Troya didn't allow her brother to get past hello before rapidly giving the reason behind her phone call.  Tad paused in long thought before suggesting he meet her at his estate, rather than at his office.


            "Family business is best discussed in private," he said softly, leading Troya to believe he had taken her call in a conference room full of people.  "Let me wrap up a few things here.  Can you meet me at my place in an hour?"


            "That'll work," Troya agreed from the phone in A.J.'s room.  "I've got a few things to take care of as well."


            "Okay, see you then."

            "Tad?"  Troya's beckoning held a tremor of uncertainty.


            "Yeah, sis?"

            "I...do you think Dad's done something wrong?"

            Her brother's strong voice offered quiet reassurance.  "I don't know, Troy, but don't worry.  We'll sort this thing out together."


            Troya couldn't help but smile a little at his words.  Together they'd solved so many problems and overcome so much adversity throughout the years. This situation couldn't possibly be any worse than any of the others had been, could it?


            Distant footsteps were heard coming down the hallway, causing Troya to hang up with a swift goodbye.  As fast as she could she copied what A.J. had written word for word, scribbling so quickly the letters were almost eligible.   She tore the piece of paper she had written on out of the notepad, silently cursing the seemingly loud sound it made as it was ripped away from the small metal spirals.  She threw the pad back in the drawer, while simultaneously shoving the loose sheet into the right pocket of her blazer just as Nurse Finster entered the room.


            The woman frowned with disapproval, gazing at Troya over the top of her cat-eye glasses.  "Is there something I can help you with, Doctor?"

            Troya used her body to shield her left hand easing closed the nightstand drawer.  Even to her own ears, Troya's words sounded rushed and agitated.  "No, no.  I was simply looking for A.J."

            "I see."


            Troya didn't like the glare the nurse was giving her.  As if she, the chief of staff, had no right to be in this room.  "And you?"


            "I was looking for Andrew also."

            Troya spread her arms in a gesture that took in the entire area. "It appears we both struck out then, doesn't it?"


            "Yes," the woman replied thoughtfully as Troya brushed past her, "yes, it does."


            The nurse watched from the doorway until she saw Doctor Yeager enter the elevator.  She scurried over to the nightstand, opened the drawer, and pulled out the suddenly popular fifty-cent notepad.  The sheared strands of paper hanging in the spirals indicated someone had hastily torn out a page.  Dagmar peered closer at the blank sheet of paper before her, and then ran a light finger over it.  She could tell something had recently been written on the page that was missing.  Indentations left behind by the motions of a pen made that easy to see.  She tore the blank page out and held it side by side to the one A.J. had his list recorded on.   It took only a keen eye to be able to discern the detective's list, and what had been recorded on the missing page, were replicas of each other.


            The woman wasn't certain what that missing page signified, or what the significance was of the person who took it, but she found the potential ramifications intriguing.  She exited the room, using a finger to beckon the big janitor mopping the hallway floor.  The two entered the vacant nurses' lounge and closed the door.





             Vera retrieved the tray of empty drinking glasses and sandwich plates from Tad's desk, then closed the big double doors to his study as she exited.  The room's occupants maintained silent until the woman's footsteps faded from hearing range. 


            Troya sat in a chair opposite her brother's wide desk, while Kit perched a hip on one corner.  It never occurred to her to question Tad as to why his friend was present. He'd been included in so many family gatherings over the years that it would have seemed odd had he not been there.  She loved Kit like a brother, and valued his opinion in much the same way she valued Tad's.


            Tad Brooks leaned forward in his chair, passing the piece of notebook paper back to his sister.  


            When Troya could no longer stand the men's heavy silence she looked from Kit to her twin.   "I don't understand it.  What does any of this mean?"


            With his police cruiser parked outside and dressed in his uniform, Kit crossed his arms over his chest.  His wrists came to rest right below the badge that promised he'd protect and serve.  "Read the words to me again.  In the exact order he has them written."

            Though she practically had the words on the paper memorized, Troya glanced down.   "LB, Taylor, shark, Wyatt, Brendan, sunglasses, hat, and...." she looked up as she finished, "Lowell Brooks."


            Tad sank into the plush leather of his chair, turning it sideways.  His suit coat hung over the tall back as did his tie, the sleeves of his pale blue dress shirt had been rolled to his elbows.  Between his casual appearance and his striking features, he looked like he was about to pose for the cover of a men's fashion catalog.   He brought his left arm up, resting his chin on his fist.  His pale brows met in thought.   "For starters, we know that Brendan is Rick and A.J.'s cousin's boy, right?"

            Troya nodded.  "Right."


            "And I think it's fairly evident what LB represents.  That goes for the word sunglasses, as well, and Lowell Brooks, of course.  The rest of it doesn't mean anything to me.  How about you?"

            "No," Troya said.  "Except I would assume Wyatt and Taylor are names.  Either first names or last names.  Or they could represent the name of one person.  You know, like Wyatt Taylor or Taylor Wyatt."

            "Or they could represent nothing but the incoherent thoughts of a man who had his skull shattered by a pickup truck," Kit interjected. 


            Troy gave her head a slow, thoughtful shake.  "I don't believe so."


            "Then what do you think it means?"


            "That A.J. is piecing together the events that led up to his accident."

            "Oh, come on, Troy," Tad scoffed,  "how can you come to that conclusion based on what's written there?  Personally, I think you're blowing this way out of proportion.  So he's got Dad's name written down on a piece of paper.  Big deal.  Maybe he heard you mention it.  Or Rick mention it.  Or, for all we know, Dad ran into A.J. on the rehab’s grounds at some point in time and introduced himself.  Which, by the way, might explain how he came to have Dad's glasses.  You know how Dad's always leaving them lay around.  It's a wonder he hasn't lost them long before now.  I tend to agree with Kit.   What we're looking at is...while maybe not incoherent thoughts, perhaps nothing more than A.J.'s attempts to master skills that once came easy for him.  For all you know he might write down every new word he hears or encounters."


            Troya's "Maybe," was reluctant and noncommittal.  "But I do know this is a technique Rick and A.J. have used when working to solve a case."


            Tad pursed his lips. "What do you mean?"

            "Listing clues," Kit said, turning on his hip so he could see both Tad and Troya.  "Listing things that are relevant to a case, generally in the order in which they happened.  We often employ the same technique in police investigations.  While it may seem crude and elementary to some, you'd be surprised at how helpful it can be.  Sometimes seeing the events or high points of a crime written on paper is like having a road map that ultimately leads you to the right destination."


            "So you're saying this could mean something?” Tad questioned. “Not a minute ago you laughed it off."

            "I didn't laugh it off. I just pointed out that it most likely holds no significance.  But, on the other hand, Troya could be correct.  A.J. could be piecing together things he saw."  Kit's eyes shifted to the doctor.   "You told me A.J. might someday start to recall what occurred inside that morgue, what he witnessed."


            "Yes, I said that was a possibility."


            Kit leaned forward, glancing at the list Troya held in her hands.  He appeared to study it a long moment while wavering back and forth with indecision.


            "What, Kit?"  Troya questioned.  "What is it?"

            "I think it's important we find out why A.J. has your father's name written down, and why he has your dad's sunglasses in his possession."

            Tad arched an angry eyebrow, glaring at his old friend.  "Are you insinuating my father was somehow involved in what happened that day?"

            "I'm not insinuating anything."  Kit looked at the blond man over his shoulder.  "I'm just saying it's important that we find out before anyone else sees this paper."


            "I don't agree!"  Tad exploded.  "My father would never--"


            "Tad, please," Troya interrupted, "please calm down.  I don't like what Kit's implying about Dad anymore than you do, but we have to face some hard facts.  Though you and I have never openly acknowledged it, our father isn't the most honest man who's ever walked the face of the earth.  You know how he can be when one of his...deals is at stake.  He doesn't always use the best judgment, or employ the most moral of methods.  You know as well as I do how that used to upset Mother.  What heartache it brought her.  How many years she tried to hide that fact from us."


            "Okay fine!"  Tad swiveled in his chair until he was facing forward again.  He waved his hands in defeat.  "So we're all in agreement that Lowell Brooks can be a downright cad.  Far be it from me to alter that perception, my butt well remembers how true it often is.  But for God’s sake, Troy, that doesn't make him a murderer!"


            "I'm not saying it does!"  Troya loyally defended her father.  "I don't believe for one minute it does.  But...but if Dad had anything, anything at all to do with what happened that day, we've got to find out and we've got find out now."


            "And do what?"

            "I...I don't know.  Convince him to go to the police, I guess.  Or his lawyer."  Troya took a deep calming breath.  "Look, I'm not saying Dad did anything wrong.  Maybe he's just protecting someone.  Or maybe he witnessed something and is afraid to come forward."


            Tad cocked a disbelieving eyebrow.  "Our father afraid?  Yeah, right."


            "He could be.  Think about it.  He's trying to sell that place for the city.  Maybe he's afraid to have his name mixed up with what happened.  Or maybe he's got reason to be concerned that if he comes forward someone would hurt you or me in retaliation."


            "And I think you've seen too many installments of The Godfather."


            "No, she hasn't," Kit defended the woman.  "What she says makes sense.  From what little the police know about the events that occurred in that building, there's no doubt it was a setup of some type.  Considering your dad's involvement in trying to sell the place, it's a possibility he was there."


            "As a witness?"  Tad asked pointedly.  "Or as a party to the crime?"


            "I don't know.  That's what Troya will have to find out."


            "Me?  How?"

            "By discovering what A.J. knows."

            "I'll speak with Rick then. He'll talk to A.J. and--"


            "No, not like that," Tad negated.  "Not to begin with.  You find out what A.J. knows without getting Rick involved."


            "But, Tad--"


            "Look, Troy, I like Rick.   I really do.  I think he's a helluva guy, and if you came to me tomorrow and told me you were going to marry him I'd be thrilled for you.  But, I know you.  I know there's a reason you didn't call Rick this afternoon before you called me.  As a matter of fact, I know there's a reason why you haven't called Rick at all."


            Tad's perceptiveness didn't surprise Troya.  Like most twins, they shared a bond that was almost clairvoyant in nature.  Her husky confession was softly spoken and choked with emotion.  "Because as much as I love Rick, this is our father we're talking about.  Because if I have to stake my tent in one camp, it will be in my family's camp."


            "And that's as it should be.  We can't have Rick running to that police lieutenant friend of his before we have a chance to talk to Dad."


            "How do you know Abby...Lieutenant Marsh?"  Troya asked.

            "Rick's mentioned her a time or two when he and I have been together.  Said that she's a good friend, and often a help to him and A.J. when it comes to solving some of their cases. Anyway, we can't have him running to her before we really know what's going on.  But you don't need me to point all this out to you.  If you're honest with yourself, you'll acknowledge you've already thought it through."


            A small smile curved Troya's lips. "You think you know me pretty well, don't you?"


            Tad stood, stepping around his desk to come stand beside his sister.  He put an arm around her shoulders, bent and planted a kiss on her cheek. 


            "Since the womb, Troy.  Since the womb."


            The woman chuckled at the long-standing joke.  When the light-hearted moment passed she looked up at the two men.  "How should I go about doing this?"


            Kit smiled, standing to kiss the cheek Tad left untouched.  "Use your feminine wiles while leaving your virtue in tact.  Believe me, it gets to those of us of the male sex every time."


            "You're joking right?"

            "It's just a thought," Kit shrugged.  "After all, I'd be willing to bet it's been a good many months since A.J.'s been given the kind of attention from a woman most men crave."


            "Kit!  I'm seriously involved with his brother for heaven's sake!"


            The policeman's eyebrows waggled up and down in a sexually suggestive gesture.  "That may be so, but A.J. doesn't know that, now does he?"  


            When Troya didn't answer him, Kit gave her shoulder a brotherly pat.  "Hey, don't stress out over it to the point you give yourself an ulcer.  Just roll with the punches and play it by ear.  From my experience on the police force I can tell you that sometimes the less you rehearse this type of thing in your mind the better off you'll be.  Just give an impromptu performance, so to speak, and see where it leads you."  Kit glanced at his watch.  "I need to go.  I have get back on patrol." 


            Tad nodded while thanking his friend.  Troya absently echoed her brother's thanks as Kit exited the room.  When the door shut behind the man the twins were alone.


            Tad eased himself into the chair next to his sister's.  "Are you okay?"

            Troya gave a weak smile.  "I'm fine.  It's just that I'm a doctor, Tad, not an undercover cop.  I've never done this type of thing before."


