Chapter 14



     A.J. continued to sleep soundly well into the evening.   Two hours after dinner Rick emerged from their tent to stretch his legs.  Jerry encouraged him to take a break.


     "Go on.  Take a walk.  Or pitch some horseshoes for a while with the other guys.  I'll stay here and keep an ear out for A.J."


     Rick nodded, knowing fully well he was in bad need of a few minutes away from the situation.


     The lanky man walked out of the campsite alone.  He passed the horseshoe pits A.J. and Town had fashioned back on the day they arrived.


     "Hey, Rick!"  Town called.  "Come on and get in the game."


     Rick shook his head and kept walking. 


     Town handed the horseshoe he held to his brother.  "I'll be back in a few minutes.  You guys go ahead without me."


     Town trotted over to Rick's side.  "Mind if I join you?"


     "No.  I could use the company, I guess."


     The two men walked in silence down toward the lake.  When they got to the water's edge they strolled along the shoreline with the setting sun at their backs.     The billowy clouds of mid-day that had hung suspended in the sky like clean, white snow drifts had thinned, and were now laying across it like pieces of a patchwork quilt.  The gases from the setting sun stained the clouds pale pink and purple and yellow.  They blended in perfectly with the light blue sky as their backdrop, the colors making Rick think of the way new parents decorate their baby's nursery.             


     Rick watched a mother black bear lumber into the cover of the pine trees on the other side of the wide lake.  Her three cubs lagged behind her, playfully scuffling with one another until they, too, were out of sight. Loons beckoned from their sanctuary on the lake's east end.  Town's voice broke into their odd, shrill call.


     "Are you okay?"

     "Yeah.  I'm fine."  Rick shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his blue jeans.  "Just worried.  If A.J. gets worse, or if his kidneys start to go...he'll die up here, Town."


     "That's not going to happen, Rick.  Gil should be flying over tomorrow.  And Mark, Lee, and myself are going to take turns keeping watch for planes tonight.  If one does go over, we'll fire off the flare gun."


     "Thanks.  I appreciate everything you guys are doing to help."


     "It's not any less than what you and A.J. would do for any one of us."


     Rick smiled at his friend's words.  "I know.  But I still appreciate it."


     Town reached up and gave Rick's shoulder a squeeze.  "Just hang in there.  Things will be okay."


     Rick stopped and gazed out over the lake.  Small, gentle waves lapped at the shoreline.  


"I sure hope so, Towner.  I keep wonderin' what's gonna happen if Gil doesn't fly over tomorrow.  What if he doesn't come back until Sunday?  Will A.J. make it that long?  The scary thing is, I don't have the answers, and neither does Jerry.  I mean, if he'd cut himself while gutting a fish, or fallen and busted a leg...well, Jerry could deal with that.  I mean, at least he'd be able to patch A.J. up and give me some specific answers.  At least I'd know what I had to do.  But this...this stupid spider bite is so damn unpredictable.  For God's sake he's been sick on and off for three weeks.   He thought it was the flu.  And then you saw him this afternoon.  He was so sick early in the morning, but then this afternoon he was up walking around and seemed to be feeling pretty good for a while."


     "I know," Town quietly acknowledged.  "That's what makes it so hard.  The unpredictability of it, and the fact there's not much any of us can do to help him.  I've been kicking myself all day for not saying something yesterday."


     Rick turned.  "What do you mean?"


     "I woke up around three o'clock yesterday morning because I heard something outside the tents.  It turned out to be A.J., sitting in front of the fire.  He was wrapped to his neck in a blanket and shivering.  I asked him if he was okay, and he said he was.  I didn't believe him.  I could tell just by looking at him that he was sick.  But I didn't push the issue.  I figured it was none of my business, and that he probably just had a headache or a touch of the flu.  I wish now I would have gotten him to tell me what was wrong.  If he would have, maybe I would have had the foresight to say something to you or Jerry about it.  And, if I had done that, maybe we would have put the signal flag out before Gil flew over later in the morning."


     "Don't blame yourself, Town.  You asked A.J. if he was okay and he told you yes.  What more could you have done?  It should have clicked with me the first night we were here.  That was when he started complaining his shoulder was bothering him.  If I'd just taken a look at it I would have seen the bite.  I would have known something was wrong and had Jerry take a look.  If I'd have done that, A.J. and I woulda' flown out of here with Gil yesterday."


     Town turned the table on Rick.   "Now I'm going to tell you not to blame yourself.  How could you have possibly known it was more than a pulled muscle that was bothering A.J.?  I heard A.J. tell Jerry that's what he thought it was."


     "I know.  I know.  And you're right.  There's no use in anyone blaming himself.  It's not going to change the situation."


     "No, it's not," Town agreed.  He laid a hand on Rick's back.  "Come on.  Let's finish our walk before it gets too dark to find our way back to camp."  



Chapter 15



     Stars were beginning to blanket the sky when Town and Rick returned to camp.  Lee had built a fire.  He and Jerry were sitting near it in lawn chairs, talking quietly.  Marcus had already retired to his tent to catch what sleep he could before his brother woke him at eleven to take over the next two hour shift listening and watching for aircraft. 


       Jerry indicated to the empty lawn chairs across from himself and his brother.  "Take a load off, guys."


     Rick's hesitated and his eyes flicked to his tent.


     "I just checked him, Rick," Jerry said.  "He's still sleeping."


     Rick nodded and sat down.   After forty-five minutes of quiet talk the men began to drift away from the fire one by one.


     Town reached for the flare gun Lee had laying by the side of his chair.  "I'm gonna grab a cold soda and take a walk."


     Lee rose as well.  "I'd better turn in.  Mark's supposed to wake me at one."


     Five minutes later, Jerry pushed himself to his feet.  "I think I'll try to get a few hours of sleep too, Rick.  I'll be in to check on A.J. at one.  Mark's going to wake me up when he wakes Lee.  If anything changes, and you need me before then, come get me."


     “I will,” Rick nodded.  "And Jerry..."


     Jerry turned from where he was walking toward his tent.  "Yeah?"


     "Thanks.  For everything.  Thanks a lot."


     "You're welcome.  But you don't need to thank me. You and A.J. have helped me out of more jams than I can count.  We'll just call it even.  How's that?"


     Rick chuckled.  "If that's the way you want it."


     Jerry stated truthfully, "That's the way it is," before turning and walking to his tent.


     Rick sat alone staring into the fire for another ten minutes.  A hoot howl called a lonely repetitive  "Who who," from somewhere in the forest behind him. 


     The detective leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees.  He covered his face with hands and exhaled a heavy sigh full of worry, fright and weariness.  A few seconds later he stood and reached for two thick logs.  He laid them in the fire and stoked the flames with the poker Lee had fashioned out of a branch.  When Rick was satisfied the fire would burn for the remainder of the night, he made his way to the tent he shared with A.J.


Chapter 16


     Rick quietly entered the dark tent.  He pulled his boots off and sat them at the end of his bed.  He slipped out of his shirt and tossed it so it landed on top of the boots.  He left his jeans on.  He assumed he'd be up several times during the night with A.J. 


     The detective was just drifting off to sleep when he heard his brother shift position.  By the laborious amount of effort A.J. put into the move, Rick knew his brother was awake.


     Rick sat up and looked across the dark space.  "You okay, A.J.?"


     A.J. was lying on his left side facing the tent's door with his back to his brother. 



     When there was still no response, Rick's tone grew sharper.  "Come on, A.J.  Answer me.  Are you okay?"


     Rick had to strain to hear the reply that was being pushed out between chattering teeth.


     "Yeah.  I...I'm...fine."  


     "You don't sound fine."  Rick slipped out of his sleeping bag and crossed the small space between the two beds without standing up. 


     When his brother's hand came to rest on his arm, A.J. had no choice but to tell Rick the truth.  He hadn't wanted Rick to worry anymore than he already was. 


     "I'  And I've got one...hel...hell of a headache."


     "I'll get, Jerry."


     "No.  Don...don't both...bother him.  There's noth...nothing he can anyway."


     "When was the last time you took some aspirin?"

     "When Je...Je...Jerry was in here at din...din...dinner."


     Rick reached for the flashlight and quickly located the black medical bag Jerry had left in the corner by A.J.'s head.  He stepped over his brother and dug around in the bag.   When his hand encountered a bottle he uncapped the top and shook two aspirin into his open palm.  A half empty bottle of fruit juice sat next to the bag.  Rick snared that and opened it.  He slid his arm under A.J.'s lower back.


"I'm gonna help you sit up.  I've got a couple of aspirin in my hand and the bottle of juice you were drinking at supper."


     A.J. nodded his understanding.  Rick was forced to shift position and more tightly wrap his arm around A.J.'s mid-section when he realized his brother didn't have the strength to help him.


     A sick feeling settled itself like a ball of lead in the pit of Rick's stomach.


     He hasn't been this weak before.


     A.J. couldn't keep his body from shaking as he let Rick slip the aspirin into his mouth, and as he drank from the bottle Rick held to his lips. 


     "Take a couple more sips, A.J."


     A.J.'s teeth chattered like a child's wind-up toy.




     "I know.  But you need it.  Just a couple."


     A.J. did as his brother requested simply because he was too sick to push the bottle aside like he wanted to. 


     When A.J. had drunk all his stomach would tolerate he turned his head away.  Rick eased him back down onto his pillows.  He recapped the bottle and set it aside.


     Rick stepped back over his trembling brother.  He pulled his air mattress across the four feet of empty space and butted it up against A.J.'s.




     "Keeping you warm."


     Rick unzipped his quilted sleeping bag so he could spread it out like a blanket.  When he laid it over the top of A.J. it not only covered the blond man, but it covered Rick's air mattress as well. 


     Using the flashlight, Rick retrieved a pair of heavy socks from A.J.'s sports bag, and then searched through his own duffel bag until he found what he was looking for. 


     Disturbing A.J. as little as possible, Rick reached under all the covers and found the zipper to his brother's sleeping bag.  He pulled it down to where he thought A.J.'s feet should be.


     A.J. lifted his head off the pillow.  "Wha...wha...what the he...hell are you doing?"

     "Looking for your feet.  What do I have a hold of?"


     A.J. managed to will his chattering teeth to a halt.  "My knee.  And if you go any higher, I'll deck you regardless of how rotten I feel."


     Rick chuckled.  "I'll take your word on that and keep it in mind.  Now give me your feet."




     "Because I wanna put a pair of socks on them."


