Cars were lined up on both sides of the street in front of Adriano's house. Because of this, I had to circle the block twice and ended up parking two streets away. I shut the truck's ignition off, but remained in the cab a few minutes. Paying a condolence call on Adriano and his sons was not only something I felt I had to do, but it was also something I wanted to do. Problem was, I didn't know how I'd be received. I hadn't talked to Carlos at all since A.J. had been found. Between me being busy helpin' my brother, and Carlos being busy helpin' his cousin, neither one of us had time to contact the other. Now I was regretting that I hadn't taken a moment to give him a call. At least I'd know if I was welcome in Adriano's home or not. Not that I hadn't shown up places before where I wasn't welcome. That was nothing new to me. It's just that under these circumstances...well, I didn't want to make things worse for everyone than they already were.
Adriano's front yard and porch held the overflow of visitors. Children who were too young to understand the graveness of the situation ran and played on the lawn. Men who didn't want to deal with the heavy emotions that were inside the house, stood around smoking cigarettes and talking quietly while keeping an eye on the little kids.
I recognized many of the men as being among those who had aided in the search. I didn't sense any animosity as I weaved my way through them. Each of them said hello to me as I passed by. Several asked me how A.J. was.
Before I had a chance to knock on the door, Carlos opened it. He must have seen me comin' up the walk. He laid a thick hand on my shoulder and squeezed. We'd been friends too long for him not to know how I felt about this entire situation.
The little bungalow was full of people like I had expected it would be. Subdued voices conversing in Spanish came from all parts of the house. The kitchen was brimming over with women and food.
Someone moved away from the couch so Adriano could see who had just come in the door. That person having just come in the door being me.
Adriano was sitting between his sons. He held a picture of Erika in one hand, and rosary beads in the other. His face was drawn and pale, his eyes red from weeping.
We looked at each other for a long time. I could so easily read his pain. He could so easily read my guilt. Finally, he handed the picture and beads to Nate, stood up and walked over to me. He raised his arms, and for just a second I thought he was gonna deck me. And if he had, I wouldn't have done a thing to defend myself. I would have accepted whatever kind of beating he wanted to rain on me, and would have figured I deserved every bruise and broken bone I got.
Rather than feeling Adriano’s fist connect with my jaw, however, I felt him wrap his arms around me. He hugged me and cried into my shoulder. I reached around him and hugged him back. I fought to contain the tears that were threatening to spill out from underneath my closed eyelids.
When I felt his body sag a bit I led him back to the couch. I perched myself on the coffee table, sitting across from him and his sons. The boys didn't bear any ill will against me either for what had happened to their sister. They both reached out and shook my hand, graciously accepting my words of sympathy over Erika's death.
his own grief and tremendous loss, the first thing Adriano asked me was,
"How is A.J., Rick?"
"He's doin' okay. They...beat him pretty badly. He should be in the hospital, but he refused to let our doctor admit him. He's exhausted and in a lot of pain, but he's hangin' in there."
We talked a while about what the police had found out, and exchanged information in regards to what Abby had told me, and what Gary Childers had told the Garcias.
"Detective Childers was here," Adriano said. "You just missed him. He said he had been over to see A.J and that A.J. was able to give him a lot of information. He said he thought they would be making some arrests very soon."
I nodded. "I hope so."
"I want them, Rick," came the vehement words. "I want the monsters who did this to my daughter."
I looked into the man's stormy eyes, and took note of his clenched fists.
"I know you do, Adriano. I know you do. So do I."
The emotion of that moment rolled out as quickly as it had rolled in.
When Adriano spoke again it was to make a quiet request.
"Rick, I would like you to be a pallbearer at Erika's funeral on Tuesday."
That caught me off guard. It was the last thing I had expected the man to ask of me.
"Adriano...I'm honored, but I don't think--"
"No, Rick, it is what my sons and I want. We want Erika to be carried to her grave by the men in her life who she considered to be her friends. You and A.J. were two of those men, Rick. If A.J.'s injuries would allow him to be at the funeral, I would be asking the same thing of him."
"Adriano, I--" My eyes must have been clearly broadcasting the blame I thought I was doing a good job of keeping hidden.
Adriano laid a hand on my knee.
"Rick. Do not do this. Do not burden yourself with guilt that is not yours to bear. Do not allow A.J. to do this either. I am the one who came to the two of you. I am the one who persuaded you to take this case. I used your friendship with Carlos as leverage to get you to take my case. A.J. told me that he had concerns. I am well aware that both of you had concerns. If anyone should be the guilty one it is me. I should be the one to feel much guilt over what my drinking drove my daughter to do, for that in itself is where all of this started. But guilt is a very unproductive thing, Rick. For all of us. We each have enough pain to deal with over what has happened. We do not need to add to it."
I swallowed past the lump in my throat. "I just...I'm just very sorry that this happened. Because of my friendship with Carlos you turned to me. It was never my intention--"
"Rick," the man interrupted softly. "If you and A.J. had turned me down I would have found another detective agency. And had I been forced to do that, I doubt another agency would have cared so much about my daughter. I doubt that two other detectives would have become my daughter's friends the way both you and A.J. did. If I have anything to be thankful for in all of this, it's that when Erika died, A.J. was with her. For as bad as things must have been, I'm sure she took some comfort in that."
I had to admit Adriano amazed me. If our positions were reversed, I wasn't sure I could have said such kind things to the man whose detective agency had been hired to protect my child.
I left not long after that, agreeing to be a pallbearer at the funeral on Tuesday afternoon.
It was after six when I got back to the house. Bud and Edie were gone by then. Mom told me with a smile that A.J.'d had the good sense to sleep through their visit. He'd also slept through our aunts' visit, but had just woken up when a couple of his friends stopped by. Not long after they left he ate a late lunch and had Mom call Janet. She was still upstairs talking to him when I arrived home from Adriano's.
I was sitting on the couch, half dozing, and half watching the news, when Janet came downstairs thirty minutes later. She said A.J. was sleeping, and then declined Mom’s offer of eating supper with us. Janet said she could tell Mom and I were both tired. She was right, we were. After Janet left Mom and I ate. By eight o’clock Mom was headed home, and I was headed for bed. I checked on A.J. before I turned in. He was sound asleep, and stayed that way for the remainder of the night.
Monday was a quiet day. A.J. slept a lot, and so did I. He also started moving around the house on his own a bit, and though still in a lot of pain, insisted on eating supper at the table with us. Well, I should say us and Janet, since Mom had talked to her during the day and invited her to eat with us that evening. It was the first solid meal Mom was allowing A.J. Janet and I teased him unmercifully about the steady diet of Cream Of Wheat, chicken broth, Jell-O, and diluted grape juice Mom had had him on for almost two full days. Every time Mom would offer him more roast beef or another helping of mashed potatoes, the meal he had requested, we'd tell Mom that we didn't think he should have anymore. That she should just make him eat Cream Of Wheat and let us have the rest.
Mom insisted that Janet remain seated at the table and visit with A.J. while she and I cleaned up after dinner. I didn't pay any attention to what the two of them were talking about, as Mom and I were carrying on our own conversation. Not long after the dishes were done, pain and fatigue forced A.J. to bid the two women good night. Janet kissed him on the cheek as he and I stood so I could help him get ready for bed. He kissed her in return, then kissed Mom. About the time A.J. was settling back against his pillows, I heard Janet's car pull out of the driveway.
Mom left not long after that. I stayed up and watched part of Johnny Carson, then went to bed myself around eleven forty-five.
I was woken out of a sound sleep two hours later by a scream that ended in Erika's name. By the time I got Rex off my legs and tossed the blankets aside I could hear A.J. retching.
Once again I flicked on the hall light as I passed, but this time I also flicked on the bright ceiling light in A.J.’s bedroom as I entered. Immediately the strong, sour odor of vomit assaulted my senses.
A disheveled A.J. was sitting up in bed. Beads of sweat dotted his pale face. He appeared to be completely disoriented.
He didn't even look up at me when I called his name. He just kept staring off into a far corner of the room, blinking rapidly and swallowing convulsively.
I laid my hand on his back. "A.J.?"
Despite the fact that I had turned on the light and had already called his name once, I think that was the first time he realized I was in the room with him. He turned his head and looked at me. For just a second longer he was kind of vacant around the eyes. Then suddenly it must have all come together for him. He must have freed himself from whatever place the nightmare had him trapped in.
He bowed his head and rubbed a shaky hand over his face, being careful to avoid his swollen eye. He took as deep a breath as his ribs would allow.
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm okay."
I carefully folded back the blanket and sheet, trying to keep the mess contained. He didn't seem to have any of it on him, nor could I see any on the carpeting, or on the comforter that was turned back neatly at the foot of the bed.
"Come on," I urged. "Let's get you to the bathroom."
I helped him stand on rubber legs. It took us a long minute to get to our destination, but we made it there without anything further coming up.
He sat down on the closed toilet lid, immediately pillowing his head in his arms on the vanity. I crouched down beside him.
"Are you gonna be sick again?"
His reply was quiet and muffled. "No. At least I don't think so."
I waited there with him for a few minutes until I was fairly certain he was telling me the truth. For lack of a better idea, I grabbed a big, thick bath towel out of the linen closet and threw it over his shoulders and back. He was was dotted with goose bumps and shivering.
"If you think you're gonna be sick again, call me. I'm gonna be in your room changin' the bed."
For the first time since we'd entered the bathroom he raised his head. His face was as white as porcelain.
"Rick, no. I don't want you to have to do that. I'll do—“
"A.J., just sit here. I'll take care of it."
Now that he was feeling a little better, I could tell he was embarrassed over the mess he'd made in the other room.
I laid a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to remain seated. "A.J., look. It doesn't bother me, so don't let it bother you. This kinda stuff happens to all of us once n' a while. Besides, I seem to remember a time or two when you cleaned up after me without complaining about it."
I was royally hung-over both those times and the mess ended up on his living room carpeting, but he had the good grace not to remind me of that fact right at the moment. Obviously I owed him one.
I gave his back a final pat and told him to just sit there until I returned. It didn't take me more than five minutes to get the bed stripped of the soiled blanket and sheet, and to put clean ones on in their place. In another five minutes I had the washing machine going with the offending items inside.
I returned to the bathroom to once again find A.J. sitting with his head resting on his arms on the vanity top. I could tell he'd moved around long enough to rinse his mouth out with Scope and brush his teeth.
I crouched in front of him and laid a hand on his knee.
"How ya' feelin'?"
"Was that little...accident in there your way of makin' a statement about Mom's cooking?" I teased lightly.
He couldn't help but smile as he lifted his head and looked at me. "Let's put it this way, that wasn't my intention."
"You think the roast was too much for your system?"
He and I were both doing a good job of skating around the obvious. Neither one of us had mentioned the nightmare. And neither one of us did. At least not directly.
I was just about to suggest that I help him back to bed when he sighed wearily. He rested his elbows on the vanity and scrubbed his hands over his face the way a person will do when they're so tired their eyes burn.
He stopped moving his hands and just kind of left them as they were, covering his eyes and most of his face.
"A.J., I already told ya' there's nothin' to be sorry about. I didn't mind cleanin' everything up. You couldn't help it. It was an accident so don't worry about--"
"No. What I mean is...I'm sorry I let you and Carlos down."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked warily, though I knew perfectly well what he meant.
"Erika. I let you and Carlos down because of what happened to--"
I moved my hand from his knee to underneath the towel on his back. "A.J. No. That's not true. You didn't let me or Carlos down. You didn't let anyone down."
It was me who let you down, kid, and I'm so damn sorry about that.
