Chapter 19


            The ocean breezes got a little warmer and tangier, the days a little longer, as spring came to San Diego that year.  Because of Tad's busy schedule, Rick didn't get the opportunity to meet Troya's brother until a Sunday in late April.


            The detective wheeled his truck into the circular drive of the thirty room English Tudor mansion that rose three stories in height, and sprawled in all four directions.  He could see flecks of blue beyond the house and heard the swish of waves rolling onto Tad's breach front property.


            "Nice little place your brother's got here."


            Troya laughed.   "I told you he strives to outdo my father."


            And outdo his father Tad had accomplished.  The eight car garage housed a play toy for every day of the week, with one left over for good measure.  Whatever mood struck Tad Brooks, the appropriate vehicle was awaiting him.  There was a chocolate brown four door Mercedes sedan for business, a hunter green Chevy Blazer for ski trips to the mountains of Colorado, twin Harley Davidson Motorcycles that allowed Tad to invite a friend along for a day of cruising the California coast, a black limousine for those nights when taking clients to dinner was a must, a 1953 Riviera Red two seater Ford Thunderbird with white leather interior, a steel blue '65 Ford Mustang in mint condition, and a brand new apple-blossom-pink Porsche with vanity plates that spelled out, TAD'S GRL.


            Troya pointed to the Porsche.  "Shawna must be here, too."



            "Tad's girlfriend."

            "The way you say that, I get the feeling you don't think much of her."


            "'s not that really.  She's a nice enough person.  Just as empty headed as they come.  But, then, most of the women he sees are."  Troya's tone spoke of a concerned older sister.  "I don't care too much for his tastes in that area.  The majority of the women he's dated couldn't have an original thought without putting themselves in a coma from the effort.  As much as I hate to say this, I suspect my brother's more concerned with their performance in the bedroom than he is with their IQ."  Troya indicated to the Porsche with a wave of her hand.  "Thus, the expensive toys he lavishes them with.  I've always hoped he'd someday outgrow his juvenile tastes and settle down with a woman who possesses some depth, intelligence, ambition, and personality."


            Rick leaned over, placing his lips on the doctor's.  "You mean like I’ve done?"

            Troya nibbled at the detective's moustache, her tone heavy with a Scarlet O'Hara accent. "Oh, Mr. Simon, I can hardly believe you ever possessed shallow tastes when it came to your choice of women."


            Rick closed his eyes as the couple exchanged a long kiss.  "I don't any more."


            When the doctor and Rick finally broke apart, they laughed like guilty teenagers who'd been caught necking in broad daylight.  The detective hopped out of the truck, slamming the door and pocketing his keys.  He walked around to the other side, grabbed Troya by her thin waist, and lifted her down.  They were both dressed casually on this Sunday afternoon, a picnic and swim in the ocean on the agenda set forth by the master of the house.


            The couple passed another vehicle parked in the driveway, a gleaming black Corvette with a T-top roof and personalized plates,  KIT'S KAR. 


            Troya rang the front bell, not having long to wait before a uniformed maid answered.  Unlike Carmina, there was no easy camaraderie here, though Rick knew Troya to be a frequent visitor in her brother's home. 


            "Doctor Yeager," the middle aged Hispanic woman half bowed at the waist,  "Senor Brooks and his guests are on the veranda.  He instructed me to have you join him as soon as you arrived."


            Troya offered the woman a kind smile.  "Thank you, Vera."


            As though fearful of being caught derelict in her duties, the maid scurried off down a long hallway, leaving Troya to lead the way.  Rick tried not to stare as he passed rooms big enough to be dance halls.  Every one was furnished with only the finest in floor coverings, draperies, furniture, and artwork.  He couldn't even guess what this home was worth, but knew it had to be millions.


            Rick caught sight of two other uniformed women working in the kitchen.  He would later discover that Tad Brooks also employed a grounds keeper who doubled as a chauffeur.  The man drove the limo when necessary, while keeping the wide assortment of automobiles cleaned and polished to a brilliant shine. 


            By the time Rick and Troya made their way through the wide maze of halls to the concrete patio the size of the average person's back yard, the detective was certain he was going to be out of his league.   He expected to find he had no more in common with Tad Brooks than he did with Tad's father, Lowell, but soon discovered that was not the case.  From the first handshake they exchanged, Rick and Tad formed an amiable friendship.  They shared a passion for motorcycles and boats, and slipped off together to look over the Harleys in Tad's garage.


            Rick hunkered down on his knees, studying the chrome and turquoise frame of one of the big machines.  "I bought myself one of these babies three days after I got back from Nam.  My government paycheck didn't afford me one quite this fancy, but man, I loved her.  Over the course of the next year she carried me clear across the country without a single protest."


            "What made you get rid of her?"


            "I finally settled down on an isolated key south of Miami."  Rick stood, circling the bike with admiration.  "The kinda work I do caused the cycle to be impractical.  As much as I hated to, I sold it."


            "What type of work is it you do, Rick?"


            Rick smiled inwardly.  Although Tad's question was innocent enough, the detective knew he was being grilled to a certain extent.  That during the course of this conversation with Troya's brother, he'd either pass or flunk the test of acceptance into the family.


            "I'm a private investigator."


            Tad's eyes lit up at the notion of danger, excitement, fast cars, and exotic women.  "A private investigator?  No kidding?  That's very interesting.  My friend,'ll meet him in a few minutes, he and his girl are taking a dip in the ocean before we eat.  Anyway, Kit's a police officer with the county sheriff's department.  I bet you and he will have a lot of things in common."


            "Could be," Rick smiled.  "Though I'll warn you up front, cops aren't always thrilled with the notion of private citizens being licensed to do jobs the cops feel are better left to them."


            Tad gave a thoughtful nod.  "I see where you're coming from.  But, Kit's not like that.  I have a feeling you and he will get along great." 


            The blond man opened the door to the Thunderbird, inviting Rick to climb behind the wheel.  "Is your office in the San Diego area?"


            "Yeah," Rick eyed the Ford's instrument panel and ran a hand over the soft leather seats.  "Down in the Gas Lamp District."


            "Great.  Though in my line of work I don't have reason to make use of a P.I., or at least I never have yet, I do have a number of friends and business acquaintances who might have that need on occasion.  Are you currently taking on new clients?"

            Rick dipped his head as he slipped out of the low-slung Thunderbird.  "Believe me, when it comes to the P.I. business, a guy is always willing to take on new clients.  I'm a little backlogged right now, but I'm hopin' that'll ease up when my brother returns to work."

            "Your brother?"

            "Yeah.  A.J.  We run the business together.  Simon and Simon Investigations.  Troya said you met him."


            "I did?"  Tad searched his memory, trying to put a face with the name A.J. Simon. 


            "It was a couple of weeks back when you popped in at the hospital and took her to lunch."

            "Oh...oh, yes."  Recognition dawned in Tad's eyes.  "Yes, I did.  The blond man whose session I interrupted.   I'm sorry, I feel like a real idiot.  Troya told me she met you at the rehab center, but I didn't realize your brother was one of her patients."


            Rick's answer was a short and succinct, "Yeah, he is," giving Tad Brooks the impression the detective would rather not be pressed for details.  An impression Tad honored.


            Conversation between the two men flowed smoothly while Tad allowed Rick the freedom to look over his collection of vehicles.   Before they exited the garage, Tad invited Rick to ride with him on the motorcycles the following Saturday. 


            Despite the material possessions Tad Brooks surrounded himself with, he was a pleasant and gracious host, and just as charming as his sister had claimed.  And like Troya had eluded too, as well, his girlfriend Shawna was a big-busted airhead with the face and figure of a fashion model.   Her rounded, clinically enhanced cleavage threatened to burst out of her tight halter-top; her butt cheeks peered from underneath her tiny blue jean shorts.  What exactly she did for a living Rick never did discern, but he got the impression Tad bankrolled her.  He also got the impression Shawna knew her obligations because of it.  She seemed to pick up on the subtle signals her lover broadcast that indicated when she was to be coy, when she was to laugh, when she was to flirt, and when she was to shut up.  Rick could easily see why Troya didn't care of her brother's taste in women if this was an example of what he usually brought home. 


            Rick gave a mental shrug while listening to the woman giggle like a nine-year- old at something Tad had said. 


            To each his own.


            This was the first picnic Rick had ever attended where a maid flipped the hamburgers on the grill.  While lunch was being carried out to the table by the remaining hired help, Tad gave Rick a tour of the grounds.  Shawna clung to Tad's side, rubbing her breasts against his bare arm throughout their stroll.      


            The estate's grounds were as green, well tended, and secluded, as the golf course of an elegant country club.   The back lawn sloped gently to the ocean's edge.  Yards of fine bleached sand had been brought in to form a man-made beach. 


            Troya waved an arm at the man frolicking in the waves with a bikini-clad woman.  The doctor brushed the hair away that had blown in her eyes and turned to Rick. "That's Kit and his girlfriend Teri.  Kit and Tad have been best friends a long time now.  Going on fifteen years, I suppose.  They met shortly after we graduated college."


            Tad cupped his hands around his mouth.   "Hey, Kit!  Come on!  Lunch is almost ready!"


            Tad, Shawna and Troya, headed back up the hill to the house.  Rick lingered a moment, enjoying the feel of the salt water that lightly sprayed his face.  It's as he stood there that he saw the struggle ensue.  Kit leaned into his girlfriend, roughly kissing her neck and biting at her throat.  Rick saw his hands claw at the top of her bikini bathing suit, trying to untie the wet strings.


            "Kit, don't!  Don't!  Tad has guests!"


            "They're not guests, baby, just Troya and her new guy."  Kit bit an earlobe while pawing Teri's heavy breasts.  "Come on, give me a little something to tide me over until we eat."


            The woman pushed him away.  "Stop it!"


            Tad's friend appeared to enjoy the game he was playing.  Though the couple stood in water over their waist,s Rick could easily guess Kit was trying to pull Teri's bikini bottom down. 


            "Kit, stop!"  When the man rammed two fingers inside her the woman cried out in pain.  "Ouch!  Stop it!  You're hurting me!  Stop it, Kit!"


            Just when Rick was about to wade into the water and advise the man to heed the lady's words, Kit looked up.  Rick never broke his gaze as Kit tried to stare him down.  The man finally released his captive, splashed water at her in disgust, and began trudging toward shore.


            Troya turned around, realizing she'd left Rick behind.  "Rick!   Honey, we're going to eat!"


            Rick turned, giving Troya smile.  "Be there in a minute!"


            Rick Simon had been on the receiving end of plenty of glares in his day, so the one given him by Tad's best friend as the man passed didn't bother him in the least. 


            The detective laughed to himself.   I hate to tell you this, Tad, but I got a feelin' me and your old buddy ain't gonna get along quite as well as you think.


            Rick waited until Teri made it safely out of the water, then headed up to join the picnic.





            The motorcycles roared down the open road, smoothly banking around sharp curves on the Pacific Coast Highway.  It had been long time since Rick Simon had felt this carefree.  And though he wasn't in any way tempted to shrug off the responsibilities he had to his brother, or to their business, for just a few hours it felt good to leave all the worries behind. 


            Riding beside Tad was, in some ways, like riding beside A.J.  Though Tad and Rick didn't know each other well, they already meshed in the same easy way Rick and A.J. did.  They shared amiable conversation and teasing barbs as the wind blew in their faces.   When they stopped for lunch at a roadside diner they lingered over their meal, enjoying each other’s company.  It had been three months since Rick had shared this type of free spirited comradeship with his brother.  He felt a little guilty now that he was sharing it with Tad.


            It was after five o'clock when the two men pulled the cycles into their accustomed spots in Tad's garage.  Rick tried to pay for the gas he'd used, but Troya's brother wouldn't entertain that offer anymore than he entertained the offer of money when Rick had attempted to pay for their lunch.


            Tad swung a leg over the saddle of his cycle, Rick matching the movement to climb off the one he'd been riding.


            "This was a fun afternoon, Rick.  Thanks for coming along."


            "Thanks for invitin' me."


            "I'm open to doing it again in the near future.  You just name the day."


            "Thanks, I'd really like that, though I can't say right now when it'll be.  Between the business and A.J., I'm pretty tied up."


            "Hey, maybe A.J. would like to come along.  You think so?"

            "Yeah, probably.  Right now he's grateful for any opportunity that gets him outta that rehab center for a few hours."


            "Then you and I'll do that for him next Saturday, no arguments allowed.  And if my sister gives us any hassles over it, I'll dunk her in the ocean, clothes and all, like I used to when we were kids."  Tad indicated to a cabinet with a flick of his thumb.  "I've got a couple of helmets stored in there if you think A.J. should wear one because of his injury.  And if he needs anything else to make the ride more comfortable for him, you just let me know.  Whatever it is, I'll get it before Saturday."


            Rick had a difficult time voicing his appreciation.  Tad barely knew A.J., yet he was willing to go to great lengths in order to provide him with a few hours of entertainment.  "Thanks, Tad.  Thanks a lot.  Nothin' special will be necessary, though you're right, he should wear a helmet."


            "Fine.  I'll have Vera clean the dust balls out of both of them before Saturday gets here. A.J. can choose whichever one is most comfortable for him.  I'll tell Troya to meet us here later in the afternoon.  Ask your mother to come long. Troy can pick her up.  The five of us can set sail and dine on the Aubrey if the ladies are willing."


            The Aubrey was Tad's sixty foot schooner moored at a nearby marina.  Rick had yet to see the boat named in honor of Tad and Troya's mother, but he'd heard she was a magnificent sight to behold.


            "I'm sure my mom would enjoy it.  But I don't want you goin' to any trouble."


