The Beginning Of The End
I look back on it now, and wonder when it all went wrong. When everything fell apart at the seams.
Things had finally come together for my brother and me. We had finally hit our stride, so to speak, and had achieved nothing less than a string of glorious victories at the finish line. Neither one of us could have been happier with our professional lives, nor with our personal lives, for that matter. After all those years of workin' our tails off to eek two incomes out of a job that very often doesn't even provide one, we had arrived at a point where we no longer thought of ourselves as struggling P.I.'s. Instead, we thought of ourselves as simply, successful private investigators.
It was a good feeling. One I was proud of. And one A.J. was proud of as well, though these days he has a hard time admitting that to himself.
I've never been one to look too far into the future. Usually I'm pretty content with just makin' it through another day. Generally I let tomorrow worry about itself. But I look back now on that day in the office, the day when Carlos walked in with his cousin, and I wish to God I'd had a crystal ball. I wish I could have seen the freight train barrelin' down our track with its whistle blowin' a warning we musta’ been deaf not to hear. I've wished a hundred times I could go back to that day, thereby changing the outcome of everything that came afterwards. Thereby sparing the brother I love unjust pain and heartache.
If I'd only somehow known it would turn out to be...the beginning of the end.
A.J. and I were gathered around his desk that Tuesday morning of January 9th, 1990. We were attempting to dry a set of blueprints with a blow dryer, when the office door opened without the preamble of a knock.
"So, Ricky, what have you gone and ruined this time?"
I looked up briefly, then returned my attention back to the delicate task at hand. "Nothing, amigo. Nothing."
A.J. was all too eager to discount my 'nothing'. "An important set of blueprints that we need for a job this evening. Big brother here managed to spill a full mug of coffee on them."
"Hey! It wasn't my fault! If you hadn't let the door slam when you came in this never woulda' happened."
"Rick, face it," my sibling imparted. "It's always your fault."
"It is not! I don't know why I always have to take the blame for--"
"Okay, amigos. That's enough," Carlos refereed. "This is just one of many disagreements I've witnessed over the last thirty-five years. Therefore, I'm well aware that it could go on all day. Unfortunately, my cousin and I don't have the time to be a part of your brotherly hi-jinx this morning."
It was then that I took notice of Carlos's cousin, Adriano, standing behind him. By Adriano's side was a young girl who appeared to about fourteen.
A.J. shut off the hair dryer and set it aside as Carlos introduced, "Rick, you remember my cousin, Adriano Garcia."
I stuck my right hand out. "Yeah. Sure. How ya' doin', Adriano?"
slender, brown-eyed man in blue jeans and a green flannel shirt gave my hand a
firm shake. "I am fine,
I had worked on Adriano's Oldsmobile with Carlos and Adriano one Sunday afternoon a few years back. Although that was the last time I'd seen him, Carlos spoke of him on occasion.
"And this is Rick's younger brother, A.J.," Carlos introduced.
A.J. walked around from behind his desk, and with a smile shook the hand Adriano extended to him. "It's nice to meet you, Adriano."
Carlos put an arm around the girl's shoulders and encouraged her to step out from Adriano's shadow. "And this is Erika. She's Adriano's daughter."
The girl shook the hand I offered her. "Hi, Erika. I think I remember seein' you at your dad's house a few years ago." I eyed the thin girl's typical teen attire of short denim skirt, oversized white dress shirt that probably belonged to one of her older brothers, and baggy denim vest. She was a pretty girl, just cresting womanhood. I had no doubt that within a few short years she'd be a real knockout. "Only then you weren't much into wearin' skirts if I remember right. I think you helped us work on your dad's car that day, didn't you?"
"Yeah," the girl acknowledged with a shy smile. In much the way a mare straightens her mane she tossed her long black hair over her shoulder with a graceful shake of her head.
Carlos went on to introduce Erika to A.J., who also shook her hand. He gave her a smile and a "How are you, Erika? It's nice to meet you."
I cocked an eyebrow at Carlos that he interpreted accurately to mean, "Is this business or pleasure, old buddy?"
The grim line around Carlos's mouth and the firm little shake of his head gave me my answer. Business. Serious business.
A.J. must have read Carlos's body language as well. He made quick work of ushering everyone toward the circle of four overstuffed chairs that surrounded the large round coffee table in the middle of the office floor. I offered our guests sodas, which they all declined, then pulled a chair over from A.J.'s desk to complete the gathering.
No one spoke for a few seconds, which was okay with me. It gave me a chance to subtly study our visitors. Adriano continuously worried his lower lip with his teeth and appeared to be exhausted. Even with his ruddy complexion I could easily detect the dark circles under his eyes.
Erika seemed on edge. She sat perched on the end of her chair, her hands tucked under her thighs, her shoulders hunched forward as if she were cold. Her legs never stopped moving, jiggling up and down nervously from the moment she had been seated.
Since Carlos was an old friend of mine, A.J. let me take the lead regarding the discussion. For the time being, I directed my attention to the man I had met more than three decades earlier in a third grade classroom at Mission Bay Elementary School.
Conversationally I asked, "So, Carlito, what can we do for you today?"
Carlos's dark eyes met mine. There was no hint of the mischief they usually contained. "Adriano and Erika have a...bit of problem that they need help with, Ricky. When my cousin explained to me what's been happening recently to his daughter, I suggested we come see you and A.J. Maybe the two of you can be of assistance...or at least offer some other options for us to consider."
I looked across the coffee table at Carlos's cousin. "What seems to be the trouble, Adriano?"
The man looked unsure of himself for a moment. He glanced at Carlos and received a small smile and nod of encouragement.
Adriano looked back at me. "Carlos may have told you that my wife passed away two years ago, Rick."
I nodded. I recalled that Adriano's wife had been in remission from some form of cancer back when the three of us worked on his car that Sunday afternoon four years earlier. When she had died two years after that Carlos had been a pallbearer at
"I had a rough time of it right after Leonora passed away." The man looked at his daughter and smiled sadly. "We all did. Erika had just turned twelve. My sons were sixteen and seventeen. All three of them missed their mother very much. I...well I did not handle the whole thing so well. I took to drinking too much--"
reached over and squeezed her father's hand.
Adriano smiled at his child. "It is okay. This is something I have to do, Erika. Something we both have to do. We can no longer pretend the bad times have not happened. They are as much a part of us as the good times are."
Adriano returned his attention to me and A.J. "As I said, I took to drinking too much to hide from the pain. To not have to see the sad faces of my children who no longer had a mother. For the first year after my wife's death I spent more time in the corner bar than I did at home. The boys...well, I thank God they came through it all right. That they did not pay the price for my foolishness. My weakness.
"James, my oldest, tried to be both mother and father to his younger brother and sister. For my sixteen-year-old Nathaniel, that was enough. For Erika," The man looked at his daughter once again and smiled softly. "Well for Erika, it was not. And it should not have been. I should have been there for her. But I was not. And now we are both paying the price for my mistakes." The man hung his head in a gesture I could only interpret as one of shame.
When Carlos's cousin couldn't seem to go on I offered gently, "I'm sorry for all your troubles, Adriano...Erika. My brother and I lost our father when we were young so we know how difficult the loss of a parent...as well as a spouse, can be for a family. But I'm a little confused here as to how A.J. and I can be of help to you."
Adriano looked up from the floor and cleared his throat.
"Because I was not around much...and usually hung-over when I was, my daughter found herself in need of more than I...or her brothers, were capable of offering. She...she joined a local street gang."
Slowly I began to see the light, as did A.J. I'm sure. The grief stricken girl felt abandoned, betrayed, and probably a hundred other things by the mother who had died. The father that should have been there to help her pick up the pieces was too busy drowning his own sorrows in a bottle of Jack Daniels. At twelve years old she was left feeling lost and alone. No doubt a gang provided her with the family unity she was so desperately seeking.
With just a trace of the accent leftover from his childhood in Mexico Adriano said, "You must understand, Rick...A.J., my daughter is not a bad girl. She is not the kind of girl who hurts people, or--"
"Adriano," A.J. interrupted the man's unnecessary explanation. "Neither Rick nor I are here to pass judgment over you or Erika. What's happened is in the past. Just tell us how we can be of help to you now."
At my brother's words, Adriano looked as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I gave A.J. a smile. I was grateful for the empathy he brought to emotional situations such as these.
The man rubbed his palms nervously over his blue jean clad thighs as if what he was about to tell us was difficult to reveal. "Erika joined the Conquistadoras shortly before her thirteenth birthday."
I exchanged glances with both Carlos and A.J. The three of us were well aware that the Conquistadoras, in English the feminine version of the word Conqueror, were the sister gang to a very powerful male street gang that had been in existence in San Diego since the 1950's called the Conquistadores¢. Even for all the trouble Carlos and I had gotten into as teenagers, and for as foolhardy as we had been at times, we had always been smart enough to stay away from those guys. They were bad news in a big way.
The jittery little girl with the coal black hair who was sitting across from me now hardly fit my image of an uncouth, street-smart female gang member.
Before Adriano could go on with his story, Erika spoke. Both A.J. and I had to strain to hear her though she was no more than five feet from us.
"I...I thought that being in the gang would be cool. I knew some girls at school...they were in it and made it sound so neat. My Pop...he already told you about his problems, and Jimmy and Nate...well, they tried to help, but they weren't my Mom, you know?"
My brother and I nodded, not interrupting the girl whose eyes flicked back and forth from one of us to the other.
"So I thought that in this gang of girls...that maybe somehow I'd get what I was missing at home. Or at least that's what I think I was looking for. I don't even know myself anymore. All I know is that there was a bunch of girls, thirty in all, and some of them were a lot older, in their twenties, and they made it sound like they would take my Mom's place for me. That they would be kind of like...my older sisters if I wanted them to be."
As Erika became more comfortable with A.J. and me she sat up straighter, stilled her legs, and talked with more volume and confidence.