He let the subject drop there, and so did I. Though I'm sure we both knew we shouldn't have. I think later, we both had a lot of regrets over the fact that we did.
When he finally moved his hands away from his face I thought it looked like he had tears in his eyes. Because I didn't want to acknowledge that, I convinced myself that he was tired, and the moisture I was seeing was from the bright lights and his weariness.
I got him settled back into bed and sat there with him long after he told me to go on back to bed myself. I kept waiting for him to bring up the nightmare, but he didn't. And neither did I. He did ask me not to tell Mom he'd gotten sick. I promised him I wouldn't. And we both knew if I didn't tell her he'd gotten sick, then I wouldn't tell her about the dream since one kind of precipitated the other.
He finally fell into a deep sleep about an hour and a half after the nightmare had first awakened us both. I sat there with him for quite a while after that. I wondered why it was suddenly so hard for us to talk to one another about something that had deeply affected us both. We'd never had that trouble before. Or at least not since 'Nam. I vowed then, that I'd talk to him in the morning.
I think at the time, I really meant it.
Neither Mom nor I mentioned Erika's funeral to A.J., and he didn't bring it up either. We knew perfectly well he had to know the day and time it was taking place. Those facts had been stated in nearly every newspaper article about her murder since Sunday.
Mom came over to the house shortly after nine o'clock on Tuesday morning. I wanted to go to the office for a while. I hadn't been there since Saturday. I figured by now it would take me a good two hours to return all the phone messages that had piled up in the past six days. A.J. told me to bring the mail home to him, that he'd sort through it and take care of it. I thought that sounded like a good idea. For one thing I hate sorting the mail and paying the bills, and for another I figured it would help him get his mind off the situation at hand.
I left the house right after Mom got there. A.J. was reclining against several pillows on the couch, reading. I told him I was going to the office and would then be running some errands, so probably wouldn't be back until late in the afternoon.
If he knew I was going to Erika's funeral, he never let on. Just told me he'd see me later.
I stayed at the office until almost noon, then went by the boat to change into my black suit and tie.
Erika's funeral was scheduled to begin at one-thirty. There hadn't been a wake the previous evening, but there was a viewing at the church from eleven a.m. until the start of the service.
The large Catholic church in Adriano's neighborhood was brimming with people when I got there. Of course, close to three quarters of those in attendance were relatives, with the rest of the crowd being made up of neighbors, school friends of all three of the Garcia kids, and the teachers from Erika's freshman classes at St. Joseph's.
Adriano, Jim, and Nate, were standing up by the open casket accepting the tears, hugs, and words of sympathy from the people who passed by. As I got closer to the coffin I could see that Adriano had Erika dressed in one of her school uniforms. He told me later that's how he wanted to remember her. That it reminded him that for just a little while, both he and his daughter had been granted a second chance.
Adriano gave me a hug when I approached. In Spanish he thanked me for protecting his child and for being her friend. I couldn't have spoken past the lump in my throat to answer him had I wanted to.
It took me a minute to decide whether or not I really wanted to gaze upon the young girl in that white casket. I had to reach up and wipe at the tears that trickled down my cheeks as I did.
The undertaker had done a good job of covering the bruises on her face. If you didn't look too closely you would have never known her death had been a violent one. As the old cliche¢ goes, she looked like she was sleeping. Her head rested on a satin pillow, her long dark hair fanning out around her shoulders.
I couldn't look at her without thinking of the afternoon she and I had sat together eating ice cream. I thought of the hopes and dreams that would never be.
Right before I moved away, I said in a choked whisper, "I'm so sorry, sweetie. I'm so damn sorry."
Flowers of every kind were stacked all around the coffin and on the alter. I saw the dozen white roses I had ordered. It had taken me a long time to decide what to write on the card. I had finally settled on, ‘Erika's Friends. Rick and A.J.’
I stood off to the side talking to Carlos for a while. He was staying close to Adriano, offering what support he could. I knew he had been a tremendous help to his cousin during the past week.
Ten minutes before the service was to start I went and sat in the second row with Eva and Carlos's widowed mother. Both women greeted me warmly, Mrs. Escobar talking to me in Spanish.
As the time for the service grew closer people began looking for seats. There was only a couple of folks left visiting with Adriano and his sons when Carlos walked over to where I was sitting.
I started to slide over, thinking he was coming to take his seat. Instead, he leaned down and said softly, "Ricky...A.J. just walked in."
"What? I asked, certain he was mistaken.
"A.J. just walked--"
I turned around, craning my neck to see over the rows of heads behind me.
My old friend directed me. "He sat down in the last pew on this side."
Carlos moved aside as I rose and brushed past him.
The church had seventy-five pews on each side. Every one but the last two were filled to capacity. The pew A.J. had sat down in was empty. He had slid over a little ways from the aisle as if he didn't want to be noticed. Like me, he was dressed in a black suit and tie.
I slid in beside him. He glanced at me briefly, then looked away.
I only asked him one question.
"Did you come here by yourself?"
He gave a small nod of his head. His whole demeanor was that of a little boy who'd done wrong and was more than willing to accept the scolding he knew he deserved. If the situation was different, I would have gotten a great deal of amusement out of his humble contriteness. It wasn't often I saw A.J. like that.
I didn't give him the tongue-lashing he was expecting for driving around San Diego in the condition he was in. Not to mention the fact he was on medication that specifically stated on the label, ‘Do not operate a motor vehicle or machinery while taking this.’ I didn't even remind him that the only place he was supposed to be at the present time was home in bed. All I did was reach over and give his knee a little pat.
"The service is gonna start in just a couple of minutes."
He nodded. "I know."
I found out later from Mom that she and A.J. had eaten an early lunch, then he had headed upstairs telling her he was going to nap for a while. She had gone out onto the deck to read, and had ended up falling asleep herself. Somewhere during that time period A.J. had gotten dressed and left the house. The first Mom knew that he was gone was when she woke up and walked into the kitchen for a glass of iced tea. She found the note he had left on the refrigerator door telling her where he was. By that time it was after two o'clock, so there wasn't much she could do except alternate between praying that he'd gotten to the church all right, and vowing to herself that she was going to clobber him a good one when he walked back in the door.
Because of the people still talking to Adriano the funeral mass started ten minutes late. This was the church the Garcia family had gone to since before Erika was born. The priest talked of having baptized her, and having officiated at her first communion. He also touched briefly on her mother's funeral only two years earlier. He then talked of how much Erika had grieved over her mother's passing, and how happy Erika must now be in Heaven after having so recently been reunited with the woman she had missed so much.
"It is not for us on Earth to understand God's plan," the man told the congregation. "None of us knows what God has in store for us, or why he calls some of us home to Heaven sooner than he does others. The thing we must all remember today, and take comfort in, is that Erika is with God. And with God Erika is happy. With God Erika will no longer suffer.
"We know Erika's last days on this Earth were not easy ones. We don't understand how young people can do such evil to one another. Perhaps it is not for us to understand. Therefore today, I ask each and every one of you to remember the good. Remember Erika as the little girl who loved to jump rope, play hopscotch, and ride her bike. Remember her as the child who adored her older brothers. Remember her as the daughter, and granddaughter, and sister, and niece, and cousin, and friend, and student, who brought a special ray of sunshine into your life.
"And, today as well, remember in your prayers, Andrew Simon, the man who was injured trying to protect Erika. Remember that with all the evil in the world, there's still some good. Still some good and decent people who will extend their hands in an effort to reach out and help others, without considering what the consequences might be to themselves."
I looked over at A.J. His head was bowed as if he was trying to hide from me the tears that were steadily coursing down his face. I reached up and put an arm around his shoulders. We sat like that for the rest of the service.
When the priest called for the pallbearers to come forward I quietly told A.J., "I gotta go up front for a few minutes. Are you gonna be okay here by yourself?"
He nodded his head. If he was surprised that Adriano had asked me to be a pallbearer, he didn't show it. As much as I hated to, I left him sitting there all alone with his head bowed.
The priest encouraged the congregation to come forward and pass by the casket to say a final goodbye to Erika. The majority of those in attendance did as the man requested. It wasn't lost on me, however, that A.J. chose to remain seated.
After everyone had sat back down the casket was closed and the priest offered a final prayer. Up until this point all the tears that had been shed during the service were done so quietly. I think the finality of the whole affair is what caused Adriano to break down and sob openly. His sons were able to comfort him, which enabled Carlos, who was also a pallbearer, to remain standing across the casket from me.
A.J. wouldn't even look up as we carried the casket down the aisle. I glanced at him as we approached, but he remained just as I had left him.
I squinted when we walked into the bright afternoon sunshine. It was a beautiful, warm day. Not at all unlike the day just a week earlier when I had taken Erika for ice cream.
Erika was gently loaded into the back of the hearse by me, Carlos, three of her cousins, two favorite uncles, and a boy from her neighborhood who was a childhood friend. Her father and brothers stood close by.
I turned to scan the people exiting the church. I thought A.J. would be one of the first out the door since he'd been sitting in the back row. When he wasn't, and when the minutes grew and he didn't appear, I started to worry. I was just gettin' ready to push past people to go in and look for him, when I saw his blond head. Eva and Carlos's mother were on either side of him, both women with their arms linked firmly through his.
I waited at the bottom of the steps for them, smiling my thanks as the ladies turned my brother over to me. Eva told me later that the church was almost empty when she and her mother-in-law passed by A.J. still seated in the back pew with his head bowed. She said he didn't even seem aware of what was going on around him. She had to reach out and touch his arm to gain his attention. It was when she asked him to walk out with them, that he seemed to notice the service was over.
I wasn't about to let A.J. drive by himself, a fact he must have known since he didn't protest when I led him to my pickup truck.
I helped him make the step into the cab. "Carlos and I will bring the Camaro home later."
Once I got him settled I walked around and climbed in on the driver's side. I studied him for a moment. The sunglasses he had just put on hid the fact that his eyes were red from the tears he had shed in the church. They didn't, however, hide his pale features, or the fact that he hadn't taken a pain pill since breakfast that morning.
I opened the door and started to climb out of the truck.
"I think I'd better take you home. Let me just go find Carlos. I'm sure one of his sons can fill in as a pallbearer for me at the grave site."
For the first time since he'd entered the church A.J. spoke. "No," he negated hoarsely. "I'm fine. Let's go."
The hearse was up ahead of us about six car lengths and just taking the turn from the parking lot onto the street.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yes. I want...I owe it to Erika to be there," he said so softly that I could hardly hear him. "Let's go."
I wanted to tell him that he didn't owe anyone anything, but I didn't. I couldn't diminish his feelings for the young girl whose life had ended so brutally. And, I understood where he was comin' from. I owed it to Erika to be there, too.
Erika was buried next to her mother just three miles from the church in an old Catholic cemetery filled with shade trees and headstones, some dating back over one hundred years.
A.J. got out of the truck without my assistance and kinda hung back from the crowd while I went forward to help carry Erika to her final resting place. Twelve rows of metal folding chairs had been set up in front of the grave. The seats were soon filled with family members and elderly guests. I tried to get A.J. sit down, but he wouldn't. He stood at the very fringe of the crowd, so I stood there with him. We were so far back that you couldn't see what was happening, and could only pick up about every third word the priest was saying since there was no sound system to amplify the man's voice.
None of that really mattered, as within ten minutes the whole thing was over. I had been invited back to Adriano’s house for a meal with the rest of the family and friends, but decided not to mention it to A.J. For a lot of reasons I didn't think he was up to attending it. Not just physically, but emotionally as well.