     "Oh.  O...o...okay."


     A.J. brought his feet up until they encountered Rick's hands. 


     It feels like they've been sittin' in an icebox.


     Rick briskly rubbed a frigid bare foot between his warm hands then slipped a sock on it.  He repeated his actions with the other foot before zipping the sleeping bag to A.J.'s waist. 


     Rick moved up to A.J.'s head.   "I was gonna put this on you, but it’ll probably work better if I just lay it over you."


     A.J. squinted into the darkness.   The flashlight Rick had laying at his feet didn't offer enough light for the blond to see what was in his brother's hands.


     " it?"


     "One of my flannel shirts.  The quilted one you and gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago.  It's thick and heavy like a coat, remember?  I'm gonna tuck it in around your chest and good shoulder, then zip you back up in your bag."


     Rick turned the jacket inside out so the warm flannel lay against his brother's bare skin.  He gently but firmly tucked it around A.J.'s upper body, then did the same with the blanket A.J. had been sleeping under.  He zipped his brother’s sleeping bag all the way to A.J.'s neck, then pulled his sleeping bag up over the top of everything else. 


     With flashlight in hand, Rick stepped over A.J. and knelt down on his own air mattress.  He shut the flashlight off and laid it by his head on the tent's floor.   He slipped underneath the spread-out sleeping bag and scooted his body over until he was lying right next to his brother.  He rolled over onto his left side and slid his right arm over A.J.'s chest.  He held the quaking body as close as he could, with careful consideration being given to A.J.'s right arm and shoulder. 


     " I hav...have to threat...threaten to dec...deck you again?"


     "Don't worry," Rick shot back in a dry tone wrought with teasing.    "You're the last person on earth I'd think of gettin' fresh with.   I'm just trying to keep you warm.  You could at least pretend to be grateful."


     "I don...don't have to pre...pretend.  I am...grate...grateful."


     Rick didn't say anything, but simply tightened his hold a fraction.


     The brothers lay like that for the next ten minutes.  Worry did an effective job of keeping Rick awake. A.J.'s trembling limbs and the hard pounding in his head did an effective job of keeping him awake.


     It was A.J.'s voice that finally broke the quiet of the night.  If nothing else, he was beginning to feel warmer, and found he could once again talk in complete sentences without the chattering of his teeth interrupting the flow of his words. 




     "Yeah, A.J."


     "I'm sorry about screwing up this vacation for you and the other guys.  I--"


     Rick spoke to the back of his brother's head.  His warm breath lightly blew over the thick blond hair.


     "A.J., don't say it.  It wasn't your fault.  You didn't know what was going on any more than I did."


     "I know.  It's just that if I'd have known I was going to get this sick, if I'd have known what was wrong, I never would have come along."


"I realize that.  So does everyone else, so quit beatin' yourself up over it."


     Rick always suspected that what his brother said next would have never been spoken out loud if A.J. hadn't been so ill.  It was as if a very private thought was inadvertantly revealed. 


     "It seems like no matter what I've tried to do in the past year, I've screwed it up.  This vacation, my law career, my marriage--"



     A.J. ignored the reproach in Rick's tone.  "A lot of days I find myself wondering if I should have tried harder to make things work with Janet.  Maybe I shouldn't have been so stubborn.  Maybe I wanted things my own way too much of the time, and didn't compromise enough."


     "Do you really think that's true?"   Rick's softly spoken question was meant to make A.J. stop and think about what he was saying.


     "There was a time when I didn't.  There was a time when I thought she was wrong and I was right.  But now...well now I've come to realize that we were both wrong about a lot of things, and both right about a few."


     "A.J., what really caused you and Janet to end your marriage?"


     A.J. turned his head on the pillow so that he was looking up at the tent's roof.  "You know the answer to that.  At least most of it."


     "I know.  But humor me for a minute and tell me again."


     Maybe it will do him good to get it out in the open.  All of it.  He hasn't talked to me about it since that first day we sailed for home on the Precious Cargo.  Nor to Mom either.  I wonder how much pain he's been keepin' inside all summer long? 


     Rick felt A.J. lift his swollen shoulder in a confused shrug right before he began to explain. 


"I wanted to change careers, to go back to being a P.I., and Janet wouldn't hear of it.  I wanted children, and for a long time so did she.  But after the....miscarriage...she changed her mind.  She wouldn't even consider adoption.  She decided her career was more important to her than a family.  She kept telling me I was enough for her.  That her career and our marriage was all she needed to make her happy.  But it wasn't enough for me, Rick.  I really wanted us to have kids.  I grieved so long for the baby she lost."


     Rick's hand momentarily tightened on his brother's forearm. 


"I know, A.J.  I know.  So did Mom and I."


      A long minute passed before A.J. could speak again. 


"Those circumstances, combined with the fact that she had never told me she suffered two miscarriages while she was married to Allan, caused things to start unraveling.  I was so...I don't know...angry with her.   But angry isn't a strong enough word to even begin to describe how betrayed I felt.  How hurt I was.   How utterly furious I was with her.   She should have told me about the miscarriages long before we ever got married.  There were plenty of opportunities for her to bring it up.  All the times we sat talking about our plans, about making a life together in Seattle, about how many kids we wanted to have.  I just don't understand why she didn't think she could tell me."


     "Maybe she was afraid you wouldn't marry her.  Or maybe she was just trying to forget her past life with Allan."


     "That's what she said when I confronted her about it - that she had been trying to put that marriage behind her, and didn't want to discuss anything that pertained to it.  But that doesn't help me sleep at night.  I often wonder how things would have turned out if I'd only known about the miscarriages.  I wouldn't have let her pretend they never happened, Rick.  I would have made sure her doctor was aware of them right at the beginning of the pregnancy.  If the doctor had known, maybe things would have turned out differently.  Maybe Janet wouldn't have lost the baby."


     "Maybe not," Rick was forced to agree.  "But you'll never know that for sure, A.J.  You're gonna have to accept it and move forward with your life."


     "I know.  That's what I keep telling myself.  That's what I've been telling myself all summer.  And on some days...on some days I think I am.  Getting past it, that is.  But then something will happen and I'll think of her and the hurt...the hurt is there all over again, Rick, as strong as it was on the day I faced the fact our marriage was over for good.   All it takes is for me to catch a whiff of her favorite perfume on another woman, or to see a woman built like her with long brunette hair walking down the street swinging a briefcase, or to see woman with a child the same age as our child would be if Janet hadn't lost it.  Do you know I still keep track of how old that baby would be?  It was due on August second.  If she had carried it to full term, it would have been two years old now.  Some days...some days it's a hard thing to remember.  But at the same time, I'm afraid to forget.  Even if it never got a chance to grow inside its mother like it should have, I still think of it as my son or daughter.  As the life I helped create within the woman I loved more than I loved life itself.


     Rick's voice was choked with emotion.  He had to push to speak past the constriction of his throat muscles.  "There's nothing wrong with rememberin', A.J."


     "I know.  But on a lot of days I'm afraid to, as much as I'm afraid not to."


     "I understand, little brother.  Believe me, I understand."


     It was a long time before either man spoke again.






     A.J. turned his head.   He could just barely make eye contact with one eye as he looked at his brother over his propped up shoulder.


     "Did I ever tell you what we were going to name the baby if it was a boy?"


     "No.  I don't think you ever did."


     "Hunter.  Hunter John Richard.   I just wanted you to know that."


      Rick gave his brother's body a gentle squeeze.  "That means more to me than you'll ever know.  Thanks."


     "There's nothing to thank me for.  It didn't happen.  There wasn't a baby."


     "That doesn't diminish the fact that your son would have carried my name as part of his.  And don't you ever, not even for one minute, think it does."  Rick rearranged the sleeping bag to more firmly cover them both. "Now come on.  You'd better get some sleep.  It'll only be a couple of hours before Jerry will be in to check on you.  Are you gettin’ warmer?"




     "Good.  If you need anything, just yell."


     "I don't think I'll have to yell.  You're lying so close to me I can probably just whisper."


     Rick chuckled.  "Probably.  Whatever.  Just don't hesitate to wake me if you need anything."


     "I won't.  And, Rick?"






     "For what?"


     "For convincing me to come back to San Diego and reopen the business.  It's been the only bright spot in this entire summer."


     "So I guess that means we'll be movin' back into the old office come September?  And then go forward with Simon and Simon?"


     "Yes.  That's what it means."


     "A.J., that's the best news I've heard in days."


     Now it was A.J.'s turn to chuckle.  "Considering what the last few days have been like, I'd have to agree."


     "Good night, little brother."


     "Good night, Rick."



Chapter 17



     When Rick was first brought out of his exhaustive slumber by a voice calling his name, his sleep shrouded brain thought it was Jerry. 


     How could two hours have gone by so fast?  Rick internally moaned before opening his eyes. 


     But Jerry wasn't crouching beside A.J. with a lantern in his hand as Rick fully expected to see.  Save for his brother, Rick was alone in the tent.                


     Rick sat up.






     Rick scrambled to his knees.  He didn't like the sound of his brother's voice.  It was distant and disoriented, as though A.J. was speaking to Rick through the haze of a dream.


     "A.J.  A.J., come on.  Talk to me."


     "Rick...Rick, my head hurts," came the semi-conscious moan.     "It hurts, Rick.  It really hurts."


     Rick grabbed the flashlight.  He shined the beam in his brother's face.  A.J.'s eyes were squeezed shut and he was sweating profusely once again.  Rick laid a hand on his forehead. 


     The older man scrambled over his brother and flew out of the tent.  This time he didn't bother with worrying about whether or not he woke the other men. 


     "Jerry!  Jerry!"


     Marcus Brown was still inside the Reiner brothers’ tent, having just woken Lee, who in turn was waking Jerry, when Rick's panic-filled voice penetrated the quiet night. 


     Jerry's tousled head thrust through the tent's door.  "What is it, Rick?"


     "A.J.'s worse!"  Rick called from the center of the encampment.  "Not three hours ago he was as cold as ice.  Now he's hot, Jerry.  Really hot.  As hot as he was last night."


     Marcus skated out the door around Jerry.  "I'll get a couple buckets of water from the lake."


     Jerry moved back inside the tent long enough to pull on a pair of jeans, a shirt, and his tennis shoes. 


     Lee had heard everything Rick had said.  He buckled his belt and bent to tie his own tennis shoes.  "Have someone come get me if you need me.  Otherwise, I'll go ahead and watch for planes like we planned."