"At first it was fun. It was like being in a club just for girls. Later I figured out that's how they recruit new members. That they go easy on you in the beginning to gain your trust. Then as they ask you to do more and more... bad things for them...well I guess they assume that you'll either be so much a part of the gang that you won't question it, or if nothing else that you'll think you owe it to them to do whatever they ask." Erika dropped her head and looked down at the floor. She almost whispered as she finished with, "No matter how bad it is."
"And is that what happened to you, Erika?" My perceptive brother asked gently. "Did they ask you to do bad things? Things that you didn't want to do?"
Erika's face was hidden by her long hair. She gave a tiny nod in answer to A.J.'s questions.
Adriano reached over and rubbed a hand up and down his child's back. "Erika was in the gang a little more than a year. After the first eight months she knew she wanted out, but did not know how to get out without risking her own life. It was shortly after that time that I came to my senses. Saw what I was doing to my family...especially to my daughter. I came home one night and threw all the liquor out of the house. That was over six months ago now and I have not had a drink since. Have not stepped foot in a bar since that time. My kids and I started going to church together again. I took an interest in their activities again. I have tried to take the place of their mother as best I can. The four of us have made some big steps forward in the right direction.
"When I had sobered up enough to realize just what Erika was doing, just what this gang was all about that she belonged to...I went a bit loco. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, screaming and shouting at her in Spanish. My son James finally had to pull me away from her. I was so angry with her...and angry with myself. Leonora and I did not raise our children to steal from, or hurt other people. We were just eighteen years old when we were married and left Mexico. I came to this country to give my unborn children everything I did not have as a child. I did not want them born into poverty. Nor did I want them to join the street gangs that were so prominent in my youth in Mexico City. Leonora and I worked hard to buy our own home. To provide nice things for our family. We raised our children to be good honest citizens. When I found out what Erika had done, that she had joined the Conquistadoras, I felt like I had failed my wife. I knew that if Leonora had lived this would have never happened."
Before the man could go on with any more useless and unnecessary self-incriminations I asked for clarification, "But Erika's out of the gang now?"
"Technically speaking, yes she is,” Adriano nodded. “She has been out for five months. But they will not leave her alone."
I looked at A.J. He gave a slight nod of his head, indicating to me that he knew as well as I did that most street gangs don't take too kindly to a member suddenly deciding that their itinerary of activities isn't appealing.
I returned my attention to Adriano who was explaining, "They call our house at all hours of the day and night. They have threatened to hurt me and my sons. They have threatened to...to kill my daughter. They will not leave us alone. They do not seem to understand that she no longer wants to be a part of their gang."
"Oh, they understand it all right." I stated. "They just don't like it."
"I have done everything I know to do," Adriano said. "For five months they have hounded my child like dogs on a fox hunt. I took her out of the public high school where she was a freshman and now have her in a private Catholic school. I thought that would help. I thought that if she no longer went to school with some of those girls it would all come to an end. When it did not, I had our phone number changed. It is now unlisted. Still, the calls come. Somehow they still get through. One of the boys or myself drives Erika to school and picks her up, but still they follow us. They taunt us. They dare us to challenge them. I instruct my sons, do not cause trouble. Ignore them, and eventually they will tire of their games. But still, they follow us. Harass us. I cannot leave Erika in the house alone for fear that one of them will break in and harm her. As a last resort now, I am putting my house up for sale. I think the only thing we can do is start over somewhere else where no one knows us. I am beginning to think that we cannot even stay in San Diego. That Erika will only be safe if we move several hundred miles away. Maybe even to another state."
With that Erika began to cry softly. Adriano put a comforting arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him. I could just barely hear her muffled apology.
"It's all my fault, Papa. I'm so sorry. I don't want us to have to move away. Jimmy and Nate are in college here. Your job is here. Our family is here. I didn't mean--"
Adriano rocked back and forth with his child. "Shhh," he hushed. "It is not your fault. We both have made our share of mistakes, but those are behind us now. The boys can go to college anywhere. They will not care. You know that. And as far as a job goes, well I can get a job anywhere too. The change might even do us all some good. It might be the best thing for us. Remember what your mama used to say? God doesn't close a door without opening a window. Good things will come of this. We just cannot see them right now. And as for our family...family will always be family no matter where we live." Adriano looked over at his cousin. "Isn't that right, Carlos?"
Carlos leaned forward and laid a hand on Erika's back.
"That's right. We'll come see you, Erika, no matter where you end up living. You better tell your old man to buy a big house with lots of bedrooms 'cause ya' know, when our family comes to visit, they usually end up staying a couple of years. We're a hard bunch to get rid of."
I could tell Erika's sobs had changed to a choked laugh at Carlos's inside joke. The girl pulled away from her father and wiped her wet eyes with her white shirtsleeve. When she discovered she had smeared black mascara across it she moaned, "Oh, no. Nate's gonna kill me."
A.J. rose and pulled a clean hankie from his pocket. He walked over to the water cooler and wet a corner of it. He came back and handed it to Erika. “Here,” he said with a smile. “See if this will get it out."
The girl scrubbed vigorously at the sleeve for a few moments, then handed A.J.'s hankie back to him. She smiled through her tears.
"Thank you, Mr. Simon. That worked pretty good. I got almost all of it out."
"A.J.," my brother corrected with a dimpled grin. "And you're welcome."
The gallant knight in shining armor, otherwise known as my younger brother, went over to his desk and picked up a box of Kleenex, as well as grabbed a Coke out of the office refrigerator. He handed both to Erika and received another bright smile of adoration and a grateful, "Thank you."
Getting back to the business at hand I offered, "I think you're on the right track with everything you've done so far. Pulling Erika outta the school where she has to see these kids everyday was the first thing A.J. and I woulda' suggested. As far as getting an unlisted number goes, that was the right move, too. Why these kids can still get through I can't tell you. Either one of your kids gave the number out to a friend, who than inadvertently passed it on to the wrong person, or one of these gang members has some kind of connection with the phone company. Maybe one of 'em has a relative who works there. Regardless, I have a friend who can fix that for us. I can get you a new unlisted number. I know Bruno - my friend, will make sure no one gets a hold of it. The only thing I can add is to be very careful as to who you give it out to. Only give it out to those people who have absolute need of it. Maybe you should get an answering machine. That way you can screen your calls and won't have to deal first hand with the harassment if it somehow does continue. And, after a while of not having the satisfaction of getting a live human voice at the other end, these kids might quit calling."
Adriano listened intently to what I was saying, nodding after each point, and after the points I continued to make.
"Unfortunately, I have to agree with you in regards to putting your house up for sale. None of us likes to turn tail and run, but when there's no other option open to us it doesn't mean that we're cowards. Sometimes it just means we're smart. I know enough about these gangs to know they won't give up. And as much as I hate to say this, you're correct in your assumption that they probably intend to harm Erika if they have a chance to get a hold of her. I hope I'm wrong about that, but it wouldn't be fair to either one of you if I was less than honest."
"Have you talked to the police, Adriano?" A.J. asked.
"On several occasions. They have not been much help, however."
A.J. nodded his understanding. "Many times there's nothing they can do until something happens. Yet I know how frustrating it can be to be told that when you're trying to prevent something from happening in the first place."
"Exactly," Adriano agreed.
"Rick and I have a friend down at the police station who I believe would be sympathetic to Erika's plight. I don't know if there's much she can do, but I do know she'll listen and willingly offer her thoughts and suggestions. She may have Erika talk to an officer in the Gang Prevention Unit, as well. I'd be happy to call and see if Lieutenant Marsh...our friend, is available this morning if you and Erika would like to speak with her."
Adriano looked at his daughter, letting her make that decision. Erika chewed on her lower lip a moment before turning her attention to A.J. and saying softly, "Okay. I...guess that would be all right.."
A.J. smiled at her. "It'll be painless. I promise. Abby only bites Rick. And then, only when she's been provoked beyond her ability to cope anymore."
"Hey!" I protested over everyone's laughter.
A.J. walked over to the phone on his desk and dialed Abby's number at the station. He got her on the first ring. He briefly outlined Adriano's dilemma, listened to whatever it was Abby said to him in return, thanked her and hung up.
A.J. returned to our circle and sat down. "She can meet with us at one o'clock this afternoon."
I glanced at my watch to see it was just a few minutes past eleven. "As long as we've got some time to kill how about if A.J. and I treat the three of you to lunch?" I offered as I rose. "There's this really good restaurant just a few blocks down that has a great luncheon buffet. It's all you can eat from eleven until two." I smiled at our youngest visitor. "And they also have an ice cream buffet where you can make whatever kind of sundaes you want. They've got everything from chocolate sauce to strawberries, to caramel, to bananas--."
"Ricky...Ricky," Carlos beckoned for my attention right in the middle my recitation of my favorite part of Spooner's luncheon buffet.
I looked at my old friend. "What?"
"Sit down please."
"Why? Don't you guys want to go to lunch?"
a few minutes," Carlos stated.
"Adriano has something else he wants to talk to you about."
I sat down, exchanging glances with A.J. as I did so. I could tell he was as confused as I was. We were both under the assumption that for the most part, we had helped Adriano and his daughter as much as we could.
"What is it, Adriano?" I prompted when the man didn't say anything.
"Erika and I came here today upon the advice of Carlos to get both of your opinions regarding what has been happening to our family. I am very glad to hear that the things we are doing to keep her safe are the right ones. I will also gladly talk with your police lieutenant friend and heed to any advice she can give me. But, as well, I came here this morning for another reason."
Politely, A.J. asked, "And that reason is?"
Adriano looked over at Carlos a second, as if to check and see if he was doing the right thing. Carlos gave a small nod of his head.
Adriano shifted his eyes to A.J. and me.
"I...I...well. I thought I might be able to hire the two of you to act as...as bodyguards, I guess you would call it, for Erika."
Adriano must have seen the dubious glances A.J. and I exchanged because he rushed on.
"Carlos has told me that the two of you have done this type of work before. That sometimes you are hired as bodyguards for important business people...even celebrities."
I couldn't meet my brother's intense gaze when he cocked an
eyebrow at me and gave me a look that clearly said,
Okay. Okay. So maybe I had exaggerated to Carlos as to the prominence of some of our clients over the years. Hey, I'm only human.