I don't think A.J. had any intention of speaking to Adriano that day. At least he never expressed a desire to do so to me, and I didn't bring it up. I felt his presence said enough, and that he didn't need to pressure himself to deal with anymore than he already was. We weren't able to make it to my truck, however, without Adriano approaching him.
The man moved to hug my brother, but A.J. took a little step sideways, effectively alluding Adriano's grasp. Adriano accepted this, I think understanding that A.J. just wasn't up to being told "Thank you," or "I know you did the best you could," or the fifty other things he probably wanted to say to my younger brother. Instead Adriano simply extended his hand. A.J. hesitated a moment before reaching out and making contact. Adriano grasped the offered hand firmly and squeezed gently in deference of the bandaged palm. They stood that way for what seemed like five minutes. Adriano finally dropped A.J.'s hand, turned and walked quietly away.
A.J.'s sunglass-covered-eyes watched Adriano's retreat.
"It would be a lot easier if he hated me."
In a tone that was almost scolding in nature I countered, "Well, he doesn't."
"I know," he acknowledged softly. "But it would be easier."
He didn't say anything else to me for the rest of the afternoon. The ride home in my truck was a silent one. A.J. sat with his head resting back against the seat. I don't know whether he fell asleep or not. I couldn't tell 'cause he still had his sunglasses on.
We walked into his house together. Mom must have heard the truck doors slam because she was waiting for us in the kitchen when we entered.
It's funny how something as simple as body language can take you back about thirty years. Mom was standing there with her hands on her hips, mouth set in a grim line, just like she had been standing in her own kitchen when A.J. was ten and had wandered off on his bike without telling her where he was going. I had spent half the afternoon looking for him, and finally found him five miles from home. About four miles farther than our mother allowed him to travel by himself.
I didn't think this time a firm scolding and being grounded for two days was gonna have much effect on him, but I didn't put it past Mom to give it a shot. I think she just might have, if it hadn't been for the fact that she immediately took in the paleness of his features, the careful way he was hugging his ribs with one arm, and the redness about his eyes that was easily detectable once he removed his sunglasses.
He didn't say anything to Mom as he brushed past her and walked slowly up the steps to his room.
"A.J.?" Mom called after him. "Honey?"
We heard the door shut from up above.
turned to me, the worry clearly evident in her eyes. "Rick?"
"Just leave him be for a little while, Mom. He needs some time. He just needs some...time."
I made myself a sandwich since I hadn't eaten lunch yet. Mom joined me at the table, bringing with her a beer for me, and a glass of lemonade for herself. I filled her in on what had happened from the moment A.J. arrived at the church, until the graveside service was over.
All she said was, "I guess it was a mistake for us not to talk about the funeral in front of him. I should have realized he'd want to be there. I would have driven him there if I would have known he was planning to do this. Why didn't he just ask me?"
"Because he probably figured you'd try to talk him out of it."
Mom had to smile with chagrin. "I would have."
"He's just not up to any hassles right now, Mom, from either one of us. I think his actions today make that pretty clear."
Mom looked at me with puzzlement.
I smiled with chagrin as well. "He didn't ask me to take him either."
"So what you're saying is, he wasn't up to a hassle from big brother, anymore than he was up to a hassle from his old mother?" Mom teased lightly.
I rose and kissed her cheek. "That's right. And you're not old."
I walked my dirty dishes over to the dishwasher and stacked them inside. "I'll go up and check on A.J. See if he needs anything."
Mom nodded her agreement.
I rapped lightly on the closed bedroom door. When I didn't get an answer I called softly, "A.J.? A.J., can I come in?"
When I still didn't get an answer, I employed what I consider to be an older brother's prerogative. I opened the door and entered the room without being invited.
I found A.J. fast asleep, so I guess whether or not I entered without an invitation was a moot point. He was so tired that all he had managed to remove was his suit coat, tie, and white dress shirt. He was still in his black pants and shoes.
I knew what it was like to be exhausted to a point that you got about half undressed, then laid on the bed thinking that in just a minute you'd have enough strength to stand up and finish the job. The few times I've been there I generally greet the new day with my hat still on.
A.J. didn't wake up as I slipped his shoes and socks off him. Since he was lyin’ on top of the bedspread I didn't have anything to cover him with, so walked out to the hall closet and retrieved a blanket. I spread it over him, shut the blinds, then walked outta the room, closing the door quietly behind me.
Mom left shortly after that, saying she'd call later in the evening to see how he was doing.
A.J. slept until seven-thirty that night. I knew he was awake when I heard him moving around in the master bathroom. He came downstairs a few minutes after that dressed in his pajama bottoms and robe, which gave me a good indication that he didn't plan on stayin' up too long. He got a glass of juice, which was all I think he was intending on eating until I bullied him into lettin' me make us some scrambled eggs. He only ate a few bites of dinner, but I left him alone about it. I knew he'd had a hard day and wasn't up to any grief from me. He didn't say anything about the funeral, and neither did I. Mom called just as we were finishing our meal. A.J. talked to her while I cleaned up the kitchen. I could tell by his side of the conversation that Mom didn't bring up the funeral either, nor his little disappearing act from earlier that afternoon.
A.J. stayed downstairs about another half hour. While I sat and watched a sitcom, he reclined on the couch and read the paper. Just after he'd gone back up to bed for the night the phone rang.
I took the stairs two at a time and found him still awake.
"Janet's on the phone."
"Oh. Okay. Thanks." He reached over to the nightstand, clicked on the lamp, and picked up the receiver.
I went back downstairs, hung up the kitchen phone, shut off the TV, and took Rex for a walk. Went I got back half an hour later, A.J. was still on the phone with Janet. The sound of his laughter drifted down to me in the kitchen where I sat eating a bowl of ice cream. I was glad Janet had called. She'd been able to do for A.J. what Mom and I hadn't. She’s been able to make him laugh again, and it was damn good sound to hear.
Things sailed along pretty smoothly the rest of that week. Maybe without realizing it both A.J. and I had to get past Erika's funeral before we could begin to put to rest what had happened.
A.J.'s appetite picked up little by little as the week wore on. He also rested like he had been ordered, sleeping for several hours each afternoon and going to bed early each evening. He seemed to gain more of his strength back with each passing day. By Thursday, though he was still dealing with a lot of aches and pains, he didn't need Mom at the house with him when I went to the office for a few hours. He was even asking me to bring work home for him to do, which both Mom and I thought was a good sign.
The main thing that still worried me was the nightmares that plagued his sleep. A.J. didn't have any more episodes where he woke up screaming, but there were a few times when I'd gotten up in the middle of the night to check on him, and found him covered with sweat, mumbling in his sleep. I never woke him up at those times, but just stood watch over him until he seemed to settle back down. He didn't mention the dreams during the following days and frankly, neither did I. I didn't know whether to bring them up or not, to tell ya' the truth. Now I realize I should have. I came to find out later the nightmares haunted him on and off for over a year.
Janet stayed close to us that week. She talked to A.J. on Wednesday morning, telling him she'd bring dinner over that evening. She arrived at six-thirty bearing a big pan of homemade lasagna, a loaf of French bread, and warm cherry cobbler. A.J. had put a bottle of wine in the refrigerator to go with our meal even though, because of the medication, he couldn't have any.
The three of us had a great evening together. A.J. had slept most of that afternoon, so was feeling pretty good at dinner time. He was even completely dressed in blue jeans and a sweater for the first time that week, other than when he had attended Erika's funeral.
We spent much of night reminiscing about the years all three of us had lived in Florida. Then we moved on to swapping stories about the early years when our office was across the street from the Peerless Detective Agency, where Janet worked as a secretary for her father while attending law school.
Just like everyone else who takes a trip down memory lane, our reminiscing eyes only saw those years through rose-colored glasses. Never did anyone mention the fights A.J. and Janet had over his chosen career...or me. Nor the fights Janet and I had over A.J. I thought she wanted to change him, she thought I was interfering in their relationship. I suppose, to some degree, we were both right.
But that Wednesday night we only remembered the good times. The fishing trips, the picnics, the Sunday afternoon ocean swims, and the way Janet used to steal cases from her father and pass them on to us.
We never managed to move from the table into the living room. We just sat there long after the plates were empty and pushed aside, talking and laughing. I didn't even realize how much time had passed until it was ten o'clock and A.J. was bowing out to go up to bed.
He kissed Janet's cheek and thanked her for bringing dinner. He told both of us good night, then he and Rex shuffled off up the stairs.
Janet stayed another two hours. She helped me clean the kitchen and start the dishwasher. We sat back down at the table and I refilled our wine glasses. She and I continued to talk and laugh quietly about old times. At midnight I walked her out to her car. She asked me to tell A.J. she'd call him the next day. I promised her I would before turning to go into the house. I shut off the lights and navigated my way upstairs in the dark. Much like I had been glad Janet had called the previous evening, I was glad she had come over that night. I thought her visit had done A.J. an immeasurable amount of good. I thought a close friend to talk over old times with was just what he needed right now.
Janet called A.J. on Thursday night just like she had promised she would. They talked for an hour and a half.
The phone rang early on Friday morning, but this time it wasn't Janet, it was Abby. The Gang Unit had rounded up several of the Conquistadores¢ and Conquistadoras, and wanted to see if A.J. could pick them out of a lineup as soon as possible.
He was still in the shower when I hung up from Abby's call. Because of the running water he hadn't heard the phone ring, so I didn't mention the call until after he'd eaten his breakfast. I saw him swallow hard from where he stood at the sink putting our cereal bowls in the dishwasher, but other than that he showed no visible signs that the news bothered him one way or another. He simply nodded his head and turned for the stairs.
"I'll be right back. Just let me grab a jacket."
The cops brought them in six at a time, a mixture of gang members and other criminals not associated with the crime. Even with the cops throwing in guys who didn't have anything to do with the Conquistadores¢ and Erika's murder, A.J. confidently picked out those involved. By the time he was done he had indicated to nine young men who ranged in age from fifteen to twenty-three, including the twenty-one-year-old who called himself White Snake.
The girls were brought in next. Again, A.J. had no trouble picking out the Conquistadoras involved. I had to admire him. For all my brother had gone through, without one ounce of hesitation he correctly named each offender. Very few people would have been able to do the same. Every person the cops brought forward in the line-up was of Hispanic descent. Every one of them had dark hair and eyes. Considering what they'd done to A.J. - the beatings he had received and the things he had been forced to watch them do to Erika, I was amazed that all their faces didn't run together as one big blur in his mind.
Although the cops didn't have anywhere near all the kids involved, and probably never would, at least they had some of those directly responsible for Erika's murder. Gary even told us they had a strong lead on the kid who had cut A.J. loose.
A.J. didn't seem to wanna hang around and talk with Gary or Abby. While they filled me in on what was going on, he waited by the door. Abby looked over at him.
"How's he doing, Rick?"
I looked over my shoulder to where he was staring at the kids being led out of the lineup room. I could tell that just seeing their faces was causing the whole experience to vividly be replayed in his mind. I turned back to Abby and said with more confidence than I felt, "He's doin' okay. Eatin' pretty good, restin' like he should. I knew this was gonna be hard on him. Probably as hard as Erika's funeral was, but at least it's over now."
"Until the trial," Abby's fateful words reminded me.
I glanced back at my silent brother. "Yeah...until the trial."
I took A.J. home right after that. Again, much like the day of Erika's funeral, the ride to his house was made in silence. And again, just like that day, he brushed past the worried mother who was awaiting our return without so much as a hello. And just like the day of the funeral, he retreated to his room and shut the door.