     "Thanks," Jerry nodded before running out the door with a lantern in hand.


     All the commotion woke Downtown Brown as well.   He was still shouldering into his sweatshirt as he ran to Jerry's side.


     The two men entered the Simons’ tent to find Rick stripping the covers off his brother.  A.J.'s head thrashed from side to side.  Jerry had to listen hard to discern his garbled words.


     "My head hurts, Rick.  My head hurts."


     Town lit the lantern and held it over the supine blond.  Jerry knelt beside his patient, while at the same time reaching for his bag.


     The coroner laid his hands on either side of A.J.'s face.  "A.J.?  A.J., can you hear me?"




     "No, A.J.  It's Jerry.  But Rick's here, too, and so is Town.  Listen to me, A.J.  I need to know where you hurt."


     "My head...Jerry. hurts so bad."


     "I gave him two aspirin a couple hours ago," Rick informed the coroner.  "He was complainin' then that his head hurt, but not like this."


     Jerry wrapped the blood pressure cuff around A.J.'s arm.  "And you said he was cold?"


     "Yeah.  He was shivering he was so cold.  That's why I pushed our beds together and spread my sleeping bag over him."


     Jerry finished taking A.J.'s blood pressure then put his stethoscope against the blond's chest.  Before he was done, Marcus had returned with the water and a handful of small towels and washcloths. 


     "Do you need my help?" 


     Town took the supplies from his brother.  "Not right now.  There's no room in here for anyone else anyway.  Go ahead and try to get some sleep."


     Marcus looked at the withering A.J., who was moaning in pain.  Jerry was bent over the man's left side with concern being the emotion that dominated his features.  Rick was bent down on his brother's right, fear being the only emotion Marcus could detect on his face. 


     Mark made eye contact with his own brother.  Softly, so as not to be heard by Rick he, ordered, "Call me if you need me.  Or if anything changes."


     Town nodded his understanding.  He reached out and gave his younger brother's arm a firm squeeze.  "I will."


     Jerry took A.J.'s temperature while Rick and Town stripped his pajama bottoms and socks off of him.


     To no one in particular Jerry announced,  "It's a hundred and four two." 


     Rick's voice rose as his fear increased.  "How could it get so high so fast?  Honest, Jerry, not two hours ago he was cold.  Really cold.  His feet were like ice."


     "I don't doubt you, Rick.  And I can't answer your question except to say this is all evidently caused by the venom from the spider's bite.  Right now we've got to bring his temperature down again."


     The three men worked together for the next several hours.  Rick and Jerry sponged A.J. down, while Town kept them supplied with cold water.  When Jerry stopped his ministrations to take his patient's temperature Town would take over. 


     In his delirium A.J. kept repeating how much his head hurt.  The only thing Jerry could equate the pain the blond was feeling was to that of a migraine headache.  He had Town bring him ice wrapped in a towel.  Rick held that against his brother's forehead in an effort to bring A.J. some relief.


     Jerry looked across A.J.'s bed at Rick.   "If I had any kind of a painkiller stronger than aspirin, any kind of an injection I could give him for the pain, I would, Rick.  But I didn't bring anything like that.  I never gave it a thought that we'd need it.  I mean, I thought aspirin would more than handle any problem we ran across."


     Rick didn't take his eyes off his brother's face, but his words had never been more sincere.   "It's not your fault, Jerry.  I already told you that.  I wouldn't have expected you to bring something like that."


     "But I should have thought of it," Jerry chastised himself.  "It was stupid for me not to think of something like that when we were going to be this far from any kind of help for an entire week."


     Rick looked up and caught Jerry's anguished gaze.   "Jerry, listen to me.  Hundreds of guys take trips like this every year.  And hundreds of them don't have someone along with your medical knowledge, or even a First Aid kit.  No one thinks something like this is gonna happen.  For God's sake, this is supposed to be a vacation!  Things like this aren't supposed to happen when you're on vacation!"


     Rick's short-tempered agitation penetrated the shroud of agony and heat A.J. was wrapped in.  He arched his back as if he was trying to get closer to his brother, and rolled his head to the right.  When his eyes opened they were wide and vacant.


     "Rick...Rick...I'm sorry.  I'm sorry, Rick.  Please...please don't be mad at me.  Please don't be mad."


     Rick ran a cold cloth over his brother's face and leaned down to talk softly in his ear.  


"Shhh, A.J.  Shhh.  I'm not mad.  I'm not mad at you.  Do you hear me, A.J.?  I'm not mad.  No one's mad.  It's not your fault.  It's not anyone's fault."


     Again and again Rick repeated his gentle words as A.J., again and again, asked for his brother's forgiveness.



Chapter 18


     It was a long night for all the campers.  Lee and Mark alternated watching for planes until dawn.  Rick, Town, and Jerry continued to work together to bring A.J.'s temperature down.  At five o'clock that morning they had gotten it to drop to one hundred and three point one, but that bit of good news didn't erase the worry lines that creased the skin around the mouths and eyes of all three men. 


     A.J.'s piercing screams woke Lee at six o'clock that morning, and brought Marcus running from where he had been starting a pot of coffee brewing. 


     At first the three men inside the tent had no more of an idea as to what was happening than the two outside the tent did. 


     "A.J.!"  Rick yelled over the delirious cries.  "A.J., what's wrong?  A.J.!"


     A.J. never opened his eyes, but that didn't keep him from fighting Jerry and Rick's restraining holds.


      "My legs!  My legs!"


     Rick looked down at his brother's bare legs but couldn't figure out what was wrong.  He wondered afterwards if they would have ever figured it out if it hadn't been for Lee. 


     The redheaded man poked his head into the tent.  "He's having muscle spasms.   Probably in both legs.   Town - Jerry, rub his calves."


     Town had been sitting at the end of the bed.  He sprang into action at Lee's words and reached for A.J.'s right leg.  He firmly kneaded the hard, knotted muscle in the back of the detective's calf.   Jerry scooted down on his knees from A.J.'s head to his lower body and began the same action with the blond's left leg. 


     A.J. continued to cry out in pain, but that didn't surprise Rick.  He knew from the few times he had been awakened in the middle of the night by the horrid knot of a charley horse, that massaging the rigid muscle was almost as painful as the charley horse itself.


     Rick laid a hand on the side of his brother's face and offered what comfort he could.  "A.J.  A.J., it's gonna be okay.  Try to relax, A.J.  Come on, try to relax.  Take deep breaths for me.  Come on, count to ten and take deep breaths.  One...two...three...four..."


     Rick had no idea if what he was suggesting would help, but A.J.'s cries subsided and he opened his eyes enough to follow Rick's lead  


     "That's right," Rick soothed.  "Come on.  Let's do another ten."


      Town and Jerry could feel A.J.'s legs begin to slacken in their hands like warm clay.  When he closed his eyes and seemed to drift off to sleep, all three men sat back and emitted heavy sighs.


     Rick looked up at Lee, whose head was still inside the tent.


     "What caused that?"


     "I don't know.  I can't even say how I knew for certain he was suffering from muscle spasms, except to say that I get them on a fairly regular basis.  With the way he's been forced to lay half propped up on his right side, and with everything else that's going on, I guessed that was the problem when he started screaming about his legs."


     Rick rubbed a hand over his grainy eyes.  "I'm just grateful you were here.  Thanks, Lee."


     "Hey, no problem.  Now what do you guys want for breakfast?"


     "Whatever you want to fix is fine," Jerry said.  "We'll come out and eat in shifts.  One of us is going to have to stay with A.J. today.  I don't want his temperature shooting up and catching us by surprise again."


     Rick looked up at Lee.  "Do you think Gil will fly over today?"


     Lee glanced at Jerry before answering.  "I honestly don't know, Rick.  I hope so."


     Rick reached for the cloth that was sitting in the bucket of cold water by his feet.  He wiped it over his brother's face.  


"I hope so too, Lee.  I hope so, too."





     The men slept in shifts that day, with Rick keeping a watchful vigil at his brother's side.  He stretched out on his bed and dozed on occasion, but only when Jerry forced him to, and even then not for any great length of time. 


     They never did get A.J.'s temperature to drop below one hundred and three, so sponging him down with lake water was a never-ending job.  Rick never left his brother's side during the times A.J. needed him, save for once.  A.J. grew quite delirious again in the early afternoon and began calling for Janet.  Rick couldn't take the pain and confusion he heard in his brother's weak voice.  He rose and escaped the tent, leaving A.J.'s care to Jerry and Town.


     A half hour later Town came out looking for his friend.  All was quiet in the camp.   Marcus was sleeping, and Lee was walking down by the lake with one hopeful eye turned toward the sky.


     Town spotted Rick leaning against a tree in a grove of pines a few hundred yards away.  Pine needles crunched under his tennis shoes as he approached the oldest Simon brother.  He stopped when he reached Rick's side.


     "We got A.J. cooled off.   Jerry even got him to drink a half a bottle of water.  He was sleeping again when I left."


     Rick looked down at the distant lake.  It's peaceful beauty was a sharp contrast to his inner turmoil.   "I should have been there.  When he woke up, I mean.  But I just had to take a break.  When he started calling for Janet...begging her to forgive him...I just couldn't take it, Towner.  He doesn't deserve this.  Not after the year he's had.  And she sure as hell isn't worthy of his forgiveness."


     Town decided that was a touchy subject better left alone right at the moment.  He had a pretty good idea as to what problems caused A.J. Simon's marriage to end in divorce thanks to his wife Temple, who had been told first hand by Cecilia.  Nonetheless, it was not something Town had ever discussed with A.J. or Rick.  In part, because it was none of his business, and in part, because neither one of the Simon brothers ever brought it up.  The closest he had come was with A.J. early on Monday morning as they sat in front of the fire, but when the blond made it clear that the subject was off limits, Town had respected his wishes.


     Rick looked over at his friend.      "All A.J. wanted was to go back to being a P.I., and for him and Janet to have a family.   Just some children and an old career he loved and was good at.  Was that too much for him to ask of her?  If she loved him as much as she claimed, why couldn't she just have given him those few things?  God knows he gave her everything else.  Everything she wanted.  He worked a job she wanted him to work.  He moved to a city where she wanted to live.  They had a beautiful home.  He was constantly surprising her with nice vacations and get-away weekends.  He was always sending her flowers and buying her jewelry for no other reason than to let her know how much he loved her.  They had a great life together.  At least for a few years.  Why couldn't she reciprocate that, and give him what would have made him so happy?  Just a couple of little kids.  I don't know why she couldn't have done that for him."