            "I know."  Tad reached over and took one of Troya's hands in his.  "But you'll do fine.  No matter what you attempt, you always come out a winner."


            "But I don't want to do anything to damage my relationship with Rick.  Nor do I want to hurt A.J.  In very different ways, they both mean a lot to me." 


            "I realize that.  But they don't mean more to you than your own father does, do they?"



            "Then that's exactly the reason you have to discover why it is A.J.'s got Dad's name written down, and why it is he has Dad's glasses."  Tad gave his sister's hand a sincere squeeze.  "If I could do it for you, Troy, I would.  Honest.  But A.J. doesn't know me very well.   I'm afraid he'll be suspicious if I show up in his room and start asking him questions."


            "I'm sure he will be." 




            The use of her full name, something Tad rarely did, caused the woman to focus all her attention on her brother.  She immediately noticed the troubled shadows making his blue eyes dim with unrest.  "Yes?"


            "I didn't want to say anything in front of Kit.  Because of him being a cop and all."


            "You didn't want to say what in front of Kit?  What is it, Tad?"

            The man took a deep breath that signified his regret at having to bring this subject up.  "Some...some rumors have reached my ears recently about Dad."


            "Rumors?"  Troya's heart kicked into an uncomfortable rhythm in her chest.  "What rumors?"


            "That Dad..." Tad used his thumb to circle a calming caress over the smooth skin of his sister's hand, but Troya got the impression it was himself he was trying to calm rather than her.


            "That Dad what?  What is it you're trying to tell me, Tadpole?"

            The man smiled at the nickname his sister had coined him with during childhood.  "That Dad may have initiated a bribe of some sort in order to get the contract with the city to sell that building."


            "A bribe?"



            "Who told you this?"


            "It doesn't matter.  Suffice to say word in the business community travels swift and far when it comes to that type of transaction."


            As much as Troya hated to hear this, it didn't come as any great surprise.  It wouldn't be the first time conjecture had it that her father closed a business deal by less than honest means. 


            "If what you've heard is true, then it could give our father reason to have been in that building on the afternoon of A.J.'s accident.  He could have been there paying someone off.  That's what A.J. could have witnessed, Tad."  Troya dreaded to think A.J. might have also witnessed her father killing the man whose body had never been found.  Based on Tad's strong reaction to that suggestion when it was implied by Kit earlier; she kept that last revelation to herself.


            "The thought's crossed my mind that A.J. could have seen Dad exchanging money with someone," Tad reluctantly agreed.  He reached up to self-consciously wipe at the tear that suddenly came to one eye.    


            Troya spoke with firm resolve, knowing this time she had to be the strong twin.  The little boy in Tad might still harbor a lot of hurts for the injustices inflicted upon him by their father during his childhood, but the man in Tad admired Lowell Brooks very much.  Of that, Troya had no doubt.   "I'll find out, Tad.  I'll find out what A.J. saw...if anything."


            "How do you plan to go about accomplishing that?"  


            "I don't know yet."  Troya's expression broadcast regret at what she was about to say.  "If nothing else, I may be forced to use my feminine wiles like Kit suggested."




            Troya walked down the third floor hallway with a purposeful stride to her step that belayed the heaviness of her heart.  She hated the thought of what she was about to do, absolutely hated it.  But, in the hours that had passed since she'd left her brother's estate, she had yet to come up with a better idea.


            I don't want to hurt A.J. I don't want to hurt him, Troya kept reminding herself.  I don't want to hurt Rick, either.  Somehow, I've got to go about this in such a way that neither is the wiser.  But how do I accomplish that?


            Troya glanced at her watch to see it was eight minutes after ten.  What few visitors were left on the floor, were making their way to the elevator.  She almost prayed A.J. had someone in his room, but she highly doubted it.  Cecilia was out of town, and if Brendan or anyone else visited they were generally gone by this hour.  That left only Rick, and Troya knew he wasn't on the grounds because he'd called while she was at Tad's.  The written message she'd found on her desk from Dana said Rick was tied up for the evening and would see her the next day.


            The doctor stood for a long time outside A.J.'s door, which was opened a quarter of the way. The only light spilling through it came from the small lamp resting on the nightstand.  Troya could hear the detective moving about the room, easily tracing his steps from the bathroom to the bed, then over to the work area. She heard a cabinet door slide open and visualized him retrieving his Walkman.  She knew from things Rick had said A.J. often listened to music before falling asleep.


            Troya took a deep breath and knocked on the frame.  "A.J.?"  She didn't wait for an answer before stepping inside.


            A.J.'s face registered his surprise, not only at the identity of his late night visitor, but, as well, because she'd entered the room before he'd granted her permission.  And before he'd had a chance to throw a robe over his bare torso and cotton pajama bottoms.


            "Hi," Troya smiled, hiding her own unease at just having barged in on a patient in a way that made him obviously uncomfortable. "Sorry it's so late, but Rick asked me to give you a message.  I came looking for you at lunchtime, but evidently you were out on the grounds somewhere and I missed you. I was going to leave you a note but got...side-tracked.  Anyway, your brother stopped by here late last night, but you were already asleep and he didn't want to wake you.  He said he'd try to get a hold of you some time today.  Did he?"



            "Oh.  Well, he must still be tied up then.  I guess he's pretty busy lately, huh?"

            A.J. watched as the woman shut the door.  He knew it was against policy for any staff member to enter a patient's room and close the door.  In this day and age of constant accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, the open-door rule had been put in place by Troya Yeager herself as a means of legal protection for both the patients and staff.  


            Troya gave the blond man an easy smile that hid the butterflies dancing in her stomach.  "I said, I guess Rick's pretty busy lately."




            "Listen, I know we missed our session today.  Several emergencies arose within my staff.  If you're not too tired, we could work together for a few minutes now."


            "Not too tired."


            "Come on then."  Troya walked over and hiked herself up on A.J.'s bed.  She gave the mattress a pat.  "Have a seat."


            A.J. eyed the woman with uncertainty.  He was well aware he was only half dressed and behind closed doors in a dimly lit room with a beautiful woman.  He briefly wondered if it was by accident, or design.


            "Come on," she smiled, "you should know by now I don't bite."


The blond man laughed.  "No.  You don-------bite."


            "Then sit down next to me.  This won't take long.  I'd hate for it to be said that because of me we didn't meet your goal of being released from this place on your birthday."

            Troya slipped off her blazer and laid it across the end of the bed.  This seemingly casual move left her clad in her slacks and a sheer white blouse.  A sheer white blouse she didn't normally wear to work that was accompanied by a thin, low cut lacy white bra underneath.  A sheer white blouse and lacy bra she'd gone home to change into before returning to the hospital, the entire time hating herself for it.  A sheer blouse that was unbuttoned just far enough to show a hint of rounded, enticing cleavage.


            The doctor's warm hand grasped A.J.'s elbow.  Though it wasn't necessary, she helped him ease himself to a seated position.  For as uncomfortable as he'd seemed when she'd entered the room, he now appeared to be relaxed.  He sat beside Troya, his legs swinging back and forth slightly in a gesture that said he didn't have a concern in the world.


            Troya caught sight of his bare feet and laughed.  She lightly bumped her elbow into his.  "You look just like Tom Sawyer.  All you need is a straw hat and a fishing pole."


            "Rick------hat and fish pole."

            "Rick's more suited to a hat and fishing pole than you?"



            "From what...little I know about your brother, I'd say you're correct on that account.  He is a Tom Sawyer type of guy, isn't he?"




            "Listen, A.J., before we get involved in our regular therapy session, I want to attempt something we haven't tried before, but that's necessary prior to your release.  That's necessary for your recovery, I mean."


            A.J.'s brows furrowed.  His course of therapy had been mapped out for him long ago.  If there was something he had yet to tackle in only four weeks before he was due to go home he was without a clue as to what that might be.


            "I need you to tell me, as best you can recall, what happened the afternoon you were injured."

            "What happen?"

            "Yes.  What happened.  What you might have seen."







            Troya wondered what was wrong with the man this evening.  Normally he was sharper than this.  Based on things Rick had told her recently, A.J. occasionally asked him questions regarding the accident, therefore, it was obvious he recalled at least a portion of it. 


            "Your accident, A.J.  You and Rick were at the morgue looking for Brendan.  You entered the building.  Can you tell me what happened after that?  It's important that you recall as much of it as you can.  It will help things fall into place for you.  Remember how you told me one time that it's frustrating not knowing exactly what brought you here?"


            A.J. nodded.


            Troya reached out and gently tapped two fingers against the blond man's forehead.  "Well, all that brought you to me is locked up in here.  I believe if we work together we can release those memories, what do you think?"


            A.J. stared into Troya's eyes as though mesmerized by what she promised, both the spoken and unspoken.  "Yes."


            Troya smiled.  "Good."  In a seemingly unconscious gesture she allowed a hand to come to rest lightly on A.J.'s left thigh.  Her fingers moved in tiny, ticklish circles as she began asking her questions.


            "Do you recall what you went in the building for?"

            A.J. glanced down at the dancing fingertips.       "No."


            "Perhaps to look for Brendan?"   Troya prompted.


            "Maybe," A.J. teased with a charming grin like he would if he and this woman were engaged in bedroom play.


            "Just maybe?"


            A.J.'s eyes met the woman's.  This time his words were spaced apart, not because of his injury, but because the hand sliding over his inner thigh was making it difficult to take a full breath.   "Don't--------member."


            "Okay, we'll move on to another question."  Troya forced her fingers to rise higher.  "What did you see when you entered the building?  Do you remember that?  Did you see a man get hurt?  Get shot perhaps?"



            Troya gave an uneasy chuckle.  "A.J., you're teasing me now, aren't you?  Come on, let's get serious."


            A.J.  leaned into the woman, bringing his lips to hers.  "I am serious."


            Troya squeezed her eyes shut as she allowed the semi-naked man to kiss her.  She ran her palms up, over, and around A.J.'s bare torso, not leaving one spot untouched.  She had hoped it wouldn't come to this and tried not to let Rick's face appear in her mind.  Her fingernails moved to lightly rake over the blond's back.  She rested her chin on his shoulder, her face, and her tears, looking toward the wall behind the bed.


            "A.J...A.J., I've been attracted to you for a long time now.  I...I because of my position here at the hospital I've had to keep my feelings well hidden...you can understand why, of course."


            The detective moved down to gently nibble the woman's fragrant neck. 




            "Shhh," the blond hushed as he nuzzled the doctor's right ear.    "You don-----have-----say any more.  I'm ttracted------you too.  Have been------since day-------I met you."


            The blond man maneuvered Troya backwards until he had her half lying on his bed.  He crossed one leg over her hips to pin her in place.  He leaned his body into hers, fumbling with the buttons on her blouse. 


            "A.J....A.J, we need to talk before this goes any farther."  Troya fought to maintain the precarious balance she had on her elbows, while at the same time A.J. pushed her deeper into the mattress.  "Please.   Please we need...we need to get my questions answered, and then we can discuss...us.  This."


            A.J. had the first three buttons on Troya's blouse undone.  He placed light kisses on the hollow of her throat, giving a deep growl of sexual excitement.  "Now is not time------to talk.  Or ask questions.  Or discuss."          


            The last thing Troya wanted to do was call attention to what was going on in this room.  But somehow she had to get A.J. to stop before this culminated into something they'd both regret.  This wasn't how she had envisioned this would go.  It wasn't as easy as she thought it would be.  She'd expected A.J. to be confused, possibly flustered like a shy schoolboy who was being given his first kiss, vulnerable to her feminine charms, vulnerable and ready to give up all his secrets for a soft caress.  But this was more than she'd bargained for.  A virile man physically stronger than she thought possible given his lengthy hospital stay. Her boyfriend's brother for God sake, ready to take her, to claim her for his own, right on his hospital bed.


            When A.J. took one of Troya's hands and placed it at the fly of his pajamas she began to struggle in earnest.   "A.J.!  A.J., please!"  The woman cried just above a whisper.  "A.J., please, we have to talk!  Please!"


            A.J.'s blue eyes were bright with anticipation.  "We talk later.  First we------do this."


            "No.  I--"


            A.J. leaned into the desirable woman.  Her elbows collapsed under his weight, forcing her flat on her back across his bed.   The white bow she still wore in her hair, a poignant reminder of how pleasant her day had started and with whom, dug painfully into her neck. 


            The detective's face halted a bare inch above Troya's, as did his body.  His voice was so soft she could barely hear his words of rigid steel.  The lust in his eyes from moments earlier had been replaced with burning fury. 