This time I didn't wait a half an hour before going up to check on him. It took me five minutes to fill Mom in on what happened at the police station. When I was finished doing that I took the stairs two at a time.
I knocked on the door. "A.J.?"
There was a moment's hesitation before I heard his quiet, "Yes. I'm fine."
"Can I come in?"
"I...I'm tired, Rick. I'm going to sleep for a while. Can it wait?"
"Yeah...yeah sure, A.J., it can wait. We'll talk later."
His, "Okay," was flat and lifeless.
"You...you did good at the police station, little brother. I'm proud of you."
I waited for his reply but didn't get one. "A.J.?"
His, "Thanks," came out as lifeless as his okay had.
I stood there a minute longer waiting to see if he'd give in and grant me entrance. When it became evident that he wasn't going to, I beckoned to Rex who had followed me up the stairs. We returned to the kitchen where I simply told Mom A.J. was tired and wanted to sleep. She knew better, but didn't ask any questions. What good would it have done her anyway? I sure as hell didn't have any answers.
Janet had heard at work about A.J. being called in for the lineup. She stopped by the house on her way home that evening. Though he and I had arrived back at eleven, A.J. had yet to come out of his room. I had checked on him a couple of times, but neither time was he asleep. He was just lyin' on his bed, staring out the French doors. Mom finally got him to eat some soup, though it took the threat of a phone call to Joel to get him to give in to her demands. She left for home frustrated and worried shortly before Janet arrived.
I told Janet what had happened and how A.J. had been acting all day.
"Do you think he'll see me?" She asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know, darlin'. But feel free to go on up and try. The worst that will happen is he won't let you in."
Which was what I fully expected A.J. to do. Therefore, I was surprised when I heard him reply, “Yes,” to Janet's request of, "A.J., it's Janet. May I come in?"
She shut the bedroom door behind her, effectively cutting off my ability to hear their conversation. I turned the news on and sat on the couch. When a half an hour had passed and Janet still hadn't returned, I decided to take a chance and run out and get the three of us a pizza. I was hoping some of the magic of Wednesday night could be conjured up again.
It was a little more than an hour later before I returned. I was pleased to see that Janet had somehow managed to coax A.J. down to the living room where they had a fire going in the fireplace.
Janet smiled when I entered the house. "We were just about to send out a search party."
I sat the pizza on the counter along with a movie I had rented on the off chance that I could talk A.J. into watching it.
"Ah, no need to send out a search party, darlin'," I drawled. "While you two were busy solving the world's problems, I went out and got us an extra large double decker pizza with mushrooms, sausage, and onions." I gave a meaningful glance in A.J.'s direction. "And the chef isn't taking no for an answer tonight."
Janet grabbed A.J. by the hand and gently pulled him to his feet. "I think he means business, A.J. Come on. If I remember your brother's appetite for pizza correctly, we'd better grab our pieces before it's all gone."
A.J. even managed to join in the teasing. "You remember my brother's pizza appetite correctly."
A.J. didn't object when I popped the movie in his VCR. The three of us laughed our way through the comedy I’d brought home. Janet gave A.J. a long hug when it was over and she rose to go home, while he rose to go up to bed.
"I want you guys and your mother to come to my place for dinner tomorrow night," she invited when they parted. "I'll call Cecilia in the morning. Can I count on you two being there?"
The two of us agreed we'd see her the following evening at seven.
Much like I had on Wednesday night, I walked Janet out to her car. This time it was me who gave her a long hug.
"Thanks for stopping by, sweetie. I was really worried about him. You put some life back in him tonight."
She looked up at me with unshed tears shining in the glow of the streetlight. "He's hurting so much inside, Rick. He's really, really hurting."
As Janet drove away I wondered just what she and A.J. had discussed up in his bedroom. And I wondered, too, why he hadn't discussed those same things with me.
Janet, Mom, and I agreed that Janet's little dinner party on Saturday evening was a resounding success. It did A.J. a world of good to get out of the house for something other than a funeral or a police lineup. He said it made him feel halfway human again.
Mom had gone over to Janet's place late in the afternoon to help with the meal and to indulge in some, "Good, old-fashioned girl talk," as she put it. When A.J. and I arrived at seven supper was ready. We didn't leave until close to eleven, the four of us laughing and talking as we played hand after hand of Crazy Eights and Gin Rummy.
On Sunday afternoon I was stretched out on the sofa watchin' a basketball game, and A.J. was stretched out on a chaise lounge on the deck readin' a book, when the bell outside the kitchen door clanged.
I kissed Janet on the cheek in greeting and indicated with a toss of my thumb that A.J. was outside. I grabbed a beer out of the fridge and flopped back down on the couch.
It was a warm, sunny day, so the French doors were wide open, the screens being the only barrier between the inside and outside of the house. Over the sounds of rubber soled shoes pounding and screeching on hardwood, the cheering of the crowd, and the ref's whistle, snatches of Janet and A.J.'s conversation drifted into me on the breeze off the canal. I'll readily admit I tuned in a bit sharper when I heard my very astute brother question Janet as to why, for the second weekend in a row, she hadn't gone up to Sacramento to be with her husband.
There was a long pause before Janet confessed softly, "A.J...Allan and I are getting a divorce."
I heard A.J. tell her how sorry he was. Then he asked her why she hadn't told him sooner.
At that Janet started to cry. "I was just so ashamed...so humiliated. I didn't want anyone to know. Least of all you. You...you were always so good to me."
I unobtrusively watched as he rose and moved across the deck to sit next to her on the chaise lounge that was a twin to the one he had just vacated. He put his arm around her and murmured words of comfort I couldn't hear as she sobbed into his shoulder.
Janet's a strong woman. Not the kind of woman who cries easily. And also, not the kind of woman who takes kindly to being made a fool of. Which is exactly what Allan Cassidy had done to her.
Although I had heard the story of what led up to Janet's marital disharmony only one week earlier, I listened as she told it again. She went into a lot more detail with A.J. than she had with Mom and me. But considering what they had once meant to each other, that didn't come as a big surprise.
Janet cried a lot that afternoon. I think for the first time she was acknowledging the pain the divorce was causing her, as well as the heartache of Allan's betrayal.
"I never thought this would happen to me, A.J.," she wept. "This wasn't the way my life was supposed to end up. I...I thought I had a fairy tale marriage. The perfect husband. Instead everyone must be having a good laugh at dumb old Janet who was too blind to see the writing on the wall. Who's so naive that she's the last one to know that her husband is nothing but a skirt chaser and a bed hopper."
"Shhh. Shhh," A.J. comforted while he rocked back and forth with Janet in his arms. "You're not dumb, and no one's laughing at you. You trusted your husband to be faithful to you. There's nothing wrong with that. That's the way it should be. Allan was the one who blew it here. Not you."
They shared that chaise lounge and talked for the rest of the afternoon. I quietly slipped outta the house when the basketball game ended to let them have their privacy. When Rex and I returned from a two hour walk on the beach, Janet's eyes were dry and she was helping A.J. grill steaks and toss a salad. She stayed and had supper with us, but nothing more was said about Allan Cassidy or the upcoming divorce. We kept the conversation light and carefree. I thought that in itself was pretty good considering all three of us were going through some rough times right at the moment.
It was A.J. who walked Janet out to her car that night. They stood in the driveway and talked for a long time. The late news was just getting over when he came back in.
I made a big show of looking at my watch. "It's a bit past your bed time, isn't it?"
"I didn't know I was on a curfew," he tossed back with a smile.
"Well, since you didn't get your afternoon nap in, I think you'd better hit the sack," I advised. "You're lookin' droopy under the eyelids there, little brother."
He perched himself on the edge of the coffee table and yawned. "Yeah. I guess I am kind of tired. Two late nights in a row are two late nights too many for me right now." He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Hey, Rick, when did Janet tell you and Mom about her divorce?"
"Last Saturday afternoon when she was here."
He dropped his hand and looked at me. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Two reasons. Number one, Janet asked Mom and me not to. Said she wanted to tell you herself when the time was right. And number two, I don't think you really needed that news on top of everything else last weekend, do you?"
The half smile he threw me was bittersweet. "No. I guess not. She's such a terrific lady though, you know? I'm glad she's divorcing the guy. She deserves better than to be treated like that."
"That she does, A.J.," I wholeheartedly agreed. "That she does."
I reached over and patted his knee. "Hey, don't look so down in the mouth there, pal. Janet's smart, a heck of a looker, and a super gal. Some guy will come along and snatch her up before you can say Jack Robinson."
He stared off into space, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Yeah...yeah, I suppose you're right. Some guy will."
He sat there for a minute longer, deep in thought, then rose. "I guess I'd better get to bed. 'Night, Rick."
Long after he'd retired for the evening I sat downstairs wondering what was on his mind, and what it was about Janet's divorce that seemed to be so unsettling for him.
Monday afternoon found me sitting in the Medcare Clinic's waiting room leafing through an outdated issue of Sports Illustrated while A.J. was in with Joel. Other than a jabbering toddler who was pointing out pictures to his mother from a storybook, the room was quiet. Several people were, like me, passing the time by reading old magazines. A few others were conversing in hushed tones like people always seem to do in doctors' offices.
I had just put my magazine back on the end table that was at my elbow, and was searching the stack for another one, when the door opened that separated the waiting area from the examining rooms. I was surprised when Joel peeked his head out. Usually it was one of the nurses who came and called for the next patient.
Joel caught my eye and beckoned by crooking two fingers at me. "Rick, would you come into my office for a minute, please?"
Puzzled, I rose and followed Joel down the hallway to the small, cluttered office at the end of the corridor.
Joel indicated to a chair across from his desk. "Have a seat."
I did as the doctor instructed. He rounded his desk and plopped down in the leather chair behind it.
"Is something wrong with A.J.?" I asked when I could no longer contain my worry. I thought it was rather strange that the man had wanted to see me privately.
"No, no. Nothing's wrong. Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you."
Joel leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the corner of his desk. I knew this wasn't the normal posture he assumed when talking to most of his patients, which was a good indication of how comfortable he felt with me.
"As a matter of fact, A.J.'s doing fine considering what he looked like when I first saw him last Saturday. He's healing nicely. I took the stitches out of his arm a few minutes ago. The cut looks good. With time, I don't even think you'll be able to see the scar. The welts on his back are clearing up nicely as well. I also told him he doesn't need to bandage or put salve on the rope burns anymore, nor do either to his palms. He indicated to me that he hasn't taken a pain pill since Friday, so I'm not going to refill that prescription, or the antibiotic either. I am, however, going to refill the muscle relaxant. Those pulled muscles are still giving him plenty of trouble, and they probably will for another week or two."
I nodded my head in agreement.
"I don't know about the ribs yet, but my guess is they're not completely mended. He's still having quite a lot of discomfort, especially when they're untaped. One of the nurses has him at the other end of the clinic right now waiting for an X-ray. Once I see what the ribs look like I should be able to better estimate as to how much longer it's going to be before they're healed.
"A.J. indicated to me that he'd like to return to work tomorrow. What are your thoughts on that?"
"Well...I would say he's gettin' antsy. Especially these past couple of days as he's started to feel better. A.J.'s not one to just sit around the house and do nothin'."
Joel nodded. "At this point I don't really have an objection to him going back to work tomorrow, provided that until I see him again next week it's with the understanding that it's part-time. I want him out of that office by noon every day this week, Rick. He still needs to rest."
"That's fine," I readily agreed. "I'll see to it that he does whatever you tell him to."