     "I don't know either," Town replied honestly.  "And none of us probably ever will.  But, Rick...all that doesn't make Janet a bad person.  Or solely at fault.  She and A.J.... well, like a lot of couples, they simply came to a point here they didn't want the same things out of life.  It's not that unusual.   As much as I hate to say this, it happens fairly often in America these days."


     "I know.  Or at least my head knows.  But try tellin' it to my heart.  Especially at a time like this.  He...everything A.J. does, he gives his all.  He puts his whole self into whatever it is - a job, a marriage, he puts his whole self in two hundred percent.  He gives more than anyone else I know. That's why when things sometimes fall apart it hurts him so much. And that's why I know he's torn up inside over this failed marriage.  Even though, deep down, I think he realizes he had no choice.  That he and Janet would have destroyed each other had they stayed together."


     "And because he knows that, Rick, he'll heal.  You just have to give him some time.  I've known people who were over the pain caused by a divorce before the divorce was even final.  Hell, I've known people who could really care less about their marriages right from the start.  And I've also known people like A.J., who grieve for a long time after the marriage comes to an end.  But I know A.J.'s strong.  And I really think the move back to San Diego, and you guys reopening the business, will prove to be the best thing for him.  Just give him a little more time.  Time is what A.J. needs right now."


     Rick didn't break eye contact with his friend.  "Do you think he has time, Town?  Do you think he's gonna make it if Gil doesn't show up soon?"


     Town couldn't be less than honest with Rick Simon.  Their friendship went back too many years for him to do the man that disservice.  "I don't know, Rick.  But I keep praying he will."


     "I know you do, Towner.  And believe me, so do I."


      Town walked in front of Rick and clapped him on the arm as he passed.  "Come on.  Let's go see how A.J.'s doing.  Jerry and Lee want to talk to you as well."


     Rick pushed himself away from the tree.  "About what?"


     "I don't know.  They just said they needed to talk to you."         


Chapter 19


      Town took Jerry's place in the Simon's tent.  Jerry stopped Rick from entering as he stepped outside.


     "A.J.'s sleeping, Rick.  His temperature is somewhat lower than when you left.  Lee and I need to talk to you before you go back in there."


     "That's what Town said."


     Jerry led Rick over to the table where Lee sat drinking a soda and finishing off a brownie.


     Jerry snared a 7UP out of the ice chest and grabbed two cookies out of a Tupperware container.  "You want something, Rick?"


     Rick shook his head.  "Not right now."


     Jerry took a seat next to his brother.  Rick sat down across from them.


     Patience was not one of Rick Simon's virtues.  "What did you guys wanna see me about?"


     Jerry exchanged glances with his brother before beginning. 


"Lee and I have been talking, and we've decided that if Gil doesn't show up soon, very soon, and if A.J.'s condition doesn't improve, then something has got to be done for him."


     "And that something is?"


     "Lance the sore on his back."


     Rick sighed and looked up at the sky through the branches of the towering Maple tree that grew behind him.  "That's what I was afraid you were gonna say." He looked back across the table at the brothers.  "What are A.J.’s chances if you do that?  And what are his chances if you don't?"


     Jerry gave a small smile of chagrin.  "And I was afraid you were going to ask that.  First of all, if I don't.  We saw how rapidly the fever can overtake him and how unpredictable his symptoms are.  One minute he appears to be doing better, then the next minute his temperature is climbing and he's delirious again.  I fear this thing could turn on us quickly, and with very little warning.  To be frank, Rick, I'm afraid if he starts to go downhill he'll go down very fast.   Faster than I'll be able to do anything about."


     Rick nodded grimly.  "I've been thinkin' the same thing."


     "If we do decide that I have no choice but to lance the sore, we're facing several problems of a different nature."  Jerry took a swig of his soda.  "I have no anesthetic to give him, and once the surgery's over, if you will, then nothing more than aspirin for any type of pain relief.  If A.J.'s weaker than I think he is, he could easily go into shock just from the pain of me cutting into the sore.  The only thing I have to use for a scalpel is one of Lee's scaling knives.  We can sterilize that easily enough in boiling bottled water so overall, it's the least of our worries.  I do have packets of Betadine, a topical antibacterial iodine that I can use to clean the wound once I have it open, though he's not going to like that much.  It'll sting like hell. I have more gauze in the First Aid kit, so I can use that to dress the wound after it’s drained.  However, sterile dressings would be the best choice.  Without them, we run a big risk of further infection.”


     Jerry stopped there and ran a hand through his wind-ruffled hair.


"I get the feeling there's something more you're not

telling me."


"Not really.  You need to be aware, though, that this isn't exactly my forte˘.  Most of my patients are already..."  Jerry stopped short of finishing his sentence. 


     "Dead," Rick finished sharply.  "Most of your patients are already dead.  Isn't that what you were going to say?"


     "Sorry. I didn't mean anything by that.  I wasn't thinking when I said--"


     Rick dismissed Jerry's apology with an abrupt wave of his hand.  "Forget it, Jer.  I know you didn't mean anything by it.  And I'm the one who should have kept my mouth shut.  Go ahead and finish what you were gonna say.  About this not being your forte˘."


"Though the incision won't be very deep, A.J. could start bleeding heavily.  I don't anticipate that, but I don't really know what I'm getting into.  For just that reason, I haven't given him any more aspirin.  It breaks down the blood's ability to clot, as you probably know.  The last two he had were the ones you gave him at eleven o'clock last night.  Also, Lee said that the woman he worked with had abscesses under her skin from the bite.  If I run into that with A.J., I'm afraid if I have to probe too deeply he won't pull through.  Without anesthetic, that's going to be asking an awful lot of him."


     "And how long will he last if we don't do anything?"


     Lee spoke up for the first time since Rick had sat down. 


"We can't even make an educated guess in that regard.  You have to remember that A.J. isn't just now getting sick.  The spider's venom has been in his system three and a half weeks.  The toxins have slowly been accumulating over that time period.  How much longer he can keep fighting it is anyone's guess."


     Rick leaned back in his chair.   He traced unsettling circles on the table's smooth surface with his fingertips.  


"I'll have to talk to A.J.   I can't...I can't make a decision like this without his input.  It's not my decision to make unless he's too out of it to understand what's going on."


     "I think he'll understand," Jerry said quietly.  "He was fairly alert while you and Town were gone."


     Rick nodded and pushed himself away from the table.  "I'm gonna take over for Town.  Jerry, you look wiped.  Get some sleep.  By the time you wake the time you wake up, I'll have talked to my brother."


     The Reiners watched Rick walk away. 


     "What do you think he'll do?"   The red headed scientist asked his younger brother.


     "He'll talk to A.J. like he said he would.  But if A.J. isn't capable of making a decision, or even if he tells Rick no, that he doesn't want me to lance the bite, Rick will overrule him if he fears A.J. will lose his life up here.  Just like you'd overrule my wishes in such a situation, and I'd overrule yours."


     "That's what I thought you'd say."  Lee took note of his brother's bloodshot eyes.  "You'd better get some sleep like Rick suggested.  I have a feeling we could be in for a long night."



Chapter 20



     A.J. slept deeply for the next two hours.  Upon entering the tent Rick convinced Town to get some sleep as well.  The black man didn't put up a fight.  He simply told Rick to call him if he needed him, and left to plop wearily into his own bed.


     Rick continuously ran a cold wet washcloth over his brother's face and torso, but his mind was elsewhere.  Just when he thought he knew what they should have Jerry do, he changed his mind.  He mentally flip-flopped back and forth from one decision to another like a fish out of water.


     Rick managed to muster up a warm smile when his brother's eyes finally opened at five o'clock that afternoon. 


     "Hey, Rip Van Winkle.  You're sleepin' the day away."


     A.J's quiet, guttural voice was an octave deeper than normal.   "So it seems."


     "How's your head?"


     "It hurts.  But not as bad as a few hours ago."


     "Good.  Want something to drink?"




     Rick reached for the bottle of apple juice that sat in a bucket of cold water.  Rick lifted his brother's head and tilted the bottle until A.J. was able to take a couple of sips.


     When Rick could feel A.J. trying to turn his head he pulled the bottle back.   "Enough?"

     "Yes.  Thanks."


     Rick gently eased A.J. back down on his pillows before capping the bottle and returning it to the bucket.


     A.J. looked around the tent.  "Where is everybody?"


     "Town and Jerry are sleeping.  Lee and Mark are walking around somewhere keeping an eye out for planes."


     "Have you gotten some sleep today?"


     "A little."


     "Rick, don't lie to me."


     "I'm not lyin' to you."


     "Yes, you are."


     "How do you know?"


     "Because it's like Mom always says.  Your eyes change color ever so slightly when you lie."


     "Hmmm. And I thought she was the only one who noticed that."


     "Well, she's not.  I caught on to it about thirty-five years ago."


     "No wonder I could never pull anything over on you after you hit ten."  Rick shifted position and moved to lean against the still present ice chest.    "A.J., you and I need to talk about something if you're up to it."


     As sick as he was, A.J. easily picked up on the graveness in Rick's tone.


     "I'm up to it."


     "It's five o'clock and Gil hasn't flown over.  It's doubtful now that he will yet tonight.  Hopefully, he'll be here tomorrow.  But we don't have any kind of guarantee that he will."


     "I'm aware of that."


     "A.J., I'm not gonna lie to you."  Rick couldn't help but smile a little.  " ‘Course, it wouldn't do me any good to anyway.  You'd be able to tell by looking into my eyes."


     A.J. smiled back.  "Yes, I would."


     "So anyway, you're sick.  Real sick."


     "Rick, you're hardly telling me anything I don't already know."


     "I realize that, but just bear with me here a minute.  Jerry and I were talking a while ago and we're both afraid that you're gonna get worse before you get better.  And Jerry and Lee think the only way for you to get better, is for Jerry to do what they'd do if you were in the hospital."


     "I know I'm not going to want to hear the answer to this question," came the weak quip, "but I'm going to ask it anyway.  And that is?"


     "Lance the bite and drain it."


     "Lance it with what?"


     "For lack of anything of Lee's scaling knives."  Rick rushed on to say, "But it'll be sterilized."


     "Oh, that's brings me great comfort."  A.J. took a moment to formulate his thoughts.  "What are the risks?"