A.J. turned to Adriano. "Well...yes, it's true. Rick and I have served as bodyguards on occasion for some prominent business people." He looked at me as he finished with, "And on one or two occasions we may have done work for some minor celebrities. Very minor celebrities. But generally, Adriano, these are just one shot deals."
At the puzzled lines that suddenly etched themselves into Adriano's forehead A.J. explained, "Generally we just escort the person to some event or another for one evening. Yes, there have been times when we've served in the capacity of bodyguard for several days in a row, but that's fairly rare. And to be honest with you, we've really never been involved in something like this. Something that could be potentially dangerous to our client if we screw up."
"But I know you can do it," Adriano insisted to A.J. "Carlos speaks so highly of both of you. And I have read of both of you in the paper many times over the years."
The man shifted his pleas to me. "Carlos thinks of you as a brother, Rick. He trusts you with his life. He trusts my daughter's life to your care, and to A.J.'s care, as well. He told me that if he was facing this type of problem with one of his own children, that the two of you would be the first people he would turn to for help."
"Look, Adriano," A.J. said gently, "Rick and I are flattered that you and Carlos have such confidence in our abilities. And I know Carlos and Rick have a very tried and true friendship that goes back many, many years. Under any other circumstances I wouldn't hesitate to offer you our services. But in this case...well, it's just that in this case Rick and I may be a bit out of our league."
I looked at Carlos, who refused to offer any of his thoughts on the matter. I knew that meant that regardless of what he wanted me to do, he would stand by the decision A.J. and I made, and that our friendship would come out of this just as strong as it ever was.
My mind formed the words I wanted to say to Adriano.
Look, I agree with A.J. We'd really like to help you, but we're out of our league on this one. These gangs are just too dangerous to mess with. The best thing you can do is sell your house as quickly as possible and get the hell out of Dodge.
I should have said that. But I didn't. The look on the man's face stopped me before I even got the first word out of my mouth. He was lookin' at me and my brother like we were the only prayer he had left in this world. Like we were the only hope he had of keeping his child safe. And then I thought of Carlos, and the friendship that went back thirty-eight years. If I said no to Adriano, wasn't I letting Carlos down as well?
I looked from the hopeful eyes of Adriano, to the scared ones of Erika, to the neutral ones of Carlos. Finally I settled on A.J.'s blue ones. To those in attendance I said, "If you'll excuse me and my brother for a minute, we need to have a quick conference in the hall."
A.J. followed me out into the hall and quietly shut the door behind us. He ran a hand down his tie, straightening it neatly inside his khaki green sport coat. I waited for him to speak. In all the years we'd been in business together, I'd never known him to hold back on his true feelings regarding a case we were both on the fence about taking. Until this time. How I wish to God now, that this time had been like all the rest. That this time he would have just said, "No, Rick. No way. There's just too much potential danger with this one. I know Carlos is an old friend, but we're just going to have to tell his cousin no."
But instead of those words, the words I was fully expecting and would have accepted had they come my way, A.J. leaned silently back against the wall. When he didn't say anything at all I asked, "Well, what do you think?"
"Just what I said inside. That we may be out of our league on this one."
I nodded. "I know it. But on the other hand, it could turn out to be relatively easy. I mean, if Adriano's house sells quickly, it could all come to an end in a fairly short period of time."
"I suppose it could," A.J. agreed amiably.
I floundered for another reason to take the case. "And it could be that a couple of new faces will intimidate these kids."
"I suppose that could happen," A.J. agreed again. Though I knew if he was to speak his true thoughts it would be to say sarcastically, "Yeah, and if pigs had wings they'd fly."
I paced the hallway with frustration and indecision. "Come on, A.J. Help me out here."
"Rick, I've already told you twice how I feel. I'm concerned that we may get in over our heads on this one. The last thing I want is for that little girl in our office to get hurt because of one of us. On the other hand, you're right. It may turn out to be relatively easy. And I suppose overall, we never have the luxury of knowing what exactly we're getting into on any case we accept. So, maybe we shouldn't try to look so far ahead with this one either."
I stopped my pacing and came to stand in front of him. "So what's all that mean?"
He smiled. "It means this one's yours."
"Mine? What the heck is that supposed to--"
"It means that Carlos is an old friend of yours to whom I know you feel a tremendous amount of loyalty. This needs to be your decision, not mine. I'll stand by whatever you think is best."
I studied him for a long time, trying to decipher what it was he really wanted me to do. When my brother suddenly developed such a poker face is beyond me. Usually I can read him like a book. But this time he called my bluff. This one time I had to base my entire decision on his words alone.
Carlos is an old friend of yours to whom I know you feel a tremendous amount of loyalty, kept echoing over and over in my head.
Finally I nodded. "I'm gonna tell Adriano we'll take the case."
Again A.J.'s features didn't reveal to me whether or not he thought I was making a mistake. He simply accepted my decision with a nod of his own head. "That's fine. Let's go work out the details."
It didn't take more than a half an hour for A.J. and me to get a clear picture of just what Adriano wanted us to do. Basically, we just had to pick Erika up in the mornings and drive her to school, then in the afternoons pick her up and drive her home. One of us would stay at the house with her in the afternoons, as well, until either Jimmy or Nate returned from their college classes at U.C.S.D., or Adriano returned home from work. It seemed like a fairly easy arrangement. By the time the five of us left for lunch that day I was beginning to wonder what A.J. and I had been so concerned about in the first place.
Not knowing exactly how long our services would be required, I just had Adriano sign a standard contract with us that held us free of all liability in the event that something went wrong. We went over that part quickly - neither of us having any desire to dwell on it. We then agreed to a modest fee that Adriano would pay weekly. If we ended up staying on the case longer than anticipated, Adriano promised to pay the balance of what he owed us upon the sale of his home.
A.J. didn't take part in the arrangements I made with Adriano. He sat around the coffee table talking to Erika and Carlos while Adriano and I worked out all the details at my desk. I knew A.J. was leaving it up to me as to what kind of a fee we were going to charge, and as to how we were going to get paid that fee, out of respect for the fact that Adriano was the cousin of an old friend of mine. I wish now he hadn't. Maybe the guilt wouldn't be so damn bad if he hadn't been so solicitous. So understanding. So concerned about my feelings of loyalty to Carlos. I look back now and wonder where my feelings of loyalty to my brother were that day.
A.J. and I bought Carlos, Adriano and Erika lunch just like I had promised we would. Carlos left to go back to work right after lunch, while the rest of us went to see Abby. Adriano gave Carlos a hug outside the restaurant, telling him in Spanish how grateful he was for all Carlos's help and support.
I promised Carlos that I'd drive Adriano and Erika home as they had ridden to the office with him. Adriano, Erika and I headed for my truck. A.J. was going to follow us to the police station in his Camaro as the four of us wouldn't fit in my truck. Just as I was helping Erika make the step up into the cab she glanced over her shoulder and gave a longingly look in A.J.'s direction.
I knew full well what that look meant. "Would you rather ride with A.J.?"
The girl smiled eagerly. "Yes. That is, if you don't mind, Mr. Simon."
I couldn't help but smile back. "I already told ya' twice, it's Rick, not Mr. Simon. You're makin' me feel old."
"Okay," Erika nodded. "Rick."
"Go ahead then. Go get in the car with A.J.," I instructed. "We'll see you down at the station in a few minutes."
The girl looked up at me. "You really don't mind?"
"Naw, darlin'. I'm used to it by now. All our beautiful female clients fall head over heels in love with blondie over there."
Erika blushed. "Mr. Si...Rick! I'm not in love with A.J.! It's just that I've never ridden in a sports car before."
As the girl ran toward the Camaro I laughed. I turned to her father. "Now that's the most original line I've ever heard from any female who's got the hots for my brother."
Adriano laughed as we both climbed in the cab. "If Carlos hadn't told me so many good things about A.J., I might be concerned. We have a name in Spanish for such a handsome, smooth talking man."
Now it was my turn to laugh. "I know the exact one you're thinking of, amigo. And I don't think I'll share it with A.J. But, even if Carlos hadn't told you so many good things about my brother, I’ll take this opportunity to assure you that my brother hasn't been interested in fourteen-year-old girls since he was a fourteen-year-old boy. And don't let those looks fool you. It's been a long time since A.J. was fourteen."
Adriano and I talked back and forth quite comfortably for the rest of the ride to the police station. I could tell A.J. and Erika were doing the same thing. Every time we were stopped at a red light I glanced in my rearview mirror to see the two engaged in animated conversation.
True to A.J.'s predication, Abby was both sympathetic and understanding of the Garcias' problems. She offered what suggestions she could, though they didn't differ much from the ones A.J. and I had discussed with them earlier in the morning. She then called down to the Gang Prevention Unit and made arrangements for an officer to talk Adriano and Erika. Not only was there the possibility that the officer from that specialized unit could give some good advice to the Garcias, but Abby thought, as well, that Erika might be able to pass along some valuable information regarding the Conquistadoras.
Abby walked us down the two flights of stairs where she introduced Adriano and Erika to the man she had spoken to on the phone only moments earlier, Gary Childers. As father and daughter were shown into Gary's office, I told them A.J. and I would wait for them out in the hallway.
Abby waited with us. "I hope you two know what you're getting into."
I asked, "Whatta ya’ mean?"
"I mean a gang like the Conquistadoras is nothing to mess around with. You guys know as well as I do that most of those girls are as tough as the boys. And that they have a very close association with the Conquistadores¢."
"We know," A.J. acknowledged.
"I just hope you do," Abby stated in a tone that sounded very much like that a mother would use with her wayward children. "Most of our officers who patrol the beat those kids call their turf ask for a transfer as soon as they have enough seniority. It's a special breed that volunteers to work the Gang Prevention Unit."
I echoed A.J.'s words. "We know all that, Abby."
"Well, just keep it in mind. You don't want to get too involved with those kids"
"Come on, Abby, what were we to do?" A.J. asked. "The Garcias need help. They didn't have anyone else to turn to."
