The black Corvette raced through the desolate streets, its big engine rumbling. Kristopher Westphal had not appreciated being woken up out of a sound sleep shortly after coming off a fourteen hour shift. He looked across the seat at his boss.
"How can you be so sure it's Simon? Could be anyone. Just your run of the mill thief out to bag some computer equipment and fence it for a few bucks."
Tad Brooks flexed his hands in and out of fists. "It's Simon. I know it is."
"I think you're giving that
imbecile way too much credit, L.B."
Tad glared at his old friend with a hardened glint to his eye. "And I don't think you're giving him enough, Kristopher Wyatt."
A.J. looked up from the final page he was photographing when Brendan said, "I don't get it. Why would someone store a blank disk in a safe?"
The boy swiveled enough in the chair so that A.J. could see the barren computer screen. "There's nothing here. Nothing in the directory."
The blond man paused in thought. "Isn't there way-------to hide saved files--------if you know what you------you're doing?"
"Yeah, I think so. But I don't know much about it. They don't teach us that kinda stuff in school."
"I should------hope not." A.J. took the last of his pictures, all the while pondering Brendan's problem. As he was shutting the file and returning his camera to his backpack, a hunch came to him. He limped toward Brendan with an urgency the youngster hadn't seen before. The detective couldn't talk as fast as his brain was thinking.
"Get to A prompt. A prompt now."
Brendan did as A.J. ordered, continuing to type as further instructions came forth. "Type Taylor. The name Taylor. T-a-y-l-o-r Then hit------ enter."
Brendan cried out in triumph when file after file scrolled forth. A.J. rummaged through desk drawers until he came across a box of blank disks. He pulled one out and handed it to Brendan.
"Save everything-------to this. Then we get--------out here."
Tad Brooks' office and bathroom were left just as A.J. had found them. He and Brendan rushed to exit Brooks Enterprises through the same door in which they'd entered an hour earlier. A car was slowly approaching when they rounded the corner of the building. Before A.J. could pull Brendan back into the shadows, the boy took off running, waving one arm and calling "Hey! Hey, we're ready!" The detective breathed a sigh of relief when Leo wheeled his taxi into the parking lot. By the time A.J. limped over with his zippered pack in hand, Brendan was already settled in the back seat.
The cab driver turned, making
conversation with his now familiar patrons.
"Did you have a productive night, boys?"
Brendan smiled at A.J., holding his hand up for a high-five. "Yeah, we sure did, didn't we, Dad?"
Although A.J. knew his own grin would only further entice the boy, he couldn't hold back his triumph. Not just at having his suspicions confirmed along with the additional information he'd gained, but, as well, for feeling useful again for the first time since February. For feeling like an adult again. For feeling like a private investigator.
A.J. slapped Brendan's hand, then put an arm around his shoulders and hugged the boy close. "Yes, son------we did. We certainly did."
Neither man riding in the Vette paid any attention to the yellow cab that zipped by them headed in the opposite direction. Tad ran from the car before Kit even had a chance to stop it and used his keys to gain entrance into the front of the building. He immediately rounded a corner to the janitor's closet. He opened the cover to a complex panel and found what he'd half expected, the alarm loops that monitored the doors and windows were deactivated as though the electricity was off, or as though someone had clipped the wires.
Tad ran out of the closet and pointed down the hallway. "Look in every office, damn it! And out the back door! He might still be here!"
Kit ran down the same hallway A.J. and Brendan had made use of five minutes earlier. Tad raced into the conference room and flipped on the light. With no hiding places big enough to secrete a grown man, it was easy to determine the room was empty. Tad dashed across the hall to his office, again flipping on the light switch when he passed. Not one thing appeared to be out of place; even his chair was as he had left it, straight and with the seat tucked neatly under his desktop.
Running footsteps hailed Kit's arrival. "No one's here. I checked every office, bathroom, closet, and the kitchen. Nothing's been disturbed as far as I can tell. I even made a circle of the grounds. Are you sure there just isn't some malfunction with the alarm system?"
"No, there isn't a malfunction." Tad's eyes flicked about the room. "I'm willing to bet if we go outside and take a look at the junction box we'll see the wires have been cut."
"And you're telling me A.J. Simon could have done that?" Kit scoffed. "For God sake, L.B., the guy's lucky if he can tie his own shoes."
"Maybe he had help."
"From who?" Kit grunted. "His cousin's kid?"
"I don't know!" Tad exploded. "I don't know, but someone was in this room! I don't have it wired with a separate ten thousand dollar alarm system that rings in my home for nothing!"
The man crossed to his computer and laid a hand on top of the monitor. He looked at his friend. "It's warm."
"It's warm Goddammit! Someone was using it!"
Tad crossed to the coat closet that hadn't been used for coats in several years now, Kit at his heels. The blond used a small key off his ring to unlock the door. Four shelves had replaced the round rod the closet once held, security equipment and a twelve inch TV monitor resting on them. Tad rewound the tape in the VCR that was hooked up to a hidden camera in his office wall, and to a hidden camera in the bathroom wall. When the tape clicked off he hit the 'play' button.
Black and white images came alive before the two men. Tad's fury grew as he watched A.J. Simon pull the bathtub away from the wall, then disappear behind it. "The bastards!" Tad swore at the high tech security company he'd hired three years earlier to turn his office into a fortress. "They told me no one, no one would ever figure out where the safe was. They're going to have hell to pay when they see this tape, that's for sure."
Kit thought they had more pressing concerns than a security company's false promises as they watched A.J. spread a familiar file out on Tad's desk and capture its contents with a pocket sized camera. Within seconds after that, the police officer knew he didn't have to wonder if Tad's computer files had been compromised. The proof was being played out right before his eyes as the man and boy collected the evidence they needed.
Tad's fist pounded into the open closet door. "Damn!" He looked into Kit's eyes. "Now do you think he's such an imbecile? Now do you think he'd be lucky if he can tie his own shoes? Now do you think it's so Goddamn funny that he had help from a fuckin' junior high school kid!"
"L.B., come on. Calm down. We'll take care of him. Him and the kid both. We'll take care of them just like we've taken care of anyone else who's ever gotten in our
The blond man's rage propelled him across the room where his arms knocked everything off his credenza with one clean sweep. Amidst the crash of equipment and the shattering of glass, Lowell Thaddeus Brooks Jr. paid no attention to the smiling children on the beach who now laid in separate places on the floor, the picture that had once contained them having been torn in two by his violence.
And in a Best Western motel room on the other side of town, two men and a woman continued to watch with rapt attention the early morning activity being played out at Brooks Enterprises.
A.J. was hesitant to allow Brendan
to continue his journey home by himself, but the rehab hospital was
considerably closer to Brooks Enterprises than Linda's house was. Leo tuned into the conversation in the back
when he heard the boy say, "It's
stupid for you to pay the cab driver to take me all the way home, and then
bring you all the way back to the hospital.
I'll be fine, A...Dad. Really I
The cabbie looked in the rearview mirror, catching the doubt on A.J.'s face. "Sir, I'll get him home safe and sound, I promise. I've raised two kids of my own. I know how a parent worries."
A.J. finally nodded reluctant agreement. His detective's intuition told him Leo was a trustworthy man, and after tonight's adventure certainly Brendan was capable of riding a few miles in a cab by himself.
When Leo pulled into the rehab
hospital’s parking lot, A.J. handed him what he owed for the trip thus far,
plus enough money to cover what it would cost to take Brendan home along with a
twenty dollar tip included. "Take
good care my-------of my boy."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. You bet, sir."
Brendan impulsively threw his arms around A.J.'s neck before the detective could climb out of the taxi. He put his mouth close to A.J.'s ear so the cabbie wouldn't overhear. "Thanks for lettin' me come along, A.J. I've never had so much fun in my whole life!"
A.J. laughed while returning the boy's hug. "You're a helluva------- partner, Bren."
The blond man quietly exited the taxi. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and watched until the cab was out of sight. He headed for the gymnasium door, smiling when he found it as he'd left it. Unlocked.
Brendan Nash's house looked like he'd left it as well, quiet and dark except for the living room light his mother allowed to shine all night behind the closed draperies.
Leo didn't have to be told not to pull into the Nash driveway. He stopped at the curb just long enough to allow Brendan to hop out. The boy eased the car door closed without making sound. He gave Leo a wave as the man drove off down the street.
The thirteen-year-old dug into the pocket of his jeans for his house key as he approached the front door. If he'd decided to enter the house the same way he'd exited it two and half hours earlier, he would have seen the vehicle pulled up close to the garage door. Would have seen the vehicle, turned on the heel of his Converse running shoes, and raced off into the night. But because he didn't see the vehicle, Brendan didn't realize the man was in his home until he opened the front door and found himself staring up into the grim face of Rick Simon.
By now, Rick Simon knew his brother's rehab schedule by heart. Though it was Saturday, and sessions were abbreviated so the working day for both patients and therapists came to an end at noon, Rick was well aware of exactly what first floor room he'd find A.J. in. With his features cast in harsh stone, Rick passed two workmen wearing white hard hats and tool belts, then skirted around the big janitor buffing wax off the floor. Rick's mind was so locked on other concerns that it didn't register with him how odd that last fact was, considering he'd been told Abby's undercover man, Edmunds, had been taken off the job of guarding A.J. weeks earlier.
The young woman who was helping A.J. with some math equations looked up when Rick barged through the door without so much as a knock. The detective's lips formed a line so tight it was surprising he could get any words out. "I need to see my brother."
"Mr. Simon, we're not finish--"
"I need to see my brother now."
The woman's eyes flicked from Rick
to A.J. She immediately sensed the
tension permeating between the two men like a charged current. The therapist didn't waste any time pushing
her chair away from the small table she and her patient had been seated
at. She'd heard of other staff members
having run-ins with Rick Simon, and wasn't about to deal with his infamous
temper. She knew Doctor Yeager wasn't
in the building this morning, so would leave a message for her regarding this
incident. The twenty-three year old
looked at A.J. and shot him a tiny, quick smile that broadcast how anxious she
was to make her escape. "I'll see
you on Monday, A.J."
The blond man nodded as his therapist sidled past Rick and all-too-willingly fled the room.
Rick shut the door behind the parting woman. He allowed a few long seconds to pass before turning to face his sibling. Though Rick kept his words low and controlled, A.J. could easily detect the burning rage boiling red hot just beneath the surface.
"You know, A.J., I'm gettin' a little tired of having to make these unscheduled trips here to talk to you about your behavior. Just what is goin' on with you lately? Huh? What the hell were you thinking when you black bagged Tad's office and took Brendan along besides?" Rick's words sped up and his volume increased as he rapidly lost hold of his frayed temper. "Do you know how worried Lindy was? For chrissake she woke up in the middle of the night to find her son gone! She called me at one-thirty in the morning practically out of her mind with fear!"
"Thanks to you and the little joy ride you took the kid on, Brendan's been grounded for the next two weeks! If it hadn't been for me calming Lindy down, he wouldn't have been able to go on the camping trip he has planned with his dad. Lindy's not gonna allow him to come here and see you anymore, and quite frankly, I don't blame her. She's pissed as hell at you. It'll be a miracle if she ever talks to you again! How could you have been so damn stupid? And what were you doing at Tad's office in the first place? What was that all about? Some little game you were playin' to see if you've still got what it takes? Some ego trip you were on to strut your stuff in front of a thirteen- year-old kid?"
"What's the problem here? Are you jealous of the friendship I have with Tad, and this is your way of showing me that? For Christ sake, A.J., you're not a little kid, so quit actin' like one! Whatta ya' trying to do, ruin my chances with Troya before I even get to marry her?"
A.J. shot out of his chair, his anger a match for his brother's. "Rick-----listen me---------I have to-----talk-----"
"No, I'm not gonna listen to
you! You're gonna listen to me! You are not gonna come in-between me
and Troya, you got that? You are not
gonna interfere with the friendship me and her brother share! You're not gonna screw up the best thing
that's happened to me in a helluva long time!
We're just damn lucky you didn't get caught last night. That would have been a helluva thing to have
to explain to Tad, now wouldn't it?"
Rick headed for the door without giving A.J. a chance to say another word. "I don't know what I'm gonna do with you! I don't know what bee you've got in your bonnet, but you better get it outta there where Troya's concerned! She told me about the surprise she was gonna announce at your birthday party. About you comin' home. Well, now I'm not so sure you're ready to come home. All this shit you're pullin' lately is only proving to me you're not ready to live alone. It's becoming pretty apparent that you're gonna need a full-time babysitter whether you want one or not, and don't you think for one second I won't find one for you!"
The echo of the door's heavy slam was the only sound in the room as A.J. slowly reseated himself.
Brendan Nash idly wandered the rooms of his home that Saturday evening. His mother and Heather were gone, having left at five o'clock for a family birthday party. One of his cousins was turning eleven, and the celebration was being held at Brendan's grandmother's home like all birthday parties were. Parties at Grandma Joan's were always fun. She was a great cook and made the best cakes, not to mention the huge in-ground swimming pool she had that Brendan knew his sister and cousins would have long been making use of by now.
Brendan had thought his mother might relent on the grounding issue for just this one night considering the party was a family get-together, but she hadn't. The only place he was allowed to go during the next two week period was his day camp. Other than that, he was to spend his nights and weekends at home doing whatever extra chores his mother assigned him.
As the boy made a circle of the living room and kitchen he wondered how long it would be before Rick invited him on an outing again. He'd really come to enjoy the time he got to spend with the detective, and hated the thought of it coming to an end. It was bad enough he wasn't going to be able to see A.J. anymore.
The thirteen-year-old thought back to the early morning hours after Leo had dropped him off. He'd never seen Rick so furious. Even Brendan's dad had never yelled at him as loud as Rick had.
The teenager hadn't wanted to tell his mother and Rick where he'd been, but as the minutes ticked by and he came to realize they weren't going to dismiss him to his bedroom, he had no choice but to say he'd been with A.J. That only started the yelling up all over again as Rick exclaimed with a roar, "With A.J.! What were you doing with A.J.?"
When all Brendan did was stare down
at his shoes, Rick shagged him hard by the upper arm and demanded, "I want
some answers here, Brendan, and I want 'em now! What were you doing with A.J.?"
The boy had felt like a turncoat when he'd finked on A.J., but what choice did he have? It was obvious Rick wasn't going to leave without some sort of explanation being given, and his grip on Brendan's arm hurt. The blond settled on offering as little as he had to.
"We------we did a black bag job," he'd mumbled, still with his eyes focused on his shoes.
"A black bag job! What the...where?"
When Brendan didn't answer, Rick
squeezed his arm tighter. "Where,
When there was still no answer Rick tilted Brendan's chin upward so he was forced to meet the man's stern gaze. "I wanna know where, kid, and I wanna know right this second."
Brendan's eyes flicked from Rick to his mother, but he could immediately see he was going to get no help from her. He looked back up when Rick exerted a minute amount of pressure on his jaw.
"Tad...Tad Brooks' office."
Rick released Brendan without saying another word, or asking another question. When Brendan tried to tell Rick why he and A.J. had gone to Brooks Enterprises in the first place and what they'd found there, the detective turned away from him before he got out more than three words.
"I don't wanna hear it."
"I said I don't wanna hear it!"
The teenager's mother interrupted with a firm, "Go to bed, Brendan."
"But, Mom, me and A.J.--"
"I don't want to hear about you and A.J.! I said go to bed!"
Brendan looked from one adult to the other. His mother's face was as unyielding as Rick's ramrod straight back was.
"Now!" Linda shouted in a voice and tone Brendan had never heard her use before.
The boy had headed up the stairs, hazarding a glance back at the adults below, but to no avail. Rick wouldn't acknowledge him, and his mother only glared and pointed a finger toward the upper story of the house.
To make it sound like he'd entered his room, Brendan had shut his door. He then slipped off his shoes and eased back to the head of the stairs. His mother and Rick had moved far enough away that he couldn't hear all their words, but he did hear Rick apologize for A.J.'s behavior. Then the teen heard Rick tell his mother he didn't blame her when she said Brendan couldn't visit A.J. anymore.
The thirteen-year-old didn't go to his room until he heard Rick leave the house fifteen minutes later. He wasn't too surprised when his mother didn't come in to check on him, but rather walked right by his closed door on the way to her own room.
Not for the first time Brendan wished he had a phone in his room. If he did, he would have called A.J. and told him what had happened - forewarned him that Rick was on the warpath and would probably be paying him an unannounced visit. But Brendan didn't have a phone in his room, and when morning came his mother had him up early and handed him a long list of chores. He was alone only one time the entire day when his mother was outside helping Heather lace up her Rollerblades. That had been at ten o'clock. He'd dialed A.J.'s room repeatedly, but the phone just rang and rang and rang.
Now it was almost ten-thirty at night and Brendan was once again trying to call A.J. He figured Rick had been to the rehab center sometime during the day, but what had transpired there the boy didn't know. He wondered if Rick had been more receptive to listening to A.J. than he'd been in regards to listening to him. If that was the case, maybe Rick and A.J. were talking to Lieutenant Marsh right now. Maybe that's why he hadn't been able to get a hold of A.J. since he'd started dialing the phone at fifteen minute intervals from the moment his mother's car had pulled out of the driveway at five.
Knowing his mother and Heather would be home soon; Brendan gave up on trying to call A.J. anymore this evening. He'd rise before the rest of his household the next morning and try again from the phone in the kitchen.
The boy stood at the kitchen window for a few minutes and watched lightening flick across the sky. It wasn't raining yet, but a storm was forecast for later that night. When the brewing turbulence offered no more entertainment, Brendan wandered up to his room and flicked the light on. He didn't feel like reading, or drawing, or listening to music, and there was nothing on TV. Even Winston wasn't in the mood to provide Brendan with any fun. The boy dangled a cloth mouse suspended from a piece of elastic in front of the cat, but the old tom did no more than open one eye before continuing his slumber on the top bunk. When Brendan heard someone fiddling with the locked side door that opened off the driveway he exited his room and started down the stairs. Even though he was grounded, and Grandma Joan had surely heard all about the reasons why, he knew the woman wouldn't forget him. No doubt she'd forced his mother to bring home a big plate of cheese stuffed shells for him topped with her special tomato sauce, along with an enormous piece of birthday cake. Maybe Grandma had even felt so sorry for him she'd sent two pieces of cake.
Feeling assured it was his family at
the door, and more out of habit than anything else, Brendan yelled, "Hey, Mom, is that you? Mom?"
The boy stopped, his heart kicking in his chest when two men stepped out from the dark kitchen wearing ski masks to conceal their identity - identity that couldn't be completely concealed when the one with the funny eyes smiled down at him. "No, Brendan, it's not your mommy."
Brendan turned and raced for the stairs. His mother's bedroom door had a lock and there was a phone on her nightstand. The boy prayed the lock would keep the men out long enough to allow him to dial 911.
The thirteen-year-old never made it past the fifth step. Two strong hands grabbed his ankles and yanked his feet out from under him. His right tennis shoe flipped off and sailed through the air. His ribcage slammed into the stairs so hard his breath came out in an "Umph!" His nose was bashed against the carpeted edge of a step, blood gushing forth like water from a spouting geyser. The boy struggled as his body was bumped down each stair. He kicked and flailed his legs while his fingers clawed for a handhold in the thick weave of the carpet, but the adolescent was no match for two grown men. His ankles and wrists were tightly bound with horsehair rope and his attempts at yelling for help cut off by a wide strip of silver duct tape smacked over his mouth. Something that smelled like his mother's fingernail polish remover was held against his throbbing bleeding nose, but when he tried to turn his head away one of the men grabbed it and held it in place. Brendan began to feel dizzy and sick to his stomach, and then the room began to spin right before his eyelids grew so heavy they felt like someone had laid bricks on them. He fought to keep his eyes open, but within seconds succumbed to a deep state of unconsciousness.