     "You could start bleeding heavily, though Jerry thinks that's doubtful.  And, by doing this, there is the risk of further infection because we don’t have any sterile dressings. But, the biggest problem is, he doesn't have any type of anesthesia or pain killer to give you."


     "I was afraid that was coming."


     Rick reached out and laid a hand on his brother's forearm. 

"A.J...I'm sorry.  If there was any other way...if I could think of anything, anything at all that we could do instead of this



     "Rick, I know.  And don't be sorry.  It's certainly not your fault.  I hope you can respect the fact that I'm going to have to think about this a while."


     Rick nodded.  "I can."


     A.J. fell silent as Rick dipped the washcloth and resumed his ministrations from earlier.  It was fifteen minutes later before either man spoke again.

     A.J. looked up at his brother, not wanting anything less than eye contact. 


"If there comes a point where Jerry thinks lancing this thing is the only alternative, then go ahead and let him do it.  If I'm too out of it to make the decision for myself, or if I'm delirious and I fight you guys, I want you to make the decision for me."


     Rick swallowed hard and nodded.


     A.J.'s next question was a hard one for him to voice, but it was also one he needed an answer to.  "But if he does have to do it, will you...will you be here with me?"


     Rick reached down and laid his hand on the top of his brother's head.   


"I'll be right here by your side, A.J."


     Rick didn't have to add his unvoiced thought.


And that's a promise.


Promises went back a long way with the Simon brothers and no longer had need to be spoken of or vowed.  Many years earlier they had become a given.  



Chapter 21


     Daylight slowly faded away that Wednesday evening.  While A.J. slept, Rick sat outside their tent and watched the sun slide down the western horizon.  There had been no sign of Gil all that long day.  No sign of any aircraft whatsoever.  Now Rick wondered how he, how all of them, could have been so foolish as to embark on a camping trip that completely cut them off from the outside world.   It had sounded like Utopia the previous summer when Lee described the beauty and isolation of the Canadian wilderness.  To the six men who all held down stressful and demanding jobs the remainder of the year, a week away from everything and everybody had sounded like Heaven.  No phones, no blaring car horns, and no loud radios or televisions coming from a neighbor's house.  Just a blissful week spent in nature's backyard.


     We shoulda' known better, Rick chastised himself as he sat with his arms wrapped around his drawn up knees.  How could we have been so damn stupid?  Geez, between things Town has seen in his line of work, and Jerry has seen in his, and me and A.J. have seen in ours...well, we all shoulda' known that accidents can happen when you're least expecting them to.  That someone can get sick when you're least expecting him to.  We never should have come to a place where help is almost impossible to come by.  Where the nearest hospital is two hundred miles away if you're even lucky enough to find a means of getting there.


     The sun was still present when the full moon made its appearance.  Like children on a seesaw one rose higher as the other dipped lower.   Eventually the sun lost the game and disappeared for good, not to be seen again until the start of a new day.


     It was the thought of that new day that left Rick full of worry.  What if Gil didn't show up on Thursday?  What if Jerry was forced to lance the hideous sore on A.J.'s back?  Would his brother be strong enough to pull through such a procedure without anesthesia?  Or what if Jerry encountered more problems than he could handle under such primitive conditions? 


     Rick didn't have the answers to any of those questions and it scared him.  Scared him to the point that for the first time since this ordeal had begun, he couldn't keep his supper down.  Town had seen him rush off to the shelter of the trees and throw up a half hour earlier.  But Town didn't mention it to anyone.  Not even Jerry.  He knew the source of Rick's sudden stomach upset couldn't be cured by a pill or a good night's sleep.      


     The only indication Town gave to Rick that he'd been privy to the episode came when the black man sat down next to his friend outside the Simon brothers' tent later that evening.


     "If you need to chew someone's ear for a while I'm here, Rick, any time of the day or night.   I know I don't possess any ready-made answers for a situation like this, but I'm willing to listen."


     "I know you are, Towner.  And I appreciate it, believe me.

 I just..." Rick looked his old friend square in the face.  "Town, what would you do if it was Mark?  Would you risk letting your brother get worse, while holding out the hope that help will arrive?  Or would you risk letting Jerry perform surgery of sorts without the benefit of any of things a doctor normally has at his disposal?"


     "I can't answer that, because I honestly don't know.  That's the question on everybody's mind today.  We've all been batting it around.  Mark and me.  Jerry and Lee.  Mark and me and Jerry and Lee.  The bottom line is, you trust Jerry and his judgment, as well as his skills.  So does A.J.  So do we all.  If Jerry decides that's what needs to be done, you'll go ahead and let him do it because you won't have any other choice."


     "I know. I've done a lot of thinkin' and that's what it comes down to.  Jerry's the one who will ultimately decide how we go forward.  A.J.'s already told me to let Jerry go ahead and do what he has to do if it comes to that.  But, Town, if Jerry finds more than he bargained for when he goes to lance the bite, the probing he's gonna have to do could kill A.J.  Especially without the benefit of anesthesia."


     Downtown Brown hated to do it, but by virtue of being one of Rick Simon's closest friends he was forced to play devil's advocate.   "And if you don't let Jerry do it, A.J. may very well die anyway."


     Rick closed his eyes and nodded.  "Don't I know it, Towner.  Don't I know it."  Rick reopened his eyes and looked at his friend.  "But for me to willingly let someone hurt A.J. like that...I don't know if I can do it.  I honestly don't know if I can."


     "You can," Town confirmed.  "Because there won't be any other alternative."


     Rick nodded once more and swallowed hard.  "A.J. already asked me to be with him if and when Jerry has to lance the thing."


     "Do you think you can?  Because if you can't I can be there with him.  When A.J.'s feeling better he'll understand why you couldn't be a part of something like that.  He'll understand why you had to remove yourself from it."


     "You're right.  He'll understand, because that's just the kind of man he is.  But yeah, I can do it.   I won't so much as consider not being there with him no matter how...rough things get."


     Town smiled.  "I had a sneaking suspicion you'd say that."


     "Think you know me pretty well, don't you?"

     "As well as I know my own brother.  And as well as I know yours."


     "Ain't it the truth, Towner,” Rick chuckled.  “Ain't it the truth."


Chapter 22



     By Rick's watch A.J. woke up at sixteen minutes after ten that night.  The soft glow of the lantern cast comforting shadows on the walls of the tent as Rick leaned over his sibling.


     "Hey, little brother.  How ya’ feelin'?  You've been asleep a little over four hours.  Are you ready for something to eat?"


     A.J.'s eyes lethargically scanned the tent's interior.  When he spoke, his words were hard to understand, as though he was talking around a mouthful of peanut butter.


     "Where am I?"


     The worry lines creasing Rick's eyes tightened.   "A.J., where do you think you are?"


     A.J. eyes slowly traveled the small space once more.  To Rick, it appeared that his brother was trying hard to concentrate on his surroundings and come up with a reasonable answer. 


     "I...I...Rick, why are we here?"


     Rick's questioning grew more persistent with both concern and fear.  "A.J., you didn't answer me.  Where do you think we are?"


     "I...I don't know."


     "A.J., we're on a camping trip.  Do you remember that we're on a camping trip with Jerry and Town?"



     Rick laid a hand on the side of his brother's face in an effort to gain his full attention.  Sternly he commanded, "A.J., tell me who Town is."


     "I don't...Rick, where's Janet?"


     "A.J., we're not talking about Janet right now.  We're talking about Town."


     A.J. reached up and weakly snared a fistful of Rick's shirtfront.


     "Rick, please find her," came the desperate plea. "I don't know where she is.  She came with us, remember?  She wanted to come camping with us, only now I can't find her.  She might be lost...hurt..."


     It was then that Rick realized A.J.'s mind was in Florida some twenty years in the past.  Back to a time when the Simon brothers and Janet Fowler had indeed, spent a weekend camping together. 


     "Shhh, A.J.," Rick soothed.  He brushed his brother’s bangs off his warm forehead.   "Calm down.  Janet's not with us this trip."


     "Yes she is," A.J. insisted.  "She came with us and something's happened to her.  I can't find her, Rick."  A.J.'s voice climbed higher with panic and fear.  "I've been looking and looking but I just can't find her.  I can't find her."


     Rick was forced to break eye contact as A.J. repeated that phrase in a voice filled with both tears and despair.  His heart ached for all his brother was going through, both real and imagined.  


     Rick turned away and softly muttered,   "I know you can't find her, kid.  I know you can't find her."


     A.J. spent the night in a delusional world that was, at times, very foreign to Rick, and at times very familiar.  His fevered rambling was sometimes so garbled that Rick couldn't make out the words no matter how hard he tried.  At other times the words, while not clear, were understandable.  The blond's mind seemed to be randomly traveling from one decade to another as he brought up everything from the names of grade school friends he hadn't seen in thirty-five years, to the most recent client they'd been hired to work for.


     Jerry came in the tent at ten thirty with the intention of taking over for Rick, and ended up staying the rest of the night.   Ditto for Downtown Brown who arrived shortly after Jerry, the voices coming from the Simons’ tent having woken him.


     Rick looked up when Town entered.  Anxiety drew his mouth into a tight line, and his eyes were blue-gray with fear. 


"He's really out of it, Towner.  Really out of it.  He's never been this bad before.  Not even when his temperature was at its highest."


Town knelt on the floor of the tent at the foot of A.J.'s bed.  "What's going on, Jerry?"


     Jerry's hand was on the pulse point of A.J.'s wrist, and his eyes were on the second hand of his watch.  "I don't know, Town.  His temperature is one-o-one point seven.  That should make him somewhat uncomfortable, but it shouldn't make him delirious like this."


     As the night progressed A.J.'s rambling and confusion only increased.  Sometimes he shivered uncontrollably while whimpering about being cold, while at other times he kicked frantically at his covers and cried out that he was hot.


     He threw up twice.  The first time he brought up the soup and applesauce he'd eaten at five thirty.  The second time what came up was a thick, brownish liquid that looked like mucus, but that Jerry feared was blood. 


     Both times the offerings from A.J.'s stomach landed on his brother's shirtfront.  Rick had been sitting with A.J.'s head cradled in his lap giving what comfort he could, while Town and Jerry tended his needs.  


     Rick wiped A.J.'s mouth with a cold cloth after each episode and did no more than repeat a litany of,  "It's okay, A.J.  It's okay.  Don't worry about it," when the half lucid A.J. apologized for the mess he'd made.


