Chapter 6


            Rick Simon was about to doze off in his truck.  To prevent that, he started the vehicle, intent on driving around the block.   A.J. had been gone a long time.  Rick hadn't seen hide or hair of the kids, either.  Maybe they'd emerged on the other side of the building and had been skateboarding in the parking lot when A.J. found them.  Possibly A.J. and Brendan were having their talk out there.  Regardless of the reason for A.J.’s and Brendan’s absence, Rick was sick of sitting in the truck waiting.  He had a tight rein on his temper now, and knew he could talk to the boy without getting angry.


            When Rick was twelve, he'd found productive discussion was always accompanied by food.  After all, what kid didn't like pizza, or simply an ice cream cone, if nothing else?  Maybe he could convince Brendan to spend the night on his boat.  The kid had loved the houseboat the one and only time he'd visited it.  If Brendan agreed to spend the night there, it would give Rick a chance to shoot the bull with him.  A chance to point out to Brendan where he was going wrong, while at the same time not sounding like a lecturing parent.  And it might save the kid some grief at home, too.  It might give his mom time to cool down.  Not that Lindy shouldn't be angry with the boy for skipping school, but Rick had a feeling Brendan had enough anger bottled up inside of him to last a lifetime.  Obviously, screamed admonishments and revoked privileges weren't the solution here.


            Rick kept an eye out for oncoming traffic - and cops, then, made a wide U-turn.  The side streets surrounding the morgue were one-way, meaning he had to travel a wide square before he could enter the morgue’s parking lot.   He was caught by three red lights, causing his journey around the block to be lengthened by several minutes.  He came upon the building again from its east side.  He didn't see any kids in the parking lot as he approached from two blocks away, but Rick did see a white van with the words, County Coroner, on the side of it.   He wondered about that for a moment, but then gave a small shrug of his shoulders.  He supposed it was possible that employees of the coroner's office still had reason to do business here.


            Before Rick's truck came abreast of the lot, the back doors of the van burst open.  Three people dressed all in black, wearing black flak jackets and with black ski masks covering their faces, hit the ground running.  Their military issue boots clacked hard and steady against the pavement.  Whether they were men or women, Rick didn't know.  Instead, his eyes were focused on the semi-automatic Lugers they carried.  He had no idea what was going on, but when the trio disappeared down the incline that would take them under the old building, take them right to where Rick had last known Brendan and A.J. to be, the detective's foot shoved the Ford's gas pedal all the way to the floor.  Gravel spewed from the truck's tires like shrapnel, and the rear end fishtailed wildly to the right when he careened into the lot.


            The rear wheels of the heavy Ford bounced two feet into the air as Rick barreled down the steep grade that led to the dark cavern below.






            A.J. streaked out of the amphitheater, following the path of the man who had just so casually pumped another human being full of bullets.  The detective was mindful of the fact he wasn't wearing his gun.  He had no plans to get close to the shooter; he simply wanted to determine which direction the man took.  Hopefully, Rick would spot the guy getting into a vehicle.


            Brendan watched his mother's cousin exit the old autopsy room without giving a backwards glance in his direction.  He thought A.J. might have forgotten him, but then discounted that possibility.  More than likely A.J. was expecting him to remain in the observatory where he'd been ordered to stay. 


            The boy trotted down the stairs, then slowed to a hesitant walk as he approached the man on the floor.  He could see blood draining freely from underneath A.J.'s sport coat, as though a hose had been left on.  It stained the grout in the floor tiles pink, running in a crooked river toward the boy's shoes.  But it was the man's eyes Brendan would never forget.  The wide-open pale blue eyes staring dully at the ceiling that seemed to say death had come far too early - that this man had so much to live for yet.


            Brendan began to shake. It wasn't so much that a dead body scared him, as it was the tremendous sorrow he felt over the man's violent passing.   He turned away, bending over to support himself by placing his hands on his knees while his stomach heaved forth the half digested hamburger and French fries he'd eaten at lunch.  Vomit mixed with the blood on the floor as Brendan retched three times.  He swiped the back of a quaking hand across his mouth when his body had nothing left to purge.  Tears streamed down the boy's face as he studied the pale corpse one last time.  With a choked sob he turned and raced up the stairs, the soles of his high-topped sneakers leaving bloody imprints behind.  He threw open the door and ran blindly down the dark, third floor hallway.                    




            In another part of the building, Jeremy and Tim heard heavy boot heels thundering from the rear.  Before they had time to hide, a giant dressed all in black and wielding a gun snared Jeremy by the shoulder of his Guns and Roses T-shirt. 


            "What the hell are you kids doin' in here?" the man barked, his eyes nothing more than angry slits in the ski mask he wore.  He propelled Jeremy down the hallway with all the gentleness of an enraged Big Foot, while giving Tim a slam in the butt with the thick sole of a Herman Munster size boot.  The teenager's tailbone screamed with pain as he fell to his knees, his skateboard flying from his hands. 


            "Go on!"  the man roared.  "Get the fuck out of here!  Go on now!


            The boys' hearts raced like steam engines as they ran for the nearest exit.  Tim's skateboard was left behind, lying on its back with its wheels still spinning. 




            Boot heels smacking on nearby stairs caused Brendan to freeze with fear.  He was caught in the open hallway like a trapped animal.   His head whipped to the left, and then to the right, frantically searching for a place to hide.  Just as two shadows with enormous guns appeared on the wall ahead of him, the boy dove into a lab.  He scrambled across the floor on all fours like a monkey, heading for a long section of empty cabinets.  He scrunched up inside one, making himself as small as possible before silently swinging the door closed.


            The boy willed his lungs to stop taking in and expelling air, when he heard two sets of boots make a quick circuit of the room.  Evidently whoever they were looking for wasn't small enough to hide in a cabinet, because they didn't bother opening any doors.  A woman's voice ordered, "Come on!  Let's keep going!"  right before the boots pounded out the door.


            Brendan remained where he was until he was certain the pair was gone.  He eased opened the cabinet door, peering through a mere crack.  When there was no sign of anyone lurking about, he crawled out the same way he'd crawled in.  He crept over to the door, flattening himself against it.  He looked down the part of the hallway he could readily see, then, risked poking his head out to look toward the stairs.  When he determined the coast was clear he took a deep breath and ran for all he was worth.  He hit the first step, jumped over the next three, scrambled down five more, then ran across a small landing before bolting down the remaining two flights that would lead him to the ground floor.





            A.J. caught sight of the shooter ahead of him, long arms and legs pumping in beautiful synchronization like a collegiate track star’s.  The man heard the echoing footsteps behind him, rounded a corner, and fired three times without ever taking aim.  For lack of anywhere else to go, A.J. dove for the floor.  When he could hear the man running again he scrambled to his feet in pursuit.  Something compact and black bounced to the ground, sailing toward him.  Without breaking his stride, A.J. scooped the object up and deposited it in the right front pocket of his trousers. 


            At a distant intersection of hallways he saw Brendan's friends fly past.  Ten seconds behind them came Brendan himself. 


            "Brendan!"   A.J. hailed between gasping breaths.  "Brendan!"


            The terror-filled twelve-year-old never stopped or looked back. 


            Though the boys didn't realize it, they were only seconds behind the man with the gun.  He was so confused as to who all the clambering footsteps belonged to that he didn't pause to try to take another shot. He reached a hand up, jamming the fedora on his head as tight as it would go.   With his left shoulder he slammed into a set of double doors he knew were no longer padlocked, leaped off the concrete ramp with the grace of a ballet dancer, and kept right on running.




            Rick Simon's truck flew down the seventy-five foot straightaway, its speed pushing fifty miles an hour.  There was no sign of the armed people in black anywhere.


            I gotta find A.J.!  I gotta get him and Brendan outta here before something happens!


            All Rick would remember afterwards was standing on the brakes when first one person burst through the double doors to his right, then four more followed in split-second succession.  The truck's speedometer still read thirty miles an hour when a sickening 'thud' vibrated through the front grill. 


            The man was tossed in the air like a rag doll.  His body did two flips worthy of an Olympic gymnastics medal before he landed flat on his back on the pavement.


            Without conscious thought, Rick jammed the gearshift into neutral while slamming on the emergency brake.  He threw the door open and hit the ground running with a frantic cry.       


"A.J.!  A.J.!"


            Later, Rick would recall the armed trio in black bursting out those same doors only seconds after the Ford struck A.J.  But none of them stopped to offer help, and Rick himself didn't have the presence of mind to ask for it.


            The detective knelt by his unconscious brother's side.  Blood seeped from A.J.'s ears, nose, and mouth; his arms and legs were spread eagle on the concrete.  Rick reached out a trembling hand.  It hovered over the ashen A.J. as though Rick had no idea what to touch first or how to give assistance.


            "Oh, God," Rick pleaded.  "Oh, God, what have I done?  God, no. Please no." 


             Seconds passed before the dazed detective was able to take productive action.  He put an ear to A.J.'s nose and mouth while laying a light hand on his brother's chest.  A.J.'s breathing was ragged and shallow. An odd gurgling sound, like that of someone gargling, came from deep in his throat.   Rick reached for A.J.'s wrist next.  He had to move his fingers twice before he finally felt the thready pulse that beat beneath them.  He yanked his handkerchief out of his back pocket and with great caution turned A.J.'s head just enough so the blood could flow out his mouth rather than run down his throat.  Rick wrapped the white hankie around his right index finger and carefully swept his brother's mouth clean of what blood he could.  He tossed the stained handkerchief aside, his shaking fingers fumbling to loosen A.J.'s tie and unfasten the buttons of his shirt in an effort to offer a clearer airway.


            When he'd administered all the first aid he could, Rick tore his field jacket from his body.  The sound of running footsteps caused him to look up as he spread the coat over his brother.  Brendan stood pale and trembling a few feet away.


            "Get help, Brendan!  There's a store around the corner!  Tell them a man's been hurt!  Have them call 911!"


            The boy just stood there staring down at A.J., his young eyes wide and empty with fright and shock.


            "Dammit, Brendan, go!"  Rick barked.  "Go!"


            Just like Rick had done earlier, the boy pulled himself out of his dazed state.  He gave A.J. one last look that spoke volumes of his regret and guilt, then ran for the street as fast as his legs could carry him.


            Rick rocked back and forth on his heels, afraid to touch his brother for fear of hurting him further.  He watched the blood coming from A.J.'s ears stain the blond hair a dull, rusty red.


            "Hang on, A.J.  Just hang on.  Help's on the way, little brother.  Help's on the way." 


            As blood trickled down the side of A.J.'s face like tears, Rick turned his pleas to a higher deity.  "Make him hang on, God.  Oh please, make him hang on."



Chapter 7


            Rick Simon sat hunched forward on the couch, his hands clasped tightly between his knees.  Cecilia reached up and put the blanket back in place over his shoulders.


            "I shouldn't have given him a hard time about eating in my truck," the distraught man muttered.  "They're just bread crumbs.  It's not like they can't be cleaned up.  I shouldn't have given him a hard time."


            Cecilia's eyes flicked to Abby's.  Neither woman could hide her concern; both fearing Rick was on the verge of a breakdown.  Cecilia couldn't recall a time of crisis when her eldest son hadn't been a pillar of strength.  When he hadn't been the glue that held her family together.  Until now.   Now his eyes were distant and glazed, as though his mind was forcing him to relive, over and over again, the circumstances that had brought them to this fourth floor waiting area at County General Hospital.


            Rick's icy hands were shaking so violently when Cecilia tried to force them around a Styrofoam cup of coffee that the hot liquid sloshed over the rim.  If she hadn't jumped back she would have been burned.  That was when she asked a nurse for the blanket.  She was certain Rick was going into shock.  That thought was further confirmed when, so unlike him, Rick didn't question or protest when Cecilia wrapped the blanket around his huddled shoulders.


            The older woman glanced up at the clock.  It was after nine p.m. now, and A.J. was still in surgery.  The waiting area was empty save for the three of them.  What had exactly occurred that afternoon, Cecilia wasn't certain.  The first she knew anything was wrong was when she looked up from where she was kneeling in her flower garden pulling weeds, to see a young patrolman round the corner of her house. 


            "Mrs. Simon?"

            Cecilia rose, brushing away the dirt on her jeans.  "Yes?"

            "Lieutenant Marsh sent me to pick you up, ma'am."


            "Pick me up?"

            "Yes, ma'am.  I'm to take you to County General Hospital."


            At those words Cecilia's stomach had constricted, painfully tightening as though someone had it clenched in a strong fist.


            "Why?  Why do you need to take me to the hospital?"


            "There's been an accident of some sort involving one of your sons, ma'am."


            "What kind of an accident?"     


            "I'm sorry, Mrs. Simon, but I don't know.  I don't have any further details than what I've already given you."


            Cecilia never thought to change out of her dirty clothes, grab her purse, or even lock her house.  She allowed the young officer to usher her to his squad car.  She sat next to him wondering what had happened, and which one of her sons was hurt.  She didn't stop praying for both of them throughout the entire ride.


            It wasn't Rick or A.J. who greeted Cecilia at the main entrance doors late that afternoon, but rather Abigail Marsh herself.  She couldn't offer Cecilia much in the way of an explanation, other than to say A.J. had been struck by Rick's truck and was now in surgery. 


            Cecilia gripped the policewoman's hand.  "Please tell me Rick wasn't driving.  Please tell me he wasn't driving."


            "I'm sorry, Cecilia," Abby's eyes had brimmed with sympathy.  "I'm sorry, but he was."


            The older woman sagged against her friend.  "This will kill him, Abby.  This will absolutely kill him.  Please, take me to him."


            Without asking, Abby knew Cecilia was referring to her oldest son, not her youngest.  She thought of the devastated man she'd brought to the hospital.


            It already is killing him, Cecilia.  Believe me, it already is.


            Abby led Cecilia up to the surgical waiting area on the fourth floor where Rick sat alone on the couch.  He had his hands tucked underneath his armpits to stop their shaking.  When he saw his mother, he turned his face away from her.  He didn't want her to see the silent tears her presence evoked.


            Without asking any questions of him, Cecilia sat next to her oldest and enfolded him in her arms.  The only thing he was capable of saying was, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," until his throat was too raw to repeat the litany his mother softly assured him wasn't necessary.


            When Rick had control of his emotions once more, Abby was forced to question him regarding the events of the afternoon.  In his shocked state, he wasn't able to give her more than the barest of details.  The policewoman finally gave up on her line of questioning, knowing that in a day or two Rick would be able to draw her a clearer picture of the afternoon's happenings.  She'd experienced the same thing a million times with other witnesses. The first few hours after the trauma were always the worst.  The hardest time for them to compile their thoughts and reconstruct in words what they'd seen.  Yes, she'd experienced it a million times in her long career, but never; never had she witnessed Rick Simon upset to this point of incoherency.  Never in her wildest dreams, did Abby imagine she'd see this resilient, stubborn, commanding, tough-as-nails man, at the mercy of his emotions.  Abby found herself wondering how Rick would cope if A.J. died.  She chased the thought away, knowing right now he couldn't cope with news such as that.  Instead, she prayed he wouldn't have to.


            Rick had never looked up when Cecilia left to call Linda from a pay phone down the hall at six that evening.  It was evident the younger woman was waiting to hear from one of the Simons when she answered on the first ring with,  "A.J.?"

