons I didn't understand, her tone changed from one of lighthearted playfulness to one of sadness.


     "Are they...good boys?"


     I smiled at the thought of the two little imps I'll willingly admit I can't spend enough time with.  "Oh, yeah.  They're great.  They were small when their parents divorced, just one and three years old.  I suppose that's why they're so well-adjusted to their situation.  They don't remember their mom and dad living together.  Lauren and Rob, her ex-husband, have shared joint custody of the boys ever since the divorce.  They spend one week with Lauren, then the next week with Rob and his wife."


     "It all sounds very amicable and pleasant," Janet commented neutrally. 


     "It has been for the most part.  Or at least as far as I know.  I think Lauren and Rob have their disagreements on occasion yet, but they manage to keep the kids out of them."


     "Do you think the two of you, you and Lauren, will get married?"


     "Maybe.  We've talked about it.  The boys are certainly pushing for it."

     She turned her head and looked out the patio doors that faced the backyard.  "That's nice.  I'm happy for you.  Happy that you've found someone who can give you everything you deserve.  I...I know how much a family means to you.  I'm...I'm sorry I was never able to give you children, A.J."

     "You don't have to be sorry, Janet," I stated softly to the back of her head.  "No woman should have to give her husband children if she doesn't want them as well."


     "I know.  It's just that...it's just that sometimes I think of the baby we lost.  And when I do...when I do it still hurts as though it happened only yesterday."   


     Without thinking about it, I moved closer to her and wrapped her huddled figure in my arms.  We remained like that, staring out at the falling snow, both of us remembering the pain of that time.  True, she was my ex-wife, and along with that broken marriage came an abundance of hurt over promises not kept.  But, as well, she had at one time been my soul mate.  We'd shared the joy of making a child, then shortly thereafter suffered together through the loss of that child.  We would be forever linked through that one occurrence.  No one can better understand the great sorrow that miscarriage caused me other than she.  No one can empathize with her sense of loss regarding that baby other than me. 


     It would have been so easy to fall back under her spell.  We'd always made great lovers, but time had proven we weren't meant to be husband and wife.  As Janet sat in my arms the temptation to offer comfort with my lips and hands was too great.  The last thing I wanted to do was have us wind up in bed together.  Something I feared was about to happen if I didn't move away from her.


     I think she understood why I rose and began to fold my blankets.     She looked up at me.  "I'm sorry, A.J."

     "Sorry for what?"

     "For letting you come here.  It was a mistake."

     "No it wasn't, Janet.  It wasn't a mistake.  And it won't become one if we don't let it."

     She thought a moment then nodded.  "I need to get dressed."


     I watched her make her way up the stairs.  I recalled my words of wisdom from seconds earlier – ‘it won't become one if we don't let it,’ and vowed to live by them for the remainder of my stay.


     I returned the blankets and pillow to the linen closet, grabbed clean clothes from my suitcase and made use of the shower.  By the time I had shaved and brushed my teeth Janet was in the kitchen setting breakfast on the table.  She had poured each of us a cup of coffee, and remembered I like to start my day with a glass of orange juice as well.  What looked to be blueberry muffins and sliced banana bread rested together on a plate in the middle.   Two grapefruits fresh from her recent trip to Florida were halved and resting in cereal bowls.  One sat at her place, and one sat at the place I assumed was to be mine.


     "You never used to eat breakfast except on the run," I reminded her.


     Her hand reached up to her head.  "That's before I got my hair cut, remember?  Since then I've come to realize why you always took the time for it.  There's something relaxing about starting your day unhurried with the morning paper and a warm muffin."


     "Yes, there is," I agreed as I joined her at the table. 


     "I do have milk in the refrigerator and a box of Grapenuts in that cabinet there by the stove if you'd like a bowl of cereal."


     "That's okay.  This is more than enough."


     I took a warm muffin and a slice of bread, setting them on the empty plate Janet had sat at my place.  Conversation flowed easily between us as we ate.  When we finished I shooed her off to get her purse, coat, and briefcase.  I made quick work of cleaning up the kitchen.  From the living room she called instructions on how to cycle her dishwasher.


     I followed her down the hall where I slipped into my shoes and grabbed my coat off its hook.   


     "A.J., didn't you bring a coat any warmer than that one?"

     I smiled at her back as we stepped into the chilly garage.  "No, I--"


     "Don't tell me.  You forgot.  You really should stop today and pick something up that's heavier.  Put it on my tab."


     "For the time being I don't need anything warmer than this," I informed her as we came to our respective vehicles.  "And if I decide I do, I'm certainly not billing you for it."

     Her protest was cut off by the sound of the Contour's

engine coming to life.  I saw her smile in my direction and shake her head at my stubbornness.  It was several minutes before I followed her out onto the street.  I didn't see anyone matching the vague description she'd given me of her stalker.  Of course, the job was made more difficult by his penchant for changing vehicles.  It's not easy tracking someone if you don't know what he'll be driving. 


     Janet turned left when she came to the city parking garage.  I went straight, giving her an encouraging wave as I did so.  I had told her at breakfast I'd be waiting for her when her day was finished. 


     The first thing I did after seeing Janet safely to work was head over to the police station.  I had to wait close to an hour in a hard plastic chair that caused my backache to flare up again, but finally I was able to see the man in charge of Janet's case.


     The metal nameplate on his desk declared him Detective Earl E. Wilke. His name alone made him sound more like a character out of the movie Deliverance than a cop.  He was a grossly out of shape sixty years old, and looked like a moody, rumpled teddy bear some little boy had long ago tired of playing with.  He reeked of Hai Karate, a God awful smelling cheap men's cologne made popular in the early '70s by nothing other than a series of clever TV commercials.  I didn't even know they still made the stuff.  Based on how Earl smelled, it would have been a blessing if they hadn't.