The boy's slack body was carried out to the waiting Bronco underneath a brown wool blanket, his right tennis shoe remaining behind to lie forlornly on its side at the bottom of the stairs.
A.J. hadn't seen or heard from his brother since Rick had stormed out of the rehab center at eleven o'clock that morning. Not that he'd necessarily expected too, but he'd assumed once Rick calmed down he'd realize how odd all the recent occurrences were and return so they could sort them out together.
But then again, maybe not, A.J. thought as he put his empty supper dishes on the long stainless steel counter in the cafeteria. He's so taken with Troya he can't see the forest for the trees. Or at least it seems that way. Babysitter my ass. It'll be a cold day in hell before he prevents me from leaving here when I'm ready, and prevents me from living my life as I see fit.
A.J. knew time was of the essence now if he wanted to present the evidence he had to Abigail Marsh. He'd been hoping he and Rick could do that together. The last thing he wanted was to tell Rick after the fact what was going on within the Brooks family, but if Rick wasn't willing to listen to him there weren't many options left.
When A.J. had entered the desolate gymnasium at quarter to three that morning he'd hidden his backpack and the tools it contained in a dark corner of the rafters in the men's locker room. He carried the roll of film he'd used and the disk Brendan had made as he silently climbed the stairs to his room. He had no trouble slipping across the dim hall without being seen. At seven a.m., when things were confusing because the nurses were changing shifts, and patients were heading to breakfast, and that big janitor Mike was using a machine to put a layer of wax on the floor, A.J. made his way unobserved to Henry Sorenson's room where he taped the roll of film to the far underside of the old man's little-used work counter. The computer disk A.J. kept with him that day in his back pocket, further secreting it by not tucking the pale blue polo shirt he was wearing into the waistband of his jeans.
The gym was always busy on Saturdays with patients and their family members making use of the swimming pool. By the time A.J. entered it at ten-thirty that night the bustling activity of earlier had given way to silence. The blond man headed through the doorway of the men's locker room, stopping short when he almost walked into one of the therapists.
"Hey, A.J.," the man
smiled. "What are you doing in
here so late? Are you going to give the punching bag another run for its
"No, no." A.J. pointed down the short hallway that led to the showers and lockers. "Forgot-----something."
"Oh. Okay. Well, I've got a got a couple days off now, so I won't see you again until Tuesday."
"See you Tuesday-------Phil."
A.J. listened until he heard the heavy wooden double doors that led from the gym open and close. He hurried into the locker room and climbed up on a bench. He got on his tiptoes and reached a questing hand skyward. When his fingers encountered nylon straps he pulled.
The backpack fell into A.J.'s arms. He unzipped it, retrieving his leather lock pick case and the flashlight. The man made quick work of closing the pack and returning it to its hiding place. He jumped off the bench, allowed his right leg a moment to adjust to the movement, and then followed the same path Phil had.
When A.J. came to the double doors he opened them a mere crack. Because visiting hours had ended thirty minutes earlier he didn't expect to see any activity in the first floor hallway. He wasn't disappointed; all was quiet and dim as though the hospital had gone into slumber mode for the evening.
A.J. headed straight toward the lobby, then turned left down the intersecting hall. On the other side of the wall to his left was the front of the gym; on the right were therapy rooms that faced the parking lot.
A.J. looked up and down the hall when he came to the sixth and last room - the room that housed the computers. He knew the knob had nothing more than a push button lock. He opened the leather case and slipped out the small tool he needed. He slid the long thin device into the key slot on the knob, hearing the 'pop' that indicated he'd tripped the lock. He glanced down the hall again while returning the pick he'd used to its proper slot. He closed the case that was no bigger than a thin wallet and shoved it the back pocket that wasn't carrying the disk.
A.J. opened the door to the small computer lab, if one could even refer to the drab old room as a lab. This was one area that was going to receive a major overhaul when all the renovations were complete. It was A.J.'s understanding the lab was being relocated to a spacious room on the second floor where the number of computers would rise from four to twelve, each connected to their own printer rather than all sharing one, and reside within private work-stations surrounded by partial walls.
The detective made sure the door was shut and locked before he flicked on the light. Fortunately, the room's only window faced the parking lot and not the hallway from which he'd just entered. The drapes were pulled concealing him further from anyone who might be outside. There was another door in the room as well, one that opened into the adjoining therapy room. This pattern was repeated throughout the six rooms that lined this hallway, making it easier for wheelchair bound patients to move from session to session, as well as making it easier for the therapists to exchange information and team teach. A.J. made sure the button lock on the side door was pushed in as well. The last thing he wanted was someone walking in on him.
A.J. took the disk from his back pocket and crossed the room. A long cafeteria- style table lined the wall by the window, the computers residing side by side on top of it. With the tip of his finger he flicked a machine on and pulled out a chair, his back now to the main entrance door of the room. While he waited for the machine to boot up, he turned on the dot matrix printer next to it. This was the first chance he'd gotten to look at the files Brendan had copied from the disk Tad kept stored in his vault. If A.J.'s hunch was correct, there would be an abundance of information here Abby Marsh would be interested in viewing.
When the screen came alive with a C prompt, A.J. inserted the disk, indicated to the machine he needed it to read drive A, and typed the word Taylor.
Tad sat behind the wheel of his quietly idling Bronco in a remote corner of the rehab center's parking lot, his discarded ski mask lying on the seat next to him. Thunder rumbled overhead as his eyes traveled the front of the building. He absently focused on faint light shining through the draperies of a ground floor therapy room on the north end of the structure.
"What's the plan?" Kit asked from where he sat in the passenger seat, his ski mask also having long been removed.
"We go in, grab Simon, ease him into la-la land like we did the kid, throw him in back, and take them to the Aubrey. We'll weight their bodies down like we talked and dump them in the ocean. If they're good boys, we'll make sure they're fast asleep before we throw them overboard. If they're not," Tad shrugged carelessly, "if they're not then I don't suppose their deaths will be pleasant ones, but that's their problem, not mine."
"You think it's gonna be that easy, huh? Have you forgotten Simon's a little bigger than a teenage kid?"
"No, I haven't forgotten. But given his physical disabilities he's not going to be able to put up much of a fight. Besides, by now he's probably asleep. Between the two of us it'll be easy to hold him down and get the chloroform over his nose. You saw how fast it worked on our little friend Brendan."
"Yeah, but we also took him out of an empty house. How are we gonna get Simon out of a hospital full of people without someone spotting us?"
"Easy. After we've got him sedated, you're going to create a distraction by pulling the fire alarm while I stand ready in Simon's room with him thrown over my shoulder. There are only two nurses on the floor during the nightshift. Once that alarm sounds they'll be so busy trying to get everyone rounded up that we'll be able to get down the stairs and out of the building before they even realize he's missing."
"That's fine, but what about if
we don't get across the parking lot with him before the fire trucks show
"We won't have to cross the parking lot." Tad put the big vehicle in drive. "There's a side door that comes out the gym and onto the back lawn. We're going to park right in front of it. Don't worry, old buddy, we'll be long gone before the first trucks arrive."
"And what about the pictures
Simon took and the disk he had the kid make?"
"They have to be in his room somewhere. After we get him in dreamland we'll search the room for his camera and the disk. If we don't find anything, you can come back here early in the morning dressed in your uniform and go through the room again. By then the staff and the Simon family will know A.J.'s missing. You'll have all the freedom you need to search the entire building without anything seeming amiss."
"Me? Why me?"
Tad was growing weary of Kit's nagging questions. "Because you're a goddamn cop, and you should know how to pull off something like this without me explaining every little detail to you! And it's what I pay you for, you understand?"
"Yeah." Kit looked out at the unstable night sky through the passenger side window, hating how he'd prostituted himself to this man. "Yeah, I understand."
Tad grabbed a flashlight off the dashboard, tossing it cleanly to his friend. He glanced over his shoulder to see Brendan's blanket covered body lying motionless in the wide cargo hold behind the back seat. "Come on. Let's get this over with before that storm hits. Besides, it pains me to see sweet little Brendan all alone back there. His cousin A.J. should join him and make this a proper family affair."
Troya Yeager rubbed a hand over eyes that stung and burned just like they advertised in Visine commercials. What little sleep she'd gotten since Wednesday night had been troubled and full of images she'd rather forget. She was in her office now, burning the midnight oil because she'd taken the day off in hopes of getting some rest and a clearer perspective.
Troya had met Rick for lunch at one o'clock that afternoon at a restaurant near the Simon and Simon office. She'd had every intention of unburdening her recent sins to her fiancé, but he appeared as tired and preoccupied as she was. Rick had tried to say something to her three different times, but had stopped after getting only her name out. Whatever it was he wanted to tell her seemed to be upsetting him, or so Troya perceived. When she pressed him on the subject he took her hand, gave her a tight smile that caused deep worry lines to appear around his eyes, and said, "It's nothing. Forget it." Which is exactly what happened when she tried to tell him about the incident in A.J.'s room Wednesday night. She never got past the word, "Rick," and ended up saying "Never mind," after four failed attempts.
Later, Rick held Troya's hand while walking her to her Miata. "I've got quite a lot of work to do yet today," the detective said, referring to the cases he had in progress. "But I'd like to see you tonight. I've got something I...something I need to talk to you about. It'll probably be late though. After midnight. Maybe even going on one or two in the morning. Do you mind if I come over then?"
"No, you have a key. Go ahead and let yourself in. I'll wait up for you. I...I've got something I need to talk to you about, too."
The couple gave each other a kiss before parting ways that afternoon, but for the first time since their relationship had started their hearts didn't seem to be into the display of affection.
Troya worked in her garden that afternoon. Digging her hands in the warm, damp soil while surrounded by a rainbow of blooming colors usually brought clear perspective to her problems and serene peace of mind. But this time neither clarity nor serenity was to be found no matter how much she dug, and transplanted, and watered. She went in the house just as the sun was setting and stood under a hot shower, letting the soothing water pelt her back for fifteen minutes. Thinking of the night ahead with Rick, and what she was going to force herself to confess, caused Troya to lose what little appetite the outdoor work had brought her. She walked through her house three times, but wasn't able to focus on anything from the television, to a book she'd been reading, to a medical journal she should be studying, so decided to go to the rehab center and spend a few hours catching up on paperwork. She left Rick a note on the kitchen counter regarding her whereabouts in the event he arrived at her home before she returned. On an afterthought she signed it,
The power of love conquers all. I'll always love you, Rick, with all the love my heart possesses.
The doctor sat in her office now, staring down at the financial reports she should be updating before the next board meeting on Wednesday. The numbers on the ledger swam in front of her eyes. She blinked, attempting to clear away the excess moisture caused by stress and lack of sleep. She glanced at her wristwatch, seeing it was fourteen minutes after eleven. She forced herself to focus on her work, her fingers tapping over the keyboard of her computer. She paused, cocking her head at what sounded like the gymnasium doors being eased shut followed by the low rumble of a man's voice.
Troya stood. She rounded her desk and stepped into the hallway, walking the dimly lit path until she came to the wide lobby. As she would have expected for this time of night, no one was occupying the big lounge. She looked to her left toward the elevator. The hallway that held it, the gym, and a smattering of other rooms was empty. No light was on above the elevator door, indicating the lone car was vacant as well.
The woman shrugged as she turned in the direction of her office, certain she must have been hearing things that didn't exist.
Just like A.J. was adept at picking locks and entering places he didn't belong, so was Kristopher Westphal. Once he had the lock tripped on the door that led from the grounds to the gym, the same door A.J. had entered early that morning after his raid on Brooks Enterprises, Kit and Tad crossed the gym to exit into the hall by the elevator. As was the plan, they bypassed that means of transportation to instead use the stairs.
Tad barely cracked opened the stairwell door on the third floor. From what he could tell the hallway was deserted. He risked opening the door further so he could determine where the nurses were. By looking straight down the hall Tad could see the two women standing at the nurses’ station, their backs to him. Although he couldn't hear their conversation, he could tell by their body language that they were engrossed in some form of quiet, animated gossip.
The blond man reached in the left slanted side pocket of his leather bomber jacket. He felt the bottle of chloroform and the white handkerchief he'd used to cover Brendan's nose and mouth. Underneath those items rested short, sturdy lengths of rope that would securely bind his victim's wrists and ankles. Nestled snugly in his other pocket was a fully loaded chrome plated revolver. He looked at Kit and pointed across the hall, indicating it was time to start the second leg of their journey.
Kit nodded his understanding. He followed in Tad's silent footsteps as they crossed the few feet to A.J.'s dark room. Tad opened the door without making a sound and the two men slipped inside, Kit easing the door shut behind them. They'd gone over the plan so many times they had their parts memorized. Kit turned the flashlight on but kept it aimed at the floor. Once they got to A.J.'s bedside he'd shine it on the man, giving Tad the light he needed to locate the position of the detective's face on the pillow. Kit would be ready to hold the detective down if a struggle ensued, though if all went like Tad claimed it would Simon would be in drug-induced-unconsciousness before he realized what was happening.
Tad eased the chloroform and handkerchief out of his pocket. By the faint smell Kit was picking up he could tell his friend had the small bottle uncapped. As they approached the bed Kit saw Tad raise his hand, the movement indicating he was ready to spring into action. Kit brought the flashlight up as Tad brought the chloroform soaked handkerchief down. Brought it down on nothing but a vacant pillow.
"Damn!" Tad hissed as the beam of the flashlight revealed an empty bed. He whipped the covers aside in anger. "Shit!"
"Where do you think he
is?" Kit whispered, mindful of the
nurses down the hall.
"How the hell should I know!" Tad pivoted, his eyes scanning the dark room. "But there's one thing I do know. We've got to find that film, that disk, and most of all, we've to find him."
The blond capped the chloroform, shoving it and the handkerchief back in his pocket. He grabbed the flashlight from Kit's hand, dropped to his knees and looked under the bed. He used one hand to travel the bedsprings in search of the objects he hoped were hidden between them.
Kit removed the pillowcase and worked it underneath the thin crack between the floor and door. He didn't want to risk even the smallest amount of light spilling out into the hallway when he flicked on the bedside lamp to aid in their search.
While Tad rifled through every pocket in every item of clothing in A.J.'s closet Kit explored the cabinet over the work counter. The man opened each cassette case to make sure it was really a cassette resting within, then opened every game and puzzle box he ran across. He pawed through dice, playing cards, green and red Monopoly houses, and brightly colored jigsaw pieces before discarding the boxes and their contents in a mixed-up jumble that would take hours to sort out and rectify.
When jacket, shirt, and pant pockets revealed no secrets, Tad got down on his knees once more and reached inside the pair of tennis shoes and slippers that sat on the closet's floor. He even unzipped the sports bag and dug through dirty laundry. When Kit realized the games, puzzles, and cassettes were exactly what they appeared to be he flipped through A.J.'s school books and folders. He held up The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, shaking the book until a piece of paper fluttered out from between its binding. The police officer snared it from the floor, seeing it was blank except for the engraving at the top.
"Here's how Simon figured it out."
Tad emerged from the closet. "Figured what out?"
Tad grabbed a piece of his own stationary from Kit's fingers. Lowell Thaddeus Brooks Jr. was scrolled in gold letters and centered across the top.
The blond man looked down, shaking his head. Tad knew perfectly well when A.J. had taken this. The evening he and Rick had found the disabled man wandering around his office, seemingly lost.
"Yeah," Tad growled, crumpling the stationary into a tight ball and throwing it back to the floor, "well mark my words, this will be the last time that nosy bastard figures anything out."
The men worked together to tear apart A.J.'s dresser drawers. Socks, handkerchiefs, underwear, and shirts were unfolded and shaken, then tossed carelessly aside. Three minutes later, the pair moved on, not concerned that they were leaving tell-tale signs of their ransacking behind in the way clothes, papers, books, and games were strewn about the room. Tad searched the bathroom while Kit moved to concentrate his efforts on the nightstand's single drawer. The cop didn't find anything that he didn't already know was there, like A.J.'s notepad, and the sunglasses that had started this whole mess in the first place. They even looked behind the draperies, thinking they might discover something taped to the heavy rubber backing.
Kit looked at his friend and shook his head. "There's nothing here."
"There's gotta be!" Tad insisted in a strangled shout. He turned frustrated circles, waving his fists in the air. "There just has to be!"
"For all we know he could have gone to the cops by now."
"No. I don't think so."
"What makes you so
"Just a feeling I have. Besides, if something was going on that involved
me, Troya would have tipped me off."
"Maybe she doesn't know."
"She'd know. Believe me, she'd know."
"She's engaged to Rick Simon. "
"You heard me."
"Since the night she was supposed to find out what this goddamn idiot-of-a-detective knows about what went on in that morgue."
Kit's eyes narrowed. "How'd that happen?"
"How the hell should I know? I didn't ask her. I was more concerned with figuring out how we were going to discover what A.J. knows. Only I wasted too much time. We should have taken care of him ourselves that night. Hell, we should have taken care of him the day I found him snooping around in my office at home."
"Yes, we should have," Kit agreed. "We should have taken care of the whole fuckin' family, but it's a little late for that now, isn't it, L.B.? 'Cause if you ask me, it looks like Simon's flown the coop."
Tad jabbed two fingers into the man's chest. "Look, don't you go giving me any shit over this. If you had a better idea, I sure didn't hear you voice it the afternoon Troya came to us."
"Because I didn't know it would come to this!"
"And you think I did? If you'd been doing your job the day Taylor insisted on meeting with me face-to-face we wouldn't be in this mess. We’d be--" Tad paused in the middle of his tirade as revelation dawned. "That's it! Taylor! That's where the sonuvabitch is."
Tad headed for the door, pushing the pillowcase aside with his foot. Before he could open it the quick-thinking Kit doused the light.
"Where? What are you talking about? Would you mind tellin' me where it is you're
going in such an all-fire hurry."
"The computer lab."
Tad's hand was on the doorknob as he turned around to face his friend. "The computer lab they have for the patients. It's on the first floor. There was a light shining from that room when we pulled in the parking lot. If my hunch is correct, that's where we'll find Simon."
"And if we don't find him
A dangerous glint shone from Tad's eyes. "Then I'll search all of San Diego until I do find him. That bastard is not getting away from us alive; do you understand me? He is not getting away alive."
A.J. read the words on the computer screen as fast as his skills allowed. It detailed just what he thought it would, that Brooks Enterprises hadn't made Tad the multi-millionaire he was, but that his involvement in selling illegal arms had. No wonder the master copy of this disk had been hidden away in a locked safe behind a bathtub without functioning plumbing. The details it revealed would likely send an array of men to prison, Tad Brooks most certainly included.
The detective quickly scanned a number of other files. He found everything from detailed financial records of illegal arms transactions that spanned ten years time, to files that contained names, addresses, and phone numbers of Tad's vast contacts both in the United States and far beyond its boundaries. The bonanza of information scrolling before his eyes was far more revealing than A.J. had ever imagined it would be.
A.J. had learned long ago not to take chances when it came to information he'd worked hard to garner. Though the roll of undeveloped film was safely secured to the underside of Mr. Sorenson's work counter, and he had this disk, the detective knew unforeseen complications could arise before he got any of it to Abby. Which was exactly why he wanted to print the most important portions of what he was viewing. Myron Fowler had long ago taught him that you could never have too many copies of the evidence at your disposal.
The clunky printer seemed extraordinarily loud as the print head screeched back and forth across the paper. A.J. could only hope no staff members were wandering the halls on a coffee break this late at night. If necessary, it would be easy enough for him to come up with a halfway plausible story as to why he was making use of the computer lab at this ungodly hour, but it would be a bit more of challenge to explain how he'd gained entrance into a locked room.
