Chapter 13


            Rick Simon sat in a chair across from Abigail Marsh's desk late on a Friday afternoon.  They shared coffee and silence, both immersed in their own thoughts regarding the case that was only growing more mysterious.


            Rick ran a finger over the rim of his Styrofoam cup.  "So, you don't have any leads regarding the murder of Manuel Homera?"

            "None.  We know the usual - the approximate time of death, what type of gun the bullets came from, and the fact that someone saw a cop knocking on Mr. Homera's front door at ten-thirty in the morning, but what that proves or disproves is beyond me."


            "Kinda curious, don't ya' think?  That Brendan sees a cop drive off with the guy A.J. was chasin', and now a cop shows up at Homera's house on the same day Homera is found murdered."


            "Yes, Rick, I do think that's rather curious.  As a matter of fact, I've found it so curious I've been through two bottles of Tums in the past week.  The bright side to that is, they're supposed to boost my calcium intake.  The downside is, I seem to have a perpetual case of heartburn."


            "Tell me about it."  Rick thought a long moment.  "So the guard was on the take for something, but what?  And at two hundred bucks a crack whatever it was couldn't have been all that valuable."


            "That may not necessarily be true.  If you saw how Homera and his wife lived, you'd know two hundred dollars was a lot of money to them."

            "Maybe," Rick nodded.  "Abby, you told me a few weeks ago that Homera claimed he wasn't in the building that afternoon because he'd gotten a call to go home and be with his sick wife.  But, yet, when you questioned the wife's boss he claimed the woman was at work during that time period."




            "What's your take on that?"

            "Same thing it was then.  That the Homeras were lying to me.  Manuel Homera might have gone home, but he certainly wasn't needed there to tend to a sick wife."


            "So maybe that two hundred bucks he collected was for leaving a couple doors

unlocked, then disappearing for a few hours."


            "I've thought of that. I even suggested it to the man, but he steadfastly denied it.  Obviously, he's not going to change his story now."


            "No, I don't suppose he is, considering dead men tell no tales.  Any chance of repentance on Mr. Homera’s part was wiped out in his garden last week.  But what about the boys?  Brendan's friends?  By now I assume you've talked to them?"


            "I have, and their story varies little from Brendan's.  After they left him, they walked around the building, but claim they never saw anything or anyone until a man in black carrying a gun chased them out."


            "A man in black, huh?  I'm startin' to get the feeling Johnny Cash is the guy we're lookin' for here."


            "What's that supposed to mean?"

            "Johnny Cash always wears black when he performs.  Some years ago he wrote a song about his clothing choice that was a big hit for him called, The Man In Black."


            "Unfortunately, I highly doubt Johnny Cash is who we're looking for."  Abby took a careful sip of her hot coffee.  "Jeremy and Tim also verified another portion of your statement."


            "What portion was that?"           

            "They said the man who yelled at them to leave the building was large, just like you said your impression of one of the people exiting the van was that of a large man."


            "So, what do we have?  A big guy in black, a woman in black, and a nondescript person in black.  Not much of a help, is it?"

            "No, not so far it hasn't been."  Abby turned in her chair until she was facing the picture window that looked out over the squad room.  "Rick, do you think A.J. has any memories of what happened?  Any memories whatsoever that would help me?"


            "No."  Rick shook his head.  "None." 


            "Have you talked to him about it?  Tried to prod his memory a little bit?"

            "Joel doesn't think I should.  He thinks it's best if A.J. concentrates on his recovery right now.  He doesn't want him feelin'...other pressures."


            "I can understand that, but it doesn't help my investigation any."

            "I know.  But to tell ya' the truth, Abby, I'm almost one hundred percent positive A.J. remembers nothing about that day.  I'm picking up Brendan when I leave here.  He hasn't seen A.J. since the accident and wants to visit him.  I told A.J. last night that the boy is coming this evening.  It was obvious by the look on his face that he has no clue why Brendan wants to see him."


            "In other words, A.J. doesn't remember Linda hired the two of you to trail Brendan."

            "No, he doesn't.  He does remember us meetin' Lindy for lunch at Charley O's, but I know he hasn't put the pieces together as to why.  I truly doubt he ever will."


            "Other than that, how's he doing?  I've been wanting to stop by ever since he was transferred to the rehab hospital, but haven't had a chance yet."


            "He's doing…okay, I guess.  Or so his therapists keep assuring me.  It's just such a damn slow process.  He does seem to be sayin' at least one new word each day."


            "That's good."


            "Yeah, it is, though he's still difficult to understand.  He's not really putting his thoughts into sentences yet either, but they tell me that's normal.  Everything he tries to convey generally comes out in two or three words like it did when he was at County.  He is beginning to recognize more letters and numbers, and he's getting around better.  His right arm and leg aren't what they should be, he's using a cane now, but with the help of a life vest they started him swimming twice a day this week for thirty minute intervals.  The therapists say that's good for him.  That it'll keep those weak muscles from atrophying further."


            "Because you're close to the situation everyday, I know you probably don't hear how positive what you've just told me sounds."


            "It does sound positive, I guess.  It's just that..." Rick let his thoughts trail off unvoiced.




            It's my fault, don't you see?  Don't any of you see if it hadn't been for me my brother wouldn't have to learn to walk, and talk, and read, and write again?  Don't any of you people understand how that's ripping my heart right outta my chest?


            "Nothing.  Never mind.  I'd better leave you to your work.  I need to get goin'.  I've gotta pick up Brendan in half an hour."


            Abby rose with Rick.    "Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention to you.  I've had an undercover cop keeping an eye on A.J.  While this entire case is sketchy, I'd hate for someone to try to eliminate him as a possible witness."

            That explains the big nosy janitor I keep bumpin' into at the oddest times.


            "Thanks, Abby.  Though with A.J.'s name and most of the details surrounding the accident being left out of the papers and off the TV, I don't think we have much to worry about, do you?"


            "No, I honestly don't.  But, I'm going to keep Edmunds in place for a while just to be on the safe side."


            "Thanks.  I appreciate that."


            Abby's phone rang so Rick said a final goodbye, then exited her office.  He paid no attention to the man he passed who approached the counter in the busy, noisy squad room.


            Hanrahan looked up from his computer keyboard.         "Can I help you?"

            "Yes.  I'm looking for a Lieutenant Marshall."

            "Marshall?  I think you mean Marsh.  Lieutenant Marsh."

            "Yes, thank you," the man's cheeks colored pale pink as though he was embarrassed by his blunder, "that's what I mean.  Lieutenant Marsh."


            With a nod of his head Hanrahan indicated to Abby's office where the woman stood talking on the phone.  "She's tied up on a call right now, but if you'd like to wait you can see her when she's finished."


            The man's eyes traveled to the picture window.  He took note of the attractive, auburn headed woman who was looking at an open file on her desk, obviously relaying some sort of information it contained to the person on the other end of the phone.


            "Thanks, but it's not that important.  I'll stop by later."


            Wyatt walked out of the door twenty seconds behind Rick Simon.  If he hadn't chosen to take the stairs to the ground floor, the two men would have shared the same elevator.




            Rick pulled his new Dodge Ram into an empty parking spot at San Diego Rehab.   He had never again driven the black Ford, just like he'd told his mother he wouldn't over a month ago now.  He'd made do with a beat up old Chevy S-10 borrowed from Carlos until a few days ago.  Carlos knew someone who wanted to buy Rick's Ford. The detective sold it without even dickering on the price he was offered.  He took less for the vehicle than it was worth, but he didn't care.  That truck had almost claimed his brother's life, and in so doing had radically altered A.J.'s world.  Rick couldn't stand to look at it and all it symbolized.  He took the cash he had in hand, got a loan from the bank for the additional money he needed, and bought himself a big silver Ram a year newer than his Ford had been.


            The detective depressed the clutch while shifting to first gear.  He turned the ignition off, pulling out the keys.  "Well, kiddo, looks like we're here, huh?"

            The boy stared out the passenger window, looking up at the ancient six story building.  The bricks were faded and weathered, the concrete of the front steps crooked and white-washed with age.  Lights shone from upper story windows, giving Brendan an occasional glimpse of someone struggling to move about with the aid of a walker or cane.


            Rick sensed the twelve-year-old's trepidation. "You don't need to be afraid, Bren.  It's not as bad on the inside as it looks on the outside."

            Brendan turned to face the detective.  "I...I'm not sure I wanna go in, Rick."


            "A.J.'s expecting you.  He's probably waiting for us right now." 


            "I know.  It's just that..."


            When the boy didn't finish his thought, Rick spoke.  "Brendan, A.J. doesn't remember what happened.  He doesn't remember anything about the accident."


            Rick could tell that, in a way, the boy was relieved to find out he didn't have to make any apologies to A.J. Yet, in another way, he was disappointed that he couldn't. 


            I know how you feel, kid.  I know exactly how you feel.


            Rick reached for his door handle, popping the latch.   He paused, noticing Brendan wasn't copying his movements.  The boy hazarded a glance in Rick's direction.  In that split second, Rick saw the twelve-year-old try to hide a bad case of nerves.


            He's scared.  He's scared because he doesn't know what to expect.  Because he's heard his mother, and grandmother, and other family members, talk about A.J.'s injuries.  Talk about how the accident changed him.  Hell, his own stepfather referred to A.J. as retarded.  No wonder the kid's got a bad case of the jitters.


            "Would it help if before we go in I tell you what to expect when you see A.J.?"

            The boy looked up at the building one last time before focusing his attention on Rick.


            I can't chicken out, I can't chicken out, I can't chicken out, Brendan chanted to himself.  I can't.  It's not fair to Rick after he picked me up and brought me here.  And, most of all...most of all, it's not fair to A.J.  I owe it to him.  I owe it to him to visit him no matter different he is now.


            Brendan swallowed hard, trying to moisten his suddenly dry mouth.


            "Yeah...I...yeah, maybe you could tell me."

            "Okay.  First off, he's pretty skinny right now.  Skinnier than you've ever seen him.  Skinnier than he's been since he was a teenager."



            "For two reasons.  Partly because of the pain he's been in for so long.  He gets really bad headaches every so often, and his left side still hurts him, so I just don't think he feels much like eating.  And, also because he has a hard time holding a fork.  He gets angry 'cause the food keeps falling off on him, but he won't let anyone help him since he came here, so half the time more of it ends up back on his plate than in his mouth.  He does better though, with each day that passes.  Eats a little more, has a little less pain, and has a little more control of his hands, so in time he'll get back to the weight that's normal for him again. 


            "He uses a cane when he walks.  The three pronged kind like your Grandpa Palmer used when he was so sick."

            "How come A.J.'s using a cane?  Is that because of his left side, too?  Because of it being hurt?"

            "No.  That's because the head injury has caused weakness in the muscles of his right arm and leg.   They aren't getting the signals to work from his brain like they should be."

            "Will that change as he gets better?"

            "We hope so, Bren.  He started swimming this week, that's the best thing for those muscles right now."


            "Maybe I could swim with him sometime, huh?"

            Rick smiled.  "Maybe.  When he gets a little stronger, I'll look into it.  I've seen other kids in the pool on Saturdays and Sundays, so I don't see why you can't join in on the fun.  I'm sure A.J. would like that."  Rick touched the middle portion of the back of the boy's head.  "Remember how I told you that night at Pizza Hut that A.J. had a bandage that ran from his left ear to right about here?"


            "That's gone now.  It has been for quite some time.  But the hair that was shaved for the surgery is still growing in, so it looks a little goofy.  Kinda like a sideways Mohawk."




            "A.J. doesn't think it's so cool," Rick chuckled, "but I'm sure he'll appreciate your admiration.


            "Another thing you might notice if you visit A.J. much in the coming weeks, is his memory ain't so hot just yet.  That comes as a result of the head injury, too.  That's why just learnin' little things like numbers, and the alphabet, are tough for him right now.  And sometimes, within just a few minutes of a friend or relative leaving, he might forget the person ever came to see him in the first place.