Abby smiled. "So they turned to Richard and Andrew Simon. The patron saints of hopeless causes."
"That's us," I quipped.
"Don't I know it," Abby tossed back.
"Just what are the Conquistadores¢ and Conquistadoras into these days?" A.J. asked with curiosity.
"Aside from theft and the normal neighborhood mayhem they engage in, drug trafficking is their big thing from what I hear. That's why it's so important to them that their members don't leave the gang like Erika chose to do. They're afraid the ex-gang member will reveal the secrets they harbor. The girls in the Conquistadoras do a lot of breaking and entering. A lot of fencing. Some drug running. And all of them have to 'give' themselves to a boy in the Conquistadores¢. Become his sexual partner until the time comes that he chooses to move onto someone else."
"Yeah, Erika told us that," I stated grimly. "That's part of the reason she left. She was about to be 'given' to a twenty-year-ld thug who bragged that he killed his first victim when he was only thirteen."
"Sounds sadly typical," Abby nodded. "But, if you really want an accurate answer to all your questions, you’ll have to ask one of the officers from the G.P.U. They'd know better than I would."
Someone came out of the Unit's office to tell Abby she was wanted back upstairs in her own division. She said her goodbyes to us, then left us with a final warning. "You two be careful on this job. Don't get yourselves tangled up in more trouble than either of you can handle."
A.J. looked at me and smiled. "Well, I never thought I'd live to see the day when Lieutenant Abigail Marsh actually cared about what happens to little old us."
"Boy, me either,” I grinned. “Do you suppose this means that it's gonna be easier to get classified information outta her from now on, A.J.?"
Before A.J. could answer me Abby interjected, "Don't even think it. And I'm only concerned about your well-being because one of my closest friends happens to be the unfortunate woman who gave birth to you two misfits."
A.J. and I laughed as Abby disappeared up the stairs. We then went into the Gang Unit and talked to an experienced officer like Abby had suggested. I don't know if we were any wiser when we walked out an hour later with Adriano and Erika, but at least we'd gotten answers to all our questions. And we both knew without a doubt that we wanted to avoid any confrontations with the Conquistadores¢. I remember thinking, for just a split second, that maybe we should just tell Adriano we couldn't take the job after all. But, of course, I didn't do that. And I've regretted it every day since.
I heard the bell ring, then watched as in mere seconds, hoards of teenagers spilled out the doors of the stately old brick building. St. Joseph's High School, where Erika had been enrolled only six weeks earlier, was a twenty minute ride from the office.
Groups of laughing boys and girls flocked by my truck, elbowing and jostling one another like playful pups that had been penned up too long. The kids passed me without so much as a backwards glance, though some of them did wave and call out hellos to other parents who were parked in the lot awaiting the arrival of their offspring.
From what Adriano had told A.J. and me, St. Joseph's High School demanded a lot from its students in terms of academic achievement, as well as behavior. It was probably one of the few Catholic high schools left in San Diego that still had a rigidly enforced dress code. I had noted on the first afternoon I picked up Erika that all the girls wore navy blue skirts that hit just below their knees, white blouses, and navy blue vests or sweaters depending on the weather. The boys wore navy blue dress slacks, white shirts, navy ties, and like the girls, either a sweater or a vest completed their uniform. I never saw any of the kids' feet, boys or girls, in anything other than black dress shoes.
I gave the horn a little toot when I saw Erika scanning the parking lot in search of my truck. She said goodbye to a couple of girls she had been walking with and ran my way.
I leaned over and opened the passenger side door, taking her books from her as she climbed in.
kiddo. How was school?"
"Fine," she smiled.
"Looks like you're makin' some new friends."
"Yeah. Finally. They're nice girls."
The transition from the freedom of a public high school, to the rigidity of a Catholic one, had not been easy for Erika. But now, after six weeks, she was beginning to make some new friends, and was even talkin’ about trying out for a part in the school musical that was held each spring. A.J. and I had already promised her we'd be in the audience the night of her opening performance – provided the Garcias still lived in the area by then, of course.
I looked across the seat at my charge. "How about if we stop for ice cream before we go to the office?"
In the week and a half we had been on this job, A.J. had driven Erika to school every morning, and I had picked her up each afternoon. A.J. said he didn't trust me with the morning shift, since I had rarely made it to school on time thirty years ago. He said he doubted if much had changed over the years, and that he didn't want Erika marked tardy for her first class because of me.
"Ice cream sounds good," the girl agreed. With a teasing smile she added, "A.J. took me to breakfast this morning."
I looked behind me, then backed out of the parking space. "Why'd he do that?"
“I don’t know,” Erika shrugged. "He just did. He's nice."
"So I suppose this means you'd rather be seen dining around town with some flashy blond in a little red sports car, as opposed to eating ice cream with dull old me."
Erika's laughter filled the cab. "Oh, Rick. You're not dull."
"Well, thank you, my dear. I'll take that as a compliment."
how it was intended. But, Rick?"
I glanced her way. "Yeah?"
"Do you think A.J. might be willing to meet a few of my new friends?"
“Why?” I came to the end of the row and stopped long enough to make sure I could proceed onto the street. "Do they got the hots for 'im?"
“Yeah,” Erika smiled. "Big time."
"I guess you'll have to ask A.J. that. But, sweetie, do you and your friends realize how old A.J. is? I mean, take it from one who knows, he's not a kid anymore."
The girl moved closer and lightly elbowed me in the ribs. "Oh, Rick. You're imposs..."
I looked at Erika, wondering why she stopped her words with a gasp. "What is it, Erika?"
She turned her head and looked at me, eyes wide with fear. "Over there."
I craned my neck to see around her. "Where?"
"Across the street from us. See those girls standing there by the bench?"
"That's them. That's some of the girls from the gang."
It was too late for me to tell Erika to get down. The girls had already spotted her. I did tell her to keep looking at me. I didn't want her to acknowledge their presence in any way. I, on the other hand, stared right at the three of ‘em as we passed. If they got the signals I was sending them they woulda' known that I wasn't scared of them, or their tactics of intimidation. Several members of the Conquistadoras had been outside the high school in one place or another every morning and every afternoon since A.J. and I had taken this job.
Once we were on the next block I told Erika, "It's okay, sweetie. They're behind us now."
She leaned back against the seat and let out the breath she’d been holding. "I wish they'd stop doing that."
"I know," I acknowledged softly. "I wish they would, too, kiddo."
Neither one of us said any more. I kept an eye on the rearview mirror, but didn't see anyone following us. Just to be on the safe side, I went down a couple of one-way streets, turned in a few alleys, and then doubled back and retraced my route. If anyone had been following us, they weren't any longer.
We pulled up to a Dairy Bar a few minutes after that.
Erika seemed to have lost her appetite because she said she didn't want anything. I told her that was unacceptable and ordered two deluxe chocolate sundaes. I paid for them, then carried them to the picnic table she was sitting at.
"Rick!" Erika protested, when I handed her the ice cream. "I told you I didn't want any."
I sat down across from her. "And I told you that was unacceptable."
The teen eyed me for a moment, then smiled. "You don't listen so good, do you?"
I laughed. "I've been accused of that crime more than once in my lifetime. Usually by either my mother or brother."
For a little while we just sat in the warm sunshine, warmer than normal for even San Diego in mid-January, and ate our sundaes in silence. After a period of time had passed though, the ice cream seemed to loosen Erika's tongue in much the same way Don Diablo loosens mine.
My mouth was full so I couldn't answer the girl with more than a, "Mmmm?"
"How come you and A.J. are being so nice to me?"
I swallowed before slowly pulling the plastic spoon out of my mouth. I licked the chocolate sauce off of it as I did so.
"Why wouldn't we be nice to you?"
Erika's right shoulder gave a half-hearted shrug. "I've done some...bad things, you know."
know. But just because you've done some
bad things doesn't mean you're a bad person."
The teen chewed on her lower lip a moment. "I suppose not. I just...well, I just hope that you and A.J. aren't doing this - guarding me...'cause of Carlos."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I know you and Carlos have been friends a long time. I just don't want...well, I don't want you and A.J. being nice to me just because of him. I don't want to be a charity case."
I couldn't help but smile a little at her choice of words.
"Is that what you think? That we're bein' nice to you simply because of my relationship with your dad's cousin?"
"I guess I've been wondering that, yeah."
"Then let me set ya' straight, kiddo. I'd be lyin' to you if I told you that my friendship with Carlos didn't play a factor in A.J. and me takin' this job. It did. But believe me, no one, not even Carlos, pays me and my brother to be nice to someone. And you're not a charity case. You're a good kid, Erika. A nice kid. Give yourself a little credit where credit's due."
Erika took some time to mull over what I'd had to say.
When she was ready to speak again she confessed, "I made some pretty big mistakes."
I chuckled softly. "Haven't we all?"
"What do you mean?"
"Believe me, kid, when it comes to mistakes made, I've cornered the market."
"Let's just say I've made more than my share and leave it go at that. You don't have time to hear them all. Nor are most of them fit to be repeated in front of a lovely young lady such as yourself."
"Rick...” Erika smiled at my teasing. After a moment she grew serious once more. She looked down at the picnic table, practically whispering, "But I bet none of your mistakes hurt anyone. I bet none of them hurt your family."
I reached over and laid a hand on top of hers. "Erika? Erika, look at me."
Within a few seconds she reluctantly did as I requested.
"Some of my mistakes did hurt my family. Some of things I did hurt them very much. There was a time when, just like you, I made some choices that weren't good ones. But also like you, I discovered those choices were mistakes. Weren't the right ones for me. And just like your father and brothers have forgiven you your mistakes, my mother and A.J. forgave me mine. That's what family is all about."
Erika nodded. "I know. That's what my pop keeps telling me. And Jimmy and Nate too. But it's still not easy."
"I know it's not," I agreed. "But it'll all get easier with time. Just you wait and see."