            ", Lindy, it's Aunt Cecilia."

            Linda immediately picked up on the hesitation in her aunt's tone.


            "Aunt Cecilia, is something wrong?  Did A.J. ask you to call me?  Have you heard from him?  Do you know if he and Rick found Brendan?"

            "Isn't Brendan home yet?"

            "No.  Since I hadn't heard from A.J., I assumed Bren was with him and Rick."


            "Honey…" Cecilia's eyes followed a doctor as he rushed by her.  She couldn't help but wonder if he was being called to assist with A.J.  "Honey, there's been an accident."


            Linda's voice rose in panic.  "Involving Brendan?  Has Brendan been hurt? 



            "Lindy, no.  No, Brendan hasn't been hurt...A.J. has."

            "Hurt?  How?  What happened?  Will he be okay?"

            Cecilia quickly relayed what little she knew, starting with her sons spotting Brendan and his friends skateboarding at the old County Coroner's building, and ending with Rick hitting A.J. with his truck. 


            "He's in surgery now." Cecilia bit back her tears.  "A nurse came and talked to us a little while ago.'s very serious, sweetie."


            "Oh, Aunt Cecilia...oh, I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry.  It's my fault.  I never should have asked Rick and A.J. for help.  If I hadn't, this never would have happened."


            "You stop that right now, young lady," Cecilia ordered, the firmness in her tone overriding her tears.  "No one, and I do mean no one, is to blame.  It was an accident. Do you hear me?  An accident."


            Thirty seconds passed before Linda could speak again.  Thirty seconds in which she easily came to the conclusion her aunt had already been forced to voice that same admonishment many times this evening to another member of their family.


            " is Rick?"


            Cecilia looked down the hall at the pitifully hunched form with the pasty complexion and trembling hands.


            "He's not good, Lindy.  He's not good at all."


            "Tell him...tell him I'm sorry."

            "That's not necessary, but I'll pass the message on.  Listen, the reason I was calling was to make sure Brendan got home okay, which I realize from what you said he hasn't.   Rick sent him to call for an ambulance after the accident happened, but never saw him again."


            "I'll have Mark go out to look for him right now."


            "I think that would be a wise idea."


            "Aunt Cece?"




            "Call me when you know more - after A.J. is out of surgery and you've talked to his doctor.  I don't care how late it is, please call."


            "I will, honey.  And I hope Mark finds Brendan.  If he doesn't, I think you should contact the police and have them begin looking.  Tell them it’s in regards to the case Lieutenant Abigail Marsh is working on."


            Cecilia could tell her niece was writing the information down on a piece of paper.


            "Lieutenant Abigail Marsh," Linda repeated.  "Yes, we'll do that.  Thank you."


            The women hung up simultaneously, both shrouded in worry for their children.




            It was quarter to ten when the Simons finally saw a pair of doctors headed toward them that evening.  Joel Lankey, Rick and A.J.'s physician, led the way.  A thin oriental man with square wire rim glasses perched on his nose followed.  Both doctors were wearing blue surgical scrubs, though Abby immediately noted no blood was visible on their clothing, causing her to conclude they had changed before coming to talk to the family.


            As always, even in clean clothing, Doctor Lankey had a casual, rumpled appearance about him, as though no pair of pants or shirt had ever been made that could remain wrinkle-free on him for more than five minutes.  His dark shaggy curls bounced on his shoulders as he walked, his stocky frame forever possessing twenty more pounds than he preferred.


            The anxious group, including Rick, rose as the doctors approached.  The blanket slid off the detective’s back, lying forgotten on the couch behind him.


            Joel quickly made introductions.  "Rick, Mrs. Simon, Lieutenant Marsh, this is Doctor James Cho.  He's the neurosurgeon who operated on A.J."


            Doctor Cho shifted a large manila envelope he carried to his left hand.  He shook hands with the Simons and Abby, murmuring polite greeting.  Rick estimated him to be in his early forties.  Between his first name, and the fact that his speech held no hint of an Asian accent, the detective surmised he was American born and raised.  


            "There was also an orthopedic surgeon present," Joel said,  "but he's been paged for another operation.  For the time being, I'll discuss his role with you.  If you have any questions I can't answer, I'll make sure you get a consultation with him."


            For the first time since she'd arrived five hours earlier, Cecilia heard her oldest son take charge of the situation.  His voice was strong and firm - to his mother a welcoming familiar beacon in the midst of a raging storm.


            "How is he, Joel?"

            Cecilia's heart beat a warning rhythm in her chest when the doctors refused to talk to them in the waiting area.  Joel spread his right arm as though trying to encompass her, Rick, and Abby in one sweep.  He urged them forward, pointing down the hallway.


            "There's a consultation room ahead on our left.  Let's go there to talk."


            This time Doctor Cho led the way, flipping on the lights as they entered the room.  It contained nothing more than a table in the center of it that sat eight.  Joel pulled out a chair for Cecilia, while Abby and Rick took seats on either side of her.  Doctor Cho laid the envelope on the table, taking a seat across from Rick.  Doctor Lankey settled into the chair next to the neurosurgeon.


            Joel took a moment to study the faces of the mother and son opposite him.  He knew this was a strong family, but wondered just how prepared they were for all that would be revealed by the time this conference came to a close.  When he could stall no longer, Joel took a deep internal breath, and offered what he hoped was an encouraging smile.


            "Let's start with the least serious of A.J.'s injuries.  As would be expected, he's sustained multiple bruises and contusions on most of his body.  Every cut and abrasion has been thoroughly cleaned.  I don't foresee any complications from these wounds, but, of course, we'll keep an eye on them as they heal."


            "And the orthopedic surgeon you mentioned?" Rick asked. "What was he for?"

            Joel held up his left arm, pointing to the heavy bone that ran from elbow to wrist.  "A.J.'s suffered a fracture of the ulna.  It was repaired and set by Doctor Emmonds.   He doesn't anticipate any further problems, though A.J. will have to undergo several physical therapy sessions in order to regain full mobility."


            "And what about everything else?"  Rick pressed.  "What about the injuries that are the reason behind you bringin' us in here?"


            The doctors exchanged glances.  Their silence only further frustrated the detective.


            "Look, Joel, I'm not stupid.  When someone's bleeding from the ears, I know that means they've suffered a head injury.  I hit A.J. with my truck for God’s sake!  I know...I know he was in serious condition when he arrived here this afternoon."


            Cecilia reached over to give her son's hand a firm squeeze.  It was the first time all night he'd released productive emotion surrounding the accident he blamed himself for.  She offered up a brief prayer, asking the Lord to give both she and Rick the strength they needed to cope with what they were about to be told.


            Dr. Cho stood.  He flicked the switches on the square panels mounted on the wall behind him, causing translucent light to shine through them.  He reached into the envelope on the table and pulled out two sets of X-rays.  He shoved the first one underneath a clip on the nearest panel.


            "This is a picture of what the skull looks like when it's injury free."


            Rick, Cecilia, and Abby studied in profile a human skull.  It was not unlike pictures each one of them had seen over the years in books and on television.


            The second X-ray was placed on the panel next to the first. 


            "And this is a picture of A.J.'s skull as taken in the emergency room prior to surgery."

            Cecilia's hand rose to her mouth.   "Oh, Lord," she mumbled.  "Oh, Lord, no."

            Rick closed his eyes and turned away, refusing to look at the damage.  Refusing to see the tiny fractures and fissures that made A.J.'s skull appear like the shattered shell of an egg.


            Dr. Cho allowed the family the time they needed to compose themselves.  When he had Cecilia's and Rick's attention once more he continued.  He pulled a pen from the breast pocket of his scrubs, using the retracted tip as a pointer. 


            "While fractures of the skull in and of themselves are serious matters, they will heal.  The skull is designed specifically to protect our brains from trauma.  Regrettably, some traumas transcend even the skull's ability to keep us safe.  A.J. suffered internal brain hemorrhaging as a result of the accident.  His brain is swollen right now, which makes it difficult for me to fully diagnosis which abilities have been impaired."


            Rick's could barely force his question out his mouth.  "What...what do you mean?  What abilities are you talkin' about?"

            The pen made a circular motion over the upper left quadrant of A.J.'s skull. 


            "This is the area of A.J.'s brain that sustained the majority of damage.  It's almost a certainty he's lost part of, or all of, his ability to remember words, construct sentences, read, write, organize his thoughts, do simple math problems--"


            "Why don't cha' just tell us what he can do," Rick snapped. "The list will probably be a lot shorter, thanks to me."


            Joel admonished Rick before Cecilia got the chance.


            "Rick, look, I know how you feel, but--"


            Rick's eyes flashed in the doctor's direction.  "No, Joel, you don't know how I feel."

            Joel ignored the man's anger, knowing it wasn't aimed at him.  Knowing that Rick Simon's wrath was aimed at no one but himself.


            "But," the doctor continued, "until A.J. regains consciousness, there's a lot we can only speculate about.  Once we know for sure what abilities have been impaired, Doctor Cho and I will discuss with you how things must proceed."


            "Proceed in what way?"  Cecilia asked.


            "If A.J.'s injuries prove to be as I've outlined, Mrs. Simon," Doctor Cho stated, "he faces months of rehabilitation therapy."

            Rick's voice contained the first ray of hope he'd felt all evening.  "So he can recover the abilities that have been damaged?"


            "A.J. may be able to be retaught them, Mr. Simon, but he won't recover them. At least not in the sense that one day everything will simply come back to him.  Rather, he will in essence, be starting anew.  Like a young child, he'll learn language skills by hearing words repeated to him, and by associating those words with objects.  As time goes on, he may learn to construct sentences again, to write, to read, to do mathematics - he may relearn all he's lost."

            "Or he may not," Rick finished what the man had yet to say.


            "No, he may not.  A lot depends on the severity of the injury, as I've already stated.  The brain is a very complex, fickle organ.  It controls everything we do on a daily basis, but when traumatized it's not particularly resilient."


            Rick had to push past the lump in his throat in order to speak again.  "Doctor Cho have you seen...have you seen people injured as severely as A.J. make a complete recovery?"


            "Yes, Mr. Simon, on rare occasions I have.  As a matter of fact, I danced with a young bride last summer at her wedding  - a young bride who, three years ago, was one of my patients.  She suffered a head injury after falling from a horse.  The trauma she incurred was more severe than what your brother has sustained.  Through her magnificent will, the grace of God, and many factors I can't even begin to guess at, she now lives the same full life she once did.  On the other side of the coin, I've seen patients whose injuries aren't as severe as A.J.'s never regain all they've lost.  I wish medical science could explain to both you and me why this happens. Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the brain, it can't at this time."


            Doctor Cho's words hung heavy in the air, offering hope, yet dashing it all at the same time.


            Joel waited a full thirty seconds to see if either Rick or Cecilia had any further questions of the man.  When neither of them spoke, he took over the discussion.


            "A.J.'s in a coma right now, which isn't unusual given the type of injury he sustained."


            Rick was taken aback. He thought they'd received all the bad news they were going to for one evening.  "How long before he comes out of it?"


            "We really have little way of knowing, Rick.  We hope not long.

Healthy brain cells will be impaired the longer A.J. remains in a comatose state."


            "Meaning he'll lose further abilities," Cecilia stated.


            "Yes, Mrs. Simon, that's what it means," Doctor Cho acknowledged.  "For now, all we can do is wait and see.  I'm hopeful this condition won't last more than a few days.  As Doctor Lankey pointed out, it's not unusual with head trauma this severe."


            Rick voiced the question his mother was too afraid to ask, and he was afraid to hear the answer to.  "What are the chances of us...losin' him, Joel?  What are the chances of A.J. not pulling through this?"


            "I can't quote you odds, Rick, but I won't be dishonest with you, either.   A.J.'s injuries could still claim his life.  However, his condition is stable right at the moment.  Both Doctor Cho and I plan to do everything in our power to see it stays that way.  The next forty-eight hours pose the largest concern.  After that, well after that, we'll just have to take things as they come."   


            Abby spoke for the first time since they'd entered the room.  She directed her inquiry to the neurologist.


            "I realize, Doctor, you may or may not be aware that A.J. very likely witnessed a crime being committed this afternoon.  How much of what he saw will he remember once he regains consciousness?"

            "Probably nothing.  As time goes on, he may begin to recall bits and pieces, Lieutenant, but that could be months from now.  And even if he does have some immediate memories...well, quite frankly, I don't know how he would communicate them to you."       


            Abby heard Cecilia's sharp intake of breath and saw Rick reach for his mother's hand while swiping at his sudden tears.  The policewoman wished she never asked that question of the doctor.


            More importantly, however, she wished he'd never answered it.





            Linda Ecklund hung up the phone at ten-thirty that evening after talking to Cecilia a second time.  Mark returned empty handed from his search for Brendan during the middle of the conversation.


            Linda turned, slumping into her husband's chest while racking sobs overtook her.  She felt his strong arms come around her to pull her close.  She was so grateful for his love and support.  She had no idea how she'd survive this ordeal without him.


            "That was...Aunt Cecilia," she gasped between her tears.  "Oh, Mark.  A.J...A.J.'s suffered severe brain damage.  He's in a coma.  They don't...the doctors aren't certain...what kind of lasting affects this will have on him...but it's not good.  It's not good at all.  They're already predicting he's probably lost...lost his ability to speak, to write, to read...oh, Mark, he...I don't know how he'll cope with that.  He's always been such a...a proud his Uncle Jack.  He's always been strong."


            Mark kissed the top of his wife's hair, murmuring words of comfort.   “Shhh, baby, shhh.  Don't cry.  Don't cry over something you can't change."

            "But if only...if only I hadn't asked for their help this never...never would have happened."


            Before Mark could offer his wife further platitudes, a small child padded into the room.  Heather's long, golden pigtails were askew from sleep, the one on the right side sitting higher than the one on the left.  Hair escaped the rubber bands, wispy strands hanging down her neck and around her baby soft cheeks.  Her pink Little Mermaid nightgown was really too small now, stopping several inches above her ankles, but she refused to go to bed wearing anything else.  She clutched her Cabbage Patch Doll, Hilda Lu, to her chest and looked up at her mother.


            "Mommy, why are you crying?"


            Linda bent down, holding her arms out to her little girl.  She hugged both Heather and Hilda Lu. 


            "Mommy's very sad tonight, Heather," Linda gulped through her tears.   "I just found out my cousin remember A.J., don't you?"


            Linda felt the child nod against her shoulder. 


            "A.J.'s been hurt very badly in an accident."


            "How was he hurt?"

            "Looking for your brother," Mark said darkly.


            Linda pulled away from Heather.  She glanced up at Mark, shaking her head no.


            Round, pale blue eyes looked to Linda for answers.  "Is Brendan all right, Mommy?   Where is he?"

            Although, in many ways, Heather no longer understood the moody older brother who had once been her favorite playmate but now generally told her to get lost when she entered his room, she still loved him.   Loved him, worried about him, and recognized he was the source of many of the problems in her household.


            "I don't know where Brendan is, Heather."  Linda's eyes returned to Mark.  "I talked to Rick for a minute.  He said we should call the police."  