            "The last, and probably most difficult thing about all this for A.J., as well as for his visitors, is the way he talks."


            "He doesn't say very many words, does he?  I heard my mom tell Aunt Julie that on the phone."


            "No, he doesn't say many words, but he's picking up new ones every day.  He's saying a lot more now than he did when he was first in the hospital.  The thing of it is though, his brain has a hard time forming sentences, so most of what he says comes out real slow and in just a few words.  You have to listen carefully and kinda piece together the rest.  If you're not sure about what he's saying, just repeat it back to him.  He'll let you know if you're right or wrong.  If you're not embarrassed, he won't be.  But, if it makes you uncomfortable and you show it, then it makes A.J. uncomfortable and he quits talking.  The best way I can describe it is to think of what Heather sounded like when she was a toddler and first learnin' to talk.  Do you remember that?"


            "Sure.  She'd point at things and just say one word like book, or doll, or ball.  And then she'd jabber on in gibberish, as Dad used to call it, and we'd all be tryin' to figure out what she was saying.  Sometimes if she got real mad at us 'cause we couldn't understand and she'd throw something at us."

            "A.J. does that once in a while, too, so be prepared to duck."


            "I will be."


            Rick laughed.  "I was teasing you, kid.  Not that he hasn't thrown a few things at me when he's been frustrated, but I have yet to see him do it to anyone else.  I can pretty well assure you he won't, provided you're patient with him and you just be yourself."


            Brendan nodded his head with renewed confidence.  "I can do that."  He picked up the school backpack he had laying at his feet and opened the passenger side door.  "Come on.  Let's go.  If we stay out here much longer visiting hours will be over."


            Rick reached out a hand, tousling the blond hair that was so like his brother's.  "With that attitude, you'll do just fine, pal."

            Brendan's eyes traveled every hallway, room, and lounge they passed.  He hiked his backpack more firmly onto his shoulders as he and Rick stepped off the elevator and onto the third floor.


            Rick could tell the boy was valiantly trying not to stare at people who shuffled by them using walkers or canes.  Brendan couldn't help but pause when the sixteen-year-old boy Rick and Cecilia had seen in therapy on A.J's first day here passed them in a wheelchair being pushed by his father.


            Brendan watched until the young man disappeared around a corner.  He looked up at Rick, his voice pitched so low the detective had to strain to hear him.   "I didn't know they'd be so young.  He's not much older than me."

            "Yeah, some of the patients are young.  It's sad, isn't it?"

            Brendan thought of A.J. and the discussion they'd had pertaining to his age that day in the morgue.   "Yeah...yeah, it is.  A.J.'s not very old, either."


            Rick put a hand on the boy's shoulder.  If Brendan could detect the lump in the man's throat he dutifully ignored it. 


            "No,, he's not."


            Leaving his hand where it was, Rick guided the twelve-year-old down the hall to A.J.'s room.  No longer was the blond's room down a secondary hall east of the nurse's station and facing the parking lot, as it had been when he bunked with George Middleton. Now it was north of the station, and the very last room on the left hand side of the main hallway with a stairwell directly across from it.  The view A.J. had this time was of the cinder track and expansive grounds behind the building.  Rick got the impression his brother enjoyed being able to see the green grass and trees, because he often found A.J. standing in front of the window.


            Or he's wishin' he was outta here and vicariously escaping this place with the aid of that view, Rick would think when he found A.J. absorbed in the outside world.        Hang on, little brother. Just hang on for me.  It'll happen one day.  I promise, one day soon you'll walk outta here and never have to walk back in.


            A.J.'s private room varied slightly in layout from the room he'd previously been in.  The closet was behind the door. In the room he'd shared with Mr. Middleton the bathroom had been located there.  The work counter ran along the north wall next to the closet, across from it was A.J.'s bed, nightstand, and dresser.  Around the corner from the bed was the bathroom that was two feet larger than those found in the shared quarters. 


            As far as Rick was concerned, the move to this private room had been the best thing for A.J.  There was no doubt he was happier now that he didn't have to put up with the idiosyncrasies of a roommate, especially the idiosyncrasies possessed by George Middleton.  At least he no longer begged Rick to take him home. 


            The blond man was seated at the work counter putting together a one hundred piece jigsaw puzzle of a Rolls Royce Roadster, when Rick and Brendan stepped into the room.  Troya Yeager had told Rick and Cecilia she personally designed the therapy programs of each patient with the intent of rebuilding skills they used on their jobs, and in their every day lives.  The doctor admitted the program she'd designed for A.J. was a challenge for her, simply because she'd never worked with a private investigator before.  His unique profession meant he not only relied on logical thinking patterns to reach conclusions that would eventually solve a case, but as well, he relied on wild hunches.  With Rick's help, the doctor created an agenda for A.J. they were pursuing on a trail and error basis.  Putting together puzzles, while rather elementary, was one way to get his brain to make correct choices when trying to fit together the small colored pieces that would eventually reveal a picture.  


            Brendan stopped in the doorway, his eyes scanning the room.  They traveled over A.J. and the cane resting beside his chair, before dropping to the floor.  A.J. was far from the stylish man Brendan was used to seeing.  Like Rick had said, he was skinny.  So skinny his eyes looked too big for his now narrow face, and his cheekbones didn't seem to have enough skin to cover them.   And he was dressed funny, too.  His clothes were baggy and loose fitting, with no buttons or zippers, like the kind of clothes Brendan had seen old men wear in the nursing home his grandfather had lived in the last two months of his life.  Trying not to be obvious about it, the twelve-year-old craned his neck.  Indeed, A.J. possessed a strip of hair about two and a half inches wide, and two inches long, that looked like it had been sheared with a barber's razor, while the rest of his head had been forgotten. 


            Rick urged the boy farther into the room by placing a hand on his backpack.  A.J.'s concentration level on the puzzle was so great he wasn't aware he had visitors.


            "Hey, A.J.   Look who I brought to see you."


            The blond man rose with a smile, grabbing onto the handle of his cane for support.   "Hi------Kee." 


            "Hi, little brother.  How was your day?"




            "What'd you do?"

            These were the same questions Rick asked every evening when he came to see his brother.  In part, because it allowed him to get a feel for what A.J. was learning, and in part, because it was another way for A.J. to be forced to use his limited verbal abilities.




            Rick laughed, realizing that for the first time since the accident, he'd been made the victim of some good old-fashioned A.J. Simon sarcasm.


            "Went dancing, huh?  With who?   That sexy Doctor Yeager, I bet.  Or maybe your favorite -  ole Nurse Finster, huh?"

            A.J. smiled at the teasing.  "No-------not-------er."


            Rick walked over to the counter, allowing Brendan to remain where he was.  He thought the boy would grow more comfortable if he was given a few minutes to adjust to the situation. "You're workin' on a puzzle, I see."




            "Hard one?"



            "Need help?"




            "Okay, good idea.  Maybe later.  You try it for a while longer yet by yourself."


            A.J. looked around Rick's body at his young visitor.  He was well aware of the boy's source of discomfort, and tried his best to ease it.




            A.J. had practiced the name several times that day with Troya Yeager just so he could say it this evening.  R's were still impossible for him, though Doctor Yeager told him he did wonderful to pronounce it as well as he did.


            "That's a hard one, isn't it, A.J.?"  She'd asked after they'd worked at it for a straight fifteen minute stretch.


            "Yes.  Bill--------ea-------er."


            Troya chuckled in admiration of this man's sense of humor and perseverance.  "Yes, it would be easier if his name was Bill, wouldn't it."


            Brendan forced himself to meet the blond man's eyes.  "Hi, A.J."



            Rick waited patiently to see if he needed to translate A.J's meaning for the twelve- year-old.  He gave Brendan a smile when the boy replied with an immediate,  "I'm okay."



            Rick turned to look at is sibling.  "Hey, say that again."


            The lanky man leaned forward, giving his brother a quick hug.    "That's great, A.J.  It's not 'goot' anymore."

            "No.  Good."


            Rick motioned for Brendan to sit in the chair next to A.J.'s.  The boy took his backpack off, leaning it against the wall, while Rick perched on the edge of the bed.  With the aid of his cane, A.J. reclaimed his chair.


            Rick brought the conversation back to his original line of questioning, asking A.J. about his day.  Answering in two or three words, A.J. relayed all he had done. 


            "Has Mom called yet?"


            Rick and Cecilia rarely came to see A.J. together.  They'd discovered early on it overwhelmed him to have too many people helping with the projects his therapists had assigned, or the 'homework' he’d been assigned, as they referred to it.  Doctor Yeager told them it wasn't unusual for a patient to perform much better in a one-on-one situation with a family member.  She also stressed the importance of Rick and Cecilia giving themselves a night off now and again.  Therefore, mother and oldest son coordinated with each other as to when one of them was going to see A.J.  The one who missed a night always phoned him before he went to bed.  On weekends, they alternated afternoons and evenings.


            "No.  Layer.  Mo-----fies."


            Rick understood his brother was telling him their mother would call later, but he was lost when it came to deciphering the last word of explanation.  "What'd you say, A.J.?  I'm not sure what you meant."


            "Call-------layer.   Mofies---------Eee-----ie."


            "Oh, she went to the movies with Aunt Edie."



            "Good for her.  She deserves a night out, don't you think?"

            "Yes.   You------too."


            "Me too?  Nah.  I don't need a night out."


            "Yes.  You------take."


            "I'll tell you what, the first night out I have will be with you.  As soon as Doctor Cho and Doctor Yeager give the word that we can spring you from this place for a few hours, we'll paint the town.  How's that sound?"


            A.J. smiled at this seemingly small gesture that meant so much. "Good."


            Although Brendan hadn't said a word throughout the exchange, he hadn't been forgotten.  Rick thought the boy might make an attempt at conversation if left alone with A.J. for a few minutes.  "Listen, guys, I'll go down to the soda machine and get us something to drink.  You wanna Coke, A.J.?"



            "How about you, Bren?"

            Brendan jumped up from his chair, the guilt he was feeling over being the cause of A.J.'s injuries made him eager to flee the room.   "I'll go get the pop, Rick!  I've got money."

            "No, no.  You stay here with A.J.  He gets sick of havin' to talk to me all the time.  I'm sure he'd like to hear from someone else once in a while, wouldn't you, little brother?"




            Rick reached out and tousled his brother's hair.  "Hey, you, you weren't supposed to answer that."  The lanky man headed out the door.  "I'll be back in a little while, guys."


            Brendan dropped back to his chair, his eyes falling to his feet.  It was one thing to be here with Rick in the room, but quite another to be alone with A.J.  Every time Brendan looked at his mother's cousin, he thought of their last conversation together in the observatory and how, because of him, because of his own foolishness, this man might never be the same again.  It made the boy want to cry, and he was forced to wipe his eyes with the sleeve of his hooded sweatshirt jacket to keep A.J. from seeing his tears.


            A.J. sensed the boy's discomfort, but assumed it was because of his disabilities.  He pointed to the puzzle.  "Wan------help?"


            Brendan swiveled in his chair, scooting it closer to A.J.'s.  "Okay.  I mean, if you want me to I can."


            "Yes.  Wan----you-----to."

            The pair worked together in silence for a few minutes, the only sound in the room being the tiny 'snap' of a wooden piece as it was popped into place.  A.J. looked down at the blond head bent in concentration.



            "Pretty good."  Brendan reached for another puzzle piece.  "I'm doing better.  A lot better.  I haven't missed any days since your accid...for a long time.  I still have a lot of work to catch up on, but I'm getting there.  I might even get some A's on my report card.  I------I wanted to do good for you, A.J."


            A.J. smiled at the boy, though he wasn't sure what Brendan meant.


            "And I'm not smoking anymore, either.  Rick said you wouldn't want me to, so I quit."


            A.J.'s, "Good," was spoken with preoccupation, as a small crack opened within the window of his mind.


            "I found a pack of Camels, of all things, in his dresser drawer last week.  I told him smoking cigarettes or drinking will only cause him more trouble.  About how the choices he makes at age twelve, will undoubtedly become choices he regrets someday on down the road."       