A.J. pushed those concerns aside as he rose to rummage through the old white metal cabinets mounted on the wall to his right. Miscellaneous office supplies were kept within and the blond man quickly found exactly what he was looking for, a business-sized envelope and a roll of stamps. While the printer continued to plunk out its off-key rhythm, A.J. grabbed a pen. He sat back down at the table and printed the address for the San Diego Police Department on the front of the white envelope. In the bottom left hand corner he put, Attention: Lieutenant Abigail Marsh. Because of the amount of information he was going to enclose, A.J. licked four stamps and stuck them in place. In a few short minutes he'd put the papers he was printing inside, along with a brief note of explanation, then drop the envelope in the big blue metal mailbox out in the rehab center’s parking lot. If something should happen to him or his evidence before he got a chance to speak to Abby, at the very least she'd get this much.
A.J. smiled with satisfaction as he watched the print head make its return journey to the left side of the paper.
I'll have to remember to thank you at some point, Myron. I don't give you nearly enough credit for everything you taught me all those years ago at Peerless.
Tad Brooks charged down the stairs, not worrying about the noise the thick rubber soles of his running shoes created. Kit jogged after his friend; intent on seeing the man's anger didn't overrule his common sense.
"Take it easy, Tad. Slow down."
"We have to get Simon!"
"We will. But not like this."
Tad stopped and turned in
mid-stride. "Not like how?"
"Not charging around like a couple of bulls in a china shop. The last thing we wanna do is create a commotion that alerts a nurse or maintenance worker. Let's do it like we planned. Quick and quiet."
As much as Tad Brooks disliked taking orders from others, he gave a tight nod of his head. "Right. Quick and quiet."
Tad led the way back to the lobby, following the same route A.J. had when he'd exited the gym. He turned left when the halls intersected and continued all the way to the last room on the right. He stopped in front of the door, looked at Kit, cupped a hand to his ear, and smiled. Kit smiled back. He heard the same thing - the sound of a printer furiously at work.
Tad took a moment to once more douse his handkerchief with chloroform. He slipped the bottle back into his pocket, but held the cloth in his left hand as his right reached for the locked knob.
"Hey! What are you guys doing here?"
Tad shoved the handkerchief in his jacket pocket as his sister approached. He hadn't seen her since Wednesday afternoon, and hadn't spoken to her since he'd hung up on her during the wee hours of the morning on Thursday.
Kit moved toward the woman, intending to steer her back to her office. "Uh...looking for you."
"Looking for me?"
"Sure. We came to see if you wanted to get some supper."
"Supper?" Troya continued to walk toward her brother,
stepping around Kit when he attempted to hinder her path. "At this time of night? And how did you know I was here,
Tad's hand unconsciously tightened
on the cloth in his pocket. "We
were driving by and saw your car."
"Driving by?" Troya arched a skeptical eyebrow. "I find that a little hard to believe since this isn't an area either one of you would normally travel through to get to or from your homes." The woman crossed her arms over her chest, gazing into her twin's face. "You might be able to pull off a fib with just about anyone else, but you know perfectly well you can't lie to me. I catch you at it every time. I have since we were four years old."
Tad laughed, the sound forced and uncomfortable. "Yes, you have, haven't you. Okay, I'll admit it. You caught me. We weren't just driving by. A couple of hours ago I was telling Kit about the little spat you and I had on the phone the other night. He convinced me I needed to track you down and apologize. When I couldn't find you at your house or at Rick's place, I thought I'd come here on the off-chance you were putting in some overtime."
"That's very astute of you." Troya smiled with affection at another indication of the strong bond she shared with her brother. "Obviously, you know me as well as I know..." The doctor's sentence trailed off uncompleted. Her brows drew together in concentration as she sniffed the air. "What the...do you guys smell that? It smells like chloroform." The woman looked at the closed door Tad was still standing in front of. "And it sounds like the printer's being used, doesn't it?"
Before the men could stop her, Troya jiggled the locked knob. She raised a fist and pounded it against the wooden door. "Hey! Hey, who's in there? This is Doctor Yeager! Whoever's in there better open this door right now! Come on! Open this door!"
Troya detected frenzied commotion coming from within the room, the sound of a chair being hastily shoved across the floor and paper being ripped from the printer. She turned to her brother, "What in the world is..." but wasn't able to finish her thought or go retrieve the key that would allow her access into the room before she was roughly shoved aside.
Tad and Kit turned sideways, throwing their bodies against the door shoulders first. Like a well-synchronized team, they counted off "One, two, three!" and repeated the action again and again.
"Stop it!" Troya commanded, not understanding their urgency. "You guys are ruining the door! I can get a key. It's probably just a patient using--"
Again Tad shoved his sister out of his way. "Stay back, Troya! This doesn't concern you!"
"What doesn't concern me? What are you talking about?"
Troya's brother didn't answer her. The doctor was left standing by with confusion while issuing unbidden orders of, "Knock it off, you guys!" as the men continued to hammer away at the door until the frame finally cracked. They didn't gain immediate entrance, however, because A.J. had lodged a chair underneath the knob. Their shoulders were bruised and battered by the time they broke through the barrier he'd created.
Tad Brooks stumbled into the lab and stopped short, stunned to see nothing but an empty room. The lone window that faced the parking lot was no more than three feet long by a foot wide. Even if it had been cranked open there was no way a grown man could fit through the narrow space created.
Kit ran over to the now defunct printer. He held up the partial sheet of jagged paper still dangling from the printer's spools. He scanned the information it contained then turned to Tad.
"He's got us. He's got everything."
Tad scanned the vacant space. Because of the frequent visits he'd paid his sister over the years and the large financial contributions he'd made, he was fairly familiar with the layout of the entire building. The one thing he'd never paid attention to before, however, were the doors that ran from room to room in this section of hallway. "He doesn't have us yet," Tad negated, having finally figured out where A.J. had disappeared to. He bounded across the floor in three strides, yanking open the door that led to the adjoining dark therapy room. "Come on!"
"Tad, wait!" Troya ran to her brother's side, grabbing him by the arm. "Wait! What's going on? Who are you guys talking about?"
Tad shook himself free of his sister's hold. "Never mind! Just go home, Troya! Go home and forget you ever saw us here tonight!"
"Forget I ever saw you? And just how do you propose I do that when I'm faced with explaining to the board of directors why a perfectly good door has been splintered to pieces and now needs to be replaced with funds that are nonexistent!"
"For chrissake, Troya, what do I care about a stupid door! I'll replace it for you. Just go!" Tad gave his twin a hard shove, sending her stumbling over the chair that had been used to hamper his entrance. "Go on now! Get outta here!"
"Kit, go!" Tad yelled, ignoring his sister to instead command his friend. "Get him and get him now! If you have to kill him, do it! I'm done playing games with this guy!"
Troya's eyes widen when she saw the gun Kit pulled out from underneath his faded jean jacket. While the woman's knowledge of firearms was almost nonexistent, she did recognize the long thin attachment at the end of the gun as being a silencer. Though she had no idea who it was he was being sent after or why, she begged, "Kit, no! No!"
The voice of the woman he had treasured so long caused Kristopher Westphal to momentarily waiver in his assigned mission.
"Goddammit, Kit, go!" Tad screamed, shoving his friend toward the adjoining therapy room. "Get him before he ruins us!"
Kit tore his gaze from Troya's and turned a deaf ear to her pleas as he ran from the room, gun in hand and ready to fire.
Troya clawed at her brother's arm, using it to climb to her feet. "Tad! Tad, tell me what's going on! I'll help you in any way I can, but please tell me--"
As quick as a rattlesnake's strike, the back of Tad's hand smashed across Troya's jaw. She cried out as the force of the blow lifted her off the ground and sailed her across the room. The woman lay crumpled on the floor whimpering like a wounded animal, though more from the shock of what her twin had just done than from the pain vibrating in her cheekbone. Rather than rushing to her side and offering a distraught apology and viable explanation, Tad remained standing in the open doorway.
"Why, Tad?" Troya pleaded through tear-filled eyes. "Why?"
"I already told you once, Troya, go home. I mean it. Go home and stay there. When things are finished I'll come talk to you. But don't try to interfere again. It's gone too far for that now."
"What's gone too far? And what do you mean when things are finished?"
"Never you mind. The less you know, the better."
Without saying another word, Tad turned, following Kit at a run. The stunned woman cupped her tender jaw and crawled for the door. She used a hand to inch up the frame on shaky legs. She shook her head to clear it and try to make sense of what had just occurred. All she got for her efforts was an increased pounding in her skull and a dizzy spell. She could vaguely hear Kit and Tad shouting, but what they were saying her addled brain couldn't decipher.
When the woman staggered out into the hall it all began to make sense. She got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach when she saw the man fleeing for his life, the awkward gait of his right leg hindering his progress. Though she still didn't know what he'd witnessed, or why they were after him, she did know one thing with gut-wrenching certainty. The Lowell Brooks printed on his paper hadn't been her father, but rather, her brother. It had been she who, in effect, had turned A.J. Simon right over to them.
Despite her lightheadedness, Troya ran after A.J. Perhaps if she'd been thinking clearly she would have known better than to shout. "A.J.! A.J., wait! Wait! I'll help you!"
For just a brief moment A.J. turned and their eyes met. Before he had a chance to decide if her offer was sincere, Kit and Tad, drawn by her cries, burst from a room three doors down with guns in hand. Troya dived after her twin and his friend, grabbing the back of Kit's jacket while snaring the waistband of her brother's jeans.
"No! No, don't!" Troya ordered. "Leave him alone! I said leave him alone!"
Troya valiantly struggled with the men, but was unable to maintain her hold. She saw the chloroform soaked handkerchief coming for her face as A.J. disappeared around the corner. "Run, A.J., run! Run!"
The doctor's command to her fiancé’s brother continued until her knees buckled and she slowly melted into unconsciousness.
At first it was like waking from a bad dream. Except when he opened his eyes the dark shadows of the nightmare weren't chased away. No familiar soothing light spilled in through his bedroom window from the street lamp, and when he tried to turn so he could flick on the light that resided on his nightstand he couldn't get his body to roll over. He attempted to call for his mother next, like he used to do when he was younger and a scary dream had haunted his sleep, but something was covering his mouth. When he pushed his tongue against it he could taste the chemical adhesive of the tape.
Brendan began to struggle underneath the hot, stuffy blanket as images of what had happened to him came into sharper focus. He didn't know where he was, but he knew who had taken him out of his home and he knew why. The boy kicked his hog-tied feet against the confined space and called out with muffled cries. Sweat streamed down his face as he grappled with the biting ropes that securely held his ankles and wrists together. He forced himself to calm down and use his feet to determine where he was. He felt the hump of a wheel-well, and then with the foot clad only in a sock, the coolness of smooth glass. A sturdy back seat was right next to his shoulder, and another wheel-well was a few inches from his head.
Now that he knew he was in a vehicle of some sort the thirteen-year-old tried to come up with a plan for escape. However, with as tightly bound as he was he feared that escape was next to impossible. Panic began to set in and Brendan's system was flooded with adrenaline. His heart hammered in his chest until it hurt, and his already dry mouth became as parched as a desert under the noontime sun. Not knowing what else to do, he resumed pounding his feet against the glass with a muffled 'thump' while choked screams came from his throat.
How long Brendan pounded and cried for help he didn't know. Just when he thought he was going to pass out from heat exhaustion he heard the rear door of the Bronco open and felt a rush of welcoming cool air flow in that brought with it the damp smell of impending rain. Brendan's body tensed. He was sure his captors had returned and would silence him once more with that awful smelling rag.
The boy felt someone scoop him up with the same effortless ease a person would use to lift a baby. Brendan struggled, and twisted, and kicked beneath the blanket, but to no avail. The stranger seemed unfazed by the boy's frantic movements and made no attempt to communicate with him.
Brendan wondered what was going to happen to him when he felt himself being transferred to another vehicle.
The hour was later than Linda intended for it to be when she pulled in her driveway. Since she'd left Brendan alone, she had planned to be home by ten-thirty, but as usually happens at family gatherings, she lost all track of time while visiting with the adults. It was now twenty minutes after eleven, and Heather was sound asleep within the confines of her seat belt, her head resting at an angle on the front passenger-side door. Not even the sound of the car engine being shut off or the soft 'ding ding ding' that came when Linda exited the vehicle woke the child from her deep slumber.
The woman smiled at her little girl while opening the rear door directly behind the driver's seat. At least Heather was too young to give her any real causes for concern, unlike Brendan. Ever since A.J.'s accident almost five months earlier her teenager had been on the right path once again, finding success and satisfaction in school, as well as in his social activities. Linda had been pleased when he wanted to spend so much time with A.J., and had thought her blond cousin was a good influence on her son. But now she wasn't so sure. While she hated being forced to forbid Brendan contact with A.J., she didn't know what other option was left. The last thing she needed was her thirteen-year- old son running off in the middle of the night on some half-baked lark playing private detective with A.J.
At the birthday party Linda had talked to her mother and sister, Julie, about the whole fiasco. While they were shocked at what A.J. had enticed Brendan to do, they reminded Linda that perhaps A.J.'s head injury was influencing him to act in ways he normally wouldn't. That perhaps keeping Brendan from visiting A.J. was a bit too severe a punishment, but provided future visits were supervised by Rick, maybe Brendan could resume seeing A.J. when his grounding came to an end.
The blond woman mulled this over while driving home in the brewing thunderstorm. She finally concluded her mother and Julie offered a good suggestion. She'd talk to Rick about it first, then possibly after A.J. was released from rehab, Brendan could visit him on occasion at his home provided Rick or Aunt Cecilia was there.
With all these thoughts and concerns swirling in her mind, Linda reached into the back of the car and grabbed the big flowered beach bag that held wet towels and swimming suits. She worked the bag's wooden handles down to the crook of her left elbow and then retrieved the two covered aluminum pie pans her mother had sent home for Brendan. She juggled the plates that contained a generous portion of stuffed shells, three slices of ham, and two slices of chocolate birthday cake, while using her right elbow to press the lock in on the back door. She left the still sleeping Heather in the locked car, intending to return for the child just as soon as her arms were free. Despite the load she was balancing, Linda hurried for the side door, wanting to get herself and Heather inside for the night before the rain started.
With her only free thumb Linda pressed in on the knob of the hollow metal storm door. She thrust her right hip sideways, using it to keep the door propped open. With an elbow she knocked on the heavy wooden door that led into the laundry room. Though the hour was late, she knew without her home to supervise bedtime Brendan was probably sitting in the living room watching television.
Linda banged on the door until her elbow started to bruise, but still received no response. She sat the food down on the steps and dug through the beach bag for her house key, wishing she'd told Brendan to flick on the porch light around ten o'clock.
"That boy," the woman muttered as she clawed past her wallet, sunglasses, three Kleenex, a small bottle of Bayer, a pack of Juicey Fruit, suntan lotion, the towels, and the swimming suits, on her way to the bottom of the bag. "He's probably got the TV up so loud he can't hear a thing."
Still grumbling about her wayward son, Linda went to insert her key in the lock only to have the doorknob fall off in her hand. "What the...?"
The woman pushed the door open and entered the dark laundry room. She could see a light shining from the living room and hear Winston carrying on in a cross between a growl and an almost eerie howl.
Linda tripped over the throw rug she kept on the floor for the children to wipe their shoes on before coming into the remainder of the house. The rug was bunched up and askew, just like it got when Brendan and his friends flew out the door in a hurry to get somewhere.
He better not have left this house.
Linda passed through the kitchen to the living room where Brendan's tomcat was racing back and forth along one wall, his tail twitching in frantic rhythm.
"Brendan! Brendan, where are you? You'd better have a darn good explanation for what happened to the lock on the back door, young man! If I find out A.J. taught you how to pick it and you were practicing, I swear I'll tan both your hides!"
Linda bent to retrieve the stray tennis shoe, her anger increasing with each passing moment. "Brendan! Brendan, you come down here and get this shoe! And what's wrong with Winston? Didn't you feed him tonight? What's gotten into you lately, young man? Don't you think you're in enough trouble as it is without leaving your things laying around for me to trip over and neglecting your cat to the point he--"
The woman's sentence tirade came to an abrupt halt. Wide smears of blood stained the pale carpeting of four stairs as though someone had been dragged down them. She looked around the first floor of her home, Winston's odd behavior raising the air on her arms in warning. Linda yelled "Brendan!" one last time, then raced to the upper story. She searched every room of the house calling her son's name. When she ran out of places to look she picked up the phone in her bedroom. With shaking fingers she punched in Rick's number while from below, Winston continued to cry for his young companion.
Although A.J. Simon had no idea what Troya Yeager's motives were when she called out his name, and no idea as to just how much she knew or didn't know about her brother's illegal business, he was grateful to her for one thing. Grateful for the diversion she caused when his pursuers caught sight of him in the hallway.
The hours A.J. had put in swimming, running, lifting weights, and boxing weren't spent in vain. His body was now almost as finely conditioned as it had been before the accident. Because of the many laps he'd swum over the last few months his stamina was probably even better than it had been prior to his coming here. But if his increased stamina was going to be A.J.'s friend, then his right leg could very well prove to be his enemy. He was just now beginning to take a few steps without any evidence of a limp, but he still had hours of progress to make before the disability would be left permanently in the past. Therefore, A.J. knew outracing the men would be next to impossible. He could only hope outsmarting them wasn't.
The blond man hit the stairway on a dead run. Whatever Troya had done to slow down Tad's and Kit's progress proved helpful. A.J. was coming up to the third floor landing before he heard the stairwell door open at ground level.
For two reasons the detective passed the door that lead onto the floor that housed his room. In the first place, logic told him that would be where Tad's search would begin, and in the second place, he'd caught a glimpse of the silencer on Kit's gun when he'd turned to look at Troya. The last thing he wanted was a nurse or other innocent bystander getting hurt. Which is exactly why he didn't exit onto his floor as he flew past, but that didn't stop him from flinging the door open. He could only pray that his pursuers heard it slam shut and wasted time searching his room without alerting a nurse to their presence.
A.J. continued upward hating the pounding sound his tennis shoes made as they hit step after step. Fortunately, Kit's and Tad's shoes should be making the same sounds, drowning out their ability to hear him. The detective hugged the left side of the stairway, his body brushing the black metal railing as he climbed. If he stayed away from the center of the stairs it would be difficult for someone to look up and get a clear view of him, which would in turn hinder their ability to take a clear shot at him.
The blond had no concept of how well Tad Brooks knew the layout of the building, but he wasn't going to underestimate the man. With the flashlight in one back pocket of his jeans, and the disk and envelope addressed to Abigail Marsh in the other, he kept right on running until he hit the sixth and last floor.
A.J. paused briefly on the landing. He didn't want to risk leaning over and looking below, but he listened carefully, hearing running footsteps at what he judged was two floors below. If his pursuers had been fooled by the stunt he'd pulled on the third floor they hadn't been fooled for long. As quietly as he could, A.J. eased the sixth floor door open and closed. He paused a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the total darkness. He could see the shadows of heavy hanging tarps and climbing metal scaffolding as he forged ahead into the vast deserted space littered with tools, saw horses, lumber, and hard helmets.
Somewhere during his pursuit Kit Westphal had lost Tad. He assumed the man was doing something with the unconscious Troya, but didn't linger to find out what when Tad instructed him to stop Simon.
Kit thought for sure he had the man when he heard the third floor door open and close. He streaked through it seconds later, not caring if he was spotted by a nurse. He glanced down the long hallway but saw no signs of the detective. He ran directly for A.J.'s room and made a hasty search, dropping to his knees to look under the bed and pulling the shower curtain back from the stall. When he didn't find the blond detective he knew he'd been fooled.
"Damn!" The sandy headed man raced back out, threw the door open, and hit the stairs with churning feet. He stopped for half a heart beat and listened. He smiled when he heard it. The sound of rubber soled tennis shoes smacking against the stairs from up above. Kit leaned against the far wall and looked up, just barely catching a glimpse of a blue polo shirt as it disappeared around the final turn that led to the top floor of the building.
Kit smiled like a cat about to pounce on a mouse as he resumed running. "I've got you now, Simon."