            Mark stepped back until he could rest his lean frame against the kitchen counter top.  "Oh now, Linda, I don't think that's necessary.  The boy will only be in for more trouble if we get the cops involved."


            "I realize that, Mark, but for heaven's sake it's after ten-thirty at night!  No one's seen him since the accident happened.  That was over seven hours ago!  I want to call--"


            It was then that Linda heard the door open that led from the driveway into the laundry room.  She stood, rushing to greet her bedraggled son as he entered the kitchen.


            Linda paid no attention to Brendan's ashen complexion, red-rimmed eyes, runny nose, or the face that was smudged and chapped from hours worth of tears.  Instead, all the worry, anger, and fear she'd been living with came out in seething rage.  She grabbed the boy by the elbow and flipped him around.  Her open palm smacked hard against the seat of his blue jeans in rapid-fire succession.


            "Where have you been?" she screamed, hitting and shaking Brendan in time to her words.  "Do you know what you've done?  Do you know what's happened to A.J. because of you!"


            Heather ran to her mother's side.  She latched onto Linda's arm, trying to pull her away from Brendan.   "Mommy, Mommy, don't!  Please, Mommy, don't!  Don't hit Brendan like that!  You're scaring me, Mommy!  You're scaring me!"


            And, in truth, Linda was scaring herself.  Like A.J. had suspected, she never used spanking as a form of punishment.  She didn't believe in striking children no matter what the misdeed.  This was the first time in all her years of parenting she could recall being out of control when dealing with one of her kids.


            "Mommy, please!"  Heather begged, tears streaming down her small face.  "Please stop!  Please!"


            Linda gave a choked sob, dropped her hand, and ran from the kitchen.  Little Heather followed in her wake, the sound of her small bare feet could be heard thumping on the short set of carpeted steps that led to the second story bedrooms in this bi-level home.


            Brendan was left standing in the kitchen with his stepfather.  Mark crossed the room, roughly snaring his arm.  His hazel eyes narrowed and his upper lip curved into a smile that was not quite a snarl.


            "Because of you, wise guy, your mother's cousin is gonna be nothin' but a retard now.  A retard, you got that?  He'll be damn lucky if he can say his own name and shit in anything other than diapers by the time this is all over."


            Brendan leaned all his weight backwards, trying to yank himself away from the man.  The same sickening sweet cologne he'd smelled earlier that afternoon was transferred from Mark to him.


            "No!  Don't say that!  Don't say that 'cause it's not true!"


            Mark seemed to take great joy in further incensing the boy.  "Yes it is, Brendan.  It is true.  Face it, kid, because of you, your mother's hotshot, pretty boy cousin, is now a big time loser."


            Tears ran down Brendan's face anew as he finally jerked himself from Mark's grasp.  Like his mother and sister had, Brendan disappeared around the corner of kitchen, racing up the stairs to his bedroom and slamming the door behind him.




            Brendan dove onto the lower bunk, plunking the sleeping Winston to his lap.  He buried his face in the tomcat's soft coat while he cried, causing Winston to purr in time with the sobs.


            "I didn't...I didn't mean it, Winston.  I didn't mean for A.J....for A.J. to get hurt.  I'd never hurt him on purpose.  Never."


            It took Brendan a long time to gain control of his emotions.  He didn't think it was possible to have any tears left. He'd spent the entire afternoon and evening crying.


            After A.J. had been injured Brendan had run to the nearest store, frantically asking a clerk to call an ambulance like Rick instructed him.  He'd returned to the underground garage, hiding in the shadows and watching as the paramedics worked on the blond detective.  An oxygen mask was slipped over A.J.'s nose and mouth, while an IV line was inserted into a vein in his right arm.  They put some kind of big padded collar around his neck, then, slipped a hard board underneath his back before carefully lifting him onto a gurney.  Rick was so upset that it scared Brendan.  He couldn't imagine Rick being afraid of anything.  He had fought in the Vietnam War after all, and Brendan’s mom had always told him how brave Rick was.  Brendan had even seen Rick's war medals, so he knew what his mom said was true.  But, then, after the ambulance left with A.J. and there was no one around to see, Rick collapsed across the hood of his truck and cried.  Cried until a woman came along and made him get in her car.  It was when Brendan heard Rick's heartbreaking sobs that he knew A.J. was hurt badly.  He slipped out of the area when more cops showed up, running for all he was worth until his lungs burned and he was blocks away. 


            The twelve-year-old walked, ran, and cried for the rest of the night, until he had no choice but to go home.  He thought of going to his Grandma Joan's house, but what good would it do him?  She would have called his mother, who would have probably sent Mark to pick him up.


            Brendan reached over to flip on the football shaped ceramic lamp resting on the nearby red and blue nightstand.  He looked around his room, wondering when things had gotten so bad.  It was hard when Mom and Dad divorced, but he was pretty sure he would have adjusted eventually.  It was that dumb old Mark and that little puke Cory who had ruined everything.  Gone was the queen-sized waterbed Brendan used to sleep in.  He loved how warm it always was, and how much room he had to spread out.  Now he had to sleep on a narrow twin size mattress because Mom and Mark had bought these stupid bunk beds so Cory would have a place to sleep when he came on the weekends.  And Brendan’s room wasn't his own anymore.  Mom had allowed Cory to hang some posters on the wall, removing some of Brendan's to do so.  Missing was his L.A. Lakers poster, and the one of Steve Garvey standing at home plate, to instead be replaced by Ninja Turtles and the Detroit Pistons.  When Brendan had asked Cory why he liked the Pistons so much, the kid had said he used to live in Detroit.  Brendan found that odd. He'd heard Mark tell his mother that he and his ex-wife had always resided in Southern California.   It made him wonder who was the liar - the son or the father.


            The emotionally drained boy was leaning back against the frame of his bed, one hand absently petting Winston, when someone knocked on his door twenty minutes later.


            "Brendan?"  His mother called softly.  "May I come in please?"

            When the young man didn't acknowledge his mother's request, Linda opened the door and poked her head in the room.  "Son?  Please?"


            Brendan finally gave a small nod of his head.  Winston jumped down on the floor, making room for the mistress of the house on the lower bunk.


            Linda did no more than take her son in her arms.  She rocked back and forth with him like she hadn't rocked him since he was a toddler.


            "I'm sorry, Bren.  I'm sorry I hit you," she whispered.  "I shouldn't have done that."


            "I'm sorry, too, Mom," Brendan said from where his head rested in the hollow between his mother's shoulder and neck.  Tears burned behind his tightly closed eyelids.  "I'm sorry A.J. got hurt.  I...I didn't mean for any of it to happen.  I..I don't want A.J. to be hurt.  I wish...I wish I could make him better.  I just wanna make him better, Mom."


            Linda finger combed her son's hair while he cried.  She didn't do anything other than croon, "I know, sweetheart.  I know," until he fell asleep against her chest.



            The headlights were doused before they could shine on the front of Linda's house.  It was after eleven now.  The middle class neighborhood was dark and quiet. 


            Mark eased up the first three stairs.  He saw Heather's door was closed.  He assumed Linda had gotten the child calmed down and settled back in bed.  He could hear the murmur of voices coming from Brendan's room. More than likely his wife was talking to the kid.  Talking to him instead of doing what she should have been, continuing the walloping she'd started to give him in the kitchen.  But right now Mark didn't have time to concern himself with that, and overall he didn't give a shit anyway.  He slipped down the stairs as quietly as he'd climbed them, then exited out the same door Brendan had come in.  He was careful not to let the door make a sound as it caught the latch.        


            Mark jogged to the blue Chevy Cavalier parked at the end of the driveway.  The woman behind the wheel rolled down the window.  Her long hair was full of uneven split ends, and permed to a brittle frizz giving it the texture of an SOS Soap Pad.  Dark roots grew from her scalp making it obvious the sun-kissed blond look she was trying to achieve came from a bottle.   Her hair was so damaged from years of abuse that all she got for her efforts was a bright yellow mass that looked like it belonged on the head of a mop.  She kept her voice low in deference to the child curled up in her back seat sound asleep.


            "Is the kid back?"

            "Yeah, he's back."


            "Did his little disappearing act blow your cover?"


            "How so?"


            "Did she find out you told her old lady you were sick today so you could leave early?"


            "Oh that.  No.  She musta' thought her asshole cousins had everything under control, so didn't think she needed to bother me at work when she got the call from the school."


            "So what's the plan now?"

            "We hang tight and wait."


            The woman fumbled for the pack of Virginia Slims she had laying on the dash.  She lit one, blowing the smoke into Mark's face. 


            "This is gettin' old, Lucky.  You've been shackin' up with this broad for almost a year now.  Ain't it about time to make our move?"


            The man glanced in the back to make certain Cory was still asleep.       


            "It'll happen soon enough, Natalie.  Just don't give me no shit, okay?"


            "I don't like it," the woman groused, "the kid meeting with those nosy P.I. cousins of hers today.  You sure he hasn't figured out what you're up to?"


            "Trust me, the kid doesn't know a thing."


            "Then why was he hangin' with private dicks?"


            "Linda said she asked them to talk to him 'cause of his crappy grades and all."


            "Do you believe her?"

            "Right now I don't have reason not to."

            "Well, you'd better pay close attention to what's going on, Lucky, or I might not be calling you lucky any more."

            "What's that supposed to mean?"

            "P.I.'s can cause a person a lot of trouble.  Sometimes even more trouble than cops can."

            "Look, Nat, don't worry about the dicks.  Thanks to my little friend Brendan, one is now nothing more than a frickin' vegetable.  The other one will be too occupied with takin' care of his brother to worry about anything the kid might have told them."

            Natalie's eyes narrowed.  Her brows were plucked fine, then drawn back on in high arches with black eyebrow pencil.  "And just what might the kid have told them?"


            "Nothing, nothing.  Jesus Christ, you remind me of Cruella DeVil when you look at me like that. Cool it, Nat.  The kid doesn't suspect a thing."

            The woman put the car in reverse and allowed it to roll slowly toward the street.  "He'd better not, Lucas Bentz.  He'd better not, because if he does, you're taking this fall alone."


Chapter 8


            Lieutenant Abigail Marsh waited outside the Intensive Care Unit.  She knew the Simon family was allowed to see A.J. for fifteen minute intervals every hour.  Rick had been nowhere in sight when she'd arrived ten minutes ago, meaning he was with his brother.  If the nursing staff was adhering to the fifteen minute rule, Rick should be appearing shortly.


            Abby had driven Rick and Cecilia home at eleven o'clock the night before.  Rick hadn't wanted to leave, but Joel Lankey finally convinced the detective it was in A.J.'s best interest for him to get what rest he could.


            "A.J.'s going to need you a lot more in the coming weeks and months than he needs you tonight, Rick," Joel stated gently.  "It's important that you take care of yourself so you can be there for him.  And by taking care of yourself, I mean sleeping eight hours a night and eating three meals a day."


            Abby highly doubted Rick had done either yet.  He was silent the entire ride home.  Quite out of character for him, Rick didn't offer to stay with his mother that night, but insisted Abby drop him off at his boat.  Cecilia didn't attempt to dissuade him.  Later, she told Abby she was well aware of how devastated her oldest son was over the accident.  Well aware he needed time alone to sort out his thoughts and feelings. 


            "Rick's always been this way whenever something bad happens, Abby.  Ever since he was a small child he's retreated from the world at times like this.  He has to go off by himself to find the answers he's searching for.  Or so he tells me. I just pray tonight he makes peace with himself while he's looking."


            Rick's truck was still able to be driven, though obtained some body damage as a result of the collision.  Abby had hidden her reaction the previous afternoon when she caught sight of the deep indention carved in the front metal grill.  Before she left to take Rick to the hospital, she instructed two of her employees to see that the truck was driven to Carlos Escobar's automobile repair shop.  She relayed that information to Rick when she dropped him off at his boat.


            "It doesn't matter," Rick mumbled while climbing out of the back seat.  He leaned in the open front passenger window to kiss his mother good night.  "I don't want it back anyway.  I won't be drivin' it again.  I'll get a loaner from Carlos for the time being."


            "But, honey," Cecilia tried to reason,  "you paid a lot of money for that truck.  I'm sure Carlos can repair the damage."


            Right before he disappeared into the night Rick said,   "No one can repair the damage, Mom.  It's already been done."


            When her son was out of hearing range, Cecilia started to cry.  Abby reached over and squeezed her friend's hand.  "He'll be okay, Cecilia.  He's tough.  You know he is.  Given time he'll be okay."


            The women watched as lights came on within Rick's boat.


            "Oh, Abby, I hope so.  He...Rick can survive a lot of pain; a lot of tragedy, a lot of sorrow, I know that.  I've seen him triumph over adversity plenty of times throughout the years.  But this time...well, this time he's hurt his baby brother.  Even though it was an accident, Rick doesn't see it that way.  He doesn't have to say it for me to know how he feels.  For me to know he blames himself for what happened this afternoon.  Rick may not admit it out loud, but he loves A.J. very much.  He loves him, and he can't bear the thought of being the person who hurt him."


            That sentence replayed itself in Abby's mind when Rick emerged from behind the double doors of the Intensive Care Unit.  Red streaks colored the whites of his eyes, and his face was drawn and gray.


            "How is he?"  Abby asked.


            Rick's answer was abrupt and succinct.  "No change."


            No change, meaning almost twenty-four hours after the accident A.J. was still in a coma and still unresponsive.  Based on what the doctors had told them the evening before, Abby didn't find that news to be out of the ordinary, but she didn't mention that to Rick.  She could tell he was in no mood to hear it.


            She followed the detective down the hall to the water fountain.  He stepped on the foot pedal causing cold liquid to splash in the stainless steel basin.  He bent and got a drink.


            "Have you had lunch?"


            Rick wiped the excess water from his mouth with the back of his hand.  "I'm not hungry."


            "Let's go down to the cafeteria anyway."




            "Because I need to get a statement from you, and because I'm hungry."


            Rick hesitated before finally nodding his consent.  "Just let me go tell one of the nurses where I'll be."


            The lanky man returned in a matter of seconds.  He allowed Abby to lead him to the elevators.  They traveled down five floors to the lobby that housed, among other things, a gift shop and the large cafeteria.


            It was ten minutes after one, so a fair amount of the lunch crowd had already cleared the area.  Abby insisted Rick go through the line with her, then insisted upon putting food on his plate he insisted he wasn't going to eat.


            Over Rick's protests, Abby paid for both their meals, then led the way to a fairly secluded table where they could talk privately.   She dismissed the four nurses over in the corner who were laughing and gossiping about work during their lunch hour.  Nor did she worry about the black orderly who sat two tables away with his back to them, a Walkman clipped to his waistband with the earpieces firmly in place.  His nose was buried in an issue of Sports Illustrated as he be-bopped back and forth in his chair to the tune only he could hear.  


            Although he only picked at the pork chop the police lieutenant had set on his plate, Rick did eat the bowl of chicken noodle soup she'd bought for him and downed a few bites of macaroni and cheese.


            Abby waited until most of her own lunch was gone before pulling a micro-cassette recorder from her purse.  She flipped a switch, made sure the tiny tape inside was turning, then sat it between herself and Rick.


            "What more can you tell me about yesterday?"