            "And I'm back in the Boy Scouts, in my school's science club, and on a soccer team again, too, just like you wanted."


             "He quit the Boy Scouts, he quit the soccer team he played on, he dropped out of the school science club...and his grades.  His grades are sinful.  He's always been an A student, but now his report cards are full of D's and F's."


            "My old friends, they weren't very nice to me at first, but I couldn't blame them for that.  I treated them pretty bad when I was hangin' with Jeremy and Tim, but my Mom let me have a sleep-over last weekend and they all came, so I think it's going okay.  I've made some new friends, too, but not ones who get me in trouble like Jeremy and Tim did."


            "He's hanging out with a couple of fourteen year olds, ninth graders, who he has no business spending time with.  I've tried to encourage him to renew his friendships with the boys he used to be close to.  His best buddies from grade school that he did everything with."


            The reason he and Rick had met Lindy at Charley O's that day six weeks earlier was forming more clearly in A.J.'s mind.  For some reason the detective thought that meeting led to tragic results, but of what kind?  Brendan was sitting next to him right now healthy, whole, and to all intents and purposes a boy who had changed for the better.  But what had caused that change?  By the twelve-year-old's words, A.J. knew he must have had some influence over the turnaround, but how?  If he'd talked to Brendan at some point in the past, he didn't recall their conversation.


            The boy's voice brought the detective back to the present.  "I have something I made for you, A.J."  Brendan bent down and retrieved his backpack.  "It's not much, and if you don't like it that's okay.  You don't have to keep it.  But I thought maybe you'd want to hang it in your room."


            A.J. watched with open curiosity as the boy unzipped his backpack.  He pulled out his yellow spiral notebook, easily finding the picture he'd drawn over a year ago, as though he'd turned to this page a thousand times in recent weeks.


            Brendan laid the notebook on the counter top, rotating it so A.J. could see what he'd drawn.  The detective studied the caricature of himself and Rick standing larger than life on top of the world in billowing capes.  The drawing needed no explanation, the message Brendan was trying to convey was easy to discern.  A.J. grinned his appreciation.  He pointed to the words the boy had printed.  Though he could read a few, most were nothing but jumbled letters to him.  "What--------say?"


            Brendan's cheeks flushed red.  This was the first time he'd shared the pictures in his notebook with anyone.  To see what he'd drawn, to read the words aloud, all made it seem rather immature to him now. 


            But it wasn't immature to A.J.   He insisted again,  "What------say?"


            "It says, 'My crime fighting cousins, Rick and A.J.   Simon and Simon to the rescue.' "


            The boy looked up from the paper.  "I know it's kinda stupid, so if you don't want it you don't have--"


            "No---------stu----id.  I------like.  Good------job."


            "You really think so?"

            "Yes.  Lots--------tal------" A.J. stopped there, unsure how to say what he was thinking.


            "Talent?"  Brendan supplied the word as easily as Rick often supplied his brother with words.


            "Yes.  Tal----ent.  You------have-------tal-----ent.   Ver------good------Bendan."


            Brendan carefully tore the paper out of the notebook.  "I'll hang it up for you if you show me where.  Do you have tape?"

            "Yes." Using his cane for support, A.J. stood and slid open a door of the cabinet above him.  He took out a roll of Scotch tape and handed it to the boy.


            "Where do you want it?"


            A.J. pointed to his bed.  "Air.  I-------see-------all------time."


            "By your bed where you can see it all the time?"



            "Okay."  Brendan scrambled across the room, attaching the picture to the wall by A.J.'s bed.  He returned the tape to its proper place, his hand brushing a red school folder.  The folder fell to the counter, scattering papers on top of the puzzle. 


"I'm sorry.  I'll pick those up."


            "It--------okay.  I-------erk--------em."


            "You have to work on them?"




            "Tonight?  Like homework?"


            Brendan made a face.  "Yuk."


            A.J. mirrored the boy.  "Yuk."


            "I can help you, A.J.  If you want me to, that is."


            A.J. hesitated a moment.  The only people he had allowed to help him on his various assignments so far, other than his therapists, had been his mother and Rick.  He was too embarrassed and ashamed to let other family members and friends see how difficult even the smallest tasks were for him now.


            Brendan seemed to read the detective's mind.  "I won't tell anyone, A.J., I promise I won't.  I just want to help you, that's all."

            A.J. chewed on his lower lip with indecisiveness before finally pushing the puzzle aside and reaching for a pencil.  He pulled out a sheet of manila paper containing lines spaced far apart, like the lines on printing tablets used by first graders.  Brendan could see A.J. had started printing the alphabet, but the harsh black marks slashed across the page indicated he'd stopped when he'd gotten either angry, or frustrated. 


            Brendan often helped Heather with her homework, so knew just what to do.  He took a clean sheet of paper out of A.J.'s folder and placed it in front of the man.  He pointed to the top left hand corner. "What's the first letter we need to do?"


            "Yep, that's it.  Come on, let's do it together."


            Brendan placed his hand over A.J.'s like he often did with his sister, guiding him as he printed.  They moved forward like that, Brendan prompting A.J. to tell him the next letter, then guiding his hand while he put it on paper.  Neither one of them was aware of Rick poking his head in the room when they were on the letter J.  He smiled slightly before turning to bump into Dagmar Finster, her nurse's hat still sitting primly atop her

head even at this late hour.


            "What's that boy doing here?  Who is he?"

            "He's our cousin's son, and he's visiting.  What's it to you?"

            "Children carry germs.  God knows where their hands have been during any given day.  The last thing I need is for Andrew to get sick on me.  He's enough of a handful as it is."


            "Look, lady, just leave the two of them alone, you got that?  I have permission from Doctor Yeager for Brendan to be here any time, and I do mean any time, he wants to be."


            "Humf!  And for what purpose, pray tell?  He's no more than what?  Eleven or twelve-years-old?  Just a child.  How can he be of help to Andrew?"

            "He can be of a lotta help.  If you look in that room right now you'll see how much help he's being.  And A.J. can be of help to him, too."


            "And just what brings you to that misguided conclusion, Mr. Simon?"

            Rick hated the sarcastic doubt he heard in the woman's voice, as though A.J. was no longer of use to anyone. "Brendan feels responsible for causin' the accident that brought A.J. here to begin with.  The kid's having a hard time of it, so back off."


            "Perhaps if children weren't so coddled these days the boy wouldn't be having a 'hard time of it' as you put it.  Perhaps a good old-fashioned spanking would bring him out of whatever funk he's in.  But so be it.  If Doctor Yeager said he can be here, then there's nothing I can do to rectify that situation.  Just make sure his hands are clean and that he's respectful of the other patients' privacy.  The last thing I need to be doing is chasing a wild hooligan up and down these hallways."


            "Nurse Finster, I can assure you the only wild hooligan you'll ever chase up and down these hallways will be me."  Rick gave his eyebrows a suggestive waggle.  "And if you'd give it half a chance, you might even find you like it."


            "I resent that implication, sir.  A true gentleman would not even think such thoughts, let alone voice them." The nurse turned sharply on the heel of her orthopedic shoe, scampering down the hall as though Rick was in hot pursuit.

            The detective chuckled to himself, then headed for the lounge.  He'd watch a few more minutes of TV before getting those promised sodas.  Rick smiled at the now familiar janitor as he passed the man who was bent on one knee, spackling a small hole in the wall just a few feet from A.J.'s room.




            The dream returned again that night long after Brendan and Rick had left.  He was walking down a set of familiar stairs, then came upon Captain Kirk seated on the bridge of the Enterprise.  He sat next to the man as though they were old friends.  They talked for a few minutes, but when they began to discuss their fathers and how painful it was for a boy to grow up without his dad, Captain Kirk turned into Brendan.  Before their discussion came to an end, Brendan pointed out the window crying, "Klingons!"


            A.J. threw the boy to the floor, covering him with his own body to protect him.                         

            The Klingons were arguing when A.J. carefully peered out through the glass.  He saw one draw a phaser and shoot the other one.  He raced out of the room and knelt by the injured Klingon's side.  Only the man didn't look like any Klingon A.J. had ever seen.  He was fair skinned and blond headed, and when his blue eyes locked on A.J.'s he said, "Elbee."  With his dying breath he begged,  "Tell Taylor I love him."


            The third floor was quiet, the residents in peaceful slumber when A.J. woke from his dream at eleven minutes after two that morning.  He reached over to his nightstand and flipped on the lamp.  He fumbled for the pen and small pad of paper he kept there out of habit more than anything else.  He always kept these two items in his nightstand at home.  If a particular case was weighing heavy on his mind, he sometimes made notes regarding it when he couldn't sleep, or when it woke him with disturbing dreams, like had happened this evening.


            A.J.'s hand slid to the very back of the drawer.  He didn't know why he felt the need to hide the sunglasses. It wasn't like they were worth all that much money.  He doubted anyone would snoop through his nightstand anyway.  The hospital had a strict policy regarding patients' valuables not being allowed.  He'd even heard that the women were asked to send their diamond wedding rings home with a family member. 


            The blond man opened one earpiece and held it up to the light.  He thought a long moment, then returned the glasses to their proper place.  He hiked himself up to a sitting position against his pillows, and with a laborious hand, printed the letters L and B on his paper.  It took him longer to print what he wanted to next.  He could see the letters, but making his mind transfer them to paper was an arduous task.  He scratched out his attempts three times before he finally got what he wanted.


            T A Y L R


            The detective studied his notepad a long time.  When he could hear one of the night nurses making her rounds, he placed the paper and pen back in the drawer and shut off the light. When the woman opened the door to room 301, A.J. Simon was asleep.


            Or so it appeared.  The detective remained awake a long time that night wondering about Elbees and Taylors, and just how it was he'd been such a help to Lindy's son.




            Brendan sat at the desk in his room late on Sunday afternoon, his open math book at his left elbow.  He copied the equation shown in the book to a piece of paper.  He easily solved the problem, writing the correct answer before moving onto the next equation displayed.  He glanced up in thought, smiling at the new display that took up the center of his bulletin board.  It was the alphabet he and A.J. had worked on together Friday night.  Granted, most of the letters were crooked, and some were in odd places, but Brendan was so proud of the way he'd helped A.J. that he'd readily accepted the masterpiece when A.J. offered it to him.  Now it was tacked up just like Brendan's mother put his and Heather's gold-star school papers on the front of the refrigerator. 


            Nothing could beat the warm feeling the twelve-year-old got deep inside when he recalled Rick, on the drive home Friday night, thanking him for being such a big help to A.J.


            "This is the first time he's written the whole alphabet, kiddo.  And it was all because of you."

            "Well, I did kinda coach him along," Brendan reluctantly confessed.  "He woulda' skipped some of the letters otherwise."

            Rick shot the boy an understanding smile.  "That's okay.  Some of the letters are still hard for A.J. to remember, so he needs a little coaching every so often.  But you know what?"



            "Whenever anyone else has coached him, including me, he's gotten mad and torn up the paper."


            "Really?  Why?"

            "Because he's angry at himself for not being able to do something that used to come so easy for him.  But with you, A.J. didn't tear up his paper, so I think you've got a special knack when it comes to teaching.  Whatta you think?"


            "Yeah, maybe.  I work with Heather sometimes when she needs help.  Mom says I have a lot of patience."


            Rick chuckled while running a hand over the boy's hair.  "You definitely don't inherit that trait from the Simon side of the family.  Most of us don't have any patience to speak of."


            "I know.  I used to hear my dad say that a lot about my mom and my Grandma."


            "Well, Bren, I think you and your patience is just what A.J. needs right now.  How'd you like to go and see him again?"

            "Could I?"  The boy's eyes had flashed his enthusiasm.  "Would it be okay?  Maybe one night next week so A.J. doesn't forget the letters we did tonight.  I'd really like to keep helping him.  I'll even wash my hands like that nurse told me to do when I came out of the bathroom."