            "You said we------need talk, doctor.  I sug-----gest-------you do just. I sug---suggest you-----start talk----talking righ-----right now or--


            Before A.J. could finish his sentence his arms were grabbed in a crushing grip.  Troya watched as he sailed off her body, hitting the wall with a deep 'thud'.  The nightstand tumbled to the floor, and with it the alarm clock and lamp.  The glass base of the lamp broke, shattering into a multitude of sharp pieces, though the bulb was still intact at the top and gave off light yet from where it lay on its side on the tiles. 


            "What the hell are you doing!" Rick Simon roared.   He reached down, yanking A.J. to his feet.  He gave the blond a series of shakes so violent A.J.'s teeth rattled in his head.  "Huh?  What the hell is going on here!  Answer me!  What the hell were you doing?"         


            Troya scrambled off the bed.  "Rick!  Rick, stop it!  Rick!"


            Rick ignored the woman while shoving A.J.'s backwards toward the work counter.   "What were you thinking?  Answer me Goddammit!  What were you thinking?  Answer me, A.J.!"


            "Rick, stop it!"  Troya latched onto Rick's arm, trying to pull him away from his brother.  "Rick!  Rick stop!  Stop please!"


            "Troya, get outta here!"  Rick easily shagged himself from the woman's grasp.  "Just go!  I'll handle this!"


            "No!  Not like this you won't!  Now stop it!"


            Rick pushed his brother across the room, again ignoring Troya's pleas.  A.J. stumbled backwards, unable to gain his footing before being pushed again.  Rick grabbed him by the upper arm, reeling him forward until they were nose to nose like drill sergeant and private, the whole while shaking A.J. in time with the words he shouted.  "I can't believe you!   I can't believe what I just saw!  Have you lost your mind or what?  Have you?  Do you know what you were about to do to this woman?  Do you know she could charge you with sexual assault?  Do you know you were about two steps away from raping her?"


            Troya couldn't stand the accusatory glare A.J. threw her over Rick's shoulder.  Nor could she stand the confusion and hurt she heard in Rick's voice on behalf of his brother's actions.  The confusion and hurt that so easily drowned out his fury.  She gave the soft cry of a wounded animal, turned, and raced from the room. She threw open the stairwell door, the tears in her eyes causing her to stumble blindly while fumbling to button her blouse.       




            Troya Yeager slammed her office door behind her, thankful it was late and no one had been present to witness any portion of the scene that had just occurred.  No one but Rick, of course.  She had no idea if his shouts had been heard beyond A.J.'s room, but prayed they hadn't been.  At least the room was relatively isolated, and the hour late enough, so that the doors leading to the rooms of the other patients had been closed.


            Troya shoved a fist in her mouth to stifle her rib-quaking sobs.  She melted down the wall, ending up on the floor on her bottom.  She felt cheap and deceitful.  God only knew what was going to happen when Rick calmed down enough to talk to A.J.  Surely A.J. would tell him what had really occurred in that room.  Surely A.J. would tell Rick that she had come on to him.  How was she ever going to defend her actions when Rick demanded an explanation of her?


            Troya could taste the salt from her tears as her anguished mind faced the consequences of her actions.  Oh, Lord, I've ruined the best thing that's happened to me in years.  I've just destroyed the man I love the most.


            The woman was still sobbing uncontrollably when she heard the sound of boot heels clicking rapidly on the tiles in the hall as though someone was conducting a frantic room-to-room search.  A few seconds later her office door was flung open and Rick rushed in. Without saying a word he dropped to her side, enveloping her in his arms.  Admittedly, this was the last reaction she was expecting.


            Rick cradled Troya's head against his chest.  He wrapped the blazer he'd brought with him around her quivering shoulders.  "Shhh.  Shhh, baby, shhh.   It's okay.  It's all right now.  I'm sorry, Troya.  I'm so sorry.  I'm so sorry."


            When all Troya did was cry harder, the detective reached up to run a hand through the strands of hair that had worked their way out from the clasp of her bow.   Despite her own emotional upheaval, the doctor could tell Rick was trembling.  His lips rained tiny kisses on her scalp.


            "Shhh.  Shhh, sweetie, shhh.  I'm sorry.  I'm sorry."  Rick rocked back and forth with the woman in the protective cocoon of his arms.  "I'm so sorry, baby.  I don't...I don't know why he did that.  I don't...I don't know what came over him.   Oh God, Troya, I'm so damn sorry.  If you...if you wanna press charges I'll...I'll understand."


            At Rick's words, Troya's sobs changed to a choked screech of despair.  She clutched the lapels of his field jacket and buried her face in its soft material; her tears making her words come forth in hiccupped gasps.  "No.  No…no...Rick.  I don't...don't...want...to do that.  A.J....A.J....he..."


            When Troya couldn't bring herself to say any more, Rick only held her tighter.  He rubbed her back, and patted her arm, and stroked her hair, and kissed the top of her head, while at the same time keeping up his gentle rocking rhythm and soft, anguish-filled words of apology.


            It took ten minutes for Troya's sobs to abate.  When her head finally emerged from the warm, safe haven of Rick's chest her eyes and nose were red and runny, and tendrils of hair dampened by tears clung to her face.  Without releasing his burden Rick moved his body just enough to pull a white handkerchief from his back pocket.  He gingerly wiped Troya's eyes as though she was a precious child while smoothing her hair back in place, then held the hankie against her nose and told her to blow.  She did as he instructed before molding herself to his chest once more.


            In total contrast to how he'd been twenty minutes earlier in A.J. room, Rick's voice was quiet and calm.  "Tell me what happened."


            Troya's eyes flicked up to the man's face before looking straight ahead.  "I...things were really hectic around here today.  Two therapists couldn't make it in, so I had to cancel A.J.'s session.  Because I didn't see him, I completely forgot about giving him your message until a little while ago.  I went up to his room to...to do just that, then he and I agreed we'd go ahead and conduct the session we missed today.  I...I was foolish, Rick.  I...I never should have done it."


            "Done what?"

            "Shut the door.  I know better.  It is my rule, after all.  No staff member is to enter a patient's room and close the door.  It's...it's just not wise.  Especially with a man who's been...been isolated from sexual activity for as long as A.J. has now."


            Rick's tone hardened.  "That's no excuse.  What he did...there was no reason for it.  He…damn it, he knows better!  That wasn't my brother in there tonight, Troya.  He...A.J….before the accident he would have never made those kind of advances on any woman.  Never.  I don't care what the reason."


            "Rick...Rick, remember how I told you some months ago that it's not uncommon for men who have suffered severe head injuries to incur damage to the portion of their brains that control sexual impulses?"


            "Yeah.  But A.J.'s never pulled a stunt like this before."


            "That's..." Troya tore her gaze from Rick's.  She couldn't stand the open trust she saw on his face each time he looked to her for answers.  "That's not the point.  The point is, it happens sometimes.  I don't...I don't think A.J. was in control of the situation.  I believe...I believe he was acting on physical desire that didn't first travel through his brain and allow him time to determine whether he should give in to that desire."


            "Don't make excuses for him," Rick said darkly.  "He knows what he did was wrong.  He's going to apologize to you tomorrow."


            "Did he tell you that?"

            "No, he didn't tell me a damn thing.  He wouldn't talk to me.  He just stood there lookin' at me like I was the one who'd done something wrong.  Like he had every right to be furious with me, instead of it bein' the other way around.  I told him he'd be lucky if he didn't end up in jail over this incident, and that if you were forgiving enough not to press charges, then he was gonna apologize to you if I have to rip the damn apology out of his throat."

            Troya loosened herself from Rick's embrace, moving her body back against the wall so she was sitting next to him.  "Rick--"


            The detective raked a frustrated hand through his thinning hair.  Troya could hear the tears in his voice.  "I don't know what's goin' on with him lately.  First that crap at Tad's house, then the phone call where he insists he's got to see me immediately, and now this.  I...” the man made contact with his lover's eyes.  "What's wrong with him, Troya?  He was doing so well, but now...I noticed at Tad's the other day that his speech wasn't as clear.  Plus, he wasn't using as complete of sentences as he had been recently.  Between that, and what happened tonight, could he be havin' some kinda setback?"

            "It's not...uncommon.  It occurs sometimes with some patients.  I'll intensify my sessions with him.  Maybe up them from one a day to two.  Possibly that will...give us some answers.  A.J. and I...well, we set a goal for him.  I wasn't supposed to tell you this, it was going to be secret between just A.J., myself, Brendan, and Linda."


            "What secret?"


            "Brendan and I are going to host a birthday party for A.J. at Linda's house.  All your family and close friends are going to be invited.  We plan to announce that evening that A.J. can go home with you - that he's ready to be released.  At least as a full-time in-patient."


            "And you'll still do that for him?"

            "Still do what?"

            "Work with him in therapy and plan this party you're talkin' about?  You're still willing to do all those things after what he just did to you?"


            "Of course."


            Rick's embrace engulfed the woman's slender body.  He buried his face in her soft hair to hide the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.  "God, lady, I love you so much.  I don't know how I would have gotten through any of this without you."


            The man's gratitude and trust caused Troya's own tears to flow again.  "Rick...please, I need...I need to talk to you about--"


            Rick pulled the woman away from him just enough so he could look down into her eyes.  "Troya, will you marry me?"



            "Will you marry me?"

            The detective's face blurred before her.  "Rick...I--"


            "I know it's a stupid time for me to ask.  This isn't how I planned it.  But I love you, Troya Aubrey Yeager.  I love you with all my heart and soul.  I never wanna lose you."  Rick's hands came up to cup the woman's face.  He wiped her tears away with his thumbs, never breaking eye contact.  "I know...I know we got a lotta things to work out." 


Rick thought of A.J.'s recent behavior, as well as the investigation he still had on-going regarding Lowell Brooks.  Just this evening he'd been told Brooks might be guilty of paying someone off at city hall in order to obtain the contract to sell the morgue, but right now none of that mattered to the detective.  He was confident that somehow the love he and Troya shared could overcome any adversity they might face in the future.  


"I know it's probably not the best timing on my part, but I want you to be my wife, Troya.  I want us to go through life side by side and grow old together.  I want all the things with you I haven't wanted with any another woman in close to twenty years now."


            Troya hid her face in Rick's jacket once more, her sobs intensifying.  The detective's heart raced in fear that he had, indeed, timed his proposal poorly.  He was certain she was going to tell him no, so was stunned when he felt the tiny, affirmative movement of her head against his chest.


            He looked down, and lightly touched the ivory hair.  "Yes?  Was that a yes?"


            "Yes," Troya nodded again.  "It was a...yes."


            Rick brought the woman's head up and sealed his lips on her.  They sank backwards onto the carpeting, melting together as one.  When their ardor caused the room to grow uncomfortably warm Troya gently pushed Rick away.  Though the hall was dark and deserted, the last thing she needed was to get caught making love on her office floor by a wandering nurse.


            Troya faced the wall and wiped at the tears that had started anew with Rick's gentle loving.  She pushed herself to her feet and straightened her clothes, Rick following suit.  He waited while she retrieved her purse and blew her nose with a tissue plucked from the box on her credenza.  He reached for her hand as they walked out of the office, but she wouldn't allow him to take it.


            "I...I'd like to go home alone tonight, Rick."


            She hated the worry she saw in his eyes.  As though, despite her expectance of his proposal, he feared this was some form of rejection based on his brother's earlier actions. 



            "I'm fine."  She tried her best to smile, though her heart wasn't in it.  "Really I am.  It has nothing to do with what...happened earlier.  I'm just tired, and I need some time to myself.  I hope you understand."


            Rick gave a reluctant nod.  "I understand.  I...Troya, I'm really sor--"


            She brought her fingers to his lips, stopping his apology in mid-sentence.  "Don't.  You have nothing to be sorry about."  She closed her eyes and brushed her lips against his while willing the tears not to start again.  "I love you, Rick Simon.  I love you."   





            Long after Rick had stormed out of his brother's room, A.J. stood surveying the damage the night had brought.  His bed was askew, and one of the chairs at the work counter had been knocked over as a result of Rick pushing him backwards.  Broken glass littered the floor from the shattered lamp, and his nightstand lay on its side with the drawer half open, its contents scattered on the tiles.  Amidst the mess lay his digital alarm clock, still plugged into the socket and still recording the correct time.  