            "It's no trouble.  I don't make use of Aubrey nearly as much as I should.  It'll be a wonderful evening for all concerned."  Tad slapped Rick on the back while walking with the detective to his pickup. "Besides, anyone who makes my sister as happy as you do, deserves whatever I can offer.  I appreciate all you've done for her."


            "Believe me, Tad, your sister's done more for me than I could do for her in a million years."


            "Don't underestimate yourself.   You've single handedly brought Troya back among the living."  Tad's voice grew thick and full of choked emotion. "She told you about Graham, I assume?"


            "Yeah, yeah she did."


            "It was a very difficult time for her.  A difficult time for both of us.  And while I've managed to put the tragedy in the past and go forward, to a large degree Troya has been unable to until now.  Until you came into her life."  Rick saw tears shining in the faded blue eyes when Tad looked up.   "After eight long years, she's herself again, Rick.   She's willing to take a chance at love.  She's willing to experience life to its fullest.  To see her smile and hear her laugh the way she was last Sunday...I can't tell you how much that means to me.  I...for many years now, I've blamed myself for all the joy that was taken from her."


            "Troya told me what happened," Rick said.  "It wasn't your fault, and she certainly doesn't hold you responsible."

            "I know."  Tad brought a hand up and swiped at his eyes.  "But that knowledge doesn't always make things easier.  I couldn't have been any closer to Graham than if he'd been my brother.  You have a brother.  I'm sure you can put yourself in my place, and imagine the guilt I still carry over his death."


            For reason's Tad didn't understand, the detective dropped his gaze.  The blond man had to strain to hear Rick's words.


            "Yeah, Tad, I can put myself in your place."




            Mother's Day dawned sunny and warm.  Cecilia Simon relaxed that Sunday morning, curled up in a corner of the couch in her bathrobe sipping at hot coffee.   She was to drive over to the marina at eleven.  From there, she and Rick would pick up A.J., then her sons were taking her to lunch.


            Cecilia's mind pondered all that was changing in her family.  Though Rick had yet to voice it in so many words, the woman recognized the deep love that was growing between her oldest son and Troya Yeager.  Admittedly, she was rather surprised at Rick's infatuation.  For years now, she'd had him pegged as a confirmed bachelor, a man who enjoyed coming and going as he pleased without answering to anyone for his whims and ways.  But that wasn't to say Cecilia didn't like Troya.  She did.  Very much in fact.  The two women shared a kinship in their love of gardening. They got along well, and could talk easily on a wide range of subjects.   She found Troya's calm, level headed demeanor the perfect compliment to Rick's temper and fun-loving spirit that often lacked in common sense.  Cecilia also recognized that Rick needed someone special in his life right now.  A woman who made him feel worthy of her love in a way he hadn't felt worthy of that emotion since the accident.


            The accident.  It was odd how those two words could have caused Cecilia to lose so much sleep during the past three months.  There wasn't a day that went by that she didn't worry about A.J.  That she didn't wonder what the future held for him.  That she didn't wonder how he would accept it if he was forced to face permanent disabilities.  She and Rick had talked of so many ideas if A.J. was never able to live an independent life again, but they had yet to broach the subject with him.  Troya said it was still to soon to know how far he would come.  Though she'd been cautious when mentioning it, in the past week the doctor had said A.J. might just prove to be one of the lucky ones.  One of the patients she'd worked with who eventually would show no lingering signs of the accident that brought him to her in the first place.  His reading skills were improving greatly, as was his ability to work with numbers.  With Cecilia's help, he had even balanced the business checking account two days earlier.  He'd been so proud of himself.  Cecilia had been forced to turn and wipe a sudden tear away when he told her it felt like he was a small part of Simon and Simon again.


            But there were other things that were still stumbling blocks for A.J.   His short term memory and his speech being the two most prominent.  His right arm and hand still caused Cecilia anxiety as well.  He was gaining strength and dexterity in them, but whether he'd ever be able to use them as he once had even Troya couldn't guess.  He relied on his cane less and less, and had begun jogging on the track at the hospital with Rick, though by far the motion of running was awkward and slow.   He'd had better luck with boxing.  Without the aid of his cane for support A.J. had fallen a few times, but it didn't seem to bother him, so Cecilia tried not to let such mishaps worry her.  It was worth it to see him with a pair of boxing gloves on his hands again, and to see the grin of delight on his face that came with them.


            It was with all these concerns on her mind Cecilia drove to the marina later that morning.  She found a parking spot a few spaces away from Rick's truck and exited her car.  She headed for Rick's boat, only to see him striding toward her in cutoffs, tennis shoes, and a loud Hawaiian shirt filled with swirls of neon orange, caution sign yellow, parakeet green, and cobalt blue.


            "I hope you're not planning on taking me to lunch dressed like that."


            Rick smiled as he bent to kiss his mother's cheek.  "Actually, I am."


            "Where are we going, to a luau?"


            "Not quite."  The detective put his arm around the woman.  They made for quite a contrast with Cecilia in a beige suit with matching pumps, while Rick looked more like he was in the midst of swabbing the deck.  The detective led his mother down the dock. 


"Come on."


            "Where to?"

            "My boat."



            "Because I have your Mother's Day present there."


            "I'd rather wait until we pick up A.J., Rick.  You can give it to me at the restaurant."


            "No, I can't."


            "Why not?"

            "Mom, you ask too many questions, you know that?"

            Cecilia glared up at her lanky son.  "I ask too many questions because years ago I learned if you're Rick Simon's mother, asking too many questions is a prerequisite to survival."


            “You’ve got a point,” Rick a agreed while helping his mother make the step up from the dock to the boat.  He looked aft calling, "Yo, deck hand!  All aboard!  Release the moorings!  We're ready to set sail!"


            Cecilia turned, her eyes following the path Rick's had traveled.    She brought a hand up to cover her mouth, gasping with surprised delight.  "A.J.!"                         


            Like his older brother, A.J. was in casual attire of cutoff shorts, a blue polo shirt, and tennis shoes.  Cutoff shorts with a zipper and snap, a shirt with three buttons at the chest, and tennis shoes with laces. The hair that had been shaved for the surgery had finally grown to blend in with the rest of A.J.'s hair.  Just the previous day he'd allowed his cousin Karen to give him his first trim since the accident.  The shaggy uneven look he'd been sporting for weeks now was gone, to be replaced by the short style he'd been accustomed to prior to being hurt.  Despite A.J.’s chalky white spindly arms and legs, Cecilia thought he looked wonderful.  For the first time since the accident, she was hopeful that one day soon things would return to how they used to be.


            The woman made her way to her youngest with arms outstretched.  "Oh, baby, you look so healthy.  And you're in regular clothes.  Did you get dressed all by yourself?"


            A.J. grinned his pleasure at another small step taken that made him feel normal.  "Yes."


            "Yep, Mom, he sure did," Rick confirmed from behind the pair.  "Didn't even need my help with the laces on his shoes.  And he's not wearing those baggy boxer shorts anymore either, are you, A.J.  No siree.  He's back to bein' a brief man."


            Cecilia laughed at the old familiar glare A.J. threw his brother and the scolding tone of mortification in his voice.  "Kee!"


            Cecilia Simon was guided to a deck chair, where she was urged to kick off her shoes and relax while being handed a Pina Colada by the skipper.  With Rick's help, A.J. untied the moorings.  The blond man stood beside his brother while Rick piloted the houseboat out of her slip.  It wasn't until they were miles from shore and away from any other boats that Rick set down anchor.


            The most expensive restaurant in San Diego couldn't have beat a day on the ocean with her sons as far as Cecilia was concerned.  A.J. assisted Rick with grilling potatoes and chicken.  Cecilia wasn't allowed to lift a finger.  With great enjoyment she sat back, observing her sons interact in a way that had been missing from their lives for too long now.  They argued over how long the chicken should cook, over how much barbecue sauce should be brushed on each piece, over whether or not the potatoes were done, and it was all music to Cecilia's ears.


            The family sat around a table on the deck long after the empty plates had been pushed aside.  Rick stepped into the main cabin of the boat, returning with a small wrapped package. "This is from both of us, Mom.  Happy Mother's Day."


            Cecilia smiled with delight when she opened the blue velvet box that contained a thin gold necklace and matching bracelet.  "Oh, boys, you shouldn't have.  This is much too expensive."


            Rick half stood, leaning forward on his fists to plant a kiss on his mother's cheek.  "Yes, we should have.  You're worth all that and more.  And speaking of more, A.J. has something he wants to give you."


            Cecilia turned to face her blond son.  "Goodness, you boys have done enough

already.  What else could there possibly be?"


            A.J. stood, copying his brother's body language.  His lips brushed his mother's cheek, then traveled to her ear.  The words that flowed forth were clear and fluent.  "I love you, Mom."


            Tears filled Cecilia's eyes.  She hadn't been called Mom by her youngest son since before the accident.  She wrapped her arms around A.J.'s neck and cried into his chest.


            "Oh, honey, that's beautiful.  It sounds wonderful.  It's the best gift anyone has ever given me."


            "Kee help-----me."

            Cecilia opened an arm so Rick was included in the hug. She could easily imagine the amount of hours Rick had devoted to assisting his brother in being able to master that simple, yet lovely, phrase.  "I'm sure he did, A.J.  I'm sure he did."                        


            After the lunch dishes had been washed and put away, the Simon brothers kicked off their shoes, stripped off their shirts, and jumped into the water.  Cecilia hung over the railing, trying not to let her anxiety rule her.


            "Rick, you keep an eye on your brother!  He doesn't have a life jacket on!"


            Rick waved a reassuring hand from the water.  "He's fine, Mom!  I'll stick close."


            Cecilia watched her sons swim and frolic in the gentle waves.   When she saw A.J. was managing without any problems she relaxed, resting a hip on the ledge of the boat between the railing and the deck, Marlowe laying on his arthritic hunches beside her.  Cecilia was gazing off into the distant blue where the ocean met the sky when she heard Rick's panicked cry of, "A.J.!  A.J., where'd you go?  A.J.!"


            "Rick!"  Cecilia shot to her feet.  "Rick, what's wrong!  Rick!"


            Rick used his arms to pivot a rapid circle in the water.  "He was right here!  Right here next to me and now he's gon...ah!"


            It didn't take Cecilia long to figure out what had happened when her oldest son disappeared under the water.  A.J. broke the surface laughing, while shaking droplets off his face and out of his hair.  Several seconds later, Rick emerged sputtering playful threats while trying to clear his nose and mouth of the ocean he'd swallowed.  He grasped A.J. around the neck, placing a hand on top of his head.


            "You think you're funny dunkin' me like that, huh?  You think you're real funny, huh, wise guy?  I'll show you funny!  I'm gonna dunk you until you beg for mercy."


            Rick did just that, though was careful to give A.J. plenty of time to fill his lungs with air before pushing his head under the surface of the water again.  Each time A.J. reappeared he was laughing like he was having the time of his life.   "Stop!  Stop, Rick!  Stop!"


            "Oh, you want me to stop, do you?  You didn't worry about stoppin' when you thought it would be funny to pull me und--" Rick's playful tirade came to an abrupt halt.  He spun A.J. around so they were facing each other.


            "What'd you say?"

            "I say-------stop."


            "No, A.J.  After that.  What'd you call me?"

            Even A.J. hadn't been fully aware that he'd spoken his brother's name correctly for the first time in three months.


            "Come on, A.J.  Say it again.  What'd you call me?"


            A.J. hesitated while carefully thinking of how Troya had taught him to move his tongue and form his lips.  Up until now, his attempts at trying to say his brother's name had all fallen pitifully short of perfect.  "Ri...Ri...Rick.  I call you-------Rick."


            Rick pulled his brother to him in a fierce hug.  He closed his eyes and brought A.J.'s head to his shoulder, his churning legs keeping both of them buoyant in the water.  "That's right.  You called me Rick."  The lanky man looked up at the boat to see tears flowing down his mother's face.  "And you know what?"


            Within his confined position A.J. shook his head.  "No. What?"


            "It's about the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.  Whatta ya' think about that?"


            A.J. pulled away just enough to meet his brother's eyes.  "I been-----want to say it--------lon time now."

            Rick enveloped A.J. in another hug.  He didn't attempt to hide the tears streaming

down his own face.


            "I know you have, kid.  God, do I know you have."


Chapter 20


            Lowell Brooks charged the net.  He slammed the speeding yellow bullet in the opposite direction his opponent was traveling.  The man swiveled, racing across the court, but was forced to throw his arms up in defeat while watching the ball bounce eight feet in front of him.                  


            Lowell was waiting at the net when his panting opponent, a man fifteen years younger than himself, jogged over.  They shook hands, then trotted toward the sidelines where a cold thermos of ice water awaited them.  Lowell plucked a white towel from the sports bag Carmina had packed for him that morning.  He patted his face and neck dry before draping the towel around his shoulders.  His winded friend handed him a cup of water.


            "Lowell...." the man panted, "you're bound...and give me a heart attack yet...aren't you."

            "Oh no, I'm not looking to give you a heart attack, Malcolm."  Lowell took a sip of water, "I just enjoy whipping your ass every week.  Makes me feel young again."


            Malcolm gulped at his own cup of water.  "Wish you'd find...someone else's whip."


            Lowell draped a solicitous arm around the man's shoulders.  "We've been doing this too long for me to break in a new singles partner now."


            "Rumor has it you killed your last one on the court."


            Lowell raised his cup in a gesture of a toast.  "Don't believe everything you hear."


            The men tossed their empty cups in a nearby trash barrel.  They bent to gather up their things, then walked together toward the posh country club's locker room. 


            "Speaking of things I heard, a client of yours came by my office the other day."