Tad Brooks secured his sister's wrists behind her back with a length of rope, then carried her through the dark gymnasium and out to the grounds beyond. Her interference was the one thing he hadn't planned on. He was at a momentary loss as to what to do about her, then decided he had no choice but to make her an unwilling accomplice to the night's events. He couldn't risk her causing him future trouble. In one manner or another she was going to have to see things his way before all was said done. She was going to have to understand that he had no choice but to protect himself and his interests when A.J. Simon began poking his nose in affairs that were none of his business.
"I'm sorry, Troy," Tad murmured, looking down at the bruised face of his unconscious sister, "but this is the way things have to be. I hope someday you'll come to see why it was necessary."
Tad struggled to open the back door of the Bronco while still cradling his sister in his arms. It was when the dome light came on that he caught sight the empty cargo hold.
"Shit! Shit no!"
With little regard for her well-being, Tad dumped his twin in the back seat. He circled the area looking for Brendan, dumbfounded as to what could have happened to the boy.
"Oh hell, do we have trouble now. Damn you, A.J. Simon. Damn you!" The rising wind whipped pale hair into Tad's eyes as he raced for the building. "You're going to pay for all the grief you've caused me, Simon. One way or another, you're going to pay."
A.J. willed his breathing to a silent, shallow intake of air as Kit passed beneath him, his flashlight beam sweeping wide and high. The detective crept backwards on the metal bars of the scaffolding, being careful not to fall in-between the one foot gaps of open space that separated them. Four heavy boards three feet wide by five feet long rested across a section of the bars and held buckets, bricks, paint cans, brushes, and spackling tools.
A.J. lay on his belly fourteen feet above the floor. He craned his neck, following the motion of Kit's light. He watched as the man lifted thick canvas tarps and looked behind piles of lumber, all the while his gun aimed and ready. A.J. knew it would only be a matter of time before Kit began scaling the various sets of scaffolding sitting against the walls. He knew it was only a matter of time before Kit found him and killed him. Kit knew it as well.
"Oh, Siiiimon! A.J. Siiiiimon!" Kit hailed in a sing-song voice. "Come out, come out, wherever you are! There's no need to make this harder than it already is, A.J. I'm gonna find you before I leave here. You know I'm gonna find you."
Kit moved in a tight circle, looking all around and then up, enjoying the game he was playing. A.J. scrunched against the wall as the flashlight's beam passed mere inches from him.
"Come on, A.J.! No one's gonna hurt you. Tad and I just wanna have a little talk with you." The man moved silently across the sawdust sprinkled floor, his voice echoing in the hollow cavernous space. "Just talk, that's all. Come on out now!"
Like a magician with a tablecloth, Kit yanked a tarp off a stack of freshly stained moldings. He moved on, shining his flashlight around and behind a pile of two by fours heaped high enough to secret a grown man if he was kneeling. The police officer switched tactics, going from gentle mockery to no nonsense orders.
"Let's go, Simon! I don't have all night here. And neither does that little cousin of yours, Brendan!"
Kit stopped, listening hard, sure his words would be A.J.'s undoing. Sure A.J. would make some sort of movement that would give him away upon hearing Brendan was being held captive.
"Yep, that's right, Mr. Big
Time Private Eye! We've got the
kid. Snatched him earlier this evening
right out of his own all-American middle class home. So whatta ya' think about that, huh? Doncha' think you'd better play hero and come rescue him? Or don't you remember how to rescue
people? Maybe you're too crippled now,
huh? Too much of a retard? Oh, excuse me. I believe the correct term is
mentally disabled. But, either
way, retarded or disabled, they both sound about the same, don't
they?" Kit laughed, heading
directly for A.J.'s hiding spot. He put
a hand on the bars and began to climb.
"A rose by any other name is still a rose, as William Shakespeare
once said. Bet ya' didn't know I could
quote old Willy, did ya? Yeah, a lotta
people don't give me credit for the smarts I got. Not even my buddy Tad.
Which is why you're comin' outta this room with me tonight one way or
another. L.B. will be all over my ass
The sound of his own voice drowned out any warning Kristopher Westphal might have had. By the time he looked up and saw it coming it was too late. A five gallon plastic bucket weighted down with bricks sailed from above. Like Elmer Fudd once again being foiled by that rascally rabbit Bugs, Kit took the full force of the blow right in the center of his forehead. He lost his grip on the bar and fell seven feet to the ground, landing on his back with an, "Humph!" as his breath was driven from him.
A.J. swung down the scaffolding using nothing more than his hands, just like he'd done on the monkey bars at the park as a child. He raced for the stairwell door as the dazed Kit rolled to his knees and groped blindly for his gun.
The detective flew down the stairs as fast as his leg would allow. He heard the man before he saw him. He never slowed as he rounded the fifth floor landing. He threw his arms straight out in front of him, catching the startled Tad Brooks right in the middle of his chest. The man tumbled head over heels down the stairs, A.J. hurdling his body, and then running on.
A.J. was now engaged in exactly what he hadn't wanted to be, a footrace. He knew the roadblocks he'd just set up for Tad and Kit wouldn't stop their pursuit for long. He was far more of a danger to them alive than he was a danger to them dead. They'd never let a few bumps and bruises, and in the case of Kit, a minor concussion, hinder their game plan.
The blond man momentarily hesitated before opening the door that led to the third floor. Again, he was reluctant to put anyone else in harm's way, but he had to remind himself of the need to outsmart his pursuers, as opposed to outrunning them. As quietly as he could, A.J. shut the door behind him. He saw a nurse at the station, but her back was to him. The detective passed his own room, not bothering to look inside. No doubt Tad and Kit had thoroughly tossed its contents in their haste to retrieve what was in A.J.'s possession.
A.J. moved on to the next room and slipped in. Henry Sorenson went right on snoring while the detective picked up the phone on the nightstand. He relied only on the tiny light from the touchtone dials to punch in the number he knew from memory. He silently cursed when he got the answering machine and familiar message.
"Ahoy! Captain Rick here. I'm busy tossin' my dog a bone right now, so I can't come to the phone. Leave a message and I'll get back to you."
A.J. kept one eye on the closed bedroom door as he began to speak in an urgent voice pitched just above a whisper. "Rick-----need you help now! I'm at rehab center and--"
The detective hastily broke the connection with his brother's answering machine when he heard the commotion coming from the hallway.
"What are you men doing here? How did you get in here? Who gave you permission to--” the nurse's questions were cut off with a choked scream.
As running feet pounded against the tiles in the hallway, A.J. frantically scanned the dark room, finally hiding in the only place available.
The brewing storm was beginning to intensify as Rick unlocked the sliding glass doors of his boat and stepped inside. Lightening flitted across the sky and thunder cracked overheard. The boat rocked back and forth with the rising wind, making Rick glad he'd stowed away the patio furniture and Weber grill that morning when predictions of the storm were already being broadcast.
Rick reached for the switches that would turn on both the living room light and kitchen light. His eyes traveled up to the clock hanging over the sink; it was ten minutes to midnight. The day had been a long one, just like he'd told Troya it would be.
The detective took a moment to glance through the mail his neighbor, Clarissa, had left on the counter top. The woman took care of Marlowe for him when he had to work odd hours, and for that Rick was grateful. He was too tired tonight to deal with the needs of a dog. Marlowe could stay next door with Clarissa until he returned from Troya's the next afternoon. He made a mental note to get his neighbor a dozen roses for her trouble.
Rick tossed the mail aside, intent on taking a shower and changing clothes before spending the remainder of the night with his lady. If he hurried, he might make it to Troya's place before the storm set in.
Despite his desire to rush, the tired detective allowed himself a moment to rest while leaning against the lip of the counter. He used the thumb and forefinger of his right hand to massage his weary eyes. These late night cases were getting to be too much for one man, but in order to keep Simon and Simon afloat he had no choice but to take whatever came his way. He had thought the long hours would come to an end when A.J. eventually rejoined him at the office, but now he wasn't so sure that would happen. Wasn't so sure it would happen, because he was beginning to have his doubts that A.J. ever would be capable of being a part of Simon and Simon again. Or at least not in the same way he once was.
His brother's irrational behavior of late was leaving Rick confused, angry, and heartbroken. He'd spent the entire day with little else on his mind but A.J. As he sat in his truck earlier that night monitoring the activities of an unfaithful husband, Rick came to the conclusion that when his mother returned from Arizona he was going to have no choice but to seriously discuss with her preparations for A.J.'s future care. Care that would restrict A.J.'s independence in a way Rick's sibling would loath, and quite likely never forgive him for.
Rick hadn't thought it was possible to hate himself any more than he had right after the accident happened. But today, as troubling thoughts of his brother forever churned in his mind, Rick found the blame and guilt reasserting itself for the first time since Troya had come into his life and helped him chase those demons away.
And speaking of Troya, he had to talk to her, too. He needed to be honest with her about A.J. breaking into Tad's office. He had tried to tell her about the incident when he met her for lunch, but found he couldn't. That didn't mean he wouldn't tell her, however. As much as he hated the thought of their love being marred with further problems, he couldn't keep this from her. He had to confess what A.J. had done. From there, if Troya felt he should tell Tad, then he would. As for her father, well Rick's leads into the man's whereabouts the afternoon of A.J.'s accident continued to be inconclusive at best. Because of the recent upsets with A.J., Rick was rapidly coming to the point that Lowell Brooks was of little concern to him any longer. He just wanted to marry Troya and live happily ever after, as the saying went. He didn't know if he cared any more about what had happened in the morgue that afternoon. He didn't know if he had the energy to care, or the emotional reserves to expend.
Rick rubbed his neck while arching his aching back. He hadn't returned to sleep after being summoned to Linda's eleven hours earlier, but rather came back to his boat and paced the floor in anger and worry until the sun came up. Perhaps his tired brain was accounting for a good portion of his dark mood. Perhaps Troya's level headedness would help him regain his perspective, as it so often had in the past.
Maybe tonight's not the time to talk. Maybe tonight's just the time to slip in between the covers with her, hold her in my arms and sleep until I can't sleep any more. Then tomorrow after breakfast, we can sit in her sunroom and discuss this whole mess. I'll tell her about A.J. breakin' into Tad's office, and what my concerns are regarding his future. Troya will know what to do. She always does.
Rick was about to head to his bedroom for a clean change of clothing when he caught sight of the blinking light on his answering machine. He flicked the button back, waiting while the tape rewound itself. Within a few seconds his mother's voice filled the small galley.
"Hi, sweetie, it's Mom. I'm having a wonderful time. I'm glad you convinced me to get away for a few days. You're right. It's just what the doctor ordered. When I get back it's your turn. I'm going to insist you and Troya take a long weekend out on your boat just as soon as your schedules permit. I tried to call A.J. several times tonight, all the way up until ten-thirty, but can't get a hold of him. I suppose he was swimming, or in the lounge watching television. Tell him I said hi and that I love him. I'll try him again tomorrow afternoon. Love you. Bye."
While he waited for the next message to play, Rick wondered where A.J. had been during the time frame their mother was attempting to call him. Since visiting hours ended at ten o'clock, it was unusual for him not to be in his room after that. Given A.J.'s penchant for trouble lately, Rick wasn't too thrilled about not knowing exactly where his brother was every second of the day.
In contrast to his mother's light and breezy voice, the next caller spoke in a high-pitched staccato tone bordering hysteria. "Rick, it's Lindy! It's eleven twenty-five and I just got home from my mother's. Rick, Brendan's gone again! Only this time...this time I think something bad has happened, Rick! Someone broke the lock on the back door, and the rug was bunched up, and Brendan's tennis shoe was lying on the living room floor, and there's...there's blood on the stairway carpeting. Lots of blood! I'm going to call the police, Rick. Please get a hold of me as soon as you hear this."
Rick couldn't begin to fathom what this latest turn of events was all about. He prayed the broken lock, rumpled rug, blood, and missing boy, proved to be nothing more than Brendan and a friend horsing around, but his gut told him it went deeper than that. How deep, Rick didn't know, but whatever was going on he'd better not discover A.J. was somehow involved.
If it hadn't been for the final message that played, Rick would have jumped in his truck and headed right over to his cousin's for the second night in a row.
"Rick------need you help now! I'm at rehab center and--"
The message ended there with an abrupt click of the phone, as though A.J. had quickly broken the connection, or someone had broken it for him.
Despite his confusion surrounding the last two messages, Rick instinctively knew they were tied together in some way. Long ingrained habit made him feel underneath his field jacket for the gun he knew perfectly well was still holstered there. He barely took the time to lock the door before running through the first rain drops to his truck.
With one hand securely placed over the nurse's mouth, Tad dragged the struggling woman toward the janitor's closet. A dose of chloroform would quickly take care of any potential problems she might have caused him.
Kit made a quick search of A.J.'s room, not at all surprised when he didn't find the detective hiding within. The guy was sharper than Kit had given him credit for, his forehead reminded him of that fact with every throb. But Kit also knew the detective couldn't outrun him and Tad. He suspected A.J. knew that as well. Which meant he was hiding somewhere on this floor. Hiding, and had to be found before he got the opportunity to flee the building or get to a phone.
The police officer silently opened the door that led into the next room. He was careful to avoid shining his flashlight beam directly on the face of the occupant sleeping in the first bed. The beam skirted over the body just long enough to reveal an elderly man with a few wisps of gray hair still sprouting from his nearly bald scalp. The man's head was turned slightly on the pillow facing away from Kit, his mouth agape and drawing in breaths in rumbling snores.
The beam traveled to the next bed where Kit fully expected to find another elderly man. Unfortunately, that occupant wasn't being nearly as cooperative as Mr. Sorenson had been. The person appeared to be lying in a loose fetal position with his face toward the wall, the covers pulled up over his head.
Kit crept silently across the floor, his gun raised and ready. He paused for one long second at the slumbering man's bedside. He reached down, grabbed a handful of blanket, and yanked.
Kit blinked in confused surprise at the feet resting on the pillow. It took a moment for his brain to register what the sight of the New Balance running shoes meant. Before the cop had time to react, A.J. popped up from the other end of the bed like a jack-in-the-box. For the second time that night, Kristopher Westphal's skull fell victim to abuse as A.J.'s flashlight landed a cracking blow to the top of the man's head.
Kit stumbled backwards into the nightstand, knocking it against Mr. Sorenson's bed. He doubled over in pain, dropping his own flashlight to cradle his tender head. "Owe! Owe, you sonuvabitch! When I get a hold of you I swear I'll--"
The nightstand banging against the metal frame of his bed woke Henry Sorenson. He caught sight of the shadowy figures of two strangers in his room, and struggled to rise. Though the old man's speech was so garbled from the effects of his stroke A.J. couldn't make out a word he was saying, he got the impression the man's sentences were peppered with a good deal of profanity. Mr. Sorenson snatched up the cane hanging from his bed railing and began beating Kit on the back with it. The cop's cries of pain intensified along with his threats to A.J.'s well-being, as he fought to ward off the sharp blows raining on his head and shoulders.
Amidst the confusion A.J. rolled from the bed, kicking to untangle the sheet from his legs, not bothering to look for the flashlight that flew from his hands. He sprinted for the door, slipping twice on the sheet before finally coming completely free of it.
Tad Brooks was emerging from the janitor's closet with his revolver in hand as A.J. raced past the nurses’ station. The commotion had awakened some of the detective's fellow patients who now stood peering out of their doorways in pajamas and robes. A.J. motioned with his hands as he flew by. "Get back! Back in your----rooms! He's got gun! Got gun!"
People screamed and scurried back inside as quickly as their disabled bodies would allow. Up and down the hallway doors slammed in panicked succession.
A.J. glanced over his shoulder to see Tad flying after him with gun in hand, the man's long strides rapidly bridging the space between them. A.J. glanced to his left and right. The long, open hallway offered no means of escape or form of protection. Troya Yeager was so concerned about the safety of her patients that not even a lone medical supply cart littered the immaculate area.
Straight ahead the elevator door dinged and slid back in its tracks. All A.J. saw were the cat-eye glasses hanging from their chain around her neck as he cried his warning.
"Get down! Get down!"
A.J. risked another glance over his shoulder. Tad's gun was aimed at the back of his skull.
With nowhere to run for cover, A.J. did the only thing left him. He threw his arms forward and dived for the floor as though he was jumping in a pool of water.
The fresh layer of wax Mike had put on the tiles that morning propelled A.J.'s body forward, sailing him all the way to the elevator. He swept an arm out, snaring the disembarking nurse by her thin ankles. He knocked the woman off balance and out of Tad's line of fire. Her right temple came in hard contact with a sharp corner of the stainless steel box that housed a fire extinguisher, the blow causing Dagmar Finster's world to go black. A.J. didn't know the woman had been hurt, nor did he pay attention to the clattering sound of a heavy metal object hitting the floor that accompanied her fall.
The elevator door was sliding closed as A.J. jumped to his knees and scrambled in-between the space just wide enough for his body to slip through. Bullets pinged off the metal door but didn't penetrate it. A.J. stayed on the floor, rolling sideways until he was no longer in line with the door. He reached up for the control panel, jabbing the button that would take him to the lobby.
Tad stood on the other side of the descending car stabbing at the arrow that would bring it back. When it didn't return carrying A.J. Simon with it, he knew the detective must have beaten him to the controls.
Tad ignored the unconscious nurse crumpled to his left. Nor did he notice the Beretta semi-automatic pistol half hidden in the folds of her uniform. He turned, streaking down the hallway just as Kit was emerging blurry eyed from Mr. Sorenson's room.
"Come on, let's get to the stairs!" Tad shagged his dazed friend by the arm. "He's headed for the lobby! We've gotta cut him off before he gets out of the building!"
A.J. could feel the sweat soaking the back of his polo shirt and pooling underneath his arms. He stood crouched to the side of the elevator doors, panting for breath, yet ready to punch another button on the control panel should Tad Brooks be revealed when the doors slid open on the main floor. How much of a chance he'd have to get away if Tad was, in fact, waiting for him, A.J. didn't know. Instinct told him Tad would enter the elevator before the doors had time to shut. And if that should happen, A.J. had no doubt he was dead man. Even if he did manage to get away again, he couldn't keep running around this building forever without eventually getting caught. If there was any chance left him, he had to get outside.
The detective watched the numbers on the lit panel descend until the capital L shone bright white. He flattened himself against the side wall; fully expecting to be besieged by a round of gun fire the second the doors slid open. When that didn't happen A.J. cautiously peered out into the vacant hall, seeing the deserted lobby beyond.
The blond man didn't have the luxury of time that would have normally caused him to proceed with caution. If Tad was waiting around the corner for him, so be it. He had to seize what appeared at face value to be an unobstructed opportunity.
A.J. ran straight for the glass doors that led outside. He didn't even realize his body unconsciously tensed as he flew threw the intersecting hallway that, to the left, led to the computer lab where his adventure had started, and to the right, led to Troya Yeager's office.
He briefly wondered what had happened to Troya since he'd last seen her, but didn't have time dwell on her fate. Hopefully, she'd fled the building and was right now in the process of finding Rick. And Brendan. The detective could only pray Kit had been attempting to call his bluff when he taunted and said they had Brendan. A.J. forced himself to push his concern for the boy to the back of his mind, to instead focus on the task at hand. If Tad and Kit did have Brendan, A.J. could be of no help to the teenager if he was dead.
The blond flipped the silver knob that locked and unlocked the double lobby doors from the inside. He grabbed a metal handle, yanking a door open. He raced out into the darkness, staying as far away from the lights in the parking lot as he could. He ignored the raindrops that pelted his face, pausing only long enough to grab the stamped envelope from his back pocket and shoot it through the slot on the mailbox as he flew past.
A.J. allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he headed for the street. No matter what happened to him now, at least Abby would get the information he'd worked so hard to retrieve and keep safe.