            The blond man was furious.  He didn't like being toyed with by a woman who so obviously had motives ulterior from those she presented on the surface.  But, more so than that, he didn't like his brother being disloyal to him.  Didn't like Rick refusing to give him the opportunity to explain what was going on, but to instead accept what he saw at face value.  Given the circumstances, A.J. wouldn't have expected another conclusion to be drawn by anyone else who might have walked in on the scene, but from Rick, from his brother, he expected more.  Much more.  Just like the past Sunday night at Tad's house, A.J. was left sorely disappointed and confused by his brother's behavior.


            A.J. gave a weary sigh as he began cleaning up.  Within seconds he had the bed rolled back into place and had righted the chair.  He threw on his robe and walked out into the hallway, turning on the overhead light in his room as he passed the switch.


            No one was milling around, which led the detective to believe his brother's shouts hadn't drawn attention.  There were only two other rooms in this short section of hallway.  The one that shared a wall with A.J.'s was currently occupied by an elderly man, Henry Sorenson, who'd suffered a stroke, and who was also quite deaf.   Mr. Sorenson occupied one bed in that double room, the other bed remained empty simply because no roommate thus far had been able to tolerate how loudly the man talked and played the radio. The private room in front of Mr. Sorenson's was vacant, its most recent resident having been released the previous day. 


            As A.J. opened the janitor's closet that was located across the hall from Mr. Sorenson's room he hazarded a glance toward the nurses' station.  Had it been manned when all the commotion was going on, A.J. was certain Rick's shouts would have brought a nurse running to the room.  Since that hadn’t happened, the station had evidently been deserted just like it was now.  A.J. surmised the two women that worked the nightshift were probably busy helping some of the more infirm patients get ready for bed, as they did every evening after visiting hours ended.        


            The blond man pulled the chain that hung from the bare light bulb above his head and found what he was looking for, a broom and a dustpan.  He returned to his room and in short order had the glass swept from the floor, all the while cursing his brother for the mess he'd made.  A.J. unplugged what was left of the lamp and carried it, the broom, and dustpan, back to the janitor's closet.  He dumped the glass shards and lamp into the massive plastic garbage barrel that resided in one corner, then hung the broom and pan on the hooks he'd taken them from.   He pulled the overhead chain again, shutting the light out before closing the door.


            The nurses' station was still deserted and the hallway still quiet when A.J. returned to his room a final time.  He shut the door behind him, took his robe off, and threw it across the nearest chair.  He walked over to the nightstand and righted it, pushing it back into place next to the bed before placing his alarm clock on top of it.  He'd have to request a new lamp the next morning, and would no doubt be forced to face the stern and disapproving Dagmar Finster as he did so.  Whether or not she'd believe him when he told her a flailing arm knocked the lamp off its perch while he slept was of little concern to A.J. 


            The detective picked up the sunglasses and his pen and tossed them inside the still open drawer, then bent to retrieve the small notepad that was just barely peeking out from under the bed.  The cover had flown open in mid-flight, but A.J.'s page of notes was intact yet. 


            Perhaps if the little blue cover hadn't been open when A.J. picked up the pad he would have never noticed it.  Never noticed the white shards caught in the spiral loops that indicated a piece of paper had recently been torn out.  By the way the paper shards were bunched on top of each other, an educated guess told him there was a possibility that more than one page was missing.


            He lifted the sheet his notes were on and brought the pad up close to his face.  He thought he could tell that someone else had written in the pad, the impression from their pen left faint marks on the paper.  Unfortunately, he couldn't discern what those marks might have represented.  It didn't make much difference either way, no one would have any business being in his nightstand and using paper from his notepad.  After all, it wasn’t a notepad supplied to him by the rehab center, but rather, a notepad he'd asked his mother to bring him when he first came to this place.


            A.J. pondered the tell-tale paper shards.  Paper shards he hadn't left behind, because he'd never torn a piece of paper from this pad.  The only sheet he'd used thus far was the one on which his list was recorded.  He wondered who had been going through his things and why.  Under normal circumstances he might have thought a member of the housekeeping staff was in need of a piece of paper for some reason while cleaning his room, but he knew better.  First of all, these weren't normal circumstances, and second of all, he knew the hospital had strict rules about staff members, any staff members, touching or moving personal items belonging to the patients.  Let alone going through drawers or closets.  He hardly thought someone would risk getting fired over a sheet of paper.


            Something tickled the back of his mind.  Something someone said to him recently.  Very recently.  He thought hard, trying to recall who it was, and what it had to do with his notepad.  A woman's voice suddenly echoed in his head.


            I was going to leave you a note but got...side tracked.


            Troya Yeager's face came to his mind.  Her face, and the odd request she'd made of him this evening while her hand rested on his thigh. 


            The request that he tell her about what happened that afternoon at the morgue.





            Troya was wide-awake, staring up at the pitch-black night through the skylights in her bedroom ceiling.  The phone on her nightstand rang, its jangling breaking into her heavy thoughts. 


            The doctor almost let the instrument go unanswered, but knew at this hour, twelve-thirty a.m., it could only be one man.  She wasn't surprised to hear the familiar voice on the other end when she finally picked up the receiver.



            "Yes, Tad."


            "How'd it go?"

            "I...it...not very well," the woman stammered as her mind flooded her with images she'd rather forget.  "I...I didn't find anything out."




            "No. Nothing."


            "Because he doesn't know anything, or because you failed?"


            Troya didn't like the way her brother put a sharp, sarcastic edge on that last word.  "I didn't fail...I just...things didn't work out, that's all.  Listen, Tad, I...I've been doing some thinking, and I've come to the conclusion that it would be best if we talk to Rick together.  I think it would be best if we’re totally honest with him about our concerns regarding Dad, and about the things I found in A.J.'s room."


            "But I thought we agreed that's the last thing we want to do."


            "I know we did.  But circumstances have changed since we talked."


            "Changed?  How?"


            "Tad...Rick and I are getting married."


            Without saying another word, Tad Brooks hung up on his sister.  As the dial tone buzzed in her ear, the woman couldn't help but recall what her twin had assured her of eight hours earlier.


            I like Rick.  I really do. I think he's a helluva guy, and if you came to me tomorrow and told me you were going to marry him, I'd be thrilled for you.


            "You don't seem so thrilled now, Tadpole," the woman muttered as she returned to staring up at the dark sky.



Chapter 24


            The commotion in A.J.'s room the previous evening apparently went unnoticed by staff and patients alike.  Or at least Troya assumed as much when she didn't pick up any bits of gossip regarding it as the day progressed.  She almost backed out of her scheduled eleven a.m. session with A.J., her intention being to assign him to someone else for the remainder of his hospital stay.  The only thing that forced her to walk through that therapy room door where the blond man sat waiting was concern over how her action would be taken by Rick.  Not that she thought it would arouse his suspicions, she had done a good job of dousing those last night, much to her shame.  But, rather, because she feared if she assigned A.J. to another therapist Rick would be even angrier with his brother than he already was. 


            When Rick had walked Troya to her car the evening before she'd suggested he return to the building long enough to at least say good night to A.J.  While she was perfectly aware A.J. might yet tell his brother what really happened, she didn't want to encourage a further rift between the two men.  In a way, she would almost welcome the opportunity to purge her soul of her misdeeds.  The only thing that prevented her from telling Rick the truth was the thought of her father.  Somehow, she still had to find out what it was about her father that was causing A.J. concern.


            Despite Troya's encouragements that night, Rick left the premises without returning to his brother's room.  He held up a hand as they walked to the Miata, indicating he didn't want to hear anything further on the subject.  "I'll talk to him later.  I'm still too upset with him to carry on a conversation without yelling."


            Now Troya took a deep breath as she entered the room where the blond man sat with his back to the door.  He didn't turn around, evidently well aware who was here to see him.  She couldn't meet his gaze when she nodded.  "A.J."


            He nodded back.  When she finally forced herself to look at his face all she saw was a neutral mask.  He studied her until she squirmed in her seat, then he cocked a perceptive eyebrow.  "My brother say I owe you----------apology.  But I think it-------is you---------who owes me one, Doctor."


            Troya busied her hands shuffling the flash cards, her eyes falling to the printing they contained in order to avoid A.J.'s damning scrutiny.   "Yes...well...perhaps last night was a...mistake on both our parts.  Misunderstood intentions, so to speak, with no one to blame.  I think we should put the...incident in the past and go forward as the friends we used to be."


            Troya clearly heard the meaning behind A.J.'s words when he stated flatly,  "I didn't------mis-------understand your------intentions.  As matter------fact---------I understood them-------very well."


            The woman risked a glance in the detective's direction.  He offered her a smile in return.  Her attention fell back to the flashcards.  When she held up the first one, A.J. willingly began their session as though the conversation and the events of the evening before had never occurred.  Troya tried her best to act in the same manner, but more often than not found her level of concentration slipping; a fact she feared was all too obvious to the private investigator sitting across from her.  She was relieved when twelve o'clock arrived and she could escape the room.  She picked up her cards and fled before A.J. was even out of his chair.


            The blond man skipped lunch that day to instead return to his room.  He allowed the pages of The Gunfight at the OK Corral to fall open on their own accord.  He unfolded the piece of linen stationary he had secreted within, that he'd taken from Tad's house.  He stared at it a long moment before returning it to its hiding place and tossing the book back on the counter.  He walked over to the window and stared down at the grounds, his thoughts surrounding recent events congealing into a logical pattern of clues.


            A.J. didn't need to turn around when he heard someone enter the room.  The scraping of boot heels against the tiles told him who his visitor was.


            In contrast to the last time Rick had been in this room, his voice was quiet as he closed the door.  "I looked for you in the cafeteria.  Clint said you hadn't shown up for lunch yet."


            Clint was another hospital patient roughly A.J.'s own age that the blond man had become friends with, and generally took his meals with.


            A.J. shrugged.  "Not hungry."

            Rick assumed his brother's lack of appetite was a reflection of him being upset over all that had occurred the evening before.   "A.J., you gotta eat."




            Rick let the issue drop.  He knew the patients were given a twenty minute break at three-thirty when they were allowed to return to the cafeteria and choose from a variety of snacks and drinks that were set out for them by the kitchen staff.


            "A.J., let's sit down together over here." 


            When A.J. didn't immediately do as his brother requested, Rick urged,  "A.J.?  Please."


            Several long seconds passed before A.J. finally moved from the window.  The brothers pulled chairs away from the work counter and seated themselves.


            Rick's eyes traveled to the dark bruise on the upper portion of A.J.'s right arm.  The detective knew he had put it there last night when he'd yanked A.J. off Troya Yeager.  He now harbored some regrets over his actions, but was at a loss as to how the situation could have been resolved in any other way given what was happening when he walked into this room.


            "A.J., about last night--"




            "No.  Don't interrupt me.  I want you to listen to me, okay?"

            A.J. looked away, angry at once again being made to feel like a naughty child by his brother.




            Rick didn't miss the sullen tone behind the one word reply.        




            "Look at me."


            A.J. sighed and shifted his gaze to his brother.


            "Now just hear me out.  What you did last night to Troy...to Doctor Yeager, was wrong.  Do you--"




            "No.  Now I already told ya' not to interrupt me, and I mean it.  What you did was wrong.  Do you remember how much it upset you when old man Middleton did practically the same thing to you?"


            When A.J. didn't answer, Rick pressed,  "Well, do you?"

            A.J. broke eye contact and stared at the wall in front of him like a disinterested student in a boring class.  "Yes."


            "Okay then, you know how it feels.  You can't, absolutely cannot ever again force yourself on a woman like that.  Ever.  A.J., she coulda' had you arrested.  You could right now be facing a bushel barrel full of legal problems if it weren't for Doctor Yeager's understanding and generosity.  Do you realize how lucky you are?"


            The question was more rhetorical in nature than anything else, so Rick didn't push for a response.  But, God, how he wished his brother would say something.  Anything that would give Rick an idea as to what it was A.J. had been thinking when he'd attacked Troya.  Never in his wildest dreams did Rick Simon imagine he'd be forced to have a talk about the birds and the bees with his thirty-eight year old brother, but given A.J.'s head injury and the changes brought because of it, that's what he feared this was coming down to.


            "A.J., do you know why what you did was wrong?"


            "Rick, I need to--"


            Rick stopped A.J.'s attempt at speaking by placing a hand on his forearm and exerting minute pressure.  "Do you?"

            Again, A.J. sighed with defeat.  "Yes."


            "Is it gonna happen again?  With any woman?"



            "Do you have any questions you need to ask me?"


            At A.J.'s blank look, Rick attempted to stammer through an explanation.  "You know...about...about the stuff that goes on between men and women in the bedroom and how...how it should be handled."