            Rick pushed his plate aside.  "Not much more than I told you last night."


            "Rick, we've gone through that building with a fine tooth comb.  We know someone was shot inside what had been the amphitheater."


            "Yes, shot.  We found shell casings on the floor, and two bullets imbedded in the south wall.  You could have taken a bath in the amount of blood left behind.  It's unlikely the person to whom it belongs is still alive."


            "But where is this person?"

            "That's what we'd like to know.  I've checked all the area hospitals.  No one bleeding heavily from gunshot wounds was taken to any of them between three o'clock yesterday afternoon and six o’clock last night.  My lab techs tell me working with a time frame later than that would be an effort in futility.  Our victim would have been dead by then."


            "What else did you find?"


            "Two skateboards.  One was in the amphitheater's observatory room, the other in a second floor hallway.  A set of bloody footprints trailed across the amphitheater's floor and up the stairs, but faded before they could lead us anywhere.  We do know the prints came from a pair of Converse tennis shoes.  Mans size six."


            "That's what Brendan, our cousin's son, was wearing."


            "You're certain?"

            "About the brand, yes.  And a Mans six would be about right for a kid his age, I suppose."                  


            "We also found A.J.'s sport coat, Rick."



            "On the floor in the amphitheater.  In the exact spot we believe the shooting victim to have been lying."

            "As if he'd used it to cover the person," Rick surmised. 


            "Yes.  That's what we've guessed.  Now you told me yesterday that you and A.J. were hired by your cousin to talk to her son, is that correct?"


            "Yeah.  She's been having problems with the kid ever since she remarried about a year ago."


            "What kind of problems?"

            "Skipping school, poor grades, a smart mouth.  You know, just twelve-year-old

boy kinda crap."

            "So you and A.J. followed the boy to the old morgue?"

            "We didn't exactly follow him.  We more or less came upon him and his friends by chance."


            "Then what happened?"


            "Like I told you last night, I waited in the truck while A.J. went to talk to him."


            "How did they end up inside the building?"

            "I have no idea. All I know is, about thirty minutes passed and A.J. hadn't come back.  I was gettin' sick of waiting, so I thought I'd drive around the building.  I thought maybe A.J. and Brendan were in the parking lot.  I was a couple blocks away yet when I noticed a white van sitting there with the County Coroner's logo on it.  I didn't think too much of it at first.  I just figured someone from the coroner's office was in the building getting something he or she had left behind.  But all of a sudden the back doors burst open and out jumped three people carrying Lugers."


            "Men or women?"

            "I don't know.  They were dressed in black, wearing black flak jackets, and had ski masks over their faces."


            "Think, Rick.  Think about their body size.  Their body shape."


            Rick did what Abby ordered, his mind's eye traveling back to the previous afternoon.  "I'm not sure.  I was paying more attention to the guns than I was to them.  One of them mighta' been a woman.  If nothin' else, one person was shorter and slighter than the other two.  And one was tall. Taller than most men."

            "How tall?"

            "Six-five, six-six."  Rick shrugged.  "I don't know, Abby.  Once I saw those guns, all I was thinkin' about was gettin' A.J. and Brendan outta there."


            "All right.  Let's jump ahead to what happened in the garage."


            Rick took a deep breath, knowing this would be the hardest part of his story to live through again.   "I was racin' through there, goin' too fast, I know, but not only did I wanna  find A.J., I also wanted to see if I could determine where the three mystery people went."


            "Did you?"


            "No.  I didn't see any of them.  Then all of a sudden a set of double doors burst open on my right.  I slammed on my breaks as a guy flew out--”


            "What did the guy look like?"

            "I never saw his face. He was in front of me, and then gone all in a matter of seconds."


            Abby offered other options.  "Was he short, tall, fat, skinny, white, black, Hispanic, oriental?"


            Rick thought a long moment.  "Keep in mind I only caught a glimpse of 'im, so the best I can do is tell you he was average height and weight, white...I think, plus he was wearing a hat."


            "A hat?"




            "A baseball cap, a cowboy hat, a--"


            "No, more like a dress hat.  Like the kind my dad used to wear when I was a kid.  I remember that 'cause he was holding onto it so it wouldn't fly off."


            "Was he an older man then?  Someone over sixty?"

            "If he was over sixty, then he had a helluva set of legs on him, let me tell ya', 'cause man, he could run.  But, truthfully, I don't know.  He mighta' been twenty, or he mighta' been eighty.  I just didn't get much of a look at him.  I was concentrating on tryin' to get my truck stopped."


            "That's understandable," Abby agreed in an effort to assuage Rick's guilt over not being of more help.  "So what happened after the man ran in front of you?"


            "The three kids came right on his tail lickity split."


            "Brendan and his friends?"

            "Yeah.  Then A.J. came next.  Only I couldn't stop the truck in time.  I was practically standin' on the damn brake, but I couldn't get it stopped.  I heard a thud and saw someone fly up in the air.  Honest to God, Abby, it happened so fast that at first I didn't even know who I'd hit.  It wasn't until I saw him layin' on the pavement that I knew...knew it was A.J."


            Rick averted his face.  Abby didn't question him further until he was able to turn back and look at her. 


            "And what about the people in black?  You said they came out of the doors shortly after the accident happened?"


            "Yeah.  Maybe all of thirty seconds later.  It couldn't have been any longer than that."


            "But none of them said anything to you?  None of them offered to help you?"

            "No.  As far as I know, they didn't even glance in my direction.  They burst out the doors and followed the same path everyone else had taken."


            "Which was where?"

            "Behind me.  Toward the parking lot."


            "You said Brendan called for the ambulance.  Had he stayed with you after A.J. was hit?"

            "No.  He was running with his friends.  Then he just kinda' appeared outta nowhere.  That's when I sent him for help."

            "And he never came back after that?"


            "No.  Or at least not that I saw.  Mom talked to my cousin Linda, Brendan's mother, early this morning.   He showed up at home around ten-thirty last night."


            "Did she say where he had been?"

            "Not that I'm aware of.  But I didn't really ask Mom about that, either."


            "I'll need to talk to Brendan.  The sooner the better."

            Rick nodded.  "I'd like to be with you when you do."

            "Can you arrange it for me?"

            "Yeah.  I'll call his mom when we're done."




            Abby wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, crumpled it into a ball, then tossed it on the tray that held her empty plate.  "I've got a gag order on every officer who was at the crime scene.  Until I'm able to talk to each witness, including your cousin's son and his friends, and until I'm able to determine just what it was A.J. might have seen transpire, I want as little as possible about any of this in the paper or on television.  I'm doing my best to keep A.J.'s name from being mentioned in any news reports, partially so my investigation isn't hampered, but as well, for his own protection."


            Rick followed Abby's line of thinking.  Whether or not A.J. had stumbled upon a mob hit, or a drug deal gone sour, was yet to be seen.  Either possibility could pose great danger for Rick's brother.  Numerous other possibilities could pose great danger for A.J. as well.


            "I've also spoken with the hospital public relations director and the Intensive Care nursing supervisor.  All necessary personnel have been informed not to give out any information regarding A.J. no matter who calls.  Unless you or your mother specifically clear a caller with them, they're to deny they have a patient here by the name of Andrew Simon."


            Rick nodded his thanks before turning the conversation back to the events of the previous afternoon.  "What about the guard, Abby?  Shouldn't there have been a guard on duty in that building?"


            "That's what I was told.  I'm waiting for the owner of the security firm that provides the guards to return my call.  After I talk to the man I'll know more."


            There were no further questions Abby could think to ask Rick, and no further information he could think to offer her.  He collected their trays while she deposited the tape recorder in her purse.  Rick left the trays on the cart the cafeteria had sitting out for that purpose.  Abby followed him around the corner to a pay phone.  Within five minutes time, Rick had arranged for himself and the lieutenant to talk to Brendan at six o'clock that evening. 


            Rick walked Abby to the lobby doors that would take her to the parking lot.  She promised to pick him up in front of those same doors at five-fifteen that evening.  He told her he'd be waiting for her, then turned to head back to the Intensive Care Unit where he'd sit with A.J. until their mother arrived to take over for him.


            Rick paid no attention to the orderly with the cornrow braids who passed him on the way to the elevator.  The man's Walkman still hung at his waist.  If anyone had opened it they would have wondered why he was wearing it.  It had no batteries, therefore couldn't have possibly been providing him with nearly as much entertainment as he was letting on minutes earlier in the cafeteria.




             Wyatt paced the sumptuous private study.  "I don't like this.  I don't like it at all.  I knew that damn Taylor was setting us up.  I knew it."


            His companion swiveled in his high-backed leather chair until he was looking out over the green manicured grounds, and to the swimming pool beyond.  He wanted to say, "You better not have known it,” but didn't bother. Wyatt had never thought for himself a day in his life.  He was only saying what he assumed his boss wanted to hear.


            "I don't like it either, but we can't do anything more about it than we are right now.  I'll continue to watch the newspapers and the television.  In the meantime, you keep your ear close to the ground.  I would think in your capacity you'll eventually hear something.  Above all else, we've got to find out the names of the kids and the man who were following me.  Especially the man.  I want to know who he is, where he lives, what he was doing there, what he saw...everything about him, you got that?"


            "I'm working on it, I'm working on it."


            "Well work faster.  If he witnessed anything, anything at all, we've got to take care of him before he can do us major damage.  Start with that guard you paid off, Manuel whatever-his-last-name is.  Find out what he knows.  The cops will no doubt talk to him if they haven't already.  Someone's bound to wonder where he was while all this was going on."


            No kidding.  Wyatt thought.  I'm a cop if you remember correctly.  I'm not the brainless chump you sometimes make me out to be.


            Regardless of how the man sometimes made him feel, Wyatt was well aware of who was buttering his bread.  You didn't buy Armani suits and own a condo in the Caribbean on a sheriff's deputy's salary.



            Wyatt dutifully said what was expected.  "I'll get right on it."


            "See that you do."


            Without further discussion, Wyatt's boss rose from his desk, scooped up the fedora resting on a corner of it, and strode from the room. 



            There was a heavy sense of mourning in the air as they gathered around the table in Shannon's room at the Best Western.  Where they had for so long numbered four, now they were three. 


            No fast food bags littered the area this evening.  No one had felt like eating since the previous afternoon.


            "Have the arrangements been made?"  Vlad asked.


            Shannon nodded her head.  "Will...Will's going home tonight."


            "Have you talked to Sue?"




            "How's she holding up?"


            "She's trying to be strong, but she's having a difficult time of it.  She told Taylor

this morning that his daddy's gone to Heaven."


            "How'd he take it?"  Mitch asked.


            "Not good.  He doesn't understand.  He's angry with Will for not coming back.  When I spoke with Sue a little while ago, she said he's refusing to talk about it.  Refusing to mention Will's name, or to have it mentioned in front of him.  I'm certain that little boy is in tremendous pain."


            Vlad agreed.  "He was the apple of his dad's eye."


            "Yes," Shannon said, brushing at a tear,  "he was.  I remember the day he was born.  Will was on cloud nine.  Who knew that only four short years later…" 


            Shannon let her thoughts break off there.  Will wouldn't want them to sit around pining for him. He'd want them to lay him to rest with dignity, then, proceed with their jobs.  The only way they could truly pay respect to his memory was to catch the bastard who shot him.


            With Will's passing, Shannon became the group's unofficial leader.  She turned to Mitch.  "Did you find out anything at all today?"

            Mitch pushed aside the Walkman and wig of cornrow braids that sat in front of him.  "I found out the guy's name is A.J. Simon.   The A is short for Andrew.  As of yet, I don't know what the J stands for."


            "John, James, Joseph," Vlad tossed out the obvious possibilities.


            "Could be any one of those," Mitch agreed.  "Whatever it is, it shouldn't be too hard to find out, and overall, it's of little consequence.  I know enough already.  It turns out the guy and his brother, Richard, more commonly known as Rick, are private dicks.  They run a two man operation called Simon and Simon from a building in the Gas Lamp District."


            "You're kidding me?"  Shannon slumped back in her chair.  "Oh, great.  Wonderful.  That's all we need, private detectives nosing around in this.  Who the hell hired them and why?"

            "I don't know.  I'm trying to find that out.  I overheard a portion of the conversation Rick Simon was having with some woman in the cafeteria, but I missed out on about every other word because a group of nurses were laughing and carrying on at the table next to me.  I suspect the person Simon was talking to was a cop, but I'm not certain.  I'm doing my best to find out who she is."


            "What did Simon say to her?"  Vlad asked.


            "From what I could pick up, he and his brother were looking for someone.  Maybe one of the kids we saw, because I heard him say something about his cousin's son.  Other than that, his details were vague.  Kept maintaining he didn't know why his brother was inside the building, and pled ignorant to just about every other question he was asked."


            "Big surprise," Vlad snorted. "Like the guy's gonna tell the cops the truth."

            "He would if he's got nothing to hide," Mitch countered, playing his usual role of devil's advocate.


            Shannon shifted the line of questioning.  "What's this A.J. guy's prognosis?  What will he be able to tell us?"

            "Nothing right now.  He's in a coma.  And from what I overheard his surgeon say today, he won't be telling anyone much of anything soon.  If he doesn't die before he regains consciousness, then the likelihood that his mental facilities will be severely impaired is a good one."


            "Regardless, as far as we know, he's the only witness we've got," Shannon pointed out.  "We've got to find out if he can I.D. the shooter.  If medical science does their part in keeping him alive, then we have to do ours.  A.J. Simon could prove to be our bird in the hand.  Somehow, we have to discover what he saw, who he saw, and who he's working for."


            "What if he played a part in Will's death?"  Mitch asked.


            Shannon's eyes turned a hard, cold blue, like the ocean on a winter morning.  She thought of the woman at home in Maryland left to raise two young children without the father who loved and cherished them above all else in life.


            "Then I swear, Mitch, I'll kill Mr. Andrew J. Simon myself.  I'll choke the life out of the son of a bitch with my bare hands."




            Rick sat by A.J.'s bedside holding onto his right hand.  He gently rubbed his fingers over the top of it in a circular motion.  The nurses told him it was very likely A.J. could feel every touch given him.  Therefore, Rick and Cecilia had agreed they'd be in constant physical contact with him whenever they were in the room.  They wanted to make certain A.J. was bathed with the loving touches only his family could provide.  That, in the sea of pain he was floating on, he would always be aware a comforting haven was near.


            The rooms on the Intensive Care floor were small, no larger than fourteen feet by fourteen feet.  None of them had doors, and all faced the centrally located nurses’ station. 


            Rick sat now in the only chair in that small room.  He hesitated, his hand hovering over A.J.'s head.  He looked up, startled, when a passing nurse stopped in the doorway.  Gina smiled at him.


            "It's okay, Rick, you can touch his head as long as you're careful.  You won't hurt him."


            The detective nodded his thanks.  After the nurse left, Rick completed what he'd unconsciously caught himself doing before she'd entered, brushing a stray lock of A.J.'s hair off his forehead. 