"And even after I let him go back to work full-time, I want him to take it easy for a few weeks. No rough stuff. No throwing some three hundred pound goliath up against a brick wall. No sprinting across someone's lawn trying to get away from growling dogs. And for heaven's sake, whatever you do, don't let anyone throw a punch at his rib cage for at least a month. I don't exactly know what type of work you two do that doesn't involve any of the above, but seek it out. Help a little old lady cross the street, or--"
"That's the Boy Scouts," I interrupted with a smile.
Joel rolled his eyes at me as he continued. "Or help someone find their long lost great-aunt from who they stand to inherit a small fortune. Or help a little girl get her kitten out of a tree. I don't care what it is, just make sure your brother doesn't over do."
"Don't worry. I will."
Joel put his feet on the floor and raked through the piles of papers on his desk. "Somewhere here I have A.J.'s chart."
It took him a few seconds, but he finally pulled a clipboard out from under the mess.
"How's he been sleeping?" The doctor asked.
"Pretty good. He's been taking a lot of naps."
"Has he been having nightmares?"
I hesitated a moment before answering. "I don't...a few. One or two, I guess."
Joel's eyes met and held mine before he proceeded. "Has he been eating like he should?"
"Well...I suppose not as much as he normally does. But yeah, he's been eating pretty good."
"He's lost nine pounds he doesn't need to lose since he was here last year for his physical. Obviously with what he's been through that's not too surprising. I am going to tell A.J. that I expect him to gain at least two pounds back by the time I see him again next week."
"That sounds reasonable."
scribbled something on A.J.'s chart before looking across the desk at me.
"Have you talked to him at all about what we discussed last Saturday?"
Although I had taken an educated guess as to where this conversation was going when Joel asked me if A.J. was having nightmares, I feigned ignorance. "What we discussed?"
"About professional help."
"Oh. Uh...well, no. I...I haven't."
There were no admonishments from Joel, just a straight forward, "I think you should."
When I didn't have an answer for that the doctor elaborated.
"I brought it up to A.J. a little while ago. To say that he's not receptive to the idea is putting it mildly."
I shrugged. "I guess that's his choice then."
Joel didn't have an immediate reply, which was a clear indication to me that he was less than pleased with my answer.
"Rick...a person doesn't live through what A.J. experienced and just pick themselves up and go about their merry way. You, of all people, should know that."
I knew he was alluding to the time I'd spent at the V.A. hospital for Delayed Stress Disorder. I knew it was in my medical records. I was kinda pissed at him for bringing it up though. It wasn't something that was easy for me to talk about, or for me to acknowledge. Not even with a physician who was also a friend.
"Look, Joel, I can't make A.J. do what he doesn't want to. If you're so concerned then you talk to him about it."
The doctor wasn't about to be riled by my attitude.
"I already told you that I have talked to him about it. And like I said, I didn't get anywhere with him. If anyone can make A.J. understand that he can't get through this on his own, it's you. I think--"
I folded my arms across my chest. My body language clearly spoke my displeasure to the doctor as I shook my head.
"I'm not going to push him. If A.J. doesn't want to talk to someone...a professional...then he doesn't want to. That's the end of it."
Even though I wouldn't look him in the eye, I could feel Joel's scrutiny. "Maybe it's you who doesn't want to talk to someone."
I looked at the man and snarled, "And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I know the girl who was murdered was a relative of one of your closest friends. I know you took the case as a favor to Carlos."
How he knew that I couldn't even fathom, but I wasn't about to ask him either. I knew he doctored a good number of people in the Mexican-American community. Since at least half of those people are related to Carlos in one way or another, I figured he had heard something through the very long, and very active Escobar grapevine.
Joel threw his trump card on the table. "I would suppose you feel a considerable amount of guilt over the fact the child you were hired to protect was murdered. I suppose that guilt is even worse because A.J. is the one who has suffered the most for Erika's--"
I propelled my body outta that chair before he could finish. I slammed my hands on his desk, leaning over him.
"Joel, I'm warnin' you right now you're treadin' on thin ice with me. Nothing about the Garcia case is any of your goddamn business! Nor is it anyone else's for that matter! A.J. and I will deal with it in our own way. We don't need our general practitioner playin' shrink!"
"Rick, calm down. I'm only trying to--"
I was halfway to the door when I spun around. "I don't give a shit what you're tryin' to do! I already told you that it's none of your business. Now if you can't just patch A.J. up and leave it at that, then I'll find someone else who can."
I slammed the door so hard that I could the glass picture frame that held Joel’s medical school diploma fall off the wall and shatter. My voice must have carried all the way out to the waiting room, 'cause I was greeted by gaping mouths and a dozen pair of staring eyes when I stalked through it on my way to the parking lot. I turned to look at the receptionist only long enough to say, "Tell my brother I'm waiting outside for him."
It was almost thirty minutes later before A.J. walked out of the building. I was sitting slumped in the driver's seat of my pickup with my hat pulled down over my eyes. I turned off the country music station on the radio and sat up straight when A.J. climbed in the cab.
Because he had been at the other end of the building A.J. was totally unaware of my little...altercation with Joel. Based on his demeanor when he got in the truck, it was obvious to me that Joel hadn't told him about it either.
A.J. was all smiles when he said he could return to work the next day. As Joel had suspected, his ribs were still on the mend, therefore he had to return to the doctor's office for a follow-up exam the next week.
I acted surprised, as well as pleased, to hear all this news. I never let on that Joel had filled me in regarding it less than an hour earlier. I wasn't too surprised when A.J. didn't mention the fact that Joel had discussed counseling with him - nor did I bring it up. At the time I allowed myself to be foolish enough to believe that A.J. and I both knew what was best for us.
I decided, and A.J. agreed, that that Monday night would be my last at his house. He didn't need my help any longer, and I thought the sooner we got back to our normal routines, the sooner life would begin to seem normal to us again. I figured with him returnin' to work the next day, it was a good time to get things back as they should be.
A.J. was sitting up in bed reading at nine o'clock that night while I was packin' up some of my stuff. I heard him set his book on the nightstand, then dial the phone. Within a few seconds I figured out he was talkin' to Janet. An hour later, when I was ready to go to bed, they were still on the phone. I went to A.J.’s doorway and gave him a little wave and mouthed, "Good night."
He moved the receiver away from his mouth long enough to say "Good night," in return. Janet must have heard what was goin' on because she told A.J. to tell me hi and good night as well.
As I drifted off to sleep I could just barely make out the sound of A.J.'s voice coming from his bedroom down the hall. When I finally dropped off for good around eleven, they were still on the phone. What time they hung up I don't know. I was long asleep by then.
A.J. returned to work on Tuesday morning, February 6th. Things were uneventful that week, as I had promised Joel they would be. I made sure A.J. left each day at noon, which really didn't take a lot of effort on my part because by then his still- mending body was more than ready to go home for a nap.
He waited around until after the mail was delivered his first day back to work. He briefly looked through it before telling me, at five minutes to twelve, that he was heading home.
"Do you want me to stop by on my way home tonight to make dinner for you?" I asked, though it was meant as more of a suggestion. "Or I could pick up something for us at the Steak Pit if you'd rather."
"No, that's okay," he shook his head as he carefully shouldered into his suit coat. "Janet's coming over tonight and help me fix dinner."
"But you're welcome to stop by and eat with us if you want."
"Uh...thanks anyway, but I think I'll pass this time. Since I dropped Rex off at the boat on my way here this morning I really should get home right after work, I suppose. He was so used to goin' in and out of your house last week any time he pleased, that he'll be confused at bein' cooped up all day. I better get home and let him out as soon as I can."
"Okay. But if you change your mind come on over."
"I will," I assured, though in actuality I had no intention of intruding on his evening. "You go home and rest now like you're supposed to."
"I will, Mother," I heard right before the door shut behind him.
Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday, only A.J. took Janet out to dinner that evening. On Thursday we resumed our regular weekly dinner at Mom's house. Mom called Janet that morning and invited her to join us. I don't think any of us realized then, that from that Thursday night on, Mom would be setting an extra place at the table whenever our family got together for a meal.
On Friday night Janet invited A.J. out for supper and a movie. As far as what they did over the weekend I'm not sure, though A.J. did mention that they spent time together on both Saturday and Sunday.
A.J. saw Joel again the next Wednesday. This time the X-rays showed his ribs to be completely healed. He had also gained the two pounds Joel had required of him. He was allowed to return to work full-time, though once again, was cautioned to restrain his physical activities for a couple of weeks yet.
I heard all of the above through A.J. I didn't go with him to the doctor's office this time. I knew if anything was drastically wrong Joel would call me. Otherwise, I felt it was better if I didn't encounter the man again any time in the near future. While I still harbored a healthy dose of anger toward Joel and his prying, I have to admit I was rather embarrassed by my behavior in his office. By this time I figured every doctor, nurse, receptionist and clerk in the place knew what had occurred. I didn't feel like seein' any of those people until it was all a distant memory.
It didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that while A.J. was happy to be back to work, that happiness came more from the fact that being at work beat layin' around on the couch at home. There was something missing inside him...some special spark of spirit that had always made it obvious that being a private investigator was his first love.
When A.J. had first returned to work I didn't think much of it. I knew he tired easily, and was still puttin' up with a good deal of aches and pains. I figured once he was back to his old self his enthusiasm for his work would reassert itself. As the weeks went by, however, that didn't seem to be happening. On many days he simply seemed to be going through the motions for my benefit.
Another thing that quickly became apparent to me, was A.J.'s leeriness toward any job that might be considered even remotely risky. Before Erika's murder, we had both considered risky jobs to be the meat and potatoes of being P.I.'s. The bread and butter cases were the easy ones. The ones where we supplied security at some fancy party, or followed around someone's cheating spouse, or escorted Miss International Centerfold on her rounds, or even like Joel had said, helped to locate someone's long lost relative. The meat and potatoes cases were the ones where we pretended to be someone we weren't and prayed to God we didn't get caught. They were the ones that found us picking locks in the middle of the night, or crawling through ventilator shafts on our bellies.
The meat and potatoes cases didn't come along every day, not nearly as frequently as the bread and butter ones did. But they were the ones we looked forward to. They were the ones that got us out of the boring routine of a nine to five job. And now, suddenly, they were the ones that A.J. refused to accept.
The first few times it happened I didn't argue with him. I didn't interfere when he gave potential clients the name of another detective agency. I knew perfectly well what was causing his wariness and thought for sure, with time, it would pass. When the month of February had gone by and the wariness hadn't passed, I confronted A.J. about it. He had just turned a client away who was willing to pay us big bucks to protect his twenty-year-old daughter from a stalker, who also happened to be a former boyfriend. I guess I should have realized how similar the case was to Erika’s, but at the time I didn't. All I was seein' was the big fee we were gonna collect off this wealthy guy, and a change of pace from the dull cases A.J.'d kept us on a steady diet of in recent weeks.
I couldn't believe my ears when A.J. let the guy walk out the door without taking the case. It all happened so fast I hadn't even been able to pull him out in the hall for a conference.
The disbelief was clearly etched on my face as I watched the guy leave. I turned to my brother. "What'd you do that for?"
A.J. had already reseated himself and was sifting through the mail. "What did I do what for?"
"Send that guy away. He was gonna pay big bucks."
"You heard what I told him. We don't have time to take on his case right now."
"What do you mean we don't have time? Of course we have time! We've only got three cases goin'! None of which will take more than a day or two to finish up. We've taken on a lot more than that before."
"Look, Rick, I don't feel like arguing about it, okay? We just don't have the time so let's leave it at--"
"What the hell is wrong with you? For the last month the only cases you've let us accept are stuff a twelve-year-old Hardy Boys’ enthusiast could do. Don't you think it's about time you got past what happened to Erika?"