            Lowell arched an eyebrow at his long-time attorney.  "A client of mine?  And who might that have been?"


            "Rich Marlowe."


            "Rich Marlowe?"  Lowell took a corner of his towel and dabbed at the sweat trickling down his face, using the pause in conversation to think.  He knew he had no client by the name of Rich Marlowe, and was just about to say so, when he heard his daughter's voice in the back of his mind. 


            We need to make our leave, Dad.  Rick has to get home and check on Marlowe.


            At first, Lowell had assumed Marlowe was Rick's son and said as much, which made Troya laugh. 


            "No, Marlowe's not a boy, Daddy.  He's a dog.  Rick's big old friendly dog that I swear is part St. Bernard, and part teddy bear.  He's probably about ready to be let out for his final walk of the evening."


            Lowell thought further, recalling that Simon hadn't overheard this exchange.  He'd been in the kitchen saying good night to Carmina, and thanking her for the dessert she'd served.


            "Uh, say, Malcolm.  What did this Mr. Marlowe look like?"                  


             "Tall guy.  Thin, balding, dark moustache.  You do know him, don't you?"


            "Yes.   Yes I know him.  What did he want?"


            "Said he was thinking of dealing with you regarding the sale of the coroner's building.  Wanted to consult with an attorney before going any further.   At first I thought you'd sent him to me, but he said no.  Apparently, it was quite by coincidence that he came to me seeking legal counsel.  I explained to Mr. Marlowe that I was your lawyer and had been for many years, therefore, it would be a conflict of interest for me to get involved with his business dealings."


            "I see.  And what did Mr. Marlowe say to that?"

            "He was fine with it.  He asked me a few questions about you, then left."

            "A few questions?  What kind of questions?"

            "Just the typical.  What type of man you are, if I found you to be fair, things of that nature."  Malcolm patted the wet spot between Lowell's shoulder blades.  "Don't worry, old friend.  I gave you a glowing recommendation."


            Preoccupation settled over Lowell Brooks as the two men entered the locker room.  Malcolm turned when he realized his companion wasn't following him. 


            "Aren't you going to join me for a rub down?"

            "No.  No, not today.  I have several things on my agenda that require immediate attention."


            The attorney shrugged his shoulders at this unusual turn of events.  "See you Friday morning then."

            "Yes, I’ll see you on Friday.  And Malcolm?"


            "Thank you for the recommendation.  I'm sure you put Mr. Marlowe's mind at ease."


            "Marlowe's an important client?"


            "Let's just say more important than I previously thought."


            Lowell Brooks hurried through his shower.  He bypassed the nine holes of golf he'd planned to play, to instead head straight for his home.  Carmina looked up from her dusting when he stomped past her.   


            "Mr. Brooks, I was not expecting you back until late this afternoon.  Would you like some lunch?"

            "Not now, Carmina."  Lowell flung his sports bag against the wall, not caring that the black rubber handle of his tennis racquet marred the paint.  He marched down the hall to his study.  "I'm going to be on the phone.  I'm not to be disturbed, do you understand?"

            Though she didn't know the source of her boss's foul-temper, Carmina recognized the signs.  The orders came clipped and abrupt, his footsteps heavy and swift.  When his children were growing up they'd scatter like frightened chickens when he came home like this.  Poor Tad, Carmina remembered. So often this type of mood on Mr. Brooks part preceded a whipping so harsh the boy could barely sit for the next three days.


            "Yes, sir, I understand."


            Carmina jumped when the door to the man's study was slammed shut with a thunderous bang.  She tiptoed through the house the remainder of the day, careful not to make any noise that would rile her boss.  Late in the afternoon he emerged from his study only long enough to tell Carmina he was expecting a visitor.


            When the doorbell rang the woman hurried to answer it.  She might not have been in such a rush if she'd have known who was on the other side.  She had never liked the man, not since the first time Tad had brought him home for a visit.  She didn't like the way he'd looked at Troya back then, and in recent years, the way he eyed Ashton's girls when they were visiting.  As though he was undressing them with his eyes while experiencing forbidden pleasures. 


            He smiled at her.  That cold smirk that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking. "Carmina.  How are you today?"



            He chucked her under the chin,  "Carmina, Carmina, Carmina, you're always so rude to me.  I ask you a question, and you answer as quickly as you can as though you'd like nothing better than to run from me.  You're going to hurt my feelings if you keep acting like this.  You give me the impression you don't like me."

            Carmina turned away.  "I'll tell Mr. Brooks you are here."

            The man grabbed her by the arm, yanking her to him.  She cried out in pain when he jerked her head back by a fistful of hair.  She could feel his erection press into her thighs, though she knew it wasn't sexual excitement that produced this reaction, but rather the thrill unrestrained violence brought him. 


             "Don't walk away from me like that, you spic whore.  When I'm in this house, you give me with the respect I deserve.   You got that?"


            Despite her fear, Carmina refused to break eye contact with the man.


            "Respect must be earned before it is given, muchacho."


            His free hand flew upwards.  "Why you--"


            Before the hand landed on Carmina's cheek, the door to the study opened.  The maid was released just as Lowell Brooks stepped out into the hallway.   He jerked two fingers, waving the man toward him.


            Like I'm some kinda damn ball boy at one of his tennis matches.


            "Carmina," Brooks barked, "make us something to eat.  I'm sure Kristopher is hungry."


            Kit Westphal smiled down at the woman, his eyes lingering on her plump breasts.  "Yes, I am hungry.  I always look forward to what Carmina has to offer."


            "Fine, fine.  She'll make you something.  Bring it to the study, Carmina.  We'll eat in there."


            Neither man paid any attention to Carmina's quiet, "Yes, sir."  She waited until she heard the door to the study close behind the two men, then ran a hand through her mussed hair, straightening it as best she could without a comb.  She thought of an old Mexican folk tale she'd heard as a child.  It was about a boy born with eyes two different colors, one the bright green of a lynx, the other gray like a wolf's.  At first the people in the boy's village thought they'd been blessed by the arrival of such an unusual child, but as the boy grew to adulthood, they realized evil resided within his soul.  An evil so strong it could not be contained or driven out by even the high priests.


            It was said the people of the village were slaughtered one night as they slept.  One hundred throats were slit by someone who moved among them without a sound.  Everyone in the young man's family was killed, as well - everyone but the young man himself.  His was the only body not accounted for amongst the dead.  Some say he was simply overlooked by those on grave detail, others say he got away before the killer could attack him, while those who knew him best claimed he was the cause of the massacre.  The people called him Satanas.  Legend had it he left Mexico to spread his evil around the world.  It wasn't until now, over sixty years since Carmina had first heard the story, that she thought of it again.  She'd never been one to put stock in an old folk tale meant to frighten children, but a part of her couldn't help but wonder if there was a portion of the story that was true, as is often the case with legends.


            Carmina looked down the hallway, eyeing the closed door.  She crossed herself while asking the Holy Spirit to keep evil out of Lowell Brooks' home.




            Because he hadn't been told to sit down, Kit stood opposite the wide desk.  Its cherry wood shone so brilliantly from a recent polishing given it by Carmina that Kit's reflection bounced back up at him.  He pulled his eyes away to focus on the gray-headed man seated in the high-backed leather chair.


            "Have you met the man Troya's seeing?  Rick Simon?"

            "Yes, sir.  At Tad's place a couple of weeks back."


            "Good.  Then you know he's a P.I.?"


            "Yes, sir."


            "For some reason, Simon apparently feels the need to look into my background."




            "I found out quite by accident that he was questioning my lawyer about me the other day.  I made a few phone calls this afternoon.  The man's talked to more people than I can count.  Everyone from my caddy at the country club, to the goddamn chink who delivers my dry-cleaning."



            Lowell's features hardened.  "I don't know, but I want you to find out.  With your connections that shouldn't be too difficult, should it?"

            "No, sir, but it would help if you tell me what kind of questions he's been asking."


            "Questions about my moral character, my ethics, how I do business."

            "I can't believe business associates and friends of yours would answer such questions."


            "Oh, Simon's a clever one all right.  He's asking under the guise that he's interested in buying the old medical examiner's building."


            Kit arched an eyebrow.  "Really?"

            "Yes, really.  What's even more curious is that he's asking questions as to my whereabouts on a specific date. Whereabouts he has no business discovering."


            "What date would that be?"

            Lowell's eyes met Kit's.  "February fifth.


            "I see."


            "For reasons you well know, Simon can't find out the answer to that question."


            "No, he can't."


            Brooks spun his chair around, gazing out at the swimming pool he used to watch his children play in from this exact vantage point.  "I want to know why Simon's looking into my background.  I want to know why the man is so concerned about my business dealings.  And, most of all, I want to know why the man who's dating my daughter is so interested in what I was doing on a Thursday afternoon back in February."


            Kit nodded like a dutiful soldier about to be sent into battle.  "I'll get right on it."


            Lowell spun his chair back around so he could see his visitor.  "You're not staying for supper?"

            "No. Tell Carmina I'll be sure to take a rain check. I know how disappointed she'll be when she finds out I had to leave."


            "You will keep this discreet I trust.  Just between the two of us."


            Kit gave the older man a wide grin and a sloppy salute. "You got it, L.B.  My lips are sealed."


             Kit spun on one heel, showing himself out.  It wasn't until Lowell heard the roar of the Corvette's engine that he shook his head in disgust. 


"Disrespectful punk.  A prime example of what results when a boy grows up without a father.  Some may say Tad felt my belt on his behind a little too often, but at least he knows how to speak to his elders."





            Rick's investigation of Lowell Brooks was an on-going project that spring.  Depending on whom you talked to, the man was a saint, or the most crooked bastard you'd ever hope to run across.  He'd been known to steal sales right out from under the noses of those he called friends, and one man told Rick his fifty year friendship with Brooks had ended when he'd discovered Lowell to be sleeping with his nineteen-year-old granddaughter.  If nothing else, Lowell Brooks' days were as strictly regimented now, as they had been prior to his semi-retirement.  He played tennis the same days each week at the exact same time. Likewise, he played golf the same days and time each week.  He went to his office at precisely ten a.m., came home for lunch at the stroke of one, arrived back at the office at two-thirty, generally stayed until five, then either dined at home with Carmina, or met a group of men at the Board Room.  If there was one thing Lowell Brooks was, it was a creature of habit, right down to having his secretary record his day-to-day activities in an executive planner date book.  Which was why Rick found it curious, after a late night black bag job on the man's office, that a large block of Brooks' time on the afternoon of February fifth was so far unaccounted for.  


            Because Rick had to keep Simon and Simon afloat, and because of his obligations to A.J., and because he desired to keep his investigation of Lowell Brooks a discreet secret, he wasn't able to uncover as much about the man as quickly as he would have liked.  For some reason he felt an urgency to get this unpleasant task out of the way.  He had no idea how Troya would react if she ever discovered what he was up to, but could easily imagine she'd be furious; and rightfully so, he was forced to acknowledge.  Nonetheless, for his own peace of mind, it was something he had to do.  Something he had to do, then put behind him if the final result was what he hoped, that Lowell Brooks was an innocent man - at least innocent of having anything to do with the tangled events that occurred in the morgue that afternoon in early February.  If Rick indeed discovered that to be the case, he was going to celebrate.  Celebrate by asking Troya Yeager to marry him.   And, if Lowell Brooks wasn't innocent...well, that wasn't going to prevent Rick from requesting marriage of Troya if she'd still have him.


            For Rick never doubted the woman loved him, but how deep that love went and if she was really ready to start a new life and leave Graham Yeager in the past was unknown to him until one Saturday night in late May.


            Rick used the key Troya had given him to enter her house at five that evening.  They'd made plans to have dinner and see a movie.  He caught sight of the dirt encrusted tennis shoes she wore in the garden sitting on a mat next to the French doors.  He smiled as his mind formed a perfect and appropriate picture of her, hair up in a ponytail and buried to her elbows in potting soil.


            "Troya!  Troya!"


            The doctor leaned over the loft railing in nothing but her bra and bikini panties.  "I'm up here!  I'll be down in a second."


            A wicked smile touched Rick's lips as he caught sight of the half naked woman. "Maybe you'd like me to come up there and give you a hand."


            Troya smiled back, blowing Rick a kiss.  "I would, but then I'd doubt we'd be on time, leaving Carlos and Eva to wonder what happened to us."


            "I have a feelin' Carlos would figure it out."


            Troya blushed, waving a hand in dismissal.  "Oh you.  You just stay down there.  Have a seat.  There's cold beer in the fridge if you want one.  I'll be ready shortly."


            The detective took the woman up on her offer, grabbing a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft from the refrigerator.  He moved about the kitchen with ease, familiar now with where she kept most of the dishes and utensils.  He took the bottle opener from the silverware tray and popped the top on his beer.  He crossed the room to the sink, opening the cabinet where the garbage can was stored.  He tossed the metal tab in the container, then wandered through the living room to the sun room.


            Rick paused when he reached the doorway, his eyes roaming the rearranged area.  He stepped further into the room and looked around, as though he thought he'd spot it somewhere, which was foolish.  There was no way someone could hide a baby grand piano.  As well, noticeably absent from the room, was Graham's picture.


            The wicker couch and rocking chair sat in their spots, but now a round glass-topped table sat in the center of the room complete with two white wicker chairs.  A vase rested on the middle of the table, blooming with brightly colored flowers plucked from the garden. 


            The detective half turned when he felt slender arms slide around his waist.  A light kiss was placed between his shoulder blades.


            "Ready to go?"

            Rick sat his beer bottle on the table, turning all the way around so he and the woman were facing one another.  "Troya...where's Graham's piano?"

            "I gave it away."


            "You what?"