"I suppose," the girl acknowledged. She scraped the last drops of ice cream and chocolate out of her dish. "That's why I want to save all the money A.J.'s paying me. I want to give it to Papa. He says that once our house sells we might move to Idaho or Utah. He'd like to buy a home in the country that has a big garage, or maybe even a barn. He says he'd like to start his own business."
Adriano had been employed at the same body shop here in San Diego for twenty years, and had been the shop's foreman for the past thirteen. According to Carlos, he was very skilled at his craft and well thought of by his employers.
"That would be great," I said. "I bet your dad could make a go of it too."
think so. So do Jimmy and Nate. And I told him I could work in the office
for him just like I'm doing for you and A.J."
Because Erika had practically become a prisoner in her own home in recent months, A.J. and I thought she might like a change of scenery. Therefore, when I picked her up after school I brought her to the office until either her father or brothers called to say they were home. A.J. was paying her five dollars an hour to file and to type letters on the computer during her after-school visits. She was a smart kid, learned quickly, and eagerly took on any job A.J. asked her to do.
"I'll sure miss you when you're gone," I told her now. "A more proficient secretary we have yet to find."
"Oh, Rick," Erika gave my shin a light kick under the table. "You guys have never had a secretary before."
"That's true. But I know we'll never find one as good as you are."
"You know, Rick, for an old guy you're quite a flirt."
"An old guy!" I cried in mock outrage. "You're gonna pay for that remark, young lady."
I guess I didn't scare Erika any. She only laughed at me.
When her laughter had died I complimented her. "That's nice of you to give the money you earn workin' for us to your dad."
"I want to do it. Besides, he deserves it. Especially after all the trouble I've caused him. Last week alone I made seventy dollars."
"That much?" I questioned. I mentally estimated that Erika had worked for about two hours each day after school the previous week for five days. If arithmetic hadn't changed any since I was in math class, that would mean she should have earned fifty dollars.
"Yeah. A.J. came by and picked me up on Saturday. He said he had some work to do at the office and wanted to know if I could help him."
"Oh, I see."
I smiled to myself. Even though I knew A.J. had great reservations about taking this case, it was typical of him to help a kid like Erika in any way he could. Although he sometimes took work home on the weekends, and it wasn't unusual for us to work a stakeout over a Saturday or Sunday, it was rare that either one of us went into the office on those two days. I knew A.J. well enough to know that he had more than likely 'invented' work to be done at the office, just to give Erika a chance to get out of the house and earn some extra cash.
"A.J. said I could work for him again for a few hours this Saturday morning, too."
I winked at the girl. "You better be careful, kiddo. People will start to talk."
Erika blushed. "Oh, Rick."
She got me back when she teased with innocence, "Hey, Rick, how come you don't work on Saturdays?"
"It's not in my code of ethics."
"That's not what A.J. said."
"Oh, yeah? And just what did my little brother have to say on that subject?"
"He said if you ever showed up at the office on a Saturday your body would probably go into shock and completely shut itself down."
I stood to gather up our empty cups. Candidly, I agreed. "That's about the size of it, kiddo."
Erika looked up at me, squinting into the sun. "Rick?" The hesitation in her tone was plain to hear.
"Did you ever...did you...well did you--"
"Did I ever what, sweetie?"
"Did you ever...did you ever see somebody die?"
I slowly bent my knees and reseated myself. "Yeah," I acknowledged softly. "I have a time or two."
She hung her head. "So have I."
I studied her bowed head a moment. "You wanna talk about it?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Maybe."
I didn't say anything more. I simply sat and gave her the time she needed. Gave her the right to decide whether she did, in fact, want to talk about it or not.
She finally raised her head and looked across the table at me. "After I had been in the gang a while, I did some things I shouldn't have. Things my parents had taught me were wrong. Mostly breaking into peoples' houses and stealing things."
"Things that the gang then fenced for cash?"
"Yeah. VCR's, TV's, microwaves, jewelry, things like that. I knew we were doing wrong, but I told myself it was okay. That we were robbing from rich people who had a lot of things anyway, and who could afford to replace what we took. But I guess all along I knew it was wrong. I...I didn't like doing it."
"I didn't figure you did," I stated. "Otherwise you wouldn't have gotten outta the gang."
"I guess that's true. But the real reason I had to get out was because of Cristiano."
"Who was he?"
"He was a boy in the Conquistadores¢. I went to school with him since kindergarten. He was a nice guy. I never could figure out how he had gotten involved in the gang. I never thought he fit in." A slight smile touched her lips. "He was a lot like me in that respect. He was too...gentle, too caring to be like them."
"What happened to him?"
"They thought he was a nark."
"I don't know. He was seen several times after school talking to a man who the gang thought was a cop. They said Cristiano was selling them out. That he had made a deal with this cop and was supplying him with information about the gang's activities. But if he was, he never admitted it."
"I see." Even without her telling me, I could pretty much guess as to what had happened to the boy.
"I was there the night...the night they tried to get him to admit that he was narking on them. Over and over again he denied it. Told them it wasn't true. Even when...even when they kept cutting his face with a razor blade."
She paused there, as if gathering strength for what she had to say next. Her eyes pleaded for my understanding.
"I wanted to leave, Rick. I really did. I wanted to go get help for Cristiano...but I was scared."
Erika looked as though she expected me to pass judgment against her. Expected me to tell her she was a weak person who didn't have the guts to help a friend. However, all I did was state matter of factly, "They wouldn't have let you do that, Erika. If you had tried, they would have caught you and hurt you just like they were hurting Cristiano."
She looked away, watching the passing traffic. "I know that. But...but it doesn't help."
I nodded sadly. "I know it doesn't."
She turned her head and looked at me once more. "When they were done...hurting him, White Snake, the leader, put a..." she took a deep ragged breath. "He...he put a gun in Cristiano's mouth and pulled the trigger."
Tears were streaming down Erika's face as I reached across the table and encased her cold, trembling hands in mine.
I squeezed her hands while she cried silently for her friend, and her inability to help him.
When the tears began to subside I handed her a napkin. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. Several long minutes passed before she was able to finish her story.
"That's when I knew I couldn't be a part of the gang anymore. That's when I knew that their ways weren't mine. That's the last time I was ever with them."
"I would say you made a very wise choice."
"Some of them say I'm a chicken. Others say I'm a nark. I've thought a lot about both of those things, Rick. I don't think I'm either one of them. I'm just not the kind of person who belongs with people like them."
"No, you're not. And there's nothing wrong with that, kiddo. As a matter of fact I would say you're a very brave young lady."
Erika brightened a bit. "You would?"
"Yes, I would. It takes a lot of courage to walk out of a gang like the Conquistadoras. I'm willing to bet there's several other kids involved in that gang who would like nothing more than to walk out as well. But you're the one who did it. You're the one who held your head up and said what was going on was wrong. And now you're doin' the one thing that takes more courage than most people possess."
"You're admitting to yourself, and to your friends and family, that you made some mistakes. That you did some things you aren't proud of, but don't ever intend to do again. That takes a lotta' guts, kid."
"You really think so?"
"Take it from one who knows. Yes, Erika, I really think so."
That got a small smile out of her.
She grew serious again. "I just wish they'd leave me alone now."
"I know you do. And they will. As soon as your dad's house sells you'll get a chance to start over somewhere else. You'll be able to put this all behind you."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Hey, did I tell you there's a couple of people interested in the house?"
"No, you didn't. That's great."
"I think so, too. Pop's hoping that it will be sold by the end of the month."
Once again I rose to gather up our dirty cups. "See. It won't be that long then and this will all be over."
Erika walked with me to the garbage can, then followed me to the truck.
"I sure hope so."
I held the passenger side door open for the girl who hesitated a moment before she climbed in. "Rick?"
"You won't...you won't tell A.J. what I told you, will you? About the things I did when I was in the gang? About the stealing and Cristiano?"
"No, Erika. If you don't want me to tell A.J., I won't."
"I...I think I might tell him myself sometime. But not right now. A.J. doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's made a lot of mistakes."
I chuckled. "Oh. And I do?"
Erika realize she had put her foot in her mouth with that remark. Contritely she stated, "No...no that's not what I meant. It's just that...it's just that you're easier to talk to about this kind of stuff. A.J...well, A.J.'s a pretty classy guy."
"That he is, kiddo. But I think you'll discover that A.J. will admit to a few mistakes of his own. When you're ready, you talk to him about it. I've always found him to be a darn good listener."
Erika slowly nodded her head. "Okay. One of these days I will."
"Speaking of A.J., I'd better get you to the office before he starts wonderin' where his favorite secretary is at." I walked around to the driver's side of the truck and climbed in. "And hey, I've got a bone to pick with you."
"What'd I do?"
"You're doin' too good of a job, kid. If you keep showin' me up with your filin' and typin' like you have been, A.J.'s liable to wipe my name off the office door and replace it with yours."
Once again I got an elbow in the ribs and an "Oh, Rick. You're a nut," as we backed out of the parking lot and headed for the office.
Two days later, on Wednesday afternoon, I was on the phone when it was time to leave to pick up Erika.
A.J. could see that my conversation was going to last a while. I was attempting to get some information out of a rather...seedy contact of mine regarding another case we had goin'.
A.J. held up his watch and tapped the face. "I'm going to pick up Erika."
I nodded my head while keeping one ear to the receiver.
A.J. slipped into his suit coat, while talking softly in deference of the fact that I was on the phone. "She's got a big exam to study for so she wants to get right home."
"Hold on a sec, Toadstool," I said into the phone. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and turned my attention to my brother.
"Why can't she study here?"
"Because she needs to use some encyclopedias and other reference books they have at the house. I told her this morning that you'd take her right home after school so she could study, and that you'd wait there until her father or brothers arrived. So, since I'm the one who has to pick her up, I'll wait there."
"Okay. Whatever," I acknowledged as I returned my focus to my phone conversation.
I watched as A.J. picked up some files that I assumed he planned to work on while he stayed with Erika.
He gave me a small wave as he headed for the door. "See you tomorrow."
I knew neither Adriano nor his sons arrived home much before five-thirty. I figured A.J.'s, "See you tomorrow," was his way of telling me that he didn't plan on bein' back in the office for the rest of the day.