            Rick rolled his eyes.  "Ugly broad with funny glasses?"

            "Yeah.  She's two-bag ugly."

            "Two-bag ugly?"

            "Yeah.  I need a bag over my face, and she needs one over hers, just so I can stand to look at her."

            Rick laughed at the explanation only two males would find amusing.


            "Yep, kiddo, she's two-bag ugly all right.  She might even be three-bag ugly."

            "Three-bag ugly?"

            "Yeah, I'll wanna layer myself in an extra bag before I have to see her again."

            Rick treated Brendan to a late night snack at Taco Bell before taking him home.  He talked to Linda in the foyer of her house for a few minutes, making sure to praise Brendan's efforts with A.J.   After she sent her son off to bed, Linda gave Rick a hug.


            "Thanks for taking him, Rick.  He wanted to see A.J. so badly, but he was also very nervous.  I thought for sure he was going to back out of the deal before you got here to pick him up."


            "Yeah, I thought he was gonna back out too, when we first pulled into the hospital's parking lot.  But he did great, Lindy.  You should be proud of him.  He really got into working with A.J., and A.J. really seemed to enjoy working with him.  Brendan would like to go back again one night next week if it's okay with you."


            "Fine by me.  I can't think of any place I'd rather he be.  I just wish it hadn't taken such a tragedy to correct his behavior."


            Rick hugged his cousin tighter.  "I know.  I do, too.  But sometimes learnin' painful lessons from a tragedy is what growing up is all about."


            Brendan brought his eyes away from A.J.'s paper now, to focus them on his own schoolwork.  If he was going to get straight A's by the end of the school year like he'd promised himself he would, he had a lot of catching up to do.  He'd just written down his last problem when a grubby hand snatched his paper from underneath his elbow.  Brendan swiveled in his chair.   


"Hey, give that back to me!"


            Cory held the paper out, rattling it as though he was taunting a puppy with a slipper.    "Come and get it if you want it."

            "Give it back to me, Cory!  That's my homework!"


            "Give it back to me, Cory," the nine-year-old mocked,  "that's my homework!"


            "Come on.  I mean it!  Give it here!"


            "Come on.  I mean it!  Give it here!"


            Brendan shot out of his chair in hot pursuit of the fleeing boy.  Before they got to the door, Brendan’s stepfather entered the room.


            "Hey, what's going on in here?"

            Cory hid the paper behind his back.  "Nothing."


            "He took my homework!" 


            The man glared at Brendan through narrowed eyes.  "What are you talking about, boy?  He doesn't have your homework."


            "Yes he does.  It's behind his back."

            The man Brendan knew as Mark Ecklund looked over Cory's shoulders, seeing the paper dangling between his fingers.


            Brendan didn't miss the smirk that curled his stepfather's lip.  It reminded him of the way a junkyard dog smiles right before he sinks his teeth into a fleshy thigh.


            "Cory, is that Brendan's homework?"


            Cory's smile couldn't have been anymore cherubic if he was an angel.  "No, Daddy, it's not Brendan's homework.  It's my homework."


            "Why are you such a stinking little liar, Brendan?" the man snarled.  "You're always trying to get Cory in trouble, aren't you?"

            "No I'm not!  And that is my paper!  Make him give it back to me!"


            Luke ignored his stepson's directive.  "Cory, gather up your things.  I need to take you home."


            Brendan watched with frustration as his math paper was shoved into Cory's backpack.  The boy scampered around the room picking up the shoes, socks, and clothing he'd scattered about throughout his two day stay. 


            He's such a pig, Brendan thought.  He's a pig, and he's a liar, just like his stupid father.  I hate them.  I hate them both.  I wish they'd go away forever.  I wish they were dead.


            Brendan couldn't even force himself to feel bad about that last wish, even though he knew he should.


            Luke wandered over to Brendan's desk, his eye having been caught by the newest display on the bulletin board.            "What's this?"


            Brendan's answer came out in a sullen mumble.  "It's a paper I helped A.J. do on Friday night."


            "A paper?" the man laughed.  "Hell, Brendan, your little sister could do better than this.  Your mother's cousin really is a retard, isn't he."


            "Don't you say that!  He's not a retard!  He's a lot smarter than most people I know."

            Like you, you big dumb jerk.


            "Then if he's smarter than most people you know, you must hang around with a buncha' idiots, huh, kid?"

            Present company included.


            Luke bent forward at the waist, studying something in the lower right hand corner of A.J.'s paper.   "What's this?"


            "These letters down here.  The ones sitting all by themselves.  What do they mean?"

            "They don't mean anything.  They're just something A.J. printed after we were done."


            Luke whirled, grabbing Brendan by the upper arm.  "Don't you fib to me!  Now what do they mean?"

            The boy tried to pull out of the man's biting grasp.  "They don't mean anything!  Are you crazy or what?  He was just doodling while we drank the sodas Rick bought for us."


            "You'd better not be lying to me."


            "What would I be lying to you about?  They're just letters!  Just letters he doodled.  What's the big deal, anyway?"

            As quickly as he'd grabbed the boy, Luke Bentz released him.  He regained his composure, for the time being going along with Brendan's story.


            "Nothing.  There's no big deal.  Come on, Cory. Let's go.  Your mom'll be waiting."


            Once Brendan had the room to himself again he crossed over to his desk.  He studied the letters that had caused the recent uproar.  He shrugged his shoulders, having no idea why an innocent L and B standing all by themselves got his stepfather's underwear in such a bundle.  The guy was a nutcase, that's for sure.  From now on Brendan would just show A.J.'s papers to his mother, then hide them in his dresser drawer out of his stepfather's sight.


            The boy sighed as he sat back down at his desk.  He pulled out a clean sheet of paper, and began working his math problems all over again.




            Luke slammed the door of the dented yellow Dodge Dart he drove.  The old car was just another irritation on a day that had proved to be full of irritations.  He should be driving a Corvette by now, not a vehicle over ten years old that Chrysler didn't even manufacture any longer.


            He'd dropped Cory off at the apartment he and Natalie were renting just far enough away so that Cory wouldn't be in the same school district as the Nash children.  The last thing they needed was for the boy to accidentally spill the beans to Heather on the playground. 


            Luke chastised himself as he marched up the front walk.  He should have known better then to tell Natalie what that imbecile A.J. had printed on that stupid paper.  He'd been forced to listen to her bitch at him for an hour about what an idiot he was, and about how they were bound to get caught this time if he didn't make a move and make it soon. 


            The final insult had come when she'd sneered,  "Whattsa matter, Lucky? Did you leave your balls back in Detroit with the last Mrs. Ecklund?"

            No, he didn't leave his balls anywhere, and he'd prove that to Natalie, and to Linda as well.


            Upon spotting her stepfather, Heather came running over with outstretched arms from the neighbor's yard where she'd been playing.


            "Mark!  Mark!"


            The man roughly pushed the child aside without acknowledging her presence.  Heather stumbled backwards, falling on her bottom in the grass. 


            The mother of the little girl Heather had been playing with raced to the child's side.  "Mark!  Mark, what's wrong with you?  How could you--"


            Before the woman finished her sentence the front door slammed.

She helped Heather to her feet, noting the tears in the little girl's eyes she was trying hard not to let fall.   "Did he hurt you, sweetheart?"

            "Just...just...just my...feelings," came the answer that was sputtered out between the six-year-old's tears.


            The woman shot a dark look at the front door Mark had just disappeared through, but when she turned to face Heather again she was wearing a smile.  "I'm sure he didn't mean to.  I think Mark's just having a bad day."


            "He was real crabby when he left to take Cory home," Heather confessed.


            "There, see.  He's not mad at you.  Maybe Cory was misbehaving."


            Or maybe he's gone a round or two with the ex-wife, the neighbor lady thought.  She could sympathize with that. Both she and her husband were on their second marriages.  She was well-versed in the stresses and strains brought to a relationship by former spouses and stepchildren.


            "Come on, Heather.  You come back over and play with Katelyn.  I'll call your Mom in a little while and see if you can stay for supper.  Would you like that?"

            All traces of tears were wiped away as Heather ran next door.  "Katelyn, Katelyn, your mom said I can stay for supper!"


            Paying no attention to what was occurring outside his home, Luke stomped through the living room, peering into the dining room and kitchen as he passed. 


            "Linda!  Linda, where the hell are you?"


            He took the stairs two at a time.  He stuck his head in Brendan's open door, seeing the boy's school books piled neatly on his desk, though the twelve-year-old was nowhere in sight.  The man glanced in Heather's room next.  "Linda!  Linda, get your ass out here!"


            Linda stepped into the hallway from the master bedroom.  "Mark, please.  You know I don't approve of that kind of language being used in front of my children.  Granted, they're both gone right now, but--"


            "Where's Brendan?"



            "You heard me, bitch!  Where's that nosy kid of yours?"

            Linda was shocked.  She had never seen her husband furious like this. Normally he was so charming and easy-going.  Nor had he ever referred to her in such a degrading manner before.  He advanced on her with wild eyes.


            "Answer me!  Where's the kid?"

            "He's down the street at David's house playing football with some of his friends."  Linda shifted the basket of folded laundry she was carrying from the front of her body to her left hip. "Listen, Mark, I don't know what's gotten into you, and I really don't care.  I'm sorry if you and Natalie had words when you dropped Cory off, but that's no reason to come home in this kind of mood.  I will not put up with being called a bitch by you, or by any other man.  And as far as Brendan--"


            Luke clutched the woman's upper arms, digging his nails into her flesh.  He propelled her into the master bedroom, her basket of laundry spilling over to leave a trail of clean towels like breadcrumbs.


            "Just shut up!"  Luke shook his wife until her head was thrown so violently backwards she was certain she'd sprained her neck.  "Just shut your mouth!  I'm sick of women telling me what to do today, you got that, bitch!"


            "Mark!  Mark, please!  Stop!  Please!"


            "Now I wanna know what Brendan was doing with your cousins on Friday night!"


            "You know perfectly well what he was doing!  He was visiting A.J.!"


            "For what purpose?"


            "What do you mean, for what purpose?  For the purpose of helping him."


            Luke flung the woman down on the bed.  "If your cousin is the retard you claim he is, how can Brendan be helping him?"

            "Mark, stop it!  Stop it right now!  First of all, A.J. isn't a retard, and second of all, Brendan can help him in a lot of ways.  Rick said he--"


            "Rick said, Rick said, Rick said," the man mocked.  He raked an angry hand through his hair while pacing a small circle in front of the bed.  "I'm so goddamn sick of hearing about Rick Simon I could puke.  If it's not you yappin' about him, then it's that stupid kid of yours!"          


            Linda stood up, rubbing a hand over her sore neck.  "Look, I don't know what's wrong with you, but I think it would be best if you left the house for a little while.  Maybe a walk will clear your--"


            Luke reclaimed Linda's arms, driving her back until her body was slammed into the wall. 


            "You are not going to kick me out of this house, woman!  You got that?"

            Tears began to stream down Linda's face at the pain, humiliation, and confusion of what was happening to her.  "I'm not kicking you out, honey," she attempted to placate.  "I'm simply saying you need some time to cool off."

            It happened so fast Linda never saw it coming.  Luke's right hand flew up, then arced down to slam an open slap across her face.  The violence of the blow reeled her head in the opposite direction.  The room spun in wild circles as black dots floated in front of her eyes.


            The man was panting with both exertion and excitement when he turned on one heel and headed for the doorway.  "That's the way I cool off, bitch, and don't you forget it."


            Long after Luke left the room. Linda sat on the bed clutching her tender cheek and crying.  She choked back her tears as best she could when the phone rang.  It was her neighbor, Cheryl Milligan, asking if Heather could stay for supper.


            "That'll be okay," Linda agreed, relieved that at least one of her children would be out of the battle zone for a while longer.


            Cheryl's next question made Linda's heart stop.  "Is everything okay over there, Linda?" 


            The woman tried her best to put a carefree smile in her voice.  None of the windows were open. Surely Cheryl couldn't have heard the turmoil raging inside the house, could she?