The door A.J. had exited through was slowly closing on its vacuumed hinges when Tad burst out of the stairwell, Kit at his heels. The men sprinted across the lobby, Tad pulling the door open and running out into the darkness with Kit following. They scanned the immediate area and would have missed A.J. completely had Tad not looked toward the distant road. He caught a flash of blond hair as someone passed under a streetlight in an effort to get off the road and fade into the residential area beyond.
Tad pushed Kit in the direction he saw A.J. fleeing. "Go on! Chase him down! I'll follow in the truck!"
The men tore down the concrete stairs; Tad turning in the direction of the Bronco while Kit went the opposite way on foot. The policeman tightened his grip on his gun, determined that this time A.J. Simon would not get away from him.
Just as A.J. suspected would happen, his stamina far outlasted his right leg. It was getting harder and harder for him to run with any type of speed. As the muscles in his leg grew weary from exertion, his limp became more prominent and a greater hindrance.
A.J. wasn't familiar enough with the neighborhood surrounding the rehab center to know for certain where his route through back yards and side streets would ultimately lead him. At the moment, he didn't care. It was of far more importance to stay off the main thoroughfare than it was to know his exact location. First, he had to lose Tad and Kit somewhere in the darkness. After that feat was accomplished, he'd attempt to hail a cab or make a phone call to Abby.
The detective ran with an awkward gait through back lawns and front lawns, then across desolate streets before starting the process all over again. His arms were pumping fast and furiously and he was breathing hard when he bolted right into a group of unseen garbage cans lined up at the end of someone's driveway. Despite the thunder rumbling in the dark skies a god-awful clatter echoed throughout the neighborhood, causing dogs to bark and lights to come on within previously dark homes. A.J. landed hard on his stomach, the skin of his palms scrapped raw by the blacktop surface of the drive.
The blond man struggled to get back to his feet. When he glanced over his shoulder a streak of lightening illuminated the man dashing through the yard across the street and headed directly toward him. A.J. scrambled forward on his hands and knees as three bullets fired in rapid succession zipped over his head. He heard the lethal projectiles embed themselves in the frame of the garage, and felt a sharp splinter of wood hit his cheek as he ran by.
A.J. pulled himself up and over the chain link fence in the back yard, ignoring the sharp metal ends that punctured his tender palms. His right leg was forced to take his full weight when he landed, causing him to slip on the wet grass as the rain began to fall in earnest. He pushed himself back to his feet, fearing the leg was going to give out from under him, but when he heard Kit climbing the silver fence the blond man willed himself to continue his flight.
The detective limped crossed another street. Headlights from a big vehicle bore down on him from the far end. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing Kit no more than thirty feet behind him. He wondered why the man didn't shoot, but then realized they had done just what they wanted to, hunted him down and trapped him like an animal. Trapped him out in the open with no way to outrun them. No doubt they felt shooting him would be to good for him. With all the trouble he'd caused the men, A.J. could readily guess they had no intention of allowing his death to be an easy one.
With desperation unlike any he'd ever felt before, A.J. looked for a means of escape. Other than the dark California bungalows that lined the street, there was nowhere to hide. The only opportunity remaining meant running straight ahead for the place he was originally trying to avoid. The main four-lane thoroughfare that was lined with gas stations and fast food joints. At this late hour many of those establishments would be closed, but it wasn't A.J.'s plan to seek shelter in any that might be open, either. That would only create a danger to the people inside. All he wanted was to get lucky enough to be seen by a passing cab driver, or a couple of teenagers out on a date, or be noticed by a person pumping gas in his or her car prior to his pursuers getting a hold of him. If someone would just call the police on his behalf A.J. might still have a chance.
A.J. never looked as he half ran, half limped across all four lanes of the north-south road. During the day light hours such a move would have been deadly, but at this time of night the risk factor was considerably less. He could have sworn he heard Kit laughing somewhere behind him. He caught a glimpse of the Bronco slowing enough to allow Kit to jump in, leading A.J. to believe they knew they had him.
But Andrew Simon had never been one to give up. Despite his aching leg and burning lungs, the detective kept right on running. What few cars passed didn't seem to take notice of him, or maybe the high crime rates that were always being broadcast on the news made everyone leery about getting involved. Or possibly because Kit was no longer running after him no one thought him anything other than one of those crazy joggers who exercises at all hours of the day and night in all kinds of weather.
Warm rainwater mingled with sweat on A.J.'s face and ran into his eyes, momentarily blurring his vision. A car horn blared as the detective recklessly skirted in front of a Toyota, headed for the sidewalk beyond. A.J. never looked back at the driver who first cussed him out, and then seconds later, cussed out the big four-wheel drive Bronco that came so close as it tore around the corner of the intersecting side street it narrowly missed shearing off the front end of the little compact car.
Despite the sound of the falling rain and rolling thunder, A.J. could hear the Bronco gaining on him. The brawny vehicle was near enough that its headlights lit his path where the sidewalk crossed over a bridge that was lined with a four foot high metal guardrail. Far below A.J. and down beyond a steep embankment, lay another four lane thoroughfare that ran east to west.
With speed A.J. didn't know he had left, he surged forward in an attempt to stay ahead of the Bronco that was playing cat and mouse with him. The detective never bothered to wonder why he simply didn't give up, such an action wasn't in his nature. If he was about to be caught, and the sound of the roaring engine behind him assured him he was, then despite what Tad Brooks had in store for him, he wasn't going down without a fight.
Like teenagers enjoying a thrill ride at a carnival, Tad and Kit whooped and hollered at their prey. Two oversized tires jumped the sidewalk, forcing A.J. to hug the guardrail so he wouldn't be mowed down. The detective thought he could hear a woman screaming when Kit rolled down his window. Kit leaned out of the vehicle as far as he dared, swiping at A.J.'s shirt. A.J.'s oxygen starved lungs took in deep gasping breaths as he fought to stay out of Kit's reach. If the man got a hold of him, A.J. had no doubt he'd be dragged along with the vehicle.
Sparks flew up behind A.J. when the Bronco's hubcaps scraped against the guardrail. Thunder roared and a powerful bolt of lightening cracked the sky. The overhead streetlights blinked out, as did every other light in this section of town. The sudden occurrence caught A.J. by surprise, momentarily causing him to lose his concentration. His weight faltered under a leg that was threatening to collapse. Kit laughed and cried, "Got ya' now, Simon!" when he snared a handful of A.J.'s soaking wet shirt.
A.J. struggled to free himself as the Bronco picked up speed. Just like he'd suspected, Tad intended to drag him along side the vehicle. He slipped, losing his footing on the wet concrete. Because of Kit's grip on his shirt A.J. had no choice but to grab onto the truck's door handle to prevent from being pulled underneath the tires.
Tad hit a slick spot in the road, causing the passenger side wheels to jump the sidewalk once more. If A.J. didn't do something quick he'd be crushed between the vehicle and the guardrail. With all the strength he had remaining he jerked out of Kit's hold and made a desperate, blind leap. A.J. knew it was Troya he heard screaming, "Noooo!" as his body sailed over the edge of the railing and disappeared from sight.
Rick turned on his windshield wipers as the rain changed from intermittent drops to a steady downpour. He was headed east toward the rehab center, not more than five miles away now. Between Linda's phone call and A.J.'s phone call, he had no idea what he'd find when he got there. Without giving it conscious thought, Rick he pressed down a little more on the accelerator, raising his speed from forty miles an hour to fifty.
This better not be some kinda game A.J.'s playin' again, the detective thought as his truck rolled down the wet road. If it is...if it is, I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do with him.
Rick allowed his speed to slow to thirty when a violent flash of lightening caused the power to go out. Even with the Ram's headlights on, it was amazing how dark a road became when the streetlights were no longer working.
A.J. tumbled down the wet embankment, paying scant attention to the new bumps and bruises he was adding to his collection. He remained curled in a tight ball, allowing his body to roll where it willed until he came to a stop near a deep ditch filled with rushing rain water.
It took a few seconds for the battered detective to get to his feet. He hugged aching ribs with one hand while looking through the rain that had momentarily abated. He surveyed the area, determining he'd landed about fifty yards from the east-west thoroughfare he'd been able to view from the bridge. Beyond the four lane highway lay nothing but a thick grove of trees and overgrown brush. If A.J. could make it over there without being seen by his pursuers his chances of survival would increase dramatically, for at the edge of that overgrowth was a neighborhood familiar to the detective. A neighborhood with a police station.
A.J. looked behind him when he heard the whine of an engine. Just when he thought he'd lost Tad Brooks the man was on him again. The four-wheel drive Bronco had enabled Tad to bypass the roads in his pursuit of A.J., to instead bump down the embankment after him.
The blond detective wasted no time as he focused on the trees three hundred yards ahead of him. He splashed through the ditch, slipping, stumbling, clawing and climbing up the other side. He pushed himself to his feet and sprinted onto the westbound road. He raced across the two lanes as fast as his right leg would allow, hurdled the one foot high concrete median, and ran right into the path of a truck heading east.
Rick Simon was certain he was reliving a nightmare when the man darted out in front of him. He stood on the screeching brakes, the Dodge fishtailing as he screamed one long terror-filled, "AaaaaJaaaay!"
Rick paid no attention to the vehicle that was plowing across the highway through the rain after his brother. He flew out of his truck, rounding the front to find A.J. trying to rise from the pavement.
"No, A.J., no! Don't move!" Rick placed shaking hands on A.J.'s shoulders, trying to urge him to a seated position. "Don't move, A.J.! Sit back down and let me look you over!"
A.J.'s wet hair was plastered to his head just like his rain and mud soaked clothes were plastered to his body. His collision with Rick's truck had momentarily caused him to see stars. Blood freely flowed from a cut on his right cheek, and further abrasions had been added to his already abused hands and forearms. But the cuts, scraps, bruises, and sore muscles were the least of the dazed A.J.'s worries. He fought to stand upright as steadfastly as Rick fought to make him sit.
Rick turned to face the large vehicle that had just arrived on the scene, its headlights blinding him. With one hand remaining on the half standing A.J.'s arm, he used the other to shield his eyes against the glare. He could see the doors opening and could tell two men stepped out.
Thank heavens someone stopped. They can go call an ambulance for me.
Rick wasn't sure what was going on when he felt A.J. frantically clawing underneath his field jacket. "A.J., stop it. Stop it! Now come on, let me sit you down! I need to see where you're hurt! Now come on, calm--"
"Can we be of help, Rick?"
Rick turned at the sound of the voice. Rick's own voice was heavy with relief. He had to shout to be heard over the powerful storm.
"Tad! Thank God it's you! I don't know what's goin' on here, but I need to get my brother to a hospital! Can you use your car phone to call an ambu--"
Rick's sentence was cut off by a warning shouted from the back of the Bronco.
"No, Rick, no! Get A.J. and get out of here!"
Still hanging onto to his brother, Rick took a step forward. "What the...Troya?"
Kit's gun flew from behind his back and rose level with Rick's chest. "Stay right there, Simon!"
Rick looked from the gun to Tad. "What's goin' on here?"
"Never you mind!" Tad's own gun was drawn. "Just let go of A.J. and step away nice and easy like! I want you to walk around Kit and get in the back of the
In one smooth movement, A.J. pulled his brother's Magnum from its holster, while at the same time giving Rick a hard shove to the side. The one and only shot A.J. got off went wild when Tad tackled him by the feet. The detective fell to the pavement with Tad's gun pressed against his temple. Fury darkened Tad's eyes as he grabbed a fistful of A.J.'s hair.
"I've just about had my gut full of you and your little bag of tricks, Simon! You're only making this harder on yourself! I'll personally see to it your death is a miserable one!"
"Death?" Rick half turned from where Kit had him pinned to the front of the Dodge, gun firmly planted in his spinal cord. "What the hell are you talking about? What's going on?"
"What's going on," Tad yelled over the pounding rain as he stood, bringing A.J. with him, "is that your goddamn nosy little brother got himself in way over his head! Got himself in over his head, and he's going to pay for it! Although it wasn't my intention to make you pay as well, Rick, I now have no choice!" Tad waved his gun in the direction of the Bronco. "Move it!"
Tad covered both Rick and A.J. with his gun while Kit bound Rick's arms tightly together behind his back at both the wrists and elbows. They weren't going to chance the lanky detective causing them trouble. Tad ignored his sister's entreaties coming from the rear of the vehicle. "Please, Tad! Please! Stop this nonsense before it goes any farther!"
The back doors of the vehicle had been locked to prevent Troya from fleeing on foot. With Tad's gun still aimed on the Simon brothers, Kit reached across the front seat and tripped the switch that would release the automatic locks.
Tears were streaming down Troya's face when Rick was given a shove in her direction. The gun nudging Rick in the neck convinced him it was in his best interest to join the woman. Kit climbed in after him, while A.J. was urged by Tad's gun to slide across the front passenger seat.
"Move all the way over, Simon," Tad ordered. "You're gonna drive us to your final resting place." The wealthy man ground his gun into A.J.'s ribs. "And I'm warning you right now, one wrong move and your brother will be the first to die."
"Tad! Tad, for God's sake tell me what's going--"
Tad swiveled without taking his eyes off the drenched A.J. "Shut up, Troya! Just shut up! I'm sorry you have to be a part of this, but you got in the way! There's nothing I can do about it now, so just keep your mouth shut and your eyes closed."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means you aren't going to like what you're going to witness, but neither you or I have any options left in that regard."
"There's always options, Tad," Rick's voice was full of calm reasoning. "If we can just go somewhere and talk this out, I'm sure we can come up with another way to deal with whatever the problem is."
"Oh, you think so, huh? Well, I wish that was the case, Rick, but it’s not. Unless you can convince your brother not to go to the police, that is."
"I can't convince my brother of anything if I don't know what's going on."
"You'll find out soon enough." Tad rammed his gun into A.J.'s side. "Drive, Simon. To the marina where I keep the Aubrey."
A.J. shrugged his shoulders. "Don't 'member where."
Tad cocked the gun's trigger. "You play stupid with me and I'll put a bullet right in your gut."
A.J. glanced in the back seat before returning his attention to Tad. "Let them go------and I take you-------ever you want."
"You're in no position to barter with me. You just drive. We'll worry about them later."
A.J.'s eyes met Rick's in the rearview mirror. When Kit's gun ground into Rick's neck, he had no choice but to put the Bronco in drive, back it over the median, and head west.
The raging Pacific storm had grown even stronger by the time A.J. pulled the Bronco in front of the pier that docked the Aubrey. Wind gusts swirled, causing waves to rock and roll the line of deserted boats. The journey had been a tense one. Each time Rick had demanded an explanation of Tad he'd been told to shut up or A.J. would die right then and there. Troya's demands proved useless as well. Although the ropes Rick was bound with prevented him from reaching out to the woman, he inched close enough so their shoulders touched. Despite her heavy heart and bruised face, Troya offered him a brave smile.
Before the captives were made to exit the vehicle A.J. was forced to present his wrists to Tad. Unlike Troya's and Rick's, A.J.'s hands were bound together in front of him rather than behind.
"Where's Brendan?" A.J. asked as Tad gave the ropes a final
For the first time since this nightmare began Rick remembered Linda's frantic phone call. He didn't need an explanation from A.J. to know what that two word question implied. "What have you done with the boy?" Rick demanded of his captors. "If you've hurt him, so help me God I'll--"
Tad threw Kit a look Rick couldn't interpret, though he knew it had something to do with Brendan. He prayed that wherever Brendan was, he was free from harm. He knew he'd never forgive himself if that weren't the case.
Kit prodded Rick with his gun. "Simon, you're in no position to make threats. Now forget about the kid and follow me out. Lady Troya, as much as I hate to ask you to do this, you come along, too."
Tad kept a firm hand on his sister's arm while urging A.J. along with the gun in his back, Rick and Kit bringing up the rear. The policeman made certain Rick was kept far enough away from the others so he couldn't use his body to ram into Tad and knock him down, thereby allowing A.J. to make a run for it. They'd had quite enough of chasing A.J. Simon for one night.
Kit stood guard over Rick in the pouring rain while Tad, with Troya in tow, ordered A.J. to bend and untie the moorings. The task was made time consuming by the blond detective's bound hands, but if nothing else, A.J. now knew why he wasn't tied as securely as Rick. He hoped Tad had several other uses for him yet tonight and would leave him bound in this manner. Any opportunity that came A.J.’s way might be the only chance he, his brother, and Troya had to get out of this alive.
The boat rocked and pitched in time with the waves that lifted it from underneath. The big deck was slick, making footing precarious at best. When A.J. slipped and fell. The only help he received in getting back to his feet was a swift kick in the ribs.
"I'm not dealing with anymore shit from you, Simon, so get up!" Tad ordered over the sound of the driving rain.
A.J. slowly rose, knowing the first chance he'd taken had only further riled Tad. He'd been hoping the man would bend over to help him. He was fairly certain, had that happened, that he might have been able to throw Tad off balance enough so the man would end up overboard. Unfortunately, Tad had no intention of offering him aid of any kind. As the storm raged around them, and with the gun aimed at the middle of his back, A.J. finished the job of unmooring the Aubrey.
The blond detective was forced to lead the way down the flight of nine stairs to the lower deck. He recalled the layout of the boat's interior from the one and only time he'd been aboard. He entered into a large, richly paneled living room/dining room suite. Branching off of the area were two luxurious bedrooms, each with their own private bathroom bigger than either of the bathrooms in A.J.'s home. To the rear of the living area, behind a set of swinging half doors, was a galley well stocked with every modern kitchen amenity including a wine rack filled with expensive liquor. Straight ahead of the living room and behind a closed door, was the pilot's cabin. Another door within the pilot's cabin led directly onto the deck. Based on the evening back in May when he and his mother had dined on Aubrey along with Tad, Troya, and Rick, A.J. knew Brooks normally employed a man to captain the boat when he wanted to make use of it. The remainder of the crew had been rounded out by a deckhand, the cook from Tad's estate, as well as his maid Vera, who had served the food and was in charge of seeing to the comfort of her boss's guests. A.J. wondered if any of those people were in on tonight's foray, but when Tad urged him into the empty pilot's cabin with a poke of his gun A.J. deduced none of them were present.
Tad Brooks had far better knowledge of the Aubrey and the navigational skills required to sail her than A.J. had previously realized. Again, Kit stood guard over Rick, this time out in the living room, while Tad kept Troya and A.J. with him. Just like he'd made A.J. untie the moorings, Tad talked him through starting the boat and piloting her out of port. It wasn't a particularly difficult feat for A.J. He'd been around boats in one form or another for as long as he could remember, going all the way back to the Cecilia, the modest craft his parents had owned when his father was alive. When he and Rick had lived in Florida, A.J. had piloted his cabin cruiser back and forth from Miami to Pirate's Key more times than he could count, and prior to the accident, he'd often taken over the helm of Rick's houseboat when they'd gone out on the ocean for a weekend of fishing.
A.J. contemplated giving the wheel a sharp turn and ramming the side of the boat into the concrete pillars of the pier, but Tad seemed to anticipate his intentions. He felt the cold steel of the gun dig into his tender ribs.
"Don't think of pulling anymore shit on me, Simon. If you don't sail her out of here as gently as you'd rock a baby in its cradle, I'll have Kit put a bullet in your brother's head."
Troya pulled and jerked, trying to yank her arm out of her brother's tight grasp. "Tad, stop this! Whatever you're doing I demand you put end it right now."
As they churned out into open water Tad reached around A.J. and flicked on the auto-pilot. "You're wasting your breath, Troya, because I can't end it."
"And just why not?"
The man ignored his sister, to instead wave his gun in the direction of the living room. "Go on, Simon. Lead the way again."
A.J.'s eyes flicked around the cabin, looking for something to use as a weapon, or in some other way disarm Tad. He was well aware the Aubrey was heading out to sea. With the power and speed afforded a schooner this large, it would only be a matter of time before they were far from port and far from any potential witnesses to the events Tad had planned. Events that would no doubt end in A.J.'s death, as well as in Rick's.