Well, there I went with another, open-mouth-insert-foot, memorable moment in my life. The sad thing is, I didn't mean it. Not one word of it.
A.J.’s features hardened as he glared up at me. "Don't say that," he hissed. "Don't you ever say that to me again."
"A.J...I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"
I never got to finish my apology. He slammed the door in the middle of it.
That little incident of sibling discord occurred on a Friday. We didn't see each other again until Monday, and neither of us brought it up. Not then, and not ever. Again, a big mistake on my part. And on A.J.'s, too, I suppose. It would have been the perfect time for both of us to discuss how Erika's death had, and still was, affecting us. It would have been the perfect time for both of us to admit we were doing a hell of a lot of pretending. Pretending things were back to normal. Pretending things were going to work out fine on their own. Pretending nothing was ever gonna change...when we already knew perfectly well that plenty had.
And somewhere, while all this was goin' on, A.J. and Janet fell in love again. I guess neither one of them had very far to fall. They had both loved each other as friends for years. And, of course, prior to that, had shared a love of a stronger sort during their two year engagement from 1978 to 1980.
I think Mom guessed long before I did that what was goin' on between Janet and A.J. was serious. That guess on Mom’s part probably had something do with why she suddenly started including Janet in every Thursday night Simon family meal.
I'll admit I was a little slow on the uptake. I knew Janet was going through a hard time in regards to her divorce and, of course, A.J. was going through a hard time, so it didn't really come as a big shock to me that they turned to each other for comfort. That's what old friends are for, isn't it?
I finally figured out there was more than friendship involved in this relationship as the calendar turned to March. Janet's divorce had just been made final a week earlier. I had to call A.J.'s house one morning before work for a reason I can no longer remember. I just know I was gonna be late and wanted to tell him not to expect me at the office until around ten. I called at the crack of dawn, six a.m. I wanted to catch him before he went running.
I didn't even know what to say when it was Janet's groggy voice that answered the phone. To say I was surprised would have been an understatement. Honest to God I hadn't seen their relationship headin' in that direction, even though I knew they were spending almost every evening together.
Normally I woulda' teased the hell out of Janet upon finding her in my brother's bed only a week after her divorce papers were signed. This time, for some reason, I didn't. I listened to her repeat of, "Hello? Hello?" several times before finally hanging up.
Now there's a woman who has supreme confidence in herself, I thought cynically. Divorced only a week, sleepin' with my brother, and not thinkin' anything of answering his phone for him.
Even at the time I knew that was a nasty thought, and kinda wondered where it came from. For all I knew Janet had been too tired to drive home and A.J. had given her his room, while he slept in the guest room. Or heck, maybe they'd been sleeping together for weeks now and I just hadn't realized it. It's not like it was any of my business anyway. And hey, A.J. might have told her to answer the phone.
For some reason I didn't like it, though. Her divorce was too fresh. I hoped she wasn't usin' A.J. to hide from her pain. I hoped she hadn't found him to be an instant replacement for the husband she no longer had. As much as I liked Janet, and I liked her a lot, I had always thought her to be a very selfish woman. A woman who was miserable to deal with until she got her way. If she had one fault that was it.
I always figured it went back to when she was a kid. She was an only child, and had been nine when her mother died. For as obnoxious and strong-willed as her father is, he gave into Janet’s every whim and demand from that point on. Myron thought his little girl had suffered enough. He couldn't bear to say no to her. It made things hard on him...and on her, and most of all on the men who, in her adult years, would go on to fall in love with her. Men like A.J. Men like Allan Cassidy. And then once again, A.J.
It was just two days after that early morning phone call, when we got word that the trial was set to start March 22nd. Every city official, including the mayor, pressured the court system to get it underway as soon as possible. Right from the start Janet had been correct. Everyone was eager to nail those responsible for Erika's death.
A.J. was quiet for a few days after that. And even quieter once he started meeting with the prosecuting attorneys from the D.A.'s office who were preparing him for what to expect from them, and the defense, when he took the stand. White Snake, lesser known as Alfredo Ramarez, had evidently instructed all those charged in varying degrees with Erika's murder, to use as their defense the line of bullcrap that A.J. was a dope pusher caught up in deal gone sour.
Although the prosecution would be able to dispute that claim easily enough, it was still hard on A.J. He told me it was difficult enough being a victim of what had happened. He didn't want our name dragged down along with the whole sorry affair.
There wasn't much more I could do than assure him there was a snowball's chance in hell of that occurring. Nonetheless, I knew where he was comin' from. If I coulda' got in that jail house and killed those little bastards before the case ever went to trial I swear I would have.
Mom and Janet and I were in that courtroom with A.J. every day for the next two weeks. Although Janet could have sat at the prosecuting attorneys' table, even though she had removed herself from the case long ago, she chose instead to sit with us a few rows back.
The trial began at nine o'clock on a Thursday morning. Things started out mildly enough. The first two days involved Adriano spending a lot of time on the witness stand. He explained how Erika had gotten involved with the Conquistadoras, and the events that led up to him hiring A.J. and me. Carlos was called next to answer questions regarding why he recommended Simon and Simon Investigations to Adriano. I knew the D.A.'s office was trying to get an early jump on the defense by showing A.J. and I as legitimate P.I's, and not the dope pushers they very likely were going to make us out to be.
During the second day of testimony I was called on to recount the conversation that had taken place in our office the morning Adriano came to hire us. Also shown as evidence, was the contract Adriano had signed upon retaining Simon and Simons' services. From there, Abby and Gary Childers were called to relay the sequence of events that occurred later that same day when A.J. and I took the Garcias to the police station. Gary was a big help to the prosecution's case because of his vast knowledge regarding the ever-growing problem of teenagers and gang involvement in San Diego.
I was recalled the third day and asked to relate my conversation with Erika the afternoon I took her for ice cream. From there I was asked questions about the day she and A.J. disappeared. Adriano and his sons were called and questioned about that day as well. Ditto for Abby, Gary, and every other police department employee who had participated in the search for my brother and Erika.
I was surprised, as well as pleased, when Gilberto took the stand on Tuesday morning, the fourth day of testimony. I could tell the kid was scared, though I don't know if it was in fear of the tattooed and menacing White Snake, who sat at the defense table, or if it was of the beefy black judge with the booming voice in the long robe.
Whichever it was, Gilberto preformed brilliantly. In his new suit, tie, and slicked back hair, he readily answered every question the prosecution asked him. He truly proved to be one of the best witnesses we had.
When he was finally allowed to leave the stand he gave me a little wave as he passed. I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.
The trucker had been found who had helped A.J. early that Saturday morning of his escape. He was able to testify of A.J.'s physical condition when my brother flagged him down. A.J.'s injuries were then recounted by the doctor who had first taken care of him in the emergency room, Kenneth Shlinker, as well as by Joel.
And through all this testimony, day after day, A.J. said not a word. He sat between Janet and me listening attentively, but never reacting to anything or anyone. That scared me. And it scared Mom. And, I suppose, it scared Janet, too, because more than once I saw her reach over and give his hand a squeeze when someone's words brought forth a painful memory. That was the only time I ever saw him respond. When Janet squeezed his hand like that. Every time she did he held onto her hand in return and rubbed his thumb in a caressing motion over the back of it.
When everyone who was anyone in this case had been called to testify, the moment Mom and I were dreading arrived. On the sixth day, Thursday, March 29th, the prosecution had no choice but to call Andrew Jackson Simon to the stand.
If you've never sat through a murder trial, then you don't know that you'll hear the same question asked of at least a half a dozen people in as many days. For the first hour A.J. was on the stand he was asked the same questions I had been. He told of the day Adriano came to our office to hire us, and of subsequent conversations he had with Erika. He did pretty good when they started asking him what happened the day he and Erika were kidnapped. It started to get rougher on him when he began to tell of their captivity. I think the judge must have decided A.J., as well as the jury, needed a break. Although it was only eleven a.m., he called a two hour recess for lunch.
The courthouse was across the street from a quiet city park full of green grass, trees, fountains, and picnic tables. Mom had the right idea when she suggested we walk down the street to a deli, buy our lunch, and eat it at a table in the park. We all needed the fresh air and wide-open space.
Mom, Janet, and I exchanged worried glances during the lunch break. A.J. barely said three words throughout the entire two hours. He only took a few sips of the soup he had ordered, and totally ignored his sandwich. With an hour to go before we had to be back in the courtroom, he rose and said in way of explanation, "I'm going for a walk."
Janet looked up at him. "Mind if I tag along?"
He smiled for the first time that day. "Be my guest."
He held his hand out and assisted her in stepping over the picnic bench. It wasn't lost on me that he didn't let go of her hand the entire time the two walked the park's perimeter.
I don't think I've ever experienced an afternoon tougher than that one. I knew I was gonna hear a lot of things I didn't want to. A lot of things I'd led Mom, Abby, and Janet, to believe A.J. had told me. A lot of things A.J. and I hadn't even begun to discuss. And no, I never had read that police report I’d been so insistent about with Abby on the day A.J. as found. I'm ashamed to admit it now, but I just wasn't ready to handle what I knew it contained.
One of the attorneys that Janet worked with in the D.A.'s office rose to question A.J. when court resumed that afternoon.
"Mr. Simon, prior to the lunch break, you told us of the beatings and abuse you endured on the first and second day of your captivity. If you will, please tell the court what happened on Friday evening, January 26th, 1990."
It was a good thing the witness stand was miked, otherwise no one woulda' heard a word A.J. said, he spoke so softly.
"At six o'clock that night twenty-four gang members returned to the cannery."
"And are any of those gang members seated in this courtroom right now?"
"Are they the three young men and two young women seated at the defendant's table?"
Without hesitating a beat, A.J. responded strongly, "Yes, they are."
Though A.J. had picked more kids out of the lineup, the five at this particular trial were, by the court's standards, adults, and considered to be the ringleaders. The prosecution was hoping all five would draw first degree murder charges. Two months later the others involved, all juveniles, would be charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault.
"How do you know it was six o'clock when they arrived?" The attorney asked.
"Because there was a clock on the wall."
"And how do you know there were twenty-four gang members?"
"Because I counted them."
Some people were probably wonderin' why the man had asked those last questions. I knew he was trying to show the jury two things. One, that A.J. was good at what he did, and paid close attention to detail just like a cop does. I'm sure the D.A.'s office was anticipating that this attention to detail would convince the jury that when A.J. pointed at the five gang members in the courtroom, he wasn't mistaken as to their involvement in the crime. The other thing the guy was doing by constantly establishing a time frame with A.J., was reminding the jury how long this ordeal had gone on.
"So the gang arrived at six o'clock and there were twenty-four of them," the attorney repeated. "What happened after that?"
"They beat me up again."
"For how long?"
"A little more than an hour."
The attorney turned to the jury and restated quietly for theatrical affect, "A little more than an hour." After a long pause the man turned back to face A.J. "How many of them hit you, Mr. Simon?"
"They all did."
"All twenty-four of them?"
At this point Mom was squeezing my hand so hard my knuckles were turning white.
"And you were completely unable to defend yourself the entire time because your wrists and ankles were still bound with rope. Is that correct, Mr. Simon?"
"What did they hit you with?"
"Some of them hit me with their fists. Some of them kicked me. One of them worked me over with a set of brass knuckles."
"And how did you get the welts on your back that Dr. Shlinker and Dr. Lankey testified were present when they treated you in the emergency room?"
"I was beaten with a leather belt."
"And is the man who beat you with that belt in this courtroom this afternoon?"