            "I gave it away to someone who will cherish it as much as Graham did."



            "Jesse. Graham's seventeen-year-old nephew."

            "But why?  If you did it because we're seein' each other, you didn't have to.  It didn't bother me that--"


            Troya brought two fingers up to Rick's lips.  "Shhh.  No, I didn't do it because we're seeing each other.  I did it...I did it because it's time for me to allow Graham to rest in peace.  It's time for me to allow his spirit to leave this house.  Not his memory, you understand, but his spirit.  It's haunted me for too long now, Rick.  My father once accused me of making this room a shrine to my late husband, and in a way, I suppose he was correct.  I don't play the piano, so there was little reason for me to keep it.  No other reason than it allowed me to continue to mourn Graham long after my grieving should have come to an end."


            Rick ran a hand through the woman's hair.  His voice was soft and gentle.  "No one can put a time limit on grief, Troya."


            "I know that.  But, I realize now that I let myself become a martyr to that piano.  A slave to the memory of the beautiful music a beautiful man once created while sitting there.  It was time for the piano to go, Rick.  Time for it to bring joy to another life."


            "Graham's nephew?"

            "Yes.  Jesse's very talented.  But then he should be. Graham taught him how to play.   Jesse's mother, Kirsten, was Graham's only sibling, older by just eighteen months.  She came to San Diego to start a new life after she divorced Jesse's father when the boy was two.  Graham followed shortly thereafter, living with his sister and her son until he married me.  Graham was more of a father to Jesse than his real father could have ever been.  They were very close.  I asked Kirsten not to tell Jesse I was having the piano delivered to their place.  She told me he cried when he came home from school and found it in their living room.  He loved Graham so much.  I should have done it long ago.  Graham always hated it when pianos sat ignored in someone's home.  He said they weren't for decoration, but were meant to played."  Troya wiped at the tears swimming in her eyes.  "Now his piano will make music again just like he would have wanted it to."


            Rick wrapped the woman in his arms, allowing her to cry into his chest.  Despite her muffled tone, he heard her declaration.  "I love you, Rick Simon.  I love you so much more than you can ever imagine.  You've brought me a happiness I never expected to find again."


            Rick kissed the top Troya's head, thinking of the tragic circumstances that had caused their lives to cross, and then to grow together.  He could only pray he didn't discover her father was directly responsible for those circumstances when he told her with deep sincerity, "You've brought me much happiness, too, Troya Yeager.  You've brought me much happiness, too."


Chapter 21


            If it were possible, A.J. Simon devoted even more diligence to his recovery during the month of June.   Unbeknownst to A.J.'s family, Troya Yeager had a set a goal for him - to be released from the rehab hospital on his birthday, July twenty-sixth.  It was a goal A.J. had every intention of meeting. 


            His coordination and strength were slowly coming back to him.  Though he still ran with an awkward gait to his stride, the boxing he was doing on a daily basis was helping his right arm tremendously.  No longer did it tend to bend inward, and by the time June arrived, his fine motor skills were almost what they once were.  He began to lift weights again during the month of June as well.  The emancipated, sickly look that had hovered over him since February slowly began to abate as the muscles of his upper chest, arms, and shoulders, filled out and hardened.  Running and leg lifts with a weighted bar toned and strengthened the weak muscles of his thighs and calves.  By mid-June it no longer looked like he was walking on two thin sticks.


            For so long now that's how A.J. had felt, like a child's one-dimensional drawing of a stick man.   Like the essence of what made him a living, breathing, functioning human being, had been taken away from him that afternoon in February.  The afternoon he didn't remember, save for a kaleidoscope of bizarre dreams. 


            The decisions and choices all adults have the right to make for themselves were beginning to be A.J.'s once more.  At his own insistence, he no longer wore a life vest when swimming in the rehab's pool. Trips to the bank and stores were occurring on a frequent basis.  Less and less did he have to rely on his mother, Rick, or a therapist, to help him conduct his personal business.  And he'd begun to take a more active role in Simon and Simon, too.  Granted, the role was limited to balancing the checkbook and paying the bills, but he was hopeful these small achievements were prophecies of things to come.  His reading skills were progressing at a rapid pace, as were his mathematical skills.  The portion of his brain used for logical thinking, used to help him decipher how to best travel from point A to point B, seemed to have reasserted itself during recent weeks.  Though his mother and Rick were still carefully avoiding the subject, A.J. was beginning to allow himself a glimmer of hope that he'd return to his home on the Grand Canal by summer's end, and rejoin Rick as a full partner at the Simon and Simon office.


            The biggest hurdle A.J. still faced as a result of the accident was his limited abilities to communicate.   Of all he'd dealt with and conquered. this was the most frustrating to the detective.  He could so clearly see the words in his head, yet when he tried to say them aloud it was like being forced to speak in an unfamiliar foreign tongue.  His usage of the English language often made even him cringe. He could hear his errors when he spoke them, but was hard pressed to know how to fix them.  He often left off suffixes and misused pronouns, but Doctor Yeager kept assuring him that in time those small things would become second nature to him once again.  She pointed out that his vocabulary continued to expand, and his words were flowing together in smoother rhythm.  That last was true. The times A.J. still found himself floundering and faltering for a word were the times when he felt pressured or hurried to convey his thoughts.   The most annoying remnants now were when people treated him like a child because he couldn't communicate with them on what they perceived to be an adult level.  Mostly it happened with strangers, store clerks, bank tellers, or with visitors whom he didn't see often.  Sometimes even Rick was guilty of it. 


            One day the previous week, the teller who was waiting on A.J. bypassed him to instead communicate with Rick about A.J.'s banking business.  Rick got angry with the woman, and the blow-up that followed was both uncomfortable and embarrassing to the blond man.  Rick sensed his brother's annoyance and saw the stiff lipped fury on his face.  After they were seated in the pickup, he turned to A.J.


            "What are you so mad at me for?  It's that ignorant broad in there you should be

angry at."


            "I fight------own battles.  Don------Don't need you do-----do it for me."


            When Rick finally reacted to his brother's words it was to smile with pride.  "No.  No, I guess you don't, do you."


            For the first time trips that brought entertainment came A.J.'s way during late May and early June.  Three of the guys he played baseball with in a city league each summer picked him up on Monday evenings.  Though he wasn't physically capable of pitching or playing first base like he'd done in previous years, they had him tally RBI's, errors, strikeouts, and keep score.  He didn't realize this was another form of therapy set forth by Troya Yeager, and initiated by Rick, when one of A.J.'s teammates contacted Rick regarding the blond detective's possible involvement in the upcoming season.


            Dowtown Brown had driven from L.A., treating the Simon brothers to a Padres game the first Sunday afternoon in June.  And some portion of most weekends was spent at Tad Brooks' ocean estate. 


            How Rick and Tad had grown to become friends, A.J. wasn't certain.  He assumed they'd run across one another at the rehab center, been introduced by Doctor Yeager, then got to visiting about boats, motorcycles, sports cars, and other interests they had in common.  Or maybe Tad was just a nice guy, a wealthy entrepreneur who made his playthings available to patients his sister had grown close to.  A.J. did know Tad had thrown some business in the direction of Simon and Simon Investigations, so it was possible Brooks had utilized Rick for a case that A.J. didn't recall being informed of.  He'd thought of asking Rick about it, but was too embarrassed to acknowledge his memory still wasn't what it used to be, therefore accepted the friendship between his brother and Tad at face value.


            Which was how A.J. found himself riding behind Rick on one of Tad's Jet-skis on a Sunday afternoon in late June.  The small, fast watercraft bucked over waves, splashing cool ocean water onto the brothers' legs and into their faces.   Rick turned the craft in three tight circles before opening the throttle and heading her farther away from the beach. 


             Tad was up at the house giving his staff instructions regarding dinner.  Troya sat on the beach wearing a one piece pale blue bathing suit that accented a slim, tan body that stayed trim and lithe despite her passion for cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes.  She wore her hair in a casual French braid that rested just above her shoulder blades.  She dug her toes in the warm sand and shaded her eyes, smiling as she watched the Simon brothers bound through the water.


            Kristopher Westphal stood at the top of the sloping lawn gazing down upon the woman below.  For so long he had wanted her.  Wanted to make her his in every way that thought encompassed.  Wanted her in his bed, wanted her as his wife. It had been that way since he'd first laid eyes on her.  Since the first time Tad had introduced them almost fifteen years earlier. 


            He'd never held much respect for women. His abusive, alcoholic, whoring mother had beaten any respect out of him long ago.  To Kit, women were nothing more than a toy for the bedroom meant to give him what he wanted, satisfy him to the tenth degree, and keep their mouths shut while they were doing it.  But with Troya he'd be different.  He'd fantasized about a life with her so many times it almost seemed real.  He'd treat her like the fine piece of spun silk she was.  And in the bedroom she'd never be able to get enough of him, and would be begging for more of the sweet pleasures he'd bring her. 


            But his hopes...and fantasies, had been dashed by Graham Yeager.   After Graham's death, Kit had been so solicitous of her.  Almost as solicitous as Tad.  He stopped by her house to see her every day, murmuring words of comfort while rubbing her neck or back, literally offering a shoulder for her to cry on.  She'd even told him she loved him once.  But when she’d added, "like a brother" his heart fell.  In all the years since Graham's passing Kit had waited, biding his time knowing someday Troya would recognize the mutual attraction between them. 


            Troya turned at the soft footfalls she heard in the sand. She smiled up at the man in a way that made his heart sing and his pulse quicken.   


            "Hey, Kristopher Robin."


            He loved it when she called him that.  Kristopher Robin.  It was a little joke on her part, a sweet exchange that included only the two of them.  As he sat down next to her, he replied back with another exchange that included only the two of them.  One he'd been using since the day he'd met her.  One she was deserving of.


             "Hey, Lady Troya"


            "Where's Teri and Shawna?"

            "Up at the house fixing their faces.  You know women."

            Troya laughed while rolling her eyes. That was another thing he loved about her.  Her God-given beauty.  No heavy makeup for her.  No plastic surgery or breast implants.  Everything about her was natural and real.


            Only now there was this new guy.  Simon.  Rick Simon.  And man, did he think he was hot shit.  A tough guy P.I.  A decorated Vietnam veteran.  The Vietnam War for christ's sake!  A war that had been so unpopular that the men who fought in it were spit on and called baby killers when they returned stateside.  But, in recent years someone decided they were heroes who were long overdue recognition.  Every time you turned around someone was erecting a wall or monument in their honor, or pinning a medal on their chests. 


            Then there was that idiot brother of Simon's, A.J.  He could hardly say his own name, yet everyone fawned over him like he was the next best thing to sliced bread.  God knows he'd never please a woman in the bedroom again.  The guy would be lucky if he could get it up, or know what to do with it if he did.  What the hell was Troya doing getting mixed up with these two when she could have him for the asking?  Getting mixed up with a P.I. who barely scraped out a decent living for himself, and had an imbecile for a brother who Troya most likely would end up taking care of for the rest of her life.


            Before it was all over, Kit would relish seeing Rick Simon tumble from his pedestal.  If he was nosing around about Lowell Brooks, then he was nosing around about the wrong guy.


            Troya lifted an arm in response to the wave Rick threw her before the Jet-ski bounded out of sight around a jutting cliff of rocks.  Kit hated the smile that lit her eyes and caused the dimple in her left cheek to show.  The smile he'd always longed to be the recipient of.


            The man kept his tone casual.  "You’ve been seeing a lot of Rick?"

            "Quite a bit."


            "Things serious between the two of you?"

            Troya smiled, teasing,  "Oh, I don't know."


            Kit bumped her elbow with his like a pesky brother would do.  "Come on, you can tell me.  I won't tell anyone else.  Promise."


            "Yes, things are serious."          


            "Serious enough that you're thinking of marrying the guy?"

            Troya turned her head, looking at her brother's friend.  "You say that as if you don't approve of the idea."


            "It's not that I don't approve, I'm you understand I'm talking to you as if you were my sister.  Anything I say comes from the deep...friendship we share."


            "I understand.  Even if I don't heed your advice, your opinion is always welcome, Kristopher Robin."


            Kit smiled softly at the endearment before a hint of a frown turned his lips downward.  "To be honest, Troya, I'm concerned."



            "Yes, concerned.  I know what P.I.'s make, and quite frankly it's not that much."

            The woman's tone was light with playful sarcasm.  "Kit, I'm a doctor.  I earn a good living.  What Rick makes or doesn't make is of little consequence.  Besides, neither one of us has extravagant tastes.  We'll get by."


            "That may be so, but have you thought about A.J.?"


            "About the fact you may end up being financially responsible for him too?"

            "Rick and I have discussed it.  Between that, and the fact I've worked with patients like A.J. my entire career, I have a good handle on what the future might hold."

            "And that's okay with you?"

            "What's okay with me?"

            Kit chewed on his lower lip, making a great show of his indecisiveness.  "I don't mean to be blunt or to offend you, but A.J. could end up to be a large burden, don't you think?  It's difficult starting out in a new marriage as it is.  If you and Rick marry, you'll have the additional stress of a handicapped brother-in-law."


            "Only time will tell if A.J. is what we, indeed, consider handicapped.  He's made great strides and improvements since he first came to me in early March.  Generally, we consider a year from when the patient's accident occurred to be the time period when the most abilities are relearned and recovered.  I have hope that when February fifth of next year rolls around, A.J. will be the man he was prior to his injury."


            "February fifth?"  Kit questioned as though that date hadn't just  popped up in his recent conversation with Troya's father.

            "The day the accident happened."


            "Oh.  And if he's not?"