The muzzle of Tad's high-velocity Colt revolver was jammed into A.J.'s spine. "I said move it, Simon! Now!"
A.J. had no choice but to do as Tad ordered. He supposed it didn't make much difference. As far as he could see there was nothing in the pilothouse that would be of help to him. He was also too far from the door that led onto the deck to make use of it in an escape attempt that, while he knew would be quickly foiled, at least might have given Troya and Rick a chance to flee.
The dripping Rick was seated on the sofa now with Kit standing over him. If nothing else, the detective hoped his wet clothing ruined Tad's expensive couch. When Tad waved his gun in the direction of the furniture, A.J. moved to seat himself next to his brother. Tad grabbed him by the hair and threw him toward the easy chair instead.
"Over there, Simon!" That move, and the anger behind it, made it immediately apparent to both Simon brothers that Tad was intent on keeping them far enough apart so they couldn't collaborate in any way.
A.J.'s shins cracked painfully against the edge of the thick coffee table. Before he was able to recover his footing, Tad had him by the hair again and was once more propelling him forward.
"Hey!" Rick half rose from his seat, ignoring the gun Kit leveled at his chest. "You don't have to be so damn rough! You wanna play tough guy, then you play tough guy with me, asshole!"
Tad flipped A.J. around and shoved him backwards, causing him to land in the chair in a seated position. He then turned to face the irate Rick.
"Don't worry, Rick. As much as I hate to say this, your turn will come before the night ends. It's a shame, because I really do like you. I was even looking forward to having you for a brother-in-law. But, unfortunately, we both have your own brother to thank for eradicating that possibility, so sit your ass back down on that couch."
Rick bent his knees and slowly did as instructed. "Okay, fine. My turn will come, you thought I'd make a hunky dory brother-in-law, I can thank A.J. for that wonderful prospect not coming to pass, and all the other sentimental bull crap that you're lyinh through your capped pearly whites about. But aside from all that, if I'm gonna die, I'd at least like to know why."
"Oh, it's not a matter of if you're gonna die, Simon," Kit smiled with open cruelty, "it's a matter of when. And if you wanna know the answer to your question, you'd better ask baby brother over there. He's the one who got you into this mess in the first place."
"No he's not!" Troya's eyes pleaded Rick's forgiveness from where she stood trapped between Tad and Kit. "It's my fault, Rick! It's all my fault. I would have never confided in them if I'd only known. I thought it was my father A.J. had suspicions about, not my brother. I only went to Tad out of loyalty to my family. I wanted to tell you, Rick! You have to believe me! I wanted to tell you, but Tad said--"
"Shut up, Troya!" Tad barked as the boat rode a wild wave beneath his feet.
The woman ignored her brother to
continue her explanation. "When I
saw that A.J. had Dad's name written down, and had Dad's sunglasses, I thought
he'd seen Dad at the morgue the day of the accident." Troya turned to her brother. "You encouraged me to believe
that. You purposely steered me to that
conclusion. But it wasn't Dad A.J. saw,
was it? It wasn't Dad he witnessed
commit a murder; it was you. It was
Lowell Brooks junior A.J. saw, not Lowell Brooks senior. And you used Daddy's sunglasses and hat to
disguise yourself. You would have gladly
let Dad take the fall for the whole thing if it would have come to that. How could you, Tad? How could you do that to your own
"How could I do it?" Tad roared over the rain slashing against the portholes. "I could do it pretty damn easily, Troya! Just as easily as our old man could wale on the behind of a seven-year-old with his belt!"
"And that's what this is all about? You killed a man because of what our father did to you thirty years ago?"
"No, of course not! Never mind what it's all about!"
"Illegal arms," A.J. intoned from his chair.
Tad whirled on the man. "Shut your damn mouth, Simon!"
"Or what?" A.J. taunted. "You'll------kill me?"
The hand cradling Tad's gun crashed against A.J.'s jaw. The powerful blow threw the detective's head sideways, causing a new gash to open on one corner of his mouth. He could feel warm blood running down his chin and drip to stain his already stained shirt.
Rick instinctively rose to come to his brother's aid, but once again was forced back to his seat by Kit's gun. A.J. met Rick's eyes, letting him know with a slight nod of his head that he was okay.
"So that's it, huh?" Rick said to Tad. "You smuggle illegal arms in and out of the country in order to get your spending money. That explains the estate, the cars, the motorcycles, the place in Tahoe, the jet, this boat. You're not quite the self-made man you lead everyone to believe. Looks like you've slept with the devil to get there."
"Don't preach to me, Rick, because I couldn't care less about your opinion one way or another. None of this would be happening right now if your brother had minded his own business. But no. Mr. Private Eye had to black bag my office. Had to gather evidence against me that he was going to take to you and that police lieutenant friend of yours. If A.J. had been smart, he would have known he was playing in the big leagues. He would have known the stakes were too high for a gumshoe whose biggest case is trying to get his cousin's kid to quit skipping school. He would have known it was in his best interest to conveniently forget what he'd witnessed. If A.J. had done that, none of us would be here tonight."
"Oh, right." Rick voiced his disdain with dripping sarcasm. "It's always someone else's fault with guys like you, isn't it, Brooks? If it ain't your mamas who screwed you up, then it's your daddies. And if it ain't Daddy, then it's someone like my brother. Someone who saw a wrong committed and wouldn't just quietly go about his way. Tell me something, Tad, how many other men have you murdered in order to silence them? Was Graham one of them?" When Tad didn't answer, Rick pressed, "Well, was he?"
No one in the room missed the fleeting look that passed between Tad and Kit when Rick had voiced what was nothing but an educated guess prompted by the night's events.
Troya's eyes broadcast first her disbelief, then her overwhelming heartache and despair. "Tad...Tadpole, please. Please tell me it's not true. Please tell me you had nothing to do with Graham's death. Please tell me that."
Tad took a step toward his sister. For the first time all night his face was lined with regret. "Troy--"
"No!" The woman screamed as a flash of lightening
tore the sky. "No!" She backed way from her brother with tears
running down her face. "Why,
"Because he knew too much," Kit said quietly, aching to comfort the woman he had for so long loved from afar. "Because he knew too much and it had to be done."
Troya's eyes flicked from her brother to Kit as she raged through her tears. "He knew too much about what? About what damn it!"
When neither man answered, Rick
spoke. "I suspect Graham
discovered the same thing A.J. did.
That Tad deals illegal arms. Ain't
Tad whirled, his eyes flashing like the lightening outside the pitching boat. "Simon, I'm warning you for the last time! Shut--your--mouth!"
Tad turned back to face his sister, his eyes softening, his voice pleading for her understanding and forgiveness. "Troya, I...it had to be done. I'm sorry, but it had to be. To this day I don't know how Graham found out, but he did, and he confronted me about it. He told me he'd go to the police if I didn't turn myself in on my own. I tried to make him understand that I wasn't doing anything a lot of other people don't do. I tried to make him understand that me stopping my activities wasn't going to slow down the sale of illegal arms in this country. Hell, it's not like I'm some kind of big drug lord. I'm just a guy who enjoys the finer things in life. A guy who enjoys sharing those things with his family. A fact I reminded Graham of. I thought I had made him see my point of view, but then he came to me and told me he was going to tell you what he knew, and from there, he was going to the police. I couldn't let him do that, Troya. I couldn't let him destroy me."
"So you made up some cockamamie story about wanting to repent your sins," Rick guessed. "About needing Graham’s help in order to work up the courage to do it. That's how you got him to go on the boat trip with you, isn't it? That's how you got Graham right where you wanted him. Right in the middle of the deep blue sea where no one could witness what you did."
A faint glimmer of tears filmed Tad's eyes. "Troya...I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but Graham left me no alternatives. He wouldn't be reasoned with. You know how much I loved him. You know it. He was the brother I never had. I didn't lie when I told you that. I meant every word of it."
"You meant every word of it, but you killed him anyway! You killed him anyway, Tad! You killed my husband! Well, you might as well kill me too! You might as well kill me, too, because like Graham, I can't be silenced! I won't stand here and watch while you commit more murders! I won't walk away from this and keep your dirty little secret!"
"Troya, please." Kit took a step closer to the woman. "Please, listen to me. I know you...feel very deeply for Rick. But if you let me," the man reached out a hand and ran it through Troya's damp hair. "If you let me, baby, I'll help you get over him. I'll give you whatever you need. You know I will. We can make a life together. The life we would have had if Graham hadn't come along."
Troya stared at the man as though she'd never seen him before. "The life we would have had? What are you talking about? We were never going to have a life together. We will never have a life together. You're my brother's friend, nothing more."
"Nothing more," Kit repeated dully. "Your brother's friend, nothing more." He turned to Rick, his face twisted with rage. "You know, Simon, I'm actually going to enjoy watching you die."
Troya's voice was cold and hard, devoid of any feeling for her sibling. "Tad, turn this boat around and take us back to shore. Now."
"I'm sorry, Troy, but no. I don't live my life by your tough-love rules like I did when we were in college. I'm going to finish what I started. I have no choice."
"Oh, you have a choice,
Tad," Troya's tone was heavy with sorrow.
"Over the years life has offered you lots of choices. Unfortunately, you always seem to choose the
wrong ones, don't you?"
The twins stared at one another, and in that long, silent moment both realized the eternal bond they had shared was now forever broken.
With no one's attention on him, A.J. awaited the chance he was looking for. When a series of powerful waves lashed the side of the Aubrey and sent those standing tumbling in three different directions the detective saw his opportunity. Keeping his body low he shot out of his chair and rammed a shoulder into Tad's knees. The man stumbled backwards, dropping his gun. Rick stood to join the action, but was thwarted by the quick reacting Kit. The policeman scooped up the firearm he'd lost his grip on when the first wave hit. He grabbed Troya, circled an arm around her neck, and put the gun to her temple.
"Don't move, Simon! Don't move or I'll shoot her!"
Rick was forced to ignore the struggle he heard going on behind him, as his eyes remained focused on Troya. "Come on, Kit. You don't wanna hurt her. You love her. You just told her so."
"Yeah, for all the good it will do me! You heard her! She thinks she's too good for me! She thinks you're more her type! Well, if that's the case, then so be it. If she doesn't have anything to offer me, then I sure as hell don't have anything to offer her!"
Rick shifted his attention from Kit to Tad. With his hands bound A.J. had little way of defending himself. He managed to bring both fists up to Tad's chin, but the solid blow he was hoping to land barely grazed the man when the listing boat threw both of them off balance. A knee found its way to A.J.'s stomach as a fist crashed against his cheek. For the second time that night the blond detective saw stars.
As he was propelled up the stairs A.J. was vaguely aware of Rick shouting his name with wild fear, and of Troya shouting her brother's name with wild, pleading desperation. A.J. stumbled twice, more on purpose than not. Those few seconds allowed his spinning head to clear and his lungs to draw in much needed air. Tad grabbed the back of his shirt and flung him up onto the deck. The storm drowned out any further sounds from below.
For some reason, A.J. instinctively knew he'd have a better chance if he didn't struggle when Tad grabbed the back of his shirt with one hand and the waistband of his jeans with the other. He needed his wits about him, he needed both lungs filled to their capacity with air, and he needed his strength. There was no use losing all those things in a one-sided fistfight.
The detective had no doubt of his ultimate fate when Tad began to run toward Aubrey's stern. A.J. could have stalled the inevitable by slipping and sliding, but he knew the temporary delay would have been an effort in futility. Besides, the last thing he wanted was to be knocked unconscious. If he was going overboard, he was going with his eyes wide open.
Tad was so furious at the blond detective and all the trouble he'd caused him that he raced along with reckless abandon, screaming his anger into the stormy night. With a final mighty, "Arrrrrrrh!" he pitched A.J. off the deck. He watched the detective's legs flail in the air a long moment, then saw A.J. Simon sink deep beneath the hungry ocean.
Rick no longer cared what Kristopher Westphal might do to him. When Tad and A.J. disappeared topside Rick dashed for the stairs. He didn't get past the second step before a gun butt smashed against his skull. He fought to remain conscious, but to the sound of Troya's sobs lost the battle. Right before he sunk into blackness, Rick thought maybe it was better this way. Maybe it was better not to know the fate that had claimed his beloved little brother, and the fate that would ultimately claim him.
A.J. had often heard his mother say that from the first moment he sat without assistance in the bathtub at the age of eight months, he constantly tried to put his head under the water and would emerge laughing each time he succeeded. At two years of age, when most children that young cry if a wave splashes them in the face, he jumped through the rolling surf with glee, not having sucked in a single drop. By the age of three he'd taught himself to swim. Much to the astonishment of his parents, A.J. paddled off one day when the family was at the beach in an effort to keep up with eight-year-old Rick. From that point on his skills only improved, making him as at ease in the water as he was on land. Therefore, the bound detective didn't panic as he fell far below the turbulent surface of the ocean.
At the very moment Tad Brooks pitched him off Aubrey's stern A.J. filled his lungs with air. Because of that foresight he had plenty of time to swim upwards and kicked his tennis shoes off as he did so, knowing their weight would only hinder his movements. If his hands weren't tied he would have removed the rest of his clothes - being rescued naked was the least of his worries when his survival was at stake.
Because of those bound hands A.J. had to rely on just his legs to propel him toward the surface. He extended his arms straight above his head and paddled his feet and legs in the well-synchronized rhythm of a deep-sea diver. He could never recall being in the ocean when it was so dark. It was like being locked in a pitch-black closet that possessed no opening through which light could enter. He looked up, but again, because of the darkness, couldn't tell how far he was from breaking the surface.
A.J.'s first clue that he was about to emerge back on top of the water came when his body was slammed by a wave and carried ten feet forward. He popped out of the wave and had just enough time to fill his lungs with air before being slammed by another one. The detective disappeared within the wave, emerged again, took a deep gulp of air, then disappeared within the next onslaught of rolling sea.
A.J. wasn't sure what would have happened to him that night if there hadn't been a calming of the high winds. He used the brief opportunity to rest and get his bearings. Though some people might not think so, the detective knew how lucky he'd been so far. If Tad had bound his arms behind his back like Rick's were, he would have drowned almost as soon as he'd hit the water. Add to his luck the fact that June had been unusually warm, which meant the ocean was warm as well, giving A.J. no cause for worry in regards to hypothermia. But the man wasn't so foolish as to not be aware of what great adversity he was facing. Other than having the advantage of being an excellent swimmer, he was no better off than Graham Yeager had been when Tad and Kit had dumped him in the ocean that stormy night eight years earlier. With his hands tied as they were, A.J. knew he would quickly tire. His only chance of survival would be if he was picked up by a boat, and picked up soon. But who in their right mind would be out on the ocean on a night like this?
A.J. scanned the darkness as the wind and rain began to intensify once more. He squinted, seeing the faint glow of tiny white lights in the distance like the delicate lights used to trim a Christmas tree. Like the delicate running lights that lined the outside of the Aubrey.
It had been years since A.J. had body surfed, not since he was a teenager. Right before the first wave hit again he rolled over on his stomach, stretching himself out in a prone position. He'd forgotten how exhilarating it felt to be carried along on top of a wave, almost like you were floating in outer space.
Luck was with A.J. again tonight. The wind was blowing in the correct direction. The detective rode the wave until it dropped him, then was carried along by another one, then another, and then another, each momentum bringing him closer to his destination.
Rainwater blew in with Tad Brooks. The wind was so strong he had to lean all his weight against the cabin door in order to close it. Despite the howling wind, he could hear his sister's sobs. His heart constricted at the pitiful sound. He had never wanted to cause her pain. Graham had forced Tad to act as he did eight years earlier. Now A.J. Simon had been the cause of tonight's actions. He wished Troya could see that as clearly as he did, but he knew now she never would.
Tad wiped water from his face and brushed his dripping hair away from his forehead. He looked down the stairs, seeing the crumpled form of Rick Simon with his sister huddled over the man. Troya's eyes traveled up to Tad, raw hate the only emotion visible on her face.
"You killed him!" She accused in a tearful scream. "You killed A.J., didn't you? Answer me, Tad!" Troya's voice rose to a hysterical pitch. "Answer me, damn it! Answer me!"
Tad stepped over Rick, crouched on his hunches, and attempted to take his sister's face in his hands. She yanked her head out of his reach. "Don't touch me! Don't you ever touch me again!"
"Troy, please. Please try and understand that--"
"What's there to understand? That you're a murderer? Well, don't worry, brother, you've made that very clear this evening." Troya's wrath dissolved as the full impact of A.J.'s fate hit her. To be thrown in the middle of the ocean like that, bound and helpless while knowing you'd surely drown, had to have been terrifying. She wept while rocking her body back and forth on the stairs. "Oh, A.J. Oh, A.J., I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."
The woman laid her head on Rick's back, her sobs intensifying as she thought of what A.J.'s death would do to the man she cherished. "Rick...Rick...I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I love you so much, Rick. I love you so much. If there was anyway I could have stopped all this, if I had only known...oh, Rick, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Tad turned away from the heartbreaking scene, refusing to meet Kit's eyes. He raked a hand through his hair, that action displaying to his friend both his frustration and indecisiveness.
Kit hooked the man by the elbow, pulling him out of Troya's hearing range. "Don't."
"Don't chicken out me like you
almost did with Graham. It has to be
done, L.B. We have no choice."
Tad glanced over his shoulder at the grieving Troya, then his eyes traveled to the man she was cradling as best she could considering her hands were still tied behind her back. "I know."
"And Troya, too."
"I said, and Troya, too."
Tad's eyes narrowed to slits. "What do you mean 'and Troya, too'?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean. She'll go straight to the cops. She'll tell them everything."
"No!" Tad threw a hand against the wall so he could keep his footing when the schooner was hit by a violent series of waves. "Not once she's calmed down. I'll talk to her. I can make her see--"
"No, you can't make her see! Face the cold hard facts here, L.B. We've killed her husband, we've killed A.J., and before the night's over, we'll kill her fiancé. Now if you think she won't go straight to Abigail Marsh with all she knows, then you're a helluva lot more naive than I ever thought possible." Kit grabbed Tad's arm and squeezed. "Look, we've got enough trouble as it is with that Brendan punk on the loose again."
"We were wearing masks. He won't know who we were. Or at least won't be able to make any kind of a positive I.D."
"Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, it's not a chance I'm willing to take." Kit moved toward the unaware Troya and Rick. "Now come on. Let's get this over with and go find that kid."
Tad shagged Kit by the upper arm, spinning him around. "I already told you, not Troya!"
Kit studied his friend, taking in the angry eyes, furrowed brows, and clenched jaw. He was so sick of taking orders from this man. So sick of kissing ass. So sick of doing Lowell Brooks Jr.'s dirty work. If Tad was so blinded by family loyalty that he couldn't see what would happen if anyone, anyone was left alive here tonight, then Kit would open his eyes for him. Open them in a big way.
A slow, easy smile spread across the policeman's face. "Okay, buddy. Sure. I understand. We leave Troya be. You'll handle her."
Tad nodded, releasing his grip on his friend.
You're so damn gullible, Kit thought with an internal smirk. So damn stupid. Once we take care of Simon it'll be easy enough for me to do in both you and your uppity bitch of a sister. After all, you and Troya dying tonight seems fitting. You came into this world together, so you might as well go out of it together, too.
Kit formed a quick plan of action. No doubt Troya would try to fight them when they dragged the unconscious Rick up the stairs to the deck. In so doing, she'd end up out on the deck herself. At that point it would be child's play to shoot first Tad, and then Troya. In no time at all he'd have all three bodies - Simon's, and those of the Brooks' twins, weighted down and thrown out into the stormy ocean. He'd pilot the Aubrey back to shore, though not to the marina where she was normally docked. Instead, to some random, secluded spot where he could jump off and flee into the night. By the time the empty vessel was found adrift and all the dust settled, the authorities would simply think Tad had taken his sister and the Simon brothers out for a night on the schooner only to get caught in the storm. What tragedy had befallen the quartet would remain a mystery for all eternity. And even if the police managed to piece together some of the real story based on testimony given by those patients who saw A.J. fleeing the rehab center, Kristopher Westphal himself would be long gone before anyone cast a suspicious eye his way. Thanks to Tad Brooks, he had plenty of money. He could certainly live comfortably for years to come on some tropical island somewhere, or maybe over on the French Riviera or in Monaco. Heck, he might even open his own private security firm for the rich and famous when he'd had his fill of sun, sand, wine, and women.