            A.J.'s left arm was in a plastic cast, resting elevated on a pillow at his side.  The bruises Joel had promised would be present were out in all their glory today.  Like spring flowers in full bloom, they dotted A.J.'s body from shoulders to feet.  A horrible red mass, one huge continuous bruise Joel explained, covered A.J. from left armpit to knee.  Rick easily guessed it would be weeks, maybe even months, before his brother could comfortably lie on that side of his body.  But then that made sense.  That's the side the truck had hit.  It was a wonder it hadn't done serious damage to A.J.'s internal organs, or broken any other bones.


            A wide patch of hair had been shaved from behind A.J.'s left ear to the middle of the back of his head.  The area was covered with a thick bandage, but you could still tell the hair was gone.  Rick knew this was where Doctor Cho had preformed the delicate surgery that stopped the internal hemorrhaging, and relieved some of the pressure building from the swelling.


            As remarkable as it might seem given A.J.'s head injury, not one cut or bruise marred his face.  His features were relaxed, giving the illusion he was simply in a deep sleep, not a life-threatening coma.  Rick had even heard someone else comment on it that day.  Some older woman who was passing by on her way to see her sick husband two rooms down.  She'd turned to her daughter and said, "It's terrible what happened to that poor man.  His brother hit him with his truck. Can you believe that?  It sounds like something right out of a soap opera.  I heard the nurses talking about it a little while ago.  It was an accident, of course, but what a shame.  He's so handsome.  So handsome, and for what?  To live the rest of his life as a vegetable."


            The woman didn't know Rick was behind her that morning.  He made his presence known when he snapped,  "He's not a vegetable!  He's a human being; you got that?  He's not a piece a' squash, or a tomato, or even a goddamn carrot!   He's my brother, and he's a human being!  And neither me nor my mother care how he has to live the rest of his life.  We're gonna help him in every way we can.  We're gonna help him come all the way back."


            The woman wasn't nearly as offended by Rick's anger, as she was sympathetic to it.  She clucked an apology, then, moved off down the hall murmuring,  "It's a shame.  It's simply a shame.  That's the older brother.  The one who was driving the truck. I think he's having a breakdown, don't you?"


            Rick didn't feel bad that he'd yelled at the old biddy.  His words hadn't really been for her anyway.  They'd been for A.J.  Aside from being able to feel their touches, the nurses had also told Rick and Cecilia it was quite possible A.J. heard much of, if not all of, what was said around him.  Therefore, neither Rick nor his mother ever spoke a word in front of him that wasn't full of encouragement, support, and love.  The last thing Rick wanted A.J. to hear was some old witch he didn't even know referring to him as a vegetable.  And how the hell did people come to calling those inflicted with severe head injuries vegetables anyway?  Rick had heard the term all his life and never thought much of it, just knew it was generally used to refer to people in long standing comas.  People who were in comas for years and years.   Not people like A.J.  Not like A.J., who was going to come out of his coma and do all the things Doctor Cho was saying he couldn't.  Not like Rick's stubborn little brother, who was going to prove all the medical predictions wrong.  And while A.J. was doing that, Rick was going to thumb his nose at the doctors and with a big old grin spread across his face say, "See, I told you.  I told you he'd be all right.  You people don't know my little brother like I do." 


            But until that time came, Rick had to make do with lightly tracing his fingers over A.J.'s bandage.  "That's quite a haircut you're sportin' these days, little brother.  You'd better wake up and take a look at it.  Boy, are you gonna give hell to the barber when you get a hold of him.  This is the last time you'll ever tease me about my hairline, that's for sure."                     


            The back of Rick's hand traveled over his brother's ear, then down the side of his face.  A light growth of blond stubble scratched Rick's skin.  By tomorrow he'd have to run a razor over A.J.'s face if one of the nurse's didn't do it first.  He knew the last thing A.J. would want is a scraggly beard.


            "Yeah, you're gonna prove 'em wrong, aren't you, A.J.  I know you are.  You're gonna do it for me and Mom, but more importantly you're gonna do it for yourself.  'Cause you're a fighter, kid.  You always have been, and you always will be.  A.J. Simon gets back up after every single fall he takes."


            Rick's hand found his brother's once again.  He bit back his tears as he squeezed.  He didn't want to cry in front of A.J., but couldn't keep his face from crumpling, or keep the quiver out of his voice that raised it to an awkward level rarely heard by anyone, even Rick himself.


            "And I'll help you, A.J., if you need me to.  You know I will.  I'll pick you up and carry you for a while if I have to.  Whatever it takes.  You know I'll be there for you, don't you, little brother?  You know I'll be there for you every step of the way.  But, as much as I'd like to, I can't take that first step for you.  You gotta take that one yourself.  You gotta start wakin' up, A.J.  You gotta bring yourself back to me before I can help you."


            The nurses didn't chase Rick away that afternoon.  Whether they were too busy to worry about him, or whether they simply felt sorry for him, Rick didn't know.  He stayed until his mother arrived shortly before Abby was due to pick him up.  He'd sent Cecilia home at noon with her good friend Edie Krelman, knowing she hadn't gotten anymore sleep the previous night than he had, and knowing she needed the rest.  If nothing else, Edie would force her to eat something like Abby had forced him to, and force her to lie down for a while even if she protested the suggestion.


            Rick felt his mother's hand rub over his back as he bent to kiss A.J.'s forehead.  He didn't care if people viewed such an exchange between brothers as unmasculine.  He stopped caring about a lot of unimportant issues twenty-four hours earlier. 


            "I gotta leave for a while, A.J.," Rick carefully ruffled his brother's hair,  "but I'll be back later to tell you good night.  Mom's here now.  She's gonna stay with you while I'm gone.  You behave yourself for her, you hear?  If she tells me you gave her any trouble you're gonna answer to me."


            Oh, how Rick wanted A.J. to toss him the sarcastic retort he could almost hear as clearly as if his brother had just spoken it.


            "Me?"  A.J. would say with that all-too-familiar smirk on his face while placing a hand against his chest.   "Me cause Mom trouble?  Yeah right, big brother.  It's you who's made a career out of causing Mom trouble."


            But A.J. didn't say those words.  He didn't say anything.  He just went right on dreaming, or sleeping, or doing whatever it is people do when they're in comas.


            Rick accepted Cecilia's hug, giving her a strong one of his own.  He grabbed his hat off the nearby nightstand, placing it on his head.


            "I don't know what time I'll be back.  It could be several hours, I suppose.  It just depends on how long it takes with Brendan.  On what he can tell us."


            "I understand," Cecilia said.  "Don't worry about it.  But why come back here, honey?  You're tired.  Have Abby take you to the boat when you're done."


            "No," Rick shook his head.  "I already told A.J. I'd come back to tell him good night."


            Cecilia smiled softly.  "You could tell him good night now."


            Rick looked at his brother.  "You hear that, A.J., Mom wants me to tell you good night at five o'clock in the afternoon.  Tell her how ridiculous that sounds."


            But, of course, A.J. didn't tell his mother anything, causing the tear in Rick's heart to lengthen.  He turned away from his brother to give Cecilia a quick peck on the cheek. 


            "I'll be back.  Take care of him for me."


            Cecilia ran a hand over his son's unshaven face.  "I will, sweetie."


            The older woman watched her son exit Intensive Care.  She smiled when a young nurse entered to take A.J.'s vital signs.  The petite twenty-five year old with shoulder length brown kinky curls, and the huge chocolate eyes of a doe, weaved in and out of the array of equipment surrounding A.J.'s bed.  She checked the flow of the two IV's going into his right arm, then checked the catheter bag hidden discreetly underneath the blankets.  She recorded everything she studied while talking to Cecilia.


            "I get the impression your sons are close, Mrs. Simon."


            "Yes, Gina, they are. Very close.  They always have been."


            "Then I suppose the accident has been extremely difficult for Rick."


            "Yes.  Yes, it has been.  But mark my words, it will be Rick who gives A.J. the strength to recover from this."


            Cecilia reached down to run a hand over her son's right arm.   "It will be Rick who encourages him, coaxes him, rewards him, and even scolds him when need be.  And every step A.J. takes, every stride he makes, every challenge he masters, and every goal he meets, will be for his big brother."


            The nurse had left the room when Cecilia bent close to A.J.'s ear.  She encased his right hand in hers. 


            "Oh, please, honey, do all those things.  Do all those things for Rick.  If you don't...well, if you don't, it'll break Rick’s heart, A.J.  He'll never forgive himself, never get over this, if you don't work as hard as you can for him."


            Cecilia shot upright with shock.  She was certain A.J. had just given her hand a squeeze in confirmation of her words.  Granted, it had been barely perceptible, but the woman knew without a doubt it had happened.


            "A.J.," Cecilia bent to speak in her son's ear once more, "sweetheart, squeeze Mom's hand again.  Squeeze my hand, honey.  I know you can do it.  We were talking about Rick remember?  I was telling you how much he's hurting inside because of the accident, and how hard you're going to have to work to help him.  I was telling you how much I'm counting on you to help your brother, A.J.  Can I can depend on you to do that for me, sweetie?  A.J....please?"


            Cecilia stood as still and quiet as she could.  That's when she felt it again.  A tiny, weak squeeze that told her the words she'd spoken had been heard and understood.


            She slipped her hand out of A.J.'s and ran for the hallway.


            "Gina!  Gina, come back here quick!  Gina!"    



Chapter 9



            Rick rang the doorbell of the immaculate ranch style bi-level.  Abby noted that no stray toys dotted the neatly trimmed front lawn, nor did so much as a weed grow from the flower beds that lined the sidewalk leading up to the front door.  The shutters that framed every window were painted a bright clean white, in perfect compliment to the smoky blue house.


            A woman answered Rick's summons.  Her coloring and features were so similar to A.J.'s that Abby had no doubt she was the Simon brothers' cousin.  Linda exchanged a long hug with Rick, saying something into his shirt the lieutenant didn't quite catch.  She assumed the woman was apologizing for what she perceived as her role regarding A.J.'s accident, because Abby heard Rick murmur,  "Don't, Lindy.  Don't.  It wasn't your fault.  It wasn't any more your fault than it was...anyone else's."


            Rick introduced the two women when Linda stepped out of his arms.  The blond woman hesitantly spoke her concern.  "Lieutenant Marsh, I...are you...are you going to charge Brendan with anything?"

            "No, Mrs. Ecklund, that's certainly not my intention.  Not unless I find out Brendan's involvement in what happened yesterday extends beyond skipping school and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I simply want to find out what he witnessed.  As you know, it may be...." Abby paused, hating to voice in front of Rick what she had to say next.  She had no choice, however, so pressed on.  "It may be some time before A.J. can tell us anything.  Until then, I'm going to have to rely on Brendan's account of the happenings."


            "Abby just wants to talk to the boy, Lindy," Rick assured.  "Neither she or I believe he's guilty of any wrong doing."


            Linda nodded her understanding as she led the way into the house.   They stepped into a foyer covered with sturdy vinyl flooring.  Children's shoes were lined up like soldiers in formation on a blue throw rug.  Abby took note of a pair of Converse tennis shoes.  Without asking permission, she picked them up and looked at the bottom.  A large 6 was stamped in the rubber bridge running across the middle just like she suspected would be the case. 


            If Linda wondered why the woman was looking at her son's shoes, she didn't ask.  Abby returned them to their rightful place, following Rick and his cousin into the living room.


            The long, wide area was neat and clutter free except for a child's puzzle lying in the middle of the sculptured, champagne beige carpeting.   A colorful couch sat along one wall, two blue easy chairs fanned another with a hexagon shaped oak table in-between.  A lamp sat on top of it, photo albums resided on its lower shelf.  The console television sat on the other end of the room, on the wall where the stairs emerged.  A VCR rested atop it, and a plastic movie case was next to it, leading Abby to conclude someone had recently watched the Disney classic Bambi.


            "I'll go get Brendan," Linda said.  "He's been in his room all day.  He...he's very upset.  I kept both him and Heather home from school and called in sick to work myself.  I...well, after last night none of us was ready to face an early morning."


            Abby nodded.   "That's understandable, Mrs. Ecklund."


            Linda's eyes met her cousin's.  "Just so you know, Rick, I think Brendan's afraid to face you.  He told me a little while ago that he's sure you're really mad at him."


            Rick didn't do more than say, "I see," which led Linda to conclude Rick just might be very angry with her son.  But she trusted Rick, she always had.  If he was angry, then it was justified.  He'd be honest with Brendan and tell him the reasons for it.  Above all else, Linda knew Rick would never hurt her son, intentionally or unintentionally.


            "Please, have a seat.  Both of you."  The woman turned toward the stairway.  "I'll be right back with Bren."


            Abby sat on the couch while Rick crossed to a chair and sat down.  He looked up with surprise when he heard someone running down the hallway above them.  He couldn't imagine that Linda had even gotten to Brendan's room yet.


            Rick smiled when he saw who was coming to greet him.  Heather flew down the stairs as fast as her short, thin legs could bring her, her ponytail bouncing wildly with every step.  She ran for Rick's arms, not a bit shy or afraid, even though she'd seen him less than a dozen times in her young life.


            "Rick!  Rick!"


            Rick caught the little girl in mid-air as she jumped for his lap.  Her arms went around his neck, knocking his hat askew.  He tossed it down on the floor beside him, then hugged Heather in return.


            "Hi, Beanie.  How are ya'?"

            Where Heather had picked up the nickname Beanie, Rick didn't know, but he had no trouble recalling her family often referred to her as such.


            "I'm fine.  How are you?"


            "I'm...I'm doin' okay, I guess."


            The little girl released Rick.  She sat sideways on his lap so she could see both him and Abby.  She pointed across the room to the strange woman. 


            "Is that your wife, Rick?"

            Abby couldn't help but laugh.  "Believe me, sweetheart, I'm definitely not Rick's wife."


            "Oh, that's too bad.  'Cause you're very pretty, and Rick needs a wife to make him manure.  I've heard Grandma Joan say that a zillion times."


            Rick and Abby couldn't help but laugh together. 


            "What I think your Grandma Joan said, Beanie, is that I need a wife to make me mature.  In other words, to make me grow up.  Believe me, I've heard her say it a zillion times, too."


            Heather shrugged her tiny shoulders.  "Whatever.  It doesn't matter to me, 'cause I like you just the way you are, Rick."


            "Thanks, kiddo."  Rick kissed the top of the little girl's head.  "You don't know how much I needed to hear that today."


            Heather reached up, hooking an arm around Rick's neck.  Serious blue eyes looked into his.   "How's A.J.?  Mommy said he got a real bad booboo yesterday."


            The detective swallowed hard.  "He did.  He's in the hospital.  He's...he's sleeping right now."


            "Are the doctors going to make him better?"

            "I hope so, sweetie.  I hope so."


            Heather dug into the deep chest pocket of her denim bib overalls.  "I made a card for A.J. today.  Brendan helped me fold it.  And he spelled the hard words for me, too.  It took a long time to make 'cause I had a lotta things to tell A.J.  But Mommy says I'm not old enough to go visiting at the hospital, so would you take it to him?"

            Rick reached out and took the construction paper masterpiece from the little girl.  The card was pink with silver glitter glued to the front.  When the detective opened it he saw a misshapen red construction paper heart adhered to the inside.  Underneath it in crooked childish printing were the words,


            We Love You A.J.  Please Get Better Soon So Mommy And Brendan Aren't Sad Anymore.  LUV, Lindy, Mark, Brendan, Heather, And Winston.  P.S.  Winston Is Brendan's Cat And Lindy is my Mommy.