            "Yes, everything's fine.  Why do you ask?"


            "I was little concerned, that's all.  Mark was kind of rough with Heather when he came home, so I was wondering--"


            "Rough with Heather?  How?"

            "Oh, he really didn't mean to be I don't think.  He pushed her out of the way when she ran over to give him a hug.  She stumbled backwards and fell in your front yard.  She was fine.  Her feelings were hurt more than anything else."


            "I see.  Thanks for telling me, Cheryl.  Mark...well he and his ex-wife got into it over something when he dropped Cory off."


            "That's what I assumed.  Believe me, I know how that goes.  Half the time Bob comes home madder than a wet hen after he's dropped his kids off at his ex's, too."


            "Yeah, it's tough," Linda agreed lamely, hating herself for being the kind of woman she'd always said she never would be.  The kind of woman who lies for a man who abuses his wife.  "Listen, Cheryl, I need to get a few loads of laundry folded before I put a meal on the table.  I really appreciate you having Heather for supper tonight.  I'll send Brendan over to get her at seven-thirty if that's okay with you."

            "That'll be fine.  And say, why don't you and Mark plan to come for dinner this Saturday night.  We can sit around and commiserate about our former spouses."


            Linda looked across the room into the mirror mounted on the triple dresser.  The angry red mark her husband's hand had left on her cheek glowed out at her.


            "Ummm...I'll have to get back to you on that offer.  I'll call you by the middle of the week."

            "Okay, great.  Talk to you then.  Bye."


            "Bye." Linda hung up the phone and reached for a tissue from the box on her nightstand.  Even the act of blowing her nose was painful.  All she wanted to do was lock herself in the bathroom, sink deep into a soothing tub of hot water, rest an ice pack on her face, and forget this incident had ever happened. 


            The woman picked up the laundry that was scattered from her bed to the hallway.  She threw all of it back in the basket, then carried it to the bedroom where she sat in a chair refolding it.  She could hear the sound of the television coming from below.  She wondered why in the world she was folding towels and not calling the police.


            It won't happen again, she told herself.  He's never done this before, and we'll be married a year next week.  He just had a bad afternoon with his ex-wife, that's all.


            But Linda's mind couldn't reconcile itself with the fact that none of her husband's rage seemed to be directed at his former spouse, but rather at her, her son, and of all people, her cousins.


            Luke slipped up behind Linda while she was making dinner and planted a gentle kiss on her swollen cheek.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he apologized softly, running a caressing hand through her hair.  "I don't know what came over me.  It won't happen again, I promise."


            The woman gave a tight nod while handing her husband the dinner plates.  "Set the table, please."


            When Brendan asked his mother what had happened to her face while they sat at the table eating supper, Linda simply said, "I tripped over the laundry basket while I was running to answer the phone and took a tumble down the stairs.  But I'm okay, sweetie.  It doesn't hurt."

            Brendan watched his stepfather with suspicious eyes as the man reached over and took Linda's hand.  He gave it a tender squeeze.  "Your mom's a tough gal, Brendan."  Luke winked at the boy as though they were sharing some man-to-man joke.  "I promise I'll make her feel better later on tonight."


            The twelve-year-old dropped his eyes to his plate, not liking the sexual innuendo behind that sentence.  He knew his mom didn't like it any better, because her eyes remained glued on her plate for the remainder of the meal as well.


            Later that night, when the entire household was in bed, Brendan lay awake on his bottom bunk.  He thought he heard the squeak of bedsprings coming from his mother's room, and then faint noises that sounded like the grunting of a rutting bear. The last sound he heard before he finally fell into a troubled sleep was that of his mother crying. 


            Brendan didn't realize the soreness he felt in his arms the next day was because he'd slept with his hands balled into fists.



Chapter 14


            The same Sunday evening that Linda Ecklund was being terrorized by her husband, found Rick Simon sitting next to his brother at the work counter in A.J.'s room.


            Cecilia had been with her youngest son that afternoon.  They'd played a game similar to Scrabble designed by one of the hospital's therapists that used easy words made up of no more than four letters.  It had been frustrating for A.J., like it always was when he found himself at a loss as to how to correctly spell simple words like cat and dog, but at least he didn't clear the board with an angry swipe of his hand like he'd been known to do on several occasions.  Aside from the game, mother and son took a slow walk on the lush grounds behind the building, put a puzzle together, then Cecilia read a few chapters of a Robin Cook novel to A.J. before joining him in the cafeteria for dinner.  She left right after walking A.J. back to his room.  She knew Rick would arrive shortly and stay until his brother was ready to go to bed, or until visiting hours ended, whichever came first.


            Rick sat at his sibling's elbow at seven o'clock that night, watching as A.J. printed the letters of the alphabet as he'd done with Brendan on Friday evening.  Although it was like observing a young child struggle to put each symbol on the paper, Rick was proud of his brother.  A.J. was retaining and correctly identifying more and more letters all the time, though there were still several that gave him trouble.


            Rick gently interrupted his brother's concentration for the third time in five minutes.   "Whoa, A.J., hold up there a second.  See, you missed the O, P, and Q again.  Erase the R and start with the letter O."


            A.J. shot his brother a look that indicated his frustration level was rising.  He did as he was told, however, but instead of printing an O, he added a tail to the letter, making it a Q.


            "Almost," Rick said,  "but not quite.  That's a Q.  You want to start with the O.  Remember, O, P, and then comes Q."


            A.J. grabbed for the paper with his left hand, intending to crumple it into a ball and add it the pile already littering the floor.  Rick stopped his motion in mid-air by loosely grasping A.J.'s wrist.

            "Huh, uh.  Don't do that again.  Remember what I told you the last time. I'll make you begin with the letter A if you do.  Now come on, give yourself a few minutes to calm down, then we'll start again with the O."


            A.J.'s breath came out in hard, uneven pants as he glared at his brother through his lashes.  He sat as slumped and sullen as an angry ten-year-old.


            "Do you want me to leave for a while?"  Rick offered.  He'd was well aware A.J. was doing the best he could, but Rick, his mother, and A.J.'s therapists, were beginning to employ methods meant to help him gain control of his tenuous temper.  One of those methods was to allow him time to cool down without anyone present to pressure him.




            "Are you ready to try again?"

            A.J. gave a heavy sigh of despair.  "What-----use?"

            "There's a lot of use to it, A.J.  Look how far you've come.  Just a few weeks ago you only recognized three or four letters.  Now you've almost got the whole alphabet licked.  It won't take much longer and it'll come easy for you again, kid, I promise."




            Rick gave his brother's elbow a tender jab with his own.  "Hey, you'll always be a...."


            "I-------know," A.J. acknowledged while trying to hide his smile.  "Al----ays----------kid-------you."


            "Yep, that's right.  You'll always be a kid to me.  Now come on, let's try again.  Only we'll do something different this time.  How about if you print your name for me down here at the bottom."


            A.J.'s, "Okay," came out a little too willingly.  All too soon Rick knew why.  He laughed while grasping his sibling in a cross between a loose hug and a playful wrestling hold. 


            "Hey, smart guy, you know what I meant." 


            For instead of printing Andrew Jackson Simon, like Rick had wanted him to do, A.J. had settled for simply printing an A, and a J.


            The blond smiled.  "I------know.  But--------easy.  An'------I--------A.J."


            "Yeah, you are.  But I want you to print it all for me.  The whole shot.  Andrew Jackson Simon."


            "Okay------okay," A.J. sighed like a properly chastised school boy.


            Troya Yeager smiled, then moved away from the door without either Simon brother being aware of her presence. 




            Rick stood in A.J.'s room later that night while the blond changed into his pajamas and brushed his teeth.  The lanky man walked over to the counter, glancing down at the neat pile of papers they'd left there that A.J. would show one of his therapists the next morning.  His eyes fell on an upper corner of one of the papers where A.J. had printed an L and B all by themselves.  Puzzled, Rick fingered through other papers seeing the same thing on one of them, while on another the L and the B were circled where they sat in their proper places amongst the other letters of the alphabet. Rick recalled the night in A.J.'s hospital room at County General when the blocks that contained the L and the B had caused such an upset.


            When A.J. shuffled out of the bathroom with the aid of his cane Rick noticed he was minus his pajama top.  He recognized this as an old habit reasserting itself, and for just a brief moment smiled.  Then he caught sight of the molten bruises that still covered A.J.'s left side from armpit to hip.  Granted, they were beginning to fade and become a splotchy yellow and smoky blue-gray rather than one large angry mass of brilliant red, but still, they were a grim reminder of how quickly life can change.  A grim reminder of what Rick perceived his own carelessness had done to his brother.


            The detective silently observed while A.J. struggled to put his clothes away.  His trousers fell off the hanger three times before he could make them stay on it.  As much as Rick wanted to, he didn't offer to help.  He knew even the small act of hanging up a pair of pants without assistance was one more triumph A.J. had to be allowed, regardless of how painful it was for Rick to watch.  Regardless of how much additional blame it caused him to accumulate inside his soul. 


            Leaning heavily on his cane, A.J. bent down. He deposited his dirty clothes in the zippered sports bag that sat on his closet floor.  Once a week Cecilia took the bag home, washing the clothes within before returning them neatly folded and pressed.  The housekeeping staff only took care of the bed covers, bath towels, and washcloths. A patient's personal laundry was the responsibility of his or her family.


            A.J. sensed Rick's sudden sadness and distraction as he emerged from the small closet. "Kee?------Kee-------okay?"


            For the sake of his brother, Rick set aside his guilt, sorrow, and depression.  "Yeah, A.J.  Yeah, I'm fine.  You ready for bed?"



            "You want your Walkman?"



            As A.J. pulled the covers back and climbed in the bed, Rick retrieved the small tape player/radio from the cabinet above the counter.  He grabbed a handful of tapes and laid them on the nightstand.  He gave his brother the Walkman, but didn't assist as A.J. fumbled through the tapes before picking out 'The Best Of The Sixties' and awkwardly popping it in the player.  It took four attempts before he could match the holes in the cassette with the spindles in the Walkman that would allow the tape to turn.  In his own halting, limited way, A.J. had told Rick a few weeks ago that his right hand felt like it belonged to a three-year-old when it was forced to do functions that required fine motor skills.


            "In the mood for a little nostalgia tonight, huh?"  Rick asked in reference to A.J.'s musical choice.

            "Yes."   A.J. pressed a button on the side of his bed, raising it to a forty degree angle.  He leaned back against his pillows and pulled the covers to his waist.


            "Say, A.J., I wanna ask you something before I leave."  Rick crossed to the counter and picked up one of the papers.  "I noticed you circled the L and the B on this paper, and that you printed it in the corners of your other two papers.  Why'd you do that?"

            Even A.J. wasn't sure why he'd done that, so how could explain it to Rick?  Everything he wanted to tell his brother, he had no words for, other than those in his mind.  And even if he could say them, how would they sound?

            Well see, Rick, it's like this.  I keep having this dream about playing hockey with a guy who skates by me saying Elbee, then I'm chasing Wyatt Earp, before being swarmed by killer bees.  Then I'm talking to Captain Kirk, only he turns into Brendan, then two Klingons have a fight and one's dying words to me are, "Tell Taylor I love him."  I pick up a hockey puck that's really not a hockey puck at all, but instead a pair of sunglasses with an L and a B engraved on the earpiece; that somehow managed to be in my possession when I arrived at County General.  Now, whether this L. B. is the same thing as an Elbee, I'm not sure, but I'm trying to figure it out. And, to top it off, you're riding a shark that mauls me and you won't help me, but that's stupid, because you'd never let anything hurt me.



            When A.J.'s eyes focused on his brother Rick asked the question again.  "Why'd you circle the L and the B on this paper?"

            Because he didn't have the words, and because the explanation would have sounded ludicrous even if he did, A.J. simply shrugged his shoulders.  "Don-------know."

            "You don't know?"



            "Oh.  I guess you were just foolin' around, huh?"