     It was six thirty-five in the morning when A.J. either drifted off to sleep or lapsed into unconsciouses, Rick wasn't sure which.  The lanky man rose on legs so stiff they felt like they'd been replaced with two-by-fours.  He picked his way over men, buckets of water, and medical paraphernalia, until he reached his duffel bag.  For the second time in three hours he quietly changed his shirt.


     Jerry's ankles cracked when he pushed himself off the hard ground.  He stood there a moment until his numb tailbone was willing to move with him.  He made eye contact with Town.  With a flick of his head toward the door, Jerry indicated to the police lieutenant that he was taking Rick outside. 


     Town nodded his understanding and remained seated by A.J.'s side.


      Jerry's light touch on his back didn't come as a surprise to Rick.  In fact, it seemed to the coroner as though Rick had been expecting it.


     "Let's go outside and take a little walk, Rick."


     Rick looked at Jerry out of the corner of his eyes.  He gave a nod and finished buttoning his blue work shirt.  He was still tucking the tails in his jeans as he followed Jerry out the door.


     The two men walked several steps from the tent before Jerry spoke.


     "Rick, I wish I could tell you that I knew for certain what we should do.  But if I told you that, I'd be lying to you.  I value your friendship too much, and A.J.'s as well, to do you that type of disservice."

     Rick stopped their progress by placing a hand on the coroner's arm.


"For just a second, Jer, forget about your friendship with me.  Forget that your friendship with A.J. goes back to when the two of you first met in Old Lady Bartlett's freshman English class.  I know it's difficult, but you have to try to think of me and A.J. as two strangers you happened to run across on a camping trip who are in trouble.  In that situation what would you, as Dr. Gerald Reiner, do?"


     Jerry closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  His shoulders heaved with the effort before relaxing.  When his eyes opened again the indecision and uncertainty from moments earlier was gone.


     "I'd tell you that I need to lance the sore.  I'd tell you there is no choices left us.  I'd tell you your brother's condition is rapidly deteriorating, and I'm fearful he'll die before this day is over.  Then I'd also remind you that I can’t give any guarantees - that what I do to help A.J. might ultimately kill him as well."


     Rick's mouth offered the barest of smiles.  "And I'd tell you I don't like the odds you're offering...but then I'd tell you to go ahead."


     Jerry heard Rick's words, but didn't make a move to act on them.


     "Do what you have to do, Jerry.  Lance the sore on A.J.'s back."


     Jerry turned toward the tents.  "I'm going to wake Lee.  I may need his help.  I'll need Town as well."


     "I'll be there, too."


     " might be better if you're not."


     "Better for who?  For me...or for A.J.?"


     "I understand what you're saying, but I've gotta warn you.  It's going to be a hell of rough ride."


     "I've experienced more than a few of those in my lifetime.  I'll get through this one, too.  A.J. and I will both get through this one."


     Jerry smiled.  "If it was anyone but the two of you, I'd have my doubts.  But I know how tough and stubborn both your hides are."


     The men walked together to the tents.


     "Tough and stubborn is the Simon brothers' trademark, Jer."



Chapter 23


     By eight-thirty that morning Jerry's surgical preparations were complete.   Three of Lee's scaling knives had been scalded in boiling water.  Jerry spent five minutes washing his hands and arms with hot water and soap.  He made Lee, Town, and Rick do the same.  Clean towels of varying sizes, gauze dressings, scissors, and medical tape, were near at hand, as were packets of the antiseptic Betadine. 


     Marcus sat with the unconscious A.J. while the other men completed their preparations.  He exited the tent when one by one Rick, Jerry, Lee, and Town entered.  There was no room for a sixth man, and Jerry wanted Mark available to run and retrieve anything he might suddenly find himself lacking.


     Rick knelt down on his brother's left side taking up a position by A.J.'s head.  Jerry knelt on A.J.'s right with Lee next to him.  The red headed man would hand his brother whatever instruments Jerry required, as well as provide additional light with one of the lanterns. 


     "Town, you stay down there," Jerry ordered the black man who was kneeling at the foot of the bed.    "When I get ready to make the first incision you clamp down on his legs.  He's probably going to fight you for all he's worth.  You've got to keep him still for me.  Absolutely still."


     Rick barely heard Town's soft reply.  "I understand, Jerry."


     Jerry looked across at Rick.  "Are you sure you want to be in here? If you'd rather trade places with Mark--"


     Rick growled like the Marine sergeant he once was.   "I'm not tradin' places with anyone."


     "All right then.  You heard what I told Town.  You've got to keep him absolutely still."


     Jerry looked from Rick, to Town, to his own brother.  "Once we start there's no turning back.  We've got to keep going until this thing is drained and dressed.  It's going to be hard on all of us, but it's going to be ten times as hard on A.J.  If any one of you is having second thoughts you'd better speak up now."


     It came as no surprise to Jerry when no one uttered a sound.


     "Okay."  Jerry studied the knives for a moment, then picked up one with a long thin blade.  "Let's get this over with."


     Whether it was the touch of Jerry's cool fingers on his back that brought A.J. to consciousness, or the way Town's vice-like grip latched onto legs, or Rick's firm hold on his upper body, no one knew.  But before Jerry could make the first incision Rick ordered,  "Wait.  He's coming around."


     The knife was left suspended over A.J.'s back.  All of Jerry's pent-up tension was released in one scolding word.   "Rick--" 


     Rick's eyes flashed as they flicked across his brother's body to the coroner.  "Just wait a second, Jerry.  If A.J.'s waking up, then he deserves to know what's goin' on.  I won't let you do this without me explaining it to him first."


     Jerry let the knife drop.  He couldn't argue with Rick's words.  None of them could.  None of the men would allow any less if they were in Rick's place. 


     Town relaxed his hold and sat back on his heels.  Rick relaxed his hold on A.J., as well, but leaned forward and placed a hand on his brother's face.


     "A.J.  A.J., can you hear me?"


     A.J.'s eyelids fluttered heavily three times before focusing on his brother's face.  He tried to speak, but the only sound that came forth was like the weak mew of a newborn kitten.   Rick ignored the painful protests of his back muscles as he bent even closer and put his ear by A.J.'s mouth.




     "Yeah, A.J."  Rick soothed.  "I'm here."   Rick locked his eyes on those of his younger brother.   "A.J., Jerry's going to lance the sore on your back now.  I gave him my permission, just like you and I discussed."


     A.J.'s nod was barely perceptible. 


"I...under...understand.  I sick...Rick."


     Rick's calloused hand caressed the side of his brother's too-warm face.  "I know you do, kid.  But as soon as Jerry gets that sore drained you're gonna feel better."


     A.J. didn't have the strength to do more than nod again.


     "A.J., I won't lie to you."  Rick was unable to look away from the eyes that gazed upon him with utmost trust.  "This is gonna smart like hell.  You know that.  Town and I don't have any choice but to hold you down."


     A.J. brought his left hand up and loosely wrapped his fingers around Rick's wrist.  "I know," he whispered.


     Rick turned his wrist so he could take A.J.'s hand in his.  


"I'll be right here with you, through the whole thing from start to finish.  We'll get through this together.  Just you and me."


     A.J.'s lips formed a weak smile.  "Like we've gotten through everything else."


     Rick squeezed A.J.'s hand while caressing the side of his face.  "Yeah, little brother.  Just like we've gotten through everything else."


     A.J. closed his eyes and he commanded, "Tell Jerry to do it."


     Rick looked over at Jerry and nodded.  Jerry's eyes traveled to Town.  The black man resumed his former hold on A.J.'s legs.


     Lee reached up and gave Jerry's shoulder an encouraging squeeze.   Jerry managed a small smile in his brother's direction.  He placed his left hand on A.J.'s back and gently rolled the blond toward Rick a few fractions of an inch.


     "I'm going to start now, A.J."   Jerry briefly laid his right hand on A.J.'s forearm.   "I'll get this over with as quickly as I can."


     Jerry saw the slight nod of the A.J.'s head.  The coroner and Rick made eye contact.   Rick's nod echoed his brother's.  Jerry held out his right hand.  Lee placed the knife in it once more. 


     Jerry 's left hand framed the ugly sore that had been continuously oozing pus since two o'clock that morning.  He took a deep, mental breath and brought the knife up.  In those brief seconds, he completely cleared his mind of everything save the task at hand.  No longer was a dear friend's life in his hands.  No longer was he in a tent in the wilderness about to perform surgery with little more than fishing tackle and his wits.  His mind told him he had the skill and the knowledge necessary to save A.J. Simon's life.  And when his mind told him that, Dr. Gerald Reiner was ready to begin.


     Later, A.J. would recall thinking he felt the coolness of the knife's blade against his skin.  But then again, maybe it was just Jerry's fingers he felt.  He never really was sure.  He clearly remembered the constrictive feeling of suffocation that overtook him when he felt Town's solid hold on his shins, and Rick's on his upper torso.  He had to will himself not to fight them as he prepared for what was to come.  He felt Rick's fingers on his face one last time, and heard his brother's voice close to his ear.

     "Hang in there for me, A.J.  Just hang in there for me."


     And as Rick finished that sentence, and as Jerry's knife blade moved to make the first incision, a cry from outside the tent broke the tension-wrought concentration within.  


     "Gil's coming in for a landing!"  Mark yelled as he raced toward the tent.  "Gil's coming in for a landing!" 


     Rick's hold on his brother slackened and his head dropped to rest against A.J.'s.   "Thank God," he whispered, as he gently ran his fingers through sweat saturated blond hair.   "Thank God."


     Jerry slid back onto his heels.  His hand, the one holding the knife, dropped to his side.  He was surprised to find it shaking.  In his mind, he echoed Rick's Simon's words. 


     Thank God.  Thank you, God.



Chapter 24



     A.J. was flown two hundred miles to the nearest hospital in the city of Prince George with Rick and Jerry at his side.  The other three men remained behind to await Gil's return on Sunday morning.   Town didn't care for the idea of not knowing A.J.'s fate, but had little choice in the matter.  Within five minutes of landing, Gil was taking off again.  Rick had bundled A.J. up in his sleeping bag and carried him to the plane.  Jerry followed at his heels with medical bag in hand.   There had been no time to break camp and pack up gear.  It was a very subdued and concerned little group left alone in the wilderness to finish out what was supposed to have been a week of fun.


     Jerry hooked up with Lee and the Brown brothers late on Sunday morning at the Vancouver airport.  They watched from behind plate glass windows as Jerry exited a small, ten passenger plane.  By the smile on his face and the bounce to his step, they could easily guess the news he brought was good.