            Rick was forced to blink the sudden water from his eyes.   Even so, his voice was harsh and choked when he spoke.  "It's beautiful, sweetie.  It's a beautiful card.  A.J. will love it.  I'll take it to him when I go back to the hospital later tonight and hang it right where he can see it."


            "And maybe you could sing to him, Rick."


            "Whatta ya' mean, Beanie?"


            "I mean that sometimes, when I have a tummy ache, my mommy sings to me and I feel better.  So maybe if you sing to A.J., he'll feel better, too."


            Rick pulled the little girl close.  "That's a good idea.  And believe me, if I thought it would help, I'd sing to A.J. until he told me to shut up."


            When the detective released Heather he carefully folded the card she'd given him in half.  "How about if I put this in the pocket of my jacket.  That'll keep it nice and clean until I get back to the hospital."


            Heather watched as Rick slipped the card into the deep side pocket of his field jacket.  "That's a good place for it,"  she nodded.  "Just don't forget to give it to A.J."


            "Don't worry, pumpkin, I won't."


            Before the conversation could go any farther, Rick heard the side door open and shut.  Through the doorway that led into the kitchen from the laundry room he saw Linda's husband approaching.  The man was dressed in his work uniform of navy cotton trousers and light blue cotton shirt.  His first name was printed on a large white patch sewn over his right breast pocket.  Rick knew the man worked for his Aunt Joan.  The small plant she owned manufactured plastic piping commonly used by plumbers.  As a matter of fact, that was how Linda had met Mark.  Joan had introduced the two of them within days after he started there, certain they'd make a perfect match. 


            Heather ran over to greet her stepfather, as comfortable with him as she was with Rick.  He picked her up, swinging her in the air like any loving daddy would do when first arriving home at the end of the working day. 


            "How's my best girl today, huh?  How's my best girl?"


            Heather squealed and giggled, then planted a kiss on her stepfather's cheek on her way to the floor.  She ran off, disappearing up the stairs to tell her mother Mark was home.


            Rick stood, picked up his hat, and crossed the room.  He held his hand out to the man.  "Mark, hi.  Rick Simon.  We met last July at the family reunion."


            Mark smiled.  He had a deep dimple in his left cheek, and a faint but discernible cleft in the middle of his chin like the actor, Michael Douglas.  In fact, Abby thought he bore more than a passing resemblance to the popular movie star.  Mark ran his left hand through his dishwater blond hair, pushing the long strands off his forehead while at the same time offering Rick his right.


            "Rick, nice to see you again.  And I'm sorry about what happened to A.J.  I hope he's going to be okay."


            "He's going to be fine," Rick said a little too quickly even for his own ears.   As if saying it three times fast would make it true.   He turned to Abby.  "This is Lieutenant Abigail Marsh."


            Mark exchanged handshakes with Abby.  "Lieutenant.  Nice to meet you."   Playing the part of concerned stepfather to the hilt he asked,  "Is Brendan going to be in trouble over all this?"

            "No, Mr. Ecklund--"


            The man gave her a charming smile.  "Call me Mark, please."


            Abby smiled in return, easily seeing how Rick's cousin could have been so taken by the man.  But there was something phony about him in her opinion.  Something the ever-ready smile and good looks were hiding. 


            The woman mentally chastised herself for her thoughts.  After so many years in police work, she tended to look for a rat where often times there wasn't one.  Maybe Mark was just a happy guy by nature, and maybe the concern more genuine than it appeared.


            "Mark," Abby corrected.  "No, Mark, I don't believe Brendan's going to be in any trouble.  I simply need to speak with him for a little while."


            Mark opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say next was cut off by the appearance of Brendan and Linda.  Heather slid past them; no longer interested in the adults, but instead occupied with the puzzle she'd left half finished on the floor.


            Linda had a firm hand in the middle of her son's back.  Between that, and how long it had taken her to appear with him, Rick concluded the boy had put up a fight in regards to coming downstairs.  Brendan wouldn't look at Rick, but rather kept his eyes focused on the carpeting.  He wouldn't look at Abby either, when his mother introduced them.  He mumbled something the lieutenant couldn't understand when he finally took her offered hand with prodding from Linda.


            Rick and Abby exchanged glances.  In those brief seconds they both agreed they had to get the boy away from his mother and Mark if they had any hope at all of gleaning information from him.  Abby had questioned too many juveniles in the presence of their parents not to know how quickly they became mute, fearful of revealing something that was going to gain them nothing but further trouble with Mom and Dad.  A kid would lie to you more readily in front of his parents.  Apart from them, you were more likely to get the truth, or at least a better picture of what had occurred.


            Abby looked at her watch.  "It's six o'clock, and I bet Brendan hasn't had supper yet.  I know Rick and I haven't.  How about it, Brendan?  Are you game for a pizza?"


            Before Brendan could answer, Mark jumped in.  "But I thought you were going to talk to him here.  In front of Linda and me."


            "We could do that," Abby agreed, "but I think Brendan would be more comfortable if we did this over dinner.  Besides, I don't want to hold you folks up from your evening plans.  I don't know how long this might take."


            Mark's words were a little too quick and forced for Rick's tastes.          "We don't have any plans, do we, Linda?"                         


            ", honey, we don't.  But I hadn't thought we'd be present when Lieutenant Marsh talked to Brendan.  I assumed she'd want to do that alone."

            Mark's eyes flicked to Abby and Rick before he grasped his wife by the elbow, pulling her in the kitchen.  Although he spoke in hushed tones, he was only a few feet away from the pair, enabling them to overhear every word he said. 


            "Look, Linda, I don't think it's a good idea to let that policewoman talk to Brendan without us there, too."


            "Why not for heaven's sake?"

            "Because...well, because it's not.  This is exactly how kids get framed for stuff they didn't do."


            "Oh, Mark, the woman isn't going to frame a twelve-year-old who's guilty of nothing other than skipping school and skateboarding on private property.  Besides, she's one of my aunt's closest friends.  Cecilia told me I could trust her.  She said the only thing the lieutenant wants is for Brendan to tell her what he saw.  She has no intention of getting him in trouble."


            "She might have told your aunt that, but I don't believe it for a minute.  I think we should talk to a lawyer first."


            "A lawyer?  Whatever for?  Brendan didn't do anything wrong.  Besides, we can't afford to pay a lawyer unless we find out we really need one."


            "You're always saying we can't afford this and we can't afford that!"  Mark yelled in a strangled whisper.  "Well, I know better!  We can afford to live a lot richer than we are!"


            "What's that supposed to mean?" 


            Before Mark could answer, Linda gained control of the situation.  The last thing she wanted was for Lieutenant Marsh and Rick to overhear what should be a private discussion. 


            "Look, sweetheart, I know this has been a very stressful time for you.  For both of us.  I appreciate you standing by me throughout all of this, and for standing by Brendan, too.  I love you all the more for your concern.  But please, don't make a scene right now.  I think it's okay if Bren goes with the lieutenant.  Besides, Rick will be with them, too.  He'll look out for Brendan's well being as if he were his own son."


            "Oh, sure he will," Mark scoffed.  "Need I remind you it's Brendan's fault the guy's brother is permanently stuck in la la land."


            "Don't say that," Linda hissed.  "Don't you ever say anything like that again.  Especially not in front of my son.  And Rick will look out for Brendan, no matter what the circumstances.  Whether you believe it or not, Mark, that's just the kind of guy my cousin is."


            Abby and Rick tried hard to act as though they hadn't been privy to the conflict when Linda returned to the room.  She tried her best to smile while handing Brendan the jean jacket she'd retrieved from the closet in the laundry room.


            "Here, honey, you might need this."  She looked at Abby and Rick.  "Just let me get some money for him, and then the three of you can be on your way."

            "No, no," Rick waved a hand back and forth.  "Supper is my treat tonight.  Don't worry about it."


            "Are you sure, Rick?"


            Rick leaned over and kissed his cousin on the cheek.  "I'm sure."


            "All right, if you insist.  We'll be here whenever you return with Brendan."




            Mark stepped in from the kitchen right before Rick and Abby turned to go.  He gave them both a nod and a terse, "Goodbye."


            Rick nodded in return while Abby said, "Goodbye, Mark. It was nice meeting you."

            "Yeah.  Yeah, same here."  The man turned his attention to his stepson.  "You remember your manners when you're out with Rick and  Lieutenant Marsh, young man."


            The boy's eyes flicked to Mark's face.  Because Linda was standing in front of her husband, she didn't see the glare he gave the twelve-year-old.  The glare Rick easily interpreted, though didn't fully understand.


            ‘Way to go, kid.’  Mark seemed to be saying.  ‘See what you've done now.’


            Brendan dropped his gaze back to the floor.  No one but Rick saw the scowl on his face. The dark scowl Rick couldn't blame the boy for.


            Geez, no wonder Brendan hates the guy.  What a phony baloney prize this Romeo is.


            Rick got one final hug from Heather, then was able to usher both Abby and Brendan out the door before Mark could think of another reason to stop them.  For as much as Brendan didn't want to go with Rick, didn't want to face him, he was relieved to get out of the house.  Something both Rick and Abby immediately sensed.


            Brendan rode in the back seat of Abby's city issue Dodge Diplomat.  Rick half turned from his position on the front passenger side, attempting to make small talk with the young blond.  An attempt that quickly fell flat.  When Rick gave it one last try by asking Brendan where he wanted to eat, the boy merely shrugged his shoulders.


            Rick gave up and turned around.  He pointed out a Pizza Hut to Abby that was coming up on their right.  She glanced in the rearview mirror, signaled, then changed lanes.  Brendan never said a word as they parked, exited the car, and crossed the lot to the restaurant.  After the hostess led them to the remote corner booth at the back of the restaurant that Abby requested, Rick and the lieutenant made Brendan sit down first.  He tried to get away with not sitting next to either one of them, but Rick wouldn't allow it.  He practically sat on top of the blond as he said,  "Scoot over there, partner."


            If Brendan had a preference when it came to pizza toppings he didn't voice it, not even when asked.  Rick settled on what he assumed was a safe choice, one large thick-crust pizza half with mushrooms, the other half with sausage.  Although Rick generally preferred a pizza a bit livelier than that, he was in no mood to be kept awake by heartburn all night.  He had a feeling that, despite his exhaustion, he'd have enough trouble falling asleep as it was.


            The waitress took their order.  She returned with two pitchers of soft drinks, one filled with Pepsi, the other filled with Sprite.  Three jumbo red plastic glasses were placed in front of the trio along with three straws. 


            "I'll be back in a little while with your breadsticks."


            Rick nodded his thanks.  After the teenage girl had gone he reached for the Pepsi.  "Pick your poison, Brendan.  What'll it be tonight?"


            The boy's eyes remained glued to the table.  "I don't care."


            For lack of knowing what else to do, Rick poured the amber liquid into Brendan's glass.  "Now me, I'm a Pepsi drinker myself.  But Lieutenant Marsh prefers Sprite.  Which is why I ordered it.  I always remember to please the ladies when I'm out on a date."


            Abby rolled her eyes.  "Despite the fact that Heather thinks I'm your wife, this is not a date, Simon.  I'd cut my heart out with dull knife before I'd allow that to happen."


            Brendan couldn't help but smile just a bit at the exchange.  Rick caught the smile and threw Abby a wink.


            The woman studied the boy across from her.  His resemblance to A.J. was remarkable.  Maybe she wouldn't have noticed it if she hadn't seen a picture of A.J. at roughly the same age Brendan was now, sitting on Cecilia's mantelpiece in her living room.   The twelve-year-old was skinny and short, just like A.J. had been.  His blue eyes were almost the largest thing about him, just like A.J.'s eyes had been large and a clear bright shade of blue.  And like A.J.'s as well, Brendan's hair was corn silk blond, as were his brows and long eyelashes.  He even had the same slight indention of skin between his nose and upper lip.  But then his mother possessed that indention, as well.  His face was clear and unblemished; his features finely chiseled like those of the current adolescent male TV stars that graced the cover of Tiger Beat.  However you looked at it, there was no doubt about it.  Once Brendan gained a few years in age, grew a foot or so in height, and added sixty pounds of trim muscle, he was going to be fighting off the ladies.  Abby could easily imagine he'd already broken more than one twelve-year-old girl's heart without realizing it. 


            Just like Abby had hoped, warm food relaxed Brendan to a degree.  She could easily guess he hadn't possessed much of an appetite all day, either.  She passed around the basket of hot breadsticks the waitress had brought to the table, though in actuality they were more like long, thin loaves of Italian bread.  Abby, Rick, and Brendan had been given a plastic cup of marinara sauce meant for dipping an end of the bread into.   


            Abby took a bite out of the fluffy buttery bread, groaning in appreciation.   "Mmmm, this is delicious.  And probably full of fat, too."


            "Yep," Rick agreed,  "that's what makes it so good.  Ain't that right, Brendan?"

            The boy nodded, saying his first words to Rick all night.  "Yep.  It's good, 'cause it's not good for you."


            Rick saw his opening and took it.  "A lot of things in life are like that, I guess.  Good, but they're not good for you.  Fun, but in the end only cause a guy trouble."

            Brendan hazarded a glance in Rick's direction.  But instead of getting a glare or smart-ass grin like his stepfather would have given him, Rick gave Brendan an understanding smile and a wink.


            "Brendan, I know a lot of tough things happened yesterday.  As a matter of fact, I know a lot of tough things have been happenin' to you for a while now.  For a long while.  But it's important that you talk to me and Lieutenant Marsh tonight.  It's important that you tell us everything you saw yesterday afternoon.  It's important that you tell us the truth, son."

            When Brendan didn't make a reply to Rick's words, Abby spoke up. 


            "Brendan, you're not in trouble.  Granted, you shouldn't have skipped school and trespassed on private property, and I'd advise you never to do either of those things again, but right now what I need is for you to tell me everything you did yesterday and everything you saw."


            It took a while for Brendan to put his thoughts into words.  When he spoke, what he had to say took the adults by surprise. 


"I want you to know, I don't care if I am in trouble.  I mean, I do care, but if I am...well, if I am I deserve to be.  My mom and dad always taught me that you have to take responsibility for your actions.  I did a real stupid thing yesterday.  Real stupid."  The boy looked out the window, but even so, Rick could hear the tears in his voice.  "And because of me...because of me, A.J. was hurt.  I want…I want to go back and fix that...I want it to be me who was hurt and not him...only I can't.  I can't change what happened.  But if I could..." Brendan expelled a gasping sob, "if I could I would.  I really…truly... would."


            Rick pulled the boy to him.  As Brendan cried quietly into his field jacket the detective brought a hand up and ran it through the boy's hair.


            "It's okay, buddy.  It's okay.  I know you wanna go back and change what happened.  I know you do, because believe me, so do I."                


            "I'm sorry, Rick.  I never meant...never meant for A.J. to get hurt.  If I'd...only known.  If I'd...I’d only known I never would have...never would have...left school."


            Rick rested his chin atop the boy's head.  "I know," he whispered.  "I know."

            The waitress gave the man and boy a wondering look when she brought the pizza, but made no comment other than to ask Abby if there was anything else they needed.  The lieutenant thanked her and told her no. 