"Yeah, see ya'," I called in return. "And be careful," came my final warning, though I really can't say why. It wasn't like I had a feelin' anything bad was going to happen. It just seemed like, under the circumstances, a natural thing to say.
"I will be," were the last words I heard from my sibling before the door was shut behind him.
I didn't get home that night until eight o'clock. I had locked up the office a few minutes after five, ran some errands, then hooked up with a couple of buddies at Ollie's for a few beers and a sandwich. I let them talk me into playing one round of pool before begging off for the night. I knew by that time my dog, Rex, would be more than ready to be let out and fed.
Rex danced around my legs when I let myself into the houseboat. I bent down and gave him the attention he craved, accepting his wet tongue against my face in return.
"Sorry I'm so late tonight, pal," I apologized. I slid the patio doors open and watched as he bounded for his favorite tree.
Rex knew where he was and wasn't allowed to run on the marina's grounds, so didn't need me to keep an eye on him.
I stepped back inside with the intention of mixing up Rex's supper and giving him fresh water.
The message light on my answering machine was blinking insistently as I walked into the kitchen. I was just about to click the switch that would rewind the tape when the phone rang. I snared it on the first ring, fitting it snugly between my chin and shoulder so I could reach in the cabinet for a can of dog food while I talked.
"Rick?" A breathless voice I didn't immediately recognize queried.
"Rick, it is Adriano."
I reached for the can opener that sat by the sink and pulled it closer. "Oh, hi, Adriano. I didn't recognize your voi--"
"Rick," the man interrupted me in a rush. "You have got to get over here! Something has happened."
I set the can down with a thud. My stomach was beginning to constrict in a real uncomfortable way. "What is it, Adriano? What's happened?"
"I do not know for certain. But when I arrived home at six o'clock neither Erika nor A.J. were here."
I wasn't quite ready to panic yet. "Well, maybe A.J. took her out for supper. Did you look for a note?"
"No, Rick, they did not go out for supper. A.J.'s car is still in the driveway. Rick...the house...it is a mess. Like there was a fight...a struggle. There is blood on the living room carpet."
That's all I needed to hear. Now I was ready to panic.
"Have you called the police?"
"They are here now. I have been trying to call you since—“
"I'll be right there," I interrupted, slamming down the phone.
I ran out to the deck of the boat and whistled for Rex. I saw my next door neighbor out walking her dog and hailed, "Clarissa, could you feed and water Rex for me? An emergency has come up and I've gotta get outta here."
"Sure thing, Rick," the buxom blond agreed. She and her German Shepherd, Molly, followed Rex and me into the boat's living room.
Clarissa must have taken note of the frantic way I was grabbing for the jacket, hat and truck keys I had thrown on the countertop when I had walked in a scant five minutes earlier.
"I hope everything's okay," she offered. "Nothing's happened to your mother or A.J. has--"
"I don't know. I've just gotta go," I stated as I brushed past her. "And listen, darlin', I'd really appreciate it if you'd take care of Rex for me if I'm not around much tomorrow. I'll try and call to let you know what my plans are."
I barely heard Clarissa's, "All right," as I ran out the door.
Granted, A.J. was right when he said Clarissa possessed a larger bust line than she did an I.Q. Nonetheless, she was a good neighbor and an animal lover. I had long ago given her a key to my place and found her trustworthy and reliable when it came to takin' care of Rex for me if I was tied up workin' odd hours on some case or another with my brother. At that moment, she was a Godsend.
A trip that should have taken me twenty-five minutes only took me fifteen that night. I came to a screeching halt in Adriano's driveway, parking behind A.J.'s Camaro and right next to Carlos's Ford pickup.
I took note of the squad car parked at the curb, a police crime lab van, and two other unmarked sedans. I recognized one of them as the vehicle I usually saw Abby driving when she was on official business.
Adriano was right. The house was a shambles. The few times I had been in the small, three bedroom bungalow since A.J. and I had taken this case it was always neat and clean. Adriano and his sons had given every wall a fresh coat of paint in preparation of the home's sale. All three kids helped their father keep it tidy, both inside and out.
Now, every lamp and end table was overturned, as was the sofa and chairs. The pictures on the wall were askew, some barely hanging on their nails. Erika's books and papers had been torn and flung about the room. The file folders I saw A.J. leave the office with were laying on the floor, the papers they had contained were mixed up amongst the girl's schoolwork. The solid oak home entertainment center had been tipped over. The TV and stereo lay in broken heaps beneath it. And, right in the middle of the light green carpet was a fresh round stain of blood. A round stain of blood a police lab technician was collecting a sample of while another tech dusted for fingerprints. A further trail of blood droplets peppered the carpet, leading to the front door.
Abby's eyes met mine as I finished surveying the room. I could see into the kitchen. Its condition was similar to that of the living room. Broken glasses, dishes and overturned silverware trays littered the entire area. I spotted Adriano and his sons in there talking to a sandy haired man in blue jeans. I recognized the guy as being Gary Childers, the detective Adriano and Erika had talked to days earlier in the Gang Prevention Unit. Carlos was in there as well, offering silent support to his distraught cousin.
"What happened, Abby?" I asked.
Evidently Abby hadn't been home yet for the evening. She was still dressed in professional attire of a burgundy blouse, beige skirt and matching suit jacket. We stood among the carnage, sidestepping the hard at work technicians when necessary.
"I know about as much as you do at this point, Rick. Adriano came home at six o'clock and found the house in this condition. The only reason I'm here is because someone in the Gang Unit called me. They knew you and your brother were working with the Garcias, and thought I might want to come over here and see what was going on. I didn't even know A.J. was involved. All I was told was that there was the possibility that Erika had been kidnapped by the Conquistadores¢."
"Do you have any witnesses?"
"No. But two officers are going door to door, interviewing
neighbors right now. Hopefully we'll
come up with some leads soon."
Impatiently I asked, "Well, what do you know as of right this minute?"
"Just that the lock on the back door was most likely picked. There's no sign of forced entry, and Adriano told me that he was the last one out of the house this morning. He's positive all the doors and windows were locked."
"That would make sense," I agreed. "The first thing A.J. woulda' done before he let Erika walk in this house was to make sure everything was secure. If they picked the lock to get in, then they relocked the door so no one would be suspicious."
Abby nodded. "Knowing A.J. like I do, that's the same conclusion I came to. Whoever was inside here was hiding, waiting for A.J. and Erika when they walked in. Do you know what time that would have been?"
"Probably around three-twenty, three twenty-five at the outside. Erika's school lets out at three."
"And you didn't hear from A.J. after that?"
"No. But I wasn't supposed to."
I kneaded my forehead where a whopper of a tension headache was starting to make its presence known.
"A.J. was going to stay here with Erika until her father or brothers got home, then go on home himself. Usually we brought her back to the office after school, but she had a test to study for. She wanted to come right home and get started."
Abby nodded. "That's what Adriano told us as well."
I indicated toward the lab tech bent over the bloodstain. "How soon will you know what type that is?"
"Later tonight," Abby replied.
"I wanna know as soon as you hear."
"I wanna know, Abby," I insisted. "What type is Erika? Have you asked Adriano?"
"Yes. She's B positive. But Rick, that doesn't mean anything. At this point it could belong to anyone. Until we know how many people were in this room, who they were, and exactly what happened here, we can't jump to any conclusions."
I chose not to walk down Abby's logical path. "A.J.'s O negative. You know as well as I do how rare that is. If that blood proves to be O negative--"
"It could belong to whoever broke in here," Abby pointed out.
"Or it could be A.J.'s," I countered. "I wanna know, Abby."
"I can see there's no use arguing with you," the woman sighed. "Even though it goes against procedure, as soon as I know, you'll know."
Before I could make a reply the front door opened again. Two uniformed officers, one male and one female, entered the living room with a dark headed woman and boy. The boy looked to be about ten years old.
The female officer introduced, "Lieutenant Marsh, this is Gilberto Aznar and his mother, Catalina. Gilberto saw some activity around the Garcia house this afternoon that I think you should be aware of."
Abby shook hands with the woman and boy. She led them into the kitchen where all conversation came to a halt. Adriano looked at his neighbors questioningly, then nodded to his sons, who rose from their seats at the table. Abby indicated for Gilberto and Catalina to take the empty chairs.
Adriano vacated his seat so Abby could sit down across from the mother and son. Gently she asked, "Gilberto, can you tell me what you saw happen here today?"
The boy looked at his mother. She gave him an encouraging smile. "It is okay, son. You tell the lieutenant everything that you saw."
Gilberto turned his attention to Abby. "I was in my room after school, changing my clothes. I was waitin' for my friend, Mike, to come over. We were gonna ride our skateboards. I looked out my window to see if Mike was comin' down the sidewalk yet. That's when I saw seven men come out of the house with Erika."
"Do you know who the men were, Gilberto?" Abby asked.
Again Gilberto looked at his mother, who nodded.
"One of them was White Snake. He's the leader of the Conquistadores¢. Sometimes I see him around here. His grandmother lives on the next block. I don't know who the other men were, but all of them except one were Conquistadores¢, too."
"And how do you know that?" Abby asked.
"Because they all had on the gang's colors."
Gary Childers spoke up for the first time from where he stood leaning against the refrigerator. "And what colors are those, son?"
"Red and silver."
Gary nodded to Abby, indicating to her that the boy knew what he was talking about.
"You said all but one of the men were Conquistadores¢. Who was the other man?"
"He was an Anglo."
At that my heart started to pound.
Abby looked up at me, then asked the boy, "Can you tell me what he looked like?"
Gilberto paused in thought. "He had blond hair. Very blond. And he was dressed up, like he was goin' to church or something. He had on a blue suit I think, and a bright tie with lots of colors in it."
I looked at Abby and said quietly, "That's what A.J. was wearin' today."
"You've got good observation skills, Gilberto," Abby praised. "Can you tell me how the men left here?"