     He eyed me skeptically through watery blue eyes, as though uncertain as to whether or not I was indeed a private investigator, or perhaps Janet's stalker trying to gain more information about her.   Showing him my P.I. license only made matters worse.  He leaned back in his spring-supported wooden chair, his big belly causing the buttons on his shirt to pull with the strain of his movements.  I caught an unwanted glimpse of a pale stomach coated with curly black hairs, and grotesquely swollen as though in the advanced stages of pregnancy.


     "Simon, huh?"  He brought a hand up and scratched his fingers over chalky gray hair that looked like it had been heavily oiled with Grecian Formula For Men.  "Now it seems to me Ms. Fowler once had a husband by the last name a' Simon."


     I resisted rolling my eyes.  "She did.  That husband was me."


     "Yer her ex, huh?"

     The way he said it made it sound as though divorce was illegal in the state of Washington.


     "Yes, Janet and I were married at one time," was as much as I would concede to this sewer rat.


     He reached for the phone on his battle-scarred desk.   His eyes held mine as though he was daring me to flee.


     "I think I'd better give Ms. Fowler a call."


     Earl E. didn't react one way or another when I amiably agreed.  "Go right ahead."


     He turned away from me and shaded the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand.  Considering his office was roughly the size of a janitor's closet enabled me to easily hear everything he was saying, despite his valiant attempts to the contrary.  He was mumbling so softly that Janet must have been forced to ask him to repeat himself on several occasions.  Each time he had to talk louder he'd attempt to turn even farther in his chair until I feared he'd end up strangling himself with the phone cord.  Which incidentally, I didn't think would be a half bad idea.  If this was an example of the lead detective on Janet's case at his best, she was damn smart to call me.


      "No, Ms. Fowler.  No," I heard him say with forced politeness.  "I just don't understand what the point is in bringin' someone else in at this stage of the game, but if that's the way you want it, ma'am, then that's the way you want it.  I just wish one of ya' woulda' called me first."   He threw me a contemptuous look.  "I would have made the young man more welcome had I known you had hired him"


     I knew he emphasized the word 'hired' for my benefit.  The way he said it, along with the glare he gave me, let me know he didn't appreciate me horning in on his case.  I can quite imagine being the detective who snared the chief prosecutor’s stalker would be quite a feather in his cap.  He certainly didn't want me taking the potential glory away from him.


     Earl untangled himself from the web he was spun into and hung up the phone.  He yanked open a desk drawer that contained hanging file folders.  He fingered through them before pulling one out.  He tossed it on the desk, letting it skid across the marred varnish surface.  If I hadn't reached a hand out to stop it, the contents would have been dumped on the floor.


     "She said to let ya' look at my notes on the case, so there they are, hotshot."  He rose and grabbed his Styrofoam coffee cup.  Evidently he wasn't going to stick around to answer any questions I might have.  "And fair warning, Mr. Ex-Husband, you'll find yer name in there, too."


     I looked up at him through narrowed eyes.  "My name?  Why?"


     "Some shit-ass detective you are," he grinned like a shark circling a lone goldfish.  "Don't cha' know it's always the ex-husband who's causin' the trouble in cases like these?"


     He laughed as he walked out the door.  "Or haven't you got to that chapter yet in yer gumshoe handbook, Boy Scout?"


     My suspicions that Earl wasn't going to sit and go over the case with me were confirmed by the slamming of his office door. 


     I remained unhindered in the little room for the next thirty minutes, thoroughly reading everything in the file.  No one said a word when I walked out into the squad room and made several copies.  Evidently by now they all knew who I was.  Not that being a private investigator gave me the automatic privilege to view police files, and as well, photocopy them, but evidently being hired by the city’s chief prosecutor did.


     Despite Earl's appearance I had to admit he was thorough in his work.  Except for a few coffee stains, and what I took to be a dried glob of special sauce from the inside of a Big Mac, his notes were orderly and written in bold, neat block letters.  And just like he promised, my name was in his file as well.


     ‘Andrew J. Simon - Ex-husband of Janet Fowler.  Simon now resides in San Diego, his home-town, where he's self employed as a private dick.  Ms. Fowler says she hasn't seen or heard from Simon since their divorce in May of 1995.  Took a closer look at Simon.  At this time I don't have reason to believe or suspect he is Ms. Fowler's stalker.  As well, Ms. Fowler is adamant in her conviction that her former husband is not the man who is bothering her.’


     I knew the phrase, 'Took a closer look at Simon,' very likely meant Wilke had tracked down where I was on various dates when Janet reported seeing her stalker.  It also meant he had thoroughly looked into my background, and very likely talked to a number of acquaintances about me both here in Seattle, and back home in San Diego. 


     None of that mattered much to me.  Actually, for Janet's sake, I appreciated the fact the guy was on the ball.  Although I hate to admit it, if I was in his shoes the former husband would have been the first person I would have suspected as well.


     Overall, there was very little in the file Janet hadn't already told me.  I wished I could talk to Earl in order to gain his insight on the case, but he had yet to return.  I had a feeling he'd left the building altogether and had no intention of coming back until he knew I was gone. 


     I left the file on his desk and tore a piece of paper off the legal pad by the phone.  I wrote a quick note asking him to call me.  I signed my name and scribbled Janet's home phone number below it.  I didn't expect to hear from him, but figured it was worth a try.


     Next, I drove over to the courthouse.  Any case Janet had been involved in since coming to Seattle was a matter of public record.  I checked out file after file.  I secluded myself in a tiny corner cubicle not unlike the study cubicles I recall spending hours sequestered in during my college days.


     I skipped lunch and worked right on through the early afternoon.  I made notes on each case and paid for a variety of photocopies, though nothing in particular jumped out at me.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, no one Janet had tried over the past seven years had ever made threats of retribution against her.  Or at least not within the hearing of the court reporter.  My growling stomach and aching head finally caused me to return the last file to the clerk at twenty minutes to three.  I walked across the street to a McDonald's and bought a Fillet a' Fish and a Coke.   I ate, then retrieved the Concord from the courthouse parking lot. 