     "A.J.'s going to be fine," the coroner announced to the anxious men.  "It was touch and go there for a while on Thursday.  He was extremely ill.  But they lanced and drained all the abscesses, he had three more underneath the surface of the skin."


     Lee shook his head.  "No wonder he was so sick."


     "No kidding," Jerry agreed.  "There were a lot of toxins in his system.  Not just from the venom, but from the infection of the original bite as well.  But everything's been drained and they've had him on an antibiotic I.V. since Thursday.   He's to get unhooked from that today.  If things continue to progress as good as they have been, Rick and A.J. will probably fly out of here on Wednesday."


     Town decided that news called for a celebration.  He had just enough time to buy everyone a beer at the airport's lounge before he and the Reiners boarded a plane for San Diego, and Marcus boarded one headed for Cincinnati. 




     The Simon brothers did indeed fly home on Wednesday.  A.J. was weak and far from fully recovered, but rebuffed Rick's suggestion that they stay on at the hotel for another couple of days where Rick had a room.  Despite how he was feeling, the youngest Simon just wanted to see the familiar lights of San Diego.


     Cecilia was waiting for them at the airport.  Rick had called her from his hotel room in Prince George on Friday morning and spent fifteen minutes relaying all that had happened since she'd last seen her sons, then spent the next fifteen answering all her frantic questions.  She called A.J. at the hospital every day after that, but wasn't fully at peace until she saw him walk off the plane under his own power.  Granted, her youngest son was walking slowly with Rick hanging onto his left elbow, and he had dropped eleven pounds and lost all of his tan.  But that didn't stop Cecilia from running toward him and encircling his neck with her arms.  Within seconds, she widened the circle and drew Rick in as well.  She kissed both her sons and cried, then wiped her eyes and laughed with relief while scolding A.J. for causing her so much worry.


     A.J. spent the next two and a half weeks recovering at home.  He still found it hard to believe that one little spider bite could have caused him so much grief.  But as Joel Lankey explained when A.J. saw him a few days after arriving home, the brown recluse's bite is one of the most potent of all the poisonous spiders known to reside in the United States.  As in A.J.'s case, the bite is relatively painless, and the venom's early symptoms mirror those of the flu.  By the time many patients seek treatment and are correctly diagnosed they are often as ill as A.J. was.


     A.J. returned to work Tuesday, September 5th.   Lauren's ex-husband had their children for the long Labor Day weekend so the woman suggested she and A.J. drive several hours up the coast.  Though he didn't indicate it to Lauren, A.J. was somewhat hesitant to accept her invitation.  Their relationship hadn't progressed so far as to include intimate weekends away as of yet, and he wasn't certain if he was ready to entrust his heart to another woman.  But he liked Lauren. He liked her a lot.  And in the end he agreed to go.  If nothing else, to make up for the lousy vacation he had experienced only two weeks prior. 


      The couple spent the better part of three days relaxing in the sun, frolicking in the surf, playing tennis, and strolling past quaint little shops in a small, California coastal town.   A.J. returned from the short get-away well-rested, relaxed, sun tanned, and eager to get back to the normal swing of things.


     He was to meet Rick in their old office at eight-thirty on Tuesday morning.  They were going to make sure the bank had moved all their equipment out as planned so the Simons could begin moving in.


     A strong feeling of nostalgia engulfed A.J. as he slid back the gate of the old elevator and stepped off onto the fourth floor.  Very little had changed since he'd left five years earlier.  Some renters had come and gone of course, but other than that the building still looked the same both inside and out. 


     Rick had already hired someone to stencil the door's windowpane.   Fresh black letters announced that Simon and Simon Investigations resided within.


     A.J., dressed in blue jeans and a red polo shirt, opened the door expecting to see an empty shell of a room.  He stopped so abruptly he almost tripped. 


     "What the...?"


     The blond's sentence trailed off as he stared straight ahead.  There, behind his desk in its familiar place across from the door, sat Rick.  And right in front of the big picture window that overlooked the busy street below sat A.J.'s desk.  Not the old battered one he had been using that summer while the brothers worked out of the Captain Gully office that Rick had dug up God knows where, but rather the desk A.J. had used all the years Simon and Simon had been in business together.  The desk they'd sold to Carlos when A.J. and Janet had moved to Seattle. 


     On the wall to the right of Rick's desk sat the same filing cabinets that had sat there five years earlier.  And to the left of Rick's desk sat his pinball machine.  The center of the room was dominated by the round coffee table and four overstuffed chairs that had been moved to the Captain Gully office after Simon and Simon closed.  Against the wall sat the computer and workstation that had also been moved to the Captain Gully office when Simon and Simon went their separate ways. 


     A.J. said no more as he stepped inside the room and shut the door.  The office smelled of fresh paint, and where the walls weren't brick they were a clean, subdued beige.  The blond's eyes traveled to the coat rack sitting back in its familiar spot.  Rick's field jacket hung off one of its branches.  To the left of the door was the jukebox that had been stored at one of Carlos's garages for the past five years.  To the right was A.J.'s weight machine.  If he had parked his car in the garage the previous evening like he normally did he would have known it was missing.  But he hadn't, thereby keeping Rick's surprise a secret.


     On the wall between the weights and the computer workstation hung three pictures A.J. remembered well.  The cartoon drawing of Rick, A.J. and The Condor, a caricature done many years earlier by a sketch artist at the police station of Rick, A.J. and Town, and the picture of two little boys, ages six and one, that had been found in the small guest house on Matt Haskell’s estate where Jack Simon died. 


     "Well, are you just gonna stand there with your mouth hangin' open, or are you gonna say something?"


     A.J. ran two fingers over the polished wood of his desk as he moved to sit down.  Even the little refrigerator they'd always kept behind his desk had been returned to its rightful place.  On top of that sat the Mr. Coffee, again just like it always had.  A prayer plant sat on the top of Rick's desk, and a trailing ivy on

A.J.'s.  More greenery adorned the top of the filing cabinets. 


     It was all so familiar, right down to the Panama hat perched on the top of Rick's head, that A.J. could have easily fooled himself into believing the past five years had never happened.  That he had never married Janet.  That he had never moved to Seattle.  That he had never practiced law.  That they had never lost their child.   And that he had never ended up returning to San Diego a broken man. 


     But A.J. was done fooling himself.  He had decided that three weeks earlier up in the vast Canadian wilderness.


     The often impatient, always eager child that still dwelled inside Rick Simon asked again, "Are you gonna say something here or what?"


     A.J. sank down into his big leather chair.  The gesture he made with his hands took in the whole room.  "When did you do this?"


     Rick grinned.  "Over the weekend.  While you and Lauren were gone."


     "You did all this by yourself?"


     "No," Rick shook his head.  "Town, Jerry, and Carlos helped me.   We painted on Saturday, and moved all the furniture back in on Sunday.  I put the finishing touches on, the pictures and plants and stuff, by myself yesterday."


     "I thought we were going to do this together throughout this week."

     "I know.  But I wanted to surprise you.  Besides, you probably shouldn't be doin' that much anyway.  What with it bein' your first week back to work after being sick and all."


     "Rick," A.J. sighed with exasperation.  "Joel released me to return to work.  I'm perfectly fine."


     "I know.  But still, we have three cases we need to get goin' on.  I didn't think you needed to be moving furniture around on top of all that."


     A.J. could have gone on to argue that point, but in the farthest corner of his mind was the memory of Rick's face that day back in the tent when Jerry had almost been forced to perform surgery.  A face that had been creased with lines from worry and lack of sleep.  A face that couldn't quite hide the fear that thus far had been kept from A.J.


     The blond detective smiled.  "I suppose when someone volunteers to move furniture around on my behalf, I shouldn't complain, huh?"


     "No, you shouldn't."   


     A.J. scanned the room a final time.  "It looks great, Rick.  It really does.  It's just like how it...used to be."

     The way A.J. hesitated as he said that last sentence made Rick wonder if things looking just how they used to was good or bad.


     "If you don't like it, if you want to change something, the color of the walls, or the arrangement of the furniture--"


     "No, no," A.J. negated.  "I like it fine.  Like I said, it looks great."


     "It does look pretty darn good, if I do say so myself."  Rick laced his hands behind his head in exaggerated satisfaction before growing serious.  "But I know it's not always easy to go back to the way things were.  I mean, sometimes it's feels good, it feels right, but other times it's difficult.  So if this doesn't feel right to you, A.J., any of it, all you gotta do is say so.  We'll change whatever it is we need to change in order to make things better."


     A.J.'s smile was small and full of irony.  "Rick, it's taken me four months, but I've finally figured out that I can't change everything I need to in order to make things better." 


     When A.J. didn't elaborate Rick was forced to make a hesitant guess.  "You mean Janet."


     A.J. nodded and gazed off at some point beyond Rick's left shoulder. 


"Janet.  Our life together in Seattle.  The divorce.  I can't go back in time and pretend it never happened.  Though I suppose that's what I've been trying to do ever since I returned to San Diego."


     "Whatta ya’ mean?"

     The blond met his brother's eyes.  "It was so easy to move back into my old house, start the business up again with you, and plan to move back into this office.  And the reason it was all so easy, is because it was all so familiar.  In so many ways nothing had changed.  And I was satisfied to let it stay that way.  If I could fool myself into believing nothing had changed, then I could fool myself into believing I hadn't failed."


     " didn't fail.  I don't have to know all the details of your problems with Janet to know that."


     A.J. smiled at his brother's unending loyalty.  "Don't you think you might be a tad bit prejudiced?" 


     Rick was never more serious.  "No.  I don't.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not laying all the blame at Janet's feet.  I know that most times it takes two to make a marriage work, and two to make it unravel.  But I also know you almost better than I know myself.  And I know you never make the decision to walk away from any type of adversity without first giving it all you've got."  Rick shrugged.  "So you gave it all you got, and that's all you can ask of yourself.  Neither you nor Janet could completely control what fate had in store for you."


     A.J. spent a moment absorbing his brother's words.   "I guess I've finally come to realize that."


     "You have?"  Rick brightened.    Now see there, I'm always tellin' you my advice is sound.  And here all these years you've been scoffing at everything I say."


     A.J. smiled while giving a fond shake of his head.  "Not everything.  Only most things.  But this time...this time the realization didn't come from anyone's words of advice.  Not yours, not Mom's, not anyone's.  This time they came from within me."