Tad's voice broke into Kit's thoughts. His lips formed a grim line as he headed toward Rick. "Come on then. We don't have any more time to waste."
Kit followed the blond man, trying to keep the smile out of his voice. "That's just what I was thinking, L.B. That's just what I was thinking."
A powerful wave slammed A.J. against the Aubrey's stern. He ignored the sharp pain the blow sent through his left shoulder. Another wave engulfed him, the water arcing onto the vessel's deck. A.J. emerged from the ocean sputtering and coughing, his bound hands reaching blindly for the Jacob's ladder dragging in the ocean.
The churning water had long ago stripped the detective of his socks. His bare feet slipped twice before he was able to wrap his toes around the rope ladder's slick wooden rungs. Using his hands he pulled himself up until he was in a standing position, though more of his body remained in the water than out of it.
Thunder boomed overhead as the exhausted A.J. clung to the ladder while leaning against Aubrey. Despite the rough water, the schooner was still moving along at a moderate clip. A.J. knew his life depended on not losing his grip. He didn't have the strength to swim to the vessel again no matter how many waves might be available to push him along.
The detective squeezed his eyes shut against the rainwater that lashed his face. When the storm grew angry again he knew it was time to make his move. What exactly that move was going to be he didn't know, but first and foremost he had to get back on this boat.
The blond man struggled to climb the unstable ladder, its rungs digging painfully into the soles of his feet. It took A.J. five minutes to make it to the deck of the schooner, and when he did, all he could do was collapse on his stomach like a fish out of water. He took deep gasps of air, then pushed himself to his hands and knees. Having just spent forty minutes struggling to survive in the storm-racked ocean meant the only thing the detective wanted to do was drop back to the deck and sleep.
But sleep wasn't an option. Rick needed him. As A.J. pushed himself to his feet, he prayed he hadn't arrived too late to help his brother.
Rick Simon groaned; someone was hoisting him by his upper arms. The movement caused his chin to drop to his chest and made his pounding head feel like an overblown balloon.
At first the semi-conscious man was completely ignorant to his surroundings, and thought he was waking up after a night on the town with Carlos like he hadn't experienced in years. But then he realized the wild spinning in his brain was actually the motion of a boat being tossed about in a storm, and the whimpering he heard wasn't Marlowe wanting to go out, but rather that of a crying woman. A woman whose voice he recognized.
"Stop it! Don't! Leave him alone! Leave him alone I said! Leave him alone!"
Rick felt Troya's weight lean against him as though she was trying to protect him from someone. The motion her body was making led him to believe she was kicking her legs.
"Stop it! Get away from him! Get away!"
Troya leaned over and bit Tad's wrist as hard as she could.
"Ouch!" Tad dropped Rick, cradling the arm that was now bleeding. "Troya, damn it--"
Troya's legs lashed at Kit who was approaching from straight ahead. "Let him alone! Oh, Tad, please! Please leave him alone!"
"Troy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but there's just no other way."
"There's a lot of other ways! A lot of them! You just don't want to admit that, do you, Tad?" Troya accused with tears streaming down her cheeks. "You don't want to face the hard fork in the road, just like you've never wanted to face the hard fork in the road!
Rick knew this one brief moment when Tad was otherwise occupied would probably be the last chance he got. As memories of the night came flooding back to him, the detective was painfully aware his brother was dead. A.J. was dead, and while Rick's heart could hardly stand to acknowledge that fact, it was now up to him to keep Troya safe and to get the information A.J. had discovered about Tad Brooks back to Abby. It's what A.J. would have wanted him to do. It's what A.J. would have demanded he do.
Rick Simon flipped himself onto his back, knowing if he lived through this night he'd grieve for his brother like he'd never grieved before. And if he didn't live through this night...well, then so be it. But come hell or high water, he was taking Tad Brooks with him. He was taking Tad Brooks with him, because this was the man who had so cruelly murdered his baby brother.
A.J. stayed as far away from the edge of the deck as possible, allowing the faint glow of light coming from the distant pilot's cabin to guide him. He hugged the interior of the schooner, inching along by holding onto whatever ropes, sails, or block and tackle came his way. He finally found what he was looking for when he came upon a mounted fire axe - a method to free himself from his bounds, as well as something to use as a weapon. He knelt down in front of the axe head and held up his wrists. He moved the ropes back and forth in a sawing motion against the sharp blade. When his hands popped free from the tight constraints he shook them half a dozen times and flexed them another half a dozen, anything to rapidly get feeling back to his palms and fingers.
The blond grabbed the axe from its metal holders. He moved toward the outside door that led into the pilot's cabin, being careful to circumvent the portholes that looked out on the deck.
Rick's sudden movement flung Troya into the wall that rose with the stairs. He brought his legs up, catching Tad full in the chest with his cowboy boots. With bent knees he gave the startled man a mighty shove that sent him sailing into Kit. Kit's gun flew from his hand. Before the man could scramble to find it, Rick was upon him and Tad.
Without Rick's arms at his disposal the fight was one-sided. But the detective, fueled with rage by the thought of his brother's death, waged a mighty battle.
Like the storm had forced Tad to struggle with the main cabin door, A.J. struggled to close the door that led from the deck to the pilot's cabin. He sat the axe down at his feet, grabbed hold of the knob with both hands, and pulled with all the strength left him. Twice the wind threatened to rip the door from his grip, but A.J. held on, ultimately the victor.
The noise of the storm overrode any sounds coming from the living room suite. A.J. picked up the axe and crossed over to the schooner's navigational panel. He eased the throttle toward himself, slowly bringing the boat to a standstill before shutting down the engines. The schooner came to a halt with a light kick and heavy thump. Though the sudden cessation of the engines and the motion that action produced would have been more noticeable had the Aubrey not been caught in the midst of a storm, A.J. was sure a man as in-tune with his ship as Tad Brooks appeared to be would notice the sudden change. He hoped Rick noticed it as well.
The detective flattened himself against the wall by the door that led to the living suite. He kept a firm grip on his axe, ready to drive it into the midsection of whomever entered this cabin. For now, he turned it so the sharp blade would be facing away from the person, but he knew better than to underestimate Tad Brooks or his willingness to kill. If it meant saving Rick's life, A.J. could kill as well.
A.J. felt the smooth wood of the handle and knew how easy it would be to flip the axe around in his hands. Flip it around, and gut Tad Brooks alive if the man had hurt his brother.
The fight was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Despite his crazed grief and wrath Rick, with his arms bound as they were, was no match for the two men below him. The detective was slammed onto his back, his face and mid-section plummeted by fists.
Troya ran to her fiancé’s aid, but was easily held at bay by her brother. Tad grabbed a fistful of the struggling woman's shirt, keeping her an arms length away from his body. All Troya could do was sob her pleas while begging, "No! No, leave him alone! Please, Tad, leave him alone! Please!"
Tad hooked his free hand under the semi-conscious Rick's armpit on the detective's right side while Kit did the same on his left. They were headed for the stairway, Tad dragging Troya along with them when the blond man felt the subtle kick and thump of Aubrey's engines being disengaged.
"What the…" Tad turned all Rick's weight over to Kit. "Here. Take him."
"Where the hell are you going?"
"The engines just died."
"Leave 'em be for chrissake! With the way that wind's blowing out there water's probably gotten into the hold. We can deal with that in a few minutes. Let's take care of Simon first."
Tad ignored his friend's advice. "Just hang tight. I'll be right back."
Troya tried her best to slow Tad's progress by leaning all her weight backwards, but to no avail. He reeled her to him, encircled her waist with one arm and picked her up, resting her bottom on his hip. He barely felt the backs of her tennis shoes as they were kicked against his legs.
"Calm down, Troy." He spoke softly as though trying to quiet a hysterical child. "Just calm down now. You're not going to be able to change the final outcome tonight ,so you might as well accept that."
"I'll never accept it!" The woman's feet flailed against her brother's legs and she arched her back in an effort to break his hold. "Never! I hate you, Tad! I hate you for what you did to Graham and A.J., and I hate you for what you've done to Rick! But most of all, I hate you for who you are! I hate you for the man you've become! Do you hear me, Tad Brooks? I hate you!"
Troya's words caused Tad to falter on his way to the door of the pilot's cabin. He slowly eased his sister to her feet, fully expecting her to body slam him into the wall. But Troya didn't do anything other than crumple to the ground and sob. She had no more fight left in her. Nothing about her life was what it appeared to be. Her brother dealt illegal arms. He'd killed her husband to keep that secret, he'd killed A.J. to keep that secret, and before the night was over, he was going to kill Rick as well. She knew now there was no way she could stop him. There was no way she could stop Tad, and all she could do about that fact was cry out her pain and sorrow in heaving gasps.
The doctor glared up at her brother. "You'll have to kill me, too, Tad! You'll have to kill me, too, because I'll be damned if you'll be able to silence me any other way!"
Tad gave his head a small shake of despair. Because of A.J. Simon so much had gone wrong. His blood boiled at the thought of the private investigator, but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing the bastard was dead. The blond man turned his back on his twin as his hand came to rest on the doorknob. His soft words were lost on his sister.
"I'm sorry, Troya. I'm sorry."
A.J. squeezed against the wall and watched as the doorknob turned. Realizing he wouldn't have enough room within the confines of the narrow pilot's cabin to swing the axe sideways like he'd originally intended, he turned it in his hands so the top of the blade could be used as a battering ram. He stood ready, but forced himself to contain his energy. The last thing he wanted to do was injure his brother should Tad be sending Rick in to see what had caused the schooner's engines to quit.
All A.J. needed to see was a full head of pale hair to know the man entering the cabin wasn't Rick. For a brief second, Tad Brooks stood stock still with shock, certain he was viewing a man who'd somehow risen from the dead. A.J. used that brief second to his advantage.
With a guttural growl the detective drove the top of the axe into Tad's stomach. He ran forward, pushing Tad back into the living suite.
Kit was caught as much by surprise as Tad had been by the sight of the very-much alive A.J. His grip on Rick slackened. "What the hell..."
Rick's muddled brain took in the activity as A.J. and Tad warred for possession of the axe. He didn't waste time wondering how this phenomenon had occurred. If he and A.J. lived through this night there would be plenty of time for a long question and answer session at a later date.
Before Kit could run to Tad's aid, Rick drove his bound elbows upwards. He wasn't able to see where he was aiming, but by the cry the man let out and the way he immediately doubled over Rick knew he'd landed a solid blow to Kit's testicles. The balding detective flung his body backwards, knocking the incapacitated man to the ground and landing on top of him.
Tad grabbed the axe blade, ignoring the gash he laid open across his palm as he wrestled with A.J. for the weapon. Both men maintained their grips on the long wooden handle even as blood dripped to stain Tad's shoes. They circled the room, pushing and shoving against the handle while trying to kick each other's feet out from underneath. For close to one minute the fight was evenly matched, but A.J.'s stamina was long depleted from the night's events. Tad gave a mighty yank, causing the detective to unwillingly relinquish control of the weapon. A.J. leaped backwards when Tad swung the axe sideways. The sharp blade missed slicing open the detective's mid-section by no more than the width of his little finger.
"Goddamn you, Simon!" The enraged Tad swung again. "Goddamn you, I'll kill you yet, you sonuvabitch! I'll kill you!"
The axe slashed back and forth. With every savage swing A.J. was forced to dance out of the way. He could hear Rick struggling and rolling on the floor with Kit, but because of his own precarious position, wasn't able to take his attention off Tad.
When A.J. took another leap back in order to protect his stomach from the hungry blade he landed heavily on his right leg. Like he'd known all night was bound to happen, the leg chose that very moment to collapse beneath him, its tired muscles no longer able to withstand further abuse. The detective landed hard on his backside. Before he was able to scramble out of the way, gleaming sharp metal plunged for the top of his head with fatal accuracy.
So many things occurred in the split second during which Tad Brooks brought that axe down for the kill that A.J. never was sure in exactly what order they happened. He heard Troya's cry of "Tad, no!" just as the cabin door burst open from above. A.J. used the momentary diversion to his advantage and rolled out of the axe's range. He was vaguely aware of Troya's body flying over him, only later would he realize it had been her intention to protect him from her brother.
The momentum of the swinging axe was too great for Tad to stop it. When the blade found its mark it was buried deep in Troya's skull. Blood, brains, skin tissue, and fragments of bone splattered the wall behind the dead woman. She'd fell to rest on her side; her eyes wide open as if in shock at what her twin had done to her.
The people in black Rick had first seen so many months ago thundered down the stairs. Tad momentarily froze, staring down at his sister as the full impact of what he'd done was absorbed. "Troya, no," he whispered with disbelief. "No." The heavy boot heels on the steps allowed Tad no more time to grieve. He pulled his gun from his waistband, got off two quick shots that caused the three intruders to duck and roll, then ran for the pilot's cabin. A.J. swiped a hand outward. He came so close to getting a grip on Tad's ankles that his fingers brushed the cotton of the man's socks.
Someone ran by A.J. in pursuit, a size fifteen boot inadvertently stomping on his hand. He yanked the throbbing appendage to his chest, and looked up to see Rick still engaged in battle with Kit. With one final mighty heave the policeman threw Rick off and reached for his gun.
An oddly familiar female voice ordered, "Drop it, Westphal!"
When Kit refused to do as instructed, but rather took aim at the slender woman in black trousers and flak jacket who just a few hours earlier had been wearing a nurse's uniform and cat-eye glasses, he was mowed down by a hail of automatic gunfire. His body didn't hesitate on its way to the floor, bright red splotches of blood stained his shirt. Even in death his hand still gripped his gun.
A black man cautiously approached the fallen police officer, his Luger aimed at Kit's head. He kicked the man's arms out to the side, then bent and worked the gun from his fingers. "You won't be needing this where you're going, Westphal. Or would you prefer I call you Wyatt?"
Neither the man nor the woman said a word to A.J. as they flew past him to follow the path their comrade had taken after Tad. But they didn't have to say anything for the detective to recognize them as the eccentric Jamaican orderly, Geoffrey, from County General Hospital, and Dagmar Finster, the up-tight sour-puss nurse who had for so long now been in charge of his care. And, if he wasn't mistaken, the man who had stepped on his hand had been Mike, the hulking janitor who always seemed to be lurking outside his room when Rick or Brendan visited.
Although A.J. had thought he had all the answers when this night began, so much more was beginning to collate in his mind. The odd dreams and strange coincidences of the past months weren't so odd or strange after-all. His damaged brain had been functioning in 'private investigator mode' the entire time, even if A.J. hadn't always realized that.
A.J. mentally shook himself out of his reverie when he heard Rick's cry of anguish. For the first time, Rick was seeing the full scope of the night's tragedies. For the first time, he was seeing the lifeless, bloody body of Troya Yeager.
Rick stared across the room at the woman who lay only inches from A.J.'s feet. Tears ran down his cheeks at the sight of the grotesquely split skull, the axe blade still buried deep within like some type of Halloween horror, the ivory hair stained crimson by flowing blood. He looked into the woman's lifeless denim eyes, and unlike Tad Brooks, didn't see betrayal and loathing, but rather saw the memory of the enormous love they'd possessed for one other.
Rick scooted across the room on his knees, babbling a litany of pleas. "Troya, Troya. Oh, God, Troya. Troya, no. No. Troya. Please, Troya, please."
A.J. scrambled to his feet and intercepted his brother. Without his hands at his disposal, Rick could do little more than swing his shoulders back and forth within A.J.'s grip. "Let me go to her, A.J.! Let me go to her!"
"No. Not now. Not like this." A.J.'s grip tightened until Rick looked him in the face. "This isn't how------she want you to------'member her, Rick."
Tears filled Rick's eyes and closed his throat. "I know...I know...but...I loved her, A.J. I loved her. I loved her so much."
For the first time in his life, the older brother sought refuge in his younger brother's arms. A.J. brought them both to a sitting position on the floor. He encircled Rick in a tight embrace, holding the sobbing man to his chest.
Without realizing it, A.J. repeated the same soft words Rick had used when offering comfort so many months before in his hospital room at County General. "It's okay, Rick. It's okay. I know. I know. It's okay."
But as he rested his chin atop the bald head, and ran a hand over his brother's quaking back, A.J. wondered if things would ever really be okay again.
One Year Later
A.J. Simon stood on the deck of his brother's houseboat, the fading evening sun warming his face. The vessel glided smoothly over the calm Pacific waters in sharp contrast to the boat ride he and Rick had been forced to take twelve months earlier.
Rick leaned against the railing with his back to A.J., seemingly unaware of his brother's presence. The blond man could only imagine that Rick, too, was reliving that tragic night and quietly paying homage to the woman he had loved.
Rick had still been wrapped in A.J.'s arms when Abigail Marsh and half the San Diego police force, or so it had seemed anyway, surrounded the Aubrey on four police boats. They joined the Coast Guard cutter that had brought the 'people in black', whom Rick and A.J. would later learn were undercover agents for the Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, as had been the man whose murder A.J. had witnessed in the morgue.
Unbeknownst to anyone, even Abby, A.J. had been under the protection of the ATF agents since the first night he laid comatose in County General Hospital. It was through their own investigation work while A.J. was a patient at San Diego Rehab that Shannon O'Brien, Vlademar Braun, and Mitchell Carpenter came to conclude that the blond detective hadn't been part of Tad Brooks' organization, but rather simply a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in so being witnessed the death of their beloved colleague Will Fleming.
The ATF agents had been working for over a year to reel Tad Brooks in. At the time of Will's murder they had never seen the man, nor did they know his name. They only knew a man who called himself Wyatt, whom they were sure would eventually lead them to his boss. And lead them to his boss Kristopher Wyatt Westphal did, but not in any way Shannon, Vlad, Mitch, or even A.J., could have imagined would happen that fateful night in June of 1988.
A Coast Guard medic threw a blanket over the soaking wet A.J.'s shoulders that night, then threw one over the shaking Rick as well. After another blanket had been discreetly placed over Troya's body A.J. led his brother to the woman and allowed Rick all the time he needed to say goodbye. Rick's hands had been freed by one of the first cops to board the boat. He worked one of those hands under the blanket and clasped it around one of Troya's. He sat like that for a long time, hunched over Troya's body and shedding silent tears with A.J. loosely clasping his shoulders from behind. When Rick was finally ready to rise, it was A.J. he leaned into and drew strength from as they were taken to the Coast Guard cutter. It was A.J.'s embrace he remained wrapped in until they reached the mainland and climbed in the back of an ambulance that took them to County General.
Both men incurred an array of bruises, strained muscles, and scraped skin from their ordeal, and each suffered from a mild concussion, as well as from exhaustion. Uncharacteristic of Rick, the detective didn't protest when Joel Lankey admitted both him and A.J. for the night. But, then, Rick hadn't said anything since he sat in A.J.'s arms on the Aubrey repeating Troya's name over and over.
A.J. had no doubt one of the medications given Rick by Joel was a strong sedative. There was no other way his brother would have been able to slip into the peaceful haven of sleep after all that happened without some type of medicinal help. From the bed in the room he was sharing with Rick, A.J. almost wished for a strong sedative himself. For despite his bone weary exhaustion, his mind kept replaying the night's events, always ending with that axe splitting Troya Yeager's skull in two.
A.J. had turned on his side and studied his sleeping brother in the dim light cast in from the hallway. Though he knew the guilt wasn't his to bear, nonetheless he blamed himself for Troya's death. The blond man spent the remainder of the early morning hours wondering what he could have done differently in order to spare Rick such heartbreaking pain.