     My next stop had nothing do with the case I'd been hired for, but rather dealt with taking care of my client.  Thirty minutes later I was filling the back seat of the rental car with grocery bags and heading for Janet's house.


     Although I had no idea where Janet normally kept things in her kitchen, it didn't take me long to discover that her cabinets in this home were in similar order to the cabinets in the home we'd owned together.  I unpacked the groceries and started supper.  I placed the honey-glazed chicken breasts and wild rice in the oven, then washed the few dishes I'd used.  While I was at it I unloaded Janet's dishwasher.   I couldn't help but chuckle to myself.  This type of complete domestic service was not something Simon and Simon offered to just any client. 


     The phone rang while I was putting the last of the dishes away.  I picked up the receiver hoping Wilke would be on the other end, but guessing it was Janet. 


     She's probably going to work later than she originally planned, I thought as I tucked the receiver between my shoulder and ear.


     "Hello?"  I queried while setting a glass on a cabinet shelf. 





     No one answered my repeated greetings so I finally hung up with a shrug.


     I grabbed a pair of sweatpants from my suitcase and headed upstairs with the intention of hunting down Janet's treadmill and working out for a half hour or so.  I paused in the process of passing what I easily guessed was her bedroom doorway.  It was strange to see the king size four-poster bed we had shared as husband and wife residing within.  I shook my head to clear it of the memories that piece of furniture evoked, then moved on down the hall.  I passed the bathroom, then came to the guest room.  Across the hall from it was what I was looking for.  The third bedroom that contained Janet's desk and computer, a sofa that could be pulled out and converted into a bed, as well as her exercise bike and treadmill. 


     I took off my shirt and exchanged my jeans for the gray sweatpants.  I set the treadmill's resistance at a higher level than what Janet normally used and spent the next forty minutes running nowhere while mentally reviewing my day.  I wasn't sure if I was any closer to discovering the identity of Janet's stalker or not.  That's something she and I would have to discuss together later in the evening when we went over the cases she'd tried in recent years, and looked at the notes I'd made about them.


     The phone rang twice while I was on the treadmill.  Both times I answered the cordless phone residing on Janet's nearby desk.  Again my, "Hello’s?"  were met with nothing other than silence.  I wondered if Janet's caller was confused and thought he or she had the wrong number considering an unfamiliar male voice was answering her phone.  But since no one said anything, I was hard pressed to explain that this was indeed the Janet Fowler residence. 


     When I was done working out I reset Janet's treadmill and took a quick shower in the downstairs bathroom.  I changed into clean jeans and a navy sweater before checking on supper.  I turned the temperature on the oven down to 'warm' then headed for the hallway that would lead to the garage. 


     The doorbell rang as I putting my tennis shoes on.  I walked back through the main part of the house.  I unlocked the dead bolt and opened the front door, letting frosty air in.  There was no one standing there, so I walked out onto Janet's wide front porch.  I looked both left and right, then took a few steps forward.  The street was bare save for some kids playing in a snow-covered yard several houses down.  


     I scanned the area again.  I wondered if I hadn't gotten to the door quickly enough, therefore whoever it was had left.  Or was it some kid goofing around ringing neighborhood doorbells before running away and hiding?  Though that wasn't a sport I ever participated in as a child, Rick had gotten tons of enjoyment out of it until one aggravated old lady turned her garden hose on him.  He came home looking like a drowned rat, and ended up grounded for three days when Mom discovered what he'd been doing.


     I glanced around the quiet neighborhood one more time before walking back into the house.  I locked the door and leaned against it in thought.  First the telephone and now this.  Was there more to the phone calls than a person unsure as to whether he or she had the correct number?  And the door. Was it kids playing innocent after-school pranks, or Janet's stalker trying to determine if she was home?  Or trying to determine who I was? 


     I could do no more than ponder those questions as I once more headed for the rental car I'd left in Janet's garage.


     I drove downtown in the heavy, early evening traffic.  I pulled the Concord up to the curb across from the parking garage.  I got out and fed the meter, then trotted back to the car.  I sat there watching cars coming and going while skimming over Earl's notes.  Janet had reported her stalker to be driving such a wide variety of vehicles that it was almost impossible for me to pinpoint any specific one as cars passed outside my window.   Unfortunately, she'd never gotten close enough to the guy to be able to tell if he had rental plates on the car.  It was my guess that, in fact, he was using rental cars.  Based on Earl's notes it was his guess as well.  But even that shot in the dark didn't give either one of us very much to go on.


     A few cars turned into the parking garage, but, by far, more exited.  I took special note of what looked to be an '89 or '90 white Chrysler New Yorker because that's one of the cars Earl had jotted down Janet had seen her stalker driving.  By the time I paid to enter the garage I had lost the guy.  Or maybe it was woman.  It had grown too dark to see more than the shadowy outline of a person who could have been of either sex.


     The road I was parked on was jam packed with drivers heading home from work.  I pounded on the steering wheel, "Come on!  Come on!" trying to urge traffic by me.  I finally found enough of a break in the flow to gun the Concord's engine and wheel the car across all four lanes.  Horns blared around me as my fellow drivers let me know what they thought of my rude maneuver.


     I slowly wound up and down every level in that parking garage, but hunting out the elusive New Yorker was like looking for a needle in a haystack.  I paused every time I came upon a white car, but none proved to be the luxury model that had once been a big seller for Lee Iaccoca.  By the time I'd searched all ten levels without success I came to the conclusion the driver of the car had simply been picking up a spouse from work.


     I returned to level seven, and like the previous evening, parked several rows from Janet's BMW.  Nothing and no one caught my eye as I watched and waited.  The same women exited the elevator I'd seen exit the night before.  The same men soon followed.  At six-twenty Janet emerged. 