     Rick's, "Oh," was phrased carefully in a cross between a question and a statement.  It gave A.J. the option to go on and explain if he so chose to, while at the same time giving him the option to keep his thoughts to himself.

     A.J. leaned back in his chair.  He hooked his right foot underneath the handle of the bottom desk drawer and pulled it out just far enough to rest his tennis shoes on it.  He idly rubbed his hand across the gleaming surface of the maple desktop.  


"When we were camping and I was so sick those last few hours right before Gil came..."




     A.J. looked over at his brother, knowing what he was about to say might not be easy for Rick to hear. 


"I know this might sound strange, but I felt like someone...God, I suppose, if that's possible, was letting me make the choice as to whether or not I lived or died.  I've never before felt so sick in my life, Rick.   But for as out of it as I was, I was oddly aware of how grave the situation was.  I knew help might yet be days away.  And I knew to hang on that long would take supreme effort on my part.  I thought a lot about Janet during that time.  Janet and all that had gone wrong in our marriage.  I thought about the baby we lost.  About all the things I might never have, that at one time meant so much to me.


     "At those times it would have been so easy just to slip away.  So easy to let myself find permanent release from it all.  From both the physical pain, and the emotional pain, as well.  You know, I've never given it much thought as to whether or not any of us really has a choice about death.  I always figured if it's your time it's your time.  Period.  But now I know that in some instances, that's not so.  That sometimes you are given an option.  And when I realized the ball was in my court, I realized that choosing to live also meant putting Janet and our marriage in the past.  Choosing to live meant moving forward, as opposed to trying to regain something that had outlived its purpose."


     "Your life in Seattle," Rick quietly stated.


     A.J. nodded.  "My life in Seattle.  My life with Janet, and our marriage.  Maybe it was never meant to be.  Maybe it was only meant to be for a short time.  Maybe if I would have done things differently it would have lasted until death do us part, like a marriage is supposed to.  And maybe I'll never know."


     "That's not something anyone's ever gonna be able to reveal to you, A.J.  I have feeling someday you will know.  But only because you'll come to that conclusion on your own."


     A.J. didn't answer his brother, and a long minute passed before Rick spoke again.


     " this enough?"


     A.J.'s eyebrows met at the bridge of his nose.  "Is what enough?"


     "Your P.I. work.  Simon and Simon.  Are these things enough to make you happy?"

     A.J.'s smile was wide and genuine.  "Why do you think I made the choice I did?"


     Rick smiled back.  "I guess I never thought of it that way."


     "Well, you should have," A.J. scolded.   "You and Mom are the most important people in my life."


     "And Lauren?"


     "What do you mean, and Lauren?"


     "Is she important, too?"


     "Are you pumping me for information that you're going to  pass on to Mom?"


     Rick chuckled.  "Let's put it this way.  Her curiosity is about to do her in.  Especially after you and Lauren went away together this past weekend.  But I won't tell her anything you say if you don't want me to."


     "No, that's okay.  You can tell her.  Though actually, there's not all that much to tell.  I like Lauren.  I like her a lot.  And Shane and Tanner are wonderful kids.  It's fun doing things with the three of them on the weekends the boys aren't with their dad.  And it's fun doing things with just Lauren on the weekends they are.  But if you're asking me if I'm ready to get married again, the answer is no.  I haven't even considered it."


     "That's what I thought, but Mom is afraid you might rush into something you'll regret later."


     A.J. knew his mother well.  "Because of the boys?"


     "I think that's part of it.   She knows how much you wanted with Janet."


     "I did," A.J. confirmed.  "But not enough to make the mistake of finding a substitute family only three and a half months after my divorce is final.  My relationship with Lauren just happened, as most relationships do.  Whether or not she had children didn't factor into it at all.  Granted, the kids have been an added bonus.  They're well-behaved, well-adjusted to their situation, and a lot of fun besides.  But for right now, that's as far as it goes.  Maybe in time it will become more.  Maybe in time I'll be ready to give more of myself to Lauren and the boys...make a permanent commitment to them.  Not right now though.  And not for some time to come." 


     A.J. finished with a laugh.  "And you can tell Mom that if you can remember all of it."


     Rick smiled.   "I think I've got most of it."  The lanky detective swiveled in his chair and opened a desk drawer.  He pulled out a manila file folder.  "And on that note, I guess it's time for Simon and Simon to start another working day.  I need to catch you up on the two cases I took while you were home recuperating.  I talked to Mrs. Cantada and--"


     "Just a minute."  A.J. rose from his desk.  "There's still one thing missing."

     "Whatta ya' mean, there's still one thing missing?  One thing missing from what?  I think some of that spider's venom killed off several of your brain cells, A.J."


     "Lucky for us then, that it didn't bite you.  I have spare brain cells, while you, on the other hand, operate at the bare minimum on most days."


     "Oh, you're a real comedian.  Next time you throw up all over the front of my shirt I won't be so quick to forgive you."


     "I'll keep that in mind," A.J. stated while heading for the door.  "Hopefully, there won't be a next time."


     "Where are you goin'?"


     "I told you.  Something's missing.  I'll be right back."


     Rick threw his pen down and shook his head with exasperation.  He rose and waited by the picture window until he saw A.J. walking to his car.  Rick could see his brother reach for something in the back seat, but couldn't tell what it was A.J. was carrying as he headed back to the building.


     Rick started grumbling loudly when he heard the elevator gate slide shut.   "What was so all-fire important that it couldn't wait until we went out at lunch time?"




     A.J. entered the office with the neon Simon and Simon sign under his arm.  When they had split up their possessions on their last day of business together, August 31, 1990, Rick had made A.J. take the sign with him.  For almost five years it had hung over his desk at the home he and Janet shared in Seattle.  When A.J. had returned to San Diego the sign had come with him, packed securely in a cardboard box.  He had left it there, deciding it wouldn't be unpacked until it was ready to be returned to its rightful place.


     The hook A.J. had screwed into the windowsill ten years earlier to hold the sign was still there.  Rick hung it up, then took three steps back to make sure it was straight.       


     He smiled and he gave his brother a nod.  A.J. bent over and plugged the sign in.  He straightened and moved to stand beside Rick.


     Rick draped an arm around the blond's shoulders.  "I guess this means Simon and Simon is officially back in business, little brother."


     "That's what it means," A.J. confirmed.  He looked around the office and was overcome by a feeling of deju va.  "It’s just like old times."


     "Yep," Rick agreed with peaceful satisfaction.  "Just like old times." 


     Rick dropped the arm he had around A.J.'s shoulders and leaned back to sit on the corner of his desk.  "And speaking of old times, A.J...I...uh...I guess I'd...uh...better tell you I...uh--"


     A.J. looked Heavenward.  "Oh no.  I know when you start stammering I'm going to hear something I don't like."


     "It's not that bad!  It's just that...well, I need to let you know I used the last three hundred bucks from petty cash."


     "All of it?"


     "Well...yeah.  See , I felt like I had to do something for the guys for helping me paint and move the furniture, so I took all of 'em out for dinner to the Prime Cut on Sunday night."


     "That seems fair," A.J. amiably agreed.  "But geez, Rick, what did you guys eat that it cost you three hundred dollars?"


     Rick's eyes dropped to the floor.  "It didn't quite cost me three hundred dollars I don't guess."


     "You don't guess?  What exactly did it cost you?"


     "With dessert, and a few pitchers of beer, and the tip and all, I guess it came to around a hundred and fifty bucks."


     "That sounds more like it.  Now what happened to the remaining one fifty?"




     "Rick, you're stammering again."


     Rick's eyes traveled up to meet his brother's.  "I know.  That's 'cause when you stand over me like this demandin' answers you make me think of Dad.  Always have."


     A.J. hid his smile.  "Would it be easier on you if I sat down?"

     "I don't suppose so.  You're still gonna be pissed."


     Solicitously. A.J. invited,  "Just tell me what you did."


     "I bet Carlos on a couple of the horses that were runnin' at Del Mar yesterday."


     "You bet Carlos again and you lost," A.J. stated matter-of-factly.  "Rick, when are you going to learn?  With all the money you've lost to Carlos over the years on this bet or that, you could have purchased a mansion in La Jolla by now."


     "I know.  I know.  And I'm sorry."   The contrite apology reminded A.J. of a little boy who'd spent his milk money on candy bars and gotten caught once again.  "It's just that I thought I'd win this time."


     A.J. gave a mock sigh of long suffering.  "You'd better start reviewing those cases with me.  The ones you took while I was out sick.  We'll need to earn a couple of paychecks before I can put that three hundred dollars back."


     "Yeah," Rick nodded eagerly.  "That's a good idea.  There's a hefty bonus attached to the Cantada case as it is.  And uh...there's one more thing I need to ask you."


     "What is it?"


     "Can I borrow fifty bucks from you until pay day?"



     Rick cleared his throat.  "'Cause my bet with Carlos was for two hundred.  I'm kinda in the hole with him right now."


     "Kinda in the hole to the tune of fifty bucks, huh?"


     "Yeah.  Something like that."


     Much to Rick's surprise, with no further lectures and no yelling, A.J. willingly reached in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.  He opened it and removed two twenty dollar bills and a ten, before returning the wallet to its rightful place. 


     The blond held out the money.  "Here."


     Rick looked up at his brother.  "Just like that?  You're just gonna give it to me?"


     A.J. nodded. "Just like that."


     Rick's eyes clouded over with suspicion.  "What's the catch?"


     "No catch.  You can pay me back on Friday."


     "Oh, I will.  You can count on it, A.J."


     As A.J. turned toward his desk Rick caught the twinkle in his eyes.


     "What's so funny?"


     A.J. was the picture of innocence when he looked over at his brother.   "Let's just say I'm reveling in old times."


     The twinkle that lit Rick's eyes matched the one he saw in his brother's.  "Does it feel right?"


     "Rick, not only does it feel right, for the first time it feels like the future."


     "A future you want to be a part of?"


     "A future I wouldn't dream of missing out on."


     Rick walked over and grasped his brother by the shoulders.  He turned him until they both faced the window.


     "I guess that old sign just about says it all, doesn't it, A.J.?"


     A.J. smiled.  He brought a hand up and gave Rick's shoulder a strong squeeze.


     "That old sign says everything, big brother.  It says everything, and then some."


     And with that, the Simon brothers went to work reliving old times, while welcoming new ones.



~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


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