            Rick gave Brendan a gentle shake. "Come on, Bren. Let's eat while the food's hot.  We'll talk afterwards."


            Brendan pulled himself away from Rick, swiping at his tears with the back of his hand.  He looked around, making sure there were no kids from his school present who might have seen him crying.  Fortunately, he didn't recognize anyone, and besides, with it being a Friday night the restaurant was so packed with carefree people anxious to celebrate the rapidly approaching weekend, that no one was paying attention to him anyway.


            Rick offered Brendan his hankie.  The boy blew his nose, then stuffed the handkerchief in the pocket of his jacket.


            "I'll have my mom wash it for you."


            "That'll be fine," Rick smiled.  "You can give it back to me the next time we see one another."


            Neither Rick nor Brendan ate as much as they normally would have, each polishing off just two pieces of pizza.  Abby only ate two, which meant there was plenty leftover.


            Rick had the waitress box it while at the same time asking her for a refill on the beverages.


            "I bet Heather would like some pizza tonight, huh, Brendan?"  Rick asked.


            "Yep.  She really likes pizza.  By the time we get back to my house she'll have already had supper, but that won't stop her from eating again."


            "Ah, a true Simon at heart."


            Rick thanked the waitress when she returned with the boxed leftovers and the drinks.  He paid her, adding the tip as well, so they wouldn't be interrupted again.  He filled everyone's glasses, then settled back against the booth. 


            Abby took a small spiral notepad and a pen out of her purse.  She'd prefer to use her tape recorder. For obvious reasons it was more accurate when taking a witness's statement, but for tonight she'd do it the old fashioned way.  For one thing, it was too noisy in the restaurant for the tape recorder to pick up all of Brendan's words. For another, she suspected the device would intimidate the boy.  She didn't want to risk losing the level of trust and comfort she'd managed to gain throughout dinner.


            "Brendan, as I said before we ate, it's important that you tell me everything you did and saw yesterday.  I'm not going to interrupt you unless I have a question.   You just keep right on talking as though you were telling someone a story, because in a way, that's what you'll be doing.  You'll see me writing down things as you speak, but that's only because I want to remember what you said.  It's not because I'm going to use your words against you."

            "So you don't need to read me my Miranda rights?"

            Abby and Rick exchanged smiles.  Rick reached over to tousle the blond locks.


            "Watch a lotta television, huh, kid?"

            "No," Brendan shook his head.  "Actually, I read a lot of books.  It's kinda nerdy I guess, but I like to read.  Anything and everything."


            "That's not nerdy at all. Don't you go believin' anyone who tells you that.  You're like A.J.   He loves to read, too. Even when he was your age."


            Brendan's eyes lit up as though being compared to A.J. made his day complete.  "Really?"

            "Really.  You ask him sometime.  He'll tell you."


            It’s so easy, Rick thought.  So easy to pretend everything is okay when it really wasn't.  So easy to pretend that Brendan can ask A.J. a question at any time of the day or night and get a response.  But, in truth, he can’t.  Or at least not right now. 


Rick prayed that fact would change, and change soon.


            Abby steered the discussion back on course.  "No, Brendan, I don't need to read you your Miranda rights.  I'm not arresting you for a crime.  Actually, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to.  The choice is yours."


            Brendan thought a moment.  "No, I have to tell you.  It's part of what I have to do in order to take responsibility for what happened."


            "Brendan, you're wise beyond your years."  Abby put pen to paper.  "All right, let's get this over with then.  Start at the beginning.  Tell me everything that happened from the time you left school, until the time you arrived back home last night."

            The beginning of Brendan's story was pretty much as Abby and Rick expected it to be.  He told of leaving school with two boys he diplomatically referred to as only "my friends,” but was forced to give their names, first and last, when Abby asked for them.   He hesitated, but did as she requested when she told him the information she might obtain from the boys could further help A.J.


            He talked of eating lunch at McDonald's with his friends, then going to the ‘body barn,’ as he referred to the old morgue, to skateboard.  He didn't leave anything out, vividly recalling all he and his friends had done, right down to the brand of cigarettes they'd smoked and what kind of a lighter Jeremy had used.  Abby and Rick recognized Brendan had an eye for detail.  They could only hope it would prove useful as the story progressed.


            Next Brendan told about Jeremy wanting to enter the building.  "He said there were still some dead bodies in there."


            "Dead bodies?"  Abby questioned, thinking they'd stumbled upon a lead in regards to the person who'd been shot.  "What did he mean by that?"

            The boy took a sip of his Pepsi.  "You know.  That some bodies had gotten left behind in the move."


            "Oh, I see.  And did you believe him?"


            "Not really.  I mean, I thought it sounded pretty stupid to be honest with you."


            "It does sound pretty stupid,"  Abby agreed. "So why did you go in the building?"


            " 'Cause Jeremy and Tim were calling me names.  I know I shouldn't have let that bother me.  I know I shouldn't have gone in.  I knew at the time it was wrong," Brendan's eyes dropped in shame,  "but I did it anyway."


            "Yes, it was wrong," Abby acknowledged.  "And I'll bet you'll never do anything like that again, will you?"


            "Good.  Now tell me what happened next."


            "We found an unlocked door and--"


            "Which door?"


            "It was all by itself behind a partial brick wall.  It opened into a hallway filled with what looked like old offices."


            Abby knew exactly what door Brendan was talking about since the first police officers on the scene had found it unlocked, too.   As well, they'd found a padlock hanging open on the set of double swinging doors Brendan and A.J. had run out of.


            "What about the swinging doors that are padlocked, Brendan?  Did you or your friends find any of those unlocked before you entered the building?"

            "No, none of them.  We checked them first because that's where we'd been skateboarding."


            Rick spoke while Abby recorded what Brendan had said.  "Which means someone came along after the boys entered the building and unlocked one of those doors for whatever reason.  Maybe so our runner could make a quick escape."


            "Maybe," was all Abby would commit to.  She looked across the table at Brendan.  "What happened after you entered the building?"   


            "We walked around for a while, just lookin' at this and that.  But we didn't touch anything or take anything, honest we didn't.  Well, I guess that's not true.  Jeremy did touch a saw of some sort.  But he put it right back."


            "Where was this at?"


            "In the amphitheater."

            "You recognized that's what the room was?"  Abby asked.  "Or did someone in the building tell you that's what it's called?"

            "I recognized it.  I read about rooms like that in a book."


            "Musta been a pretty scary book," Rick stated.


            Brendan grinned. "It was.  I'll let you borrow it sometime if you want."


            Rick laughed, giving an exaggerated shudder.  "No thanks.  It'll keep me awake at night."


            "But, Rick, that's exactly why it's so cool."


            Abby caught her writing up to Brendan's words.  Once that task was complete she directed the conversation back to where they'd left off.  "What happened after you entered the amphitheater?  Other than Jeremy finding the saw, that is."

            "We looked around for a while, then climbed the stairs to the observatory.  You know, the glassed-in room at the top."


            "Yes, I know what room you mean."


            "Jeremy and Tim didn't hang around too long after that.  They got bored, I guess.  They left to go look for those bodies Jeremy kept yaking about."

            "But you stayed behind?"

            "Yeah.  I was playing...." Brendan paused. He hated to admit this portion, it was going to make him sound like such a baby, but part of accepting responsibility for your actions meant telling the truth.  "I was playing Star Trek.  Pretending...well pretending I was Captain Kirk."


            "I can relate to that," Rick nodded.  "If I was gonna pretend I was Captain Kirk, that'd be the exact room I would do it in."


            Brendan looked up at the older man.  "A.J. said you liked Star Trek."


            "A.J. was there?"  Abby asked.


            "Yeah.  He came in a few minutes after my friends left."


            "What did he do?"

            "He sat down next to me and we talked.  I was kinda mad at first, knowin' my mom had ratted on me, but I guess I wasn't too mad because A.J.'s neat.  He knows how to talk to a kid without making you feel stupid, or embarrassing you on purpose like Mark is always doing to me."


            Rick's curiosity got the best of him.  For some reason it was important for him to know what A.J.'s last conversation was all about.  "What did he say to you, Brendan?"

            "Mostly we talked about our dads. About how rotten it is to grow up without one.  I didn't know your dad died when A.J. was younger than me."

            "Yeah, he did.  A.J. had just turned ten two weeks before our father died."


            "So that's pretty much what we talked about.  He also told me I

might pay a heavy price someday for doing things my own way."  Brendan gave a weary sigh.  "And I guess he was right, 'cause I am."

            Rick put his arm around the boy's shoulders.  "Not a one of us goes

through life without occasionally payin' the piper, kid.  It's all part of growing up."

            Brendan rested his chin on his fists while continuing his tale.  "It

was right after that when the man came in."

            Rick and Abby sat straight up. "Man?"  Abby asked.  "What man?"

            "I don't know.  A.J. threw me to the ground before I could see him.  I thought it might be Manuel.  I was gonna tell A.J. that, but he didn't give me a chance to say anything."


            "Who's Manuel?"  Rick asked.


            "One of the security guards.  I don't know his last name.  If any of the others are on duty when me and my friends go there to skateboard they chase us off.  Even if we're only out on the back parking lot.  But Manuel doesn't.  He's a pretty nice guy.  He comes out and talks to us, shares smokes with us, just hangs out for a little while."


            "Has he ever let you in the building?"


            "No," Brendan shook his head.  "Never.  Just out on the back lot, and underneath where the vans and hearses used to make their drop-offs."

            "Did you see any security guard in the building that day?  Any sign of one at all?"

            "No.  I thought that was kind of weird, too.  I mean, I was trying to be quiet, but Jeremy and Tim were sure making enough noise."


            "So you didn't get a good look at the man who had entered the amphitheater, am I correct?"

            "Right.  I only saw enough of him to know it was a man.  Then, maybe a minute later, another guy came in.  I didn't see him right then, but I knew it was a guy 'cause he smelled just like my stepfather."


            "What do you mean?"  Rick asked.


            "His cologne.  It stunk."


            "Oh, you mean he used too much of it?"


            "Yeah, that too.  But I also mean it smelled just like the kind Mark wears.  Makes me wanna heave.  I think he takes a bath in the stuff."


            "Do you know what kind it is?"

            "No.  But I can find out.  He keeps it on a shelf in the bathroom medicine chest.  You want me to look and let you know?"

            Though Rick didn't see what difference it would really make in the long run, he could tell just helping in this small way would make Brendan feel like he was contributing something important.


            "Sure, Bren.  You look and let me know."


            "I'll do that.  And don't worry, I won't let Mark see me."

            Rick smiled.  "I doubt that makes any difference, but you play it out however you want to."


            Abby looked up from her pad when her pen came to a halt.   "Okay, Brendan, so you never got a good look at this second man either?"     


            "Just a quick glimpse.  A.J. shoved me back down on the floor almost as soon as I popped my head up."


            "First rule of a stakeout, Bren," Rick said, "if your partner has a better view, you let him call the shots."


            Brendan's words were full of forlorn drama.  "Don't worry, A.J. was calling the shots all right.  He wouldn't let me see hardly anything."


            "Don't feel bad, kid," Rick commiserated.   "He does that to me sometimes, too."


            "Brendan," Abby asked, "can you describe either of these men based on the glimpses you got?"

            The skin on the boy's forehead furrowed into deep rows.  "No, not really.  I think one of them, the one with his back to me, was wearing a hat.  But I'm not sure."


            Rick and Abby exchanged glances.


            "What kind of a hat?"

            "I don't know.  I didn't get a good enough look."

            "All right.  Let's move on.  What happened after that?"

            "A.J. kept watching what was going on below.   He was scrunched against the wall, barely peeking out from where the window and wall met. I think he got frustrated because he couldn't hear what they were saying."


            "What makes you think that?"


            "Because he started looking around like he was trying to find something.  Then he pointed to the speakers mounted on the wall behind us.  I thought I knew then what he was gonna do."

            "What was that?"


            "Find the switch that would turn them on."

            "Did he?"


            "Yeah.  That's when we could hear what the men were saying."


            Finally, Abby thought.  Finally, we might actually have a lead.


            "Do you recall anything they said, Brendan?  Anything at all?"


            "Not word for word.  The sound system was bad.  Ancient.  Everything was real crackly.  Screechy.  It made it sound like they were trying to talk through static.  Know what I mean?"

            Rick nodded.  He had a feeling the boy wasn't going to be able to tell them much.  A.J., on the other hand, could probably tell them a lot if it wasn't for his injury.  Knowing his brother like he did, Rick knew A.J. was listening hard to every word that crackled, screeched, and squawked through those speakers.


            "Just tell me what you remember," Abby coaxed.  "I don't care how dumb it might sound, or if it doesn't make any sense.  What might not make sense to you, might mean something to me or Rick."

            "Well...they were arguing.  That I know for sure.  Even though I couldn't really understand their words, I could tell by their tone.  Like I used to know when Mom and Dad were arguing even though their bedroom door was closed." Brendan paused in thought.  "And one guy said he didn't like being crossed."


            "Double crossed?"  Rick offered.


            "Yeah, that was it.  Double crossed, I think he said."


            "Did they call each other by name?"  Abby asked.


            "No, I don't think...wait, one guy asked where White was."


            "White?  As in W-h-i-t-e?"


            "Yeah.  Or at least that's what it sounded like."

            Rick looked at Abby.  "A last name?"

            She nodded as she scribbled down the word and put a question mark after it.  "A strong possibility.  Though how many White's do you think there are in San Diego County?"


            "I suppose at least several hundred, if not more."


            "Yes, I suppose so, too."

            Brendan couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice.  "So that doesn't really help you, does it?  It's not really a lead?"


            "Yeah, buddy, it does help us," Rick said to bolster the boy's spirits.    "And it could turn out to be a big lead, so don't go discountin' it just yet."


            "And after that, Brendan?"  Abby prompted.


            "After that is when I heard the gunshots.  Four of them right in a row.  Boom, boom, boom, boom!  It really scared me.  Especially because I couldn't see what was going on."

            "You were still on the floor at this point?"

            "Yeah.  I didn't get up until A.J. ran out of the room."


            "Where did he go?"


            "Down to the man below.  Down to the man who'd been shot."


            For the first time Abby had confirmation of what she and her detectives suspected. 


            "What did A.J. do down there?"

            "Well...I wasn't supposed to be watching because A.J. told me to stay put, so please don't tell him I disobeyed.  I…I want to tell him myself."


            "Good for you," Rick praised.  "Neither Abby or I will tell him.  But you've got to tell us what you saw, Brendan."

            Brendan nodded.  "I saw A.J. put his sport coat over the man.  I think A.J. might have been talking to him, because he was bending real close to the man’s ear, but I was too far away to hear what either one of them said."


            "And their words weren't being picked up by the speakers?"


            "No.  They were talking too softly.  Well, except at the end, 'cause I heard A.J. tell the man he was going for help."


            Rick looked across the table at the lieutenant.  "It sounds like the guy was still alive, Abby.  He might have told A.J. something."


            "Yes, but what?"

            Rick drummed frustrated fingers on varnished wood.  "I don't know."