     She had been sharing the elevator with a man who appeared to be in his early forties.  He wore a calf-length gray wool coat that I knew had to have cost four hundred dollars if it cost a penny.  His size fourteen black wing-tips were polished to a spit shine, and his emerald silk tie was knotted neatly at the button down throat of his starched white dress shirt.  His neck was as thick as a Virginia ham, causing me to instantly surmise his shirts were custom made.  He was a powerfully built six foot six with shoulders as wide as an ironing board.  His hair was walnut brown and dense with the kind of natural waves every woman envies and wishes for herself.  His chiseled features looked like they'd been cast in perfect ivory stone before that stone was painstakingly carved away by a master craftsman.  


     The elevator doors slid shut behind the pair as they paused to talk.  Janet laughed at something her companion said.  He made another witty remark while reaching out and placing a hand on her elbow.  He guided her toward her car just I as emerged from mine.


     Janet gently extracted herself from her admirer's light hold when I approached.  It was obvious she wasn't sure how to explain who I was or why I was waiting for her.


     "Hum...Lance, this is A.J.  A.J. Simon.  He's an...old friend.  He's in town on...on business for a few days.  A.J., this is Lance Gillet.  He's a...a colleague of mine."


     Lance Gillet.  Big surprise.  Between his name and his movie-star good looks he could have been a character right out of an afternoon soap opera.


     Lance was too much of a gentleman not to offer me his hand.  He appraised me with ice blue eyes and gave me a tight smile. 

"A.J.  Nice to meet you.  I take it you don't reside in Seattle?"

     "No," I replied as we exchanged a quick, meaningless handshake.  In that brief encounter I could tell his nails were professionally manicured.  "I'm from San Diego."


     "I see.  And what type of business brings a California boy to Seattle in the dead of one of our most miserable winters?"


     He smiled when he asked his question, but I caught the barb on the word boy.  Granted, I'm still fortunate enough to look several years younger than I am, but it's been at least two decades since I've been referred to as a boy.  Especially by someone younger than myself.


     "This and that," was all I offered the man in return.


     He arched an eyebrow, giving me the indication he found my answer frustratingly incomplete.


     "And how is it you know Janet?"  He asked in a haughty Ivy League tone as though he was daring me to lie to him.  "You're an old...friend?"


     I pretended not to see Janet giving her head tiny negative shakes in my direction. She was well-aware my fun had just begun.


     I gave the man my best 'aw shucks' grin and clothed my tone in boyish innocence.   "I guess you could say I'm an old friend.  Janet and I go back over twenty years.  As a matter of fact, we were engaged at one time."


     "Oh..." he stated, his voice suddenly flat and deflated,  "oh, you were."


     "Yes, we were."  I allowed a lengthy pause to linger in the cold air.   "And by the way, did I forget to mention?  We were married, too."


     I swear the man turned a sickly shade of honeydew green when he echoed,  "Married?"


     Janet shot me a withering glare.  I think she was sorely tempted to give me a good swift kick in the shins right about then.  She jumped into the conversation before I could offer Lance any further insight.


     "Yes, Lance, A.J. and I were married.  He's my...ex-husband."


     The soap opera glamour boy glanced down at Janet.  In that brief moment it became apparent that an ex-husband was news to Mr. Gillet.


     When Janet didn't offer him any further explanations he turned back to me.  "And where is it you're staying?"  He interrogated.


     Somehow I knew that was going to be his next question.  By the look on Janet's face she knew it, too.  And she also knew how much I loathed people who are swollen with their own self-importance.  At any moment I expected Lance to flick his wool coat back as though it were a cape, plant his knuckles firmly against his trim hips, and thrust out his wide chest like Superman while declaring to me he planned to rid the world of all evil, as well as pesky ex-husbands who show up at inopportune times.


     "Where is it I'm staying?"  I repeated, my tone still wrought with innocence.  I turned to Janet and smiled.  Needless to say, she didn't smile back.  I ignored the desperate plea I saw in her eyes.  "Didn't Janet tell you?  I'm staying with her."

     Lance coughed as though choking on a breath mint.  "No...uh no, she didn't tell me.   I must be going now.  It's getting late." He turned to my former wife.  "Janet, I'll see you

tomorrow.  I'll call...I'll see you tomorrow."


     I watched Lance climb into a gleaming red Jaguar.  He gunned the engine and took off with a squeal of rubber.


     I turned, expecting to come full face with Janet's wrath.  Instead, she was shaking her head and smiling.


     "You'll never change."


     I offered a sheepish grin in return.  "What do you mean, I'll never change?"     


     She nodded toward the now phantom Jag.  "The way you chased Lance off.  You did that on purpose, Andrew Simon.  Really, A.J., telling him you're staying at my house."


     "Well I am!"


     "I know but--"


     "But what?"


     "But the way you made it sound.  Like there's more to it than there really is."


     That sentence hurt, and it shouldn't have.  She was right.  I had made it sound like there was more to my staying at her home than there really was.  Partly because I thought Lance was a jerk and she deserved better, and I suppose partly because I had fooled myself into believing there was more to it than there appeared to be on the surface.


     Which was stupid of me.  Hadn't a broken engagement in 1979, and then a failed marriage in 1995, proven to me that Janet and I were not meant to be anything other than friends? 


     Yes, those two incidents had proven that to me.  Or at least proven it to my head.  I sometimes wondered if my heart would ever be convinced.


     I felt her fingers on my arm.  "A.J.?  A.J., are you okay?"

     "Yeah," I offered quickly.  "Yeah, I'm fine." 


     I walked Janet to her car and held the door open until she was settled in the driver's seat.  She gave me a funny look when I said nothing other than,   "I'll follow you out of here."

     "We'd better decide on a restaurant before we leave.  I don't have anything at home, remember?"

     "You do now," was all I said as I locked and shut her car door.


     I kept my eyes on my rearview mirror as I followed Janet home that evening.  I watched her pull the BMW into the garage and slowed down just enough to make sure she got into the house safely.  When she realized I wasn't going to immediately follow her, she hit the button on the garage wall that would allow the door to fall again. 