            For just a brief moment, Rick almost burst out laughing at the look his brother shot him.  That old familiar A.J. Simon sarcastic glare that silently said, "Get real, Rick."


            "Okay, okay," Rick stated with relief, letting his hand slip from A.J.'s arm while leaning back in his chair.  "I guess you don't have any questions for now.  But if you ever do...well just ask me before...before things reach the point they did last night.  Okay?"

            A.J.'s indifferent, "Yeah-----sure," took the place of the outraged thoughts he left unvoiced. 


For chrissake, Rick, just because I've suffered a brain injury doesn't mean I'm a fifteen-year-old in the throes of adolescence.  Give me some credit here, will you?  Why aren't you seeing things for what they really are?  Why aren't you allowing me to explain things to you?  Why do you automatically assume I was the one making advances last night?  Before the accident you would have trusted me enough, had enough faith in me to know I would never do such a thing.  Why are you taking that woman's side over mine?   Why are you so bent on standing by herm rather than byt me?  Why the hell are you so blind?


            Without imagining he would, A.J. got an answer to all his questions with his brother's forthcoming confession.   


            "A.J., there's something else I came by here to talk to you about today."



            "I know this is gonna come as a surprise to you, but I want you to understand right off the bat that I wasn't keeping secrets from you.  I just didn't want to...distract you from the work you gotta do here.  I didn't want your mind to be on other things."


            Even to Rick the explanation sounded stupid and weak.  To A.J., it just sounded confusing.


            "What sec---secrets?"

            "Like I said, it wasn't a secret.  Just something I..." Rick paused.


 How do I tell you that in the midst of this tragedy that's been thrust upon you, been thrust upon you by me, I found the love of my life?  I wish I could tell you how guilty I feel about that, how much I feel I don't deserve such happiness after what I did to you.


            Rick picked up where he'd left off when he realized his brother was waiting for him to continue.  "Just something I felt...never mind, it doesn't matter.  But, after last night, I need to tell you that Doctor Yeager...Troya...well, she and I have been seein' each other pretty steady for several months now."


            Pretty steady for several months now, Rick's words echoed in A.J.'s head.    So that explains it. The weekends at Tad's house.  The nights you and the good doctor just

happened to hook up in the hallway outside my room on your way home after visiting hours ended.  The times she's followed us back here when you've been dropping me off after we've spent the day at her brother's estate.  The easy way you and Tad get along.  Almost like you and I.  Like you and I used to anyway.  Like brothers.  It explains why you were embarrassed when you found me in Tad's office, but never bothered to ask me why I was there in the first place, and wouldn't listen when I tried to tell you.  But, most importantly, it explains why you haven't asked me for my side of the story regarding what you think you saw happening in this room last night.


            Rick leaned forward, trying to read his brother's hardened expression.  He mistook the anger he saw for disloyalty; assuming A.J. felt he had been sneaky and less than honest by not disclosing long ago that he was seeing Troya.


            "A.J...I...me not telling you I was seeing Troya had nothing to do with you personally.  A lot of people don't know.  We've been keepin' the whole thing kinda quiet."


            A.J. turned to face his brother.  "But Tad-----knows?"

            "Uh, yeah.  Tad knows."


            A.J.'s eyes narrowed with dark fury.  "Tad knows------her brother knows--------and I don't.  Her brother knows and--------yours does----doesn't.  Why?  Because you think-------I too-------stupid------to understand?"


            "A.J., no!  No, not all!  I'd never think that!  I didn't tell you for, well for the exact reason I already said.  I wanted you to concentrate on getting better, concentrate on your sessions here, and not be bothered with what's goin' on in my personal life."


            A.J. scowled and shook his head.  "Why would-------you personal life--------you love life, effect whether-------no------not I get-------better?"


            "I don't know.  I just thought it might be a hindrance for the time being, that's all.  Especially with Troya being one of your therapists."


            "How con----convenient."


            "Don't do that!  Don't let that sarcastic mouth of yours kick into high gear!  There's no reason for it!   Troya had nothing to do with my decision not to tell you about us.  As a matter of fact, she's wanted me to tell you for a while now, so if you're gonna be pissed, be pissed at me, not her."


            The men brooded in their own private anger with one another until Rick finally calmed down enough to break the silence.  "If you're gonna be mad at me we might as well get it all over with right now.  There's one more thing I have to tell you."

            A.J. looked at his brother, not quite able to keep the mischief out of his eyes.  "She-------pregnant?"


            For the first time that day Rick laughed.  "No, she's not pregnant.  But...well maybe she will be one day because we're...we're gettin' married, A.J.  She's gonna be my wife."


            The light-hearted teasing from the moment before left A.J. as swiftly as it had come to him.  Rick could see his face change expression, and in that fleeting second decided it was wise not to mention just how recently this engagement had come about.


            When A.J. didn't say anything, Rick cleared his throat.  "I...I was hopin' you'd be happy for me.  I was hopin' you'd say congratulations."

            The reply was flat and without warmth or sincerity.  "Congratulations."


            "Like you mean it."


            "I mean it."


            "You don't look like you mean it," Rick said quietly.  "You look upset.  You wanna talk about it?"

            "I-----I'm just-------sup-----surprised.  I did----didn't-----know."


            Rick placed his hand on A.J.'s arm again in way of apology.  "I know.  I understand it comes as kind of a shock.  And I know because of what...what happened last night you might be a little uncomfortable.  But it's all gonna work out, A.J.  Troya makes me very happy.  I want you to be happy for me, too."


            "I am."



            If Rick noticed the long pause before A.J. said, "Yes," he chose to ignore the significance behind it.


            "We don't have too many of the details worked out yet.  About the wedding and all, I mean.  We'll be gettin' down to serious business regarding all that stuff in a few weeks."


            Since Troya had elected to return to her home alone last night, Rick had yet to have the opportunity to talk to her about the rough plans he'd already sketched in his mind.  Instinct told him she'd want to keep the ceremony small and simple.  He knew she and Graham had run off to Lake Tahoe to get married, electing to avoid the elaborate twenty thousand dollar wedding Troya's parents had been bent on hosting for the young couple.


            Considering how much both he and Troya loved the ocean, Rick thought it would be nice if they were married on the beach at Tad's estate with a modest reception afterwards held on his patio.  Just cake, punch, and champagne for around fifty guests.  Nothing that was going to cost a lot of money or require a lot of effort.  Knowing Tad like he did, Rick was certain the man would enthusiastically grant his permission for such an affair, and probably even throw in the services of his household staff to boot.  Tad had been dead serious a few weeks back when he told Rick that if and when Rick married his sister he'd provide the Aubrey, complete with crew, a maid, and a chef, for a two week long honeymoon cruise to whatever destination the newlyweds chose.


            A.J. interrupted Rick's thoughts.  "When?"



            "When----------get married?"

            "Oh.  We haven't set a date yet.  But was I thinking about the end of October.  Troya and I have to discuss it further."


            Rick's tentative plans, provided Troya agreed, would be that they set up house keeping as man and wife in her home while his boat would remain docked at the marina.  The vessel could be used as a weekend getaway retreat, or for short ocean excursions that, on occasion, would even include A.J. and Cecilia.  That is, provided A.J. did indeed recover enough to live in his own home.  If time proved that was not going to be the case, then Rick and Troya would have to talk of some of the same alternatives he and his mother had discussed regarding A.J.'s long-term care.  Rick would never ask Troya to allow A.J. to move in with them. He didn't feel that was fair to her, and he knew A.J. wouldn't want that, either.  But if the situation warranted it, they might have to look into some type of living situation where Rick could be close by if his brother needed him.  For now, all those concerns were up in the air, however.  Troya had recently told Rick that the best test to just what limitations might stay with A.J. the rest of his life was to wait and see what happened once he was released from the rehab center.  Which was why Rick was thinking a wedding date set in late October would be feasible.  If A.J. was released in July, then that would give them three months to evaluate whether or not he was going to be able to completely live on his own.            


            "It won't be anything big or formal," Rick told his brother now.  "At least I don't think it will be.  Troya's not really into that kinda stuff, and you know me, I'm not a formal wedding type a' guy myself."


            "Didn't think------you any wedding------type guy."


            Rick smiled at A.J.'s light humor.  "Yeah, I know.  Broke plenty of hearts in my day, haven't I, kid.  I'll be the first to admit I never thought I'd be settlin' into marriage at this late stage in the game, but Troya...she's special, A.J.  She makes me feel inside like no other woman ever has."


            A.J. simply gave a small nod in response to his brother's words.





            "I hope you can come to accept everything I've just sprung on you and be truly happy for me in time.  And I was also hopin' that...that you'd stand as my best man."


            Rick was taken aback by his brother's response.


            "Not Tad?"


            "Tad?  He------he's not going-------be-----to be------you best man?"

            "Why would you think that?"

            "You-----you're friends."

            "So?  Me and Carlos are friends, too.  And so are me and Jerry, and me and Town.  All of 'em friends a lot longer than Tad has been.  He's a nice guy and all, but no.  No, he's not going to be my best man.  The thought has never crossed my mind to ask him.  I'm only asking you.  My brother.  My brother, and my best friend.  Tad's not either one of those.  So if you say no, then I guess...well, then I guess I won't have a best man."


            "Can't get-------married without one.  Got to have--------witness."


            "Then you'd better agree to do it, or I'm up shit creek, aren't I?"


            A.J. smiled at the colorful way Rick tended to phrase the English language.  "Guess so."

            "So you will?  You'll do it?"

            A.J. thought of the events that had occurred the evening before in this room, and of what had occurred a week ago in Tad's house.  If his suspicions proved to be unfounded, he wouldn't mar what should be the happiest day of Rick's life.  If his suspicions did have validity, well he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.  For now, A.J. gave Rick the only promise he could.   "Yes-----I be-------you best man.  And I try------not barress you------by do------doing something-------stupid."

            Rick pulled his brother to his chest, the stinging tears produced by A.J.'s words hidden in the blond hair.  "You won't do anything stupid, and you won't embarrass me."  Like he'd done with Troya Yeager the night before, Rick ran a hand through his brother's hair while offering quiet assurances to both A.J. and himself.  "It's gonna work out okay.  Everything's gonna work out just fine.  You'll see.  Time will solve all our problems.  It will, I promise."




            Over the course of the next forty-eight hours, A.J. went through the necessary motions of attending therapy sessions, eating in the cafeteria, and working out in the gym.  There was nothing about his demeanor that suggested his thoughts were elsewhere.  Even Troya Yeager didn't detect any unrest on the blond man's part during their sessions, but possibly because she was now so uncomfortable in his presence that she had trouble giving him her full attention.


            Whenever A.J. returned to his room, whether for the rest period after lunch, or for the free time after supper, he closed the door and hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob.  From there the first thing he always did was search the room for bugs.  So far none of the pesky little critters had found their way back in.  The second thing he did was retrieve a writing tablet and a pen.


            It was still a trial for A.J. to get all his thoughts on paper in an expedient manner, meaning he often wished he had access to a computer, other than those in the lab where he sat refreshing his skills with a P.C. along with three other patients and a therapist every afternoon at two.  But, since he had no private access to a computer, the current method he was employing would have to do.  He'd filled six yellow sheets torn from a legal pad with his clues, thoughts, and intuitions.  In almost story form he'd recorded everything Brendan had told him.  The boy's tale had proved useful.  While it hadn't caused the day of the accident to come forth in A.J.'s mind with any great clarity, it had unlocked a number of images that so far had only haunted him in his sleep.  He wrote and rewrote his notes, scratching out and erasing, then adding and revising as new thoughts came to him.  He was able to weave some of the meager clues from his dreams into his work, and could swear now that he recalled bending to pick up the sunglasses the running man had dropped while he - A.J., chased him from the building.  He also remembered seeing the white headed man crumple to the floor after being shot.  But all he could remember of the shooter was seeing the man's back, which didn't help much, though Brendan had his suspicions as to who that person might be.  A.J. had his suspicions, too, and suspicions regarding who had bugged his room, but as of yet he wasn't ready to share those suspicions with anyone, least of all his brother.  He needed proof, but how exactly he was going to obtain that proof was nothing but a hare brained scheme just beginning to form in the distant recesses of his mind.       


            It was shortly after the supper hour on Friday evening, two nights after Troya Yeager's unexpected visit.  A.J. tossed the notes he'd been studying on his bed.  He sat on the edge of the mattress, trying to collate in his head all he'd so recently uncovered.  He reached for the nightstand drawer, pulled it open, and took out his spiral notepad.  He reviewed the clues he had written there, trying to determine if any of them he'd so far found no use for might suddenly mean something to him.