            "Yes.  Fool--------round."

            Rick returned the paper to its place on top of the pile.  He wasn't sure why he didn't readily accept A.J.'s denial that there was no special meaning to what he'd done, except to say he got the feeling something was troubling his brother.  That those two letters signified something to A.J. either he couldn't remember, or didn't know how to voice. 


            The practical part of Rick's mind scolded him for that last conclusion.  Come on, Rick, don't look for something that isn't there.  He's suffered a severe head injury, as everyone is so fond of reminding you.  It's changed him in some ways.  Just because circling letters on a piece of paper would mean something if A.J. was working on case, doesn't mean they represent anything to him now.                            


            Rick pushed his thoughts to the back of his mind when he turned and walked over to the bed to say his final good nights.  "I'll be goin' now, buddy.  I know you've got to get up early tomorrow morning."


            All patients rose between six and six-thirty during weekdays, the ringing of alarm clocks at varying intervals making the floor sound like a busy college dorm.   Those that were physically able to be somewhat independent like A.J. now was were expected to shower, dress, and make their beds with little or no assistance.  They had to be in the cafeteria between seven and seven-thirty for breakfast, their first therapy sessions began promptly at eight.


            Rick bent to hug his brother.  He felt A.J.'s arms come up and encircle his back.  This hug goodbye had become a habit each time Rick ended one of his visits, regardless of how angry A.J. may have been at him only minutes earlier while they worked on the alphabet or tried to solve simple arithmetic problems.


            "Night, pal."  Rick straightened, hating how thin and fragile A.J. felt.




            "I don't know yet whether or not I'll be here tomorrow evening, or if it'll be Mom.  It kinda depends on what's goin' on at the office."



            "Yeah, I got a case I'm workin' on now.  Remember, the one we discussed together yesterday afternoon?"


            "Case?"  A.J. repeated, as if this information was new to him.


            Ever since the accident Rick had made sure A.J. continued to feel a part of Simon and Simon.  He never accepted a case or made a decision regarding the business prior to discussing it with his brother.


            "Yeah, the one involving the runaway girl from Des Moines.  Her folks think she might be here in San Diego somewhere."  Rick patiently refreshed his brother's memory.  "Her dad's an old college buddy of Lee  Reiner's, which is how the guy got our name.  Remember me tellin' you about it yesterday?"


            Although A.J. didn't recall anything about the case Rick was discussing, he wouldn't acknowledge that to his brother. That didn't matter, however, because the intense concentration that first appeared on A.J.'s face, followed by the look of frustration at the way his mind failed him, gave Rick all the clues he needed.  Rick didn't reveal what he knew, though, but instead smoothly allowed the conversation to proceed.   

            "So anyway, if I’m tied up Mom will be here.  If that happens, I'll give you a call before you go to bed."


            "Okay.  Be-------care."


            "Be careful?"


            "I will be.  You want me turn off the light and shut the door as I leave?"



            "All right then, I'll be goin'.  Good night, A.J."


            "Nigh, Kee."


            Rick extinguished the overhead light as he passed, leaving the room bathed in the muted glow of the bedside lamp.  The last sight Rick had of his brother as he shut the door was of A.J. reclining back against his pillows with his eyes closed, listening to the music playing softly through the earphones of his Walkman.


            Rick backed away from A.J.'s door, stumbling when he bumped into the woman standing behind him.


            "I'm sorry, Mr. Simon.  I didn't mean to trip you."


            Rick smiled at Troya Yeager.  "No harm done.  And it's Rick, not Mr. Simon."


            "Rick," the woman amended.  She moved away from A.J.'s closed door, Rick walking beside her.  "I hope you don't think I'm guilty of eavesdropping.  I like to observe my patients interacting with their families.  It gives me the opportunity to see firsthand what type of encouragement and help they're receiving from those closest to them."


            "And allows you to make certain no one is ever hurt again the way Jared was by his brother."


            Troya glanced at Rick.  She barely had to look up.  With the two inch heels on her shoes she was six feet tall.  


            "You're a very perceptive man, Mr. Si...Rick."


            "It's what I do."


            "Yes, I suppose it is."


            Doctor Yeager said good night to the nurses on duty as she passed their station, then continued walking with Rick to the elevator.  "I must commend you, Rick.  I'm very impressed with the time and devotion you give to A.J."


            Rick shrugged the compliment off.  "He'd do the same for me."

            The pair made small talk during the brief time span it took them to ride the elevator from the third floor to the first.  They exited as one, Rick keeping step with the woman as she headed for her office. "Are you going home?"

            "After I pick up my purse.  Why?"

            "I'll wait for you."


            When Doctor Yeager gave Rick a look he interpreted as, ‘What's this cowboy think I am, desperate?’ His face colored light pink with embarrassment.  


"To walk you to your car, I mean.  I'll wait for you in order to walk you to your car.  Because it's dark outside and all."


            "Oh.  Well, thank you.  I didn't realize there were any old-fashioned guys left in this harsh world in which we live."


            Rick's eyes crinkled in a teasing smile.  "There's still one or two of us around.  You just have to look hard to find us."


            "Then this must be my lucky night.  I'll be right out."


            Rick waited while the woman briefly scanned the phone messages her secretary had left on her desk.  When she was satisfied nothing needed her immediate attention, Troya retrieved her small purse from a drawer of the credenza, shut off the lights, locked her office door, then joined Rick in the hall.


            The pair exited through the main doors, Rick following Troya to her reserved parking spot.  When she came to a red Mazda Miata convertible she stopped. 


            "This is it.  Thanks for walking with me."


            "Sure.  Anytime.  Say, uh...listen, I don't know if you've had supper yet, but I haven't.  You wanna go somewhere and grab a bite to eat?"


            In the second it took the doctor to answer, Rick was mentally kicking himself for his impulsive invitation.  This elegant woman, with her advanced education, expensive designer clothing, and hot little foreign sports car, was so far out of his league she might as well be Diana, Princess of Wales.


            Simon, you idiot.  There's no way a classy broad like this is gonna agree to go anywhere with you. 


            "Sure.  Sure, I'd like that very much."


            "Pardon me?"


            "I said I'd like that very much."


            "You would?"

            "Certainly.  I haven't had supper either."  An impish smile curled the corners of Troya's mouth.  "Unless, of course, now that you've asked me, you're having second thoughts."       


            How the hell do women do that?  Even the ones that barely know you seem to be able to read your mind.


            "No, I'm not having second thoughts."  Rick cast about for a suitable place to suggest they dine.  He tried to remember how much money he had in his wallet.  Maybe twenty bucks, twenty-five at the most.  Not enough to show a woman like this a good time; that was for sure.   He was attempting to recall if he'd returned his MasterCard to his wallet the last time he'd used it, or if it was in a pocket of the field jacket that was hanging in his closet at home, when Troya offered a suggestion. 


            "How about if we go to Marty's Cafe.  Do you know where it's at?"

            "Uh...sure."  Rick thought of the small, corner restaurant he'd stopped in late one night after visiting A.J.  There was nothing special about it. The ripped upholstery on some of the booths had even been repaired with silver duct tape.  He could hardly picture Doctor Troya Yeager having the desire to dine there.


            "They've got great cheeseburgers.  And their milkshakes..." the woman closed her eyes in appreciation,  "well, their milkshakes were sent straight from heaven.  So, is that okay with you?"

            "Yeah...uh, yeah.  That's fine.  I'll meet you there."


            "Okay, meet you there."


            Troya gave Rick a little wave after she'd safely entered her car.  He trotted off for the visitors' lot where he'd left his truck.


            The restaurant was five blocks from the hospital.  By the time Rick pulled up behind the Miata the doctor was exiting the vehicle.  She waited on the sidewalk while Rick locked his truck, then they walked into the twenty-four hour diner together. 


            Rick doubted the place had been redecorated since it had been built some time prior to World War II.  Aside from the ragged red booths, stools lined the coffee counter where fresh baked pies and doughnuts resided in a display case.


            A young man waved through the picture-window opening that separated the kitchen from the eating area.  "Hi, Doctor Yeager!"


            "Hi, Jason!  How's the philosophy class going?"


            Long-suffering dominated the college student's face.  "Too philosophical for me, that's for sure."


            "How well I remember."  Troya sympathized.  "Hang in there, Jas.   You'll get through it.  I'm living proof of that."


            The only waitress in the place looked up from where she was refilling a customer's coffee cup.   "Hi, Doctor Yeager.  How ya' doin' tonight?"


            "I'm fine, Ruth.   How about yourself?"

            "Other than these old tired feet of mine, I'm doin' okay."

            Troya seemed to have a specific destination in mind as she led Rick to a booth.  He was rather surprised at how familiar and comfortable she was with this dive.  To be honest, he thought she had suggested it because she'd assumed it was all he could afford on a private eye's salary.  He hadn't fallen for the way she'd professed affection for their cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Just about any working-man's restaurant served up those staples, but now Rick found himself being forced to acknowledge there might be more to this woman than met the eye.


            It was ten-thirty, and the restaurant was devoid of all but the lone man drinking coffee and eating a doughnut at the counter. The fifty-something waitress brought menus over, but Troya waved hers aside.  "I know exactly what I want, Ruth.  A double cheeseburger, an order of fries, and a chocolate shake."


            Rick didn't bother to make use of the menu either.  "I'll have the same."


            The woman scribbled the order on her pad, then tucked her pencil behind her right ear.  "Great.  I'll be right back with the shakes."  Ruth walked away calling, "Hey, Jasie boy!  Two twin cheesies and two orders of fries made the way the French like 'em!"


            Rick's eyes roamed the restaurant while the milkshake machine whined in the background. 


            "I'm sorry," Troya apologized.  "You don't like this place, do you?"

            "Who me?  No, no, this is fine.   It's just that--"


            "That what?"

            Rick sought for a diplomatic way to voice his thoughts.  "'s just not the kind of place I expected you to suggest."


            "Oh, really?  And just what kind of place did you expect me to suggest."


            "The kind that only serves yogurt and bean sprouts."


            Troya threw her head back and laughed.  "So I look like a yogurt and bean sprout girl to you, huh?"

            "Not just yogurt and bean sprouts.  I figured you also went for some of that tofu crap and organically grown vegetables, too."


            Their conversation briefly ceased when two thick chocolate shakes were set in front of them in tall, funnel-shaped glasses.  A mountain of whipped cream topped each shake, a succulent cherry resting on the peak.


            Troya reached for one of the spoons Ruth had left in the center of the table.  She scooped out a dollop of the white foam.  "I hate to disappoint you, Rick, but I'm definitely not a fan of tofu."


            Rick smiled while digging into his own whipped cream.  "Glad to hear it, 'cause as far as I'm concerned the only thing that stuff should be used for is to sod someone's lawn."


            Troya laughed again at Rick's wry sense of humor.  "I couldn't agree with you more."  She finished her whipped cream, ate the cherry, hid the pit neatly in a napkin, then pushed her glass aside. 


            "I wasn't being dishonest back at the hospital when I told you how impressed I am with your devotion to A.J.  From what I've seen, and from what I've been told by the staff, you're wonderful with him, Rick.  I may even offer you a job."


            Rick raised an eyebrow in puzzlement, prompting the doctor to explain her light-hearted statement.


            "Whether you realize it or not, you have a special gift when it comes to working with A.J.  You're extremely patient with him, and you never lose your temper.   Which can't be said about a lot of men."


            "Whatta ya' mean by that?"


            "Being forced to face the disabilities of a brain injured family member is often difficult for men.  Psychologists who specialize in this area of medicine will tell you that's because men aren't given to nurturing the way women are.  Women tend to be more accepting of their husband's, sibling's, or child's limitations. For men, that often doesn't hold true.  They expect that with enough hard work their family member will eventually be all he or she was prior to the accident or illness that brought him or her to rehab.  In some cases, that happens. But, in many others, it doesn't.  Over the years I've seen a number of men be demanding of their injured loved one in ways that are totally unrealistic given the situation.  Rather than handling things in the manner you did this evening with A.J. and his struggles over the alphabet, a lesser man would have gotten angry with him.   Would have chastised him for his failure, which would have only done more harm than good.  But you didn't do that.  You were patient, understanding, and seemed to know just what to do in order to motivate A.J. to try again."  Troya smiled across the table at the detective.  "So, Doctor Simon, what's your secret?"