Gilberto's brow furrowed with puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"I mean did they leave in a car, or a truck, or on foot, or--"
"Oh. Cars. They left in two cars. They musta' had them parked down the block."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because they led Erika and the man down the block until I couldn't see them anymore. But then a few minutes later the cars drove by my house."
"And you're sure Erika and the blond man were in one of those cars?"
“Yes,” Gilberto nodded. "I saw both of them as the cars passed."
"Do you remember what color those cars were?"
"Sure," the kid stated with confidence. "One was a brown Ford LTD. A 1978. The other was a silver Chevy Citation, either a '79 or '80."
Every adult in the room exchanged dubious glances.
Gilberto's mother must have seen the doubt that was plainly evident on our faces.
"If my son says that he saw a 1978 Ford, and either a '79 or '80 Chevrolet, then that is what he saw. Gilberto loves cars. He knows everything there is to know about them. He has since he was four years old."
Abby smiled and lavished the kid with well-deserved praise.
"You're a very smart boy, Gilberto. You've been a tremendous help this evening. Now, can you think of anything else you saw happen? Anything that might be of a help to us in our search for Erika? Did you happen to get the license plate number on either of the cars?"
"No, I didn't see the license plates. But I think..." the kid hesitated, unsure of himself. "I think..."
"You think what, son?" Abby prompted.
"Well, I think the man...the blond man and Erika, were being forced to go with White Snake. Erika was crying, and I think...I think White Snake had a gun in the blond man's back."
"Would you know what kind of gun it was?"
The boy shook his head with regret. "No. I don't know guns like I know cars."
"That's okay,” Abby smiled. “I'd rather have it that way. If I brought some pictures of different kinds of guns to your house tomorrow morning before school, do you think you could pick one out that looked like it?"
"I don't know," the boy shrugged. "Maybe. I was pretty far away though."
"I understand," Abby acknowledged. "We'll give it a try anyway and see what happens."
Abby began to wrap up the questioning. "Is that all now? Can you remember anything else?"
"I think the blond man was hurt."
I swallowed hard at those words.
"What makes you say that?" Abby inquired.
"He was holdin' his arm funny. Like this." The boy stood and held his right arm stiffly to his side. With his other hand he covered the right biceps and squeezed.
"Do you think he might have been trying to stop his arm from bleeding?" Abby asked.
"Yeah. That's what think," the boy nodded. "Everybody knows White Snake always carries a switchblade. And his face -the blond man's face was bruised, like he'd been in a fight. His mouth was bleeding too."
I couldn't keep my worry and tension at bay any longer.
"Why the heck didn't you tell someone this four hours ago, kid?" I yelled, arms akimbo. "We would have been able to--"
"Rick!" Abby warned with just that one word.
Carlos crossed the room, coming to stand next to me. He laid a hand on my shoulder. In Spanish he said, "Ricky, it's not the boy's fault. He's scared of the Conquistadores¢ just like everyone in this neighborhood is."
Before I could apologize to the kid and his mother, Abby did it for me. "I'm sorry for the outburst." She gave me a meaningful look. "It won't happen again. The blond man you saw, Gilberto, is Mr. Simon's brother. That's why he's so upset."
The boy's mother looked at me first, then over at Abby.
"And I am sorry, Lieutenant, that my son did not come forward sooner. I knew nothing of this until the police officers came to the door a little while ago and started asking questions."
okay, Mrs. Aznar. I understand that
Gilberto was afraid to say anything." Abby looked at the boy. "One more question, Gilberto, then you
and your mother can go home. Do you
know what time it was when all of this occurred?"
"Not really. But it happened right after school."
Abby looked to the mother for help.
"Gilberto gets home from school at three-thirty. I get home from work at four-fifteen. It happened some time between when he got home, and when I got home, because when I arrived I made him come in the house and do his schoolwork."
Abby thanked the pair profusely for their help, as did Adriano. She then promised them that this conversation would go no further than Adriano's kitchen and cautioned both of them, for their own safety, to tell no one what Gilberto had seen, nor that they had talked to the police.
Mrs. Aznar nodded her understanding. "I know the Conquistadores¢ cause much trouble in this area. I know they are to be feared. But I told Gilberto when the police began asking him questions that he must tell what he saw. I reminded him that we are honest people and good neighbors. We want Erika to come home safely." The woman turned around and looked at me. "And your brother, as well, Mr. Simon."
"Thank you," I said softly.
Mrs. Aznar hugged Adriano and told him in Spanish that she would be praying for Erika's safe return. He thanked her, and began walking her and Gilberto to the door.
As they passed me the boy stopped in front of me. "I'm sorry I didn't tell my Mama what I saw as soon as she came home from work, Mr. Simon. But I was scared. Mama and me live alone. I have to protect her. I don't want White Snake to hurt us."
I smiled down at the kid and reached out a hand, tousling his thick hair. "That's okay, Gilberto. I understand. I still protect my mama, too. And I'm sorry I flew off the handle at ya'. You didn't deserve that. I'm just kinda...worried right now."
The boy nodded his understanding. "I hope the police find Erika and your brother real soon."
"I do too, kid." I said as the boy and his mother walked out of the house. "I do, too."
Abby spent the next few minutes getting a more accurate description from me in regards to the clothes A.J. had been wearing that day. Adriano described Erika's school uniform to her, then provided her with a picture of his daughter.
The lab techs finished up their job and left. Abby sent the two uniformed officers on their way as well. She and Detective Childers stayed on a while longer, filling us in as to what we could expect to happen next as far as police participation went.
"Every available unit will be put on this case," Abby promised. "We're treating this as a double kidnapping."
Carlos and I exchanged skeptical glances. It wasn't that I didn't have faith that Abby would do everything she possibly could to aid in the search for Erika and A.J. I knew she would, and was thankful that she would be taking an active role in the case. But nonetheless, there were other, more powerful people above her in the chain of command. Exactly how many man hours would be spared this case would ultimately be up to those who outranked her. I knew that for a day or two, maybe three if we were lucky, this case would take precedence. But after that...well after that something else would come along that would push it farther down on the priority list. San Diego is a big city. And like all big cities, it has more than its share of crime, and far more criminals than those employed to bring them to justice.
Abby indicated to Gary with a nod of her head. "We're going back to the station now to coordinate our efforts. Gary's got a lot of contacts out on the street. Former gang members and the like. We're hoping to track some of them down yet tonight. I've already got as many squad cars out patrolling this area as I can spare. If we're lucky, something will break loose before morning."
"So you do not think my daughter or A.J. have already been...killed?" Adriano asked.
Abby's eyes flicked to me, before settling on Erika's father. "I won't lie to you, Mr. Garcia. I don't know. Obviously we do know, based on the condition of this room and what Gilberto has told us, A.J. was hurt in the struggle that occurred here earlier this afternoon. It's imperative that we find them as soon as possible. Not only because A.J. is in need of medical attention, but as well, the sooner we find them the less chance there is that any further harm will have come to either one of them."
Adriano nodded in appreciation of Abby's honesty.
"I'll call you as soon as I know something more," she promised the man. She reached in her pocket and handed him her business card. "In the meantime, if you need me for anything, feel free to call. If I'm not at that number, someone will get a message to me and I'll get back to you as quickly as I can. Rick knows my home number if it's an emergency."
Adriano thanked both Abby and Detective Childers for their help. The woman looked up at me as she passed me on the way to the door. A warning finger appeared under my nose. "And you just sit tight. I don't need you tearing this city apart and causing me anymore trouble than I already have."
I didn't answer her.
sure, Abby," I nodded.
"Whatever you say."
She gave me a look that told me she didn't believe me for a minute, but for her own peace of mind was going to pretend that I intended to do just what she had ordered.
The front door had barely closed behind the pair when Carlos crossed the room to the phone. He began dialing number after number, briefly explaining the situation to the men on the other end.
Carlos's late father and Adriano's mother had been brother and sister. The pair came from a family of sixteen siblings, who themselves had all gone forth and multiplied in the prolific way many Catholics used to do. Carlos and Adriano had over sixty cousins in the San Diego area alone. I think every one of them was in Adriano's house within forty-five minutes of those phone calls. Cars and trucks lined the block as men spilled out and flocked to the little bungalow, ready to offer whatever assistance they could.
Carlos and I immediately became the coordinators of the search effort. I ran out to my truck and retrieved a map of the city. We broke the men into groups of three, named a team leader so-to-speak, and targeted areas that we knew contained abandoned buildings and houses. No one knew for sure where the Conquistadores¢ hideout was, though Jimmy and Nate knew what territory they called their turf. At least that gave us a starting point.
It took some mighty fast talking on Adriano's part to convince his sons they were needed at home more than they were needed to join in our search. I backed him up on that fact, knowing that he couldn't bear the thought of any more of his kids being in danger. I emphasized to the young men that we needed them there to take phone calls from the team leaders, who were to report in every two hours regarding what territory they had searched and where they were headed next. I really needed someone to handle that end of things, and was finally able to make Jim and Nate see what an important job it was.
Carlos and I stressed to everyone that if they did find the Conquistadores¢ they were to call the police immediately. The last thing I wanted was some inexperienced, hot-tempered cousin getting his head bashed in by a gang member, or worse yet, getting A.J. and Erika killed.
We sent our groups out shortly after midnight. Those who were searching the immediate vicinity left on foot, while others piled in cars and trucks. Porch lights flicked on throughout the normally quiet neighborhood. I could vaguely discern people in their bathrobes peering out of dark windows, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about.
I was stepping up into my own truck when my arm was shagged from behind.
"Where you goin', Ricky?" Carlos wanted to know.
"Where the hell do you think I'm goin'?" I snapped. "I'm goin' to look for that little girl and my brother."
"I don't think you should go alone, amigo."
Carlos was right. I shouldn't have gone alone. I had made sure that Adriano was paired up with Carlos and Carlos's older brother, Julio, simply because I knew from experience that both Escobar men were extremely calm and levelheaded in times of crisis. Just the kind of guys you could rely on to keep an upset father in-check if they did happen to run across the Conquistadores¢ in their search.