     "Good girl," I mumbled while driving past. 


     Wet slush splashed up against the car as I cruised the area streets.  Other than men and women arriving home from work, all appeared in order.  I drove by Janet's house twice, but no strange cars were parked at the curb and no figure of a man lingered in the shadows.


     The third time I turned down her street I hit the button on the garage door opener I'd placed on the Contour's dash.  I turned into Janet's driveway and smoothly guided the Ford to rest next to the BMW as though the cars belonged together.


      I looked out onto the street one final time as I exited my vehicle.  A car slowed to almost a halt in front of Janet's driveway, but because of the bright overhead light in the garage I couldn't make out its model or year.  By the time I stepped outside it was gone.  Once again I was left wondering if the person behind the wheel was Janet's stalker, or simply someone trying to read a house address.


     I reached out a finger to unbug the security panel.  I halted my movement, taking note the system wasn't in the alarm mode.  When I turned the knob on the door that would lead into the back hallway it wasn't locked.


     I slipped a hand down to the Smith & Wesson that was in a harness clipped to the waistband of my jeans.  I left the gun where it was for the time being, but flicked the safety off.  I unsnapped my coat as I took a cautious step into the house.


     Nothing appeared out of place in the hallway.  Janet had left the overhead light on for me.  The bathroom and laundry room were both dark, just as they had been when I'd exited the house two hours earlier.  I absently hung my jacket up, but left my tennis shoes on.  Light spilled in from the living room as I quietly proceeded.


     "Janet?"  I called.  "Janet?"

     The downstairs was cloaked in an eerie silence.  No noise came from the television or stereo.  No sounds of supper preparations drifted out from the kitchen, though Janet had to have known I had something in the oven.  The entire first floor was thick with the rich smell of warm honey.


     My hand rested on the butt of my gun as I sidled into the kitchen.  I kept my body tight to the living room wall.  I had no desire to present a six foot tall one hundred and sixty pound target to whomever might be lurking within. 



     I peered around the corner before proceeding into the room.  The light was on above the gleaming cherry table, indicating to me Janet had been there at some point since arriving home.  Two places were precisely set with plates, glasses, silverware, and napkins, but my ex-wife was nowhere to be seen. 


     I whirled around, grabbing for my gun when something battered against a closed door.  I crossed the room, gun drawn, and put a firm hand on the knob that led to what, I wasn't certain. 


     "Come out of there right now or so help me God I'll blow your brains out!"   


     When no one answered me, and when the door didn't open I posed my gun at roughly the height of man's head and yanked with all my might. 


     It was right then that I almost shot the mop that bopped me in the skull before clattering to the floor.  For all my cautions, all I'd managed to do was launch an assault on Janet's utility closet.


     At that particular moment I had too many other concerns on my mind to waste time feeling foolish over being attacked by an O'Cedar.  That would come later.  I put the mop back where it belonged, better securing it on its hooks so it wouldn't fall against the door again.  My concern only grew when all this unorthodox noise failed to produce the mistress of the house.


     I kept my gun in hand and walked out into the living room.




     Still I got no answer.  Again I stayed close to the wall as I took the stairs one at a time.  "Janet!  Janet!




     Lights from Janet's bedroom and home office arced out into the hall.  The only sign of her in the bedroom was the suit she had worn that day hanging neatly from a hook attached to the back of the door.  I recalled her habit of doing this when we were married.  She'd had me attach a thick hook to the back of our bedroom door, which was where we hung the clothes that needed to go to the drycleaners.  Every couple of days one of us would see to it that a drop-off of dirty clothes was made in exchange for a pickup of fresh ones.


     "Janet!  Janet!"


     By now my panic was increasing.  The unlocked door and unbugged security panel wasn't like her.  Especially given her current troubles.  If there was one thing Janet Fowler had never been, it was a woman who took foolish chances. 


     My hand found the bathroom light by feel alone.  I flicked it on with gun drawn.  The room was clean and orderly like all the rooms in Janet's home were.  White ceramic tiles with ocean swirls of baby blue rode halfway up the wall.  The long vanity contained a deep white oval sink with a gold faucet and handles.  I carefully slid back the frosted doors on the bathtub, but found nothing other than gleaming white enamel and a gold bar draped with thick blue bath towels.


     I followed the light creeping from the room that held Janet's computer and exercise equipment.  It was as I cautiously approached the doorway I heard it.  An odd little whirling sound I couldn't identify, but for some reason was familiar.  As though at one time I'd heard it quite often, but for whatever reason had chosen to bury it within the depths of my mind.


     This time my beckoning was just above a whisper. "Janet?"


     I placed a hand on the knob of the door that was three-quarters closed.  I listened hard, but could hear no voices coming from within.  Just that damn whirling sound like a hamster running circles in a squeaky wheel. 


     Janet gave a startled scream when I kicked the door open and jumped into the room with my gun posed to fire.   The motion of her feet furiously pedaling her exercise bike slammed to a halt.  She yanked the tiny earphones off her head that were attached to her Walkman.


     "A.J.!  What the hell are you doing?  You scared me to death!"


     "I scared you!  What do you think you did to me?"  I fumbled to holster my gun with shaking fingers while sagging against the wall.  I hadn't been the one exercising, but was willing to bet my heart was pounding harder and faster than Janet's.  "Where have you been?"

     "What do you mean, where have I been?  I've been up here exercising!  Where do you think I've been?"


     I pointed a furious finger downstairs.  "For God's sake, Janet, you didn't set the security system when you came in!  And more important than that, you didn't lock the damn door!  I've been in this house for ten minutes calling you and searching every room!   Your stupid mop hit me on the head and I almost shot you!"