            A.J. looked up at the sound of someone rapping on his closed door.  He wasn't expecting any visitors. His mother was in Arizona, and Rick had come by at noon that day and taken him out to lunch.  The older man was still putting in a lot of hours on several different cases, and had told A.J. it would be doubtful if he'd see him that evening.


            When the knock came the second time the blond man frantically gathered his notes with the intention of shoving them and the spiral pad in the nightstand drawer.  He halted his movements when he recognized the voice that posed no threat to his actions.


            "A.J.!  A.J., are you in there?  It's me!  Brendan!"


            "Come in!"


            Brendan entered the room, closing the door behind him.  He bounded over to the bed, did a mid-air half twist and landed on his butt on the mattress.    "Hi.  I talked Mom into dropping me off for a while 'cause she's taking Heather to a movie."


            "You didn't-----want-----go?"  A.J. paused to rephrase the sentence so it came out like it should, a habit he'd forced himself to fall into in recent days.  "To go?"


            "Nah.  It's just some stupid kid's movie I don't wanna see.  I'd rather shoot the bull with you."


            A.J. smiled at the phrase he knew Brendan had picked up from Rick. 


            The boy looked around, taking in the yellow sheets piled on the bed.  "Whatcha doin'?"



             Brendan craned his head and began scanning A.J.'s notes. "On what?"

            "Just putting thoughts--------some thoughts on paper."


            "Hey!"  The boy's eyes lit with excited revelation. "You're workin' on our case, aren't you?"


            A.J. arched an amused brow.  "Our case?"


            "Yeah."  Brendan started to reach for the papers, then stopped in mid-motion.  "Is it okay if I look at what you've written?"


            "Go head-------ahead."

            Brendan read through A.J.'s notes.  Several times he stopped to ask questions, or to clarify points from their conversation on Tuesday night that A.J. had recorded by memory after Brendan left.


            When the boy was finished he neatly stacked the papers in order and sat them on the bed between himself and A.J.  "So, what are you gonna do now?"


            A.J. looked down at the perceptive youth.  "How do you know I------I'm going to do--------something?"


            "You have to, A.J.!  You've got all the evidence right here."


            "Brendan, this is not-------evdence.  It's--------con------conjecture."




            "My theories.  Edcat-----educated guesses.  Nothing more."


            "But you're right.  I know you're right," the boy's face was alive with passion.  "I know he had something to do with it, A.J.  I just know it!"


            "But you didn't see------his face."


            "I didn't have to see his face to know."  Brendan looked the detective in the eye.  "And you didn't have to see his face to know either."


            A.J. sighed in the face of thirteen-year-old adversity.  "Bren...there's nothing can------I can do------with what-------I have here.  A lot of men------wear too much-------cologne."


            "Then we have to find out more dirt on the guy!  We have to find some evidence!"


            That's just what A.J. had been thinking prior to the boy's arrival. 


            "What would you do if you and Rick were working on this case?  How would you go about finding out what you need to know?"

            A.J. was well aware of what he and Rick would do in order to find the evidence they needed to support, or to disprove, a series of clues they had.  Actually, there were several things they could do, but in A.J.'s current position his choices were rather limited.  The one he'd been pondering before Brendan entered the room wasn't the wisest for a man to do alone.  You generally wanted a partner along you could trust.


            "Huh, A.J.?  What would you and Rick do?"

            A.J. smiled at the boy.  "Never-----mine-----mind what Rick and I do-----would do.  I work it out-----one way or nother-------another."


            Brendan wasn't about to let A.J. off the hook that easily.  "You'd do a black bag job, wouldn't you?"  When A.J. didn't answer the boy pressed,  "Well, wouldn't you?"

            "Where did you hear------about black bag jobs?"

            "I read a lot.  Detective novels are my favorite.  Besides, Rick told me all about black bag jobs when I wrote that paper on you guys a couple of years ago."


            Way to go, Rick.  Nothing like telling an impressionable boy about breaking and entering. 


            "Brendan, black bag jobs are-----illegal.  Not to men-----mention dangerous."


            The boy's eyes lit with excitement.  "I know!  That's what makes them so cool!"


            "They're not-----cool," A.J. said sternly.  "They get-----can get a person-----in trouble."


            "But you and Rick have never gotten in trouble.  He told me you guys have never even gotten caught doing one.  That Simon and Simon is the best in the business when it comes to sneaking around after dark."


            Thanks a lot, Rick.




            "Look, I know we can't tell Rick about this on account of him dating Doctor Yeager and all.  So I was thinking that--"



            "You know-------bout that?  That Rick is------seeing her?"

            "Sure.  Aunt Cecilia told my mom.  So anyway, I know it would be best if he doesn't know what we're gonna do until after we find the evidence."


            "What we're gonna do?"


            "Oh please, A.J.  Let me help you.  I can do it.  I know I can.  Look at how many other things I've helped you with.  Your reading, and your writing, and your swimming.  Please let me do this with you, too."


            "Brendan------those other things ------different.  This could be-------dangerous."


            "I know.  But I'm willing to take that chance."


            "No."  A.J. shook his head.  "I will not--"


            "A.J., please.  You can't do it alone.  You'll need someone to act as a lookout.  I know you will.  Please, let me help."


            A.J. had every intention of telling the boy in no uncertain terms to drop the subject.  That regardless of what he might decide to do, Brendan wasn't going to be a part of it.  But the boy's next words hit the detective right in the gut.


            "A.J., come on.  We have to do something.  If what you've written down, your theories, if they're right, then you saw the guy kill a man.  You saw him kill a man, and it was because you were trying to catch him that Rick...well, that Rick's truck hit you.  We can't just let the guy walk around unpunished can we?  I mean, he could do it again, couldn't he?  What if your theories are right?  What if he is a murderer?  He could hurt Rick next."


            While A.J. thought that last might be a little far-fetched, he had to admit the boy had a point.  If Rick stumbled upon this same evidence someday and was married to the man's sister to boot, he supposed it was possible his brother could be killed for what he knew.


            "So, please, let's do something about it, A.J.  Let's do something together.  If we don't find anything I won't say another word.  I promise."


            Brendan seemed to sense it was the time for silence when minutes passed without a response from A.J.  The detective finally emitted a heavy sigh.  "Okay.  But we have to plan it-------very carefully."


            Brendan jumped off the bed and grabbed a pad of paper and pen from the work counter.  "Great!  Let's do it right now before my mom comes to pick me up.  I can write everything down."


            A.J. chuckled as he took the paper and pen away from the boy.  "First lesson.  A smart man-------never cords------records what he's-------going to do.  Leaves behind too much------ev----evidence for the cops if you-------get caught."


            "Oh.  Good idea.  But we won't get caught, of course."


            A.J. wished he had as much confidence as the thirteen-year-old did as he began mapping out his plan to the boy.


Chapter 25


            A taxi pulled into the rehab center's parking lot at twelve-thirty that Saturday morning.  A.J. was standing in the shadows of the old building far from the glow of the outside lights.  He stepped away from the structure and hurried as fast as he could to the cab.  No one was the wiser regarding his ‘escape.’  He'd gotten to the first floor via the stairwell without running across any of the third shift staff members.  He'd left clothes bunched up under the blankets on his bed, making it look like someone was sleeping there if he wasn't back by two a.m. when one of the nurses invariably poked her head in the dark room to make sure everything was okay.  


            Rather than go out the main doors where he risked being seen crossing the wide lobby, A.J. exited through the side door in the gymnasium that led directly to the grounds.  All the doors in the building were locked after ten at night.  A person could get in after that by ringing the front bell to summon a staff member, as Rick had done after visiting hours had ended on Wednesday evening.  But A.J. had no intention of doing that when he returned.  Instead, he left the gym door unlocked, knowing it was doubtful anyone would check it before the first shift staff members arrived at seven a.m.  And, if by chance someone did check the door and that person locked it, well it wasn't like A.J. had never spent a night outside for the sake of a case before.  He'd simply bunk under the stand of bleachers that sat next to the track and wait until he could reenter the building at seven. One way or another he'd manage to get back in without anyone realizing he was ever gone.


            A.J. gave the cab driver Linda's address.  As they approached the house he instructed the man not to turn in the drive, but rather to pull up to the curb.  If Brendan hadn't told him that Linda always left a light on in the living room overnight for security purposes, A.J. would have thought she was still up.  But, when the boy stepped out from the side of the house where the garage sat, A.J. knew both Linda and Heather were sound asleep.


            Brendan was careful not to slam the door when he climbed in the back seat of the cab with A.J.  For the benefit of the driver, who might be wondering just why a grown man was picking up a thirteen-year-old boy at five minutes to one in the morning, Brendan did just as he and A.J. had discussed hours earlier.  He gave the detective a kiss on the cheek and a bright, "Hi, Dad!"


            A.J. smiled and put his arm around the boy, pulling him close.  "Hi, son."


            A.J. gave the cab driver another address, then conversed with Brendan about his day like any father would do who hadn't seen his son in a period of time.


            The homes in the Grand Canal neighborhood were dark and quiet at this hour of the morning just like A.J. had known they'd be.  Again, he had the cab driver pull up to the curb, but this time casually told the man he might as well shut off the engine and lights since A.J. would be in his home for a few minutes.  The man was amiable to the suggestion, figuring he could get a short nap in on the detective's money.


            Brendan waited in the car while A.J. walked around to the back of his home.  The boy instantly began jabbering about how his parents were divorced, and about how his dad had been hurt in a car accident, so that's why he was staying at the rehab center.  He told the cabbie his father owned his own business and he, Brendan, was going to help him do some work at the office tonight.


            The cab driver paid scant attention as he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.  Leo didn't concern himself too much with the personal lives of those who made use of his services, provided they weren't doing anything illegal in his cab.  It was obvious these two were father and son. A person could tell that just by looking at them, so as long as nothing funny was going on what the hell did he care?  Granted, it was rather strange that a kid this age would be going to his dad's office at this time of night, but his parents were divorced, so who knew?  Leo suspected the boy had snuck out of the house.  Probably his mom and dad didn't get along, and the woman didn't let the guy see the kid much.  Seemed to be the story with every family nowadays.   But whatever, he didn't give a flip.  You didn't put two kids through college on a cab driver's wages by asking a lot of nosy questions.


            Way back when the Hole In The Water had been moored in A.J.'s side yard and Rick had been his permanent houseguest, A.J.'s brother had accidentally locked them out on more than one occasion.  A.J. had gotten so fed up with locks being ruined every time they had to pick one that he'd hidden a key by the deck.  A novelty catalog had come to the Simon and Simon office filled with all sorts of odd gifts and notions.  A.J. spotted a unique item in it, an outdoor thermometer containing a compartment where a person could secrete a house key.  The gadget had cost him twenty dollars, and had turned out to be the best money he'd ever spent.  It hung on a wall of the house next to the French doors.  Since Rick still had A.J.'s key ring and wallet on his boat, this was the only way the detective had of gaining entrance to his home short of breaking in.  Without any outside lights on it was difficult to see, but he knew exactly how to slide the thermometer upwards until a square magnetic compartment was revealed with a lone key clinging to it.           

            The detective let himself in through the French doors.  He didn't need to turn on any lights - timers had been set on various lamps by his mother to make the house appear lived-in during his absence.  He went upstairs where another light was on in his bedroom. 


            A.J. made quick work of packing a small, zippered backpack.  He put in a heavy steel flashlight, his lock pick case, needle nose pliers of four different sizes, a set of screw drivers, a black square box the size of a TV's remote control run by three double A batteries that would aid in cracking the combination to a safe, and a compact high density camera that was already loaded with film.  He grabbed an extra roll of film just in case he needed it. 


            Because Rick had his wallet, A.J. had no way of paying the cab driver, which was another reason for this stop.  He always kept about two hundred dollars in the house for those times when he and Rick had to go out on an unforeseen job after the banks were closed.  He looked at the books lining the shelf on his bedroom wall.  If he remembered correctly, that's where he kept his spare cash hidden, but for the life of him couldn't recall which book it was in.  A.J. became briefly frustrated at his still sometimes faulty memory, but then realized the anger would do him no good.  He'd have to find his money if it meant looking through every book on the shelf. 


            The blond man stood back and studied the titles.  A brief smile touched his lips when he came to The Businessman's Guide To Wise Money Management.  Though he wasn't certain that's where the cash was hidden, knowing his sense of humor, more than likely he'd find it there. 