            "If he's not, then he's not.  His brother will be my husband.  Or at least I hope he will be.  Because of that, I'll care for A.J. in whatever way is necessary.  I'll make the same commitment to him Rick has."


            Troya waved again when the Jet-ski buzzed back into view.  Kit's eyes followed hers.  He wished she'd look at him the same way she looked at Rick. 


            Troya misinterpreted the man's heavy scowl.   "Listen, Kristopher Robin, I appreciate your concern.  I really do.  But there's no need to worry, I've given it plenty of thought.  I love Rick Simon, Kit.  I'm not going to let him get away, regardless of what his brother may or may not need from me.  Besides, A.J. plays a significant role in our relationship.  In a round about way, he's the one who brought us together in the first place.  It was so sad.  Such a tragedy.  Rick's been absolutely devastated by it, but wonderful things have grown from it."


            "What was a tragedy?"

            "A.J.'s accident."

            "How so?"

            "Rick and A.J. were working on a case when it happened."


            When Troya didn't offer any details the man said, "You're going to force the cop in me to ask what kind of a case if you don't elaborate."

            Troya chuckled.  "You cops and private eyes are all alike, you know that?"

            "How so?"

            "You're curious about every little thing. About every innocent statement.  Despite his injuries, even A.J.'s like that.  He doesn't miss even the most minute detail, let me tell you.  He immediately knew Tad and I were twins upon first meeting Tad."


            "He did, huh?  Sounds like he's good at what he does then."


            "Rick claims Andrew Simon is the best P.I. in the entire state of California."


            "Or was."


            A shadow of sorrow briefly flicked in Troya's eyes.  "Yes, or was.  That remains to be seen, however."

            "So are you going to tell me about this tragic case you mentioned?"

            "I'll tell you, but you have to promise me you'll never say anything about it in front of Rick."

            "No problem."  Kit watched the distant Jet-ski race through the water.  "But can I ask why?"

            "It's very difficult for him to discuss.  You see, Rick hit A.J."


            "Hit him?"


            "With his truck.  I'm sure you heard about the shooting that occurred in the vacant morgue.  The one where the police assume a man was killed, but no body was ever found?"


            "Yeah, we were briefed after it happened.  Why?  What does that have to do with Rick and A.J.?"

            "They were there.  Their cousin, Linda - her boy was skipping school, causing the woman a lot of grief and the like.  She'd hired Rick and A.J. to talk to him.  Brendan was at the morgue skateboarding with some of his friends."


            "So they tracked him down and then what happened?"


            "I don't know all the details, to tell you the truth.  All I know is that A.J. ended up chasing a man out of the building.   He ran right into the path of Rick's oncoming truck."

            "I see."  Kit eyed the Jet-ski with renewed interest, watching as it made a wide circle and turned for shore.  "And A.J. doesn't remember what happened?"


            "Not to the best of my knowledge."


            "Will he ever?"


            "Bits and pieces may come back to him in time.  But as to whether what he saw or heard ever fully returns to him is anyone's guess."


            "So the police know he witnessed the crime?"

            "Based on what Brendan told a lieutenant who's a friend of Rick and A.J.'s, they strongly suspect he does, yes."


            "But what about the boy?  It sounds like he was a witness, too."


            Troya shrugged her shoulders.  "Sorry, I don't know.  Like I said, it's hard for Rick to talk about.  I try not to ask too many questions."

            The man nodded. He stood, brushing the sand from the seat of his baggy bathing trunks.  Troya copied the man's movements.


            Kit eyed the Simon brothers on last time, watching as Rick helped A.J. climb off the unstable little craft. 


            "Yes, Lady Troya, I can certainly imagine it is a difficult subject for Rick to talk about." The man leaned sideways, giving Troya a chaste peck on the cheek before turning toward the house.  "And by the way, my middle name isn't Robin."





            A.J. stood at the deep marble basin, stumped by how to turn on the water.  The bathroom sink had a gold faucet, a real gold faucet, but no knobs to turn or lift up on.  He thought a long time, knowing he'd been in exclusive restaurants where this was common, but for the life of him he couldn't remember how you made the damn contraption work. 


            The blond man was getting more and more frustrated.  It was little incidents like this that brought sharply home the ramifications of his injury.  He was going to feel like an idiot if he had to walk out onto Tad's patio and ask Rick to help him wash his hands.  Yet, he might have no choice.  Sticky sauce from the barbecued spare ribs the cook had served liberally covered his fingers and palms.  He'd felt horribly foolish by the time the meal ended.  No one else came away looking like a three-year-old left alone with a jar of Open Pit.  But, at least Tad and his guests had the good grace not to comment on his lack of coordination, or the fact he'd finally been forced to ask Rick to cut the meat off the bones for him.  Though he thought he saw a self-satisfied smirk on that one guy's face, that friend of Tad's...what was his name?  Kit.  That was it.  Kit, short for Kristopher, A.J. assumed.


            It was strange how his brain could come up with that trivial bit of information, when as far as he could recall, he'd never known anyone who had gone by the nickname Kit.  Every man he'd encountered named Kristopher went by Kris.  Or Chris, the other spelling he could see clearly in his head.   He could so easily come up with those useless facts, yet here he was in a marble bathroom the size of his living room and he had no idea how to get the water to work.


            A.J. waved a hand in disgust.  He jumped back as warm water flowed.   He waited thirty seconds, and then watched the flow come to a halt as though it had never been there to begin with.  He swiped a hand over the faucet again, that motion causing the water to run once more. 


            The detective smiled.  Now he remembered.  There was some type of sensor in the faucet that registered movement or body heat; he wasn't sure which, maybe both.   Oh, but the silly luxuries afforded the rich.


            A.J. picked up one of the rounded perfumed soaps from the gold long-stemmed dish.  He lathered his hands, rinsed them off, and then lathered them again.  This time he ran the lather over his chin and upper lip, where barbecue sauce ringed his mouth like a clown's painted-on smile.  He bent low, splashing water on his face until all traces of sauce and soap were gone.  He allowed a hand to grope sideways, searching for the towel hanging on the rack above the toilet. 


            The detective stopped in mid-motion.  Long after the water had shut off of its own volition, he stood half bent at the waist staring at the large navy monogram in the lower right quarter of the fluffy red material. 





            A.J. looked in both directions as he stepped from the bathroom into the hallway.  The house appeared desolate; everyone was still gathered around the patio table eating dessert he imagined. 


            What exactly made the detective turn the knobs on the closed doors of the room down the hall he didn't know.  Nor did he know why he felt the need to slip in-between those doors and close them behind him. 


            A.J. glanced around Tad's home office with its fifteen foot ceiling rising high above his head.  If masculinity had a scent, this is what it would smell like.  Rich leather furniture, mahogany imported from South America that had been fashioned into a desk the width of five men, the slight hint of smoked wood from the fireplace made of stone quarried in New Hampshire that took up most of the east wall, and first edition books so rare Tad's vast collection had to worth thousands of dollars.  Given the opportunity, A.J. could get lost in those books, but now wasn't the time.  He limped toward the desk, not sure what he was searching for, or why he'd even entered the room in the first place. 


             The blond looked out the window as he passed, seeing Tad's guests in the backyard swimming pool.  He counted heads. Everyone was present, including Rick, though twice A.J. saw his brother glance at the house.  The detective could easily guess Rick was wondering what had happened to him.


            Knowing he didn't have much time, A.J. hurried to his original destination.   Now that he'd arrived he felt silly.  It was rather stupid to sneak into Tad's office and then paw through his personal things just because of a monogrammed towel in the bathroom.  But, just when A.J. was about to chide himself for his foolishness and head for the pool, he visualized the dying man.  The man in his dreams.  The man who had so valiantly tried to give him a message.




            Was Elbee a name, or was the phrase actually the initials L.B.?  For so long now A.J. had been trying to puzzle that one out.  And, for so long, he'd come to no clear conclusions.


            The detective silently opened desk drawers, inwardly smiling.  It had been many months since he'd felt useful.  Since he'd felt the roaring exhilaration of a tough case.  Maybe this wasn't really a case at all.  Maybe it was an effort in futility, but still, it was fun.  The excitement came from knowing at any moment someone could enter the room and catch him snooping through Tad's belongings.


            A.J. paused when he came upon a sheath of linen stationary in the man's middle desk drawer.  He pulled out a thin sheet, reading the line at the top that flowed with calligraphy style script.   He stared off in the distance, deep in thought.  So deep, he almost didn't hear their footsteps echoing in the hallway.




            "A.J.!"  Rick cried as the doors to Tad's study swung open.  "A.J., what the hell are you doing in here?"


            A.J. turned from where he stood in front of a wall of bookshelves on the opposite side of the room from Tad's desk.   He didn't miss the slight twinge of embarrassment that stained his brother's cheeks pink.  Tad stood next to Rick clucking gracious reassurances. 


            "It's okay, Rick.  There's no problem."


            "So------ry," A.J. apologized to their host.  "Go------lost."  He touched his head as if to indicate his injury was the source of his navigational problems.  "Saw-------books.  Wan---------look."


            "Well, you shoulda' asked first," Rick growled, stepping toward his brother with the intention of ushering him out.   "You can't just wander into rooms in someone else's home without permission.  I don't care what the reason is."

            "Rick, Rick," Tad soothed, stopping Rick's motion by placing a hand on his chest, "it's okay.  God knows I don't spend enough time with these books, someone should get enjoyment out of them."   Tad smiled at A.J.  "You go ahead, A.J., pick one out.  Whichever one you want.  When you're through with it you can come back and get another."


            A.J. studied the collection a moment, and then reached for a leather bound copy of The Gunfight at the OK Corral.   "Thank-----Tad.  I take-------goot------car-----care."


            Tad walked over and put an arm around A.J.'s shoulders. "I'm sure you will.  You keep it as long as you like."


            Rick scowled, wondering what the hell was going on.  It wasn't like A.J. to look over someone's personal belongings without asking first, nor was it like him to excuse his behavior by blaming it on his injury.  And his speech.  It was slower, as though he was struggling to come up with each word in a way he hadn't in several weeks now.  His grammar had taken a sudden nosedive as well.  And the word ‘good,’ pronounced goot, well, A.J. hadn't done that in months.


            "Come on, A.J.," Rick beckoned,  "I think it's time I get you back to the center.   It's been a long day."


            A.J. gave Rick an amiable, "Okay," as he passed.  Rick hung back, he and Tad walking together.  When A.J. stepped out onto the patio, Rick paused and turned to their host.  


            "Listen, Tad, I'm really sorry about this.  I shoulda' come in here with him."


            "Rick," Tad smiled, laying a hand on the detective's shoulder,  "I said there was no problem, and I meant.  Even I get lost in this house every so often.  It's understandable that A.J. could."


            "Still, when he found himself in your office, he shoulda' got his butt right back outta there."


            "Hey, come on, forget it.  He didn't hurt anything.  All he was doing was looking at the books.  Now there's no need to be embarrassed, or to apologize.  Besides, like you said, it's been a long day.  I'm sure he's tired.  None of us thinks clearly when we're tired."


            Rick rubbed a hand over his own weary eyes, trying to push renewed concern for his brother aside.   "No, no I guess we don't."  Rick patted the man on the upper arm.  "Thanks, Tad.   As always, I appreciate your hospitality, and your kindness to A.J."


            Tad's smile never left his face or eyes.  "Glad to do it, Rick.  Glad to do it."


            The ride back to the rehabilitation center was made in silence, both Simon brothers engrossed in their own thoughts.  If A.J. wondered why Troya Yeager left Tad's estate at the same time he and Rick did, he didn't comment on it.  If he wondered why she waited in her car in the center’s parking lot while Rick saw him to his room, he didn't comment on that either.  He placed the book Tad had let him take on the counter top and then turned, intent on having a discussion with his brother.   Rick was intent on having a discussion, too, though not the one A.J. had in mind.


            "A.J., I'm sorry I got pissed at you back at Tad's place.  But you understand why what you did was wrong, don't you?"


            "Rick, I--"


            "No,"    Rick held up a hand,  "don't say anything.  Just answer me.  You understand why you can't wander around in someone else's home, right?  I know you got lost, but when you saw you were in Tad's office, you shoulda' got outta there.  You understand that, don't you?"

            A.J. wanted to say, "Why are talking to me like this?  As though I'm a child?  Before the accident happened you would have been curious as to what I was doing in there.  You'd have known, you would have instinctively known something didn't feel right to me. That there was something my gut was telling me I had to look into.  You'd have picked up on the fact that I was purposely backsliding in regard to my speech, purposely playing dumb for Tad's benefit.  You'd have known all those things and you'd have covered for me.  But you didn't know, did you, Rick?  You didn't know, because you see me like the rest of them do.  You see me as less of a person now.  You see me as someone who can't function like I used to.  Even if I could verbally tell you all that's on my mind, you wouldn't listen, would you?"


            " you understand?"

             A.J. studied his brother a long time before nodding.  Rick mistook the disappointment shadowing A.J.'s eyes as weariness brought about by a long, full day on the water.


            "Good."  Rick walked over and pulled his brother to his chest, already apologetic for his sternness.  "I just don't want you embarrassing yourself, kid, that's all."


            Embarrassing you is more like it, was A.J.'s pointed thought. 


            After Rick left, A.J. reached for the back pocket of his blue jeans.  He pulled out the linen paper he'd secreted there when Tad and Rick had walked in on him.  He wasn't sure if it was a clue or not, but nonetheless, it was interesting.   He slipped it inside the book he'd pulled from Tad's shelf.  The book about Wyatt Earp. 


            He crossed the room to his nightstand.  He pulled open the drawer, fumbling for his small notepad and a pen.  He leaned back against his bed, adding two more words to his ever-growing list. 