"Would you point him out please?"
Without hesitation, A.J. pointed to White Snake. The wiry gang leader didn't make eye contact with my brother. He concentrated instead at chewing on some loose skin on one of his fingers, as if a cuticle was more important than being tried for murder.
The prosecutor paced the floor, hands shoved deep in his pants pockets. "And what were they doing to Erika Garcia during this time?"
"Making her watch them hit me. Threatening her verbally."
"And what was Erika doing?"
"She was...crying. Begging them to leave me alone. Begging them to turn us loose."
Everyone in the courtroom was spellbound as the attorney continued his probing.
"What happened after they stopped beating you?"
"They shoved me into a corner of the room." I saw him swallow hard. "Then they started...hurting Erika."
"And did they tell you, or Erika, why they were hurting her?"
"They told her they were hurting her because she had left the gang. And because she not only sought help from my brother and myself, but also from the police."
just how did they hurt Erika?"
"The girls started off by hitting her in the face and stomach."
"And are any of those girls present in this courtroom?"
"Point them out please, Mr. Simon."
Again, A.J. indicated to the defense table, though this time pointing at the two seventeen-year-old girls. One of them was the leader of the Conquistadoras and White Snake's girlfriend, as well as the mother of his three young children.
"How long did that beating go on?"
"A half an hour."
"A half an hour," the man repeated, again for the benefit of the jury. "And then what happened?"
"The boys..." A.J.'s voice dropped so low everyone kind of leaned forward in their seats so they could hear him. "The boys took turns...raping her."
Again, the man asked if any of those boys were present in the courtroom. And again, A.J. pointed to the three young men at the defense table.
"What time did this start?"
"What else happened?"
A.J. closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "The girls sodomized her."
"Did the two girls sitting at the defense table take part in that?"
"Were they the ring leaders of it?"
A.J.'s face had taken on a ghastly shade of white as he recounted the events of that night. His physical appearance wasn't lost on the prosecutor, who subtly made reference to it for the sake of everyone present.
"I know these questions are difficult for you, Mr. Simon. I'm sorry I have to ask this next one, but I need you to tell the court what Erika was sodomized with."
There was a long pause before A.J. said quietly, "A broom handle...a screw driver...and a...a broken Coke bottle."
Several audible gasps came from the jury. A jury who, by luck of the draw and a few choice picks by the prosecution, had seven middle-aged men and women on it, themselves parents of teenagers.
"And how long did this go on, Mr. Simon?"
"Until ten minutes after three on Saturday morning."
"So Erika was raped and sodomized for over six hours?"
Adriano was sitting two rows ahead of us. I could see his shoulders start to shake. He buried his head in his hands and began to quietly cry. Carlos put an arm around him and leaned close, saying something to him none of us could hear.
The prosecutor walked over to his table and picked up a piece of paper. "The coroner's report lists the time of death as three twenty-three a.m. Would you say that's accurate, Mr. Simon?"
"And while all this was going on what were you doing?"
"Trying to shift their attention from Erika to me. Trying to convince them to leave her alone." A.J.'s looked off at some point in the distance as if he was reliving that night. He finished softly, "Beg...begging them to do whatever they wanted to me, if they'd just leave her alone."
"But they didn't stop hurting her did they?"
For the first time A.J. couldn't seem to look out over the courtroom. He bowed his head and whispered, "No."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Simon," the judge intoned sympathetically. "But you'll have to speak up so everyone in the courtroom can hear you."
A.J. looked back up. No one in that room missed the single tear that spilled over from his right eye and ran down his cheek. "No," he said with slightly more volume. "They didn't stop hurting her."
And on that note the prosecutor stated, "I have no more questions, Your Honor."
Through all of this the defense had objected a few times, forcing the prosecuting attorney to reword some questions, while completely striking others. But other than those scattered instances, the man had remained seated at his table listening attentively and taking notes.
I wasn't surprised when he rose to cross-examine A.J. I tensed and sat forward in my chair, like I was going to spring from it the moment the guy overstepped his bounds and asked my brother the wrong question.
But that never happened. The cross-examination wasn't much of a cross-examination at all. The man did ask A.J. if he had ever taken, or sold drugs. When he got an emphatic "No," from my brother, he let that line of questioning drop. He then spent about twenty minutes questioning A.J. as to the accuracy of his memory regarding the exact time things took place, just how many kids were involved, and so on. He didn't get anywhere with that either, but didn't seem to be pushing too hard. Not nearly as hard as I expected him to.
None of these kids could afford an attorney so had a public defender. Janet knew the guy, and months after the trial ended saw him somewhere and was told in extreme confidence that he thought White Snake and his crew were nothing but two-bit thugs who all deserved to swing from the end of a rope. He hadn't even wanted to bring the case to trail, but rather had tried to convince the gang members to plead guilty and allow him to plea bargain for reduced charges. White Snake would have nothing to do with that, though I think he may have had a regret or two in that area when his sentence was finally handed down.
If what the public defender told Janet was really the truth about how he felt, then he did do a good job of convincing the judge he was defending his clients to the best of his ability. And considering the odds against him, he probably was. All those kids already had records a mile long. All of them had spent time in jail. White Snake himself had spent two years in prison on drug charges, and was still on parole for that crime.
The defense attorney questioned A.J. and pointed things out to the jury for a total of fifty minutes. By the time he was through it was almost five o'clock. A.J. had been the only person on the stand the entire day, which didn't do him any good, but seemed to have a big effect on those twelve people who would ultimately decide the outcome of this case. I noticed several female jurors wiping tears from the corners of their eyes during his testimony. Many of the men, especially the fathers of teenage daughters, sat grim faced, shaking their heads at the gruesome details of the crime.
The judge looked down at A.J., and in a tone wrought with sincerity said, "Thank you, Mr. Simon. You may step down."
A.J. gripped the witness stand for support when he took the step down onto the floor. His face was drained of all color as he made his way slowly back to where we were sitting. After he retook his aisle seat I gave his arm a brotherly pat in way of saying, "I know it was tough on you, buddy. You did a good job." Janet reached over me and squeezed his knee. She and I exchanged concerned looks when he didn't react to either one of us - didn't acknowledge either one of us in any way.
The judge recessed the court for the day a few minutes later. Hordes of media people had been outside the courtroom every day since the trial began. They hadn't bothered A.J. too much up until this point, but I knew that day was going to be different. Mom, Janet, and I had already planned our strategy. As soon as A.J. stepped into the aisle I stepped out next to him, taking my place on his right side. Janet circled around us and stayed on his left. Carlos wormed his way ahead of us and got in front of A.J., while Mom brought up the rear.
If A.J. realized what we were doing he didn't say anything about it. But then again, he hadn't said a word to any of us since he stepped off the stand.
We inched our way toward the back doors, having to wait for all those in front of us to exit. When we finally stepped into the wide hallway we were greeted exactly as I had guessed we would be. Lights from portable TV mini-cams came on. Microphones were thrust forward. You could hear the rapid click of shutter buttons coming from the cameras of newspaper reporters. And through it all, was what seemed like a hundred questions being shouted at once in A.J.'s direction.
"Mr. Simon, please tell us what happened in court today!"
"Mr. Simon! Do you hope those responsible for Erika Garcia's murder are sentenced to death?"
"A.J., do you think your testimony will be instrumental in getting a conviction?"
We were shoved, jostled, and shouted at - the whole while the reporters inching closer to A.J. I reached up and got a firm grip on his right arm. Janet did the same with his left. While we propelled him along, Carlos plowed through those trying to block our way to the parking lot. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Mom was still with us. Like the trooper that she is, she was hanging onto A.J.'s suit coattails, in part to prevent anyone from getting at him from behind, and in part to keep up with our long legs.
I guess if necessary the four of us - Mom, Janet, Carlos, and me, could offer cover for the President. Not one reporter broke through our protective circle. I got a good chuckle the next day when one of the pictures that appeared on the front page of the paper was labeled, ‘Andrew Simon, star witness in the Erika Garcia murder case, is seen leaving the courtroom surrounded by his brother, Richard, mother Cecilia, and family friends, Janet Fowler and Carlos Escobar.’ The only part of A.J. you could actually 'see' was the top of his head. As far as you could tell by lookin' at that picture, the guy in the middle of our circle could have been anyone.
We lost the media somewhere between the courthouse doors and my pickup. Evidently they gave up on us and turned their attention to Adriano and his sons. Not that that move did them any good. Adriano, James, and Nathaniel, were surrounded by a dozen cousins who were intent on seeing that the family's privacy wasn't violated.
My truck and Mom's Mercedes were parked next to each other in a far corner of the lot. When we arrived unscathed I thanked Carlos for his help. He nodded, then ran back to offer assistance to his own family.
Mom attempted to put some sense of normality into what had definitely not been a normal day.
"Why doesn't everyone come over to my house for dinner," she invited. "Rick, what do you think about a carry-out order of spaghetti and ravioli from Mama Maria's?"
I did my best to follow Mom's lead. In my most cheery voice I agreed.
"Sounds great, Mom."
Mom turned to her youngest son with a smile. "A.J.?"
"Uh...no...not tonight. Thanks anyway."
Mom's tone was both gentle and firm. "A.J., you have to eat."
A.J. half-turned away from Mom and held up one of his hands in a signal that said clearly, ‘Don't push me. Just leave me alone right now.’
"Mom...I'll eat," he promised. "I just...I'm tired. I want to go home."
I could tell Mom was hurt. Heck, she was only trying to help. But I didn't blame A.J. for tellin' her no either. After the day he'd just been put through, I felt he had the right to decide how he wanted to spend the evening.
and I had met at the office early that morning to get a few things accomplished
before we had to be in court at nine.
From there we'd ridden to the courthouse together in my truck, leaving
his Carmaro in the office lot. Under
the pretense of giving Mom a goodbye hug, I held her close and whispered in her
ear, "Don't worry, Mom. I'll get
him to eat something."
Mom glanced over at A.J., where he was standing apart from us talking to Janet.
"Stay if he'll let you, Rick," she softly pleaded. "Don't leave him alone tonight if you can help it."
"I won't." I promised. And I meant it. I remember thinkin' - Finally, tonight A.J. and I will do what we shoulda' done two months ago. We'll talk about what happened. I'll tell him how sorry I am, and how guilty I feel over all he went through. And he'll tell me what it was like for him. He'll tell me how much he's suffering over Erika's death. Over what they did to her. Over what he was forced to watch. And when we're both finished baring our souls to one another, we'll find a way to help each other through all this, just like we've always found a way to help one another through the bad times.
Yep, I thought with a bit of smug satisfaction thrown in to boot. I'll get him to relax in the whirlpool. I'll grill out some steaks while he's doin' that so he can't tell me he's not gonna eat. Then I'll pour us both a glass of brandy. Nothin' loosens A.J.'s tongue better than a full stomach and a glass of brandy. Maybe even two glasses of brandy.
I released Mom and walked over to unlock the truck's passenger door. "You ready to go, little brother?"
A.J. turned around. "I don't need a ride. Janet's going to take me home."
"You don't have to do that, darlin'," I negated. I made firm eye contact with the woman, and thought I was broadcasting quite clearly that neither A.J. nor I needed her assistance that evening. "I mean, there's no reason for you to go out of your way when I can just as easily--"
Janet was either blind to my subtle signals of noninterference on her part, or she ignored them.
"It's not really out of my way," she smiled. "I don't mind."
She turned to A.J. "Ready to go?"
"Yes, in just a second."
A.J. walked over and gave Mom a kiss on the cheek. She hugged him tightly, saying something to him I didn't catch.