            "What happened after that, Brendan?  How did you, and everyone else for that matter, come to be charging out of the doors where A.J. was hurt?"


            "A.J. took off running.  I thought maybe he'd forgotten about me ,so after he left I started to follow him.  But then I...I stopped by the man."

            "Did he say anything to you?"


            "No.  He was dead."

            "Are you certain?

            "Yeah.  He...well, I could just tell.  His eyes looked funny.  Like whatever's inside us that makes us people was gone.  I got scared then...and sick."  The boy dropped his head in shame.  "Then I ran away."


            Rick kneaded a thin shoulder.  "It's okay, Bren.  I woulda' got scared and sick, too, if I was you."


            "Where'd you run to, Brendan?  Did you follow A.J.?"

            "No.  I went in the opposite direction.  Up the stairs and out the door."


            Both Rick and Abby knew this meant Brendan ended up on the third floor.


            "I was headed for the stairway so I could get outta the building, when I heard people coming.  I saw their shadows on the wall by the stairs; they were carrying guns.  I looked around for a place to hide.  There was a room right across from me, so I ran into it.  It was full of cabinets, like big old fashioned kitchen cabinets, the kind from when my grandma was a little girl."


            The adults nodded their understanding.


            "I climbed in one and closed the door right before they entered."


            "Who entered?"

            "The people with the guns."

            "And they never saw you?"


            "Did you see them?"

            "No.  But I heard one of them talk.  She said something like, 'Come on, let's go.' "


            "A woman?"



            Abby noted that.  It somewhat confirmed Rick's earlier suspicions that one of the people in black might have been a woman.


            "After they left I snuck outta there and ran as fast as I could down all the stairs until I was back on the main floor."


            "How'd you come to be behind Jeremy and Tim?"


            "I don't know.  All I know is they came barreling around a corner in front of me."


            "Did you realize A.J. was behind you?"  Rick asked.


            "I...he called my name twice.  I should have stopped. I know I should have.  But I was scared.  I...maybe if I would have, A.J. wouldn't be in the hospital now."

            "None of us can say that for sure, Brendan," Rick imparted honestly.


            "I know.  But I think about it a lot."


            Abby allowed the boy a moment of self-pity.     "Brendan, after the accident happened you kept on running.  Where did you go?  Can you tell me what happened to Jeremy and Tim?  And what about the man in front of them?  Did you see where he went?  Do you think he was the same man who was in the amphitheater with the gun?"

            "After...after A.J. got hurt, I just kept following everyone.  I wanted to run as far away as I could.  We ran up the incline that led to the parking lot.  Jeremy and Tim tore off to the left.  I never saw them again.  The man went to the right.  I think he was the same man who was in the amphitheater 'cause he was holding a hat on his head.  He ran out the gates that lead to the side street."

            Rick knew that was the street he had entered the lot on.


            "There was a police car waiting there for him."


            "A police car?"  Abby questioned with disbelief.


            "Yeah.  A police car.  It pulled outta there about a million miles an hour with its lights flashing and siren blaring."


            Abby and Rick sat back, stunned.  This news changed every thought they had regarding the case.  This news totally caught them off guard. 


            Abby worked at collecting her jumbled thoughts.  "Can you describe the police car to me?"

            Brendan looked at the woman as though she was nuts.  "It was white and had red lights on top."


            "Yes, but what about the side of it?  Did it have red piping, or blue?  What did it say on the doors?  Do you remember what police department it identified?"

            "No.  I never saw that.  It was gone in a flash."

            "And you don't remember if it was striped in red or blue?"


            Although Brendan didn't understand the significance of Abby's question, Rick did.  San Diego City cruisers were striped in red, the County Sheriff's cars in blue.

            "No, I don't remember.  I didn't pay any attention.  Besides, before I could really get a good look at it, someone shoved me out of the way.  I fell down.  By the time I got up, the car was long gone."


            "Who shoved you out of the way?"  Rick asked, though he already knew the answer to that question.


            "I don't know who they were, but they were dressed all in black."

            "Did they say anything to you?" Abby questioned.

            "No.  They just got in a white van and took off in the same direction the police car did.  After that, I went back down by Rick.  I...I was afraid to, but I thought he might need my help.  I was hoping A.J. would be okay...but I knew...somehow I knew he was hurt real bad."


            "Was it you who called for the ambulance?"  Rick asked.

            "Not me exactly. A clerk in a store did it for me."

            "Where did you go after that?"  Abby asked.  "Where were you until ten-thirty last night?"

            Brendan weighed whether or not to tell the woman that he'd gone back to the morgue and watched as the paramedics worked on A.J.  He decided against it, knowing he hadn't witnessed anything else that would help her.  He didn't want to embarrass Rick by having to say he'd seen him crying.


            "I just walked around.  By my school, down by the beach, then through my neighborhood."


            "What you did was very dangerous," Abby scolded.  "You shouldn't have been wandering around after dark by yourself."


            "I know.  But I was afraid to go home.  I was afraid my mom was going to tell me A.J. was dead."


            Again, Rick kneaded the boy's shoulder.  Abby finished writing, then took a few minutes to review her notes.  She asked Brendan a couple of questions in order to clarify a few things he'd said, but other than that was satisfied with what the youngster had told her.  What the hell any of it meant was beyond her.  As far she could tell right now, A.J. had witnessed a man's murder, but who that man was, and more importantly where his body was; had yet to be discovered.  The man may or may not have told A.J. something, and what he told A.J. may or may not have been important.  Then another man disappeared in a police car.  Who was he?  An undercover cop?  But with what department?  And if he was a cop, then why didn't anyone within the department know anything?  Abby had occasionally heard of men and women being undercover so deep it was often difficult to tell if they were the good guys or the bad guys, but she would have thought one of her superiors would have at least let her know what was going on by now.  With as often as the upper echelon was screaming, "Watch your budgets! Watch your budgets!  Watch your budgets!"  you'd assume they wouldn't want her wasting valuable man hours hunting down a criminal who really wasn't a criminal after all, but rather employed by the San Diego Police Department or Sheriff's Department.


            Abby could tell Rick was having the same thoughts.  After they dropped Brendan off she knew they'd discuss it.  She knew they'd bounce ideas around until they were too tired to speak.  And, in the end, it would all boil down to A.J.  It would all boil down to what he saw, heard, and was told, by a dying man.  But would A.J. even remember any of it?  And if he did remember anything, would he be able to convey that to her or Rick?

            The woman didn't have an answer to those questions.  As Joel Lankey had said, they'd just have to wait and see.  If A.J. couldn't remember what had happened, or if his injures prevented him from telling someone about what he’d witnessed, then she was screwed.  The trail was already growing cold.  Given a few more days, it would be frozen over so solid there'd be no hope of thawing it out.


            Abby shut her notepad and slipped it into her purse.  Despite the hopelessness she was feeling, she gave Brendan a grateful smile. "Brendan, you did a super job.  Thank you."
            "But I didn't help enough, did I?  I didn't tell you anything that's going to help you catch the guy who killed that man."


            "We don't know that for certain, son.  Sometimes it takes many months to collect all the clues surrounding a case."  Abby rose from her seat.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I'm going to make a trip to the ladies room.  I'll meet you in the car."


            "Okay, Abby. Meet you there." Rick started to slide out of the booth.  He was stopped by a hand on  his arm.

            "Rick, can I ask you something?"

            "Sure, kiddo.  What is it?"

            "Mark said...." Brendan paused, realizing that what he was about to say might be hard for Rick to hear.


            "Go ahead, Brendan.  What did Mark say?"

            "He said that...he said that A.J.'s gonna be retarded now, and that...and that he'll have to wear diapers.   Is that true?"


            Rick took a deep breath to hide his anger from the boy.  Not that his anger was in any way directed at Brendan, but rather the seething rage that boiled just beneath Rick’s skin was directed at the boy's ignorant stepfather.


            "First of all, no, A.J.'s not retarded now.  A.J.'s brain has been injured, Bren.  His skull was broken when he hit the pavement yesterday afternoon.  From what his doctors tell me, our skulls are as hard and tough as they are because they're made to protect our brains when we take a fall.  And, overall, they usually do a pretty good job of that except when someone lands in the wrong way, or hits the ground with as much force as A.J. did.  Then sometimes the brain gets hurts, too."


            "And that's what happened to A.J.?"


            "Yes, that's what happened to A.J.  Now you're a smart kid, so you probably know that your brain controls everything you do.  Without you having to think about it, your brain sends the right signals to your legs so you can walk, and the right signals to you hands so you can throw a baseball or pick up a pencil.  It even commands your lungs to take in air and your heart to pump."


            "Yeah, I saw something like that on Star Trek once.  Some women took Mr. Spock's brain.  In order to keep his body alive, Doctor McCoy had to put him on full life support."


            Rick smiled.  "I saw that episode, too.  About twelve times, as a matter of fact.  Even though that's science fiction, it gives you a rough idea of what I'm saying.


            "What's happened in A.J.'s case is this."  Rick reached out two fingers and touched them to the upper left portion of Brendan's skull.  "This is the part of A.J.'s brain that's been injured.  From what the doctors say, it very likely means that the signals he should be getting in order to talk, write, and read, among other things, have gone haywire.  Kinda like a radio station you can't quite tune in.  Somewhere within his brain we hope the ability to relearn those things will still be there.  But without our help, the ability to regain the skills he's lost, the ability to receive those necessary signals from his brain as easily as you and I receive them from ours, is gone."


            "And the doctors can't fix it like the broken ankle I had a couple of years ago?"

            "Not the injury to his brain, no.  It's like...well, it's like a bruise on a piece of fruit.  There's nothing anyone can do about it after it happens."


            "But what about his skull?  You said that was broken, too."  


            "It was.  But that will heal."

            "How?  Do they have a cast around his head."

            Rick chuckled, though he had to admit the boy's questions were logical ones.  "No.  Actually he just has a bandage that runs from here to here."  Rick took his fingers and indicated from behind Brendan's left ear to the middle portion of the back of his head. 


            "Believe it or not, the doctors tell me the various fractures A.J. sustained to his skull will heal all by themselves.   None of them were very wide.  They look like fine pencil lines.  The doctors said the fractured areas will grow back together in a matter of a few weeks."

            "What about the diapers?  Is what Mark said about that true?"

            "Brendan...I don't know.  I hope not.  The doctors didn't say anything about bladder or bowel control being impaired, but yes, those functions, as well, are run by some portion of our brains.  Though what area that's in I have no idea.  There's a lot no one is gonna know for certain about what A.J. can or can't do until he comes out of the coma he's in.  But regardless, no matter what, he'll still be A.J., and we'll still love him just like we always have.  As matter of fact, we might even love him more, if that's possible, because we'll know how close we came to losin' him."


            Brendan nodded.  He thought everything Rick said made sense.  And it didn't sound nearly as horrible and mean as Mark had made it out to be.


            "You said A.J. might have to relearn how to talk, and read, and write?"


            "Yes, it's a strong possibility."


            "Can I help him?  Can I help him relearn those things?"

            Rick pulled the boy to his chest.  "Sure, kiddo, you can help him.  I know A.J.'s bound to want a break from me before this is all over."

            "You're gonna help him learn, too?"

            "You bet.  I'm gonna help him in whatever way I can.  And you know something else you can do for A.J.?  Something that will make him very happy?"

            Brendan looked up.  "No. What?"

            "You can start attending all your classes like you're supposed to.  No more skippin' school."


            After what happened the previous day, Brendan had no desire to ever skip school again.  "Okay, Rick, I will."


            "And you can rejoin your old clubs.  The Boy Scouts, your soccer league, the science club, and anything else you used to belong to."


            That wasn't so bad, really.  Although Brendan hadn't admitted it to himself in a long time, he missed belonging to those organizations.


            "Then there's the matter of your friends.  Drop Jeremy and Tim like hot potatoes, kid."

            "But, Rick!"  Brendan protested for the first time.  "They're cool guys!"


            "Yeah, and they get you in trouble, don't they?"


            "Well... "


            "Think about it.  Have you ever been with them when they haven't?"


            "No.  I guess not."

            "And just who bought lunch at McDonald's yesterday?  Who pays every time you eat somewhere with them?"


            Geez, is Rick psychic or what?  How did he know that?


            "Who pays, Brendan?"


            "I do."


            "So are they true friends, or are they just users?  Don't you think they might be lettin' you hang out with them simply because you're willing to fill their stomachs?"

            "I guess," the boy reluctantly mumbled, thinking of all the candy bars, sodas and French fries he'd bought in recent months for his two ‘friends.’   "Probably."


            "In that case, I think it would be a smart move if you take up with the boys you used to hang out with like your Mom's been askin' you to do.  Kids your own age."


            "Okay.  If they'll take me back.  I've been kinda' mean to them."


            "Try apologizing.  You'll be surprised at how far it gets you.  And it never hurts nearly as much as you think it's gonna.  Next are the cigarettes.  Stop with the smokin', kid, or you're gonna answer to me.  I wasn't much older than you when I started.  Believe me, when I decided to stop twenty-five years later it was hell.  It took me a year to quit for good.  A lot of people never do, and they end up payin' for that mistake with their lives.  Besides, if you're gonna be hanging out with A.J. he won't give you a minute's peace regarding the cigarettes, I can tell you that first hand.  He hates the damn things.  The way they smell, the way the smoke clings to everything it touches, but most of all, the way they can harm someone he loves."


            The boy had no trouble making this promise.  He wrinkled his nose in distaste.  "I...well, I never really like smoking anyway.  I guess I did it to impress Jeremy and Tim more than anything else.  To make them think I was older than I really am.  A.J.'s right. It makes everything stink, including your breath."

            "That it does," Rick agreed. "Now the last thing you gotta do for A.J. is bring your grades back up.  Get back to bein' that A student you used to be."


            "I've got a lotta papers to do in order for that to happen.  It'll be a lotta hard work."


            "Don't you think A.J. has a lotta hard work ahead of him?

            "Yeah," the boy nodded as he compared his own uphill climb to A.J.'s.   "Yeah, I guess he does."

            "And he'll do it, Brendan.  He'll work as hard as he can to be healthy again.  Don't you think you can put that same kinda effort into your grades?  Into something A.J. would want you to do for yourself?"

            "Okay, I'll do it.  I'll do it for A.J."


            "And, kiddo?"



            "When things start gettin' heavy at home, no matter what the cause, feel free to give me a call.  Day or night; I don't care what time it is.   I'll come pick you up if you want me to and get you outta there for a while.  Or we can just talk over the phone."


            "Thanks, Rick.  Thanks a lot.  I...I didn't want you to be mad at me because of what happened to A.J.  I thought you would be, though.  And if you were, I knew I deserved it."


            "I'm not mad at you because of what happened to A.J.  That was an accident, Brendan.  A bad…accident.  If I'm mad at you, it's because of the grief you're givin' your mom, and because of the way you're ruinin' your life.  That's what I want you to work so hard at turning around."


            "I will, Rick, I promise.  I'll do it for you, and for A.J., too."


            "That's great.  That's just wanted I wanted to hear.  And it’s what I know A.J. wants to hear as well."


            Rick rose, pulling the twelve-year-old with him. "Now, come on. We'd better get goin' before Lieutenant Marsh sends the cops out lookin' for us." 



Part 3