     "I'm sorry," she apologized from where she sat on the bike in tight black Spandex shorts and an oversized white Nike sweatshirt.   "I didn't think.  I knew you'd be coming in soon so with shutting the garage door and all--"


     My anger, fueled by fear, was far from dissipated.  "It doesn't matter if you shut the garage door!  Anyone could have easily broken the glass to the service door, reached in, unlocked it, and gained entrance that way!  Damn it, Janet, you know better!"


     "A.J., look, I said I was sorry!  I realize how foolish I was.  I won't do it again.  But don't stand there and chastise me like we're still married because I don't like it!"


     "You might not like it, but it's for your own good!  You could be lying up here dead now, instead of sitting perched there on that damn exercise bike oblivious to what's going on around you!"


     "Don't you dare talk to me in that tone of voice, Andrew Jackson Si--"


     To this day I don't know what made me do it.  Maybe it was the way those shorts hugged her lean body.  Or maybe it was the fiery anger flashing in her eyes that reminded me of past arguments that often times ended in our bed with a blaze of passion. Or maybe it was just the stark terror gnawing at my stomach.  The frightening knowledge that I could have stumbled across her lifeless body somewhere in that house.  And had that happened, I never would have forgiven myself.    


     The above, and so much more, was why I did it.  Why I crossed the room, leaned over, took her face in my hands, and kissed her full on the lips. 


     She didn't protest.  She didn't try to pull away.  She allowed the kiss to run its natural course.  When we broke apart I turned on one heel and stomped out of the room with a final, stern admonishment.


     "Don't ever scare me like that again."


      When she came downstairs thirty minutes later I was putting the final touches on dinner.  Fresh broccoli and carrots were steaming together on top of the stove.


     Janet had showered and changed into jeans and a long sleeved pale pink pullover shirt.   The way it was tucked into the waistband of her pants emphasized her recent weight loss from too little food and too many troubling thoughts.


     After the liberty I'd taken up in her office I expected things to be stilted between us.  Although I was uncomfortable, she didn't appear to be.


     "Is there anything I can do to help?"


     "No," I shook my head.  "I've got everything under control."


     She looked in the refrigerator then checked a few cabinets.  "You didn't have to grocery shop for me, A.J."


     I shrugged my shoulders.  "I didn't mind.  I know you work a lot of hours, and with everything else going on...well, like you said.  Understandably, a trip to the grocery store isn't foremost on your mind of late."


     "I hope you saved the receipt."


     "I didn’t."


     She gave me an exasperated look and began digging through the garbage can.  "A.J., I won't let you do this.  I won't let you come here and do things that you're not charging me...ah ha!"  She cried with triumph.  "Here it is!" 


     She walked over and took a pushpin out of the small bulletin board/mail holder hanging next to the refrigerator.  She stabbed the grocery bill with it, affixing it to the cork.


     "That stays there until we settle up on what I owe you."


     "Fine," I agreed, knowing there was no use to argue with her.  "Whatever you want."


     I moved supper to the table while Janet opened the refrigerator once more. 


     "I imagine you want milk, don't you?"

     Just another thing she remembered about me.  Even at age forty-seven, I generally prefer a cold glass of milk with my supper over just about any other beverage.


     "Yes.  Thanks."

     She poured milk in my glass and ice water in hers.  We sat at the table, passing food back and forth in silence.  When our plates were filled she looked over at me and smiled.


     "This reminds me of when we were first married.  When you were going to school and had supper ready every night when I came home."


     I nodded as I bit into my chicken.  Those first months had been so happy for both of us.  Happy and carefree.  Sometimes I still wondered when our world fell apart.


     I didn't say anything further as we ate.  Janet attempted to make small talk until she finally laid her fork down and pushed her plate aside. 


     "A.J., are you all right?"

     I dawdled for a moment, then followed suit with my own dishes.  I wouldn't look at her when I apologized.


     "Janet, I...I'm sorry.  About what happened upstairs, I mean.  I shouldn't have done that."


     "No, you shouldn't have," she agreed.  "But it's like you said this morning.  You being here won't become a mistake unless we let it."


     "You're right," I nodded with conviction.  "It won't."


     I fiddled with my napkin a moment.  This next apology was even more difficult.  "And in regards to Lancelot?"


     She threw back her head and laughed.  "Oh, A.J., you're horrible.  I can't believe you're jealous."


     "I'm not jealous!"


     Her eyes twinkled with merriment.  "Yes, you are.  It was written all over your face when I introduced the two of you."


     "It's not that I'm jealous," I declared again, "it's just that you deserve better."


     With that one special tone she scolded and warned both at the same time,  "AJaaaay."


     I held up a hand in concession.  "Okay, okay, it's none of my business.  Therefore, I'm sorry if I screwed things up between you and Lars."


     "His name is Lance.  And you didn't screw things up.  We've only seen one another a couple of times.  We aren't anywhere near being serious, which suits me just fine."


     That news made it easier to ask the next question on my mind. "How long have you known him?"


     "He joined our staff in early October."


     "Early October?"

     "Yes, he came highly recommended from...no," she stated firmly.  "I can tell what you're thinking, and the answer is no.  Lance would no more stalk me than you would."


     "Are you certain?  How well do you really know him?"


     "Well enough to know he wouldn't, that's how well."


     "But you said the guy is big, and Lance isn't exactly Peewee Herman, you know."


     She rose and began clearing the table.  "I'm not going to discuss this any further, A.J.  Lance is not the person giving me trouble."


     Her tone and stiff back told me it would be in my best interest to let this course of questioning die a quick death.


     "Okay, fine.  It's not Lance.  Let's get the kitchen cleaned up and then discuss whom it might be."


     We got ourselves back on an amiable even keel while loading the dishwasher and depositing leftovers in the refrigerator.  When we were finished I spread my notes out on the table.


     Janet and I spent the next two hours going over everything I'd written down and photocopied throughout the day.  I made more notes when a thought came to her regarding a case, or regarding some fact Earl had uncovered. 


     "Oh," I said in regard to Earl's findings,  "thanks for assuring Columbo I'm not your stalker."