The Simons were released from the hospital at noon that day. Carlos retrieved Rick's truck from the police impound lot and brought along clean clothes for both brothers when he picked them up. He dropped the detectives and the truck off at A.J.'s house, getting a ride home from his wife who was waiting for him in A.J.'s driveway.
Abigail Marsh and Shannon O'Brien, who was sporting a bandage over five stitches in her right temple, came by the Grand Canal after supper to take the brothers' statements. On this night Agent O'Brien was minus her cat-eye glasses, starched uniform, orthopedic shoes, pasted-on Groucho brows, and dour expression. Even though the Burnt Ebony rinse she'd been using in her hair was still evident, she was quite obviously a beautiful woman. Her persona was so different from that of her alter ego, Dagmar Finster, that A.J. had a hard time believing they were one in the same woman. Like many agents employed by the FBI, CIA, or ATF, Shannon was a well-educated person of diversified skills. She had, in fact, been a registered nurse in a prior career, which explained the medical knowledge she brought with her to her undercover role at the rehab center.
The bulk of the story that evening was told by A.J., beginning with the memories that came to him in the form of dreams, then his first suspicions of Tad Brooks the day he noticed the monogrammed L.B. on the man's bathroom towels. About the only things Rick quietly contributed were the details surrounding the phone calls from Linda and A.J. that prompted him to head toward the rehab center in the first place, then what little he could remember of his time on the Aubrey after A.J. had been thrown overboard.
When A.J. began to relay the fight that took place between himself and Tad that ultimately resulted in Troya's death Rick abruptly stood and fled the room. A.J. paused in his story, his eyes following his brother to the deck where Rick closed the French doors as if to block out the tale he couldn't stand to hear told. Abby could easily read the sorrow and regret on the blond man's face, but made no comment. She and Shannon waited patiently until he finally tore his gaze from Rick and continued his statement. When he was finished, A.J. turned to Abby. "Have you found him?"
Without asking, the lieutenant knew A.J. meant Tad Brooks. In a desperate act to get away from the pursuing Vlad, the man had dove into the stormy sea. Vlad fired three shots after him, but whether any bullets struck Tad or not the agent didn't know.
"No," Abby shook her head. "We haven't found his body yet. But considering the strength of that storm I'm not surprised. The Coast Guard's looking for him as we speak. I'm sure it'll only be a matter of days before he surfaces somewhere."
As the women rose to leave A.J. gave Shannon Will Fleming's final message.
"Right before he died--------he said, 'Tell Taylor-----I love him.' "
Shannon nodded, thinking of a blue eyed, tow headed child who looked just like his father and her much-respected mentor. "Thank you. That will mean a lot to a little boy I know who's been shattered by his daddy's death."
After the two women had departed that night, A.J. joined Rick on the deck. He knew any words of comfort he might have to offer would fall woefully short given the circumstances. Rather than say anything, he simply sat next to his brother on a chaise lounge and gave Rick's knee a pat. That small gesture evidently conveyed all A.J. didn't know how to say, because Rick took the hand in his and gave it a hard squeeze while turning his face to hide his tears. When darkness fell Rick rose to go up to the guestroom, leaving A.J. alone with the stars and his thoughts.
Brendan Nash survived his own private ordeal with Kit and Tad relatively unscathed. It was Vlademar Braun who rescued him from the back of the Bronco that night. The police and ATF agents had taken his statement as well, and now all he talked about was someday pursuing private investigation work as a career. Though his mother was far from keen on that idea, she didn't stop her son from occasionally spending time with Rick and A.J. at the Simon and Simon office, nor did she harbor any ill-will against her blond cousin for her son's adventures. After all, Brendan had been the one who led A.J. into the morgue that day, and what happened after that was beyond anyone's control to prevent.
Cecilia Simon couldn't have been more surprised when her youngest son, driving his long unused Camaro, picked her up at the senior citizen center upon her return from Arizona two days after Troya's death. Before she had a chance to exclaim over this event, or to exclaim over A.J.'s battered appearance, the blond man put an arm around her shoulders and urged her out of everyone's hearing range.
The tale was told quietly as mother and son drove to Cecilia's home in Mission Bay. Shortly after their arrival Cecilia left in her Mercedes, headed for Rick's houseboat. What passed between her and Rick that afternoon A.J. never knew, but he had no doubt the comfort, wisdom, and empathy his mother offered her eldest son was just what the doctor ordered. And now, one year later, Rick was still working to restore the shattered pieces of his life.
A.J. had never returned to the San Diego Rehabilitation Center, but rather continued his therapy on an outpatient basis three afternoons a week at another facility. After all that had happened, he didn't think neither he nor Rick could ever bear to see the inside of San Diego Rehab again.
By the beginning of the new year A.J.'s therapy had come to an end. Like Troya Yeager had told Kit Westphal it would, the majority of A.J.'s healing took place in that first twelve months after the accident. No longer did his words come thick, garbled, hesitant, or slow. No longer did his brain fail him when he tried to complete simple tasks like setting his alarm clock, or recalling a long-memorized phone number or friend's name. He had become one of Doctor Cho's miracle patients, and was now as healthy and robust as he had been prior to the accident. The only remnant he still carried of that day was the surgical scar on the back of his head that was hidden by his hair, and an occasional limp when he was tired, or overexerted himself playing racquetball.
Regardless of what the doctors and therapists contributed A.J.'s full recovery to, Cecilia had no doubt that the root of it came as a result of Rick. After Troya's death, Rick needed A.J. in a way he'd never needed him before. In turn, that need gave A.J. the purpose he'd been looking for since the accident. He rose to the occasion just like Cecilia knew he would, forcing himself to work even harder so he could be available to Rick in whatever capacity his older brother might call on him for. Despite the disabilities that still plagued him, A.J. returned to work at the Simon and Simon office in mid-July, just three weeks after the tragic night spent on the Aubrey. Cecilia thought that was the best thing for both her sons, and again she was proven correct.
Surprisingly enough, it had actually been Rick who suggested this getaway on the anniversary weekend of Troya's death. As the brothers were locking up the office the previous Wednesday evening he softly said, "I was thinkin' of taking the boat out this weekend. Nothin' special. Just a little fishing, swimming, grilling out some burgers and steaks. Wanna join me?"
A.J. studied his brother a brief moment, easily picking up on the grief that still radiated from the man each time he thought of Troya.
"Sure, I'll join you."
"I wanna shove off by five on Saturday morning, so you might as well spend the night on Friday."
"Okay," A.J. agreed again,
"I can do that. What do you want
me to bring in the way of food?"
"Nothing. Just bring yourself."
"You're sure that's
Rick patted his brother on the back while flashing him a small smile. "That's always enough, A.J. That's always enough."
The Simon brothers set sail just as the sun was coming up on Saturday morning. Because of Marlowe's advancing years he was left behind with Cecilia. Rick had no particular destination in mind, just a spot on the ocean far away from any other boats or intrusions. The two men fished, swam, napped, read, grilled their food on the Weber, and just in general enjoyed a long, lazy Saturday. After the supper dishes were done and the galley cleaned up, Rick retreated to the bow of the vessel where he stood staring out over the water. A.J. left his brother to his self-imposed isolation for over an hour, then as the sun began to set and Rick remained standing like a grieving statue in the cool evening breeze, the blond man retrieved one of Rick's field jackets from his closet. The younger detective shouldered into the jean jacket he'd brought along while carrying Rick's coat over his arm.
A.J. paused on his way to his brother, allowing the warmth of the sinking sun to light his face while he studied Rick from afar. When he finally came to stand beside Rick, the older man acknowledged him with nothing more than a brief glance.
"Here. I thought you might want this."
Rick took the offered coat and slipped his bare arms inside it. "Thanks."
Rick leaned heavy hands on the railing, returning to his former position of looking out over the water. When he finally spoke his words were far from anything A.J. was expecting.
"There's so much I need to apologize to you for."
"Yeah,” Rick nodded. “To you."
"For not listening to you when you tried to tell me your suspicions about Tad. For...for mistaking what I saw going on between you and Troya that night in your room. For allowing myself to see only how the accident had changed you, instead of seeing how it hadn't."
This was the first time in all the many months since Troya's death that Rick had brought up anything surrounding the accident, or A.J.'s stay at the rehab center. Nonetheless, A.J. easily guessed what incident Rick was referring to when he said, "For allowing myself to see only how the accident had changed you, instead of seeing how it hadn't."
"The black bag job on Tad's office," A.J. stated.
"Yeah. If I'd been thinking with my head instead of my heart, I woulda' known you were onto something. I woulda' known there was something about the man that concerned you, and I woulda' given you the chance to tell me that instead of yelling at you and accusing you of things I had no right to."
"Rick, you've already given me all the explanation you need to."
Rick turned his attention from the ocean to his brother's face. "Whatta ya' mean?"
"You said you were thinking with your heart. You were worried about me. You were concerned that my seemingly unorthodox actions were being caused by my injury. Granted, I was pissed at you for not listening to me, but I was never angry at you for your concern, or for the reasons behind it."
"I just...I just didn't know, A.J. I didn't know Tad was named for his father. I only knew him as Tad Brooks. Maybe if I'd known he was named for his old man I coulda' saved us all a lotta heartache."
"Ironically enough I was, in a round about way, onto the same thing you were. I knew something about the initials L.B. was troubling you. After heading down a couple wrong paths I started investigating Lowell Brooks. At the very least, I suspected he had bribed someone to win the contract to sell the morgue for the city. At most, I feared he might have had something to do with Will Fleming's murder."
"Seems logical to me," A.J. said. And Rick's reasoning behind looking into Mr. Brooks did seem logical to A.J. In the end, a portion of Rick's suspicions had proven correct. With Kit Westphal's help in setting up the meeting place, Lowell Brooks had paid off a city official to get the contract he so badly wanted. Ironically enough, the date and time that occurrence took place was at three p.m. on Thursday, February fifth, 1988, though it happened in a restaurant far across town from the morgue.
Because of Rick's statement in this regard to Abby, further investigation of Mr. Brooks occurred. The last Rick knew the man's lawyers had worked out some type of plea bargain with city prosecutors that kept him out of jail. As for Lowell Brooks himself, he was living in seclusion in France; clinging to the only child he had left, while trying to come to terms with the tragic events that had caused the deaths of his twins.
Tad Brooks' body had never been found. What type of memorial service his family eventually held for him neither A.J. nor Rick knew. As for Troya, her funeral service was small and private, taking place as soon as Ashton and her family could arrive from Paris. Troya's final resting place was between Graham Yeager and Aubrey Brooks in a large cemetery near the home where she grew up. Rick wasn't invited to attend the service. Given the circumstances, that didn't surprise either A.J. or Cecilia, but they still felt Rick's pain at the obvious snub. Rick tried to visit Lowell Brooks a few weeks later to offer his condolences, but Carmina was ordered to turn him away at the door. The woman herself harbored no ill will against him. Before Rick could head back to his truck she placed a folded piece of paper in his right hand and hugged him.
"I always knew no good would come from Tad's friendship with the one they called Kit. Troya loved you very much, Senior Simon. Carry her love and her memory in your heart for all the days left you on this earth. It's a thing to be treasured, just as she was."
Stars twinkled now in the darkness that began to blanket the sky around the brothers. The gentle lapping of waves against the boat was the only sound that could be heard. Rick finally spoke through the silence they'd fallen into. "For a while...after her death, I blamed her."
"Dying. Leaving me. For not coming to me when she found that notepad in your drawer. For coming onto you like she did in your room. For lettin' me believe that incident was your fault."
A.J. was graciously forgiving. "I don't think she did any of it with the intention of hurting either one of us, Rick. You heard what she said on the Aubrey that night. She went to Tad because she thought I had suspicions about their father. She was afraid he might have somehow been involved in what happened at the morgue. She went to her brother, as opposed to going to you, out of loyalty to her family. Given the same set of circumstances within our own family, you and I would have done exactly what Troya did. From there, it was easy for Tad to steer her in the wrong direction like she said. I truly believe she did intend to confess to you what she'd done."
Rick thought back to the last luncheon date he and Troya had together, and how many times she'd started a sentence with a hesitant, "Rick...I need to..." before allowing her words to fade away with, "Never mind." Maybe A.J. was right. Maybe she had intended to tell him about her talk with Tad and the reasons behind her visit to A.J.'s room, just like he had planned to tell her about A.J.'s black bag job on Tad's office. Only neither one of them got the chance to bare their souls that day. If they had, maybe Troya would still be alive.
Rick turned away from the water, leaning his backside against the railing. A.J. mirrored his older brother's posture so their conversation could continue.
"There's also...also something else I've been wanting to tell you, A.J."
Rick couldn't meet his brother's gaze. "I...I'm the one who caused your accident that day at the morgue. It was...it was me who hit you. With my truck."
A.J.'s reply was so quiet Rick almost didn't hear it. "I know."
"You know?" Rick looked his sibling full in the face. "How? Who told you?"
"Brendan. But only after I had come to my own conclusions regarding that fact."
"How come you never said
"What would have been the point?"
Even now, Rick could hardly speak of the accident without tears coming to his eyes and a lump taking up residence in the middle of his throat. "A.J., I almost killed you. My own carelessness almost left you permanently disabled. I...you don't know how many nights I laid awake wishin' it was me. Wishing I could trade places with you. Hating myself for what I'd done to you."
"No, I don't know how many
nights you did that, but even one was far more than you should have."
"What makes you say that?"
"Rick, ever since we began working together on Pirates Key fifteen years ago we both acknowledged the dangers of this job. We're both aware that knowing where your partner is at all times is of the utmost importance given some of the situations we find ourselves in. Therefore, I blew it big time that day. I didn't know where you were. Though my memory surrounding everything that occurred is still fairly bleak, I can take an educated guess and say I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, chasing Tad and trying to get a hold of Brendan, that I never gave it a thought the gunshots that had been fired might have drawn your attention. If I had, I would have exercised more caution before bursting out those doors."
"I didn't hear the gunshots. What made me come barreling down there were the ATF agents. I saw three armed people burst outta the back of a van and head for the building."
"Whatever. It doesn't matter what you saw. I had some responsibility in all this as well, therefore it's pretty foolish for you to take the entire blame on yourself."
For the first time that evening Rick
smiled. "So you're saying you
wanna share the blame with me, huh?"
"Haven't I shared the blame
with you for everything since I was old enough to talk?"
"That you have, buddy,"
Rick chuckled. "That you
"And from this point on, blame is rather unproductive for both of us, wouldn't you agree?"
Rick studied the healthy brother that stood next him, his smile growing wider. "Yeah, I guess I would have to agree to that."
As quickly as Rick's smile came to him it left him, just as A.J. had seen happen many times in this past year. "After we pull back into port tomorrow afternoon I want...I wanna go to Troya's grave."
A.J. knew Rick had yet to visit the place where his fiancé was buried. His older brother's explanation came in the way of quiet words.
"I never got a chance to tell her goodbye. I need...I'm ready to do that now. Would you come with me?"
A.J.'s smile was sad and bittersweet. If it hadn't been for Troya, it would have been his skull that axe would have found its mark within. "I'll come with you," the blond nodded. "I never got a chance to tell her goodbye either."
Rick reached into the pocket of his jeans and produced a piece of paper folded into four squares that he handed to A.J. By the deep creases and dog-eared corners the blond man could tell it had been unfolded then refolded many times.
"Carmina gave that to me. She found it in Troya's house. Troya and I were supposed to meet there the night she died."
When A.J. didn't do anything more than hold the paper in the same fashion Rick had handed it to him the older man nodded. "Go ahead. Read what it says."
A.J. followed the same pattern to open the paper Rick had used so many times before. He turned it so he could hold it up to the light shining out from the houseboat's cabin. Silently he read, to all intents and purposes, Troya's last words to his brother.
The power of love conquers all. I'll always love you, Rick, with all the love my heart possesses.
After a long moment A.J. refolded the paper and handed it back to his sibling. "She left you a precious gift, Rick."
A.J. didn't quite understand the real reason behind the small smile that touched Rick's lips, or the moisture that filled his eyes. The lanky man reached out and pulled his younger brother to his chest. A.J. could have sworn he felt Rick's lips brush the top of his head, but then decided the light ruffling of hair must have been caused by the ocean’s breeze.
"Yeah, kid,” Rick quietly agreed. “She did leave me a precious gift. She left me a very precious gift indeed."
The little girl with the deep bronze tan and ringlets of pale ivory curls toddled ahead of her daddy, giggling at the feel of sand between her chubby bare toes. A light breeze rustled the air, momentarily billowing the baby's full dress above her diaper. This island in the South Pacific was like many islands in the South Pacific, a tropical paradise of white beaches, bright blue waters, sunny skies, and mild temperatures.
The blond man strolled behind his young daughter, allowing the thirteen-month- old beauty to discover the delights of the world around her. He'd sought refuge on this island three years ago now, had arrived as a wealthy man with a fictional past. He might not have survived the fateful night that had changed his life forever had it not been for the backup plan he'd had in place. The backup plan even his trusted Kit knew nothing about.
For the right kind of money you could hire someone to do almost anything for you. And he had the right kind of money. The man who usually piloted the Aubrey for him had been waiting several miles away in another craft. In the end, the storm actually proved to be to Tad Brooks' benefit. It kept the Coast Guard and police from searching too diligently until first light. By then, he was heavy disguised in a dark wig, bushy moustache and padded clothing that added forty pounds to his lean frame. Using an assumed name and traveling with a false passport, he was out of the country when the cops began combing the ocean for his body. For years, Tad had gone through convoluted circles to have money wired to a bank account on this island for just this type of emergency. Again, the account was under a fictional name. They could look forever but they'd never find him. He hadn't left any loose ends this time, or any way for them to trace his whereabouts. He'd even strangled his faithful captain when they were far from the Aubrey, then weighted the man's body down and rolled him overboard for the fish to enjoy.
There was always an abundance of gorgeous women available to a wealthy, handsome man on a small island, and Tad had found himself a gem. Hillary's father was a shipping tycoon worth billions of dollars, which made the match even sweeter as far as Tad was concerned. He was soon top dog in his father-in-law's empire, and went home every night to a sexy, ready, and always willing young wife, an angelic baby girl, and a vast estate overlooking the ocean.
As he watched his little girl frolic at the very edge of the beach where the water kissed the sand Tad looked to the northeast, toward the far off coast of Southern California he wasn't able to see, but knew was there. His eyes narrowed a fraction and his mouth drew tight as though something about that place caused a burning flame to blaze deep in his soul. The name he'd assumed upon arriving on this island had been derived from two people he'd left back in California. His new first name, Troy, had been in honor of his beloved sister. There wasn't a day that went by that he didn't think of her, that his heart didn't constrict each time he recalled the way she'd died.
The surname he'd taken, Andrews, wasn't to honor anyone, but to help him never forget the man he blamed for his sister's violent passing. Andrew Simon. Andrew Simon, who would one day pay for all the grief and heartache he'd caused Tad Brooks.
The blond man held out a hand to his little girl. "Come on, Troya, let's go home now. Momma will be waiting."
The toddler looked up at her father and smiled. With a round fat finger she pointed east across the ocean.
Tad bent, picking his daughter up and settling her on his hip. He kissed her temple while brushing pale curls out of her large denim eyes. "Yes, baby, we'll be going there someday soon. Someday soon we'll go to California and look up a man your daddy intends to settle an old score with."
Tad's eyes followed the same path across the ocean his daughter's had taken.
"His name is Andrew Jackson Simon, Troya. And mark my words, he will yet live to regret the day he crossed me."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*With grateful appreciation to my long-time Simon friend, Brenda G., who inspired this novel when she suggested, “How about writing a story that involves Rick accidentally hitting A.J. with his truck?” Neither Brenda nor I imagined The Power of Love would be the result of that suggestion.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~