            A.J. plucked the book from the shelf and allowed it to fall open in his hands.  Sure enough, it revealed two hundred and twenty dollars nestled between pages 142 and 143.  Though it was far more than he needed, A.J. grabbed it all and tucked it in the pocket of his blue jeans.


            The detective contemplated taking a gun out of the locked cabinet in the den as he passed.  If he didn't have Brendan with him perhaps he would have, but for that reason decided against it.  Well, that reason, and the fact that he couldn't recall the combination and didn't have time to make use of his safe cracking tool.


            A.J. let himself out of the house the same way he'd gotten in.  He locked the French doors and returned the key to its hiding place.  He hadn't been gone more than ten minutes, but found both the cab driver and Brendan dozing when he climbed in the car. 


            The blond man gave the driver an address he'd looked up in the yellow pages earlier that evening.  It took almost thirty minutes to drive to the up-scale business area that housed Brooks Enterprises.  Again, A.J. didn't allow the man to pull into the parking lot.  He and Brendan got out at the curb, A.J. paying the cabbie the fare, plus a ten dollar tip.


            "Thank you, sir.  Want me to wait for you?"


            "No.  But-----we------we'll need a ride------in half------a half hour to hour.  If-----you------you're around could you-----"

            "Sure, sure.  No problem.  I'll drive around a while and see if I can pick up some other fares.  When I'm in-between customers I'll cruise by here and see if you guys are ready."


            "Great," A.J. nodded.  "Thanks."


            The detective wanted to get himself and Brendan out from under the all-night flood lights in the parking lot as quickly as possible.  He kept a restraining hand on the boy's chest to keep him from running.  Though speed was of the essence, neither did A.J. want to draw the attention of the cabbie should the man turn around at the end of the block and drive back by. 


            A.J. limped away from the building, his movements guiding the confused Brendan.  The almost brand new one story structure was made of white brick and had round, recessed lights mounted in the overhanging soffits.  Though these lights weren't as bright as the lights in the parking lot, they still allowed anyone passing on the road to get a good view of what was going on at the front of the building. 


            A set of double glass doors opened into the building's lit lobby and had Brooks Enterprises scripted on the front in fine white paint.  A.J. stayed clear of those doors, and as well stayed clear of the rows of long windows that flanked either side of them that he assumed looked into offices.  He glanced around for the third time, not seeing any vehicles in the parking lot that would indicate Tad Brooks employed an all-night security guard, but A.J. wasn't taking any chances.  For all he knew there could be a person working in such a capacity that had been dropped off earlier by a spouse or friend.


            A.J. breathed a sigh of relief when he and Brendan reached the south side of the building.  At least they were now relatively secluded.  It would be difficult for anyone to see them from the road, and Brooks Enterprises nearest neighbor, a graphics design company, was the length of two football fields away.  Its parking lot was empty, too, which led A.J. to believe graphic artists don't work a night shift.   


            The recessed lighting in the front of the building followed the same pattern around it.  A.J. kept himself and Brendan a cautious distance away from it until they reached the back.  Here, Brooks Enterprises nearest neighbor was a grove of trees some three hundred yards away.  The blond man could just barely make out muted lights in the distance.  The occasional bark of a dog lead him to believe rows of houses could be found on the other side of the trees.


            The concrete sidewalk widened back here to form a large patio square.  Three round picnic tables made of concrete and stone dotted the area, no doubt used by Tad's employees during coffee breaks and lunches.  Two square cement planters ten feet wide by four feet tall stood in opposite corners at the very edge of the patio.  The planters were filled with blooming flowers and trailing vines, adding a colorful touch to the landscape.   


            Because of the tract lighting A.J. had no need for the flashlight he'd brought.  He immediately found what he'd assumed he would, a closed and locked door.  It was painted dark gray and made of solid steel with no windows to allow him a peek inside. 


            A.J. pulled Brendan close and spoke softly.  "You wait------over there," the blond man pointed to the planters,  "behind those.  Away from ------lights."


            "But, A.J.--"


            "No buts.  You agreed to do-------as I say--------before we came here ----------tonight."

            "I know, but I can--"


            A.J. put a hand over the boy's mouth.  "I want you over there-------now, Brendan.  You keep--------sharp eye out.  If you see anything or anyone---------yell, and run like hell."


            Brendan squirmed his mouth out from underneath A.J.'s hand.  "What about you?"

            A.J. smiled.  "Don't worry-------me.  I take-----can take care of myself.   You job is to yell and run--------got it?"

            Brendan gave a reluctant nod.  "Got it."


            The boy did as A.J. ordered, crouching behind one of the planters.  If someone rounded the corner and spotted A.J. they'd never know Brendan was there - or at least not until he yelled a warning.


            With a bit of his concern for Brendan removed, A.J. looked up and down the door three times.  He didn't spot any wires indicating the door possessed an alarm, but he wasn't so foolish to think Tad Brooks left his premises unmonitored.  While Brendan watched from the shadows, A.J. slowly walked the length of the back of the building twice, his eyes traveling up, down, and around.  What he was looking for Brendan didn't know, but A.J. did when he spotted it mounted on the wall behind the building's huge square central air conditioning unit that stood four feet high and was as wide as three men put together. 


            The detective squeezed in between the unit and the building, dropping his backpack at his feet.  He dug out the flashlight, the clear plastic case holding his screwdrivers, and a pair of pliers.  His right hand wasn't yet coordinated enough to allow him to wield more than one object at a time.  He had no choice but to wave Brendan forward from his hiding place.


            The boy eagerly ran to A.J.'s side.  Without a word, A.J. handed him the flashlight and pointed to the sturdy white plastic box that was perfectly camouflaged against the white bricks of the building.  Brendan nodded and got down on his knees, aiming the flashlight at the box's cover.


            The four screws holding the lid in place were no bigger than the fingernail on a baby's pinky.   A.J. wondered if his right hand possessed the dexterity he needed to get them loose, or if he was going to have to turn this part of the job over to Brendan. 


            The detective twice dropped the small, slender screwdriver he was holding.  Fortunately, they were still surrounded by concrete, and Brendan's flashlight quickly located it.  The blond man tried again, finally fitting the flat end of the tool into the screw's head.  He gave it eight turns and was rewarded with the screw popping out into his waiting left palm.  A.J. repeated the action three more times.  On each occasion he had difficulty starting the process, but on each occasion prevailed until he had four screws deposited in the breast pocket of his denim shirt. 


            The blond man removed the lid covering the box and handed it to Brendan.  A maze of eight wires, some coated green and some coated red, lay within. Like a highly skilled surgeon, A.J. posed his pliers over the internal workings of the alarm system.  He used a finger of his left hand to carefully lift each one up.


            Brendan looked over his shoulder at the deserted surroundings beyond, then back at A.J.   "Just cut," he whispered.


            A.J. shook his head.  "One might trigger--------tamper alarm."




            "The system might be------set to reg-----register if someone is-----tampering with it."


            "Can you tell by looking at them which one it is?"

            "No.  We'll have to take------chance."


            "Go for it then."


            A.J. was reluctant to, "Go for it," when he had a thirteen-year-old along whose safety was his foremost concern. 

            The blond man was still trying to decide what to do when the vague sound of heavy pants reached his ears.  He threw the startled Brendan to the ground behind the air conditioner, flinging his own body on top of the boy's while scooping up the backpack and loose tools with one sweep of his left arm.  Clicking toenails could be heard on the concrete, then A.J. felt a wet tongue lick the side of his face.  He looked up into the blue eyes of a Siberian husky. 


            "Go away!"  A.J. commanded in a strangled whisper.  "Go on!"


            The dog sniffed the ground, shoving his nose into Brendan's neck.


            "Go on!"  A.J. urged.  "Get!"


            "Nanook!"  A man's voice called from the front of the building.  "Nanook!  Nanook, get over here!"


            A.J. curled into a tight ball, his action forcing Brendan to do the same.  The detective prayed no stray elbows or feet were sticking beyond the air conditioner.          


            A.J. smelled cigarette smoke before the man even rounded the corner of the building.  "Nanook!  I swear this is the last late night walk you'll ever get if you don't start coming when I call you!"


            Although his nose was shoved into the concrete and A.J.'s body was covering him, Brendan could easily hear the man's approaching footsteps.


            "Come on!  Get away from there!  What are you doing back there anyway?"  The man approached the square unit.   "And here the wife said you'd be so damn smart 'cause you're a purebred.  If this is you bein' smart, I'd hate to see what you do for dumb.  Shoulda' just got me a dog at the pound like I always have, instead of unloading five hundred bucks on you, you worthless piece of--"


            A.J. excercised the only idea left him when the dog nuzzled his face.  He reached up and swatted Nanook as hard as he could on the end of the nose. 


            The husky yelped and shot out from A.J.'s and Brendan's hiding place.  His master wasn't inclined to investigate the cause of the dog's distress as he lit another cigarette.  "Got your nose bit by a chipmunk, huh?  That'll teach ya', ya' lame brained sled dog."


            A.J. could tell the man's footsteps were receding when the dog ran over and gave him one last slobbery lick on the ear.  The husky bounded away, joining his master until the darkness swallowed them both up.


            The detective carefully climbed off Brendan, moving to sit back against the air conditioner.  The boy unfolded his stiff limbs and copied A.J.'s pose.


            "You okay?"  A.J. asked.


            Brendan took several deep breaths, partly to calm his shaking nerves, and partly to draw in the air he'd been without when A.J.'s weight threatened to suffocate him.


            "Yeah...yeah, I'm fine."  The pale boy looked up at A.J.  "Was that one of the dangerous parts?"

            "No," A.J. smiled with mischief.   "That was one of the-------fun parts."


            A.J. allowed some color to return to Brendan's face before they resumed where they'd left off.  The blond man knew he didn't have the time to be discriminatory.  If Brendan weren't with him, he'd simply clip all the wires to the alarm system and deal with the results of his actions when he had to.  Because he knew of no other way to proceed but that one, he told the boy,  "If alarm rings--------run."


            "What about you?"

            "I be-------right--------behind you."


            A.J. picked up the needle nose pliers while Brendan picked up the flashlight.  In ten seconds time every wire had been clipped.  No alarm sounded, but A.J. knew that could still mean a silent alarm was being registered somewhere.  As quickly as he could, he fit the plastic lid back in place over the severed wires and screwed it on.  He dug out his lock picks and headed for the door, leaving Brendan to gather up the rest of the tools and the backpack.  By the time the boy joined him A.J. had the door open.


            The detective looked at Brendan and put two fingers to his lips, indicating the need for silence as they entered the building.  He deposited his lock pick case in the open pack and took out the flashlight.   Brendan zipped the backpack closed and slipped it over his shoulders.


            Lights had been left on at various places throughout the building including hallways and in some offices.  A.J. wasn't too concerned this meant someone was present.  He knew most local police departments wanted this done so officers on patrol at night could easily see in the front doors and windows of the businesses they were responsible to protect. 


            A.J. led the way down the hall, listening carefully for the sound of a radio or television that might indicate a security guard was on the premises.  He stopped before reaching any office that had its lights on.  He'd hold Brendan back with one arm while cautiously peering inside.  When A.J. came to the dark employee kitchen he shined his flashlight around the interior.  Every table and counter top was clean, the coffee pots empty, the coffee machine turned off.  Though he didn't allow himself to get careless, the absence of lights and brewing coffee led the detective to believe Tad Brooks didn't employ a night watchman.


            The plush royal blue carpeting concealed any sound A.J.'s and Brendan's tennis shoes might have made.  The back hallway they were traveling emptied into the wide, square lobby with its public restrooms, couch, four chairs, coffee table, and water fountain.  The only thing present that would afford the man and boy any type of protection from outside passersby was the receptionist's desk situated in the middle of the floor.   That still left them visible through the wide windows that flanked the centralized double doors. 


            A.J. dropped to his belly, Brendan copying his movements.  The blond man combat-crawled to the short hall directly across from him.  Brendan did the same, not getting to his feet again until he and A.J. could no longer be seen from the road.  


            As A.J. had suspected the moment he'd spotted this secluded hall, it was the lush lair of the company's owner.  A conference room with a small kitchenette and table that sat twelve took up one side of the hall, while Tad's office and private bathroom took up another.  No light had been left on in here, causing A.J. to do no more than sweep the room with the flashlight.  The detective indicated for Brendan to remain standing in the doorway while he moved to check out the bathroom.  When he was satisfied that room was empty, as well, he returned to the office and flipped on the lights, feeling fairly secure with this action since none of Tad's windows faced the street.