            "No secret really.  At least none that I'm aware of.  A.J. and I have always been close.  Since the day he was born it seems like.  For as long as I can remember we've had a bond that extends beyond merely being brothers.  Through all the arguments, the bickering, and the teasing, we've somehow managed to remain each other's best friend.  It's a little late now to go changin' that, no matter what the reason.  Besides, it's like I told someone when this first happened," Rick said, while thinking of Brendan and the conversation they'd had in Pizza Hut,  "no matter how the accident might have affected my brother, no matter what abilities he's lost that he may never regain, he's still A.J., and I'll still love him like I always have.  No injury of any kind can take away who A.J. is inside, and who he is to me."


            "Okay, Mr. Simon, how much do you charge?"

            "How much do I charge for what?"

            "For that lecture.  I'd like to hire you to speak with every new family I meet."


            "I don't charge anything, but then, I'm not much on public speaking, either.  You feel free to borrow any part of what I just said whenever you think it might come in handy."


            "I can assure you it'll come in handy on a frequent basis.  I hope A.J. knows how lucky he is to have a brother, and a best friend, like you."

            Rick shrugged.  "We both know how lucky we are I expect.  And besides, I'm not as perfect as you make me out to be."


            "You're not?"  Troya put a hand over her heart, feigning shock.  "Really?  Why, Mr. Simon, despite the fact that you pushed past my secretary and barged in on my meeting with the board of directors while yelling at the top of your lungs, I never would have thought you anything less than perfect."


            Rick laughed at the teasing.  "Yeah, that's more the true me all right.  And as far as patience goes, well, believe me, that gene was left out of the Simon genetic code completely.  Neither A.J. or I possess a helluva lot of it.  I lose my temper with him once in a while, especially when he's being stubborn, but I've learned to walk away and give us both a few minutes to cool down.  The one time I blew my stack...well, neither one of us was too pleased with the results," Rick finished, privately recalling the bedwetting incident at County General.


            "But you learned from the experience, that's the important thing.  No one can prepare themselves for the challenges you and A.J. are now facing.  None of us can predict how we'd react to circumstances such as these.  Let me assure you, for every family it's an on-going learning experience."


            Before Rick could tell the woman her words brought him at least a small peace of mind, their food arrived.  Hot steam billowed up from the cheeseburgers that were laden with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and onions.  


            "Can I get you folks anything else?"  The waitress asked. 


             Troya reached for the ketchup.  "No, nothing for me, Ruth.  Thank you."


            "This is fine," Rick answered.  "Thanks."


            Rick smiled as he watched the doctor squirt a crooked river of ketchup all over her French fries like a little girl might do.  She caught the amusement in his eyes as she passed the plastic squeeze bottle to him. Her apology came with a mixture of sheepishness and embarrassment. 


"I'm sorry."


            "For what?"


            "For not being the sophisticated socialite you expected me to be."


            "That's okay by me. I don't do too well with the socialite type.  I never can remember what fork I'm supposed to use for what food."


            Troya leaned across the table on her elbows, whispering,  "I'll let you in on a little secret.  Neither can I."


            As the couple ate, the talk shifted back to A.J.  Doctor Yeager filled Rick in on his brother's progress of the past week, both the positive aspects of it, and of the pitfalls he'd encountered.  From there she told of where A.J.'s rehabilitation program was headed in the coming weeks.


            "Regardless of how stubborn A.J. can be at times, and how angry he gets at himself, he works hard, Rick.  Extremely hard.  His anger and stubbornness simply come from what he deems his failure.  He's a perfectionist, which means it's difficult for him to accept the small things that trip him up right now like remembering the letters O, P, and Q, for example."


            "And here I thought I was the one who was perceptive.  You're pretty perceptive yourself, Doctor."


            Troya shrugged while sipping her milkshake through the straw.  "One perfectionist always recognizes another.  People like myself and A.J. are the overachievers in life.  The kids who were never satisfied with an A, if an A plus was our ultimate goal.  The kids who did extra credit assignments even though our grades would have allowed us to skip them.  The kids who, given a long-term project due in a month, had it done and ready to hand in three days later."


            "The kids who gave kids like me a bad name," Rick said. 

            "Oh, so you're not a perfectionist, huh?"

            "By the look in your eyes when you say that, I think you already guessed the answer to that question, but no, I'm not a perfectionist.  I never could see the point in beatin' my head against the wall tryin' to get an A, when a C would get me by.  And, believe me, I never did extra credit assignments, even though my mother will tell you my grades could have used the help.  And as far as completing an assignment weeks before it was due...hell, I remember A.J. helping me glue cardboard soldiers on a homemade display of a Civil War battlefield just hours before I had to turn it in.  Geez, he couldn't have been more than eight-years-old, and the whole while he's lecturin' me on how much easier things woulda' been if I'd have started the assignment when it had first been given to me.  But that didn't stop him from skipping recess to willingly offer me a hand."


            "Like you willingly offer him a hand now."


            "I wish it was that easy."


            "Pardon me?"

            "As easy as sticking cardboard figures to a piece of plywood.  Every day, every single day, I wish I could turn back the clock.  If I could do anything for A.J., it would be turn back the clock and change everything about the day the accident happened."


            The only details Doctor Yeager knew regarding the accident that brought A.J. Simon to her, was that he'd been hit by a truck while working on a case with his brother. 


"I'm sure you would.  That holds true for every person who watches a loved one endure what A.J. is.   But he's strong, Rick.  So strong.  He never gives up.  Oh, he might get angry and refuse to try for a while, but the thing I love about your brother, is that within a few minutes he's apologizing for his behavior and ready to tackle whatever caused the upset one more time.  His perseverance is remarkable.  In so many ways, he reminds me of Tad."



            "My twin brother.  Don't tell me you didn't figure it out from studying the pictures on my desk, Mr. Private-Eye."


            Rick thought back to the photograph of the blond headed boy and girl on the beach wearing matching swimsuits.  "No, I didn't figure it out, to tell you the truth.  Actually, I thought the older man was Doctor Yeager."

            "Older man?"

            "Yeah.  The gray headed guy in the picture with the woman.  I thought he was you."

            "Then you must have been pretty surprised when I walked in the room."


            "In more ways than one."  Rick recalled their first meeting and how he perceived this gorgeous woman to be stoic and all business.


            "To satisfy your curiosity, the gray headed guy is my father.  The woman seated next to him was my mother."



            "She passed away three years ago.  She contracted a rare virus that destroyed her liver and pancreas."

            "I'm sorry to hear that."

            Troya pushed her plate aside, a small portion of her cheeseburger and four French fries left uneaten.  Rick tucked his empty plate under hers and reached for the remainder of his milkshake.


            "It was difficult," the doctor acknowledged.  "It's never easy to lose a parent."

            "No, it's not."


            Though Troya didn't know the Simon family history, she was well aware there had never been any mention made of Rick and A.J.'s father.    By the tone of his voice alone, she took an educated guess.  "Your dad?"

            "Yeah.  He died when we were kids."


            "And your mother never remarried?"

            "No.  Though I think she's had a few offers over the years."


            "She seems very strong.  Very self-reliant.  The type of woman who can survive well on her own."


            "She can.  She always has.  But sometimes I wonder if she sacrificed her own happiness by devoting all her time to me and A.J. after our dad died.  For a lotta years the last thing I wanted was for her to get married again.  No special reason really, just the typical kinda stuff given the situation.   You know how it goes, a little bit of jealousy on my part, a lot of over-protectiveness on my part, and feelin' like no man could replace Dad in either my life or hers.  But now...well, now I just hope she didn't throw away her opportunity for future companionship, her opportunity for another good marriage, because of A.J. and me.  If she meets the right guy, she deserves every ounce of joy he can bring her."


            "I'm sure she does.  But your mother doesn't strike me as someone who didn't remarry just because she might have perceived disapproval on the part of her children."

            "No."  Rick smiled with chagrin.  "No, my mother doesn't live her life based on the approval or disapproval of her sons, that's for sure."


            "She sounds like my father.  A more stubborn, independent man I have yet to meet.  The 'immovable mountain' my mom used to call him.  And that he was, and still is, when he decides something is going to be a certain way."


            Ruth interrupted the conversation long enough to clear the table and ask if there was anything else she could bring.  Both Troya and Rick ordered a cup of coffee.  Troya drank hers black, while Rick added a packet of sugar and a few drops of cream.


            "So your dad ran the household with a pretty firm hand, huh?"

            "The word firm even understates his authority.  When he said jump, we were expected to ask how high.  Which was okay for my sister Ashton and me.  We were the type of children who strived to please our parents, or any other adult in a position of authority."


            "Ashton?  Is she the woman in the picture with the man and girls?"

            "How'd you know?"


            "She looks like your mother."

            Troya smiled in fond memory.  "Yes, she does.  She looks exactly like Mother did when she was healthy.  Tad and I look like our father."


            "Judgin' from that picture I'd guess your sister's quite a bit older than you and your brother.  Am I right?"


            "Yes, you are.  She's older by thirteen years.  Mom told me once that she and Dad never quit trying to have children after Ashton was born, but it just never happened.  And in those days, during the forties and early fifties, doctors didn't know much about infertility.  You had as many kids as you had, and that was about it.  Therefore, my parents were caught quite by surprise when Mom found out she was pregnant just as Ashton was about to enter the eighth grade.  Other than the fact she was as big as an elephant - Mom's words, not mine, there was no indication she was carrying twins until Tad emerged from the birth canal a minute and a half after me.  They claim it took my father a week to get over the shock of it all."


            "I'll bet."


            Troya delicately blew on her hot coffee before taking a sip.  "I don't really remember Ashton living at home.  When she was eighteen she left for college in New York.  Unbeknownst to my father, she was also pursuing a career in modeling, something she had dreamed of since she was ten, just as strongly as Dad disapproved of it."

            "Why's that?"


            "I'm not really sure.  I suppose concern over his daughter's safety was foremost in his mind.  Modeling can be a pretty seedy business if a young girl gets involved with the wrong people.  And Dad didn't understand the profession, nor why magazines would pay someone to have their picture taken.  He thought it was all foolishness."


            "Did he ever come around to it?"

            "Grudgingly over a period of years.  My sister became quite famous and sought-after during the decade of the sixties.  She graced the cover of nearly every major woman’s magazine.  When she was ready to 'retire' at the ripe old age of thirty, she moved to Paris where she opened her own modeling agency.  That's where she met her husband, Armand.  He's a fashion designer so they're a match made in heaven, as the saying goes.  The picture on my desk is outdated by a few years.  My nieces, Colette and Noelle, are practically grown women now.  Colette attends college in Paris, and Noelle is a high school senior at a private girls' academy also in Paris."


            "So your nieces grew up over there?"

            "Yes.  It's a shame really.  Tad and I barely know them.  They seem like good kids, but I'm only speculating on that to tell you the truth.   Ashton and Armand try to fly here every Christmas, and Dad flies over there for a three week stay each July, but that's about all the contact we have with them other than an occasional phone call.  I suppose it's only natural, though, what with the number of years and miles that separate us.


            "It's different with Tad and me.  We're close in the same ways you and A.J. are.  We've fought, and bickered, and teased, for most of our thirty-six years, but I doubt either of us has a better friend than the other.  Tad...well, my brother has gotten me through some pretty tough spots in my life.  There was a time some years back I don't think I would have been able to go on living without his unwavering support.  But, then he tells me he's only returning the favor for all the rough spots I've gotten him through, so I guess we're even.  Not that it matters.  We don't keep track of things like that."