However, I had worked it out so that no one would be available to hold me in-check if I happened to run across the punks who had Erika and A.J.
I locked eyes with Carlos, jerking my arm from his grasp. "Leave me alone, Carlos."
"No. Don't say it. I heard ya' the first time and I appreciate your concern. But I'm goin' by myself so just get outta my way."
Carlos said the only thing that could blow some of the steam out of my engine.
"Just remember your mama, amigo. When this is all over, however it ends, she'll need you there for her. Don't be a fool tonight, Ricky."
"Yeah...I know," I acknowledged before starting the truck and backing it out of Adriano's driveway. So far I had studiously been avoiding thinking about Mom. Thinking about how I was gonna tell her what had happened, when I was gonna tell her, or what her reaction to the news would be. Carlos brought all those thoughts to the forefront, causing some of the wind to go out of my sails.
I searched the unsavory neighborhood I had assigned myself until dawn. I climbed in and out of the cab of my truck so many times that my knees grew stiff. I looked in every abandoned building and house I came across. On more than one occasion a house I took to be abandoned wasn't. Winos were passed out in rat infested rooms and hallways, and I was propositioned by two hookers. But nowhere in my journey did I run across anyone who would acknowledge having seen the Conquistadores¢, or A.J. and Erika.
I pulled into Adriano's driveway at five that morning. As I walked in the front door, Nate immediately handed me a Styrofoam cup of coffee. By this time a dozen or so female relatives were in attendance, including Carlos's wife, Eva.
The house had been picked up and given a thorough cleaning, though no one had figured out how to camouflage the bloodstain that stood out ominously in the middle of the carpet. Hot coffee perked continuously in the kitchen in a forty gallon pot, the smell of the savory brew filling the small house. The table was covered with fresh doughnuts, muffins, and fruit.
I touched base with Adriano's boys. They told me that so far none of the search teams had reported finding anything. They hadn't heard from Abby either, which led me to believe the police weren't having any better luck than we were.
I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup. I smiled a greeting at Eva, who was standing with a group of women, talking softly in Spanish. I saw her pick some things up off the countertop before walking toward me.
I leaned down and kissed her cheek. "How ya' doin', Eva?"
"I'm fine, Rick. How are you holding up?"
"You look tired."
"You should go home and try to get a few hours of sleep. We'll keep things running here while you're gone."
"I need to go see my mother first," I said in-between sips of hot coffee. "She doesn't know yet."
Eva nodded. "I'm sure it will be very difficult for her. Please tell her that Carlos and I are praying for A.J."
"I will," I smiled. "That will mean a lot to her. Thank you."
Eva held three manila folders out to me. "I found these on the floor when we were cleaning. I think we got all the papers put back that belonged inside."
I reached out and took the files. "Thanks. A.J. brought these with him when he came over yesterday."
Eva put a hand into the pocket of her cardigan sweater next. "I found this on the carpet as well. Is it A.J.'s?"
I hesitated for a moment before taking the tie tack from her. After A.J. and I were grown, our mother had given each of us some personal items of our father's. One of those items was the gold tie tack she gave to A.J. that had the initials J.A.S. engraved in tiny letters on the back.
I swallowed hard and reached out a hand. "Yeah. That's A.J.'s. It belonged to our father."
Eva nodded. "I thought as much. It must have pulled loose from his tie during the...struggle."
"Yeah," I agreed softly. "That's probably what happened."
I put the tie tack in my coat pocket, gathered up the folders and told Eva goodbye. I checked with Adriano's sons once more on my way out the door, but didn't receive any bolstering news. By this time the boys had my map taped to the wall and were Xing areas of the city our search had already covered. Jim had a pad of paper he was using to keep track of what search teams were where, and who had called in with what news, and what areas he was going to assign the next available men to. I could see that everything was in capable hands and complimented Adriano's sons on their efforts. I told them I was going to be tied up for a while, but would call in again in a few hours.
I walked out the front door to see Adriano being questioned by reporters from the local TV stations. Carlos stood by his side, helping his cousin out when necessary. Adriano was sending out a plea for Erika's safe return.
I had hoped to make a discreet circle around the media, but was assaulted by several who knew me before I could get it to my truck. They were disappointed when all they got out of me was a repeated litany of, "No comment."
Fortunately, they didn't pressure me. As I said, several of the news people knew me. Past experience had taught them that I wouldn't hesitate to shove a reporter out of my way, or break a camera, if they caught me in the wrong mood. The only media person I had ever trusted and given exclusive interviews to - Temple Hill, had married a close friend of mine the previous year. She and Downtown Brown now lived up in L.A. - a little too far from San Diego to warrant coverage of the kidnapping.
It was six-ten when I pulled in my mother's driveway. I quietly shut the truck door. I leaned wearily back against the vehicle's frame, gathering the strength I'd need for what was to come next.
Because I knew Mom would still be asleep, I didn't use my key to gain entrance. I rang the doorbell twice. It took a few minutes, but soon I heard her coming down the stairs.
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Mom."
Mom was belting her robe as she opened the front door. She ran a hand through her sleep-mussed hair. The expression on her face, devoid of the discreet makeup application she wasn't seen without after seven-thirty on any given day, clearly said she didn't appreciate my early morning visit.
She craned her head and looked around me. "What is it this time? Am I babysitting a chimpanzee again? Or perhaps hiding an agoraphobic for a few days? Or better yet. You two were breaking and entering again last night, and A.J. got caught. How much bail money do you need this time?"
"No, Mom," I shook my head sadly. "It's nothing like that."
She must have taken note of my demeanor. Concern replaced the annoyance on her face. "Rick? Rick, what is it? What's wrong?"
I stepped in the house and shut the door behind me. I put my arm around her shoulders and led her to the couch. "Let's sit down."
"Rick?" Mom questioned, her eyes now wide with fear. "Where's A.J.?"
I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to Mom all that had happened. She had met Erika in our office one afternoon the previous week, but all we had told her then was that Erika was the daughter of Carlos's cousin, and that she was helping us out with some filing for a few days. I think Mom knew there was more to the story than we were telling her, but she also picked up the vibes that right at that moment, in front of Erika, was not the time to discuss it. I had never called later and filled her in, and evidently A.J. hadn't either, as she didn't know anything about the case. Mom asked a few questions, which I answered as best I could. Then I told her of the efforts to find A.J. and Erika that the police were carrying out, as well as the efforts of Carlos's family.
"And that's our biggest chance," I finished. "That somehow, with all these people out on the street askin' questions about, and lookin' for A.J. and Erika, one of 'em will come up with something. A lead that will take us to them."
"But what if they're not in San Diego anymore, Rick? What if they took them out of the city? My God, by now they could be in another state! Or even Mexico!"
"Mom, no." I attempted to calm. I picked her small hands up and squeezed them gently. "Mom, we've got to hang onto the hope that they didn't do that. That they didn't take 'em outside San Diego."
"Because if they did we'll never find them," Mom stated, looking me in the eye. "Isn't that right?"
I took a deep breath and nodded. "It will make things a lot more complicated."
"Rick?" Came her skeptical question.
I slowly shook my head. I couldn't lie to her. "No. If they took them outside the city, we probably won't find them. At least not before it's too late."
Mom's eyes filled with unshed tears. "And that's what they'll do to them, won't they? They'll kill them."
I closed my eyes so I didn't have to see her pain. "Yes," I acknowledged softly. "That's probably what they'll do to them."
She leaned into my chest and cried. I wrapped my arms around her and held her to me, running my hands up and down her back.
Because my mother’s a woman who possesses enormous inner strength, she pulled away from me and wiped at her tears when she was done crying and asked, "What can I do to help?"
I thought a moment. I knew better than to tell her nothing. Finally I decided upon, "You can go by the boat for me later this morning, get Rex and bring him over here. Clarissa's takin' care of him for the time being, but I might be tied up on this a while. I hate to impose on her."
"That's fine. Rex will be good company for me. What else?"
"Listen to my answering machine while you're there and write down any messages. I'll call you later to get 'em from you. I'm gonna run by the office and check that machine as well. Oh, and it might be worth you stoppin' at A.J.'s and checkin' his machine for messages too."
"Do you think one of these...gang members might have called with a demand?"
"I don't know. I don't think so, but it doesn't hurt to check. Otherwise I need you to sit by your phone. If we get lucky and they let A.J. and Erika go, A.J.’ll call one of us. I'll be checking the machine on the boat, at the office, and at A.J.'s house every couple of hours when I stop to call Adriano's sons. I'll call here at those times, too, and check in with you."
We rose from the couch and Mom walked with me to the door.
"If you can, stop by here later today," she urged. "I'll keep something hot on the stove. In addition to eating, you're going to have to take the time to catch a few hours of sleep. You might as well do that here, too."
I knew she didn't want to face a lengthy day alone filled with nothing but worry for her youngest son. I nodded. "I'll try."
I gave her a long hug before kissing her on the cheek and walking out the door.
"Be careful," she called.
I looked back and gave her an encouraging smile and a wave. "I will be."
She stood in the doorway and watched until my truck was out of sight. Even from a distance, I could tell she was crying again.
"Don't cry, Mom," I pleaded. "Please don't cry. I'm so sorry. It's all my fault."
That was the first time I'd acknowledged the thought that had been festering at the back of my mind ever since Adriano's phone call the previous evening.
What had happened to A.J. and Erika was my fault.
If only I hadn't taken this job.
If only I'd told Carlos no.
If only I'd have gotten off the phone and picked Erika up the previous afternoon like I was supposed to.
If only. If only. If only. It was a regret-filled game that I wasn't used to playing. That was more A.J.'s bag. I was the one who was usually telling him it wasn't worth wasting your life on ‘if only's.’ That it wasn't worth beating yourself over the head about something you can't go back and do over again. That we all make mistakes, but life goes on.
This time I knew, however, that this was one mistake I wouldn't be able to casually shrug off with a, "Life goes on." If anything happened to A.J., if they killed him, I knew I'd never forgive myself. I knew, without a doubt, that I never would be able to go on.