     "Earl E."


     Again she laughed at my sarcastic humor.  "He's good at what he does, A.J."


     "I'd like to debate you on that, but if I recall correctly I was on the losing end of most of our disagreements.  Besides, I guess you know his reputation better than me."


     "I do.  He's an excellent detective."


     "I'll have to take your word on that, because what I saw today didn't impress me much."  I looked down at my photocopy of Earl's notes.  "Though I admit that at least on paper he appears to know what he's doing."


     We leaned back in our chairs.  Fatigue was about to do us both in for the evening.


     "Oh, one other thing," I said.  "Your phone rang three times this afternoon while I was here.  I picked it up but whoever was on the other end didn't answer."


     She sat bolt upright and her blue eyes widened with fear.  "It was him!"


     I kept my voice quiet and calm.  "Janet, we don't know that for certain.  The only reason I'm telling you, is because it's important that we keep track of incidents like these just as I said last night.  On the other hand, it's quite possible it was someone looking for you who was confused as to why a strange man was answering your phone."


     "No man should normally be answering my phone," she emphasized to let me know Lance didn't spend as much time in her house as I was assuming he might.  "But regardless, no one would have been calling me here at that time of the day.  Anyone who's close to me would know I'm at work."


     "What about kids in the neighborhood?"  I questioned.  "Do you have any problems with pranks being pulled by any of them?"


     "What kind of pranks?  You mean phone calls?"


     "That.  Or ringing your door bell and then running away."


     "Not that I'm aware of.   I've certainly never had any trouble with any of the local kids.  As far as I know, no one else has either.  Why?"


     I didn't want to scare her any more than she was already scared, but I had to be as honest with her as I'd be with any client.


     "Because right before I left to meet you the doorbell rang.  When I answered it no one was there."


     "But he's never done that before, A.J.!  He's never come that close to the house!"


     "Janet, don't.  Don't jump to conclusions.  I'm by far not insinuating it was him.  I didn't see anyone.  Not a person and not a car.  I only saw some kids playing in a yard a couple houses down.  Which is why I think it was nothing other than a childish prank."


     She rose and wrapped her arms around herself as if she was suddenly cold.  "But what if it wasn't?  What if he's getting bolder?"


     "Then he's going to run right smack into me."


     She turned to look down at me.  "Maybe that's what he's trying to do.  Maybe he's trying to determine who you are."

     "Maybe he is," I conceded.  "Certainly just because I have yet to spot him doesn't mean he hasn't spotted me.  As a matter of fact, I hope he has."


     "But I don't want you to get hurt."


     I stood and rested my hands on her shoulders, kneading the tension I could feel there.  "I'm not going to get hurt, Janet.  What I'm going to do is catch this guy and turn him over to your buddy Earl E.  After I kick him around a bit first, that is."


     She chuckled and leaned into my chest.  "Oh, A.J."


     I made sure the hug I gave her was the same chaste type a brother would give his sister.  When I released her, I headed out the kitchen doorway.


     "I'm going to walk around the neighborhood again like I did last night.  I'll be back in a little while."


     In a repeat of the previous evening, she cautioned me with a, "Be careful."


     "I will be."


     I put on my shoes and coat, locked the door behind me, and bugged the security system.  Like the evening before, I exited out Janet's back garage door.  And like the evening before, I huddled into my coat wishing I'd taken the time that day to stop and pick up gloves and a hat. 


     Again the neighborhood was dark and quiet.  It wasn't until I spotted a car parked at the curb across the street from Janet's home that I grew suspicious.  I could see the figure of a man huddled over the front seat of the white New Yorker.  From my vantage point it looked like he was facing Janet's house - facing it and watching it.


     I felt for my gun, even though I knew perfectly well it was residing in its holster.  I left it where it was for the moment, but unsnapped my coat to make for easier access.


     The man had positioned the vehicle halfway between two streetlights.  Clever of him, I thought, realizing it would make it difficult for passersby to get a good look at him.  Or for Janet to get a good look at him if she happened to glance out her living room window.


     I eased along the driver’s side of the car.  The windows were fogged up, preventing me from seeing inside.  I reached out a silent hand for the door.  With one strong motion I yanked it open and grabbed a hold of the man's coat collar.


     "You sonuvabitch!"  I swore, wrenching him roughly from the vehicle. "This is the last night you'll ever—“


     "I'm sorry, Mr. Adams!  I'm sorry!


     The teenager's eyes were round and filled with terror.   I gripped the shoulder of his letterman's coat with one hand, my other cocked back into a fist.   He couldn't apologize fast enough.  Or zip his pants fast enough either, for that matter.


     I caught a glimpse of a pretty young woman in the front seat fumbling with the fastener on her bra.  She hastily pulled her winter parka around her, ignoring the red and white cheerleader's sweater tossed carelessly on the dashboard.  She moved to poke her head out the driver's door, her long tawny blond hair cascading in front of her.


     "Daddy, please!  Don't hurt hi..."


     She looked up at me, the confusion plain to read on her face.  “You're not my father."


     The boy turned to her.  "He's not?"


     "No, he's not."


     I straightened to my full height while releasing the sex crazed teenager. 


     "No, young lady, I'm not," I acknowledged in my most authoritative tone.  "But if I was, I wouldn't be very pleased to discover you half naked while being groped by this boy for all the neighbors to see.  Not only is what you're doing foolish, it's also dangerous.  Young people have lost their lives to maniacs who prey on innocent victims parked late at night on dark lovers’ lanes."

     I waved a hand.  "Now go on with both of you.  Take this girl home and see her to the door like a proper gentleman does, and just maybe, just maybe, I won't tell your parents what I caught the two of you doing tonight."


     The boy gave a series of frantic nods while hastily backing into what was no doubt his father's car.  "Yes, sir.  Yes, sir."  He gave his head a solid whack on the frame but didn't even flinch.  "Yes, sir.  Yes, sir."