Chapter 22


            Brendan Nash rode his bike down the residential sidewalk on a Tuesday afternoon in late June, enjoying the feel of the summer sun on his face, and on the bare skin of his legs where his baggy Hawaiian shorts didn't cover.  School had been out for two weeks now, nothing but carefree days awaited him until Labor Day drew to a close and classes resumed.


            Peace had been restored to Brendan's home in recent weeks.  Peace of a sort he had never thought he'd see again after Mark Ecklund...or Luke Bentz rather, came into their lives.  But slowly Brendan, his mother, and Heather, were adjusting as the trauma of that night back in April gradually receded.  Only on rare occasions did Heather ask where Mark was, as she still referred to him.   At those times Linda answered her with a simple,  "Mark had to go away, sweetie.  He won't be back."


            "Cory either?"

            "No, Cory won't be back either."

            At first that seemed to upset Heather, but after repeated assurances that her mother or Brendan weren’t going away, Heather's concerns appeared to abate.


            The only day of school Brendan missed since A.J.'s accident was the day his mother kept him home after Luke Bentz had been arrested.  Like he'd promised Rick he would, the boy worked hard to complete all the papers he hadn't turned in.  He'd even met his own personal goal of getting all A's on his report card for the last quarter marking period.  His mother and teachers were so proud, lavishing him with well-deserved praise.  Rick had been proud of him, too.  He took Brendan, Heather, and A.J. to SeaWorld on a recent Saturday in celebration of the boy's diligence. And, in early August, the best thing of all was going to happen.  Brendan's father was driving down from Montana to spend two weeks with his children while Brendan's stepmother was remaining at home to take care of baby Alex.  Greg Nash was taking Brendan and Heather to Disneyland the first week of his visit, the second would be devoted to, "Just the guys," as the man phrased it over the phone.  "We'll head for the High Sierras on a camping trip, Bren.  Just you and me.  Heather will stay in Anaheim with Grandpa and Grandma Nash.  It'll somewhat make up for that ski trip the two of us missed last winter, don't you think?"

            "Yeah, Dad," Brendan had agreed, barely able to contain his enthusiasm.  "That'll be great!  And maybe...well, maybe when Alex is a little older he can join us.  You know, we can make it a real father/son camping trip then.  We can make it a tradition."


            Brendan could easily visualize the smile his words brought to his dad's face.  "That's an excellent suggestion, Bren.  I'm sure Alex will be thrilled to be included."  Pride was plain to hear in Greg Nash's voice.  "You've really grown up this past winter, haven't you, son."


            Brendan thought of all he'd endured since the day of A.J.'s accident when he quietly replied,  "Yeah, Dad.  I've really grown up."


            Now the boy, who had celebrated his thirteenth birthday a month earlier, rolled toward home.  The pedals on his bike turned at a slow, lazy pace.  He weaved back and forth on the desolate sidewalk making loopy curves, sometimes even turning complete circles before heading on his way again. 


            Cheryl Milligan watched Heather during the summer while Linda was at work, and in previous years, had watched Brendan as well.  But the young man was too old for a babysitter this year.  Or so he'd told his mother.  To keep him occupied and out of trouble, Linda had enrolled him in the local YMCA day camp.  Brendan enjoyed the structured activities he participated in from eight until four every weekday, including swimming, baseball, soccer, basketball, and computer lessons.  At four o'clock the boy headed for home on his bicycle where he started supper and set the table for his mother.  By six, his small family was gathered together for the evening meal.  If Rick or Aunt Cecilia weren't picking him up for a visit with A.J., then Brendan played outside with his friends until darkness settled over his neighborhood.


            The boy's mind drifted ahead to July.  He was helping Doctor Yeager plan a birthday party for A.J.  No one but the doctor, A.J., Brendan, and Brendan’s mother, knew it would be announced at the party that A.J. was going to be released from the rehabilitation hospital that very same day.  Rick and Aunt Cecilia would be so happy.  Brendan could picture their faces.  Aunt Cecilia would cry for sure, and the boy suspected Rick might even cry a little, though he'd turn away and try to hide that fact. 


            Doctor Yeager had explained A.J. would still have to continue therapy on an out-patient basis for some months to come, but that didn't matter to Brendan.  The important thing was, A.J. was going home.  A small portion of guilt was lifted from the boy's shoulders as he watched A.J. improve day by day throughout the weeks of June.

            Brendan's thoughts were so far removed from where he was that he paid no attention to the vehicle slowly cruising up behind him.  He glanced to his left when it pulled against the curve just feet ahead of him.  He wondered if he'd been doing something wrong, not obeying some obscure bicycle law, when the uniformed cop slid across the front seat of the police car.  He poked his head out the open window on the passenger side, giving the young teenager a big grin.


            "Hey, Brendan."

            The boy applied the brakes on his bike, his return greeting cautious.  "Hi."


            "Listen, Brendan, I'd like you to get in the car with me.  I need to ask you a few questions."


            Something about the man was familiar, but Brendan couldn't figure out what it was.  He was sure he'd met him before, but where?


            "Questions about what?"


            "About an incident back in February.  About the events that occurred at the vacant city morgue?  Do you remember that?  I believe your mother's cousin, Andrew Simon, was seriously injured that day, am I correct?"

            Brendan studied the logo on the side of the car.  His,  "Yeah," came out succinct and guarded.


            "So I'd like you to tell me about it, son.  How about if we go some place where we can talk.  There's a burger joint around the corner.  I bet you're hungry, aren’t you?"

            Brendan shook his head no.


            The cop opened the car door, setting a spit shined black shoe on the curb of the sidewalk.  "Oh come on, Bren, I know you're hungry.  I have yet to meet a kid your age that doesn't eat his parents out of house and home.  If nothing else, you can get a milkshake or an ice cream cone."


            "No, I'm not hungry."  The thirteen-year-old subtly placed a foot on a pedal.  "Besides, I have to get home.  My mom's expecting me."


            The man stood, making his advance so slow Brendan might not have noticed it had he not been paying close attention.


            "Your mother can wait, Brendan," the cop stated with flat authority. All traces of the 'let's be buddies' smile from moments earlier were gone. "We'll call her from my car.  The dispatcher can hook us up.  I need to talk to you now.  You don't wanna be arrested for obstructing justice, do you, boy?"

            "I already talked to Lieutenant Marsh."   Brendan brought his other foot close to the remaining pedal.  "I told her everything I know."


            The man's hands shot out, grabbing the bike's handlebars in a strong hold.  He grinned down at Brendan like a cunning crocodile.


            "Problem is, Brendan, I don't know any Lieutenant Marsh.  As a matter of fact, I get the impression you just might be lying to me about talking to her in the first place."


            "I'm not lying!   I did talk to her!"


            The man brought a hand up to lightly pat the blond's right cheek.  "Brendan, Brendan, Brendan, do you know what happens to naughty little boys who fib to police officers?  Do you know what Juvie Hall is like?" The cop's hand began an up and down caressing motion over Brendan's smooth, unblemished skin.  "It would be a darn shame if a pretty little thing like you lost his virginity before he was ready.  And, in a way you aren't gonna be fond of either.  Now I know an All-American boy such as yourself from a nice neighborhood like this might not understand what I mean when I say that, but rest assured, you don't wanna find out."  The man jerked up on the handlebars of the bike.  Brendan was forced to tighten his grip in order to keep from tumbling backwards off the seat.


            "Now, come on, Brendan, quit giving me a hard time here.  All we're gonna do is talk.  Talk about that day you were at the morgue.  You're gonna tell me what you saw, kid.  You're gonna tell me or I'm gonna--"


            In a last desperate attempt to escape, Brendan clamped his mouth around the man's bare right forearm, biting down as hard as he could.  


            "Ouch!"  The cop's hands flew from the bike.  "You fuckin' little bastard you!"


            Before the man had time to recover Brendan bit his other arm. 


            "Goddammit!  You sonuva--"


             The boy's feet scrambled to find the pedals.  He rolled forward, running over the pointed toe of the cop's left shoe. 


            "Ouch!  Shit!"  The uniformed man did a dance of a pain in the middle of the sidewalk.  "Get back here!  Get back here, you little asshole!"  He made an awkward lunge for the back of the bike that sent him tumbling to the concrete.  Patches of skin peeled from his palms and elbows.   "Damn it, kid, that's the last straw!  When I get a hold of you, you're gonna wish you were never born!"


            Brendan's feet whipped the pedals in a furious circle.  He risked a glance over his shoulder as he rounded the curb to the next block.  The cop was filling the air with curses and threats while limping to his car.  The teenager knew he'd never have a chance if the man were intent on chasing him down in the vehicle.  His head swiveled to his left and then his right.  He stood, his legs a blur of motion as he raced down a hill.  He arced the bike to the right, flying across the Andersons' driveway, speeding through their backyard, then through the Pellmans' front yard, around the Glenns' swimming pool, between Mrs. Harper's privacy bushes, leaped over Mrs. Murphy's roses without so much as a wheel touching the delicate flowers, pedaled past a barking dog on a chain, underneath a little girl on a swing, and through four more yards to his own home. 


            Brendan looked again to the left and right as he sailed the curb and soared up his mother's driveway.  There was no sign of a police car, but he wasn't taking any chances.  Feet still spinning on the pedals, he steered the bike to the back of the garage, hopped off, and used his key to gain entrance through the service door.  The broad, overhead door that faced the street was shut and locked, visually secluding the teen from passers-by. 


            Lungs burning from his wild ride, Brendan parked his bike next to Heather's and then cautiously slipped outside once more.  He peered around a corner of the garage, not seeing anything but the neighbor's house across the street.  He waited sixty seconds before stepping away from the protection the garage afforded him.  Thankfully, Brendan heard it before he saw it - the sound of a car cruising slowly down the street.  He threw himself backwards, flattening his body against the building.  He could tell the car stopped in front of his house, he could hear its powerful engine idling.  He bent slightly at the knees, preparing to run if the vehicle pulled in the driveway.  It seemed like an eternity before the car moved on.  Tension and adrenalin had Brendan's heart hammering so hard in his chest he could feel his rib cage vibrating.  He inched his way along the back of the garage, using one eye to view the street when he came to the other corner.  He watched until the squad car disappeared from sight. 


            Brendan got his key ready, running for all he was worth for the side door on the house that faced the driveway and opened into the laundry room.  Within seconds he had the door open, shut, and securely relocked.   He fell back against it panting, hardly able to believe he was safe.  His heart raced in time to the tremors coursing through his arms and legs.  He slumped on top of the washing machine, heaving big gulps of air.  He'd never been so scared in his life.  Not even when Natalie Bentz had accosted him after school several months back.


            It took Brendan a while to calm down and regain his wits that afternoon.  He swallowed two glasses of cold orange juice in rapid succession and then wiped his mouth with the front of his red T-shirt.  He pondered his encounter with the police officer as he took the casserole his mother had mixed up the previous night out of the refrigerator and popped it in the oven.  He turned, leaning his butt against the oven's chrome handle, lost in thought.   Several revelations flashed through Brendan's mind as he replayed the recent event.  He raced for the stairs, taking them two at a time.  He skidded to a halt on his bare knees in front of his desk, ignoring the stinging rug burns.  He rifled through his bottom drawer, clawing at the folders and papers he'd placed there at the end of the school year.  When his fingers encountered the yellow spiral notebook he cried,  "Got it!"


            The boy flipped the pages until he came to the one he was searching for.  He ignored his caricature of the pretty cheerleader, Heidi Zoller, and her exaggerated pointy breasts, to instead focus on the man he'd drawn.  The man with the shiny police badge and the drooling tongue of a Saint Bernard.  The man he would have drawn with two different color eyes had he possessed more than a pencil that day.


            "That's him," Brendan whispered.  He dropped to his butt in shock.  "That's the guy who just tried to make me answer his questions."              


            Brendan ran to his mother's room and picked up the phone.  He dialed the Simon and Simon office number from memory.  When the answering machine clicked on, he hung up.  He punched in Rick's home number next, but again hung up with frustration when the answering machine fielded his call.  He was back in his own room when his mother arrived at five-thirty with Heather in tow.        


            "Brendan!  Brendan, are you home?"


            "Yeah, Mom, I'm in my room!"


            "Well get down here this minute!  You're chores aren't done!  The table isn't set for dinner, and Winston is crying to be fed!"


            Brendan's footsteps could be heard drumming down the stairs as Linda crossed to the oven to check on supper, Winston giving an ornery meow while rubbing against her legs.  "Oh, Brendan, you forgot to turn the oven on!  Supper's stone cold; not to mention raw.  What is wrong with you today?  You told me you were responsible now.  You told me you were too old for a babysitter."

            All traces of the disheveled boy from an hour earlier were gone.  Brendan's sweat soaked hair had dried and been neatly combed back into place.  The T-shirt that had reeked of perspiration from his wild ride had been thrown in the hamper, as had his shorts. A freshly laundered Lakers jersey and blue jeans were worn in their place.


            Brendan gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek, a gesture he hoped would appease her wrath.  "I know, Mom.  And I am responsible, really I am.  I just...I got home late from camp and got...involved with something in my room.  I'm sorry, it won't happen again.  Promise."


            "Okay, okay," Linda sighed, too tired from a nine hour day at work to argue with her son. "Get out the peanut butter and jelly.  I'll grab the bread and a can of soup.  We'll have to call that supper for tonight."  Linda turned her head toward the living room where Heather was already entranced by the television.  "Heather Joan, shut that thing off and go wash your hands please!  We're going to eat in a few minutes!"


            Brendan did a boxer's dance in front of his mother while she leafed through the mail.   "Mom, I wanna see A.J. tonight."