            A.J. took a moment to study the layout of the room.   A wide oak desk with a high-backed maroon leather chair sat in the center, two chairs of less grandeur for visitors sat across from it.  A computer rested on the credenza behind the desk, a picture sat next to the computer that was identical to the one in Troya's office of the young twins at the beach thirty years earlier.


            The remainder of the room was filled with two oak six drawer filing cabinets sitting against one wall with a coat closet next to them.  A round oak table that sat four resided in a far corner.


            A.J. had almost forgotten about Brendan's presence until the youngster followed him to the credenza.  He gave the boy a pointed look.


            "What you doing?"




            "You help by being------my lookout."

            "There's no one here but us, A.J."


            A.J. didn't argue any further with the boy as he got down on one knee.  As he expected, the credenza was locked.  Before he even asked for them, Brendan handed him his picks. 


            The lock was child’s play for A.J.  In seconds, he was pulling the big drawer open. 


            Brendan watched over A.J.'s shoulder as the detective fingered through tightly packed files.


            "Whattcha lookin' for?"

            "I not sure yet.  I'll know------when I see it."


            A.J. turned just enough to give Brendan a little shove.  "Go back to-----------hallway.  Keep watch--------a watch for cops."


            Brendan rolled his eyes at being delegated such a boring chore, but did as he was told.  He stopped just short of where the hallway ended.  Every few seconds he peered around the corner into the lobby, and then beyond at the parking lot and quiet street.  The boy never noticed the tiny red light shining from a heat sensor alarm unit mounted in the corner above Tad's office door.





            Tad Brooks lie naked in his king size bed, snuggled against the slumbering Shawna's back.  Shawna's hair and the bed sheets were still tangled from their earlier rounds of rough lovemaking.  Even in sleep, both of Tad's hands were possessively cupping the woman's full breasts.          


            At first Tad thought his alarm clock was ringing, but when he finally pried his eyes open and looked toward the big window that faced the ocean he realized it was hours away from sunrise.  An eye traveled to the clock radio on his nightstand where the time was registering as one forty-five a.m. 


            Tad eased his arms out from around Shawna and sat up.  He looked beyond the radio to a small, square box that sat behind it.  A red light was flashing on and off as a soft wail filled the room.  Tad threw back the covers, sat up, and hit a button on the unit that ceased the sound but left the red light glowing.  He knew the light wouldn't go off until he reset the alarm panel hidden behind the credenza in his office at Brooks Enterprises.


            The blond man picked up the only other piece of equipment that had room to fit on the nightstand.  He dialed a number by memory.  When a groggy voice answered he spoke with succinct urgency.  "I think we've got trouble.  Pick me up as soon as you can get here.  I'll be waiting in the driveway."     


            Shawna stretched herself awake.  She looked over just as Tad was hanging up the phone. "What was that about?"

            He leaned down and quickly kissed the woman on the lips.  "Nothing to worry your pretty little noggin over.  Go back to sleep."


            Her hand traveled to his flaccid penis where she fondled while pouting. "But I don't wanna go back to sleep."


            Tad threw the woman's hand aside as he got out of bed.  "Not now, Shawna!  Jesus H. Christ is that all you ever think about?"


            The woman watched in puzzlement as Tad flipped on the light, then disappeared into the mammoth walk-in closet.  When he stepped back out he was fully dressed in a pair of jeans, a polo shirt, and tennis shoes. He grabbed his wallet, keys, and watch off the dresser, exiting the bedroom without saying where he was going or when he'd be back.          





            A.J. Simon swiveled with a startled gasp when he heard Tad's computer come to life.  He was standing in front of the oak filing cabinets, going through the folders they contained one by one just like he had those in the credenza.


            "What you doing?"

            Brendan turned away from the monitor that was now coming to life with a blinking curser.  "I'm going to see what he's got on his hard drive."


            "I want you-------back in hallway----------now, Brendan."

            "Oh, A.J., come on.  No one's gonna show up.  If we'd triggered some kind of an alarm the cops woulda' been here by now."


            A.J. knew the boy was correct, however, he had no intention of involving Brendan in this little foray anymore than necessary.  "Bren--"


            Before A.J. could say anything else the boy was seated in Tad's chair.  Because of its high back the detective couldn't see what Brendan was doing, but he could hear the thirteen-year-old's fingers typing furiously on the keyboard.


            A.J. sighed with defeat.  He may look like me, but he listens about as well as Rick.  


            Despite that thought, the blond man couldn't discount Brendan had a good idea so left the boy to his own devices while he returned his attention to the folders.  So far the only thing A.J. had run across were personnel files for Brooks Enterprises’ employees, or files for companies who made use of the services offered by Brooks Enterprises.  His quest was slow going as he pulled out every tenth file and spot-checked it to make certain the contents were as innocent as they sounded.  So far he'd had no luck, and was almost wishing he'd waited until he could have talked to Rick.  With another skilled detective along they could go through every single file fairly quickly, but by himself, the work was labor intensive.  He didn't feel he had the luxury of time on his side, so made do with this random method.


            Ten minutes later, A.J. shut the file drawer with disgust.  He pressed the lock button back in and turned to survey the room.  Aside from having gone through the credenza and these file cabinets, he'd also been through Tad's desk, which meant his options were now narrowing.  His eyes stopped on the back of the leather chair.  "Any luck?"


            Brendan scanned the files he'd pulled up, not seeing anything that he recognized as a clue for their case.  "No."  The boy threw himself back in the chair and sighed heavily.  "There's nothing here.  And if there is, it'll take me all night to go through each and every one of these files."


            "We don't have--------all night," A.J. stated.  He looked around the room one more time, planning to search the closet he had yet to explore, but on some wild impulse he couldn't explain the detective found himself limping toward the bathroom instead.  He opened the hinged mirror above the sink, but didn't find anything in the medicine cabinet other than a container of Tylenol, a bottle of Scope mouthwash, and a box of Band-Aids.  A search of the oak vanity drawers unearthed only a toothbrush, a tube of Crest, a comb, a bottle of cologne, an electric razor, and a box of Trojan Condoms.  A.J. shook his head and smiled at this last find before moving on. The cabinet door on the vanity that hid the sink's plumbing revealed nothing other than toilet bowl cleaner, a toilet brush, and a bottle of liquid Lysol that A.J. assumed the cleaning crew made use of.


            A.J. lifted the lid on the toilet's tank, but that proved to be an effort in futility as well.  Only the big round float that controlled the water level in the toilet bowl was present.   


            A.J. stood back, leaning against the sink while idly staring at the bathtub.  He'd been so certain that he'd find some form of evidence here he was determined not to leave without exploring every nook and cranny.  His common sense told him it was quite likely what he was looking for was in Tad Brooks' home.  His common sense also told him that, considering Tad's full-time live-in staff, black bagging the man's estate would be next to impossible.


            If I don't find what I'm looking for here, I'll have to talk to Rick.  But considering how unwilling he is to listen to me lately, my chances of getting through to him regarding what I suspect are almost nonexistent.


            The detective's eyes traveled the room for a third time before once again coming to rest on the bathtub - the bathtub that suddenly seemed out of place.  A.J. had done an abundance of black bag jobs during his long and colorful career as a P.I., and in so doing he'd been in a number of executives' washrooms.  But never, never had any of those contained a bathtub.  One or two had possessed a shower stall, but not a full tub. 


            The blond man wondered if this occurrence was as odd as it seemed, or if Tad Brooks simply had a penchant for cleanliness.  He crossed the room to study the one- piece beige fiberglass unit that included fiberglass walls rising six feet above the tub itself.  A.J. pushed the sliding shower doors aside to see a showerhead and faucet unit, just like one would expect.  He reached down and turned the round handle mounted above the faucet.  He didn't know whether he was surprised or not when no water gushed forth. 


            A.J. took a step back, bent, and grasped the lip of the tub.  On good tug caused the unit to slide forward.


            "Brendan!  Brendan!  Get in here!"


            With seconds the teenager was at A.J.'s side.  "Yeah?"

            A.J. slid the shower doors to the middle of the tub, then indicated to the other end.  "You go there and pull------out when I do.  But------gently.  Very gently.  On count-----of three."


            The boy did as A.J. said.  He copied the man's body posture, half bending at the waist with one hand grasping the lip of the tub while the other rested on the edge of the wall unit above him. 


            "One-----two-----three.  Pull."


            Because it was made of fiberglass the unit wasn't heavy.  A.J. and Brendan had little trouble sliding it away from the wall that, to all intents and purposes, it had appeared to be built into. 


            The man and boy got the tub out three feet before the toilet hindered their ability to move it any farther.  A.J. squeezed between the unit and the side wall.  He inched his body along until he was behind the tub and completely obscured from Brendan's view.  He smiled at what he discovered there.


            His words echoed from the hollow space he was trapped in.   "Brendan------get me backpack!"


            A.J. could tell Brendan was running out of the room to snare the backpack from where it had been left sitting on a corner of Tad's desk.  Within seconds, the boy returned. 


"Got it!"


            A.J. eased along the walls once more until he was peering out from the front of the tub.  "Open it.  There's black------square box.  Give to me."


            Brendan did as he was instructed, handing A.J. the expensive safe cracking aid Rick had obtained God knows where some years earlier, and A.J. had been wise enough not to ask.


            A.J. was too focused on what he was doing to pay attention when Brendan followed him into the cramped area.  The heavy metal door of a safe, no bigger than two feet wide by two feet high, was flush against the wall.  A magnet on the back of the square electronic tool A.J. carried adhered the tool to the safe's door.  A.J. flipped a tiny switch that turned the device on, the small screen across the top lit up similar to the way the screen on a pocket calculator does when it's activated.


            The detective knew cracking the safe's combination would be slow going.  If he had any idea as to numbers that might mean something to Tad Brooks, such as the man's birth date, or the birth dates of his parents, he'd at least have a place to start.  But, as it was, he had no choice but to spin the small, flat dial to the right a few times, then give it a go by stopping on the number one.  When he didn't hear a beep from the safe cracker he spun the dial again, then stopped on the two.  A.J. repeated this pattern time and time again until at last he heard the sound he was waiting for.  He'd stopped on the number twenty-seven, and sure enough the number twenty-seven was displayed on the screen of his tool. 


            Without consciously thinking about it, A.J. was aware the combinations to most safes are keyed so that you spin first to the right, then left, then right.  Now that he'd hit on a match he spun the dial to the left, again stopping on the number one. 


            Brendan watched his mother's cousin, admiring the man's tenaciousness in the face of this tedious task.  Almost ten minutes passed before the safe cracker beeped again.  This time on the number forty-three.  If nothing else A.J. was thankful the dial wasn't numbered past fifty.


            Another spin to the right had A.J. back to work.  This time he was quickly rewarded for his diligence, the tell-tale beep occurring when he halted on the number five. A.J. spun the dial a few times, and then worked the combination lock again using the correct numbers of twenty-seven, forty-three, five.


            A.J. held his breath when he reached for the latch that would open the safe's door.  He had no idea if it would trigger an alarm, but prayed if it did that it wasn't a silent one, but rather blared throughout the entire building so he and Brendan were aware of it and had a chance to make their escape.


            He looked at the boy whom he'd been vaguely aware was watching his every move.  "Be ready------to run."


            Brendan easily guessed what A.J. was concerned about and gave a nod of his head.  The boy's body tensed as A.J. pulled the heavy door open.  When nothing happened Brendan relaxed, though A.J. remained on guard, not knowing for certain if they'd once again foiled Tad Brooks' security system, or if they'd just gotten caught unaware with their hands in the cookie jar.


            A.J. reached into the small area and retrieved a fat brown file folder and a computer disc.  As he and Brendan made their way out of the cramped space the detective had a feeling he'd just found what he'd come looking for.  He handed the disc to Brendan as they emerged in Tad's office. 


            "Pop this in.  See what you-----can find."         


            While Brendan sat down in Tad's chair once again A.J. stopped at a corner of the man's desk.  He opened the bulging file he carried and studied its contents.   When it become obvious he'd hit pay dirt, he took a few minutes to read page after page.   Mindful of the time, he glanced up at the clock to see it was five minutes after two.  He began unclipping the papers that clearly spelled out a business transaction involving illegal arms.  He unzipped the pack Brendan had thrown back on Tad's desk and dug out the camera.   The boy turned the big chair around when he heard the snap of the shutter.


            "Find something?"

            A.J. smiled while still holding the camera to one eye and aiming downward.  "Evidence."


            "But I thought you said a smart man never leaves any evidence behind."


            A.J. chuckled.  "Mr. Brooks is not a-----smart man, Brendan."


Part 8