     The girl squinted up at me as though trying to determine exactly which neighbor I was and how I knew her parents, but I could tell she wasn't going to press her luck by asking me my name. 


     The boy fumbled to get the car out of park, then drove off with shaking hands gripping the steering wheel.  I could just make out the girl working her way back into her sweater as they passed under a street light.


     I breathed a sigh of relief.  I could have found myself in jail for what I'd just done.  Assaulting a minor wouldn't be favorably looked upon by the cops, regardless of my reasons or suspicions.  Thank God I hadn't drawn my gun on the kid. 


     As I walked back to Janet's house I had to wonder if I'd let myself become too close to the situation.  Maybe I should have let her hire another private investigator.  If Rick were here he'd be telling me I was thinking with my heart, and not with my head.  And he'd be right.  First I almost shot my former wife right off her exercise bike, and now I was going around pulling teenagers out of cars whose only crimes were trying to cop a feel under the cover of darkness.


     No, I can do this job.  The reason I wouldn't let her hire anyone else to begin with was because I knew no one could protect her the way I can.


     My mind played devil's advocate. 


That may be true, A.J., no one can protect Janet like you.  But on the other hand, if you don't get your act together you're going to be directly responsible for her getting hurt or killed.


     I'm certain Janet noticed my preoccupation when I reentered the house.  She was waiting up for me again, dressed in her robe like she had been the evening before.  She asked me twice if everything was okay outside, and twice I told her nothing other than yes.  I refused her offer of dessert.  I sat in the easy chair reviewing the notes I'd made throughout the day while she watched the news.  When she shut the television off and suggested I would be more comfortable sleeping in her guest room, as opposed to on her couch, I didn't argue.


     I retrieved my suitcase from the hallway and followed her up the stairs.  I bid her good night at the doorway.  She halted my progress into the room by placing a hand on my elbow.


     "A.J., you're certain everything's okay?  Nothing happened outside, did it?"

     I could see the worry lines around her mouth and didn't want to be the cause of them deepening.  I gave her a sheepish smile.


     "Nothing happened other than me abruptly ending a night of passion for a couple of teenagers parked across from your house.   I'm confident I made their evening so memorable that some time around their...oh, thirtieth wedding anniversary, they'll be able to look back upon the entire incident with at least a small portion of amusement."


     She laughed.  "You didn't?"

     "Oh, yes," I nodded.  "I did.  Just when the young man was about to slide into home plate, as the expression went when I was in high school."


     She gave me an affectionate shake of her head.  "First my mop and now this.  Oh, A.J., I'd forgotten how much you could make me laugh."


     "You didn't think this kind of stuff was very funny when we were married."


     "No," she stated thoughtfully.  By the look on her face I knew she was recalling the incidents surrounding myself, my brother, and the Precious Cargo.  "No, I didn't, did I?"

     She gave me a final smile that appeared to be more than a little sad.


     "Good night."


     "Good night, Janet."


     I flipped on the overhead light and closed the bedroom door.  She must have stood on the other side of it for a few moments because several seconds passed before I heard the soft shuffle of her slippers against the carpeting, and then the click of her own bedroom door.


     I rolled the thick quilted comforter rich with teal green ribbons and deep pink flowers all the way to the foot of the double bed, then pulled back the sheet and blankets.  The nest I made looked like an inviting haven after the previous night spent on Janet's couch.  I pulled my sweater over my head and sat down on the only chair in the room to remove my socks.  Rather than sleep in my blue jeans again I stripped them off, replacing them with my pajama bottoms. 


     I reached for the gold switch on the old-fashioned hurricane lamp that sat on the bedside table.  A soft glow emitted from the glass cover hand-painted with flowers that matched the bed's comforter.  I padded over to the wall and shut off the bright light above.  I crossed back to the bed and climbed in-between the blankets.  I almost let out a groan at how good the mattress felt.  A hundred times as good as the cushions on the narrow couch below.  The sheets and pillowcases were crisp as though freshly washed, and I could detect the faint smell of lightly perfumed laundry soap.  I recognized the scent.  Era.  The brand Janet had always favored. 


     I intended to read a few chapters of the book I brought along, but never bothered to take it out of my suitcase.  I knew I was too tired to get past the first page.


     I fluffed the pillows and reached up to shut off the lamp.  I laid down and mentally made certain I'd locked all the doors and reset the alarm system.  I knew I had, and even if I'd missed something, I'd seen Janet go around and double check everything right before we came upstairs.


     Oddly enough my mind drifted to my brother as I waited for sleep to claim me.  I wasn't so naive as to think I hadn't left him wondering where I was going and what I was doing.   I'm not normally a spur-of-the-moment guy.  That's more Rick's style.  As a matter of fact, I was rather surprised he hadn't come charging over to my house the previous morning demanding answers before I had a chance to make my escape. 


     And I was so thankful he hadn't.  He'd be furious if he knew where I was.  Although Rick and Janet had at one time been friends, in recent years his like for her had greatly diminished.  Especially since she and I divorced.  Like the loyal brother he is, Rick tends to place the blame at Janet’s feet for a good deal of our marital problems.  Blame that isn't Janet's to take, but no matter how many times I've told Rick that, he refuses to allow his opinion to be swayed. 


     But overall, where I was and what I was doing was none of Rick's business.  Whether or not he'd see things quite that way I seriously had my doubts.  Nonetheless, I figured I could be gone at least three more days before he got worried.  It was Thursday night.  If I wasn't going to be back in the Simon and Simon office by Monday morning I'd have no choice but to call him and let him know what was going on.


     My last thought before falling asleep was hoping such a phone call wouldn't be necessary.  I chuckled a bit to myself as my tired brain informed me, If you're smart, A.J., you'll just leave Rick a message on his answering machine.  The last thing you want to do is talk to him.  He'll have an absolute fit if he finds out you're up here working for...and staying with, Janet.


     Boy, will he have a fit.



Part 2