            "Brendan, no, not tonight."  The preoccupied woman didn't look up as she studied the  telephone bill.   "I'm tired.  I don't feel like driving you all the way over--"

            "Please, Mom.  Pretty please.  I'm afraid he'll be alone otherwise.  I tried to call Rick, but he isn't at the office, or at home, either.  I know he's got a big case he's workin' on right now, so I bet he's tied up.  And Aunt Cecilia's gone until next week.  Remember, Rick made her take that bus trip."

            Linda gave a weary nod.  Her aunt had prepaid for a ten day trip to Arizona through her senior citizens club back in early January.  Now that A.J. was making good progress, Rick had insisted she take the trip, in part so she wasn't out her money, and in part to give her a chance to get away from the stress she'd been living under since February.  Though A.J. had no memory of his mother planning this vacation, he echoed his brother's sentiments so, somewhat reluctantly, Cecilia had boarded the tour bus on Saturday morning.


            "So please.  Please can I go visit A.J. for a while?  I'll treat you and Heather to dinner on the way there.  I've got money saved from the lawns I've been mowing.  We can stop at McDonald's, or Burger King, or Taco Bell, or Kentucky Fried Chicken - wherever you want.  You pick.  Please say yes.  Please."

            Linda could do more than give an affectionate shake of her head.  How could she fault her son for being so thoughtful? For being concerned that A.J. would be left without a visitor this evening.  "All right, you win.  I'll take you to see A.J. provided you treat Heather and me to supper.   I guess I can't pass up on the only offer for dinner I've had in two months, can I?"

            Brendan stood on his tiptoes, planting another kiss on his mother's cheek.  "No, you can't."


            "Help your sister wash her hands and face while I change my clothes.  Her shirt's full of ice cream stains. Put a clean one on her and brush her hair while you're at it.  I'll be ready by the time you're done."


            Brendan raced for the stairway.   "Okay."


            As Linda tripped over the meowing Winston she called, "And feed this cat before we leave!"


            "I will!"


            An hour later, Linda was dropping her son off at the front entrance of the rehab center.   "I'll expect you to be waiting right here at nine-thirty.   I'd better not have to come in looking for you, and you'd better not be so much as a minute late."


            "I won't be!"  Brendan promised while slamming the car door.  He gave Heather a wave goodbye.  She waved in return from where she sat in the back seat with a gold paper Burger King crown on her head.  


            "Tell A.J. hi from your sister and me," were Linda's final instructions as she pulled away.


            Brendan streaked through the lobby, almost knocking the man over who stepped out of the double doors that led to the gymnasium. 




            The boy came to a screeching halt when he realized who was beckoning him.  A.J. stood shirtless in a pair of black boxer's trunks with a white towel draped around his neck, a fine sheen of perspiration coating his forehead and chest.  Brendan backpedaled to the detective. 


            "A.J., I have ta' talk to you!  It's really important!"  The boy latched onto A.J.'s arm, easily transferring his sense of urgency to the blond man.  "I tried to call Rick, but I can't get a hold of him."


            "He-----work tonight."


            "That's what I figured.  So anyway, I gotta tell someone, only I can't tell my mom."


            "Tell you mom-------what?"


            Brendan put his hands on A.J.'s waist, pushing him toward the elevator.  "It's like this.  I was riding my bike home from day camp when this guy in a cop car stops me.  He said he wanted to ask me questions about what happened that day, only I thought that was weird.  I mean, Lieutenant Marsh already talked to me about what happened, and this guy wasn't even in a city cruiser.  It was a county squad.  And that's weird, too, because now that I think about it, I know that's what I saw the man get into the day of the accident.  Lieutenant Marsh asked me about it, but I couldn't remember.  But now that I saw one up close, I know it was a county cop car the man ran to.  Plus, I don't know why, but I just felt something was wrong about the whole thing.  How did the guy know my name?  He was in my school giving a lecture this winter...he was there the day it all happened, but still, I don't think he'd remember me, do you?  After all, he must see thousands of kids a year, wouldn't you say?  Then he grabbed my bike and--"

            The boy's machine gun-rapid explanation had A.J.'s head spinning by the time they reached the elevator.  "Brendan------slow down.  I have----no------idea------what you-----try tell me."


            Brendan took a deep calming breath as he practically shoved A.J. in the empty car.  "Okay.  I'll start over."


            The doors slid shut on the two, Brendan's story beginning again at a more reasonable pace.  The boy dropped his voice to almost a whisper as they exited onto the third floor.  A.J. walked beside him, his head bent so he could pick up Brendan's words.  Neither one of them was paying attention to where they were headed until A.J. bumped into a firm, broad  chest.  Before he even focused on the man's face he was apologizing. 


            "Scuse me.  I'm----"


            "A.J.!"  Tad Brooks smiled.  His hands rested casually in the pockets of his trousers; that action causing his sport coat to be brushed back from his chest and waist.   "Good to see you again.  Or perhaps I should say, good to bump into you, huh?"

            A.J. stood with eyes transfixed on the silver monogram stitched on the left breast pocket of the man's white shirt. 


            "A.J.?"  Tad questioned.  "A.J., you okay?"

            A.J. blinked, nodding.  For a brief moment it had been like he was seeing something through another man's eyes.  Through the eyes of a dead man.


            A.J. noticed the change in Brendan's breathing and felt the tight grip the boy had on his forearm.  He followed the teenager's eyes to Tad's companion.


            "You remember Kit, of course."


            Again, A.J. nodded. 


            "And who's your visitor tonight?"  Tad asked.  "I wasn't aware you had a son, but this strapping young man can only be yours.  He's the spitting image of you."


            "No, not----my son.  My cousin-------son.  Brendan."

            Tad held out his right hand.  "Brendan, it's nice to meet you."

            Brendan's eyes flicked from Kit to Tad as he shook the blond's hand.  The boy stood up straighter when the contact between he and Tad lingered.  He almost seemed reluctant to release the man.


            "And this is my good friend Kit, Brendan.  A.J. knows him.  You might have seen him around your school a time or two.  He's a police officer.  He gives a lot of talks at the local junior highs."


            Kit winked at the thirteen-year-old.  "How ya' doin', kid?"


            Brendan dropped his eyes, mumbling,  "Fine."

            "Glad to hear it.  The streets can be a dangerous place for a youngster your age, but I bet you've already learned that by now.  It's nice to know your cousin A.J. takes such good care of you."  Kit cocked his head.  "Gee, Brendan, you look awfully familiar.  Don't I know you from somewhere?"

            Brendan swore he could hear the mocking laughter in the man's tone.  He risked a glance upwards.  "No, sir.  I don't think so."


            The man reached out, tousling his hair.  "You're a nice polite boy.  Not like some of the boys I've had to take to Juvie Hall, that's for sure.  Your mom and dad must be doing a good job of raising you."  The man winked again.  "Maybe I'll see you around sometime, huh, Brendan?"

            "Well, we'd better go," Tad said.  "We were searching for my sister.  We’re going to surprise her by taking her to dinner.  You haven't seen her by chance, have you?"

             A.J. shook his head.  "No."


            "Come on, Kit, we need to keep looking then."  Tad gave A.J. a brotherly pat on the upper arm.  "See you, buddy.  Hope you can make it out to my place one day this weekend."  He turned his attention to Brendan.  "Nice meeting you, Brendan.  If you'd like to come along with A.J. feel free to.  We can go for a spin on one of my cycles, or get the Jet-skis out.  Rick and A.J. really enjoy those."

            Brendan's "Thanks," appeared distant and preoccupied.


            The thirteen-year-old watched over his shoulder as the two men entered the elevator.  Right before the doors slid closed, Kit gave him a crisp two-fingered salute.


            If possible, Brendan was even more animated than before.


            "That was him, A.J.!  That was him!"


            "Was who?"


            "That Kit guy.  He's the one who grabbed my bike today!  He's the one who threatened me!"


            "Oh, Brendan-----I------don---don’t think--"


            "He is!  Really he is!  I'll never forget what he looks like as long as I live.  And he's a cop!   You heard the blond guy say that!  He's a cop, A.J.!"


            While A.J. was mulling this revelation over, Brendan shoved his right palm under the detective's nose.  "And smell this."

            A.J. sniffed.  "What?"

            "His cologne.  What's his name?  Ted?"




            "Yeah Tad.  Didn't you notice?  It's sickening.  Like bug spray.  He reeks of the stuff just like my stepfather used to."




            "Don't you remember?  From the day of the accident?  The man who came into the amphitheater? The man who shot that guy? He smelled just like this, A.J."

            A.J.'s mind was reeling as he tried to assimilate everything that had been hurled at him in less than five minutes time.  He glanced toward the lounge, seeing  Nurse Finster eyeing him and Brendan with a sour expression.  Before the boy was told to leave, A.J. put a hand over his mouth, signaling for silence.


            "Let go-------my room.   I have------lots question---------for you."

            A.J. led the way to the end of the hall.  He shut the door firmly behind himself and Brendan, opening it again only long enough to hang the Do Not Disturb card over the handle. 


            When A.J. and Brendan finally emerged it was twenty minutes after nine.  The detective, who had showered and changed into jeans and an oxford shirt at some point during his visit with Brendan, walked the boy to the front steps where they awaited the arrival of his mother.  A.J. gave Linda and Heather a wave, keeping a watchful eye until Brendan was safely in the car.  The blond man could see the boy locking the doors like A.J. had instructed him to do.  Underneath the glow of the all-night sodium vapor lights, A.J. could tell Linda was questioning her son regarding this unusual action.  The boy was quick on his feet.  A.J. had no doubt he'd come up with some sort of answer that would sound halfway believable to Linda.


            A.J. walked as fast as his right leg would allow, taking the elevator back to his floor.  He briefly wondered why Dagmar Finster was still on duty when he passed her at the nurses’ station, but his mind was on too many other concerns to worry about her comings and goings.


            The detective shut his door, crossed to the nightstand, and picked up the phone.  It rang five times before Rick's answering machine clicked on.


            "Rick, it me.  I need talk----you------soon as------possble.  Call me."


            A.J. called the office next on the off chance he'd catch his brother there.  He left the same message, then paced the floor waiting for a return call.   





            It was fifteen minutes before midnight when Rick stepped out of A.J.'s room.  Troya Yeager stood in the hallway waiting for him as the detective soundlessly eased the door closed.        



            The overhead lights had been dimmed, the bustling activity of the daytime hours long receded.  The only thing that broke the quiet was the occasional soft murmur of nurses' voices.


            In deference to the late hour, the lanky man kept his voice pitched low.  "I guess whatever it is that was so urgent will have to wait until tomorrow.  I'll try to get a hold of him in-between his sessions.  Otherwise, I'll see him after supper."


            "He's asleep, I take it?"

            "Yeah.  Never even heard me come in.  He's sprawled on the bed still wearing his clothes with the book Tad let him borrow layin' open on his chest.   I just left him be.  No matter what he wants, it can't be so important I need to wake him up to find out."


            "I doubt it," Troya agreed.  "He was fine today.  He didn't appear to be upset or worried about anything when I was with him.  And none of his therapists reported any type of happening or odd behavior on his part."


            The doctor glanced down the long hallway and saw they were alone, as she would have expected at this time of night.  She took the liberty of wrapping her arms around Rick's waist.  "Speaking of people who are tired, you look beat, Mr. Simon."


            Rick's lips gently met the woman's in a brief kiss.  "I am.  It's been a long day.  Looks like tomorrow is gonna be the same.  Would you do me a favor and let A.J. know I stopped by?"




            "Tell him one way or another I'll talk to him sometime before the day ends."

            "I can do that."  Troya tugged at Rick's arm.  "Have you had supper yet?"

            "No.  Have you?"


            "Yes, I have.  I wasn't expecting the pleasure of your company, so went to dinner with Tad and Kit.  But you know me, I'm always game for a little late-night snack."


            Rick chuckled while bending to steal another kiss.  "And just what kind of snack did you have in mind, lady?"

            "A milkshake at Marty's for starters, while you eat something a bit more substantial.  Maybe I'll snitch a few fries off your plate, if you don't mind."

            Rick ran his hands through the doctor's hair.  "I don't mind."


            "Then we can head back to your place.  It's closer.  I don't need to be in until nine in the morning.  How about you?"

            "I've got a lot to do at the office, but nine sounds reasonable."


            Troya's fingers crawled up Rick's field jacket.  "We can sleep until seven, play until eight, and bump into each other in the bathroom while trying to get to work on time."


            "Sounds like just the kinda morning I'm lookin' forward to."


            Rick put an arm around the woman's shoulders.  They headed to the elevators, the detective leaving his arm in place until he saw Troya safely to her Mazda.


            At one o'clock that morning, the couple dropped to Rick's mattress with a weariness that seemed to penetrate their bones.  Troya doubted either one of them was awake for more than another thirty seconds.  Like she had promised she would, she woke the detective at seven a.m.  Regardless of how tired he still was, Rick Simon smiled, unable to refuse what the naked woman in his bed was offering.  He held her, caressed her, slipped inside her, and told her how much he loved her.  Like always, he could never get enough of her.  Like always, her mere presence chased away his guilt and his worries.


Chapter 23


            A.J. returned to his room after breakfast the next morning to collect his folder and a pen in preparation of his upcoming classes.  He briefly puzzled over why his brother hadn't called him back the evening before, but then realized it was possible Rick hadn't gotten home until late.  The blond man chastised himself. He should have told Rick to return his call no matter what time it was.