            "No, me and A.J. don't either.  We figure one way or another it all comes out in the wash."  Rick stirred more cream into his coffee.  "You said you and your sister didn't have a problem living under the firm hand of your dad.  I take it that's not the case with your brother."


            Troya smiled, shaking a finger at Rick.  "See there.  You are perceptive."  She sobered, brushing a stray lock of pale hair behind her left ear.  "Tad and my father have had their challenges, that's for certain.  At one time, many years ago, they were very close.  Tad followed our father everywhere, in awe of his daddy like most little boys are.  But then we started first grade and things...well, things slowly went from bad to worse."


            "How so?"

            "School had always come easy for Ashton, so naturally Mom and Dad thought it would come easy for Tad and me.  In my case, that held true.  In Tad's, it didn't.  He struggled so hard to master the simplest things like how to spell his name or correctly print the numbers one through ten.  As time went on, and he encountered more and more failures, he became a troublemaker like children often do who don't fit into the normal school environment.  By the time we were in the fourth grade the teachers told my parents he was lazy, that he willfully misbehaved and disobeyed, that he was the class clown, and an underachiever.  I wish I could tell you how many spankings that poor kid endured at my father's hand every time he brought home a poor report card or a note from the principal detailing his latest misdeeds.  I used to stand outside the door of my father's study crying as I listened to his belt smack against Tad's behind.  Dad would be yelling at him, demanding to know why he couldn't be more like me.  Why he couldn't get good grades like I did, why he couldn't behave himself like I did, why he couldn't get glowing reports from the teachers like I did.  I can't even begin to tell you how it tore my heart out on Tad's behalf, and how angry it made me at my father.  I knew Tad wasn't any of the things our teachers said he was.  I knew he wasn't stupid, or lazy, or a troublemaker.  Somehow, even at nine-years-old, I knew there was something wrong with him.  Something that was preventing him from learning.  The problem was, I didn't know how to put it into words, and even if I had, no one would have listened.


            "The remarkable thing was, despite all the spankings and the unfair comparisons, Tad never hated me.  We used to cry together up in my room after Dad spanked him, and I'd always apologize.  Always tell Tad I was sorry for being who I was.  He never let me do that, though.  Instead, he'd tell me how proud he was of me, and that I was his best friend in the whole wide world."


            "What happened to him?"  Rick asked.  "Did he finish school?"   


            "With my help, yes he did.  To this day my father doesn't know that I wrote out practically all of my brother's high school papers.  We'd sit up in Tad's bedroom long after my parents were asleep and study together.  But I wouldn't just 'do' his papers for him. I read him the questions then made him give me the answers.  It was then that I knew for certain Tad was far from stupid.  He was actually quite intelligent and possessed an amazing memory.  It was then that I realized the only thing wrong with my brother was that he couldn't read."


            "Couldn't read?"


            "No.  Years later there would be a word for his condition.  You've probably heard of it.  Dyslexia?"


            "Sure, I've heard of it.  It's where the person actually sees the letters backwards, isn't it?"


            "That's part of it.  Only they really don't see the letters that way, but that's often how their minds interpret them.  It's a learning disability that's often times genetic.  It can also be brought on by a head injury.  Tad took a bad fall off his bike when he was five.  He suffered a severe concussion and was hospitalized for a week.  It's quite possible that was the start of his problems.  Especially since no one else on either my mother's or father's side of the family suffered from the condition as far as we know.  Regardless, it was because of Tad that I went into the line of work I did.  I never wanted to see another person, be they child or adult, humiliated the way I saw that little boy humiliated throughout his growing up years.  I never wanted to see another child spanked for something that was beyond their ability to change.  So. I suppose in many ways the work I do now is a tribute to my brother and all he endured."


            "That's a heck of a tribute."


            "As you're fond of saying in reference to A.J., Tad would have done the same for me."


            "Where is he now?"

            "My brother?"


            "Here in San Diego.  After we graduated from high school I headed straight to college where I studied physical therapy.  It was through my classes my freshman year I heard about dyslexia for the first time.  For some reason I just knew that was the root of all Tad's problems.  I read everything I could find on the subject, determined to come up with a way to help him.  Problem was, we didn't know where Tad was at.  As you can imagine, after his school experiences the last thing he wanted to do was attend college.  Because the relationship between Tad and our father was tenuous at its best, and explosive at its worst, he drifted around the country for a year or so after high school.  Then one day half way through my sophomore year at Stanford, Tad showed up on the doorstep of my apartment, drunk, dirty, and high on I don't know what all.  I let him in, cleaned him up, fed him a hot meal, and gave him a place to sleep.  The next morning I really read him the riot act.  I couldn't believe he'd be so foolish as to get mixed up with drugs.  Despite his grades he'd always been a gifted athlete.  To tell you the truth, that's what I think got him through high school.  At least when he was on the football field or circling the track he was somebody.  Or so he often said. 


            "Anyway, I told him he could live with me provided he cleaned up his act.  But if I found just one joint, pill, needle, or bottle of booze, he was going to be out on his butt, no questions asked.


            "He got really angry with me.  Said some...very hurtful things.  Accused me of being a tyrant like our father, even disappeared for a few days.  I honestly didn't think I'd ever see him again, and while that broke my heart, I wasn't going to allow him to destroy himself right in front of my eyes."


            "I take it he showed back up."

            "Yes.  To this day I don't know where he went or what caused him to make the decision he did.  But when Tad came back a week later he was sober and drug-free, and promising to stay that way.  We worked together all that winter on the program I'd designed to help him learn to read.  By the time summer came he was ready to enroll in some classes.  He went on to get a degree in marketing and public relations.  He worked so hard, Rick.  Took as many classes as he could possibly handle.  His ultimate goal was that we'd graduate together.  We did.  I don't think my parents could have ever been prouder of Tad than they were that day in May of 1974 when he received his college diploma."


            Rick drank the last of his coffee then returned the empty cup to the saucer.  "What's he do now?"

            "He's runs his own company.  When we first got out of college Dad wanted my brother to join him in his real estate business, but Tad wouldn't have any part of it.  Their relationship was just beginning to heal.  Even though Tad had a better understanding of why our father was so rough on him as a child, he still bore a lot of open wounds.  He went to work in the public relations department for one of the television studios up in L.A.  A couple years after that he came back to San Diego and opened his business.  He's a motivational speaker."


            "Motivational speaker?"  Rick had heard the term, but knew it could encompass a wide range of areas.


            "He and the staff he now employs speak at seminars designed to help corporate executives and middle managers learn what motivates employees to perform to their fullest potential.  Tad’s built quite a name for himself in recent years. He’s very much in demand on the lecture circuit amongst Fortune 500 companies. "


            "Sounds like your brother has the kinda first-hand knowledge that would make him good at teaching folks what it takes to motivate someone in a positive manner."


            "He does.  The first-hand knowledge, plus the charm, charisma, and good looks to go along with it.  He's really quite a captivating man.  And also quite a wealthy one."


            "Have he and your father made their peace?"

            Troya's face reflected her uncertainty.  "In some ways yes, in others no.  Dad did apologize to Tad many years ago for the harsh discipline he'd imposed on him as a child.  Still, I don't think Tad has ever really forgiven him.  I've tried to point out to him that Dad was doing the best he could, and like our teachers, was ignorant as to the cause of Tad's problems.  But I know there are a lot of hurts that will never be completely healed, regardless of how much I might want to see that happen.  My brother has lived his entire adult life trying to prove to our father that he's the better man.  That's one reason for the estate on the ocean, the condo on Lake Tahoe, the villa on Barbados, the boats, the cars, the motorcycles, the private jet.  Through money, Tad's attempting to show Dad he's a bigger success.  I'm afraid a part of my brother will always be that little boy crying from an unjust spanking, while at the same time fantasizing about how to get back at his father."


            "So your father's a pretty successful guy, too?"

            "In the sense that he made a lot of money in his younger days, invested it wisely, and now lives quite comfortably.  The difference between Tad and my father is that my father doesn't indulge himself in an overly extravagant lifestyle.  The sad thing is, Tad's trying so hard to get back at Dad in a way that matters very little to our father, through money and acquiring ‘boy-toys,’ as I refer to Tad's vast collection of automobiles, boats, motorcycles, Jet-skis, and at least two dozen other things I can't keep track of.  None of which mean a thing to my father."


            "But they evidently represent something to your brother."


            "Yes, they do.  But sometimes, Rick, I have to wonder if they represent the right things."


            When the doctor didn't expound on her thoughts, Rick let the subject drop.  The late movie had let out down the street and customers were spilling in the restaurant altering the quiet atmosphere, and the couple's mood.


            Rick reached for the bill Ruth had left when she'd brought their coffee.  Troya reached for it as well.  They grappled over it for a few seconds, playfully arguing while trying to gain possession until they ended up tearing it in two.  Rick had the bottom half, thereby allowing him to pay for their meal.


            "Hey," Doctor Yeager protested,  "I didn't intend for you to pay for mine."


            "I asked you to dinner, didn't I?"


            "No.  You asked me if I'd eaten supper.  There's a difference."


            "Only a minor one."  Rick thrust his lean hips upwards as he dug for the wallet in his right hip pocket.  "Besides, my mother taught me if I walk a lady to her car, ask her if she's eaten supper, then meet her at a restaurant, I'm obligated to pay for her meal."


            "Your mother taught you that, huh?"

            "Yep."  Rick left the tip of four one dollar bills under his coffee cup. "You ask her next time you see her."


            Troya slid out of the booth.  "I'll be sure and do that."


            The woman waited by the door while Rick walked up to the cash register where Ruth took his money.   The waitress waved goodbye to Troya as the pair walked out into the night.


            The doctor paused in the act of unlocking her car.  The nearby streetlight made her hair look like a halo of fine-spun white silk.  "Thanks for dinner, Rick.  I had a very nice time."


            "Thank you, Doctor Yeager, for agreeing to join me."




            "I'd like it if you called me Troya.  My mother taught me if a man walks you to your car, asks you if you've eaten supper, meets you at a restaurant, and then insists on paying for your meal, you allow him to call you by your first name."

            "Oh, I see.  Okay, Troya it is."  Rick wished he could say the name at least three more times, liking how it sounded when spoken out loud.   He shifted nervously from boot to boot.  "Uh...I don't suppose you'd like to have dinner out again sometime."


            "Sure.  When?"

            The detective was momentarily taken aback by this beautiful woman's willing acceptance.  " about one night this week?"   Rick was getting ready to suggest Friday, but quickly changed his mind.  He didn't think he could wait that long before seeing her again.  "Wednesday, if that's okay with you."

            "That's fine with me."


            "I know a great seafood place near the marina where I live.  That is, if you like seafood."


            "I love it.  What time?"

            "Would it be okay if I meet you at the hospital after I've visited A.J.?  Or I could pick you up at your place if you'd rather."


            "No, we can meet at the hospital.  That'll be convenient for both of us."


            "I'll be waiting for you outside your office at nine-thirty if that works for you."


            "That's fine with me."  The woman tossed her purse in her car, then slid behind the wheel.   "See you on Wednesday evening, Rick."


            "Yeah, see you then.  Be careful driving home."


            "I will be.  Bye."




            Rick stood at the curb, watching until the little car was out of sight.  He whistled all the way back to his truck.  Later that night the detective lay awake on his houseboat, listening to the soft waves lap against her sides.  He didn't mind this sleepless night.  For once, his restless mind wasn't filled with images of A.J. being tossed over the hood of his truck, but instead were filled by a beautiful goddess named Troya.  He'd only been with her a few hours, and already he loved everything about her.  Her openness, her honesty, the habit she had of brushing her hair back with one hand, the way she cut her cheeseburger into four neat little rectangles, the goofy way she'd squirted ketchup all over her French fries, her husky laugh, her long legs, her sense of style and grace.  But, most of all, he admired the way she loved her brother.   Admired the way she'd helped her brother overcome a crippling disability. 


            As Rick Simon drifted off to sleep, he realized he and Troya Yeager had much more in common than he first thought possible.


Part 5