He gave me a little wave with his hand. "Thanks for the ride in this morning. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah," I nodded neutrally. "See ya' tomorrow."
"Bye, Rick," Janet called brightly. "Bye, Cecilia,"
Just as brightly Mom replied, "Goodbye, dear. Drive carefully."
My own, "Bye, Janet," wasn't spoken with nearly as much warmth as my mother's had been.
A.J. and Janet had no more than turned away from us when I saw him reach for her hand. They walked with their hands clasped until they came to her BMW. She must have asked him if he wanted to drive because I saw her hand him the keys. He held the passenger side door open for her before going around to the driver's side. Mom and I watched from afar as they pulled out of the parking lot.
I was curious as to what Mom's opinion was on all of this.
"I have a feelin' there's more goin' on here than meets the eye."
Mom looked up at me. "Between A.J. and Janet?"
"And what do you think about that?"
"I guess I don't think anything about it one way or another,” I shrugged. “I was just makin' an observation."
She smiled the smile of a mother who knows her son better than that son wants to think she does. "Oh...I see."
For whatever reason, Mom let the subject drop there. "My offer for dinner still stands."
I almost turned her down, but then remembered that she'd had a tough day, too. Remembered how she sat in the courtroom that afternoon and silently cried through most of A.J.'s testimony. I knew she was in need of a warm meal and a listening ear just as much as I was.
I put my arm around her and walked her the few steps to her car. "Sounds like an offer I can't refuse. I'll stop by Maria's and get us that big Italian meal you were hungering for."
"And I'll go home and chill the wine," she smiled.
"You sure know how to treat a guy right, Mom.” I bent and kissed her cheek. “You've got yourself a date. I'll see you in about an hour."
A half hour later I was sitting at a quiet corner table in Mama Maria's waitin' for my carry-out order. I sat my beer down on the red and white checkered table cloth, and slouched wearily in my chair. My mind replayed A.J.'s testimony word for word. It was as if my brain had suddenly turned into a tape recorder, that's how accurately I could recall each sentence.
Damn. If only Janet hadn't interfered. A.J. and I woulda' had a chance to talk this whole thing out tonight if she would have just minded her own business.
Any further thoughts I might have had on that subject were chased from my mind when my number was called. I gulped down the last of my beer, walked over to the counter, paid for the meal and picked up the bag of hot food, then walked to my truck and headed for Mom's house.
The next day, Friday, was our seventh long day in the courtroom. First thing that morning A.J. was called to the stand and asked by the prosecution to explain how he had escaped. Only a very few people were aware that A.J.'s testimony was foreshadowing a much larger event.
The boy who had cut A.J. loose had been found several weeks earlier, and was being held in protective custody. In exchange for his testimony, the city of San Diego was relocating him, his mother, and two younger sisters, to another state. It had all been kept a closely guarded secret. A.J. hadn't even been told about it until just two days before the trial began. The last thing the cops wanted was for a member of the media to get a hold of this information, and spread the kid's name and picture all over the front page of the newspaper before he ever appeared in the courtroom.
The boy's name was Stefan Basilio. He was fourteen years old, and had been a good friend of Cristiano, the boy Erika had told me White Snake had killed because the gang thought he was a nark. Stefan had been a member of the Conquistadores¢ for a year. When asked by the prosecuting attorney why he cut A.J. loose, Stefan said he didn't want to watch anyone else die. He stated that if he'd had the chance, he would have freed both Erika and A.J. prior to that Friday night, but he wasn't able to because one boy was always left behind to guard them. He also made mention of the fact that the Conquistadoras were trying to recruit his little sisters. He said he didn't want to have happen to them, what happened to Erika.
The defense attorney was tough on the kid when he cross-examined him. Tougher than he had been on anyone else up until this point. He questioned Stefan over and over as to why he hadn't called the police when A.J. and Erika were first kidnapped. We all knew the answer to that. Right or wrong, the kid was terrified of what might have happened to his mother and sisters if he was seen talking to the cops.
Stefan was on the stand two hours. In that time he corroborated A.J.’s story almost word for word. The D.A.'s office couldn't have asked for a better witness. Stefan Basilio was the feather in our cap.
I couldn't help but think of myself at that same age, as I sat through the kid's testimony. You knew he had to be scared out of his wits, but there was no way he was gonna let his fear show. He didn't shirk one iota when White Snake tried to stare him down. The kid just stared right back with defiance in a way that almost seemed like a challenge. He had a smart mouth on him, too, and he didn't hesitate to use it when the defense attorney got his dander up.
In explaining why he had chosen to risk his life to free A.J., Stefan's final words were, "I was forced to stand there and watch my good friend Cristiano die. Then I was forced to stand there and watch as they raped and tortured Erika until she, too, died. I decided then, that I couldn't be a part of it any longer. That if I could help Mr. Simon I would. I didn't want to watch him die as well. I was proud to be a Conquistador. But I'm not a murderer. And I don't want to hang out with people who are."
The kid was whisked out as fast as he'd been whisked in. Six burly detectives surrounded him and took him out a back door to a waiting squad car. They threw a jacket over his head to protect his identity from the reporters, who like a pack of hungry hyenas, were circling the outside of the building waiting for fresh game.
I haven't heard any more of Stefan Basilio since that day. I think of him quite often, though, and hope he and his family are okay. I hope, in Erika's memory, he took advantage of the second chance he got to start a new life that wasn't afforded her.
After Stefan left the stand the coroner who preformed Erika's autopsy was called. Sittin' through her testimony was almost as rough as sittin' through A.J.'s. It didn't help any that graphic slides were shown that enabled the woman to point out, quite clearly, the brutal treatment the young girl had undergone.
Adriano cried quietly throughout the woman's testimony. Several times I heard him say over and over, "Why? Why? Why my child? Why did they hurt my child like that?"
All of this got to be too much for A.J. He was sittin' next to me, in the seat on the aisle. As a new slide was shown of Erika's battered face and the coroner began to explain it, A.J. abruptly rose and left the room. I think had it been anyone else to exit the courtroom no one woulda' givin' them a second glance. But because it was A.J., the woman's testimony faltered. The members of the jury turned their heads and followed him with their eyes until the heavy wooden doors swung shut behind him.
Janet and I both rose to go after him.
I laid my hand on her shoulder, pushing downward to urge her to reseat herself.
"I'll go,” I whispered. “You stay here."
I didn't miss the dirty look she shot me right before she reseated herself. Well, I'll tell ya', I didn't much give a damn if her nose was pushed outta joint. Whether she'd intended to or not, she'd kept me away from my brother all week. This was one time that wasn't gonna happen.
I looked in the men's room first, but it was empty. Then I circled the entire floor. The heels of my dress shoes clicked loudly on the marble and echoed off the high ceilings.
When I didn't find A.J. anywhere in the vicinity of the courtroom, I proceeded down the wide, winding stairway and again, circled each floor thinking he might be sitting on a bench somewhere away from the action. I was about outta ideas of places to look when I decided I'd check outside. I didn't see him in the parking lot, or on the courthouse lawn. I was just about to give up and go back inside to thoroughly search the building again, when I happened to glance over at the park across the street. The same one where we had eaten lunch the day before.
He was sittin' over there at a picnic table all by himself. His elbows were resting on the table's top. His face was hidden in his hands.
I had to wait for two cars to pass before I could jog across the street. I slowed down to a walk as I approached him. I didn't say a word when I sat down next to him and neither did he. He didn't even look up. I guess he probably thought it was either me or Janet. For some reason, I think he knew it was me.
Four little kids were playing across the way on the swings and slide, their mothers sitting nearby. We could barely hear the sound of the children's laughter over the noise of the nearby spouting fountain.
I watched as a woman pushed a stroller past us on the sidewalk with a little blond boy of about a year old inside. An older, dark headed boy, who appeared to be five or six, walked backwards in front of the stroller. He was making faces and dancing in an attempt to keep the baby entertained. He musta' been doin' a good job 'cause the little one was laughing and screeching while reachin' out for the older boy. My suspicion that they were brothers was confirmed when I heard the mother say to the baby with amusement, "Your big brother is quite a show-off, isn't he, Justin?"
I watched the little family until they were out of sight. That scene took me back about forty years. The memories it brought forth were all good ones. It made me realize how important Mom and A.J. were to me. How much I treasured my own little family.
It was me who finally broke the silence. "A.J.?"
He dropped his hands from his face and gazed out over the park. I thought he looked awfully tired. "I'm okay."
"I know you are," I acknowledged in way of saying, ‘I know you're strong. You always have been. Things seem awful bleak now, but in time they'll look better. You'll make them look better, just like you always have.’
He sighed. "It's just that...it's been a tough week, you know?"
I reached up and rubbed a hand over his back. "I know, buddy. Believe me, I know."
"My testimony yesterday...the coroner's pictures today...have made it all too vivid. Some days I just want to forget...but I can't. And this past week's only made forgetting even more impossible."
Again I said, "I know."
He turned his head and looked at me. "It's important to me that you know without a doubt, that if I could have done anything, anything at all to prevent Erika's death, I would have."
He's words shocked me. Never, not even for one second, had I doubted he hadn't done everything he possibly could to keep Erika alive. It hurt...that he thought he had to explain that me.
"A.J...I know that. I've never, ever, thought any different."
He nodded his head and turned back to look at the landscape before us.
"A.J...I'm real proud of ya', kid."
"You shouldn't be," he informed me flatly.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" I demanded.
"Nothing," he shook his head. "Forget I said it."
"Just drop it, Rick."
I didn't like it, that he'd said that to me. That he told me I shouldn't be proud of him, when I honestly couldn't recall a day in my life that I hadn't been proud to call him my brother. I knew though, that there was no use pursuing it with him. There never was when he told me to let something drop.
I thought back to the previous evening when I wanted to spend some time alone with him in order for us both to relieve some of the inner burdens we were shouldering. I still didn't think that was a bad idea.
"You up to havin' some company tonight, kid?"
He watched as the children across the way climbed the slide. "Janet and I already made plans to go to dinner. She's been...staying at the house with me this week."
"Oh...I didn't know that."
He chose not to expound on my response.
"But we could get together this weekend," he proposed while turning to face me. "Why don't you make a date with one of the many ladies in your little black book. Maybe the four of us can go sailing on Sunday afternoon."
"Uh...yeah. That's fine, I guess," I agreed. "I'll...give you a call."
Right then and there I should have told him that a Sunday afternoon sail on the ocean with two other people along wasn't good enough. Should have told him that he and I needed to spend time together alone. Without Janet. That we needed to talk. But I didn't. When I think of it now, I guess I was afraid to. I guess I was afraid he'd tell me no. And if he told me no, then I'd know that deep down inside, there was a part of him that blamed me for what happened. I couldn't live with that. I knew I couldn't. It was easier just to let the whole thing drop there.
Nothing more was said until he smiled slightly. "Oh, by the way, I'm not a kid. I haven't been for a good number of years now."
I smiled back. "You'll always be a kid to me, kid."
With that he raised his arm up and rested his bent elbow on the table. He turned his hand so that the open palm was facing me. I reached over and clasped the hand, squeezing hard. When we released one another I clapped him on the back and rose. He followed suit. We walked over to the courthouse, arriving just as the judge had recessed for lunch. We took Mom and Janet to a seafood restaurant down the street. Neither one of them questioned A.J. as to why he'd left the courtroom or where he'd been. I got the impression, however, that I was gettin' the cold shoulder from Janet. I couldn't understand why, but didn't much give a shit. Two could play that game. I gave her the cold shoulder right back.