            The detective laid his folder and pen on the nightstand and then picked up the phone.  It was quarter to eight. He should be able to catch Rick in the middle of eating breakfast.  Like the evening before, the phone on his brother's boat rang five times, then the answering machine clicked on.  This time A.J. didn't leave a message before hanging up.  He assumed Rick was either sleeping, in the shower, or had already left for the office.  A.J. was in the middle of punching out the Simon and Simon number when the phone cord hit his folder and pen, sending them tumbling behind the narrow space between the nightstand and wall.  He waited until the only response he got at the office was his own voice on the answering machine, then again, hung up without leaving a message.


            The blond cursed under his breath as he pulled the nightstand from the wall.  His foul language and the mood that went along with it came in part because of his inability to get a hold of his brother, and in part because he'd dumped his papers and pen on the floor.  By looking at the cobwebs climbing the wall and the dust balls bunched like tiny tumbleweeds along the base of the nightstand, he doubted if anyone had ever cleaned back there.  Just one more thing to aggravate him as he reached through God only knew how many years worth of grime, grit, and dirt to retrieve the dropped items. 


            Because the lamp and alarm clock were plugged into an electrical outlet behind the stand, A.J. had to be careful not to pull them from their perches when he slid the table sideways.  As he reached down to retrieve the dropped items, the back of his hand brushed something small and round.  He probably wouldn't have noticed the tiny object had the metal not been cold against his skin.


            A.J. plucked the bug from the base of the nightstand.  As soon as he brought it into full view he knew what it was.  He closed his hand around it, being careful not to crush it.  He absently tossed his folder and pen on the bed.  A multitude of thoughts, possibilities, and questions, ran through his mind as his eyes scanned the room.  He sat the silver disk next to the lamp, then picked up the phone and unscrewed the mouthpiece.  Just like he'd suspected, another disk resided there.  He didn't remove this one, but instead, put the phone back together before continuing his search. 


            The detective paid no attention when, fifteen minutes later, he heard his fellow floor-mates leaving for their first therapy sessions of the day.  In that time span he'd located the bug secreted in the cabinets above the work counter and the one hidden among the drapery hooks.  He traveled to the bathroom next, intent on exploring every ceramic nook and cranny.


            Thirty minutes later, A.J.'s search ended.  He'd looked everywhere from the ornamental glass covers that went over the ceiling lights in the bathroom and main room, to behind the sink, to under his bed.   By the time he was finished he'd found all the bugs, including the one that had been placed on the underside of the showerhead.  For now, he left them where they were, but at lunch time, when he had more freedom to move about the building without being questioned as to where he was going, he planned to play a little trick on whatever person was so intent on monitoring the conversations taking place in his room.  He hoped they'd enjoy hearing nothing but the sound of piss hitting porcelain when he planted one of the bugs on a urinal in the men's public restroom by the nurses’ station.  Another could go on the back of the television in the lounge so all they heard this evening was canned laughter coming from endless sitcoms.  Another might end up in the room of the man next door, where everyone had to shout to be heard, and one might be placed down in the kitchen right next to the wide stainless steel griddle where the cooks fried eggs every morning.  Who knew where A.J.’s imagination would carry him when he was bent on a little revenge.


            For the time being, A.J. replaced the only bug he had moved, the one he'd found on the back of his nightstand.  He had just pushed the stand against the wall and picked up his folder and pen from the bed when Nurse Finster bustled in.  The woman's lips formed a tight, angry slash across her narrow face. 


            "There you are!  Paul is looking for you!  You're thirty minutes late for your first session.  What are you still doing in here?"


            A.J. shrugged his shoulders, looking as innocent and angelic as he had when he was a child and his mother had caught him and Rick engaged in some form of mischief.   "Didn't know-------time it was."


            The nurse put her hands on his shoulders, pushing him toward the door.  "Well it's eight-thirty, that's what time it is!  And once again you have this place in an uproar.  I swear, I could keep better track of a room full of five-year-olds than I can of you.  You are trouble, Andrew Simon, nothing but trouble.  Now go on!  Go on with you."  The woman gave A.J. a shove toward the distant elevators.  "I'll call Paul and tell him I'm sending you down.  And make sure you go right there!  No dilly dallying along the way, do you hear me?"


            A.J. smiled, knowing he planned to save his dilly dallying for the noon hour.  "Yes, ma'am.  No-------dilly dally."


            The detective was well-aware the nurse's eyes never left his back until he was swallowed up by the elevator.





            Like A.J., Troya was running late that Wednesday morning.  She rushed into her office at fifteen minutes past nine.  She smiled, knowing the reason behind her tardiness made it all worthwhile. 


            She threw her purse in the same drawer of the credenza she'd taken it out of nine hours earlier.  She slid into the navy blue blazer she was carrying, making sure it hung neatly over her loose fitting trousers.  She hadn't had time to do much with her hair.  It was pulled back, clasped in a loose pony tail at the base of her skull with a big white bow because Rick had joined her in the shower causing her well constructed plans to go haywire.  They'd lingered longer than they should have under the hot water, forcing the doctor to hurry through the rest of her morning routine.   She was thankful she kept a few changes of clothes, four pairs of shoes, a toothbrush, and a makeup bag on Rick's boat.  She would have really been late if she'd had to stop at home before coming to work.  


            She laughed while thinking of the piece of toast Rick shoved in her mouth as she ran out the door.  He'd kissed the grape jelly away that had accidentally been swiped across her cheek.  God, she loved the man so much.   Sometimes it was hard to believe.  In so many ways, they were exact opposites, but she supposed that's what made them a good match.  Troya was the calm before Rick's storm, as Cecilia was often fond of saying. Or, more to the point, she was the one who prevented the storms from blowing in to begin with.  Something no other woman had been able to do, or so Cecilia claimed.


             Troya glanced at the phone messages already piled on her desk. She flicked on her computer while swiveling to pull open a drawer on her credenza where she kept patient files.  She grabbed those she needed, including A.J.'s.  She headed for the door, giving a small cry of "Whoops!" when she plowed right into her secretary.  The files flew from Troya's arms to scatter on the carpeting. 


            "Sorry, Doctor," the harried Dana apologized.  


            "No need to be sorry. It's me who wasn't watching where I was going."

            The women crouched to floor level.  As they worked together to put the correct papers in the correct folders Dana said,  "I've been looking all over for you.  That's why I was in such a rush."


            Troya felt her face redden, as though she'd been caught doing something wrong.  As though she had no right to a personal life after years of giving the rehab center sixty plus hours of her time each week.  "I was running a bit late this morning.  Got hung up in....traffic."


            "Jim called in sick.  And Bev called, too. Her father took a turn for the worse last night, so the family is gathering at the hospital.  The doctors are saying it's doubtful he'll be alive by this evening."

            Jim Barnes and Beverly DeAblo were two of Troya's therapists.  The whole day would have to be rearranged in order to fill their patients' needs. 


            Troya swiveled, picking up a piece of paper behind her.  "Get me a list of what patients Jim and Bev see at what times.  I'll look it over and reassign the most pressing cases to myself and anyone else who might have a few free minutes."  The doctor glanced through the files she held in her hands, then reached over to thumb through the ones Dana was holding.  "Let's have a look here. There are at least three patients of mine I don't necessarily have to see today.  Mary Selinski, Raul Concherez, and A.J. Simon."  Troya pulled the files of the patients she'd just mentioned.


            "Here, these can go back in my credenza when you get time.  Let Pete know what's going on.  He can notify Mary, Raul, and A.J. of the cancellations."


            "Yes, Doctor," Dana acknowledged while rising.  She took the three files Troya handed her and headed for the ringing phone on her desk.


            Troya raced down the hall carrying the remaining files.  She tossed over her shoulder while she ran,  "Keep me updated on Bev's dad!  And get me that list of Jim and Bev's patients ASAP!  I'll be in therapy room three!  Mr. Overmeier is probably gnashing his false teeth together because I'm so late!"


            "He is!"  Dana confirmed with a hint of amusement as she picked up the phone.  


            Troya pushed a stray strand of hair behind one ear as she

race-walked around a corner.  She again thought of the reason for her tardiness and smiled. 


            "I knew I should have stayed in bed this morning."





            Because of the hectic way her day started, Troya Yeager forgot all about the promise she'd made to Rick in regards to letting A.J. know his brother would get in touch with him.  It was five minutes to one when she finally got back to her office.  She had just kicked off her navy pumps and sat down with a weary sigh and a salad from the cafeteria, when she caught sight of the files Dana had left laying on her desk.  She turned her head, reading the names sideways. 


            "Looks like Dana's day has been as hectic as mine," the woman observed of her normally efficient secretary.  Troya picked up the files, turning in her chair to drop them in their rightful spots.  It was as she put A.J.'s away that she remembered.


            "Gosh darn it!  I forgot to give Rick's message to A.J." 


            Troya's feet groped blindly for her shoes.  She chewed a mouthful of lettuce and croutons before allowing her fork to fall into the creamy bed of French dressing that blanketed her meal.  She left her lunch sitting in the center of her desk and went in search of A.J.


            Because of the way she'd been forced to rearrange the morning sessions, Troya hadn't seen the blond detective that day.  She didn't bother looking in the cafeteria, knowing he was usually one of the first patients to finish eating and take advantage of his free time until sessions resumed at two.  She walked through the gym, but didn't see him swimming, lifting weights, or boxing.   She proceeded to the single outside exit door at the back of the gymnasium that would lead to the grounds behind the building.  She saw several patients walking in the grass and one running on the track, but again, no A.J.


            The doctor traveled through the gym once more, this time exiting out the double doors that led to the lobby in one direction, the elevator in the other.  Rather than wait for the elevator, Troya opened the nearby stairwell door.  She trotted up three flights to A.J.'s floor.  She exited across from his room, knocking on the frame of his open door.  She kept her voice pitched low in case he was napping.  "A.J.?"


            When she received no answer, Troya peeked inside.  A.J.'s bed was neatly made, his work counter and nightstand devoid of any books or papers that might indicate he'd been present recently.  The doctor stepped inside, seeing the bathroom door was open.  She stopped and called, "A.J.!"


            Troya shrugged her shoulders when again, there was no answer to her beckoning.  She knew A.J. had to be on the grounds somewhere.  Evidently she'd simply overlooked him.  She glanced around, searching for something to write on.  Since the remainder of her afternoon was filled with patients, she decided it would be best if she left Rick's message to his brother in the form of a note.  


            She slid open the cabinet doors above the work station, but saw only A.J.'s Walkman, cassettes, a stack of books, and boxes of puzzles and games.  She closed the cabinet, then crossed to his nightstand. 


            "Ha ah!"  She cried in triumph when she spotted a small spiral notepad.  She pulled it out while groping for a pen or pencil.   When her hand encountered a pen she brushed it forward, bringing with it a pair of sunglasses. 


            The woman would never have given those sunglasses a second glance if she hadn't been the one who had picked them out.  If she hadn't been the one who had insisted on driving her father to his doctor's appointment when it became apparent his eyes were giving him serious trouble during daylight hours.  If she hadn't been privy to the fact that the doctor recommended glasses that were specifically tinted to block the sun's strong ultraviolet rays.  If she hadn't been the one who had teased her father and told him the sleek, black frames with their dark lenses made him look like a member of the CIA, or a dashing foreign spy.


            "What the heck..." the woman mumbled.  She picked up the sunglasses, opening the right earpiece.  Even though she knew other men in San Diego had to be walking around wearing the same glasses, somehow she had no doubt of what she'd see, the LB embossed in the heavy plastic.  The patient's initials were engraved by Doctor Rempert's receptionist when the glasses arrived from the manufacturer, the thought being identification could easier be made if they were left behind in a public place.


            Troya studied the sunglasses.  How had A.J. come to have them in his possession, and more importantly, why?  When no immediate answers came to the doctor, she decided she had no choice but to return them to the nightstand drawer and ask A.J. about them when she saw him.  There had to be some sort of simple explanation. Perhaps her father had dropped them somewhere on the hospital grounds the last time he'd stopped in unexpectedly and taken her to lunch.


            Sure, Troya concluded, that must have been what happened.  A.J.

picked them up, didn't realize the hospital has a Lost and Found Box, and not knowing what else to do with them, threw them in his nightstand.  Or maybe he meant to give them to a nurse or therapist, but has forgotten all about them.  I'll ask him about it at our session tomorrow morning.


            The doctor flipped open A.J.'s notebook with her original intention in mind, to tear out a piece of paper and leave the detective a message that told him Rick would speak with him before the day ended.                  


            Troya stared open-mouthed at the words scribbled on the first piece of paper she came to.  She immediately knew A.J. had been recording his thoughts for a long time.  It was obvious by the way the first few words were misspelled, and by the sloppiness of his printing.  By the time she got to the last two words they were legible and neat.  Almost as legible and neat as the examples she'd seen of his handwriting style prior to the accident.


            Troya's mouth went dry as she read those bottom words.  Her eyes skimmed over the entire paper again. Although a lot of what he'd printed meant nothing to her, several things did.  Her pulse raced as she picked up the phone.  She had three numbers dialed when she abruptly hung up.  As much as she loved Rick, she couldn't call him.  At least not yet.  That would be disloyal to her family.  She thought a moment, picked up the phone once more, and dialed.  This time her call went through.


            "Good afternoon.  Brooks Enterprises."


            "Beth, this is Troya.  May I speak with my brother please?"


            "Troya, hi," Tad's receptionist greeted with easy familiarity.  "How are you?"

            Troya squeezed her eyes shut.   "Fine, Beth.  I'm...fine.  Is Tad available?"


            "He's in a meeting right now."

            "It's really important, Beth.  A family emergency of sorts.  Could you please interrupt him?"

            "Certainly.  I hope everything's okay with your father."


            "Yes, Beth."  Troya opened her eyes, staring down at the paper in front of her.  "I hope so, too."


Part 7